Peru: Welcome to the jungle

Deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, among the buttress-rooted trees and jaguar footprints, the Manu UNESCO Biosphere Reserve rewards intrepid explorers with the journey of a lifetime

By Emma Gregg
Published 12 Jan 2014, 11:00 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:34 BST

We're squelching through the rainforest in single file, chatting as we go, when Leo, our guide, suddenly stops. Turning to face our party of six, he gestures us to a halt behind him.

"Switch off your lights," he whispers urgently. "Escucha — listen!"

With hearts pounding, we turn off our head torches, then wait, rooted to the spot. Only one of us has ever ventured into the Amazon rainforest at night before. We're ready for anything — but don't know what to expect.

We're far enough from our lodge for the glow of its lanterns to be lost from view. Clouds and branches obscure the stars. With our torches out, the darkness is absolute. We stare with blind eyes into the peaty blackness, our ears and noses straining to decode our surroundings. Every whiff, rustle, chirp, chatter and howl seems alarmingly magnified.

After several long, pulse-racing moments, somebody plucks up the courage to speak.

"Leo, what is it?"

Leo switches his torch back on. "I wanted you to imagine how it feels to be an animal in the forest at night," he says. "There's information in the tiniest of sounds, smells and vibrations. By day, we rely on our eyes. But by night, we have to focus every sense. Now let's start exploring properly, but slowly, carefully and very, very quietly."

With that, the walk really begins. Before, this forest of towering, thick, buttressed-rooted trees seemed strangely small, its extent defined by the range of our torches. But now we're tuning in, we can tell the blank-looking blackness beyond our beams is anything but empty.

The spot we're exploring lies within Manú, a wildlife-rich part of the Amazon basin and the largest protected area in Peru. Draped like a green carpet at the foot of the Andes, Manú is famous for birds, with more species than Costa Rica and a greater concentration than anywhere else in the world. The superlatives don't stop there. Manú has huge numbers of insect, reptile, amphibian and fish, along with rare mammals such as jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, giant armadillos and giant otters. By day, most are concealed or camouflaged by the dense forest. But under cover of night, many emerge.

The more we concentrate, the more our surroundings reveal. First, Leo teaches us to flip our binoculars back-to-front to examine things in close-up. To practise, we peer at some fungi, neatly lined up on a log like buttons on a sleeve. Then, we learn to shine our torches into the middle distance. Immediately, tiny eyes glimmer back at us. As we dare ourselves to bring our beams closer, the shadows dissolve and we expose the outlines of wolf spiders, poised to ambush unwitting insects.

Searching the ground, we meet the unblinking stare of an Amazon horned frog, half-hidden under fallen leaves, and a black, evil-looking scorpion. At eye-level, jewel-bright tree frogs perch endearingly on dewy pads of moss and orb-weaver spiders hang suspended in mid-air or creep across intricate webs. We can only guess what may be watching us from above, but Leo comes across a clue: the freshly shed skin of a snake, caught on a branch. There's a breathless few moments while we shine our beams into the canopy, looking for its owner, and excitement when we find it in a shrub, near the ground. It's an Amazon tree boa, its body held taut in a stack of tight loops, ready to fire itself at passing prey.

Fascinated, we watch closely, until Leo strides on and we follow, senses primed for our next sighting.

An expedition

A few days earlier, as we begin our day-long journey from Cusco to Manú, it's impossible to guess we'd have the confidence to walk through the Amazon rainforest by night. Apart from Leo — who lectures on eco-tourism at the Andean University of Cusco and has studied Manú in great detail — none of our group are explorers or ecologists; one of my companions freely confesses to a pathological fear of spiders. We aren't true expeditioners, either; only in Peru for a short visit, we're travelling light, and we've left all the planning to our hosts. I'm intrigued to see if the Crees Foundation — the charitable body behind our trip, which supports sustainable development and conservation within the buffer zone adjacent to Manú National Park — can make first-timers like us feel at home in the extraordinary surroundings of the Amazon Basin.

And I'm particularly keen to find out whether its team can summon those crucial ingredients — a dose of danger, a brush with the unexpected and the chance to make discoveries — that can turn an ordinary trip into something exceptional.

While Brazil might seem the most obvious place for an Amazon adventure, Peru, which claims the second largest portion of the basin, is an extremely strong contender. For those keen to balance their jungle experience with a handful of Latin America's cultural highlights, it's ideal. With just a fortnight to spare, it's possible to visit the colonial heart of Lima, the islands of Lake Titicaca, the multi-faceted mountain city of Cusco and the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, and still have time to plunge yourself into the jungle of the southern Peruvian Amazon.

With this in mind, a ring of jungle lodges have sprung up near Puerto Maldonado, a busy town just outside Tambopata National Reserve in the lowlands east of Cusco. Served by direct flights from Lima and Cusco, this is one of the most accessible chunks of rainforest in the Amazon Basin. But if rapid access means less to you than a truly gritty experience — sweaty boots, grubby fingernails, itchy bites and all — then you may prefer Tambopata's wilder, more isolated near-neighbour, Manú.

Currently home to around 18,000 people including mestizos, Quechua-speaking highlanders and uncontacted indigenous tribespeople, Manú has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve since the 1970s. It's almost 7,720sq miles in extent, and at its centre is Manú National Park, 5,791sq miles of mountain grasslands, cloud forest, rainforest, floodlands and rivers. Richly varied, remote and closed to entry except by organised trip, this is a safe haven for flora and fauna. To date, only three Amazon regions have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Manú National Park was the first.

Our overland journey to this remarkable place starts at an altitude of over 11,150ft, well over twice the height of Ben Nevis, and drops dramatically to a lowly 656ft. From the beautiful city of Cusco, we wind our way north east, passing Andean villages where women in thick leggings, knee-length skirts, colourful shawls and wide-brimmed hats nudge cattle along the roadside. Once east of the highlands, we plunge downhill through misty, moss-draped cloud forest to the hamlet of Atalaya where our peke-peke (motorised canoe) awaits. From here, we speed downstream along the Río Alto Madre de Dios, the river marking the southeastern boundary of the Manú Biosphere Reserve.

A fly-past of colourful parrots confirms we've arrived in the tropical lowlands, but the cement-grey river, which has 1,864 miles to travel before it meets the main artery of the Amazon, moves at a torrential pace.

The chaotic assortment of trees clinging to the banks — their foliage ranging from vivid lime to rich burgundy — hint at Manú's astonishing biodiversity. Ecologists estimate that every hectare of forest in the biosphere reserve contains, on average, 250 different native tree species — around five times the number found in the entire British Isles. This is due to varied soil types, steady temperatures and regular flooding. An abundance of insects and bacteria, specialising in attacking a particular plant species, is also a factor, as this means a tree's best defence is to ensure its offspring are widely scattered. Silently, we hope the bugs won't be turning their attentions to us instead.

Night walking

After less than an hour, we dock at the Manu Learning Centre. Built in 2004, it's the main field station of the Crees Foundation. Originally just a base for researchers and paying volunteers, the centre now also welcomes eco-tourists who, like us, are keen to find out how a rainforest field station works.

It's an attractive place; its airy timber huts roofed with shaggy, Machiguenga-style thatch. Open sides let breezes circulate and give birds, bats and other flying beasts easy access. A stream trickles behind the simple communal bathroom and hummingbirds dart around flowering shrubs beside the dining area. Crees, which is proudly carbon-neutral, has minimised the centre's environmental impact by installing gravity-fed water pumps and eco-friendly waste management systems; solar energy provides as much power as the rainforest will allow.

The site, a grassy clearing high on the riverbank, lies on the edge of a former plantation, now a forest reserve, in which recent regrowth merges with established trees. As such, it's a perfect ecological case study.

Andy Whitworth, a Glasgow University PhD candidate who holds the post of the Crees Foundation's scientific coordinator and biodiversity officer, explains the reserve's significance: "The forest surrounding us has suffered several levels and types of human disturbance, including planting, logging and hunting. By monitoring the wildlife which occurs here, we can assess the value of forest regeneration schemes and their significance for biodiversity."

Andy sees hanging out with eco-tourists as an important and useful part of his job; in return, by hanging out with him, we help fund the foundation's research programme. The local community benefits, too, through the foundation's sustainable development projects, which include bio-gardens, seed banks and tree plantations, and through access to brand new ecological data. "It's all too common for field researchers to take all their findings back to their universities, leaving people on the ground in the dark," says Andy. "That just infuriates me. Here, we're running seminars for local rangers and creating photographic field guides to help locals and visitors alike appreciate what a rich environment this is. It's a big step in the right direction."

His team of paying volunteers agree it's crucial to share information. And Quinn Meyer, the 30-something founder of Crees, believes that if eco-tourists like us make a few discoveries of our own, our short visit will be all the richer. We're encouraged to chat to the volunteers about their tasks and even join them in rigging up butterfly traps or counting blue-headed macaws as they mine anti-toxic clay from the riverbank. Some recount hair-raising tales of wrangling caimans and trapping bushmaster vipers. "I never knew I'd be able to learn the calls of speckled chachalacas, little tinamous and all the other birds, let alone help others do the same," says Kaja Aas Ahnfelt, from Norway. "Working here has been an intense experience and it's fantastic to communicate what we've learned."

We also get the chance to douse ourselves in insect repellent, pull on wellington boots (helpfully provided) and follow Andy on a stride through the forest to check some camera traps. When we ask whether it's OK to wear light, Gore-Tex sandals or hiking boots instead, we receive a firm shake of the head. In the Amazon rainforest, it's clearly best to leave urban logic behind. You want your feet snake-proofed.

Once underway, it's tempting to tread gingerly — the path alternates between steep slopes, muddy puddles and streams in which caimans, we're told, hunt for fish. But Andy sets a cracking pace, so we steel ourselves to keep up.

To get things out in the open, we ask how many of the native fauna could do us serious damage. Immediately, he reels off a list that includes bullet ants, fire ants, sandflies and fer-de-lance snakes, only to add, just in time, that animal-related injuries are pretty rare. Particularly intriguing are the jaguars, which are rarely seen and almost never attack, but often follow: his camera traps regularly record images of these magnificent cats shortly after a person has walked by in the same direction.

Our walk is long and by the time we're back at base, a little after sunset, we're wobbly-legged with fatigue. But there's a satisfaction in knowing we've pushed ourselves to the limit, survived, and grown. Perhaps we're becoming expeditioners after all.

Later in our trip, our peke-peke takes us further upstream to the confluence of the Río Manú, then bears northwest into the Manú National Park. Within a few hundred metres, we're in another world. Unlike the Río Alto Madre de Dios, this river is smooth, brown and distinctly tropical; its pace slow enough to allow a tamandua anteater to swim across as we pass. At the edges, caiman lie slumped in the sun and turtles bask in overlapping stacks, nose to tail, while butterflies flap around them to lick the salt from their eyes. Scraps of blue stretched out on the bank turn out to be moths, as elegant as art deco brooches.

Our base in the park is Refugio Romero, a simple lodge with boutique aspirations. But we're not here to stay indoors. Even to our inexperienced eyes and ears, this part of the forest is richer, denser and noisier, ringing with the racket of parrots and the small talk of emperor tamarins and orange-furred monkeys with splendid moustaches. Ditching our alarm clocks, we wake at dawn to the cries of dusky titi monkeys — a raucous sound, like a turkey arguing with a donkey.
It's from here, emboldened by our experiences so far, we set out into the jungle after dark. And it's also from here we take a boat trip that yields our most remarkable sighting: a jaguar — its face visible but its body hidden in the deep, dappled shade on the bank.

Our captain moves the boat a little closer and the jaguar stares back at us intently for a while, before melting into the shadowy forest. And with that, our visit — or, rather, our journey of discovery — feels complete.


Getting there
Fly from Heathrow to Lima via Miami with American Airlines and British Airways. Alternatively, fly from Heathrow or Manchester to Lima with Iberia, from Heathrow with LAN via Madrid, or KLM via Amsterdam. From Lima, there are regular onward flights to Cusco. 

Average flight time: 11h.

Getting around
The best way to visit Manú is by organised tour, which can be arranged before you leave home, or in Cusco. Travelling overland by road and river, the journey takes a full day. A faster but pricier alternative is to arrange a charter flight from Cusco to the airstrip at Boca Manu, then continue by boat.

When to go
June to August (peak season) is the best time for wildlife-viewing; birds are much harder to see between March and May. During high water (November to March) flooding can make access difficult.

Need to know
Visas: Not required by UK nationals.

Currency: Nuevo sol (PEN). £1 = PEN4.15.

Health: Vaccinations against yellow fever are required; your GP may also recommend hepatitis A, typhoid and tetanus jabs and anti-malarials. Leishmaniasis-carrying sandflies are present in Manú; immunisation isn't available, use strong insect repellent, cover up well and sleep under a mosquito net. Cusco is situated at high altitude.

International dial code: 00 51.

Time: GMT -5.

Places mentioned
The Manú Learning Centre in the Manu Biosphere Reserve and Refugio Romero in Manú National Park are run by the Crees Foundation.

How to do it
Journey Latin America offers a number of bespoke trips to Manú. An 11-night tour of Lima, Cusco, Machu Picchu and Manú (with Crees) costs from £3,252, including flights. It's possible to book trips starting in Cusco through Crees, from £360 for four nights in Manú, including overland transfers, full board and excursions.


Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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