A few months ago, I found myself living in Cusco, Peru.
After getting used to the basic customs and essential culture of the country, I was presented with a chance to adventure through the jungle of Manu National Park. Recognizing that this was a rare opportunity, I quickly accepted the offer – and it turned out to be one of the best and wisest choices I have made in my life. This article is to tell you that if you ever have the chance to venture into the jungle of Manu, you should seize it with open arms.
Peru, in general, is a country engrossed in a variety of nature that will both empower you with a feeling of wonder and humble you with a sense of awe. Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration, but I promise that if you let yourself go and experience all that this country has to offer, you too will feel it.
Cusco serves as a great go-between in Peru to travel to different landscapes and attractions. One moment, you’ll be in the high mountains bumping into alpacas and the next you’ll be in the jungle watching monkeys. More on those amazing animals later. Let’s get into what this article is all about – the jungle.
The jungle. A place where you are surrounded by elements that are splendidly indifferent. If you have ever experienced a “concrete jungle” of a major city like New York, London, or Tokyo; you are familiar with paved roads, street signs, buildings with air conditioning, and a variety of venues and shops. Everything has been designed to make your life run as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
Why would you ever want to leave? I mean, everything you need is provided to you as long as you have cash. Even fruits have been plucked from trees and delivered to grocery stores for your convenience. Yet, even with all these amenities, thousands of people travel away from cities and go into the wild. We are from nature and we are often intrinsically drawn back to it. In nature, you will find a life that exists for no other reason than to live. And in the jungle, you will feel alive.
The Journey Begins
My journey into the jungle started in the city of Cusco, at an altitude of about 11,810ft (3,600m) with hills covered in a hodgepodge of buildings and houses that seem outdated by modern standards, but cosy all the same. I had spent a couple weeks acclimating to the region’s thin air.
I was with a group of six people including a couple, a tour guide, a driver, a cook, and myself. I must say that the cook was a godsend. Throughout the entire trip, he prepared us delicious meals that reminded me how foolish it would be to completely disparage the miracles of modern invention. I should also mention I brought my phone along with me, but I swear I just used it to take photos (some really good ones actually). Not having my pocket buzz with a message or call was a welcome absence during my adventure.
Anyway, after we packed up all of our food, clothing, and supplies into our van; we hit the Peruvian road. Our first destination was a pre-Inca cemetery site called Ninamarca. Around 30 small, hunched towers called chullpas covered the hill while the morning sun cast a gentle orange glow on them. I was thrust back hundreds of years when I learned that these chullpas were small shrines erected for nobles after they had passed away. It was an incredible thought to realize that these constructions had been built by hands that had laid stone and rock such a long time ago.
We hiked around the hill for a while, before we hopped back into the van. The next part of the ride was… well, interesting. If you come from a more developed city in Europe or America, then some of the roads here might shock you a little bit. Shortly after leaving Ninamarca, we embarked onto an unpaved road. Our driver was great, so the road itself wasn’t really an issue – however, the lack of road was.
I was awoken from a nap when we stopped in the middle of the road only to find that in front of us, the road stopped. Or rather, the road was completely covered in dirt and rock. I even saw the occasional boulder roll down the hill from where a tractor was nudging them along. Construction workers and equipment surround the obstruction. The workers assured us, in Spanish that was too quick for me to pick up, that the road would clear momentarily. Peruvians often possess a very “tranquilo” (calm, peaceful, chill) attitude that encourages you to take things easy and not view them as real problems, similar to temporary roadblocks. And sure enough, our roadblock was soon out of the way and we were moving along. That is until we ran into another roadblock… and another one.
After we got past our three temporary roadblocks, we arrived at the small, charming town of Paucartambo. We encountered local woman washing and brushing the street in colorful hats and aprons, that delicately contrasted with the brown and grey stone beneath them. A small museum taught us about the town’s traditions and associated celebrations, especially how they mixed with the local brand of Christianity. I was fascinated to learn that towns like this, called tambos (hence Paucartambo), served as checkpoints for Inca messengers. These messengers would run from one tambo to another transporting a message. As soon as one messenger arrived at a tambo, he would rest while another messenger would carry the message to the next tambo. This allowed for messages to be delivered very quickly across the empire. If only they had learned of the wheel, they would have had a lot less sore feet.
Leaving Paucartambo, we continued our journey to Tres Cruces, our entry point into the cloud forest of Manu. Climbing a small hill, I had an excellent view of the forest I was about to delve into. Low slung clouds lingered like casual drifters among giants cloaked in green. The promise of adventure solidified from a phantom into a reality before my eyes.
Into the Wild
Diving into the cloud forest, the landscape started to change into a jumble of exotic plants and trees. The sounds of birds echoed through the moist air and the roads narrowed to the point that when you looked out the passenger-side window, you saw a drop into an ocean of green. Along the way, we stopped several times to look at a diverse range of gorgeous, colorful birds that sang songs throughout the forest.
As we drove deeper down the road the elevation decreased and it became obvious that we were truly in the jungle. It was a wild place, with life on top of life that nestled itself into every possible nook of the earth. The sun slowly set over the low mountains and we arrived at our lodge for the night. And yes, the lodge had electricity, but it still didn’t have internet. There were large shacks made of local wood that resembled skinny bamboo.
Before heading to bed, we took a nearby trail into the jungle to experience what the local nightlife was like. It turns out that its pitch black if you have no lights, which is something I’d never intend to be without at night in the jungle. It was a terrifying experience, I just wish we had found some tarantulas.
Waking up from a great sleep, we had a quick, delicious breakfast accompanied by some much-needed coffee. Then we were back on the road, making a short stop at a nearby market where I struggled, but eventually succeeded in cutting open my very own fresh coconut! It was glorious. We then proceeded to the small port town of Atalaya, where we unloaded our stuff and put it on a long boat. Some locals gave us a very odd fruit, called pacay, that was shaped like an oversized pea pod. Once you crack it open, you discover seeds (sometimes called “ice-cream beans” in English) covered in a fluffy, white pulp that you shed off with your teeth which results in you tasting a very sweet, somewhat earthy flavor. After you’ve eaten all the pulp off you spit out a large and very smooth, black seed. I felt like I had just tasted an essence of Manu.
As we voyaged down the Madre de Dios river, a nice breeze brushed off my sweat and left me feeling refreshed as I breathed in the oxygen-rich air that the copious amount of plants had generously supplied. The boat ride was one of the most soothing experiences of my life. It was virtually impossible to be stressed with the wind calmly rushing past me, a warm sun bathing me in light, and the smell of freshly carved water rising up into my nose, possessing me with “tranquilo”. And that’s not even mentioning the beautiful vista of river and jungle spread out before me across the entire horizon.
After traveling along the river for 40 minutes and reluctantly getting off the boat, we had arrived at our riverside lodge. And guess what… no electricity! I was really in the deep jungle now. And so were the mosquitos. I honestly still don’t know why mosquitos exist, I refuse to accept that there is any justifiable reason. Just be sure to bring insect repellent and use your mosquito net when you sleep at night.
We had a quick lunch and headed back out onto the river to go explore another part of the jungle, one that would lead us to the Lagoon of Machuwasi Lake. Disembarking onto a rocky shore, we hiked up to a conglomeration of tall plants and bamboo-like trees called caña brava. Our guide brandished a machete and led us through the thicket of jungle along a path that some locals were also using. He showed us a variety of plants and discussed their medicinal properties. On our way to the lagoon, we kept an eye out for monkeys and crocodiles, but unfortunately found neither. However, the trek was far from lacking. Surprisingly, I found a highway of ants carrying leaves back to their home base, to be exceptionally fascinating, especially once I found out that they store these leaves in their hill to be fermented, making a tasty treat for them later.
After an enjoyable hike, well except for the mosquitos (don’t only rely on insect repellent, wear a long shirt too), we arrived at the picturesque lagoon that looked like the beginning of an advertisement to a paradise resort. The calm waters were comfortably nestled among low bushes and pleasant trees that served as temporary abodes to a nice variety of birds. Among them, was a bird with an excellent mohawk that made a sound similar to what I’d imagine an innocuous raptor would make among friends. All of this, we peacefully enjoyed from a simple, hand-made raft that was guided by a stick being pushed against the earth below the shallow waters. At this point in the trip, I began to feel spoilt by nature and the simple things it afforded me with effortless grace.
I also began to feel a bit exhausted. We trekked back to our boat and along the way, I got to sip a bit of somewhat gingery water from a chute of caña brava. When we got back to the lodge, the night was settling in and only the weak light of flashlights pierced through the approaching darkness. After enjoying dinner, I collapsed onto my bed and settled in for a rest that welcomed me swiftly.
Then, my alarm went off at 4:15 AM and it was back out into the wild. This time we went to go watch flocks of macaws (parrots) come to a clay lick to receive their tasty, natural minerals. Unfortunately, I forgot my binoculars. Fortunately, some researchers who were observing the clay lick, let me borrow their telescope of sorts. However, I only watched the clay lick for awhile because I couldn’t ignore the beautiful sunrise that was going on behind me. I found a log that had washed up on the rocky shore and nuzzled myself into it’s most comfortable nook. Sitting there, drowsy yet peaceful, I bathed in the rising sun.
The rest of my time in the jungle was a breath of fresh air from the busy life in the city and the crowds that endlessly occupy it. Sounds of horns and construction were replaced with the calls of birds and the rustle of trees. Sights were unimpeded by buildings and advertisements, they were left bare in their natural beauty that never failed to inspire a sense of wonder. When I left, I felt that the jungle would not leave me. “Tranquilo” found me.