Eco-tours in the MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE are pricey, but represent good value when you consider its remoteness and the abundance of wildlife that thrives in its almost two million hectares of virgin cloud- and rainforest, a uniquely varied environment that ranges from crystalline cloud-forest streams and waterfalls down to slow-moving, chocolate-brown rivers in the dense lowland jungle. Created in 1973 as a national park, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
The only permanent residents within this vast area are the teeming forest wildlife; a few virtually uncontacted native groups who have split off from their major tribal units (Yaminahuas, Amahuacas and Machiguenga); the park guards; and the scientists at a biological research station just inside the park on the beautiful Lago Cocha Cashu.
The reserve is divided into three zones. By far the largest, Zone A is the core zone, the Parque Nacional Manu, which is strictly preserved in its natural state. Zone B is a Buffer Zone, generally known as the Reserved Zone and set aside mainly for controlled research and tourism. Zone C is the Transitional or Cultural Zone, an area of human settlement for controlled traditional use. Tourists are allowed into zones B and C only as part of organized visits with guides, following the basic rules of non-interference with human, animal or vegetable life. Zone A is restricted to the occasional scientist.
The interior of the protected area is only accessible by boat, so any expedition to Manu is very much in the hands of the gods, due to the temperamental jungle environment; the rainy season is from December to March, and visits are best organized between May and August when it’s much drier, although at that time the temperatures often exceed 30°C (86°F).
Manu Wildlife Centre and around
Some 10km outside of the park and further downstream (around 30min–1hr) from Boca Manu along the Río Madre de Dios is the Manu Wildlife Centre, a comfortable lodge used by various tour companies. It’s close to a superb salt lick where small parrots and larger, colourful macaws can be seen, and claims to be strategically located in an area of forest that has the highest diversity of microhabitats in the Manu: tierra-firme (lowland forest that doesn’t get flooded), transitional flood plain, varzea and bamboo forest are all found close by, and an astounding 530 bird species have been recorded in one year alone.
The Blanquillo macaw-and-parrot salt lick is only thirty minutes away by river, with floating blinds to access the wildlife. About an hour’s walk through the forest there’s also a large salt lick where you can see tapirs and Brocket deer. The centre also features mobile canopy towers for watching the local wildlife right up among the treetops, where jungle creatures gather.
Manu wildlife and flora
Manu wildlife and flora
For flora and fauna, the Manu is pretty much unbeatable in South America, home to over 5000 flowering plants, 1200 species of butterfly, 1000 types of bird and 200 kinds of mammal. Rich in macaw salt-licks and otter lagoons, it’s also home to prowling jaguars, thirteen species of monkey and seven species of macaw, and contains several species in danger of extinction, such as the giant otter and the black caiman. The highlight of most organized visits to Manu is the trail network and lakes of Cocha Salvador (the largest of Manu’s oxbows, at 3.5km long) and Cocha Otorongo, both bountiful jungle areas rich in animal, water and birdlife.
The Cocha Otorongo lake is known for the giant otters that live there, one of the world’s most endangered species. The otters are also bio-indicators of the environment, since they only live where there is clean, healthy water and a wide choice of fish. Only the oldest female of the group is mated with, so reproduction is very slow – the “queen” otters only have two or three cubs a year, usually around October, which can be expected to live for around thirty years. The top-ranking male otters are responsible for defending the group and do very little fishing, taking the catch from younger males instead.
Although they appear friendly as they play in their large family groups, the otters can be very aggressive, able to keep jaguars at bay and kill caimans that approach their lakeside nesting holes. Canoeing is not permitted, but there is a floating platform which can be manoeuvred to observe the otters fishing and playing from a safe distance (though your guide has to book a time for this): 30–50m is good enough to watch and take photos, though as this is Manu’s most popular tourist area, you’re likely to meet other groups and there can be severe competition for access to the platform.
Other wildlife to look out for includes the plentiful caimans, including the two- to three-metre white alligators and the rarer three- to five-metre black ones, and you can usually spot several species of monkey (including dusky titis, woolly monkeys, red howlers, brown capuchins and the larger spider monkeys known locally as maquisapas). Sometimes big mammals such as capybara or white-lipped peccaries (sajinos) also lurk in the undergrowth.
The flora of Manu is as outstanding as its fauna. Huge cedar trees can be seen along the trails, covered in hand-like vines climbing up their vast trunks (most of the cedars were removed between 1930 and 1963, before it became a protected area). The giant catahua trees, many over 150 years old, are traditionally the preferred choice for making dugout canoes – and some are large enough to make three or four; their bulbous white trunks seem to reach endlessly up to the rainforest canopy.