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.