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.