The Amazon, the rainforest, the selva, the jungle, the green hell (el infierno verde): all attempt to name this huge, vibrant swathe of Peru. Whether you explore it up close, from the ground or a boat, or fly over it in a plane, the Peruvian jungle seems endless. Well over half of the country is covered by dense tropical rainforest, and this jungle region, sharing the western edge of the Amazon with Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, forms part of what is probably the most biodiverse region on Earth. Jaguars, anteaters and tapirs still roam the forests, huge anacondas lurk in the swamps, toothy caimans sunbathe along riverbanks, and trees rise like giants from the forest floor. Many indigenous tribes still live scattered throughout the Peruvian section of the Amazon, surviving primarily by hunting and fishing.
The jungle of southeastern Peru is plentifully supplied with lodges, guides, boats and flights. Cusco is arguably the best departure point for trips into the southern selva, with air and road access to the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado – a great base for visiting the nearby forests of Madre de Dios, which boast the Reserva Nacional Tambopata and the Parque Nacional Bahuaja-Sonene, an enormous tract of virgin rainforest close to the Bolivian border. Many naturalists believe that this region is the most biodiverse on Earth, and thus the best place to head for wildlife. Reachable overland from Cusco, the Manu Biosphere Reserve and National Park runs from cloud forest on the slopes of the Andes down to relative lowland forest. For a quicker and cheaper taste of the jungle, you can travel by bus from Cusco via Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba, on the Río Urubamba, which flows north along the foot of the Andes, through the dangerous but unforgettable whitewater rapids of the Pongo de Mainique.
North of here lies Pucallpa, a rapidly growing, industrialized jungle town in the central selva, best reached by scheduled flights or the largely paved road from Lima. Another sector of this stunning central jungle region – Chanchamayo – is only eight to twelve hours by road from Lima, and is blessed with crystalline rivers, numerous protected areas for birdwatching, and good road links. Winding fast but precariously down from the Andean heights of Tarma, the Carretera Central is now paved all the way to Satipo, a jungle frontier town, relatively close to the Río Ene. En route, the road passes through the cloud forest via La Merced, from where there are buses to quasi-European Oxapampa and the fascinating Tyrolean settlement of Pozuzo.
The main access point to the northern selva is the city of Iquitos, at the heart of the largest chunk of lowland jungle with no road connections to the outside world, just riverboat and plane. The northern selva can also be reached from the northern Peruvian coast via an increasingly popular but still adventurous route that takes the Río Huallaga from Yurimaguas, a three- to four-day boat journey that can be broken by a visit to the immense Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria at the heart of the upper Amazon, a little-visited wildlife haven. The northern selva is also the most organized and established of the Peruvian Amazon’s tourist destinations, with many reputable companies offering a range of jungle visits, from luxury lodges and cruises to no-frills survival expeditions.
Brief historyMany archeologists believe that the initial spark for the evolution of Peru’s high cultures came from the jungle. Evidence from Chavín, Chachapoyas and Tantamayo cultures seems to back up such a theory – ancient Andean people certainly had continuous contact with the jungle areas – and the Incas were unable to dominate the tribes, their main contact being peaceful trade in treasured items such as feathers, gold, medicinal plants and the sacred coca leaf. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, long-term settlements existed along all the major jungle rivers, with people living in large groups to farm the rich alluvial soils.
Early colonizationFor centuries, the Peruvian jungle resisted major colonization. Alonso de Alvarado successfully led the first Spanish expedition, cutting a trail through from Chachapoyas to Moyobamba in 1537, but most incursions ended in utter disaster, defeated by disease, the ferocity of the tribes, the danger of the rivers, climate and wild animals. Ultimately, apart from white-man’s epidemics (which spread much faster than the men themselves), the early conquistadors had relatively little impact on the populations of the Peruvian Amazon. Only Orellana, one of the first Spaniards to lead exploratory expeditions into the Peruvian Amazon, managed to glimpse the reality of the rainforest, though even he seemed to misunderstand it when he was attacked by a tribe of blonde women, one of whom managed to hit him in the eye with a blow-gun dart. These “women” are now thought to be the men of the Yagua tribe (from near Iquitos), who wear straw-coloured, grass-like skirts and headdresses.
The impact of the ChurchBy the early eighteenth century the Catholic Church had made deep but vulnerable inroads into the rainforest regions. Resistance to this culminated in 1742 with an indigenous uprising in the central selva led by an enigmatic character from the Andes calling himself Juan Santos Atahualpa. Missions were destroyed, missionaries and colonists killed, and Spanish military expeditions defeated. The result was that the central rainforest remained under the control of the indigenous population for nearly a century more.
The rubber boomAs “white-man’s” technology advanced, so too did the possibilities of conquering Amazonia. The 1830s saw the beginning of a century of massive and painful exploitation of the forest and its population by rubber barons. Many of these wealthy men were European, eager to gain control of the raw material desperately needed following the discovery of the vulcanization process. Moreover, during this era the jungle regions of Peru were better connected to Brazil, Bolivia, the Atlantic, and ultimately Europe, than they were to Lima or the Pacific coast. The peak of the boom, from the 1880s to just before World War I, had a prolonged effect. Treating the natives as little more than slaves, men like the notorious Fitzcarrald made overnight fortunes.
Modern colonizationNineteenth-century colonialism also saw the progression of the extractive frontier along the navigable rivers, which involved short-term economic exploitation based on the extraction of other natural materials, such as timber and animal skins; coupled to this was the advance of the agricultural frontier down from the Andes. Both kinds of expansion assumed that Amazonia was a limitless source of natural resources and an empty wilderness – misapprehensions that still exist today.
Coca baronsWhen the Peruvian economy began to suffer in the mid-1980s, foreign credit ended, and those with substantial private capital fled, mainly to the US. The government, then led by the young Alan García, was forced to abandon the jungle region, and both its colonist and indigenous inhabitants were left to survive by themselves. This effectively opened the doors for the coca barons, who had already established themselves during the 1970s in the Huallaga Valley, and who moved into the gap left by government aid in the other valleys of the ceja de selva (edge of the jungle) – notably the Pichis-Palcazu and the Apurimac-Ene. Over the subsequent decade, illicit coca production was responsible for some ten percent of the deforestation that occurred in the Peruvian Amazon during the entire twentieth century; furthermore, trade of this lucrative crop led to significant corruption and supported the rise of terrorism.
The twenty-first centuryClearing the forest for agriculture continues, and in Madre de Dios gold mining ravages the jungle. By the turn of the century, a massive desert had appeared around Huaypetue, previously a small-time, frontier mining town. The neighbouring communities of Amarakaeri (who have been panning for gold in a small-scale, sustainable fashion for some thirty years) are in danger of losing their land and natural resources. Attempts by NGOs and pro-Indian lawyers to maintain the boundaries of reserves and communities are constantly thwarted by colonists, who are supported by local government.
Amazon ecology: the basicsAt about six times the size of England, or approximately the size of California, the tangled, sweltering Amazon Basin rarely fails to capture the imagination of anyone who ventures beneath its dense canopy. In the lowland areas, away from the seasonally flooded riverbanks, the landscape is dominated by red, loamy soil, which can reach depths of 50m. Reaching upwards from this, the primary forest – mostly comprising a huge array of tropical palms, with scatterings of larger, emergent tree species – regularly achieves evergreen canopy heights of 50m. At ground level the vegetation is relatively open (mostly saplings, herbs and woody shrubs), since the trees tend to branch high up, restricting the amount of light available. At marginally higher altitudes, a large belt of cloud forest (ceja de selva) sweeps the eastern edges of the Andes, stunningly beautiful and the most biodiverse of the rainforest zones.
Best of the jungleGiven the breadth of options, it’s not easy to decide which bit of the jungle to head for. Your three main criteria will probably be budget, ease of access and the nature of jungle experience you’re after, whether it’s a few days in a luxury lodge, exploring the rivers by boat or a back-to-nature week of wildlife-spotting. Below are the best places for…
Cash-strapped travellersSatipo or Puerto Maldonado; both can be reached with ease by bus.
Trips of three days or lessPuerto Maldonado or Iquitos.
Off-the-beaten-track adventurePucallpa, Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are the best starting points; book through an established tour company.
Wonderful wildlifeThe Manu Biosphere Reserve, Reserva Nacional Tambopata or Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria.
Blow-the-budget luxuryIquitos and Puerto Maldonado/Tambopata are great for top-flight jungle tours.
Indigenous jungle tribesOutside the few main towns of the Peruvian jungle, there are few sizeable settlements, and the population remains dominated by about fifty indigenous tribes. For most, the jungle offers a semi-nomadic existence, and in terms of material possessions, they have, need and want very little. Communities are scattered, with groups of between ten and two hundred people, and their sites shift every few years. For subsistence they depend on small, cultivated plots, fish from the rivers and game from the forest, including wild pigs, deer, monkeys and a great range of edible birds. The main species of edible jungle fish are sabalo or doncella (oversized catfish), carachama (an armoured walking catfish), the feisty piranha (generally not quite as dangerous as Hollywood depicts) and the giant zungaro and paiche – the latter, at up to 200kg, being the world’s largest freshwater fish. In fact, food is so abundant that jungle-dwellers generally spend no more than three to four days a week engaged in subsistence activities, which, as some anthropologists like to point out, makes them “relatively affluent”.
After centuries of external influence (missionaries, gold-seekers, rubber barons, cash-crop colonists, cocaine smugglers, soldiers, oil companies, illegal loggers, documentary makers, anthropologists and now tourists), many jungle Indians speak Spanish and live fairly conventional, westernized lives, preferring shorts, football shirts and fizzy drinks to their more traditional clothing and manioc beer. While many are being sucked into the money-based labour market, however, others, increasingly under threat, have struggled for cultural integrity and territorial rights; some – voluntarily isolated or uncontacted – have retreated as far as they are able beyond the world’s enclosing frontier. Today they are struggling as their traditional and last remaining hunting grounds are infiltrated by oil companies and loggers.
The central selvaThe obvious appeal of the central selva is its ease of overland access and proximity to Lima. Directly east of the capital, the region is endowed with an array of rainforest eco-niches. The large and modern jungle city of Pucallpa lies in lowland rainforest, while the nearby oxbow lake Lago Yarinacocha provides a fine spot to swim, rest up and watch schools of dolphins. Pucallpa is also a main point of departure for trips downriver to the larger destination of Iquitos, a thousand-kilometre, four- to five-day journey.
Closer to Lima yet less explored by tourists, the Chanchamayo region – famous for its fantastic coffee – offers stunning forested mountain scenery, fast-running rivers, and trees dripping with epiphytes. A steep road descends from Tarma down to the jungle gateway towns of San Ramón and La Merced, separated by a twenty-minute drive. From here you can travel north, visiting the unique Austro-German settlements of Pozuzo and Oxapampa, both rich agricultural centres located within a mosaic of little-visited protected areas, including the stunningly beautiful Parque Nacional Yanachaga-Chemillén. Apart from Pozuzo, rough roads connect these towns to Pucallpa via Villa Rica, Puerto Bermudez and Puerto Inca.
East from San Ramón and La Merced, an easier paved road heads towards the lower forest region, focused on the frontier town of Satipo, where Ashaninka tribespeople often come to town in traditional robes to sell produce and buy supplies. Near Satipo are scores of native communities, mainly of the Ashaninka ethnic group, and some of South America’s finest waterfalls.
The Chanchamayo ValleyThe CHANCHAMAYO VALLEY, only 300km from Lima and 750m above sea level, marks the real beginning of the Central Selva directly east of the capital. Originally settled in 1635 by Franciscan monks on mules, the region was repeatedly reclaimed by the native tribes. These days access to the main towns of San Ramón and La Merced is easy and relatively safe, with much of the produce from the area’s rich tropical-fruit plantations (oranges and pineapples) and productive chacras (gardens), transported over the Andes by road to Lima.
La MercedThe market town of LA MERCED, some 10km further down the Chanchamayo Valley, is larger and busier than San Ramón, with more than twelve thousand inhabitants, a thriving Saturday market a couple of blocks behind the main street, and several hectic restaurants and bars crowded around the Plaza de Armas.
SatipoA real jungle frontier town, SATIPO is an ideal place in which to get kitted out for a jungle expedition, or just to sample the delights of the selva for a day or two. The settlement was first developed to service colonists and settlers in the 1940s, and continues in similar vein today, providing an economic and social centre for a widely scattered population of over forty thousand colonists, with supplies of tools and food, medical facilities and banks; the bustling daily market is best experienced at weekends.
OxapampaSlightly off the beaten track, some 78km by road (two hours) north of La Merced, and nearly 400km east of Lima, lies the small settlement of OXAPAMPA, a pleasant and well-organized frontier town strongly influenced culturally and architecturally by the nearby Tyrolean settlement of Pozuzo. The town is also conspicuously clean, situated on the banks of the Río Chontabamba, some 1800m above sea level; the Mercado Municipal, one block from the main square, is probably the most orderly and most relaxed in all of Peru.
PozuzoSome 80km further down into the rainforest from Oxapampa at 823m above sea level, POZUZO is significantly smaller than Oxapampa. Reached via a very rough road that crosses over two dozen rivers and streams, the vista of wooden chalets with sloping Tyrolean roofs has endured ever since the first Austrian and German colonists arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century.
Pozuzo’s Tyrolean rootsBack in the 1850s, Baron Schutz von Holzhausren of Germany and the then President of Peru, General Ramón Castilla, developed a grand plan to establish settlements deep in the jungle. The original deal between Germany and Peru required Peru to build roads, schools and churches; while the Austro-Germans needed to be of Catholic religion, have some kind of office and impeccable reputation.
The first group of three hundred, mainly Tyrolean, immigrants left Europe in 1857 on the British ship Norton, arriving in Lima on July 28. During the overland journey, cutting their way through jungle, almost half the colonists died of disease, accident or exhaustion. The town of Pozuzo was founded in 1859 when the area was ripe with virgin forest and crystalline rivers owned by the Yanesha tribe. Nine years later, a second group of immigrants arrived to reinforce the original population, which had been left, more or less abandoned, by the Peruvian authorities. The colonists began to expand their population and territory; first, Oxapampa was founded in 1891 by the Bottger family, then others went on to found Villa Rica in 1928.
Today the economy of Pozuzo is based on beef cattle; but lederhosen are worn for fiestas and Tyrolean dances are still performed, creating a peculiar combination of European rusticism (the local dance and music is still strongly influenced by the German colonial heritage) and native Peruvian culture. Moreoever, many of this unusual town’s present inhabitants still speak German, eat Schottsuppe, waltz well and dance the polka.
The northern selvaAt the “island” city of Iquitos, by far the largest and most exciting of Peru’s jungle towns, there are few sights as magnificent as the Río Amazonas. Its tributaries start well up in the Andes, and when they join together several hours upstream from the town, the river is already several kilometres wide. The town’s location, only 104m above sea level yet thousands of miles from the ocean and surrounded in all directions by brilliant green forest and hemmed in by the maze of rivers, streams and lagoons, makes for a stunning entry to the NORTHERN SELVA.
Much of Iquitos’s appeal derives from its being the starting point for excursions into the rainforest, but the town is an interesting place in its own right, if only for the lively local people and magnificent architecture. It’s a buzzing, cosmopolitan tourist town, connected to the rest of the world by river and air only: the kind of place that lives up to all your expectations of a jungle town, from its elegant reminders of the rubber-boom years to the atmospheric shantytown suburb of Puerto Belén, one of Werner Herzog’s main locations for his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, where you can buy almost anything, from fuel to ayahuasca medicines.
The town has a friendly café and club scene, interesting museums and beautiful, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, and the surrounding region has some great island and lagoon beaches, a range of easy excursions into the rainforest and the possibility of continuing down the Amazon into Colombia or Brazil. The area has also become something of a spiritual focus, particularly for gringos seeking a visionary experience with one of the many local shamans who use the sacred and powerful hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine in their psycho-healing sessions.
Unlike most of the Peruvian selva, the climate here is little affected by the Andean topography, so there is no rainy season as such; instead, the year is divided into “high water” (December–May) and “low water” (June–November) seasons. The upshot is that the weather is always hot and humid, with temperatures averaging 23–30°C (74–86°F) and with an annual rainfall of about 2600mm. Most visitors come between May and August, but the high-water months are perhaps the best time for seeing wildlife, because the animals are crowded into smaller areas of dry land.
Around IquitosThe massive river system around Iquitos offers some of the best access to Indian villages, lodges and primary rainforest in the entire Amazon. For those with ample time and money, the Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria is one of the more distant but rewarding places for eco-safari tours; but there are also towns up and down the river, most notably Pevas, which is en route towards Brazil. If you want to go it alone, colectivo boats run up and down the Amazon River more or less daily, and although you won’t get deep into the forest without a guide, you can visit some of the larger river settlements on your own.
Indigenous communities around IquitosWith all organized visits to Indian villages in this area, you can expect the inhabitants to put on a quick show, with a few traditional dances and some singing, before they try to sell you their handicraft (sometimes overenthusiastically). Prices range from S/5 to S/35 for necklaces, feathered items (mostly illegal to take out of the country), bark-cloth drawings, string bags (often excellent value) and blowguns; most people buy something, since the Indians don’t actually charge for the visit.
While the experience may leave you feeling somewhat ambivalent – the men, and particularly the women, only discard Western clothes for the performances – it’s a preferable situation to the times when visits were imposed on communities by unscrupulous tour companies. Visitors are now these Indians’ major source of income, and the Bora and Yaguar alike have found a niche within the local tourist industry. Some good independent contacts can help you find or organize the right trip: the Iquitos tourist office has a list of registered freelance guides and is usually helpful in providing up-to-date contacts.
Reserva Nacional Pacaya-SamiriaThe huge RESERVA NACIONAL PACAYA-SAMIRIA comprises around two million hectares of virgin rainforest (about 1.5 percent of the total landmass of Peru) leading up to the confluence between the ríos Marañón and the Huallaga, two of the largest Amazon headwaters and possessing between them the largest protected area of seasonally flooded jungle in the Peruvian Amazon.
Most people visit the Pacaya-Samiria for half a day as part of a tour package from Iquitos, but Lagunas is a good place to find a local guide and do a relatively indepenent safari, if you can afford it (expect to pay at least $75 a day without lodge accommodation). If you visit the park independently, allow a week or two for travel, and unavoidable hitches and delays en route. You will still need a local guide and a boat; the best bet to find these is to scout around the ports of Iquitos, Nauta or Lagunas. The reserve office in Iquitos provides maps and information on the region. You should come well prepared with mosquito nets, hammocks, insect repellent, and all the necessary food and medicines.
The reserve is a swampland during the rainy season (Dec–March), when the streams and rivers rise, and the rainforest becomes comparable to the Reserva Nacional Tambopata in southeastern Peru or the Pantanal swamps of southwestern Brazil in its astonishing density of visible wildlife. It is fine to visit in the dry season, but there are more insects, you’ll see less wildlife, and the creeks and lakes are smaller.
This region is home to the Cocoma tribe whose main settlement is Tipishca, where the native community are now directly involved in ecotourism. They can be hired as guides and will provide rustic accommodation, but can only be contacted by asking on arrival. Visitors should be aware that around 100,000 people, mostly indigenous communities, still live in the reserve’s forest; they are the local residents and their territory and customs should be respected. These tribal communities are also a source of detailed information on the sustainable management of river turtles: in recent years some of the communities have been collaborating on conservation projects.
The Amazon RiverThe Río Amazonas lays claim to being the biggest river in the world. Originally it flowed east to west, before becoming an inland sea when the Andes began to rise along the Pacific edge of the continent around 100 million years ago. Another 40 million years of geological and climatic action later saw this “sea” break through into the Atlantic, which reversed the flow of water and gave birth to the mighty 6500-kilometre river. Starting in Peru as an insignificant glacial trickle on the Nevada Misma, northeast of the Colca Canyon, the waters swell as they move down through the Andes, passing Cusco before heading across the continent towards the Atlantic Ocean, still many thousands of miles away.
The southern selvaA large, forested region, with a manic climate (usually searingly hot and humid, but with sudden cold spells – friajes – between June and August, due to icy winds coming down from the Andean glaciers), the southern selva has only been systematically explored since the 1950s.
Named after the broad river that flows through the heart of the southern jungle, the still relatively wild departamento of MADRE DE DIOS is centred on the fast-growing river town of Puerto Maldonado, near the Bolivian border and just 180m above sea level. The town extends a tenuous political and economic hold over the vast departamento and has a fast-growing population of over 40,000, but most visitors come for the nearby wildlife, either in the strictly protected Manu Biosphere Reserve – still essentially an expedition zone – and the cheaper and easy-to-access Reserva Nacional Tambopata, chiefly visited by groups staying at lodges. Both offer some of the most luxuriant jungle and richest flora and fauna in the world. Another massive protected area, the Parque Nacional Bahuaja-Sonene, is adjacent to Tambopata.
Less accessible than the protected zones, but nevertheless offering travellers staying in Puerto Maldonado a taste of the rainforest, are Lago Sandoval and the huge expanse of Lago Valencia, both great wildlife spots east along the Río Madre de Dios and close to the Bolivian border. At the least, you’re likely to spot a few caimans and the strange hoatzin bird, and if you’re very lucky, larger mammals such as capybara, tapir or, less likely, jaguar – and at Valencia, you can fish for piranha. A little further southeast lies the Pampas del Heath, the only tropical grassland within Peru.
The Río Madre de Dios itself is fed by two main tributaries, the Río Manu and the Río Alto Madre de Dios, which roll off the Paucartambo Ridge just north of Cusco. West of this ridge, the Río Urubamba watershed starts and its river flows on past Machu Picchu and down to the jungle area around the town of Quillabamba, before entering lowland Amazon beyond the rapids of Pongo de Mainique.
The indigenous groups of Madre de DiosOff the main Madre de Dios waterways, within the system of smaller tributaries and streams, live a variety of different indigenous groups. All are depleted in numbers due to contact with Western diseases and influences, such as pollution of their rivers, environmental destruction by large-scale gold-mining, and new waves of exploration for oil. While some have been completely wiped out over the last twenty years, several have maintained their isolation. These groups have recently come to worldwide attention as the international press have highlighted the plight of “the uncontacted”.
If you go anywhere in the jungle, especially on an organized tour, you’re likely to stop off at a tribal village for at least half an hour or so, and the more you know about the people, the more you’ll get out of the visit. Downstream from Puerto Maldonado, the most populous indigenous group are the Ese Eja tribe (often wrongly, and derogatorily, called “Huarayos” by colonos). Originally semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, the Ese Eja were well-known warriors who fought the Incas and, later on, the Spanish expedition of Alvarez Maldonado – eventually establishing fairly friendly and respectful relationships with both. Under Fitzcarrald’s reign, they suffered greatly through the engaño system, which tricked them into slave labour through credit offers on knives, machetes, pots and pans, which then took years, or in some cases a lifetime, to work off. Today they live in fairly large communities and have more or less abandoned their original bark-cloth robes in favour of shorts and T-shirts.
Upstream from Puerto Maldonado live several tribes, known collectively (again, wrongly and derogatorily) as the “Mashcos” but actually comprising at least five separate linguistic groups – the Huachipaeri, Amarakaeri, Sapitoyeri, Arasayri and Toyeri. All typically use long bows – over 1.5m – and lengthy arrows, and most settlements will also have a shotgun or two these days, since less time can be dedicated to hunting when they are panning for gold or working timber for colonos. Traditionally, they wore long bark-cloth robes and had long hair, and the men often stuck eight feathers into the skin around their lips, making them look distinctively fierce and cat-like. Many Huachipaeri and Amarakaeri groups are now actively engaging with the outside world on their own terms, and some of their young men and women have gone through university education and subsequently returned to their native villages.
Madre de Dios’s goldEvery rainy season the swollen rivers of Madre de Dios deposit a heavy layer of gold dust along their banks, and those who have been quick enough to stake claims on the best stretches have made substantial fortunes. In such areas there are thousands of unregulated miners, using large front-loader earth-moving machines, destroying a large section of the forest, and doing so very quickly.
Gold lust is not a new phenomenon here – the gold-rich rivers have brought Andean Indians and occasional European explorers to the region for centuries. The Inca Emperor Tupac Yupanqui is known to have discovered the Río Madre de Dios, naming it the Amarymayo (“serpent river”), and may well have sourced some of the Empire’s gold from around here.
Manu Biosphere ReserveEco-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 aroundSome 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 floraFor 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.
Otorongo ottersThe 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 wildlifeOther 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.
Giant treesThe 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.
Río Urubamba and aroundTraditionally the home of the Matsiguenga and Piro Indians, the Río Urubamba rolls down from the Incas’ Sacred Valley to the humid lower Andean slopes around the town of Quillabamba. The river remains unnavigable for another 80km or so, with regular buses following a dirt road that continues deeper down into the jungle via the settlement of Kiteni, where the Río Urubamba becomes navigable again, to the even smaller frontier settlement of Ivochote. From here on, the river becomes the main means of transport, through the Amazon Basin right to the Atlantic, interrupted only by the impressive Pongo de Mainique whitewater rapids, just a few hours downstream from Ivochote. These rapids are generally too dangerous to pass between November and March.
Unlike the Manu Biosphere Reserve, most of the Urubamba has been colonized as far as the pongo, and much of it beyond has suffered more or less permanent exploitation of one sort or another – rubber, cattle or oil – for over a hundred years. In the last decade or so, the discovery and exploitation of a massive gas field is changing the river and communities fast, though this is still a relatively quiet and untouristed region compared with Manu or Madre de Dios.
Pongo de MainiqueThe road continues down into the jungle from Quillabamba via Kiteni to the village of Ivochote (6hr), the staging point for the awe-inspiring Pongo de Mainique rapids – possibly the most dangerous 2km of (barely) navigable river in the entire Amazonian system – are hazardous at any time of year, and virtually impossible to pass during the rainy season (Nov–March).
As you approach, you’ll see a forested mountain range directly in front of you; the river speeds up, and as you get closer, it’s possible to make out the great cut made through the range over the millennia by the powerful Urubamba. Then, before you realize, the boat is whisked into a long canyon with soaring rocky cliffs on either side: gigantic volcanic boulders look like wet monsters of molten steel; imaginary stone faces can be seen shimmering under cascades; and the danger of the pongo slips by almost unnoticed, as the walls of the canyon will absorb all your attention. The main hazard is a drop of about 2m, which is seen and then crossed in a split second. Now and then boats are overturned at this dangerous drop, usually those that try the run in the rainy season – although even then locals somehow manage to come upstream in small, non-motorized dugouts.
QuillabambaA rapidly expanding market town, growing fat on profits from coffee, tropical fruits, chocolate and, to a certain extent, the proceeds of cocaine production, QUILLABAMBA is the only Peruvian jungle town that’s easily accessible by road from Cusco: the main attraction here is a quick look at the selva. Coming from Cusco, the initial section of road is a narrow gravel track along precipitous cliffs, notoriously dangerous in the rainy season, but after a few hours, having travelled over the magical Abra Malaga – the main pass on this road – the slow descent towards Chaullay starts. From here on, you’ll see jungle vegetation beginning to cover the valley sides; the weather gets steadily warmer and the plant life thickens as you gradually descend into the Urubamba Valley.Your first sight of the town, which tops a high cliff, is of old tin roofs, adobe outskirts and coca leaves drying in the gardens. It’s a pleasant enough place to relax, and you can get all the gear you need for going deeper into the jungle; the market sells all the necessities like machetes, fish-hooks, food and hats. Just ten minutes’ walk from here, the Plaza de Armas, with its shady fountain statue of the town’s little-known benefactor, Don Martín Pio Concha, is the other major landmark. The nearby waterfall of Siete Tinjas is a popular spot with locals during holidays, and a pleasant natural and peaceful setting in which to while away an afternoon.
Top image: Travelling by boat into depth Amazon jungle © Foto593/Shutterstock