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Peru's Amazon: Manu National Park

Howler Monkeys


Copyright Steve and Ramona Boone We awoke to a melodious competition as myriad birdcalls floated into our ears while we lay snug inside our mosquito-netted beds. Slowly at first, and then rising above all else, came a loud roar similar to a low-flying jet, overwhelming the triple canopy - the howler monkeys were greeting another magnificent dawn with their morning chorus. We were on our first morning deep inside the Peruvian Amazon in Manu National Park, a vast Biosphere that covers over 7300 square miles (five million acres) of almost uninhabited forest ranging in elevation from almost 1200 feet to over 14000. In fact, there are still ‘uncontacted’ natives living in remote areas of this park that are not accessible to visitors. Following the collapse of the South American rubber industry in 1914, the area was largely deserted, allowing animal species to regain their ancient numbers. And because it is so isolated, and now protected, the diversity of flora and fauna per acre is most certainly unmatched anywhere else on earth.

Cock of the Rock

The biological treasure of Manu, named after the 200-mile Rio Manu River, which it encompasses, is mind-boggling. Well over 50% of the plant life in this vibrant tropical forest, and their potentially life-saving chemicals (25% of the drugs in our pharmacies are derived from plants), have not yet been classified or even examined by the scientific community. And the variety of animal life here is certainly unequaled. Manu hosts 200 species of mammals, including thirteen different types of monkeys. These primates caper in large numbers through the treetops, eating diverse canopy fruit and constantly spreading seeds throughout the forest. They vary in size from the pygmy marmoset, smallest primate in the world, with an adult weighing in at 4 oz – to the black spider monkey weighing up to 28 pounds. Because there is so little pressure from hunters, poachers or visitors, many are still curious about humans and will spend time looking down at you as you peer up at them from the forest floor. The furtive Jaguar, the America’s largest cat, named after an Indian word meaning “he who kills in one leap,” four-hundred pound tapirs and the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, are truly wonderful to see here in their natural habitats. Other resident animals include thirty foot boas, twenty plus foot black caimans and assorted others including the endangered giant river otter and rows of sunning head-to-tail turtles at riverside surrounded by fluttering butterflies. Squadrons of macaws, parrots and parakeets swarm overhead, shouting joyfully as they wheel in brilliant multi-hued formation against a bright blue sky. Over 1000 species of birds cavort through the Manu rainforest, singly and in huge flocks, adding a bewildering kaleidoscope of colors and immense variety of sizes, shapes and songs. (In all of North America there are only 700 bird species.) In Manu, bird experts have been able to catalog over 300 species in one day traveling on foot – an amazing figure for a birder’s Big Day.

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Macaw Lick

At the smaller end of the scale the diversity is even more impressive. For example, a single rainforest tree has been known to host over forty different species of ant. 1200 species of butterflies flitting through the underbrush and treetops add to the colorful palette of a visit to Manu. A study of insects sponsored by the Smithsonian in Manu was extrapolated by scientists to increase the world’s estimate of total species by an additional 30 million! Don’t miss the Blanquillo clay lick that attracts macaws, parrots and parakeets in astounding numbers. A covered viewing area has been arranged for visitors about 100 yards away from a red clay cliff that attracts these birds. The area allows unobtrusive observation of the activity as these colorful Amazon natives first stage in the treetops, then descend to the face of the cliff in huge numbers, eating the clay and socializing noisily with others of their kind. It is thought that the clay is critical to their metabolism, perhaps neutralizing toxins that they ingest from the forest plants and fruits. It’s an awe-inspiring site to see these birds flying in flocks – no clipped wings, no cages. A visit to this regular gathering of these beautiful and free birds is a must for anyone traveling to the park.

Common Wooly Monkey

As incredible and magnificent as the sights in Manu are, the cacophonous soundscape generated by the dense and diverse fauna is even more incredible. A unique joy to the human ear, it begins with glorious mornings filled with the calls of birds as they fill the forest with their beautiful symphonies. Other animals join in at all hours with their yelps, barks, growls and of course the roar of the red howler monkey. It ends with late night sounds: croaking and peeping frogs, chirping crickets, buzzing circadias and strange sounds from perhaps unidentified insects. And if you haven’t experienced a hard Amazon rain (50% generated by the jungle itself), prepare yourself for an overwhelming auditory experience. Taken together the sights and sounds of the Manu Park are a unique blend that can’t be experienced anywhere else. When you go to Manu National Park, it’s possible to avoid the slower and somewhat bumpy land route by flying in. But, if possible, add two days and travel overland from Cuzco, the heart of the old Inca Empire. Although the ride over the Andes is by no means smooth, this route lets you enjoy the terrain as you approach Manu. Traveling through Indian villages along the way, with their own unique sights and residents, you leave the starkly dry grasslands at the Acjanaco pass, and then encounter the Monte Chico, or Elfin Forest. Here you’ll see the haunting cloud forest ahead of you, at elevations from 11,500 to 8000 ft, covering the eastern slopes of the Andes. The moisture in the cloud forest creates perpetually wet conditions, nurturing giant ferns, myriad orchids with many types of lichens, mosses and bromeliads totally encasing the limbs and trunks of the trees. In this forest you will see Peru’s national bird – the beautiful Tunqui or Cock-of-the-Rock. As each male sings, dances and displays to win the favors of females at a lek. A lek features gatherings of Tunqui as the brilliant red plumaged males compete for a date with drab brown females, who afterwards fly off to raise their chicks on their own. These noisy and colorful leks (dances) are not to be missed on any trip into the Peruvian rain forest.

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Longboat at Atalaya

Continuing on the road through the cloud forest, you pass scores of waterfalls and streams surrounded by stunning views of colorful flora and glimpses of exotic fauna. At Atalaya you board an outboard motor canoe, heading up the Alto Madre de Dios River to the slower flowing Manu River, splitting off just upriver from the town of Boca Manu. From here you stop at Limonal, where you register your entry into Manu National Park and receive a welcome from park service personnel, the Guardaparques. Manu was designated a national park in 1973, protecting this wonderful area from the depredations often seen elsewhere in South America. It’s origin is a fascinating story, beginning in Siberia.In the late 1800s an intrepid Polish zoologist, Jan Kalinowski, won his freedom from a Russian gulag with the presentation to the Czar of a giant stuffed polar bear. Immigrating to Peru, he married a local Quechuan woman and sired 18 children while exploring the biology of the tropical rain forest. One of his children, Celestino, fell in love with Manu. He learned zoology from his father, animal habits from local Indians and pursued formal studies, including time at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. When Peru, as a result of signing the Washington Convention for the Protection of the Natural Scenic Beauty of the American Countries, sought an area for their first national park, Celestino championed the Manu River and its watershed. Known today as the father of Manu, he was able to prove that this bountiful area deserved protection and recognition as a National Park. Subsequently, the United Nations has recognized it as a Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage site.

Oxbow Lake

Rolling through relatively flat terrain, the Manu River often changes its meanders, forming ‘Oxbow Lakes’ when course deviations isolate an old section of river. The resulting lakes are home to large numbers of fish that attract the world’s biggest remaining populations of the giant otter. These extremely sociable survivors of an earlier devastating fur harvest can grow to six feet, weigh up to 70 pounds and have voracious appetites for fish, crabs and clams. Since they feed during the day, they can be readily seen in Manu, hunting and frolicking in family groups of 5-10. Just as other animals can be identified by color patterns, these otters can be recognized by the fur color patterns on their upper chest. You may see any forest dweller at the riverside, but the real payoff in animal viewing happens as you take quiet hikes through the jungle. Early mornings, accompanied by flaming sunrises, late afternoons and star-studded night walks in the forest with an experienced guide in a small group is by far the best way to discover the glory that is Manu. Don’t miss an opportunity to experience the wonder of a visit to this pristine and magical Biosphere, truly the last best place. Join South American Explorers and receive a discount for this trip from Manu Expeditions

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