Ambling around the Amazon
Itinerary: Cusco > Rainforest Lodge > Reserve Ecological Bonanza > Cusco
Not for those with severe arachnophobia.
When people talk about visiting Peru, the obvious destination for tourists these days is Machu Picchu. Which is why I was a little taken aback when a friend who had recently visited Peru told me that I had to go to the Amazon and that I would love it. Well, she was right.
The Amazon rainforest is probably most closely associated with Brazil, but actually spans across multiple countries. And even in Peru, there are two main parks to choose from — Parque Nacional Manu and Reserva Nacional Pacaya-Samiria — as well as three main jumping off points to consider — north, central and south. While Iquitos is the go-to for many travelers, I was relieved that I could spare myself an extra flight by opting for Parque Nacional Manu from Cusco.
There are numerous tour operators to the Amazon, offering trips of varying lengths and costs. I found Bonanza Tours Peru through my Lonely Planet guide, and I was consistently impressed throughout my trip by my wonderful guides, stunning accommodation, commitment to sustainability, and general responsiveness and attentiveness. It’s a family-run company, and it was a sincere pleasure to meet everyone involved, who are all related or connected one way or another.
With somewhat of a tight timeline leading up to my Inca Trail trek, I chose a quick 4-day, 3-night tour, which is just enough time to get into the rainforest and wander around a bit. Many other folks I met on my trip were doing longer excursions that allow you to explore deeper into the jungle, but I was still very happy with my brief visit to the world-famous jungle. I also lucked out with a small tour group, just me and a French couple to share two guides, a cook and drivers for both the car and riverboat.
Our first day, we were picked up dark and early (well before sunrise) in Cusco to begin the several-hour car ride to the first rainforest lodge. We did our best to sleep through the first few hours, and then broke up the rest of the journey by making frequent stops along the road to observe the cloud forest. As we learned how the climate transitions from the high Andes to the low jungle, our guide explained a bit about the Inca traditions and religion, in particular their belief of Pachamama or Mother Earth. As someone who cares deeply about conservation, I found one thought our guide shared particularly profound: “We’ve gone from sons of Mother Earth like the Inca to become parasites that attack their mother.”
Just as we were wrapping up our long drive, we happened to spot some woolly monkeys and followed them as they bounded through the canopy before jumping back into the car for the final stretch to the first lodge. That first night we came to realize just how well fed we would be throughout the trip, with an amazing dinner and abundance of food. Certainly not what I expected of rainforest meals!
Our second day we made it to the Rio Madre de Dios, which we would take into the low jungle. However, before we arrived at our riverboat, we did a quick tour of a small coca plantation and learned the fascinating history of the both controversial and traditional plant. While coca may be synonymous with cocaine for some people, the leaves are commonplace throughout Peru, where locals chew big wads of it for energy or drink it as loose-leaf tea. It’s especially useful for people who experience altitude sickness. In contrast to Colombia where coca is heavily stigmatized, in Peru bags of coca leaves are sold at street vendors and markets, alongside a wide variety of coca products like sweets and tea bags.
The days leading up to our trip saw a fair bit of rain, and as we settled into the low-to-the-water riverboat, it was immediately clear that it would be an interesting ride. Water levels were high and debris like fallen trees were everywhere. Fortunately for us, we were headed downstream, so our boat didn’t have to fight the tide of the swollen river.
On our way to the Bonanza Ecological Reserve, we stopped at a natural hot spring for a long soak before continuing down the river. The reserve is a secluded village of wooden huts with a long dining hall at its center. Like the first night, our rooms were lovely and clean and so close to nature that you feel like you’re camping.
That afternoon we traded hiking shoes for rain boots and left our bigger bags behind, bringing only overnight necessities for our campout at the tapir clay lick observation tower. As we approached the tower, we were instructed to whisper so as to not scare away the tapir, a large mammal that looks like a cross between an anteater and a small rhino, with a long nose but stout body and tough skin. The extra caution to be quiet made for a very tranquil night; you could really hear the jungle come alive as a symphony of buzzing, humming, chirping and rustling swelled through the soundscape.
We were each assigned an hour of night watch and given a strong flashlight to shine around the clay lick at 3 minute intervals, keeping an eye out for the nocturnal tapir. If one happened to come along during your shift, you were supposed to wake your immediate neighbors on the sleeping platform, and they would quietly pass along the message like a game of telephone. Early in the night we were able to spot a tapir, but only briefly before it returned to the bush.
The next morning, I woke to find a large spider at the foot of my bed as I was picking up my sleeping mat. In urgent hushed tones, I flagged over my guide who encouraged us to take pictures before nudging the spider over the edge of the platform. Only after the spider was gone did my clever guide explain that my bed mate was the poisonous wolf spider, which was a happy surprise.
That day we did a short walk through the jungle before lunch, sipping on coconut water and snacking on fresh fruit plucked right from the trees. We also learned that termites taste minty and they can be used as natural bug repellent by squishing them and smearing on your exposed skin. Later in the afternoon, we hoofed it up a few flights of another observation tower where we were rewarded with several beautiful bird sightings, including lovely macaws with vibrant feathers. We waited until sunset before heading back to the lodge, enjoying a night walk to spot the rainforest’s ridiculously large insects. I’ll admit I was quite pleased to be able to see a tarantula up close, but very thankful to have our calm, cool and collected guide to keep me from getting the creeps.
Our last day in the Amazon was a long travel day, doing the riverboat and car ride in reverse. Along the way, we spotted some capybaras, the largest living rodent in the world, which looks like an overgrown guinea pig. A section along the road back to Cusco was under significant construction after a major landslide had taken out the path entirely; so we waited with other tours and locals until the allotted time when the construction crew allowed through traffic. For me, it was a little nerve wracking passing through the carved out mountain side with a steep valley looming below. But for my guide and the other locals, landslides and road reconstruction is as normal as seeing someone with a wad of coca leaves in their cheek — a fact of life living in the Andes and Amazon.
I was thankful to see the pristine jungle and observe some of its inhabitants after years of reading about the Amazon and how important it is to our planet. And by great fortune, powerful bug spray and diligent application, I even managed to make it out with only a few mosquito bites.