After a few weeks of hard work Christina and I decided to treat ourselves to a 7 day Amazon adventure in the deep, remote Manu Region.
The trip actually came by chance. I was in a store looking for pants and overheard three Peruvians trying to guess where I was from in Spanish. I told them I was American and I spoke Spanish. A friendly guy behind the counter said “Oh great can you help me buy this camera from the U.S.” (ironically being sold on Amazon.com).
I sat down to help him and then we started talking which lasted a couple hours. He told me how he was from the Amazon and now ran Eco-friendly trips into the Manu Biosphere. Naturally, this was very intriguing so I started asking questions, listening to his stories, and looking at pictures. He was so enthusiastic about the trips and the wildlife, it was contagious. I wanted to have these adventures and see this wildlife. When I told him we might be interested if he had a tour leaving soon. He offered a 7 day trip leaving on July 1st at a remarkable price. After talking to Christina, who had been dying to go into the Amazon since we arrived in South America, it was set!
We left from Cusco (12,000ft altitude) on July 1st at 5am. We descended slowly by bus for 8 hours into the cloud forest. Once we entered Manu Park, we went on a nature hike and had a remarkable lunch, the first meal made by our Amazon Chef, Bernadino. Bernadino was a native Quechua from the mountains, who was skilled in the art of making amazing food in the roughest of conditions. Along the 7 day trip he would cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 12 people in unusually cramped spaces, in the pitch-dark, without electricity, on the back of wooden boats, and in bug-ridden jungle. Bernadino was paid approximately $100 per 7 day trip. (At the end of the trip Christina gave Bernadino her headlamp in an attempt to diminish the adversity in which he cooked)
As the sun was setting and we were nearing the end of our 1st day of travel we came across a family of Woolly Monkeys feeding on the trees right next us. Watching the family eat, play, and interact with each other I knew at this point we had made the right decision.
Later on that night I made the wrong decision when deciding to eat cow heart that was cooked on the side of the road in a small Amazon Village. I was sick the next 24 hours and couldn’t really enjoy much of the next day’s bus and boat travel.
Luckily, the sickness was not a parasite or any strange Amazonian disease, it was just food poisoning. The next day I was feeling on top of the world. We started Day 3 at 4:30am and were riding deeper into the Manu Biosphere on the boat to slowly watch the sun rise. As the sun came up, wildlife flocked to the shores of the river. We saw a rare Capuchin Monkey trying to cross the river and endless species of birds. It was like something out of a movie. The most beautiful birds to watch had to be the Triad of Macaws continually flying overhead. The boat journey continued into the early evening. As we left the Madre de Dios and entered the Manu River, the water became clearer and the variety of wildlife became more abundant. We saw several species of different monkeys (Red Howler, Spider, and Squirrel) and tons of Caymans (Black and White Crocodiles).
Just after lunch I saw our guide William put his hand up signaling for the boat captain to turn off the engine. This usually meant wildlife was nearby so I started looking around. Not more than 20 feet to our left was a full-grown male Amazonian Jaguar. We were all speechless.
The giant cat was leisurely resting on the shore enjoying his afternoon. He spotted us immediately and casually went about his business. Once we gained our speech back, we were so excited we all started to loudly discuss how cool this was. William told us to be quiet or we would scare the Jaguar away. I could not help but think this beast of a creature could easily swim over to our tiny boat, jump on board, rip us all to shreds and then go about his day…but William was worried that we might scare him away with our voices? Judging from the relaxed state of the Jaguar, Mel Gibson’s army from Braveheart couldn’t scare this creature away. We should have been the ones scared away, but we were all way to blissful to be concerned.
We reached Casa Machiguenga just before sunset. The Machiguenga are an indigenous community living in the area of the Amazon. (Christina was really interested in the Machiguenga people and wrote about them down below)
As if we didn’t have enough excitement for the day we were all keen to go on an after-dark hike in search of Amazonian Creepy Crawlers. Everyone had a head lamp or a flash light and we were told to keep an eye out on the ground and in the trees for creatures. This was very difficult because the jungle was so dense that at night with a flashlight everything looked like an endless sea of green. William had a really keen jungle eye and could spot a baby frog under a leaf from a mile away. There were seven of us on this walk and I was second in line after William.
After about 5 minutes into the walk I heard a shout from the back of the line in Swiss. Quickly the language switched back to English and Dominick, the Swiss guy said “There is a freaking snake here!.” I looked back and about a foot away from our path was a thick and stripped snake crouched in an attack position. Now, under normal circumstances this situation would have been fine and I believe most of us would have stayed calm and rationally come to a solution on what to do, but this was all thrown to the wind when William, our fearless Amazonian guide who had spent his entire life in the jungle with wildlife, took one look at the snake and started to scream and run away.
After a few steps, William remembered he was responsible for all of us so he turned back around and told everyone to back up as far as they could from the snake. William was panicked and frantic. Based on this alone it wasn’t hard for us to follow suit and freak out as well. I mean, when your Amazonian Guide takes a look at a snake and suddenly starts running, you know this has to be the meanest snake in the jungle.
Sure enough it was. It was the Amazonian Bushmaster (the name alone could probably convince even the most amateur Jungle walker that this was not a snake to be messed with). We later came to find out the Amazonian Bushmaster is the largest venomous snake in the Western Hemisphere. We all backed up to about 10 feet from the snake. After William calmed down a bit he told us to take a picture of the snake. Once we got a good picture, William grabbed the longest stick he could find and prodded the snake to bite the stick. At first I remember thinking “Wow, William pictures and prodding? Shouldn’t we just get the heck out of here!”. Later, I came to realize the picture was not for a good Facebook picture and the prodding was not just to antagonize the snake. The picture was in-case one of us got bit on the way back to camp. In this situation we needed be sure the type of snake so we could inform a Doctor as to what kind of anti-venom to use. The prodding was to entice the snake to bite the stick and drain its venom (that way if someone did get bit they would probably be subjected to less venom than the initial bite).
Next was figuring out how to get out of there. The path was too narrow to bi-pass the snake and there was only one way in and one way out. After a few minutes of thinking William decided the most logical plan was for everyone to sporadically run and jump their way across the path of the snake and into safety. Before I had time to think about the fact that this plan went against every recommended snake encounter tip I had ever seen, William was running and jumping his way back to camp. Christina didn’t hear the plan so after William started running she asked me what to do and I told her to just stand on the left side of me (the side opposite the snake) and run and skip with me (like we we are in a beautiful park). We all made it across and back to camp. Later, William admitted that he would wrestle Crocodiles and play with spiders, but he is deathly afraid of snakes. Something I wish we were told before the trip.
The next day William and our group walked the same trail again. We did this not because we necessarily needed to go that way, but it is an Amazonian tribal belief that if something in the jungle scares you and makes you turn back from the path you are on, then you must go back and finish the walk before the end of the next day otherwise, as the belief states, you will be in fear of this creature for the rest of your life. William deeply believes in this law and made sure we finished the walk by early morning. I on the other hand do not believe and right before we reached the area where we saw the Bushmaster I remember thinking that I don’t mind being in fear for the rest of my life as long as it keeps us off this path.
Later this day we visited a lake full of Caymans, Piranhas and Giant Otters. We took a wooden paddle boat ride across the lake in search of these creatures. We saw many Caymans and Piranhas but after a couple hours of no Giant Otters in sight, we turned back to shore. Once we got close to shore we came in contact with a lone Giant Otter fishing. I have to say at first when I heard we were going to go search for Giant Otters, I did not see the infatuation, but after learning more about these giant majestical creatures I developed an affinity for them.
The Giant Otter can grow to 6 feet in length and is the biggest otter in the world. They can only be found in this part of the Amazon and are quickly becoming an endangered species. Some actually consider these Otters the king of the jungle because they kill both Caymans and Jaguars in the water. They usually travel in packs and they each have unique markings on the front of their necks so they can spot and identify other otters from a distance. They eat about 25 pounds of fish a day.
These animals are so cool that Zack a guy on our Amazon Trip took 4 plane flights from his home state of Arkansas to Cusco, 3 days of bus and boat travel and probably about $5,000 in expenses just to see one of these rare creatures. After finding out that Zack came this far solely to see a Giant Otter, (at first I thought it was kind of weird but then) I became really inspired by Zack’s mission and dedication. I think if you are willing take the chance to travel to a foreign land completely out of your comfort zone, spend time and money, in hopes of potentially seeing one animal, that takes guts and determination. I am really glad Zack got to see his otter.
On the way back to Cusco our trip was put on hold due to a rock slide on our one-lane road. We all got out to help and after 5 hours, a good workout, and a lot of hand-cuts we collectively cleared the road.
The Amazon Adventure was a great success and I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone with an adventurous spirit and I am glad we got to spend it with such wonderful people.
I am convinced the 3 most important tools in the Amazon are a head lamp, bug spray and a pocket knife. Without the head lamp nighttime is infinitely dark. Without bug spray mosquitoes and sand flies would eat you to death in a matter of hours and without a pocket knife I wouldn’t have anything fun to play with on the long boat rides.
The Machiguenga People
After a long boat ride deep into the Manu River, we arrived at Casa Machiguenga. The lodge is named after the main indigenous community in this area of the Amazon, the Machiguenga people. They are not to be confused with the indigenous tribes that live very primitively with little-to-no contact with the outside world. Although they live very traditionally off the Amazonian lands, they are aware and in-contact with the modern world. There are three main Machiguenga communities, with about 20 families per community. Casa Machiguenga (where we were staying) is not directly apart of any of these communities. It is a small lodge for travelers in the Machiguenga area, so some of their people work on the Lodge, rotating from time to time.
Right off the river boat, we met Renaldo and Arasaldo, two Machiguengan men who live nearby the Lodge. After settling in, Renaldo and Arasaldo gave us some insight into their lives. Between their broken Spanish and William’s rough Machiguengan, we were able to learn about how they make fire with sticks and shoot animals with bow and arrows. As I said, they live very traditionally, so in a Machiguengan community it would not be uncommon for the men to go into the jungle to shoot a monkey with a bow and arrow and then cook it for dinner using fire they themselves have created.
Their society really fascinated me and I continually to picked William’s brain about their culture throughout the rest of the trip. Their main food sources are cassava root (yuca), Woolly monkeys, pigs, fish and a jungle rodent called a pacca. They live in huts with thatched roofs made of palm trees. They use many plants and herbs for medicinal uses, but are very susceptible to infections from the outside world.
They have a machismo society, where the men do all the hunting and the women do all the work in the home. I recently read that the men actually eat first and the women and children divide what is left after they are finished. I’m not sure how true this is.
Machiguenga women get married and have children at a very young age. Around the time they are biologically able to have a child, they are pregnant soon after. And once they start, they have a lot. The average Machiguenga woman (or girl, I suppose) has 8 – 10 children. William also told us that if two people want to get married, the prospective husband must first prove his worth to the girl’s parents. He is taken into the jungle and given one hour to chop down a medium-sized Iron tree. If he can’t do it, then the marriage is prohibited.
Overall the Machiguenga people are in favor of the tourism the Amazon brings to their area. As William told us, they understand it brings value into their communities in the form of clean water, clothes and education, just to name a few, since a portion of the money we pay for the tour goes towards improving their standards of living. I really wish we could have visited one of the communities, but ultimately decided it was for the best. Probably the worst thing that could happen to their cultural preservation would be to open their home to Westernized travelers. I think when a culture becomes too commercialized, it loses so much authenticity and meaning. It’s an uncontrollable environment that is created by both the locals and the tourists. When you find place and people like the Machiguenga in the Amazon, where you are able to get a peek without disturbing or changing their society, its really rare.
This was an amazing trip for so many reasons. It was so nice to get out of the city and be completely surrounded by nature. Everything about this trip was focused on appreciating the natural offerings of the Amazon: its rare plant and animal life. Most of the wildlife I have seen in a zoo before but its completely different seeing them in the wild. You feel like a visitor in their home and its kind of humbling.
The elements of the jungle can be completely brutal at times and it can be the most beautiful and peaceful place on earth other times. I’ve never see anything like it.
Here are the rest of the photos we got from this week. Everyone on the trip shared their photos back in Cuzco, so as much as we’d like to, we can’t take credit for every photo (mostly the awesome close-ups of wildlife).
click on first thumbnail for slideshow