Peru’s Magical Manu

Travel from cloud forest to rain forest in the Manu Biosphere Reserve to view the highest concentration of bird species in the world.

The early morning mist curled around the edges of the gravel road as we walked in the dark to the wildlife blind. Having arrived late the night before at the Cock of the Rock Lodge in Peru’s Manu cloud forest, I hadn’t yet seen the surroundings in the daylight, but my flashlight illuminated small puzzle pieces of the verdant forest. Suddenly, I heard screeching up ahead.

“Do you hear that?” our guide, Julian, whispered, as the sound got louder.

“Monkeys?” I asked.

“That’s the Andean cock-of-the-rock,” he replied.

The noisy squawk was something far different than the call I’d imagined the red-pompadoured bird would make. Just minutes from the lodge, the concealed shelter allowed us access to a lek (mating display grounds) for Peru’s national bird, and sitting quietly, we witnessed the elaborate dance of 12 brilliantly colored males competing for the affections of three drab brown females.

We sat, spellbound, for more than an hour. Just as the scarlet birds disappeared into the forest, a group of wooly monkeys crashed through the branches and crossed overhead. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.

From Cusco to Cloud Forest

The Manu Biosphere Reserve is believed to have the highest concentration of bird species in the world, with 1,000—one out of every nine on Earth. The six-day Biotrip, which runs from Andean highlands to riverside rain forest, was arranged by Tropical Nature Travel, the travel arm of the Tropical Nature conservation system. Together in a van, my husband and I, our guide and a driver started out from Cusco. We passed through the altiplano and climbed over Andean mountain chains of 13,000 feet. In the high plateaus, we visited chullpas, pre-Incan burial chambers, before plunging down into patches of elfin forest and then to the cloud forest itself.

In the two days at Cock of the Rock Lodge (which supports a 12,500-acre forest reserve here in the Kosñipata Valley), we stayed in comfortable private bungalows, had meals and snacks at the lodge with other guests, and went on three to four hikes a day. Because the animal residents are most active at twilight and dusk, those were important hikes on our schedule. Julian allowed us to choose any amount of leisure time during the day, mixed with hikes in the surrounding area to spot more animals.

Although we were just beginning the Biotrip and hadn’t yet gotten to the lowland rain forest, we had no trouble starting to assemble a jaw-dropping list of birds we’d seen, from the cock -of-the-rock to quetzals, toucanets, motmots, flycatchers, tanagers and wrens. The list would only grow larger as we descended to the river valley.

Manu Wildlife Center

Our voyage into Manu’s lowland rain forest took us past clear waterfalls that rushed down the mountains and coca plantations where we tasted bitter coca leaves. At the small riverside town of Atalaya, we boarded our boat for the six-hour journey along the Alto Madre de Dios and Madre de Dios rivers to the Manu Wildlife Center.

The Wildlife Center is considered by many to be the best place in Peru to view Amazonian wildlife. Its 22 private bungalows and community lodge with a dining room and bar made our four-night stay incredibly comfortable. Even though the bungalow showers have hot water, I never turned the temperature higher than what I needed to cool down from the steamy jungle hikes. And every meal in the dining room was a tasty mix of Peruvian (from ceviche to potatoes in spicy cheese sauce) and international cuisine. At the end of the day, a chilled Cusqueña beer was the perfect refreshment to top off our activities.

Wealth of Wildlife

While the creature comforts of the Manu Wildlife Center kept us from roughing it, the best thing about this area is the immense wealth of wildlife viewing possibilities. Julian and his breadth of experience was essential to our many daily hikes. Besides telling us about what we could easily see, he would identify a bird by its song and track the sound so we could see where the bird was resting, or plunge his hand into a mass of leaves and come out with a poison-dart frog after only hearing its chirp.

We woke daily between 4 and 5 a.m. Often there was time only to grab coffee and a quick breakfast before we were off into the jungle or on a boat down the river to a canopy platform or wildlife blind. After getting used to early waking hours in the cloud forest, it wasn’t too difficult to jump up in the dark, ready to go after Julian woke us each morning.

Traveling by boat to different sites was an integral part of the wildlife experience. One morning, we happened upon a female and two baby capybara. Further down the river, a caiman sunned itself on the bank. And cliffs of clay served as essential concentrations of mineral treats for more than a dozen parrot species.

Night hikes afforded us views of multitudes of frogs, spiders, bats and the possibility of seeing the elusive jaguar. While other groups saw rainbow boas and vine snakes, the only serpent we came across during the entire Biotrip was a young fer-de-lance along the road after we left the cloud forest. If the idea of stumbling on a snake is keeping you away from the jungle, don’t let it. You’d be missing far too much.

Experiences of a Lifetime

While the possibility exists to see a wide variety of fauna, there can be disappointments, and it’s best on a trip such as this to be prepared to not see absolutely everything on your list, but instead to focus on the quality of the experiences you do have.

We were lucky to see a family of giant otters in a nearby oxbow lake. Their initial warning snorts as they discovered us turned into whistles after checking us out and determining we were no threat. Macaws and parrots soared overhead; prehistoric-looking hoatzins roosted in trees on the side of the lake; kingfishers, herons, hummingbirds, cormorants and jacamars added to the spectacle.

One night, we hiked to an elevated blind overlooking a clay lick that’s often frequented by lowland tapirs. Only 20 minutes after we arrived and made ourselves comfortable in our individual, mosquito-netted lounging stations, a lone male arrived. He waded in the clay for more than 30 minutes, giving us plenty of opportunities to snap photos of him. When he’d had his fill, he departed by walking under our blind, passing only a few feet from us. The following two nights no tapirs appeared at the clay lick, disappointing the folks who had been waiting for them.

We had saved our last day to visit an impressive macaw clay lick, but it rained and few macaws showed up. As we trudged back to the lodge, we spotted on the path ahead a family of saddleback tamarins jumping through the trees at eye level. We followed them through the lodge grounds, and came across groups of squirrel monkeys, black spider monkeys and white capuchin monkeys. They leaped from tree to tree just above us, staying in the area for more than an hour, until they tired of entertaining the humans and disappeared back into the forest. Suddenly the day wasn’t as much of a disappointment.

Out of the Jungle

Returning to Cusco on a small airplane is a different experience than the van trip over the Andes and down into the jungle. From the Manu Wildlife Center, it’s a one- to two-hour boat ride to the small village of Boca Manu and its landing strip. While the up-close view of the rain forest was over for us, the plane ride afforded a much different way to see the Manu area. Below, a sea of deep green was cut by lazy, looping water in shades of brown. The places we’d been were infinitesimal specs in the vast jungle. Sloping up ahead were the emerald cloud forests and beyond them, the heights of the Andes with their glacier-capped peaks.

Tropical Nature Travel arranges custom itineraries to wildlife lodges in Peru, Brazil and Ecuador. It works closely with local community and conservation organizations to help preserve the tropics and provide sustainable ecotourism. In Peru, its jungle lodge reservations are handled by InkaNatura Travel. The Manu Biotrip is six days (five nights) and the 2009 price is $1,670 per person, with a single supplement of $375. There must be at least two people to book the trip. Other licensed operators run trips to the Manu area, however locations and prices will vary with each outfitter. Tel. 877-827-8350,

Destinations: Peru

Themes: Ecotourism, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking, Bird Watching

User Comments

Manu is an oasis where you can find plenty of flora and fauna. I traveled with my wife and did a tour in this place, we had a great time. I recommend it to all of you. Also, I recommend hiring a travel agency that arrange your tours, is the best. I did it with TurPeru and was very well, its website is