Manu Wildlife Center
This was the main attraction of the trip for us. Although still located along the Madre De Dios, this lodge has primary rainforest, a 35 meter tall canopy tower, an animal clay lick, access to nearby two oxbow lakes and a macaw clay lick, and great biodiversity. We followed the same daily routine as at Amazonia Lodge. In retrospect, it would have been nice to either forgo the short late afternoon hike and instead spend the entire time after lunch just wandering the trails. Without an experienced guide, however, the birding becomes much more of a challenge in the jungle.
The MWC has much better housing than Amazonia - no comparison really. Each little guest hut has 2 twin beds and a private bath. The guest huts had corrugated roofs with screened sides (the huts with thatched roofs are used by the staff and guides). The screened walls may feel a little open to the outside, but it was difficult to see into the huts unless you really try. The extra ventilation from the screened walls was appreciated on the days with oppressive heat. For a fee, there was real laundry service (something highly valued in a hot jungle where wearing clean clothes seemed like a luxury and also a moot point because as soon as you put on clean clothes they quickly became sweaty and stinky again) with an actual electric laundry machine and dryer (unlike Amazonia Lodge where the clothes were washed in a tub, left to dry/rot on the line, and smelled funkier than when they started).
The main dining and lounge area was a large building with screen walls allowing an almost 360 view of the adjacent gardens. The building architecture was impressive - large vaulted ceiling with beams holding up the thatch roof. While part of the building's roof was replaced with corrugated plastic, the middle gazebo roof covering the lounge/bar hadn't been replaced. Instead plastic sheet covered the (large) holes in the thatch ineffectively trying to prevent rain from entering. It wasn't very effective, so after any rainstorm, puddles would form on the hardwood floors and furniture in the lounge.
The garden around the lodge supported slightly different avifauna than Amazonia Lodge. Festive Coquettes buzzed the verbena. A Rufous-bellied Hermit, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker and a Hauxwell's Thrush nested in the garden. Amazonia racerunners skittered through the mowed grass on hot afternoons. And Fork-tailed Palm Swifts swarmed the skies above.
The food was much improved over our previous lodge. Fresh juice (not watered down) was served at ever meal. For breakfast: a small bowl of fresh fruit with puffed corn, quinoa, and yogurt, pancakes, and eggs. Lunch was similar to Amazonia with a starter salad (causa rellena, yeh!) followed by protein chicken or pork and potatoes and/or rice. Dinner was similar but usually started with a soup and sometimes we had limo saltado or pasta. Desert after lunch and dinner was typically pudding. Fairly simply fare, but cooked well and filling.
The trail system was much more extensive than at Amazonia. The trails took us through a variety of environments, but the habitats were more intact - the trees were taller and the undergrowth much more dense. Next to the lodge was the "grid" trail system that was originally made for research. The grid was a great place to see troops of monkeys moving through the canopy. Other trails at MWC followed the river along the floodplains, cut through bamboo and heliconia forest, climbed up and down the terra firma to an animal clay lick or followed a flowing creek. A few of the outer trails that looped were not maintained, lost to treefalls and subsequent disuse. The trails that were maintained were in good shape, easy to follow and markers at the intersections let us know where we were.
A short 10 minute walk away from the lodge was the 35 meter high canopy tower. A spiral staircase lead up to the wood platform perched in a kapok tree. We went up the canopy tower as a group several times. The view from canopy level was always rewarding - eye level views of parrots and macaws flying by, spider monkeys swing from branch to branch, seeing mixed flocks of tanagers and euphonias without breaking your neck (although there were a few times when we still had to look straight up to see the birds perched in the branches above our heads in the canopy tower). The one drawback to being up in the trees was that the insects seemed more abundant. During the heat of the day, the sweat bees and wasps swarm around. And after one particularly rainy morning, the termites had hatched and were mobbed us. I'd never seen so many flying termites and they seemed particularly attracted to me. Once they landed, they dropped their wings and crawled around getting into every crease, pocket and opening of my clothes. At least they didn't bite. The timing and conditions of going up into the canopy tower was key to how well it will be enjoyed.
Mammal Clay Lick
After a lunch (during siesta time), we hiked up to the animal clay lick with the goal of setting the game camera to capture the tapirs and other creatures that visit. Since we were on a limited schedule, the hike through the terra firma was much quicker than I would have liked, though we did stop of several occasions to look at the troops of monkeys and a few dart frogs. It would have been nice to spend more time in the terra firma since most of the short hikes were spent in the floodplains.
At the clay lick, there was an elevated covered wooden platform with a dozen mattress protected by individual mosquito nets. The platform arced around the clay lick below, allowing a view from each mattress. Likely if we had been at MWC without the rest of the group, we would have been inclined to stay the night at the clay lick to see what showed up. But at least we had the game camera to show us some of the animals that came to clay. We left the game camera up there for several nights before hiking back as a group to retrieve the camera. Along the way, we actually had time to enjoy the terra firma forest with a guide. The first time we came to the clay lick, we didn't have time to look around much, but the second time we actually sat on the platform and watched the Rose-fronted and Black-capped Parakeets come into the lick. We never saw any mammals around the clay lick the 2 times during the day we visited, but the game camera did capture several tapir, a red brocket deer, and an ocelot at the clay lick.
Birding and Wildlife
As with the Amazonia Lodge, the birding around MWC was pretty spectacular. Perhaps it was a bit more challenging on the neck since the forest was more dense and the canopy a bit higher. Watching those dizzying mixed flocks flit from palm, to vine, to the dense shade of the canopy was frustrating as heck. But with all challenges comes rewards - with great birds such as the Pavonine Quetzel, Semi-collard Puffbird, Orange-backed Troupial, Blue-crowned Trogn, and Great Jacamars. Or listening to the sweet melody of the Scale-breasted Wren, a secretive bird with a loud and fluid voice. At nights, the calls of the Tawny-bellied Screech-Owls, Amazonian Pygmy-Owl, and Crested Owls could be heard above the croak of treefrogs and chittering of crickets.
Scale-breasted Wren song:
Wildlife viewing at MWC was equally impressive around the lodge grounds. On many occasions we spot and heard troops of spider, squirrel, and capuchin monkeys traveling through the canopy. We also saw saddle-back tamarins in the jungle, in addition to on the fruit feeders next to the kitchen. At night, the night monkeys were a lot easier to hear dropping fruit from the canopy than they were to see - being much higher up and hidden behind dense foliage. We were lucky to see one jump across a rare opening in the canopy. Also in the nights were bats of all sizes flying along the trails rather close to the ground (and to us). The loud and persistent grunt of the Amazonian Tree Rat dominated the calls around the bamboo stands behind to the cabins. This tree rat was an impressively large rodent, probably the size of an adult opossum in the US. Perhaps the star of the MWC mammals was Vanessa. A tapir raised as a baby by the MWC staff and released into the wild. Despite having a baby of her own, Vanessa continued to visit the lodge looking for a handout of fruit or bread. She visited the lodge several times during our stay. This tame tapir was eager for bananas and apples and allowed us to pet and scratch her very firm and bristly hide.
The other amazing wildlife at MWC was the amphibian and herp life. We saw a great diversity of frogs around the lodge at night and during the day, including Surinam horned frogs, cane toads, and two types of poison dart frogs. One afternoon hike, we came upon a large yellow-footed tortoise.
On the last full day at MWC, a heavy rain fell most of the night and into the morning. It was perhaps the first heavy rain of the season. After the rain mostly cleared, we tried hiking several of the lowland trails, but ended up on the terra firma trail because it was the only trail that wasn't flooded. Coming up to a pond that was quiet before the rain, we were a deafened by the high-pitched buzz of frog calls. The rain flipped a hormonal switch in the frogs, and they gathered at this pond to celebrate. During the day, it was impossible to see the frogs - from the glare off the water and their tendency to remain hidden or high in the canopy. Later that same day when we returned after dinner, the frogs were not only visible, but more abundant - in the water, on logs, and on the leaves. The calls of the frogs went from deafening in the daytime to ear shattering at night. I wore earplugs to save my hearing.
There were at least a dozen different species of frogs in the throws of copulating or seeking out a mate. Freshly laid eggs coated leaves and floated in rafts on the water. I'd never seen such a hormonally amped up amphibian event. Aside from being cautious for snakes (which never appeared, perhaps because the frog spawn party was a new event that the snakes weren't aware of yet), the only thing we were worried about in the pond was a somewhat aggressive Dwarf Caiman. Its stubbornness not to flee upon detecting us nor when Tor threw sticks at it as it kept swimming closer was a bit worrisome as we waded in the calf-deep dark waters. We stuck to the banks and the vegetation where most of the frogs were anyway. Colorful monkey frogs, treefrogs, and bleating frogs called and copulated away. A twist-necked turtle surfaced briefly from the depths of the pond. There was so much life teeming in this small pond. Yet it felt like such a momentous event in this small corner of the rainforest.
Sadly the frog fever happened on our last night in MWC, so we couldn't return the following night, nor could we try to check out a similar pond in the floodplain where the hormonal switch was also flipped by the rain event and undoubtedly a different set of frog species were spawning. There's always so much to see in such a richly diverse place like Manu and it's impossible to see it all.
Tambo Blanquillo Private Reserve
While staying at the MWC, we took several day trips to the adjacent Tambo Blanquillo Reserve to check out features not found at the wildlife center. They included a macaw clay lick and two oxbow lakes.
-Macaw Clay Lick
One early morning (perhaps the only morning where we woke up before dawn), we loaded into the boat for a short ride down river to the trail entrance to the macaw clay lick. The entrance to the clay lick shifted with the changing flow of the river over the years. Originally the river ran through in front of the clay lick so boats could dock at the blind. When the river shift away, a trail was built through the floodplains to the blind. The river changed course again creating a muddy mess where the boats docked, so the trail to the clay lick was extended farther away. Where the trail started in Nov 2019, it was still a relatively short 15 minute walk through heliconias, bamboo, and cecropia - the dominant vegetation of the floodplains. In the early morning, Undulated Tinamous skittered along the trail and Amazonian Parrotlets chattered noisily as they flew overhead. The blinds were built high on stilts to keep everything dry for the occasion when the river overflowed and flooded the lowlands. A shaded walkway connected the two blinds. Each blind stretched a good 50 ft with a counter and seats along the length of them.
Our boat guides, Arico and Mario, lugged our entire breakfast to the blinds so we could munch on fresh fruit and pancakes while watching the spectacle of at the clay lick. Unlike the clay licks that we saw in Yasuni, Ecuador, this clay lick was a long exposed wall of packed earth 200 ft long and 10-15 ft high. Mealy, Blue-headed, Yellow-crowned, and Orange-cheeked Parrots sat in the palms and dead branches above the clay bank. Several Black Caracara also sat in the growing sunlight. Flocks of Tui and Colbalt-winged Parakeets braved landing on the clay for a bite only to be scared backed into the dense tangled vegetation whenever someone would get spooked. Coming down to the ground was a vulnerable position for a tasty small bird.
As the morning hours stretched on, Red-and-green Macaws trickled in, landing in the branches only to take flight at a moments notice. Some of the macaws seemed to be in pairs sitting close to one another, squawking loudly to each other, or fighting over the palm fruit. They were skittish to land on the bare earth and their numbers in the trees above the clay lick grew to at least 50. The vibrant red, green, and blue of their plumage stood out among the dark green foliage. Eventually a few brave macaws landed on the clay to feed, shortly followed by the rest of the group. They clung to the clay walls and scraped their beaks over the earth to gather the minerals to aid digestion. Just as more macaws began settling in on the clay, they all took off in a cloud of red chaos, calling and squawking. Two Horned Screamers flew in (almost as noisily as the macaws) and landed in the trees above the clay lick. While the Horned Screamers don't prey on macaws, their size and shape was enough to scare these flighty macaws into action. And it didn't matter that the disruptive appearance of the Horned Screamers was non-threatening. The macaws were not going to settle back down on the clay anytime soon.
We considered ourselves lucky though. There are days when the macaws won't come in to feed until the afternoon or when they don't come down at all.
On a separate morning, we took a short boat ride down the Madre De Dios followed by a short walk through the jungle to Cocha Blanco, an oxbow lake. Perched on the edge of the placid blue lake was a boat shed and catamaran. The catamaran was essentially two canoes with a metal platform set atop. The platform was large enough to set up chairs for us as we were paddled around the lake by our boat guides. Under the roof of the boat shed was a sizable Long-nosed Bat roost. They would occasionally flutter around to change positions as the boat slipped in and out of the shed, but otherwise they looked undisturbed by us.
Arico and Mario paddled us around the perimeter of the lake, as we watched the Wattled Jacanas and Limpkins stalked in the shallows of the reeds and grass. Macaws, parrots and kites flew overhead while cormorants and Anhingas dove below the calm water's surface. A Black-collared Hawk perched along water edge, while a troop of Greater Ani foraged in the brush. We also spotted Pale-eyed Blackbirds, a specialty of the region and a pair of Horned Screamers tending to their chick. A couple of titi monkeys traveling along the palms at the edge of forest, and a group of 6 giant otters swam through the lagoon ahead of the boat. After losing track of the otters for a while, we were surprised when one started approaching our boat. In a display of aggression and intimidation, one otter surfaced just 20 ft from the boat.
The day on Cocha Blanco grew unbearably hot from the rare lack of cloud cover. We sat on the catamaran roasting in the direct rays of sun. But looking back at Arico and Mario paddling everyone's weight around the lake, we really had nothing to complain about.
-Cocha Cumungo and canopy tower
On a drizzly morning, we unloaded from the boat onto the banks of the Tambo Blanquillo reserve again to march into the jungle. We arrived at an impressive kapok tree, at least 20 ft in diameter at the base. A metal staircase took us up 45 meters to the platform above. From the high vantage point, we could look over Cocha Camungo and the surrounding canopy of the forest below. From this vantage point, we got great views of Paradise Tanagers, an Ivory-billed Aracari, and White-throated Toucan. A Bare-throated Fruitcrow landed in the kapok tree to feed its cryptic-colored chick that was balance on a branch.
From the canopy tower, we hiked over to dock on Cocha Camungo and the awaiting catamaran. Cocha Camungo was much narrower than Blanco (at least the area that we paddle in). Ladder-tailed Nightjars sat on sticks along the open water; Purus Jacamar perched in the young cecropia. Sungrebes paddle in the water through the falling rain and a pair of Spotted Tody-Flycatchers seems unperturbed by the damp weather.
Our two birding guides: Danny Vargas and Alex Durand
For the duration of our trip we had two outstanding guides, each of whom had strengths in different ways. Danny was the perfect guide to greet us in Cusco, introduce us to the town, and take us through the many different environments from Andean highlands to the lowland rainforest. His knowledge base surpassed birds, as he was able to give us historical, archeological, and agricultural information about the area. On the trails, Danny was great at providing natural history facts about birds, such as pointing out the leaders of the different mixed flocks based on which level of the canopy they foraged and where certain birds were found in the microhabitats of the Amazon jungle. He was skilled at identifying birds by sound and sight, but still deferred to Alex if he wasn't sure.
Alex had many more years of birding over Danny, he recently won a big year (in Peru), and was a master at finding birds. There were several occasions that left us scratching our heads as to how he found a sedentary bird among all the foliage, branches, backlighting, etc. He was able to track down the Crested Eagle, Pavonine Quetzal (which was way up high in the canopy), and very still Semi-collared Puffbird. It just took one peep from a bird for him to recognize the call and pinpoint where it was.
While both of our guides were great and I appreciated my time with them separately, together they were not good at guiding a group. Alex and Danny were great friends and had travel and birded together many times before leading our group. Before this they had not had a chance to work together as guides. Together the group's focus seemed disjointed - as I didn't know where or what I was supposed to be looking at or for. Often each guide would start playbacks for 2 different birds. I quickly became overwhelmed and felt pulled in different directions. At times I would look up to see Danny and Alex in conversation walking off without the group. It just didn't work, which is why our friend, who organized the trip, was smart enough to recognize the problem and solve it by breaking our group into 2 for each guide to lead separately. The smaller groups were great since "getting on" a bird was often a difficult task for large groups (angle is wrong or people get in each other's way, etc). Smaller groups were more manageable, keeping the focus of the group and keeping the group together.
In the end, it worked out great with Danny and Alex and their strengths really complimented each other. I have no regrets about having them as our guides.
Travel back home
Getting into and out of pristine areas anywhere was increasingly harder. But a large factor of what makes pristine areas pristine was the lack of accessibility. No people, no problems (mostly... sort of... just don't think about it too much - forget climate change, atmospheric deposition, ocean acidification....). What I'm trying to say is that it took a really long time to get to Manu and it took a really long time to get back home from Manu.
We left MWC in the early morning, traveling down a swollen river full of floating and submerged woody debris. Ribbons of debris floated down the river, striking the bottom of the boat whenever we had to change sides of the bank. Closer to civilization were make shift camps where locals illegally mined for gold. We docked at Boca Colorado and said our farewells for Arico and Mario.
Boca Colorado was a small town with muddy roads, stray dogs, and shop fronts that opened to the roads. Vendors sat beside their wares of vegetables, colorful drinks, and hot meals. In Boca Colorado, we loaded into a taxi to be taken over a very bumpy road through agriculture and ranching fields. After an hour by taxi, we were took a short ferry ridge over the river where a minibus would take us on a 3 hour drive on the relatively new trans-Atlantic road to Puerto Maldanado.
While it would have been possible to ride the Madre De Dios from MWC all the way down to Puerto Maldanado, it would have also take 12 hours by boat. Cutting over land and to the new road (built for commerce with China) was much quicker. By bus, we traveled past wetlands, small towns, agriculture and even larger mining operations. As with any mining operation, the devastation is obvious - large pits of water and mud and who knows what runs off from these large pit operations. But Danny explained to us that when the government cracked down on these mining operations, more just cropped up across the border in Bolivia. Where there's demand, there will be destruction.
By early afternoon we arrived in Puerto Maldanado, a small town that operated on mining, rubber plantations, and tourism for people going to Tambopata. Everyone in town drove dirt bikes, even the taxis. It was just the easiest way to get around town. There wasn't much for a tourist to do in the town itself, so we just entertained ourselves by walking to the Plaza de Armas (every town has one) and looking at the shops with everything from iPhone cases to Tuktuk cars.
The following morning we spent an hour birding the out skirts of the town - past some ramshackle housing on the edge of disturbed forest and agriculture fields. Chestnut-bellied Seed-finch, White-throated Jacamar, Brazilian Teal, and Yellow-browed Sparrow were some of the new birds we saw.
After the morning birding, we said our good-byes to Alex and Danny who would be flying back to Cusco and their families. We had a later flight out to Lima, followed by a red-eye flight back to the states. It's always melancholy to end a great adventure with fantastic company and new friends. Watching from the window of the plane, I could see the Rio Madre De Dios below. Large ugly stains of brown and red claimed the banks near Puerto Maldanado - the destruction of the mines. But as we climbed higher and farther away from the town, I could see the river we had traveled down snaking through a sea of lush dense green. There's so much life and so much to see on the Rio Madre De Dios and in Manu. And as the jungle faded from view beneath a thick blanket of clouds, I can't help but appreciate having experienced just a small part of it.