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Peru - November 2019 part I

    Amazonia Lodge (Rio Madre De Dios)
    Manu Wildlife Center (Rio Madre De Dios)

When a friend invited us to Manu, Peru, we immediately said "yes!" How could we pass up such an opportunity? Our friend organized the trip with Manu Expeditions starting at Manchu Picchu and work down the mountains to the Manu region on the Rio Madre De Dois - an area of the Amazon with renown biodiversity. Needing to keep our day jobs, we shortened her itinerary by a couple of weeks to a more manageable two and a half weeks in the jungle. We would join the tour group in the Amazon after their time in Manchu Picchu and the cloud forests. This world be our first official trip to Peru (excluding the stops on the Rio Napo between Ecuador and Peru). And we never traveled with our friend (and her friends) before nor had we been on an organized birding tour so we weren't sure how it would work out.

Getting to Peru was somewhat reasonable (compared to our recent trips to New Zealand and Malaysia), but it still didn’t make the waiting around anymore enjoyable. The flight through Dallas was fine: 3 hours to Dallas followed by (a painful) 6 hour red-eye to Lima. The amount of wait time pretty much equalled the flight time. When connecting an international flight with a domestic one, it's good to have a long layover (an “oh shit” cushion) in case anything goes wrong. When all flights ran smoothly though, it added up to a lot of waiting, which we did in the Lima airport - waiting for our afternoon flight to Cusco. After a long wait in the airport and a half dozen gate changes, we boarded the plane and took off above the clouds. Breaks in the cloud reveled glimpses of the grassy and sparsely forested mountain range below. As we started our decent into Cusco, I was surprised to see how close to the ground we were once we broke through the clouds. An entire mountain range lay beneath us and Cusco was nestled in the flats between the peaks. The city was a stretch of blocky apartment structures in a sea of red-brown dirt and cobble. Mark, our driver and Danny, one of our birding guides, met us at the airport to take us to our hotel. Danny explained the Inca history as we sped through the streets. Cusco was once the Inca capital, the center of the universe, and was laid out like a puma shape to symbolize its power. I appreciated his knowledge and enthusiasm immediately.

After we were dropped off at the hotel, we walked around the city looking at the many old churches and stopping to buy wawa bread in celebration on Dias de los Muertos. I still don’t fully understand the tradition but it is cute, disturbing, and funny. We perused the mercado, where merchants laid out their wares of colorfully woven ponchos, blankets, and sweaters. Evidence of the Incan architecture was still scattered through out the city with new buildings incorporating the amazing rock walls of the ancient civilization. The masonry work to create such feats and craftsmanship were unbelievable and amazing. For dinner, we ate at a fancy Incan restaurant for alpaca medallions (sort of a rubbery yet tender version of beef), quinoa which was surprisingly good, and guanabanana dessert.

Travel to Amazonia Lodge
The next morning started off a little too early, but the lack of sleep fueled by the constant city noise didn’t help. Everyone seemed to use their horns constantly, which was a necessity in a city where driving laws were as optional as lane lines. After a good breakfast of coca tea and streamed sponge cake in corn husk, we were picked up by Danny and Mark. Our time in Cusco was over and so much more lay ahead.

As we left the outskirts of Cusco, I was boggled by the crazy sprawl of building construction: pretty much all of the apartments were levels of red brick, rebar, and glass front windows. Some of the apartments were inhabited on only one of the levels, even though the building was still incomplete (missing windows, door, etc). Most curious were the unfinished roofs and the lengths of rebar sticking out of them. Sometimes the owners were thoughtful enough to cap the bundles of rebar with a four 5 gallon buckets at each corner. Perhaps, the hope to add more levels to each half vacant incomplete building?

I witnessed one woman haul a large bag of trash (hauled use the typical Quechua way: in a blanket on her back) on to the train tracks that separated the housing from the street and proceed to empty the trash directly on the ground. Scruffy dogs seemed to benefit the most from this as I saw many packs scrounging the piles of trash. Outside of Cusco were a series of small towns each with there own regional speciality cuisine: chicharrones, bread, and cuy (roasted guinea pig). Along the mountain sides, terraces of corn and potatoes grew as farmers struggled with the changes of climate change. Danny explained that climate change was lengthening the growing season and condensing the rainy season into intense downpours. To adapt, farms that tradition grew potatoes were turning to corn since potatoes need consistent rain and less sun, while corn needs lots of sun. It sad to think of all the Peruvian potatoes varieties (over 4,000) that might be lose due to climate change.

The smell of eucalyptus in Cusco made more sense when I saw the large stands on them thriving on the mountaintops. Locals used them for firewood and building material - a high commodity in an environment without any native trees of substance. Stands of nonnative pine also covered some of the mountainside but apparently weren’t as valued by the locals. After passing through many Quechua towns, the road continued to wind through the scrub-covered mountain tops. The road to Manu actually took us higher into the Andes up to 13,000 ft before we began our decent through the cloudforests. Up to Paucartambo, the road was nicely paved, but after the town it abruptly became a gravel 1.5 lane road full of potholes, stream crossings, and switchbacks, and dramatic (drop offs and) views of the valley below.

We stopped at the Parque Nacional Manu sign, the only easy access to a small tip of the park. Thick clouds billowed over the scrubby landscape. Lichen and ephiphites coated the trunks and limbs of the short bushes. During our brief stop here, we saw the endemic Creamy-crested Spinetail, Puna Spinetail, Giant Thrush, and Moustashed Flowerpiercer.

Along the bumpy decent through the cloudforest, we gradually transitioned from open scrub to taller trees. We made brief stops along the way to take in the views and watch a couple of mixed flocks forage in the relatively open forest on the steep mountainside. Eventually the bottom of the valley greeted us as we neared civilization once more.

We drove through a series of small communities before reaching the Rio Madre De Dios and the boat that would take us to the Amazonia Lodge. After a very short boat ride, we reached the lodge were we met up with our friend, the 6 other compatriots of the tour group, and Alex the other bird tour guide. The first night at the lodge was a spectacle of lightening and thunder. One clap of thunder was so loud and long, I felt it echoed off the Andes and back. Even the cicadas stopped chattering for a second. The rainfall, the constant chatter of cicadas and cricket, punctuated with the occasional frog croak and owl hoot was a vast improvement to the previous night's city soundtrack.

We spent the next 6 days at the Amazonia Lodge birding and hiking around the lodge. It was an extended stay in hopes of seeing the various monkey species. The daily routine at the lodge started with 6AM breakfast then dividing into 2 small groups to be lead by either Danny or Alex on the trails around the ground. Lunch was at 12:30PM followed by siesta time (though Tor and I usually spent it sitting in the heat of the shaded veranda). The afternoon hike was 3:30PM to 5:30PM at sunset. At 6:30PM, we gathered to go over the checklist of the birds seen in the day followed by dinner. Sometimes after dinner we'd head off on a night hike.

Amazonia Lodge
Amazonia Lodge is located on the Rio Madre De Dios close to where the river comes out of the Andes. The closest town was Atatalya - perhaps a 30 minute drive away plus a 5 minute boat ride. Located close to civilization, the lodge grounds were once logged (as is most of the land adjacent to the entire river) and used as a plantation. Remnant citrus trees, coffee plants, and cocoa still could be found interspersed in the recovering jungle. Most of the lodge grounds were on floodplain and was subject to the changing river flow, which can easily destroy and erode the banks away.

The floodplain environment was comprised of shrubby grasses, bamboo, and cecropia. Farther inland and away from the river grew taller trees of kapok, palms, and spiny trees in the relatively young jungle. The lodge itself was located a short distance away from the river bank, but there was rumor of a future lodge to be built on higher ground in the future. We weren't sure if this was why the lodge accommodations weren't as we had hoped they would be.

Having stayed in a range lodges from rustic research stations to luxury rainforest resorts, the Amazonia Lodge was somewhat of a disappointment. The rooms were very basic (and some without a bathroom) without any character. But the bigger disappointment was the seeming lack of care or perhaps training of the staff on how to accommodate guests staying at the lodge. While beds were made each day, basic needs like toilet paper seemed to go unnoticed. When multiple guests have to ask for toilet paper, there's an obvious lack of training by the management. If fact there seemed to be no management at the lodge while we were there. The place was run by a skeleton crew of 3 people who kept the TV in the kitchen running, but grumbled about getting the beers cold for dinner.

The food was basic and not very good sometimes. For breakfast: a small bowl of fresh fruit topped with puffed corn, quinoa, and yogurt followed by pancakes or an omelete. Lunch and dinner started with a salad followed by protein of chicken or pork and potatoes and/or rice. For desert, rice or chicha morada pudding or fruit drizzle with syrup. The meals seemed to get saltier and saltier as the days passed, making me wonder if they were salting the meat to keep it from spoiling. That being said, we never got sick off the food and it was filling enough to sustain us. There were some highlights of the meals including the causa rellena (traditional Peruvian cuisine of mashed potatoes and chicken salad - tastes better than is sounds) and the ceviched vegetables.

The best feature of the lodge was hands down the veranda in front of the rooms. We spent many a hot afternoon sitting on the veranda and a few hours during the short downpours looking out toward the jungle canopy, the breadfruit trees, verbena bushes, hummingbird and fruit feeders, and the open grounds of the lodge. White-necked Jacobin, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Gray-breasted Saberwing, and Golden-tailed Sapphire frequented the feeders and verbena bushes. A pair of Amazonian Trogons nested in an old wasp nest in the breadfruit tree. The common yet beautiful Blue-gray, Palm, and Silver-beaked Tanagers all nested in the garden. Speckled Chachalacas and Blue-throated Piping-Guans frequented the banana feeders. The openness of the garden allowed great views of Scarlet and Blue-and-Yellow Macaws flying over, mixed flocks of euphonias, flycatchers, barbets, and dacnis that gleaned the treetops and large clouds of White-collared Swifts hawking the sky.

The trails were very easy (flat) and well maintained. There weren't a lot of trails around the lodge, but enough to keep us entertained and provide paths on which to look for wildlife and birds. The trails traversed floodplains and bamboo, followed a small cocha, and provided views of the Madre De Dios. A steeper (not so well constructed) trail took us up the hillside to terra firma environment. We spent most of our hikes wandering the lower trails around the lodge, but one morning we trekked up the steeper trail to the canopy tower.

Canopy Tower
I'm not sure how tall the Amazonia Lodge tower was, but I'm guessing only 20 meters or so. The structure was sketchy with few support cables that seemed to have a little to much give and support beams that were bent or damaged by falling trees/branches. From the cannopy tower, we could also see the river and the lodge below and a troop of wooly monkeys grazing in the canopy. Also seen from the tower were soaring Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, Swallow-winged Kites, and a Double-toothed Kite. It was a nice view of the forest below, but on a shaky platform and being swarmed by sweat bees made the visit pretty short.

Birding and Wildlife

We did accomplish the goal of seeing many monkeys at the lodge. We got great views of large-headed capuchin, squirrel monkeys, wooly monkeys, titi monkeys, and night monkeys. Although common, the squirrel monkeys were perhaps the most entertaining to watch. While walking through the bamboo forest one evening, we encountered a troop of squirrel monkeys and followed them along the trail as they jumped from stalk to stalk, picking up morsels to eat, scratching themselves, all the while chirping to each other. It was fun to watch their agility and acrobatic skills. It doesn't hurt that they were pretty darn cute too.

We saw our first wild tapir at the lodge. While walking along the small cocha, I looked over through an opening in the vegetation to see an odd shape moving through the water. It took my brain a few seconds to register it was a tapir head. By then the tapir was jumping out of the water into the depths of the forest.

Other mammalian wildlife at Amazonia Lodge was a pair of tayras that came tumbling out of the forest in hot pursuit of one another, growling and snarling. They almost mowed over Alex who had gone down the stairs of his veranda to investigate the noise. The tayras quickly changed course and headed back into the safety of the jungle.

On night hikes, we saw mouse opossums and a Brazilian cottontail, but the game cameras were better at detecting wildlife than we were. Ocelot, tapir, agoudi, and capabara were all detected on the cameras - each night seemed to pick up a new animal. The most entertaining capture of all was the ocelot, who must have hear or seen the camera trigger and then went over to investigate. After a few pictures of its whiskers, it ended up pulling the camera down to point at the ground.

Birding was pretty spectacular around Amazonia Lodge as well. One of the most exciting encounters was a Crested Eagle that flew in on silent wings to land on open branch. We were blown away by the shear mass and size of the eagle before it took flight again. Alex was able to find the eagle again and get it in the scope for another view for us to marvel at. This forest hunting eagle preyed on monkeys and small mammals. It wasn't seen very often, since it hunts in the forest. Even our guides who have a lifetime of birding experience had only seen this eagle 3-4 times in their lives (versus the Harpy Eagle, which they both have seen many times).

Opposite of all the showy birds - Scarlet Macaws, Lemon-throated Barbet, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Black-tailed Trogon, and Bluish-fronted Jacamar, were the more secretive and cryptic birds - antbirds, antshrikes, antthrushes, and bare-eyes. All these cryptic birds hid in the dense brambles of the undergrowth, only being coaxed out into view by Alex or Danny using playback. Even then it was a frustration of seeing the bird hop away out of sight or hid in the densest, darkest tangles of vegetation. There were many times when we'd spend a good 15-20 minutes trying to get everyone to see a bird. It definitely took a lot of patience and even then the final view of the bird could have been very fleeting. BVD (better view desired or better viewed dead, as some joke) was often marked on the checklist for many. But that's the thrill, challenge, and reward of birding.

Rio Madre de Dios
After 5 nights of staying at Amazonia Lodge, we headed out to the Manu Wildlife Center about 120 miles down the Rio Madre De Dios. It had rained pretty steadily the morning we were to leave, so the river was running higher than when we had arrived. We couldn't leave from the same spot because of the flooding, so we trekked across the lodge to shove off from higher grounds.

The river was brown and filled with debris ranging from branch to entire trees. Our captain, Arico, maneuvered around these obstacles like a pro and kept us in the deepest channels possible. Even then we could hear dislodged pebbles and rocks scouring the bottom of the boat.

Along the river were signs of civilization - plantations, people hauling bananas in pekipeki boats for pickup, other lodges, and small towns. There was also plenty of birds to look for. Roseated Spoonbills, Capped Heron, Cocoi Herron, Fasciated Tiger-heron, Muscovy Duck, Black Skimmers, Purplish Jay, Great Black-hawk, Burrowing Owl, and one Orinco Goose were spotted along the river.

The land along the river was used by native people and locals, none of it is protect by the government. We did a very brief turn up the Manu River, which ran through the protected Manu National Park. There was an interesting change as we turned up the river - the air felt 10 degrees water and the Rio Manu was darker from tannin and silt runoff. Where the 2 rivers met the Rio Manu's darker waters swirled and churned with the gray waters of the Madre De Dios.

Back on the Rio Madre De Dios, we stopped at Boca Manu, a very small town with a few basic structures including the general store with flushing toilet. It was likely all tourist stop here on the way down the river. It was unclear how the town would sustain itself otherwise. Stray dogs and baby chicks wandered the store between the shelves that were randomly stocked with bulk quantities of motor oil, chips, cookies, sodas, fishing hooks, and other miscellaneous items.

After about 8 hours on the boat from Amazonia Lodge, we finally reached our destination: Manu Wildlife Center where we were greeted and shown to the cabins we would be staying at the for next 9 nights.

continue onto part II



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page updated: 12/16/19