Exploring Manu National Park near Cusco, Peru
When Brandon and I were planning our very first international trip to Peru I discovered that our home base, Cusco, was much closer to the Amazon rainforest than I had previously thought. In fact there are many excursions to the jungle that start from the ancient Andean city. We were on a strict budget, having spent most of our money on plane flights and for the volunteer program that we would be participating in. After all, 5 weeks abroad for 2 people isn’t exactly cheap. So when I researched excursions to the nearby jungle we were limited both in funds and in time. In the end we booked a short 3 day trip to Manu Cloud Forest through Andex Adventures for $375 per person.
Our first day started very early at 5 am, boarding a 15-passenger van that would take us on a harrowing 8-hour journey through the mountains to the Manu National Park. The one-lane dirt road with no railings made me extremely nervous and had I known the trip would be like that I probably would have never booked it. Along the way we stopped in a few villages including Paucartambo, widely known for its popular Virgin del Carmen festival in July which attracts thousands of visitors.
After about 5 hours into our journey we could see the change in the environment, from dry, dusty land to tropical, humid landscape. Manu National Park is a UNESCO heritage site that contains over 1.5 million hectares of pristine rainforest. We would be entering the park through the Cultural Zone where most tours to the park take place. Upon entering the park we escaped the confines of the van to walk along the road, observing plants and birds and stopping by a platform called a “lek” to observe a native bird known as the Cock-of-the-Rock.
Our dinner that evening was lomo saltado, a Peruvian meal that ended up being one of my favorite foods during our stay. Accommodations that evening were in the San Pedro Lodge, sparse but adequate. I was disappointed to discover large holes in the mosquito netting above my bed and electricity was only available from 7-9 pm, after which time your room would plunge into complete darkness if you didn’t have a flashlight.
The second day came bright and early again with a 5 am hike to the lek. After breakfast we boarded the van to continue deeper into the jungle. A few stops along the way included a local bakery where we picked up fresh pan chuta, a type of Peruvian flat bread, and a tour of a local coca plantation. Our guide Ronald explained that coca plantations in the jungle are highly regulated. The farmer can only grow a certain amount of coca and only one company is allowed to take the coca leaves from the farms to the cities. This is to ensure the coca is used for tea and other natural consumption instead of being turned into the drug it’s known for. The coca farmers usually supplement their income by growing other produce; in this farmer’s case he also grew pineapple, bananas and lemons.
After the tour we headed to a small village called Pilcopata where we met a rafting guide who would take us on a journey downriver through some Class I and II rapids. Brandon and I had been rafting before and were used to donning wetsuits and helmets but here we were just given a simple lifevest and told to put on our bathing suits. After an hour of rafting and a quick dip in the river we boarded a small motor boat that would take us to our final destination: Erika Lodge. This lodge was much nicer than San Pedro, complete with hammocks and an amazing view of the river, but still pretty rustic. The rest of the day was spent on an evening hike where we saw…nothing. A little disappointing but at least the scenery was lovely.
Our final day in Manu included an early morning boat ride to a clay lick on the side of the river to observe dozens of parrots and macaws who eat the clay to aid in their digestion. After a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt was the highlight of our trip: the canopy zipline tour. I had been looking forward to this for months and even the arduous hike up the side of a mountain to reach the zipline didn’t dampen my spirits. It wasn’t until I got to the 20-foot platform that I realized what a zipline tour involved. I foolishly thought I would be gliding through the trees, not over them! My fear of heights got the best of me and I couldn’t do it. Even when I was told I could go tandem with one of the guides I just couldn’t do it. So Brandon and the rest of the group went ahead while I walked back to the lodge with Ronald.
At about noon Brandon and I packed our things to head back to Cusco. The rest of the group was staying an extra day, a wise decision considering it was the same price to stay for 4 days as it was for 3 days but we simply didn’t have the time. After a very long journey on the boat and van we finally arrived back in Cusco at 2 am where we would start our volunteer program the very next day.
The Verdict: The trip to Manu was pretty disappointing. The drive there was nerve-wracking, we didn’t see any animals except for insects and birds and the accommodations were a little too rustic for me. This was especially apparent after going back to Peru and seeing the “real” jungle from Iquitos. If I had to do it again from Cusco I would probably spend a little bit more money and book something to Puerto Maldonado, an area deeper in the jungle but still accessible for short side trips.
When To Go: We visited Peru in July during their winter. It’s the dry season for the jungle which is good because the road isn’t as risk for flooding and the trails are dry but the river is also quite low. Like low as in less than a foot deep. Even our flat-bottomed motor boat got stuck on some shallows and all the men had to get out and push it to a deeper part of the river.
What To Bring: A strong flashlight or head lamp is a good investment, as well as strong insect repellent, quick-drying clothes (stay away from cotton!) and sunscreen.
Child Friendly? Older kids would probably enjoy this trip. Cusco is a very family-friendly destination and adding this as a side-trip would give them a good introduction to the Amazon jungle.
Pet Friendly? Definitely not!