Exploring an Amazon Basin river with just enough risks and lots of rewards

Eldred teaches scientific and technical writing at UC Davis

Determined to get to the boat landing before dark, the driver hurtled our bus down the mountain road. As we rounded a particularly sharp curve, I couldn’t see the edge of the pavement, just the treetops 200 feet straight below. Most of the way, the road was just wide enough for approaching small vehicles to edge by the bus. But when the bus encountered a flatbed truck laden with sheep, goats and Machiguenga Indians, our driver backed down--rather, he backed up the hill foot by careful foot for an excruciating 20 minutes before finding a place wide enough for the truck to creep past. One of the passengers half-joked, “Stop the bus, I want to get off!” I wanted to blurt out my own feelings of fear, but that would have started my adventure on the wrong foot.

After a week of trekking around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco and nearby Machu Picchu, my husband, Bob, and I were bound for Manu National Park, one of the world’s largest and best-protected bio-diversity preserves. We had started the day two miles up in the wind-swept, frigid Andean highlands. A couple of hours later we had descended through rain and mud to the edge of the lowland rain forest in the southwestern Amazon Basin.

We left the bus at the village of Atalaya, where a canoe waited to ferry us across the Upper Madre de Dios River and our lodgings at an old tea hacienda. There were 10 of us eco-tourists (from Argentina, Austria, the Netherlands, Britain and the U.S.), a guide, Talia Llosa, and a cook.

We were headed into the Manu park’s 120,000-acre Reserve Zone, the only area open to visitors. The government protects the integrity of this small area--less than 20% of the park--by requiring permits.


From Atalaya, hardly more than a forest clearing, we still had 1 1/2 days by boat and foot before we reached the Manu River.

This remoteness is what makes Manu so special. Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish explorer and an Incan woman, knew that the Rio Madre de Dios--the aboriginal people called it Amaru-mayu, the Serpent River--flowed into the Beni and then into the Madeira, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. But that information was lost for 400 years.

As late as mid-20th century, the upper reaches of the Amazon watershed remained largely unexplored--and unexploited. In 1946, adventurer Leonard Clark set out to look for jungle botanicals for use in medicine (and unofficially to search for lost cities of gold). When the river he was taking evaporated into a blank on the map, he remembered the Peruvians’ lament: “Madre de Dios! Five hundred miles of hell we have named ‘Mother of God’?”

Manu is one of the world’s few remaining pristine rain forests. Creatures that have vanished elsewhere still manage a precarious existence here. That’s why Manu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.


When I planned our trip last summer, I ticked off on my fingers the endangered and unusual species I hoped to see. It took both hands: Topping the list was the giant river otter, then came black caiman, capybara (imagine a 100-pound guinea pig), agouti, white-lipped peccaries, red howler and woolly monkeys--and if I were very lucky, the rare and elusive jaguar.


That first night, I was excited about what I might see, but also a little uneasy. I wondered whether tourists and otters--and jaguars--can coexist. At 7,263 square miles, Manu seemed roomy enough. I marveled at my good fortune when I saw that I was No. 856 on the visitors register and the dry season when the river is navigable--roughly April to November--was two-thirds over.

The next morning, we left the hacienda--and the last soft beds, electricity and plumbing we’d see in a week--under blue-gray skies, the intensity of the sun weakened by the humidity.


Our 30-foot-long, 6-foot-wide outboard boat was scarcely big enough for the 12 passengers and two boatmen. By the time we’d stowed our tents, duffels, food and gasoline and secured our beer under our seats to keep it out of the sun--we were low in the water.

Talia, a biologist with a degree from a Lima university, went over the guide procedure before we set out, saying, “Don’t expect to see very much. It’s not like the open savanna of Africa. Monkeys blend into the shadows.”

But her words didn’t dampen my excitement as we headed down the Upper Madre de Dios toward its confluence with the Manu. One moment, the left bank was a jumble of fallen logs, perfect roosting spots for herons and bitterns. We rounded a bend, and now the jumble of logs was on the right bank. On the left, a wall of trees topped a cliff of red clay. A flock of a hundred small parrots fluttered inches from the bank, picking at the clay to supplement their poor dry-season diet.

There was not much river traffic--a few dugouts, a couple of larger boats headed downstream to Puerto Maldonado, three days’ journey away.


We passed scatterings of flimsy wood and palm huts. Most of them had laundry hanging out to dry--white and pink work shirts, vividly patterned skirts, handkerchiefs and underwear. Once, I waved to women squatting in the water, washing clothes, and they waved back.

The water, thick with silt, was the color of pea soup. Carlos, our helmsman, knew that its placidity was deceptive. He stared intently at the surface, watching for the dimples that betray rotting logs and snags hidden below the surface.

I was jolted out of my reverie as we ground over a submerged tree. For the next few minutes, I sat up straight, watching Carlos watch the river. I didn’t notice the branches bouncing around on the riverbank--according to Talia, signs that brown capuchin monkeys were feeding in the trees. Carlos cut the motor and boatman Sergio poled us close to shore. At first I couldn’t see anything, just the treetops tossing about. Then I begin to distinguish the monkeys from the shadows--spider monkeys lunching on figs and swinging between branches.

After lunch on the riverbank, I followed the jungle animals’ lead and took a nap through the afternoon heat. When I woke up, thunderclouds were billowing on the horizon. I wasn’t too concerned; after all, this wasn’t the rainy season. Then pairs and triplets of macaws came screaming across the sky, heading for shelter, and Carlos and Sergio rushed to cover the food and duffels with plastic tarps. Everyone scrambled for rain gear. Not me. I was in my bathing suit. Big mistake. Once the rain started, the air turned cold. The friaje--a seasonal cold front moving up the continent from the Antarctic--dumped a couple of inches of rain on us in about an hour.


At dusk, we had reached the Manu River, where we turned upstream and set up camp. I forgot about putting on dry clothes--the sky was aglow with the brilliant red-gold light that comes only after a rainstorm, and I didn’t want to miss a second of the magic. As twilight faded, I strolled to the end of a sandbar, listening to the lapping of the river and the chirping of jungle insects, feeling very peaceful.


The next morning, where I had walked barefoot, black caiman, cousins of the North American alligator, warmed themselves in the sun. Scientists say caiman are more likely to run from than attack humans, but I broke out in goose bumps at the thought of having been within snapping distance of their jaws. On sandbars upstream, caiman were spread out as regularly as fence posts, so many that it was hard to believe they are endangered.

Late afternoon on the third day out, we finally reached the base camp in the Reserve Zone. There was only a narrow strip of sand on the riverbank, just big enough for the cooking and dining tents. Our sleeping tents were set up on a ridge, in fern and palm growth so dense that from 10 yards away I couldn’t see them.


When I climbed down the bank for tea, Talia was talking to one of the researchers for the preserve. It was not a social call; he was checking that we knew not to go near animals or their dens.

I wanted to wash off the grime of the journey before night fell. Everyone else jumped in, bathed and was out again within five minutes. Luxuriating in the warm water, I wanted to float forever. “Margaret, there’s 30 species of piranhas in the water,” someone shouted from the bank. I immediately scrambled out, traces of shampoo still in my hair.

The air had warmed up after the rain, bringing out the sand fleas, so I was just as happy to sleep away from the river. Even so, the bites I got during the day kept me awake. After a couple of antihistamine tablets, I managed to get some fitful sleep. Before dawn, I was awakened by long, low-pitched “wooooo” sounds of red howler monkeys calling to their companions. Nothing else was stirring. We were deep in the jungle now.

Over breakfast, Talia said we had a real treat in store--if we were lucky. We were near Cocha Salvador, an ox-bow lake formed when the river changed course long ago. It is home to a family of giant river otters, a species close to extinction.


Manu has one of the largest giant otter populations in the Amazon--about 60. Scientists worry whether this is enough to ensure the otters’ survival. The introduction of communicable diseases is of more concern than the otters’ inbreeding.

Just after dawn, we filed silently through the forest to Cocha Salvador, hoping to catch the otters fishing for breakfast. Ramiro, our cook, had brought his machete, but we seldom needed it. The forest floor was surprisingly free of vegetation--except for roots. The soil is shallow, so the trees can’t send down tap roots to anchor themselves; instead, they spread their roots along the surface for dozens of yards.

I spied a walking palm--it looks like a palm tree on stilts, with its main trunk held a foot or more off the ground by a circle of roots. It moves--very slowly--by throwing out new roots in the direction of travel and letting the trailing roots wither.

I was a little disappointed that the floor of the jungle was not the tangled and creepy place of my imagination. Then I spotted liana vines netting together the crowns of trees--something I’d read a lot about--and I stopped to take pictures. When I was ready to continue, the rest of the group was out of sight and hearing. For the minute or so it took me to locate our trail and catch up, I felt utterly alone and a little too adventurous.


The otters eluded us, but the next day, we were cheered by a rare encounter with woolly monkeys. When we espied them in a forest clearing, they reacted by racing down the tree trunks, the more aggressive stopping a mere 10 feet above our heads, raining twigs on us to scare us off. Their next tactic was plainly hostile: They started urinating on us. (They’ve been known to defecate as well.) We stood our ground under palm fronds until one of the heavier branches the monkeys were brandishing landed on someone’s head.


My last chance to see the otters came a couple of days later in the Blanquillo Reserve, a privately owned area just outside the park. Here, we took on a guide named Walter, who promised we would see otters at a lake called Cocha Blanco. We headed off about an hour before sunset, put-putting up the Manu to a point where the riverbank rose 30 feet. As Carlos carved footholds for us, Walter reminded us to watch where we were putting our hands before we touched anything.

Just minutes later, I’d forgotten the warning. Scrambling up the bank, I grabbed onto a root, and ants--lucky for me, not the stinging type--immediately swarmed up my arm. I reached instead for a branch but stopped when I saw that it was pimpled with thorns. So I slid back a few feet until someone gave me a boost from behind and I landed, muddy but in one piece, on the top of the bank.


Across from an old otter feeding platform, we crowded together on a log. The lake shimmered in the slanting light, and on its surface I soon detected V-shaped ripples with sleek brown heads bobbing up at the points. The otters dog-paddled closer to inspect us. Then, their curiosity satisfied, they ducked and swam away.

When my photographs came back from the lab, I was disappointed. I had some stunning landscape shots, but I didn’t get any good pictures of monkeys or otters. That’s how it should be. If it takes capturing an animal in order to get a good shot, I don’t need any photos.

Besides, photographs give us a false sense of permanence, of timelessness. Twenty years from now, I will have my photographs of a condor in the Incan ruins, liana vines braiding the treetops, the sunset after the storm, and I’ll imagine that it is all as it was, as it has been for ages. But nature does not stand still. In 20 years, condors may still be wandering the ruins, but I can’t feel entirely optimistic about the monkeys and otters and their habitat even five years from now.




Wet and Wild Manu

Getting there: Only AeroPeru has direct service from LAX to Cuzco. American Airlines has direct service from New York (JFK) to Cuzco. Both stop in Lima. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $678.

Getting around: Guided tours of the Manu Biosphere Reserve are advised because of government restrictions and limited campsites. I used a trekking specialist, Myths and Mountains, Incline Village, NV 89451; telephone (800) 670-MYTH, or (702) 832-5454, fax (702) 832-4454. The tour operator was Expediciones Manu, a member of Ecotur Manu, a conservation-oriented group. Four-, six- and nine-day tours of Manu, with English-speaking guides, cost $1,025 to $1,595 per person.


Expediciones Manu can be reached directly at tel. 011-51-84-226-671, fax 011-51-84-226-236-706.

For more information: Consulate General of Peru, Tourist Information, 3460 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1005, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. (213) 252-5910, fax (213) 252-8130.