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Manu Biosphere Reserve 02: Arrival and excursions

Purchase a permit in Cusco for the Manu reserve - long bus trip or flight from Cusco - self destruction by timber, trucks and gold - go alone with a guide or in a tour - tour operators - Manu-Puerto Maldonado

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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from: Dilwyn Jenkins: The rough guide to Peru; Rough Guides, New York, London, Delhi; 6th edition September 2006; www.roughguides.com

The permit in Cusco for Zones B and C - severe restrictions for Zone A with Nahua natives

Permits to visit Manu are granted to groups only (mainly to established tour companies operating out of Cusco), and done so according to quotas, in order to limit the number of people in the reserve at any one time and throughout any particular year. It's virtually impossible to get permission by going it alone, and no settlers, hunters or missionaires are allowed in, while tourists are allowed into Zones B and C only as part of organized visits with guides, following the basic rules of non-interference with human, animal or vegetable life. Zone A is restricted to the occasional scientist (usually biologists or anthropologists) and indigenous groups, including the recently contacted Nahua [native] people. However, if you're a naturalist, photographer, or can demonstrate a serious interest, then it is sometimes possible to gain a special permit for restricted areas; contact INRENA in Lima (p.559).


All of the necessary provisions and equipment should be bought in Cusco, and this is one journey where you'll definitely need as much petrol as you can muster [purchase] (a 55-gallon drum is probably enough) [for payment to a canoe guide later]. A sleeping mat is also a good idea even if only to sit on during the long journey to Shintuya; if the truck is carrying fuel, wear old clothes and cover your baggage properly. If you can afford one luxury, make it a sturdy pair of binoculars, preferably brought with you from home (p.559).

Approaching the reserve

Flight to Boca Manu: Manu Biosphere Reserve is better reached from Cusco than it is from Puerto Maldonado. Flying direct to Boca Manu will dramatically affect the price and the amount of time you get in the reserve (it's only a 30-45min flight but costs $300-400), and twin-engined planes can be chartered from the airport in Cusco.


Note the one-way traffic: From Paucartambo onwards, the precipitous and gravelly nature of the road down through the cloud forest to the navigable sections of the Río Alto Madre de Dios means that access is supposedly limited to one direction per day, except Sunday, when it's a free-for-all. You can travel down on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and back up on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (p.560).

Buses from Cusco to Salvación: Most people travel there on transport organized by their tour operators; otherwise, buses operated by Gallito de las Rocas (Avenida Manco Capac 105, Cusco, T. 084-277255) go to Pilcopata and usually beyond to Salvación at about 10am most Mondays and Fridays ($7, a 10-14hr journey depending on road conditions).

Trucks from Cusco to Shintuya: Trucks, generally loaded to the brim with beer, fuel and passengers, leave Cusco from Avenida Huascar, and some from the [Jirón] Coliseo, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for Shintuya ($6; a 20-30hr journey in good conditions) (p.560) resp. 18-24 hours journey (p.568).

From Cusco to the Manu reserve in details

The only viable way of visiting Manu is by joining an organized tour through one of the main Cusco agents, which is safer and generally cheaper than doing it yourself. However, you can travel independently as far as Boca Manu, but unless you've secured a highly exclusive special permit, you then have to head away from the reserve on one of the canoes that go most weeks (cargo and river permitting) to Puerto Maldonado. For this you'll need to be well stocked and prepared for a rough voyage of several days - plus a few more if you have to hitch along the way. The only significant settlement en route is Boca Colorado at the confluence of the Ríos Colorado and Madre de Dios, a small gold-miner's service town full of vermin [insect beings], human and animal. Remember, this region is well off the beaten tourist trail and is relatively wild territory, populated by colonos, indigenous Indians, and even smugglers and terrorists (p.559).

The first four-to six-hour stage is by road to the attractive town of Paucartambo, over stupendous narrow roads with fine panoramas of the region's largest glaciated mountain of Ausungate, a major apu - or god - for the Incas and also the locals today. From Paucartambo onwards, the precipitous and gravelly nature of the road down through the cloud forest to the navigable sections of the Río Alto Madre de Dios means that access is supposedly limited to one direction per day, except Sunday, when it's a free-for-all. You can travel down on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and back up on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (p.560).

It's another 30km to the turn off to Tres Cruces, at the reserve's southern tip; from here the road winds down, at times along narrow stretches of quite bad track with drops of well over 300m only a few feet away. Somehow the beauty overrides the scariness for most people, and a surprising amount of wildlife can usually be spotted as the track continues downhill - Andean guans, mountain motmots, woodcreepers, oropendulas and the brilliant-red gallo de las rocas (the national bird of Peru) can all be seen. Of course, you're more likely to get a glimpse of these if you're traveling with a good guide who has a ell trained eye (p.560).

Settlements in the high jungle on the way

The first settlement you come to in the high jungle is Chontachaca, which is Quechua for "Chonta Bridge" (chonta being the common hardwood palm whose wood is used throughout the Peruvian Amazon for Indian bows and arrow points). Vehicles rarely stop here, and shortly beyond you pass through the slightly larger Patria, another frontier-type village, where coca is grown in some quantities. Turkeys, pigs and children play beside the road and the town's grassed-over, neglected concrete fountain says a lot about this place, which is more noted for its cock-fighting fiestas than anything else. Around here the jungle is being cleared for cash crops and, occasionally so much vegetation is being burned that planes are occasionally unable to land in Cusco because of the rising smoke (p.560).

At the next town, PILCOPATA, the road crosses a river over a new steel bridge; to the right, a rickety old wooden one is left to decay in memory of a (p.560)

truck that destroyed it and fell into the water in the mid-1990s. Most buses and trucks stop here for the night, and there's a basic hotel, a few small shops and a simple market here. The road then skirts [follows] the Río Alto Madre de Dios.

The forest around here hides some fascinating petroglyphs, etched onto boulders by Indians before the Spanish arrived. However, these are along the Río Pishiyura, hidden in the restricted area of Manu and reported to be protected by a still largely unacculturated group of Mashco-Piro Indians, who shoot arrows at intruders.

This is also one of the areas where the legendary Inca city of gold - El Dorado, or Paititi - is reputed to lie.

The following day takes you on to the small riverside settlement of Atalaya (10-12hr from Cusco); some tours cross the river to spend the night at an old hacienda which has been converted into an attractive tourist lodge - Amazonia Lodge (half board), 600m above sea level on the edge of the cloud forest. The food here is excellent and it's one of the few Peruvian jungle lodges to have solar-heated showers; the owners can be contacted in Cusco (Ramiro Yabar Calderon, Calle Matara 334, T. 084-231370, e-mail: amazonia@correo.dnet.com.pe. They offer full board and excursions in the region and frequently work with Manu Expeditions. There are also a few restaurants in town (p.561).

Twenty minutes down the road from Atalaya, at the pueblo of Salvación, 28km before Shintuya, the Manu Biosphere Reserve has an office where your guide will usually be expected to show his permits. There are also a couple of rough hostels and one or two places to get some food - a bowl of jungle soup or, if you're lucky, fish with manioc.

Two hours beyond Atalaya, at Shintuya, the road finishes. There's no hotel, but there's no problem about camping if you ask permission - the best spot is beside the small stream that enters the main river (the water is cleaner here) (p.561).

Shintuya: Self destruction by timber, trucks, and gold

Trucks, mostly carrying timber, go from here to Cusco every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

The Dominican Mission here has been in existence for forty years, though recently many of the indigenous members have left after making good money with their chainsaws - some of them now own trucks to facilitate the supply of timber out to Cusco and beyond (p.561).

Keep a watchful eye on your baggage, as Shintuya also has a sizeable transient population, passing to and from the gold-mining areas downriver [with mercury contamination of the rivers] (p.561).

Find a canoe in Shintuya - and go further - Boca Colorado - Boca Manu - Piro natives in Diamante on the air strip

Normal boats between Shintuya and Boca Manu are irregular, 1 daily on average, a trip of 6 hours (both directions) (p.568).

But if you're traveling independently, you can charter your own canoe when you look for one with a reliable boatman / guide, and if you've brought some of your own fuel to bargain with, it should be relatively easy to find a decent deal at the mission; the Moscosa family (especially Cesar, Pepe and Darwin) are reliable guides. Boats from Shintuya cost from around $300 for a week (though it can be double this if it's a busy season); if it's beg enough, and most are, the boat can be shared between as many as seven or eight, and the price of an extra week isn't that much more. Remember that tings happen on a different timescale in the Peruvian jungle, so get the boat organized as soon as you arrive, and try to make an early start the next day. If it can be arranged, it's a good idea to take a surplus, small dugout canoe for entering smaller channels and lagoons. Alternatively, you might be able to catch one of the cargo boats prepared to take passengers direct to Boca Colorado, for around $25.

Downriver, in a lancha with outboard motor, it's half a day down the Alto Madre de Dios to Boca Manu, a mere 300m above sea level and little more than a small settlement of a few families living near the airstrip. There are no hostels here (people do camp on the other side of the river, but these are mostly visiting Indians or tour groups) and while there is a small shop here (prices double (p.561)

those in Cusco, with no guarantee of supply), the population mainly serves the gold-mining settlements downstream towards Puerto Maldonado.

Close by is the native Piro community of Diamante, responsible for managing the airstrip, a major link to Cusco. In 1983, when it was controlled by cocaine smugglers, this was the scene of Hollywood-style drama, when an unmarked Colombian plane overloaded with cocaine crashed into the vegetation at the end of the airstrip. The gang leader had his men torch the plane after the crash; its remains are still there in the undergrowth. The Peruvian army later regained control of the strip, but now the Piro make a little money from each flight that uses it and sell good, cheap artesanía at the small hut that serves as the airport terminal.

Tours in the Manu reserve

Accessible only by boat, any expedition to Manu is very much in the hands of the gods, because of the temperamental jungle environment; the region experiences a rainy season from December to March, and is best visited between May and August when it's much drier, although at that time the temperatures often exceed 30°C (86°F) (p.557).

The highlight of most organized visits to Manu is the trail network and lakes of Cocha Salvador (the largest of Manu's oxbows, at 3.5km long) and Cocha Otorongo, both bountiful [very rich] jungle areas rich in animal, water and birdlife (p.558).

There are quite a few organized tours competing for travelers who want to visit Manu. Many are keen to keep the impact of tourism to a minimum, which means limiting the number of visits per year (it's already running well into the thousands). However, they do vary quite a bit in quality of guiding, level of comfort and price range. If you go with one of the companies listed below, you can generally be confident that they have a good reputation both for the way they treat their tourists and the delicate ecology of the rainforest itself (p.562).

Tour operators in the Manu reserve

[Jirón] Plateros 359, Cusco, T. 084-254041, Fax 254042, e-mail: explorcaiman@terra.com.pe

A relatively new company, but with some experienced and professional guides, Caiman specialize in Manu, basically offering 4 days and 3 nights from around $300. Their 6- to 9-day tours are better, since they do include exploring within the Manu reserve itself, including Lago Otorongo, with a chance of spotting the giant river otter family that lives there (more in the region of $500-600).

Ecological Adventures Manu
[Jirón] Plateros 356, Cusco, T. 084-261640, Fax 225562, e-mail: manuadventures@terra.com.pe, www.manuadventures.com

Jungle-trip specialists and one of the first operators running trips into Manu, with their own vehicles, boats and multilingual guides. Their camping-based tours are cheaper than most, with the 8-day option going in and out by bus, but they also offer shorter options which go in by bus and out by plane. Tour-only price for 5-night trip from $580.

Expediciones Vilca
[Jirón] Plateros 359, Cusco, T./Fax 084-253773, Fax 251872, e-mail: MANUVILCA@terra.com.pe, www.manuvilca.com; or: Calle Saphi 456, T. 084-681002

Manu specialists, they have a good reputation and their guides are well informed, taking eco-tourism seriously. Their 8-day tour includes camping in Zone B, plus a visit to the macaw lick at Blanquillo as well as 3 nights in albergues, from around $600-790, depending on whether you take a bus or plane in. They also offer 5- and 6-day trips, including flights to and7or from Boca Manu from around $720.

InkaNatura Travel
-- in Cusco: Avenida Sol 821, second floor, Cusco, T. 084-226392, www.inkanatura.com
-- in Lima: Via InkaNatura Travel, [Jirón] Manuel Bañon 461, San Isidro, Lima, T. 01-4402022, Fax 4229225

InkaNatura offer customized travel, from 4 to 5 days, operating from the Manu Wildlife Center, where one of the nearby highlights is the world's largest tapir salt-lick. They also accommodate people at the Cock of the Rock Lodge, 6hr by road from Cusco, in one of the best cloud-forest locations for birdwatching. $1050-1150; discounts available to groups of 6 or more. The lodge is owned and operated principally by Selva Sur, a Cusco-based nonprofit conservation group. Bookings through its own in-house travel agency, InkaNatura Travel.

Manu Expeditions
Urbanización Magisterio, 2nda Etapa G-5, PO Box 606, Cusco, T. 084-226671 or 239974, Fax 236706 (Mon-Fri 9am-1pm, and 3.30-7pm, Sat 9am-1pm), www.ManuExpeditions.com

One of the best and the most responsible companies, run by a British ornithologist, They offer 3- to 9-day camping expeditions into Zone B and to the Manu Wildlife Center, with solar-powered radio communications and a video machine. The guides and service are top-quality, and they speak English; they offer air and overland transfers to Boca Manu (they have their own overland transport), and food, beds (or riverside campsite) and bird-blinds are all included. $688-1595; discounts available to South American Explorers' Club members.

Manu Nature Tours
Avenida Sol 582, Cusco, T. 084-224384, Fax 234793, e-mail: postmaster@mnt.com.pe

A highly professional company that operates Manu Lodge, one of only two within Zone B (p.562),

where you can join their 4- to 8-day programs. They also run 3-day trips to Manu Cloud Forest Lodge in their private reserve by the southeast boundary of Zone A, where torrent ducks, gallos and event woolly monkeys are often seen. $268-299 for Manu Cloud Forest Lodge, $1040-2065 for 4- to 8-day programs; discounts available to South American Explorers' Club members.

Pantiacolla Tours
[Jirón] Plateros 360, Cusco, T. 084-238323, Fax 252696, www.pantiacolla.com

A company with a growing reputation for serious eco-adventure tours. Their cheapest option is also the longest, a 9-day tour that takes groups in and out by bus and boat, while the more expensive 5- to 7-day trips go in by road and out by plane from Boca Manu. They have an excellent lodge on the Río Alto Madre de Dios at Itahuania, and their tours into Zone B are based in tents at prepared campsites. $675-795; discounts available to South American Explorers' Club members (p.563).

From the Manu reserve to Puerto Maldonado

The boat back from Boca Manu to Shintuya goes irregularly, 1 daily on average, a trip of 6 hours (p.568).

Or you also can go:

Down the Madre de Dios river

Boats from Boca Manu to Puerto Maldonado are going irregularly. The trip is 2-4 days (p.568).

It is possible, if you are adventurous, to follow an unregulated overland route with few facilities from Boca Manu to Puerto Maldonado. Although you're more likely to have already found a boat going downriver from Shintuya, many will also pick up at Boca Manu for the one-day journey downstream ($10) to the sleazy gold-mining frontier town of Boca Colorado (also known as Banco Minero), at the mouth of the Río Colorado.

Boca Colorado has a number of very basic hotels, but all have rats running around - they can be heard scampering across wooden-planked floorboards when the town generator goes off and the settlement's televisions fade into silence at 11pm every night.

There are also a few simple restaurants serving surprisingly tasty food. It's possible to camp but, again, don't let your gear [luggage] out of your sight. From here it's at least one more day ($10-15 as a passenger in boats going in the same direction, depending on the speed of the boat) on the Laberinto - from where it's a two-hour bus ride to Puerto Maldonado (p.563).

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