Trigger/content warning: Grisly outdoor deaths and horrifying insects. I usually don’t write these, but some of the stories I tell at the end of the post could be pretty triggering to someone with bad experiences in these areas.
We woke up before dawn to try to see the Cock-of-the-Rock, hoping to catch the birds as they started their day. Unfortunately, this day began with another shock, as our hut lacked hot water. After a hurried shower, I piled on as many warm clothes as possible before heading out.
We walked along the road with headlamps on until we reached the birds’ most frequently visited mating display ground, or “lek.” Fiorella explained that a landslide destroyed the birds’ previous lek a few years ago and the males have moved between a number of different ones ever since. In addition, we were two months early for mating season, making it even less likely we’d see any birds in this location.
Shivering on a wooden bench for almost 45 minutes, I seriously doubted if any birds were going to show up. Just as the dawn passed, we heard their peculiar call, a cross between grunting and something getting strangled. But as it’s a mating call, I suppose it’s sexy if you’re a female Cock-of-the-Rock. Shortly after, we barely spotted a few through the trees, their red feathers obscured by green leaves.
After squinting through binoculars quite a bit, we headed back out to the road. Ironically, we had much better luck there, spotting a huge variety of birds individually and in mixed flocks. A number of Russet-backed oropendula were hanging out in the trees, with their muted green-yellow backs contrasting with the bright blue and yellow feathers under their wings. We saw both the male Cock-of-the-Rock, preening on a branch in full view, as well as the duller-colored female. While it was extremely difficult to see them before, they wanted to show off for us now!
The bird-watching was more lively than the the day before, as the avid Canadian birdwatchers were along for the walk. While Chris and I were happy for Fiorella to make up for our inadequacies by spotting the birds, naming them, and describing them, the Canadians were quite self-sufficient in that regard. They also seemed more interested in increasing their list of bird species than watching birds in general. Once they had identified a species, they mostly ignored other individuals of the same one. In contrast, I appreciated a chance to get a closer or second look at the same species.
We returned to the lodge for breakfast and were treated to another show via the lodge’s birdfeeders. They had a few hummingbird feeders that attracted bright tanagers and quick-flying hummingbirds, some of which even flitted into the lodge. There were also a few birds flocking in a fruit tree that looked just like pigeons. It turned out that my identification was shockingly correct – you can’t get escape them, even in the rainforest. The lodge had another visitor as well. A brown capuchin monkey parked himself right outside the kitchen, hoping that perhaps someone would leave something unattended. I watched him for a long time, swinging on his branch and occasionally up onto the roof. I love watching the primates at the zoo and was thrilled to observe one in the wild.
We left in the van later than anticipated because we ripped the room apart looking for the key. Just as we had written it off completely, I checked my jacket pocket one last time – and of course, there it was. That day’s van journey was even more treacherous, with numerous stream crossings, large muddy patches, and large rocks but we got through without ever needing to push.
Partway down the road, we entered Manu National Park, which actually has several different areas with varying levels of access. The least restrictive section allows small towns and some agriculture, much like the restrictions in the Adirondacks. The middle section has areas where tourists are allowed but permanent settlements aren’t and some areas where only researchers are allowed. No one is allowed in the most restrictive area, except for indigenous tribes who have lived there for hundreds of years. In fact, people from the outside world are forbidden from contacting those groups and must report to the authorities if they do so by accident. While this sounds paternalistic, several groups them have purposely chosen to isolate themselves after negative experiences with the industrialized world. As much of their early contact was with mining and oil/gas companies, I can’t blame them. In fact, I appreciate the respect the Peruvian government is showing to these groups by shutting off the areas. In some places, “preserving the wildlife” has lead to policies that criminalize traditional ways of life or eject indigenous groups altogether.
Unfortunately, I also noticed that most of the towns within the park were significantly poorer than those outside of it. There were far more buildings that looked cobbled together from spare parts, such as cement block houses with mismatched wooden balconies and reflective glass. Many of the buildings lacked glass altogether, with plastic or nothing at all covering the windows. Although the government didn’t disallow people from living there, it didn’t seem like they were developing economic opportunities either.
Many of the buildings had political slogans painted on the side, including phrases like “Por educational, por agricultural…” Some of them even had political symbols with Xs through them. According to Fiorella, politicians pay people to paint advertisements on their houses. Even though the election occurred last year, they still hadn’t bothered to paint them over. While I first thought the Xs were from people angry with the politician, Chris realized that it was actually instructing illiterate citizens to “check the box” with that symbol in it.
Partway into the park, we toured a small coca plantation, where they grow coca leaves for the domestic market. While the Peruvian government wants to stop the export of coca leaves for processing into cocaine, they also don’t want to completely outlaw plants that play an important cultural role. The Incan runners chewed coca to scale the mountains, the kings used it in religious and official ceremonies, and it’s still used today in a variety of products including candy and tea. Their compromise – much to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s disapproval – is to allow people to maintain small farms while making the large farms illegal. As it requires tons of coca leaves to make highly processed cocaine and it would be far too labor-intensive to gather it from thousands of small plots, this seems reasonable to me. The farm we saw was less than half an acre, barely bigger than our yard and smaller than most community gardens.
In addition to the coca leaves, Fionella pointed out a number of other edible plants the farmers were raising – wild cilantro growing as a weed, a tree with bright orange pods used for dye, a banana tree, a lime tree, and a lemongrass plant not used for materials. There was also a pet toucan that hung upside down and repeated “hola!”
After a few more hours in the van, it was finally time to leave the road. As we waited for our boat in the town of Atalaya, a local pointed out a preying mantis who looked exactly like a coca leaf if you saw him from above.
Our boat was a large, multi-seat canoe with a roof and outboard motor. The seats were cushioned, but the boat offered no protection from the wind. Although the air temperature was in the 60s, the boat was moving fast enough that we shivered throughout much of the five hour trip.
Wildlife spotting and the changing landscape broke up the monotony a bit. A number of waterbirds hang out in that area, including subtropical cormorants, two kinds of terns, and three types of vultures. Most of them flew high overhead, but we saw a few fishing along the banks.
On our way to the lodge, we stopped at the town of Boca Manu, which seemed to be much better off than other places we’d seen in the park. The permanent houses were better maintained and the town store was well-stocked, carrying everything from soccer balls to a single blu-ray player. They even had satellite TV and a cell phone tower installed last year. Being right on the border of the protected area, they probably did a decent business in supplying tour groups. In addition, they also produced many of the large canoes used for tourism and transport. As they aren’t allowed to cut down trees, the woodworkers gather materials from the copious river driftwood.
Although the river brings them tourists and materials, it’s also the bane of the community. Large pieces of the town are falling into the water each year. Unlike the inches of rock U.S. rivers carve out at a time, the entire city is losing 6 feet of land each rainy season. The relatively new police station and single restaurant in town both looked at risk for the coming response. In response, they are constantly relocating people away from the riverbank and into the jungle. At the back of the town, they were clearing the plants away to make room for more houses. Because they aren’t allowed to cut down trees, they appeared to be focused on slashing down the vines and bushes. A lot of people were living in tents and similar accommodations while they were constructing new buildings. Because supplies are so limited, they were salvaging much of the wood from the buildings at risk to build the new ones.
On the river and leaving Boca Manu, I finally realized how remote our destination really was. It didn’t look like much on the map, but we were deep inside the Amazon rainforest. While there are places in America that you can’t drive to – such as many of the towns in Alaska – there aren’t any to my knowledge that are only accessible by boat. They had an airstrip in Boca Manu, but stopped using it after the airlines realized the number of customers didn’t justify the cost. Very few people come to these areas because most people just don’t have the time or patience to spend hours and hours in a van and then a boat. For example, the birdwatching Canadians weren’t going as deep into the park as we were, choosing to stay in the lodges with hot water and some electricity. Historically, even the Incas didn’t make it further than Atalaya, put off by the heat, tropical diseases, thick jungle, and well-armed jungle communities. While I trusted our guide and boat drivers, it was slightly unnerving to think about how far we were from “civilization.” On the other hand, it was also an immense privilege to visit somewhere so few other people experience.
We ended that day at Boca Manu Lodge, where we stayed overnight before plunging into the most protected part of the national park, our destination being more than 4 hours by boat away.
We had a fascinating conversation over dinner with Fiorella about infamous wilderness situations. Chris and I mentioned both Grizzly Man and Into the Wild, but she had the most relevant story. About a half hour beyond the next day’s camp is a lake where we would be walking the trails and visiting a wildlife platform. At that lake, there’s an even more remote camp with little contact with the outside world. The tour group that owned the camp hired a highlander from the mountains as the sole caretaker. After groups visiting the lake hadn’t seen the caretaker for a few weeks, they realized something was very wrong. The ranger station sent staff to look for him, but found nothing. A few days later, a tourist group came upon the remarkable sight of two jaguars in the same location. When they investigated, they had the ghastly realization that the big cats were munching on the top half of the poor caretaker’s body. The other half had presumably been eaten by caimans, large toothy lizards closely related to alligators. To the best of the rangers’ knowledge, they guessed that the caretaker had been swimming or bathing in the river and drowned. From white-water rafting, I know that standing up in even the most shallow rivers can be deadly because it’s easy to catch your foot under a rock. But being from the highlands and not the jungle, he might not have known how powerful even an innocent-looking section of the river can be. As gruesome as this story was, it didn’t scare me. In fact, it sort of reassured me. After all, it wasn’t as if he died from some hideous jungle disease. You could drown in the Mohawk or Potomac just as easily as the Manu.
Earlier in the trip, I had mentioned, “At least we don’t have to deal with bot flies.” I had read an article in Outside magazine many years ago about how the author went to the jungle and came home terribly itchy. None of the doctors knew what it was. When he took a bath to ease the itching, he saw little bugs sticking their heads out of his skin! When he was in the jungle, he left his clothes outside to dry, bot flies laid eggs in them, and the larvae had burrowed into his skin. Super creepy. After that whole explanation, Fiorella said, “No, we have those here.” After I shivered in disgust, she explained that locals have a standard way of dealing with them. When they realize they have them, they cover up the hole with plaster or mud, which suffocates the larvae until they die. Knowing that the locals have a way of dealing with them was actually demystifying and reassuring. Sure, they were still incredibly gross, but they were no longer some horror movie insect. Nonetheless, I was very careful about putting my clothing away in my bag every single night and looked nervous for the people with clothing hanging outside.
After dinner, we experienced the one stunning feature of the lodge. Standing in a large cleared area, we had the most amazing view of the night sky. I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life, filling the sky with shining pinpoints of light. Many stars clearly twinkled, flickering just slightly next to their neighbors. The Milky Way was a giant smudge of star-making material, strewn just above the horizon of trees. Chris and I stood outside in the dark for five minutes staring up with our arms around each others’ waists. My camera couldn’t capture the sight, but my mind will hold onto the image.