For our jungle adventure in Peru we decided to take a 4-day/3-night excursion from Cusco to a private camp that borders the Manu National reserve in the Amazon jungle. The van was outside our hotel at 5AM sharp to load-up the sleepy Sherry Family and our gear. The kids crawled into the van, snuggled up with Suzanne, and dropped back to sleep. The van wound its way through the narrow deserted streets of old Cusco and picked up a couple of girls from Holland and a crowd of sleepy Australian dentists. With our crew complete, our driver Jesus headed out-of-town and up over the Andes. As the sun rose I noted the scenery was arid grassland and steep hillsides, no trees and certainly no jungle.
By 8:30 the sun was up and we arrived at a village for breakfast. After a couple of cups of cafe con leche, the group started to show signs of life and we got around to introducing ourselves. A few people were even able to muster a smile. After breakfast one of our guides, Moises, walked us around the little town of Paucartambo and explained that this town has been very important since the times of the Incas because it is located at the border between the highlanders and the jungle people, and is where goods from each area were traded. Potatoes, corn, etc from the highland; bananas, bamboo, etc from the jungle. Since the town historically hosts people from all over the area, it is also the location of a huge party every year where people come from all corners of the Andean cultures, dressed in their local costumes, sing and dance to their local music, and drink huge amounts of chicha. Chicha is a drink made of corn which can (and often is) fermented to become an intoxicant. The town plaza has a collection of life-size statues with the stereotypical outfits. Unfortunately I left my camera in the van, so I didn’t get pictures of my own.
We all piled back into the van and continued down, down, down out of the Andes. Soon the scenery changed to lush green jungle ferns, vines, mosses, and large canopy trees. However, the topography remained steep hillsides and the road became a muddy, gravel single-track cut out of the steep hillside. I wiped some of the condensation off the window a few times and peeked over the edge, and my stomach did a little flip because of the cliff that was just a few inches from our tires. Waterfalls cascaded on the road every mile or so, once we had to close all the windows because we had to drive right under the waterfall, it was a jungle car wash. Then it occurred to a couple of us that all our gear was strapped to the top of the van, and we hoped that tarp was well secured. At one sharp turn the road had turned into a muddy slick, and as Jesus edged the van around the switch back turn, I felt the van start to gently slide toward the edge of the road and certain oblivion. Now I’m not really a religious kind of guy, but like the saying goes, there are no atheists in a fox hole. So I closed my eyes and whispered something, I really don’t remember if it was a curse or a prayer, but it worked. Then I realized that we had Jesus at the wheel! The cross-over country song by Carry Underwood from several years ago went through my mind. And I thought “With Jesus at the wheel and Moises (sounds like Moses) in the front seat next to him – we will all be OK”. And, indeed, the van was quickly under control and we slowly rolled away from the muddy, slippery, edge of oblivion.
There is nothing like shared danger and 8 hours in a crowded van to get a group of strangers to start talking. And soon we learned that the Australians had just completed a 3-day backpacking trip on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and although it sounded like they had an amazing experience, after hearing their stories we were convinced that we had made the right decision to take the train/bus to the site rather than the 600 year old Inca trail.
Our guides stopped many times along the jungle road so we could slowly walk along the road and spot all types of birds, flowers, and a couple of types of monkeys. Along the way we stopped at a blind built just off the road where a special species of bird called a Cock of the Rock assembles every afternoon. The brightly colored males fly to the upper branches and dance for the females who watch from the lower branches. The females pick a male to hang out with for the day, then the next day it is a new day, a new dance, and potentially a new partner. Sort of a Cock of the Rock nightclub.
The final stop before the lodge was at a jungle animal rescue place where we were able to get close up to a macaw, a ornery monkey, a stinky wild pig, and a friendly capybara. Boris, our other guide, introduced us to the animals and some of the plants. He showed us a few coca plants and explained that the coca leaves are used for tea and for chewing widely across Peru, and that the coca leaves are very cheap in the jungle. But leaves are taxed heavily in Cusco, so police checkpoints are set up along the highways to prevent smuggling from the jungle.
That night the entire group was eating dinner and a large Christmas beetle (~ 3 inches) flew into the eating area and circled the light. Then an owl silently swooped out of the darkness and made a grab from the beetle, missed, and flew out the other side of the building. Cool! Then the beetle clumsily banged into the light and fell into the hair of one of the girl’s from Australia. Michele showed amazing control when she slowly stood up to shake the heavy insect out of her hair. Moises calmly grabbed the giant beetle and gently tossed it out into the night. That night we made sure our mosquito nets were tucked in tight under our mattresses. We slept pretty well in our jungle cabins with the exception of some folks in a nearby village using a loud speaker late into the night to protest the price of potatoes.
The next morning we were up-and-rolling first thing in the morning. At an early stop we walked through a little jungle town near a river. As we walked down the street our guides spotted wild macaws, hawks, and other birds flying among the houses. The new bridge at the end of town looked pretty solid and provided a good platform to spot birds and animals along the river. The old bridge is still hanging there next to the new bridge, and it looks like something from an Indiana Jones movie. Very cool!
The next leg of our journey was a 4-hour boat ride down a muddy, swiftly running jungle river. Our guides spotted wildlife along the river edge on our way and there were several places along the river where the boat scrapped along the rocks and one of boat hands used a pole to push the bow into deeper water. We had been warned that we may need to get out of the boat and help push it over the rocks if the water became too low. Luckily, the water remained just deep enough. After a couple hours we pulled over and stopped at a hot spring for a refreshing bath. A very nice treat before we arrived at the Bonanza camp.
After a couple hours to rest from the boat trip we packed a change of clothes, donned a pair of borrowed rubber boots, and our dinner and headed out on an hour trek into the jungle where we spent the night in a tree house. We arrived at the tree house just as the jungle began to darken for the night. Well, they call it a tree house, but it is really more of a platform with no walls, suspended about 30 feet off the floor of the jungle, surrounded by tree canopy, and overlooking a salt-lick swamp that attracts big animals at night to eat the minerals. The rungs of ladder leading up to the platform are spaced about 2 feet from each other, which was quite a space for little Alex. But both our kids quickly scampered up the ladder to the platform. Suzanne had a bit more difficulty mastering her fear of falling, but now that both her kids were up there, up she went – but I wouldn’t describe it as exactly “scampering”.
Our night in the “tree house” was one of the less comfortable we have had this year. Our beds consisted of half-inch low density foam laid on a hard plank floor, a blanket for cover and two people to each mosquito net. It was reminiscent of the night we spent in the jungle outside Chang Mai Thailand – but much warmer. Suzanne and I were concerned that Patrick might get up in the middle of the night and start wandering around like he did in Thailand, but in this case he wouldn’t just step on sleepy backpackers and run into walls, he might plummet to his death. So we positioned him between me and Suzanne and tucked the mosquito net in tight to try to make it a little harder for him to wander off into space in the middle of the night. For the first couple of hours we took turns using a powerful flashlight to check for wildlife in the swamp below. But when it started to rain our guides said that no animals would be out this evening, so we did our best to get some sleep. Personally, I was laying on a loose board, and every time I shifted my weight a loud “squeak” reverberated through the platform. Eventually I fell asleep – then I was awakened by Patrick shaking me, he said “Mom told me to wake you up because you are snoring!”. “OK” I mumbled and rolled over on my side, until my shoulder went numb, then I rolled to the other side until it numbed up, and I finally dropped off into a fitful sleep again. Needless to say we were all up with the sun, packed our bags, and carefully backed our way down the 30 foot ladder. We shook our rubber boots to make sure nothing was still sleeping in them, put them on, and started our hour long trek back to camp for breakfast and a shower. What a night!
Next was a pre-lunch trek in the jungle where Moises gave brief lessons on jungle plants and animals such as the walking palm, the belly palm, bamboo water, mushrooms, leaf cutter ants, monkeys, etc. There was a more or less consistent jungle-song with birds, insects, and animals adding to the harmony. After a short time we had to take off our boots to cross a quickly running shallow river. I was the last one across and I watched as Patrick went down mid-stream, soaking himself pretty well. Moises assisted Alex by picking her up and carrying her across because the water level would have been above her knees. I managed to make it across without dumping myself and the camera into the river. We also spotted jaguar footprints pressed deeply into the sand along the river. The track was about 8 inches across, so this was no small cat.
After a brief nap in the afternoon we headed back out into the jungle for a few hours to spot more animals, do a little fishing, and see what animals we could find as the sun set. Alex got a chance to feed a group of greedy monkeys, but it was too dark for me to get a good picture. After full dark we were walking along the jungle trails with just our flashlights, careful to not slip on the wet and slimy tree roots while avoiding low hanging bamboo branches and hanging vines. Moises did spot a taranchula that came out of its nest to hunt as the sun set. He told us that the females can live for over 25 years. After an hour or so of trekking on dark jungle trails we returned to camp for dinner. The cook even fried up the fish that Alex’s caught earlier that day for her meal. We spent the evening in relative luxury, with beds and walls.
But the next morning we were up and in the boat at 5:30AM. The sun rose over the jungle as our boat sped back up the river. The sunrise over the river was my favorite part of our jungle trip. Despite the sound of the boat engine, it seemed quite and peaceful.
I even started to tear up a little as I reflected that we were nearing the end of our year-long odyssey. You see, I have grown so accustomed to being with Suzanne, Patrick, and Alex 24×7; that I started to anticipate that I will miss this intense adventure. It was a mental milestone for me.
We ate breakfast on the move because we needed to make it all the way back to Cusco in one day. That meant 5 hours on the river followed by at least 8 hours in the van. The boat leg of the trip went flawlessly, except for a couple rocks that we hit. But the jungle road was another story.
There were several places where the road was under construction, and one place where the van bogged down into the mud and we all got out to push. At another place a bridge over a deep canyon was under repair and we all disembarked from our van, carried our gear over a plank laid down over the steel girders, and loaded up into another van waiting for us on the other side of the chasm. It was also very cool to drive through rough-hewn tunnels blasted into the mountain, with 8 inches of water accumulated on the dark, rocky, unsurfaced floor. We arrived in Cusco a couple of hours after sunset and drug our tired, dirty, itchy selves up the stairs of our hotel for a wonderful hot shower. Patrick was having chest pains and Suzanne called a doctor to check him out. The doctor examined him and said heart and lungs were fine, and it turned out that he was once again acclimating to Cusco’s 11,000 feet of altitude. She gave him a little can of mint flavored Oxygen so he could take a hit whenever he felt symptoms. The excitement was over, so we ordered a pizza delivered to our room, quickly ate dinner, and gratefully crawled onto our soft mattresses under our warm covers and slept very well.