An early start, we began from Cuzco, driving through cobblestone streets walled in by the fusion of Incan stones and ornate Colonial balconies. It was not long before we were high above the city, passing the remarkable fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Periodically shepherds passed by with their herds, and small towns dotting the route were just coming to life. After a stop for breakfast in Pisaq, we followed a deep canyon to one of the last Andean outposts, Paucartambo, a picturesque village situated on the river banks. Less than an hour later, we stood, enveloped in clouds, at the gates of the Manu Biosphere Reserve.
Manu is renowned for being one of the largest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. It covers an area of almost 20,000 square kilometers, ranges in altitude from 150 to over 3500 meters above sea level, and is home to more than 15,000 species of plants and 1,000 species of birds. Due to its inaccessibility and strict limitations on use, the park has remained extremely well preserved since UNESCO declared the area a Biosphere Reserve in 1977.
Beginning the steep descent down from the park entrance at 10,000 ft, we gradually started to break through the clouds, getting glimpses of a lush valley so deep that we could not see the bottom. Periodically, waterfalls gushed out of the rocks creating breaks in the endless green of the valley walls. With each switchback down the road, the views became more and more spectacular. As we approached our lodge for the evening, we stopped to observe the Cock of the Rock, the national bird of Peru. The prominent red males exhibiting their colors for the females (and us) made for fantastic photos.
Our second day we continued our journey down. The last stop for the bus was a small town called Pilcopata. From there, our river expedition began! Paddling along through Class I and II rapids, the jungle took on a whole other shape. The waterfalls and distant tree-filled valleys were exchanged for the charging river. Fishing birds and vultures teemed overhead, and enormous colorful butterflies followed us along the river banks. After a couple of hours of venturing down the river we arrived at the small river port of Atalaya, where we exchanged our raft for a covered canoe. Continuing down the river we pulled up to our riverside lodge for the evening. I was immediately impressed by the soccer game going on across the lodge’s beach; even in the middle of the jungle it’s possible to play soccer! I spent the afternoon reclining in a hammock taking in the picturesque view of the sun gradually setting on the river, allowing the tranquil remoteness of where I was to set in.
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