Peru XII-An Adventure in the Land of the Incas                     Into the Cloud Forest      

March 4, 2018

It has been awhile since I last wrote about our trip to Peru, but my series of stories now continues.

For the next 4 days, from Sunday, October 15 - 18, we embarked to and explored in the Manu National Park Cultural Zone, a part of the Cloud Forest. Not only is Manu a National Park  it also is a biosphere preserve protecting diverse ecosystems including lowland rainforests, cloud forests and Andean grasslands. It includes portions of the Amazon Basin Plains. At times we were in deep valleys and at elevations above 13,000 feet. 

From river rafting to zip lining high above the jungle floor, this portion of our adventure offered us glimpses into the flora and fauna that florish in the regions. Nature walks led by our guide Wilbur (Taz) were very interesting and educational. From leaf cutter ants busily crawling across our path to high flying macaws, huge ferns spreading over the floor of the jungle to towering trees scratching the belly of the heavens, this was still another view of all that Peru has to offer. On the long day’s drive to Manu Preserve, we first stopped at a bakery outside of Cusco where we sampled and bought fresh baked bread. Reportedly, many Cuscoan’s drive out on Sunday mornings just to buy breads at many shops in the little town.

Further on, having ascended further into the mountains, we stopped in Huancarani where we witnessed the local people, many dressed in traditional clothing, shopping and/or selling colorful fabrics, clothing or fresh vegetables and 

various other wares. The sights and sounds mixed with the local colorfully dressed residents felt like we were totally immersed into the traditional lives of the Peruvian people. 

IMG 4160

The day was very overcast, damp and colder the further we drove into the mountains. Another stop brought us to the old colonial village of Paucartambo, where we did a quick tour of the Mamacha del Carmen museum a place honoring a local saint, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. A yearly, 3 day celebration in this village takes place where participants celebrate in a variety of colorful, distinctive and even bizarre custumes. All the various custumes depict different peoples and traditions among the local Peruvians.

With clouds hanging low and intermittent rain throughout most our day’s drive, we stopped high in the mountains for a sack lunch. Though we parked at a park, it was too cold and wet for us to sit even under shelter to enjoy the meal. The four of us passengers hustled back inside the van, closed the door and ate in the relatively warmer environment.

All along the way at the higher altitudes, the unpaved roads wound up, down, around narrow mountian roads. At blind corners, our driver, Walter, sounded his horn to announce our presence. Likewise if another vehicle were coming the same procedure was followed. The vegetation was thick and grew even more so the further we continued into the Manu Preserve, appearing more and more like a jungle, though not hot and humid as is usually associtated with a jungle. Walter adeptly steered his van along those rocky roads until we finally reached our destination, the San Pedro de Orquideas lodge, a rustic but adequate place for us to spend the night. After dinner Wilbur took us on a short nighttime nature hike along a forest trail pointing out different insects and other creepy, crawly creatures, none that were large and capable of eating us for dinner.

The following morning we set off along the winding mountain road to a small village, Pilcopata where we would enjoy a rafting trip down the Madre de Dios River. Along the drive we saw several places where large tarps where spread out along the road with coca leaves drying in the sun. (Yes, the sun had come out and it was much more comfortable). Here, in Pilocopata, we changed into bathing suits and walked to the river where a dusty, well used, heavily patched rubber raft sat upon the river rocks. Our rafting guide, however, first had to pump up the sad looking raft, which may not have been in service for several weeks. But once upon the waters, we soon hit some fun, not dangerous, rapids. Other little thrills along the trip were enough to get us wet, but not threatening capsizing. In a calmer spot we pulled onshore and swam in the river, which was a welcome respite to the increasingly warmer temperatures.

Before our swimming session, it became very noticeable that our raft was becoming less and less rigid as it sort of started sagging in the middle and the sides were becoming softer. Uh, huh, the old dingy was leaking. But, not to fear, our guide took time at the rest stop along the river and pumped more air into the slowly deflating raft.

That was enough to get us to our destination to another small village, where we boarded a long boat that would take us to Erika Lodge deeper into the jungle. With supplies, including food we bought in a market along the drive to Pilcopata and a crew consisting of a cook and a couple of other helpers, we continued on to the lodge. A short walk along a jungle trail, crossing a smaller, shallower tributary, we arrived at another simple, unpretentious assortment of buildings that comprised Erika Lodge. 

From Erika Lodge, Wilbur led us on both afternoon and evening nature walks pointing out flora and fauna. He has incredible knowledge of all the animal and plant life and was capable of answering any questions we posed to him.

At sunrise, the next morning we embarked to another location to witness McCaws feeding on clay cliffs along the river. Due to the sensitive nature of the birds, our vantage point was over a quarter mile from the cliffs. Wilbur however had a high power telescope that brought the colorful birds more clearly into our view. From his scope we also were able to capture some photos of the birds along the cliffs. 

White water rafting on Madre de Dios River 3

While at Erika Lodge,  I enjoyed a thrilling zip line experience, traversing from tree top to tree top high above the jungle floor. Beginning with climbing stairs on a wooden platform up to a tall tree, we received instructions, were outfitted and then began zipping from tree to tree. Although a bit scary at first, it was a thrilling experience! But the end was was just as exciting as we were required to rappel down 50 feet from the last tree. If flying through the air on a cable wasn’t enough excitement, dropping down from high in a tree was just as stimulating.

Upon leaving the Manu Preserve, the long drive back to Cusco had a few moments of excitement. As we rounded a bend in the road, we came upon a sight that broke the monotony of the never ending mountain road drive. There before us were several, nearly naked men, showering from a garden hose. Whoa! Now this is interesting! But, even though that vision was awakening, what happened next was a bit unnerving.

You see, this was a police checkpoint, the second that morning, albeit this one was staffed with more personnel (who obviously were making do with very limited facilities, thus all the men bathing in the open). One has to understand that it is remote up in those mountains and along those mountain roads police are stationed at little outposts to check vehicles for illegal substances. While we had stopped and had a perfunctory search earlier along the same mountain road, this second checkpoint performed a very thorough inspection of our driver Walter’s van. 

And what illegal substances were they looking for? Coca leaves. 

Unbeknowst to the rest of us in the van, Walter was transporting several sizeable bundles of coca leaves. Some smaller bundles were hidden in ice chests, the others were secured on the van’s roof. With officers upon the roof and discovering the stash, we started seeing first one bundle thrown to the ground, then another and another and another. 

Coca leaves deserve some explanation. Yes, first off, coca leaves are associated with cocaine (which is something I really hadn’t realized until after this incident). But the use of the leaves is common in Peru as in coca tea, a deterrent and remedy for altitude sickness. The smuggling of the leaves is pretty commonplace, I understand, as they are bought cheap and then sold in the larger cities to others for nice profits to the “vendor”. In the leaf form, the effects of the coca is more benign and hardly seems worth mentioning. Mountain hikers and those who need energy, also chew on the undried leaves for a boost and stamina. Both Tom and I bought packaged coca leaves back in Arequipa as we anticipated some challenges as we went higher into the Andes. With breakfast most mornings we had started to drink coca tea, which may have helped us acclimate to the higher altitudes, thus we never opened our packaged coca leaves and chewed on them. 

As the police detained him, questioning him and writing a ticket, I wondered if we were destined to be waylaid at this isolated station, or worse perhaps, that I might be the only one who could drive us out and return to Cusco. The mere thought of me negotiating those mountain roads gave me some brief moments of concern. But, this was just a minor setback, as the police apparently do not detain offenders, but issue a ticket and confiscate the coca leaves.

That little episode with the police was brief and, thankfully Walter simply got back in the van and returned us to Cusco without further incident. 

Admission time here. I have my little package of coca leaves here with me in Phoenix. I never gave a thought about them as they were buried in my luggage and there was no search before or after our trip. 

So does that make me a smuggler?

More photos, Cusco to Manu Preserve and back to Cusco:


u © Donald E. Kline 2012