Returning to Cuzco after a train ride, a bus ride, and a taxi ride, we eat polla alla brasa, and it won’t be the last time we eat the beloved Peruvian rotisserie chicken. Chilli and lime, it is balanced, tasty, and the french fries are just what I need.
We’re tired. Off to bed early, we will rise much before the dawn.
On the street at 4AM the next morning, we meet the people we will get to know over the next three days on our trip into the jungle. Our guide, Jesus, is the first to greet us. He is immediately friendly and positive, as he will be on our whole trip through the Manu National Park, a rain forest you can’t set foot in without a guide. The roads alone ruin the possibility of going solo, but we’ll find that out later.
For now we are meeting people who will become our friends during our packed trip. In addition to Jesus, our driver, Giro, is a pro. He also likes to listen to music and joke around. Our cook, Rimaldo, will make use of the most dubious conditions in order to make us some tasty food when he isn’t sleeping in the van. The ingenuity of the Peruvian people, as we have seen over all of our time here, is limitless.
We also welcome four Romanians to the van, people we will get to know and become friends with over these next few days.
Driving into the darkness, most of us fall asleep. Our first stop is a group of Pre-Inkan tombs sitting on a beautiful hill. It is really pretty out this morning. Then we are off to Paucartambo, a small town that is unusually historic. It is the where the Andes meets the Amazon, and where a yearly festival attracts thousands for a colorful celebration. When were here, it is quiet. Quechua is the language here, taught first to the children before Spanish or English. At the town’s museum, racist costumes and masks of Westerners are put on display. Every year for the festival, Peruvians come here in droves to wear these creepy caricatured masks and celebrate the Virgin Carmen.
After enjoying a very modest breakfast at the local restaurant, we drive for a few more hours into the forest. Entering the jungle, the dirt roads without railing are treacherous. We all good nervous, but our driver never flinches. Not even when we enter the cloud forest, the highest altitude we will venture on our trip. Even higher than Cuzco, much higher than Machu Picchu, at 13,000 feet we’re covered in fog. The roads are on bad move away from certain death, but our driver has done this a thousand times before.
The fog is thick and ominously dances across the forest trees. Once we’re in the jungle, we stop to bird watch and even catch a glimpse of the famous cock-of-the-rock, the bright red bird doing its mating dance. We are lucky, not many get to catch a glimpse of this.
When we are finally going to our cabins in jungle, we are inhibited by a giant tractor that tipped into the side of the mountain. There are tourists and locals stuck in front of us, the travelers feel useless. With great ingenuity, a group of about fifteen Peruvians manage to get the tractor off the mountain, straight on the road, and move it out of the way. We didn’t even get through rolling a joint with a group of Israeli tourists before we are on our way.
We’re exhausted, and we eat a meal of fish in red wine sauce and sides before getting to bed early, we will wake up even earlier the next day.
It’s 3AM and we’re up to take a boat over the pitch-black Manu River to do some rare bird watching. On the boat, we’re freezing. The Sun comes up, the black sludge of the river becomes water, and we see the forest all around us. It is gorgeous. We get to the parrot clay lick where we observe macaws and other pretty birds. Through binoculars, we see their personalities and watch them interact with their lifelong partners. We are waiting for the parrots to come down from the top of the trees and eat from the clay lick. Just as they are about to descend, a vulture flies in and scares them off. Nature, after all, is finicky and elusive.
Now the Sun is fully up and we go for a hike after a breakfast of fruit, coffee, and delicious Peruvian bread. Jesus finds the trail, which has no indications except an open path through the dense trees. We hike through the jungle, find mom-and-cub jaguar tracks and see huge relatives of the turkeys before hearing a low growl that paralyzes us all. We surmise that it may have been the jaguars.
Although we’re afraid, I am completely taken by the idea of seeing a jaguar. We move on, thankful for our guide. We get to the enchanting Machuwasi Lagoon, the Sun is out and it is beautiful. We paddle on light pieces of wood like the indigenous people of the area have navigated for thousands of years, which are given to us by a local who chews vast amounts of coca constantly.
We wash off in the nearby river and hike back through the forest, where we learn about mixed flocks of birds that band together to avoid predators like vultures and that termites are quite good for you to eat if you are stranded in the jungle.
Before continuing our hike, we have some lunch. We’ll save the termites for later, our chef Rimaldo prepares a delicious lomo saltado with cous cous instead of rice. It is one of the tastiest saltados we have in Peru. Beef sauteed with onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes, it is just what we need right now. Served over french fries, I am amazed at what the man can do with limited resources. We eat and relax on the boat. We’re off to hike again soon to find the largest and oldest tree in the area.
Full of new energy, we continue hiking after taking the boat to the right place to continue. Reaching the trail, our guide realizes the river has cut it off. We have to wade through a tributary of the Amazon to get across to where we need to be. We get soaked but have a lot of fun. By the time we are at the tree, we are soaked with not just water, but sweat.
After crossing the water, one of us catches a glimpse in the trees. There are two different types of monkeys, one Capuchin monkey with a baby and another squirrel monkey.
“Its got a baby on it’s back! Its gotta baby on its back!” our guide whispers excitedly.
We observe through binoculars and with our eyes. It is incredible to see primates in the wild like this. They look at us with intense curiosity. One even drops a cacao pod that it was eating from. Like humans, these monkeys like the taste of chocolate.
Invigorated by the experience, we trek the rest of the way to the giant tree. The root system doesn’t go far into the soil since there is much competition, but this tree has been able to expand growing the roots all around it. It has a wide trunk and its roots infect everything, as if it were a plague. A plague of life. It is surprising that such a large tree can thrive in such a competitive place.
On the way back, a few of our Romanian partners see a dragon lizard. I don’t get to catch a glimpse, but apparently it was quite the sight. I am simply glad that it is here. Taking to the river once again, we return to the van and go to a reserve to get our animal fix that the wild withholds.
Upon entering the reserve, we see a small fire in the distance. A small black monkey sits around it, as if it were the first creation of fire. We are reminded that we too are apes. He enjoys the warmth, but when we walk up to him, he darts right for my girlfriend Thyme.
He is taken by her immediately, and he grabs her hand to show her around. Thus begins a hilarious visit with animals who absolutely adore her. Another monkey gets on her back and doesn’t let go. At one point she had two monkeys on her and two boards licking her shins. They gravitate toward her and show her genuine affection.
There are so many animals here they seem to pop up on you. There is a sloth, a boa constrictor, a taiper, a raccoon-like mammal, a cutely small blue bird, and multiple kinds of primates.
When the blue bird is on my shoulder, a troublemaker ape named Charlie grabs her from my shoulder and ran off to do god knows what with it. Luckily he dropped the bird and Thyme grabbed it, telling Charlie no. Charlie also wrestles the smaller monkey that we first encountered, he is clearly looking for attention.
After the commotion we are ready for some relaxation. It has been a long day but it’s not quite done yet. We get to our cabin and are offered our night hike from our guide. The Romanians sit this one out but we brave the darkness. Not before smoking a joint with them, though. In the night, there are bugs everywhere. The majority of the jungle’s species are nocturnal, and right now we can really feel that. Thyme is a little freaked but is calm when we turn off our flash lights and are greeted by total darkness.
In the black, my eyes struggle to adjust. They simply can’t. Instead my vision starts to blur and distort, creating a psychedelic effect when I focus long enough. After our night hike, we shower and get ready for dinner, where we will feast upon a delicious stew of squash, vegetable soup, chicken cooked in red wine, stir-fried beef and peppers, Peruvian pasta, and plenty of beer, wine, and pisco sours. We great drunk with our new friends and share stories of traveling. We ask Jesus about his experiences in the jungle and they abound. He lives for it. “When I am in the jungle with the animals, I am home,” he says.
Waking up hungover in the jungle, the breakfast of dulce de leche pancakes and bacon helps, as does sleeping on the ride back. I wake up in the cloud forest, but the fog is even denser than before, the red as porous as it ever was. For the moment I wake up, the lack of visibility is truly terrifying. I go right back to sleep, choosing blissful ignorance.
Suddenly, we stop. This time the road is obstructed by a large boulder in the middle of the road, cars backed up on each side. I am slow to get up, but we get out and, eventually, get the boulder to roll over off the road. It isn’t easy though, the strength of many Peruvians is needed. I help with leverage. Never a dull moment in the jungle.
We arrive in Cuzco and eat Peruvian barbecue and fries. They sure do love their carne here. And yet, we are on our way to the Temple of Meat, Argentina.