Manu Cultural Reserve, Peru: 2nd-6th December 2012
So we couldn’t come to South America without going to the jungle. We pondered on a multiday boat trip through the jungle when we were still in London, tons of people we’d met said Bolivia was the best and cheapest, but concerned over whether we’d have enough anti malarial drugs we waited until Peru to delve into la selva.
Cusco’s streets are crawling with people trying to claim their commission on a jungle tour, Inca trek, sacred valley tour, city tour…. There are streets lined with tour agencies and only a small proportion of them are legitimate official agencies. We went round full circle and ended up going with the first agent we visited because they had a decent hand out with all the information we needed and offered fun activities as part of the trip- it doesn’t take much to impress us!
It was a 4 day/3 night job. Our guide picked us up late (it is south america, but you’d be surprised how promptly most things run here). We joined 5 Germans, 2 Canadians, 2 Peruvians and 2 French people to make up the lucky 13 sitting in the mini bus with Juan Carlos, our second guide. The journey into the jungle was 10 hours by road. It was broken up with a breakfast stop, a sight seeing stop at some pre-incan tombs, a stop off at pilcopata town for a quick wander around and to pick up some snacks for the rest of the journey. It started to rain and it rained hard as we made our way into the cloud forest of the Manu Cultural Reserve area. We stopped off at a couple of buildings that were used as shelters for flies from the rain. A lady with a small child opened it up for us to use to eat lunch which was a nice surprise of rice, vegetables and chicken with a fruit and chocolate bar dessert.
We carried on driving to the lodge in the cloud forest along a road that could rival the Death Road in Bolivia as the world’s most dangerous road. I was sitting up front on the right hand side of the bus, on the sheer drop edge of most of the road. The following real life video of a coach driver unsuccessfully navigating a treacherous part of the death road kept repeating in my head every time I could see over the edge. Pretty sketchy.
Our lodge was basic but livable: mossie nets over the beds, running water for showers and flushing toilets, you just needed to watch out for bullet-ants and other creepies in there with you! Torches are invaluable, I was so glad I got a decent LED one, you just need it all the time with no electricity and with things ready to jump out at you when you’re on the loo!
Over the next couple of days we went deeper into the jungle, got to know our jungle buddies better and saw some pretty cool animals like the national bird of Peru, a crazy red-coloured bird nick named cock of the rock, woolly monkeys howler monkeys, parrots feeding off the minerals in a clay lick, enough ants to satisfy anyone’s insect appetite and some gorgeous butterflies or mariposas (such a lovely word).
Our trip also included some adventure activities. First was the white water rafting, which we’ve done some more of since, but as our first river rafting experience- it was great! no one fell in and we all got wet- life affirming, but not too dangerous!
The zip lining, which we’d done some off before in Bolivia, was just plain wrong. We carried skanky, old, ripped rucksacks with our zip line gear in up into the jungle on a steep, hot and sweaty walk for about an hour before opening these bags that contained what was going to stop us plunging to our deaths on the jungle floor: a pair of 100 year old gardening gloves (in my case 2 left hand gloves), a harness which was in working order (phew), a zip line trolley made from industrial off-cuts, with a braking system made from a cracked rubber door stop, and a couple of carabinas and some rope.
However it was nice not to be walking up hill in the humidity anymore and we were looking forward to the breeze as we rushed through the canopy! The first launch platform had to be balanced with 3 people on each side so it didn’t lurch from side to side, but we made it across to the second platform, landing on a broken wooden stool to step down from. What the zip lining became about at this point was trying to stop the annoying little flying insects from a) biting you and b) flying straight into your eyes! So there we were standing on a platform, circling a tree, waving our arms madly, with our eyes closed, high above the jungle floor, hoping for the last zip line! It did end on a high though with us repelling ourselves down from the platform, which was pretty fun! The day also ended well swimming in the river as the thunderstorm clouds rolled in and an impressive lightening show was about to start.
The last day in the jungle was all about getting back to Cusco, we’d spent long enough in the same clothes swatting away winged animals- but it was going to be a struggle.
The first part of out trip back was to get from the lodge to the port, about 25 minutes away, to get the minibus back to Cusco, but we were going up stream in a river that had been fueled by a heavy down pour the night before and the engine started to make an unsettling grinding sound, but we had faith in the guides and driver, so we carried on our merry way, unfortunately we carried on until the engine completely cut out at which point we were at the mercy of the very strong current and the emergency wooden paddle we had to steer was no use really. The boat spun around, knocking on the rocks as it went, a fair number of people were screaming and then the cook fell out and the driver pelted it down the rocky bank after leaping from the boat to rescue her. The water started to rise in the boat and the guides told us to balance the boat with our weight, people were panicking and bossy Sarah shouted at everyone to “BALANCE THE BOAT”, then we were sitting in water and just the brim of the boat and the blue tarpaulin canopy were visible. Chris told me to hold on the tarpaulin which contained all of our big rucksacks- but he didn’t realise that the boat was going to be a lost cause, so I politely replied- *!# the bags! get out of the boat! By this time one of the guides had made it to shore holding the rope to the boat, and we weren’t too far away but it was very very choppy as we were on the rapids. I think the guide thought we could jump out of the boat and onto the shore but the boat was tipping and the canopy of the boat tipped toward the shore as it completely capsized cutting us off from the bank. Jose told us all to swim to shore, so we all just navigated around the horrible sound of the cracking wood of the boat, pushing up on the bits of wood still poking out of the water. It took about 30 seconds from calf level water to capsize, cracking wood and bags rushing down the river. Our new Canadian friend, Michelle- said that she thinks she hurt her leg on the boat as it fell apart, she remembers swimming away with her leg in agony and thinking she wouldn’t be able to pull herself out of the water. Luckily Chris, myself and Michelle’s boyfriend Dan were in the front row so we didn’t have to clear much of the boat before we were at the shore. Chris ended up further down stream on the shore and picked up some backpacks that had been washed down with him. I was discovering that my camera was completely dead and sitting on the rocks further up stream with the French couple deciding if we should walk down or stay put while 3 people cried into their boyfriend/husband’s shoulders. We stayed put as Michelle couldn’t move her leg and one of the guides had splinted it with 2 walking sticks while they left us to get another boat, so we were left on our own on the river bank for them to come back with pain killers and a plan. The cook had been picked up and plonked back on the shore with us while they went back to refuel a bigger boat. She was sobbing to herself the whole time. They came back and picked us up, Michelle was lifted onto a board into the boat, blood seeping through her bandages. We made it to Atalya port after a very tense boat ride upstream and Chris and some of the boys lifted Michelle into a mini bus to go to the medical centre for assessment.
We made it back to Cusco about 10 hours later, after people bought dry clothes in a nearby town. Luckily the weather was hot and humid in the jungle, but when we got back to higher altitudes we were all a bit cold. We all went to the office together to see what would be done in this situation. They gave us tea in the next door hotel and asked what we wanted, we discussed the cause of the accident (lack of maintenance, too many people in the boat, strong currents, not reacting to the engine struggling) and also aired other annoyances about the tour, -not enough life jackets for everyone (the cook namely), the group was much bigger than advertised (no more than 7 was originally promised), no electricity for the 1st and 3rd nights (which was promised for all nights)- but we didn’t get anywhere. The following day was more of the same story. Nothing refunded, nothing for people that lost their belongings except a t-shirt and a £5 laundry bill refund, even when we dragged in the police and went to the consumer police (there are so many different types of police in Peru!) Luckily 2 people who live in Peru were on the tour so we could argue in Spanish as a group, but official complaints took up to a month to see through and we were all leaving Cusco within a couple of days, so no resolution.
So check what boats the companies have before you book!!
One good thing came of it though- we had a fun night out in Cusco celebrating being alive!