A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Jill Willis


There were six of us in the group, plus an English guide called Tina and a talented cook, setting off for nine days in the Manu rainforest in southern Peru. We left Cusco at 6 a.m., the landscape changing constantly as the sun rose and the bus zigzagged over the Andes. By 9 o’clock we had stopped in a village famous for its bread (which was delicious) and visited the pepperpot ruins of a 1500 year old city. We reached the puna, a landscape with long grass in which guinea pigs live, by lunchtime, but we were too late to see the “cock of the rock” birds performing their dusk display in the cloudforest, where we spent the first night.

The next morning we continued down to the river Alto Madre de Dios, where we transferred to our boat. When the road (such as it is) was built, the valley was rich until the valuable timber was exhausted. Nowadays there are poor settlements where people live in huts (with televisions), with a few hens and turkeys

It took a few hours by boat to reach our first rainforest lodge and all the way Tina pointed out birds, lumbering capybara and motionless cayman.

We spent a lot of time on the water – rivers and lakes – as well as walking in the jungle. We were up at 5 most days, because that´s when the wildlife is busiest. We watched several species of monkeys; the woolly monkeys were agile and entertaining, but the howler monkeys were easy to spot because they don´t move around much. They eat leaves and sit around digesting them.

One afternoon we went out on a raft on Lake Salvador to see where the giant otters were going to sleep that evening, so we´d know where to look the next morning. We stayed on the lake as the sun set, the moon rose and the stars came out, while big bats flitted around us. The next morning we watched six giant otters playing and munching on fish.

Another morning was spent watching a clay lick. Hundreds of blue-headed parrots arrived and sat like big green leaves and blue flowers in the trees. They were nervous and often took off together, circling until it was safe to return. Red and green macaws arrived in pairs and sat higher in the trees. Eventually the parrots disappeared without going down to the clay, but the macaws gradually moved down to eat, and the bank was covered in brilliantly coloured birds.

We saw macaws at their nests – two red heads peeped out of a treetrunk, then two stunning scarlet macaws emerged, and wood chips flew as a pair of chestnut-fronted macaws chiselled out their nest-hole.

Oropendulas weave foot-long nests, and their call sounds like something plopping musically into water. On the river, black skimmers fly low over the water, scooping it into their beaks. Snakebirds, with their long necks and narrow heads, look like snakes. Although they dive, their feathers are not waterproof, so they spend much time drying out and preening. One bird doing this fell off its branch into the water, which made us all giggle. There are numerous hawks and falcons, including little bat falcons that flutter around like bats. The chicken-sized hoatzins are fun. They eat leaves and are always full and heavy, since they have to eat a lot to get enough nutrients (hoatzins are the world’s only ruminant birds) so they can’t fly properly. Pale-winged trumpeters, big, long-legged black and white birds, amble around eating seeds.

In the forest there is a constant tinnitus of crickets. There are also dazzling butterflies – vivid oranges, metallic blues and greens, and a clearwing butterfly, with leaded-light wings. There are ants of all sizes – I watched leafcutter ants carrying loads bigger than their bodies, marching columns of army ants, and an inch-long bullet ant. Ant nests hang from branches or are built around treetrunks.

There are spiders including tarantulas (pink-footed, if you look closely enough!), web-throwing spiders that sit and wait with “nets” to cast over their prey, and social spiders that make a communal web – an arachnid co-operative.

We heard many frogs but saw few, although I found one on the washbasin one night (it wasn’t as pretty as the opossum that visited the previous evening!).

Turtles sunbathe on logs at the river’s edge, sometimes with butterflies sipping mineral-rich tears from their eyes. One day we saw a big yellow-footed tortoise swimming past a little village where we´d stopped for fuel. The boatman scooped it up and we took it to the next lodge, where it wandered off into the forest, otherwise the villagers would have caught and cooked it.

Architectural trees such as the kapok and fig have huge buttress roots. Trunks can be fifteen feet across at the base, with enormous roots snaking off across the forest floor. Strangler fig vines surround many trees, wrapping their roots around the trunk until the tree dies but still supports the vine. The naked tree sheds its bark every year to get rid of such hangers-on and some palms protect themselves with two-inch barbs. Along the riverbanks there are parrot’s beak vines, covered with bright red flowers shaped just like the birds´ bills.

Although it was the dry season, there was some rain most days. We welcomed it on the lake one scorching afternoon; it cooled us down and produced a double rainbow. It deluged throughout one night and in the morning the river was flooded, with fallen trees crashing into our moored boat (the previous day the water had been so low that everyone had to get out and push the boat).

On the final morning we returned to the cock of the rock lek at daybreak, and this time the birds obliged – a dozen vivid red and black male birds squawking at the tops of their voices to attract their females.