Sunday, 7 June 2009

Un gringo en la selva

So I'm back from my trip to Manu. Which, in true Peruvian style, wasn't quite how I expected, but was fantastic nonetheless. The first change was the fact that the rest of the group that I was meant to be going with cancelled at very short notice...leaving me with just the guide! This meant we had to go by public transport instead of a private car, but that was no big deal. The road is almost all unpaved and pretty bumpy, climbing into the mountains and passing the colonial town of Paucartambo until you reach the edge of the national park. There, the cloud forest begins (and it is literally covered in cloud). As we descended into the valley, the mist occasionally broke to give stunning glimpses of the forests below - it looked as wild as a shot from a movie. The road only got worse, full of brightly-coloured mud, and we had to stop while a truck than had fallen down a ravine the last week was hauled back up. All its occupants died.

Eventually we arrived at Pillcopata at 3pm, after 10 hours travelling. It instantly felt like jungle, with the buildings made of wooden boards and surrounded by trees. Within two minutes of arriving at the lodge, I spotted a hummingbird in the garden. The trip was clearly going to be very different from the Peru I had experienced so far. After a nap, Carlos (my guide) took me to see some of the surrounding area - we saw leafcutter ants, parrots, and many, many other birds (this became a bit of a trend). We also went to Villa Carmen, which was essentially a house converted into a free-range jungle zoo. It was worth it, as many of the larger mammals are very difficult to see in the wild. I saw two types of macaw, a monkey, a toucan, tapirs, peccaries and a capybara. We saw some of these in the wild, but not all!

I was going to do a day-by-day account, but the truth is that would be far too long and probably not very interesting. So here are the highlights. We had to wait an extra to get our boat down the river, as the driver (also my guide's best friend) had been bitten by a snake the day before we set out! It took a while to find this out, as in his village (no road, only accessible by boat) there are no telephones. In much of the jungle, the only method of communication is by CB radio. This was one of the reasons why going there felt like stepping back in time. The delay with the boat meant that Carlos had to improvise the programme, which to his credit he did pretty well. On the second day, we saw a jungle lake, in which we spotted a baby caiman (at night, for about three seconds). As ever, the variety of birds was astonishing.

The boat, when we did get it, was basically a long canoe with a slightly dodgy motor attached. Nonetheless, it managed to get us down the river and back up again with only one scary moment. On day 4, we were joined by a real character called Macuco, a man probably in his 50s (though people there looked older than they were, and the normal age to live to is 60). He showed me some medicinal tree bark, had a great political discussion with the others, and told me a sad story. He worked for a while with a biologist from Chicago, who invited him to go there, and to other places in the US. However he didn't go, for the simple reason that his family didn't want him to. As it is, he has never left the jungle. He also told me about the drinking problem there - the extreme strength of the aguardiente they drink has caused several deaths, including recently an 18 year old who simply fell in the river and drowned.

In many ways, through my conversations with Carlos, the boat driver and Macuco, the trip was as much cultural as natural. There were, however, two magical moments. The first came while we were sitting in some hot springs, and all of a sudden the boat driver shouts "Monkey!". There were 5 or 6 small ones, jumping from tree to tree and eating berries. Seeing them in the wild was a powerful reminder of just how far I am from England! The second moment was early on the fourth day, when we saw hundreds of green parrots descend onto a hillside to lick the clay (it helps with their digestion).

The last night of the trip was also wonderful: Carlos, the boat driver and I camped on a riverbank, lit a bonfire, ate supper and talked. It was calm, idyllic and a perfectly fitting end to a trip that, although it didn't follow the traditional tourist itinerary (or maybe because of that) probably gave me a greater insight into life in the Peruvian jungle. I went four days without seeing another white foreigner.

P.S. This really is only a snippet - there are many other things to tell. One was the fact that in Salvación (a jungle town with a name that made me think of García Márquez novels), a large amount of infrastructure and building had been financed by the EU. It struck me as a great initiative, and only makes me more annoyed with the short-sighted way people in the UK seem to have voted last week.

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