Lorene, Luke, Ben and Shauntae were gone on the Laras trek. The “trekking crew” had planned on camping for 3 or 4 nights.
We spent the week before dodging in and out of the rain, cooking, playing, doing small excursions and resting. Downtime is good, but if the rest of the group wanted to visit the Amazon jungle on this trip, we had to do it now!
(NOTE: Ben had an extremely difficult time acclimatizing when we first arrived to Cusco from Lima. Ben and I had already discussed the implications of going to the jungle together, dropping back down to sea-level and traveling back to the high altitudes of Cusco. Even though he really wanted to visit the Amazon jungle, Ben decided that he didn’t want to go through that process again.)
Paucartambo & The Virgin
Sunday it rained.
Monday, Miro and I went to the tourist office to get the bus information.
Tuesday we left headed for the jungle.
There were no direct busses on Tuesday, so instead of waiting another day, we decided to take a local bus out of Cusco to the historic town of Paucartambo, the half way point between the Andes and the jungle. For only 10 soles ($3.50), we were promised a four-hour safe transport in a rickety aging bus, to the base of the Andes and the start of the jungle.
Only Miro wasn’t that happy…. something about “the great yoghurt incident of 2013,” I think? A picture tells a thousand stories, doesn’t it?
Our journey had just began…
The four hour bus ride from Cusco was windy, bumpy and scenic, and I was feasting on new sights through the highlands. We passed rustic mountain villages, quaint farm towns, deep valleys and finally massive ruins on the hill above. Paucartambo is located at 105 km (65 miles) away from Cusco .
Finally, we arrived to the colonial town of Paucartambo, known as the “land of the east”. The town is characterized by its traditional adobe homes with red-tile roofing. The town is most famous for its massive celebration honoring the Virgin of Carmen, which coincidentally was to take place, the following week. The festival is held every year between July 15th and 18th when miles of devotees and visitors congregate to honor the Virgin of Carmen, locally known as Mamacha Carmen, patron of the mestizos.
The festival for the Virgin of Carmen is held by the temple of Paucartambo. Miro, Xavia, Devin and I choose a little hostel for the night near the bus station, had dinner in a local Chinese restaurant then explored the quiet town, clearly in full swing preparing for the upcoming festival.
On the Road, Again
We woke up bright and early with intentions of catching the first bus to the jungle town of Pilcapata. We were told the bus was another four-hour journey and we were anxious to start our jungle adventure….
…did someone say adventure?
We were approached by several drivers outside of the bus terminal who were driving freight trucks to Pilcapata, did we want a lift?
“How much?” I asked.
“6 soles,” the driver replied.
Devin jumped up and down screaming, “YES!”
“Are you sure?” I asked the group. We looked at all the trucks, flat-bed, wooden slats surrounding the freight area, no seats, no roof…. “Are you sure???????????” I asked again.
A unanimous “YES” roared from the teens. So, this was to be our chariot, and the next leg of our adventure was soon to commence.
We piled into the back of the truck, lining the left wall and claimed our space.
Over the next hour, huge bags of potatoes were loaded to the back of the truck and space all around us started to fill with local women and children of all ages (not a single man in sight). Besides us, there were 18 others filling the back of the truck and I feel, we became the strangest curiosity to these women.
We sat on our bags, backs against the painted blue wooden plywood walls which were to contain us during our voyage. Silently I studied the faces of each of the women who sat before us and surrounding us as they joyfully chatted with one another, shared coca leaves and laughed from deep inside their round bodies. These petticoat clad woman wore thick skirts, heavy wool leggings, layers upon layers of sweaters topped of with cotton sun hats, the kind you buy at Disneyland.
These woman sat in community with one another and chatted joyfully among each other, shared food, no matter that we were in their space.
These women were mothers, daughters, sisters, workers,
These woman worked hard for a living. Their hands were tough and strong, and dirt deep in the folds their skin.
I assumed these women worked on the farms near the jungle and brought their goods to Paucartambo, the gateway to the Andes. I assumed most of these women did manual labor as they each had heavy bags and bundles and this was just the reality of their lives.
I wondered if the teens realized what an incredible opportunity we were embarking upon, sitting in presence with such strong, powerful women, women who never seemed to know privilege, but women who know how to laugh with joy.
I wondered if the teen gave any thoughts to their lives in contrast to these women, how very different their experiences are.
And so our journey began, round and round the winding roads. From our view between the slats of the truck, we saw the mountains, then the clouds, until we finally descended into the clouds themselves. We saw the tops of trees, fauna change from pine to vines.
Round and round we went, bumping, leaning , turning, twisting, off-balance, like the cargo we were…
It was not comfortable. At times it felt like the width of the truck was too large to fit on the roads, cliffs below us, nothing to the right, lush jungle to the left. I felt the movement around us, the change of climate, the unsteadiness of our voyage. I felt acutely aware of each movement, afraid, unstable, uncomfortable, unforgiving, as my body became a counter balance to each turn.
I felt alive and present.
We all watched, waited, swung from left to right as we descended lower and lower into the jungle.
In the Jungle
Nearly five hours later, we arrived in Pilcopata. We poured out of the truck, legs stiff, damp from the humidity, dust from the road stuck to our skin. It was just after twelve, we were hungry and extremely grateful to actually be there.
Located on the edge of Parque Nacional del Manu, in the park’s “cultural zone”, Pilcopata is a sleepy little village at the fringe of the Peruvian part of the mighty Amazon jungle.
We have arrived.
We checked into our hotel, seemingly the nicest in town.
Our rooms were simple, consisting of a beds, slatted wooden floors and walls, and screens covering the windows. The structure itself was on stilts and overall, there was a real “jungle” feel.
After chatting with the owner, we discovered her husband is a tour guide and could take us into Manu, the following day.
Manu National Park
Manu National Park was established in 1973 and in recognition of its uniqueness was designated a ”World Heritage Site” ten years later. Manu is internationally acclaimed as one of the most biodiverse areas on earth.
Approximately half the area of Switzerland, the Manu Biosphere is a complete ecosystem with protected watershed embracing Andean montage cloud forest, tropical lowland forest and the Alto Madre de Dios and Manu river drainage systems. The biosphere itself is subdivided into national park and two adjacent zones, one for tourism and the other for cultural subsistence. It is home to over 1000 species of birds, 15,000 species of plants, over 200 species of mammals, and untold numbers of insects. Within its heart of the jungle remain indigenous peoples as yet untouched by our civilization.
Pilcapata sat at the mouth to the Manu National Park and we were limited by time and budget, so we knew we needed to use our time wisely. Miro and I negotiated with our guide for a full day tour, starting early the next morning, for 200 soles (50 soles per person, which is just over $20)
Monkeys on the Loose
Our first stop in the morning was to “Dos Loritos” an animal rescue. This small animal reserve serves as the home to several animals, first of which was a spirited monkey named Chanto. Chanto greeted us while eating an oreo cookie. At some point, he tried to get into my purse to see if there were more goodies for him, and when I pulled his tiny fingers out, he bit me (lightly) and I called him a “little f*cker”!
Chanto amused and delighted us as we watched him terrorize all the came into his path. But in a playful way of course.
The next resident that took our breath away was “Mochilla” or backpack in English. Mochilla is a two-toed sloth, who’s demeanor was enough to balance Chanto’s rambunctiousness.
Each one of us had the opportunity to hold Mochilla and gaze into this gentle animal’s eyes as he held onto us as would a backpack…. ah…. I get it!
Next we met Stewart, the capybara. He was timid at first, but eventually we all had our chance to pet his spiny body.
Our guide was so helpful, showing us all the native plants, including the plant, achiote, which is used as a natural dye. I’m familiar with the plant because in the Andes, we use it as tea. Xavia allowed our guide to paint her cheeks with achiote, accentuating her beautiful smile.
There were several beautiful resident guacamayos or macaws. One of them even found comfort on Miro’s shoulder.
We really enjoyed our time at the animal reserve and together the four of us donated 45 soles to help their cause. Unfortunately, they don’t have a web site, but if you wish to email Dos Loritos to connect, they would surly love the correspondence.
Our plan was to continue up the road within the Manu National Park, toward a town called Salvacion. However by the time we left the Dos Loritos, the road ahead was closed. We were told the road would be closed for the next two hours while they did work. Our guide said “no hay problema” and off we went to visit a cultural farm, returning two hours later.
Our guide took us to Villa Carmen, located just outside Pilcapata.
In 2010, the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), in partnership with the American Bird Conservancy and the World Land Trust, provided funding for the purchase of 7,576 acres of land in southern Peru by ACA’s sister organization, La Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA). Located near the Rio Pini Pini and the Rio Tono in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, the land is particularly esteemed for its bird activity, as it is home to more than 600 known species. This purchase will help to ensure the protection and prosperity of wildlife in the region.
Villa Carmen Biological Station and reserve supports a wide variety of habitats including old-growth rainforest, lower mountain forest, secondary forests, streams, rivers, waterfalls, and a highly diverse flora and fauna. It has an all-weather road, and is accessible by car and by boats going up the Madre de Dios river. ACCA is overseeing management of Villa Carmen, which will be used to promote sustainable agroforestry and aquaculture, host educational programs, serve as a biological research station, and further incorporate local communities into conservation efforts.
We were invited to roam freely through the farms, observing the reforestation efforts by the Villa Carmen team. They were building sustainable huts and reintroducing the indigenous plants from the area that were removed long ago.
The grounds had a beautiful lake and although it was blistering hot and humid, I loved our time there.
While on the grounds, our guide told us he had a treat for us and led the way into the dense jungle. We walked patiently, as I fought off the mosquitoes who apparently fed on my legs.. But it was worth it….
In the clearing we came upon a crash site, of a downed airplane from year gone by. The plane was about 50 years old, and inspired imaginative conversations about survival in the jungle.
We explored the airplane, discovering a colony of bats made it’s home in the tail.
It was truly an incredible site to see. I realized in that moment how grateful I was that I was sharing something so spectacular that wasn’t manufactured from Hollywood, that here in this dense forest, we were, experiencing the real thing.
We filled two wonderful hours at Villa Carmen, and I was grateful there was road work, inspiring this detour.
We piled back into the car and resumed our jungle journey.
The road wasn’t exactly open by the time we started our trip again, but within 40 minutes we were on our way. We traveled through the Manu National Park, crossing over river beds where roads have been closed and passing through small jungle towns and making frequent stops to enjoy the scenery.
We traveled through Amazon jungle for about 2 1/2 more hours, finally reaching the small town of Salvacion where we stopped for lunch, lucky to find a small restaurant open.
After we ate, we knew we were nearing our destination, Machu Wasi.
Machu Wasi is a beautiful reserve home to many native animals such as capybaras, caymans and the enigmatic prehistoric bird called hoatzin. The site has a wonderful mirador overlooking Oxbow Lake, where Miro and our guide searched for the hoatzin.
The scenery was breathtaking but nothing prepared us for the beauty we encountered on Oxbow Lake. Miro, Xavia, Devin and I piled into a small balsa wood raft, and our guide became our water captain.
Once we crossed Oxbow Lake, we followed the nature paths, exploring the jungle, in search of animals. But none to be seen. Our treat was crossing the lake once again.
The Road that Takes Us There
We shared a long day, and we were happy to be heading back. Tired, hungry and covered with insect bites, we felt gratitude for the truck we sat in, the visual delights that filled our memories and the beautiful adventure we just experienced.
But, on the drive back, we had some bumps in the road. We came back across more construction, a car stuck in the mud and hours of waiting in front of us. Together, we witnessed one of the teen’s lack of patience, but in situations like this, there’s nothing one can do, but surrender. So together we waited, and soon enough we were back.
Back in our lodge, I reflected. The journey always presents lessons in many forms. We are unschoolers, natural learners. But today, it was not just the wonder of the Amazon that taught us. We learned volumes through the wonder of “self”, both through patience, and lack thereof.
Both Devin and Xavia were becoming braver with their use of Spanish. The market became a wonderful lab, for both language and exploration.
Xavia decided to try an experiment, to purchase the most “interesting” fruits possible, fruits she had no idea of the flavor, and conducted a taste test.
The fruit: tuna, pepino and grenadine. It was unanimous, the group liked both the tuna fruit and the grenadine, but not the pepino which tasted like “old bathwater”. Good to know.
Visiting an Indigenous Village
Our second full day in the jungle, we decided to visit the native village called Huacaria.
We were excited to visit an indigenous village but had no idea what to expect. We hired a taxi to take us there and committed to walk back to Pilcapata. Luckily, we found a mototaxi, which was a motorcycle front, and the back was similar to a pick up truck.
The native community of Saint Rose of Huacaria is located in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, between a lowland tropical rain forest and the cloud forests of the Andean foothills. It is located 7 km from the town of Pilcopata. Huacaria spans 36,225 hectares, 60% residing within the limits of the Manu National Park.
Huacaria is a small village, consisting of 19 families and a total of 130 people, the majority are ethnic Machiguenga, but there are Wachipaeri and Quechua as well. This area has a rich flora, mammals, insects, amphibians, birds and others. They have a school where primary education is provided, but also maintains its customs and traditions.
When we arrived, the village was practically empty. We really weren’t sure what to expect. The mototaxi dropped us off and we immediately felt as if we were invading their privacy. The school was filled with children, and there were only three women walking about in the village. But there was not a man in sight.
We all felt very uncomfortable realizing we showed up to these people’s home, WITHOUT AN INVITATION. These were people, not farm animals and as a group, we felt suddenly very self-conscious. We spoke with the women and showed respect to them, and Xavia even bought a necklace from one of them. One of the women suggested we take a look at the nearby river, so we did.
We arrived at the river after a ten minute walk. We realized this spot must serve as the town’s bath, water source, food source and place to wash. We realized that we were looking Huacaria’s lifeline.
The eight kilometer walk back into town was incredible! We talked, and felt like explores, feeling very comfortable in the jungle, appreciating our full, but short Amazon jungle experience.
Back to the Mountains
And with that, the next morning, we made our way back to the mountains.
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