We left Cusco at dawn and drove for about 14 hours. Fortunately we made a couple stops along the way. We first stopped at some ancient, pre-Incan ruins, which looked like gnome-sized houses. They were actually tombs built by an indigenous tribe where they buried their dead in fetal-position (they left the world the way the entered it) and with their treasures. During the Incan Empire, the Incans respectfully closed the tombs. When the Spaniards invaded, they opened them and stole the treasure. Next, we stopped at a historically colonial town, called Paucartambo and shared a round of Chicha (Incan beer made of corn). Finally we arrived at the entrance to Manu National Park... and on we drove through precariously narrow, winding roads through the jungle. It took us so long because we had to stop and wait for the landslides to get cleared off the road. We spent the night in the village of Pilcopata.
Day 2: Riverboating through el Rio de Madre de Dios
Before getting dropped off at the port, we stopped at a small animal reserve where rescued jungle animals are rehabilitated. We met Anita, the spider-monkey (I don´t know why its name is Anita, when it was obviously male), a squirrel monkey, a capybara (aka giant rodent), a wild pig, something that looked like a raccoon, a couple macaws, and a SLOTH!
A capybara and me. I like this little guy, and he seems to like me. Must be because of my tribal facepaint, indicating that I´m a single lady.
Anita the spider-monkey running away from the little squirrel-monkey
At the port, we picked up our trusty rainboots (Thank God they actually had my size!) and boarded the riverboat in el Rio de Madre de Dios, which eventually connects to the Amazon River. We were told we would get to go swimming in the river when the sun came out. We were also warned not to urinate in the river because there is a tiny fish, called Candira, that follows the trail of your urine and swims up your urethra and causes all sorts of problems. Noted. So the boat pulled over by a tiny beach and we jumped out. Our guide and our cook donned life vests, but didn´t hand any to us. Then they proceeded to jump back into the river, riding the current, and told us to follow them. I hate swimming in open water. All my friends jumped in the river, and I freaked out and jumped back in the boat. Fortunately, Mallory yelled at me to jump in and reassured me that the water was shallow. I´m so thankful she did that because the water was, in fact, fine and it was so much fun! The boat had turned around and stopped ahead of us downstream. The current was pretty strong so it was interesting when we all had to come short of crashing into the boat and hold on for dear life as we crawled back into it. Next, w stopped at a stretch of black sand beach where our guides showed us how to make black mud. We lathered ourselves with it so that our bodies were completely black. Naturally it turned into a sloppy mud-slinging war. We laid out in the sun for 10 minutes to let the mud dry and washed it off in the river. Mudbath, jungle style. After the water activities, we docked at our lodge, which we had to hike up a steep, muddy trail to get to from the river. There was good reason why we picked up rainboots for each of us.
Day 3: 2nd Jungle hike and the Lake
We were supposed to wake up at 4:30 am, but our activities are determined by environmental conditions. I have never been so grateful to wake up to the sound of pouring rain against our tin roof in the middle of the night. We got to sleep in until about 7:30 am! We boarded our boat and crossed the river to hike a much easier trail. We checked out a botanical garden and saw some medical plants. One tree bled blood-red sap when you cut into it. The sap is applied onto cuts and abrasions to help heal your skin. A lot of plants and fruits are aphrodisiacs in the jungle. On our hike we drank medical water out of a bamboo-like tree branch. We also saw 2 giant cedar trees. Their roots fan out and naturally make a perfect bathroom stall, not that I used it as a bathroom. It was tempting, but the possibility of snakes living in there killed that idea. With all sorts of trees fallen over on the trail, we successfully managed to get a little lost. Don´t worry we found our way without losing much time.
Later in the afternoon, we went on our second night hike. We crossed the river in our boat again, and walked through some reeds to hike a flat, but marshy, trail. We stopped at an animal sanctuary lake where we split our group into two rafts. I´m talking Pinocchio and Gippetto style rafts from the Disney movie. We slowly meandered through the reedy lake looking for animals. We mostly saw these birds, whose name I forgot, that are related to turkeys (but can actually fly up into trees) and ferment their food when they digest, emanating a distinct smell. We were looking for capybaras (they have webbed feet for swimming!) and caimans (related to alligators and crocodiles). It got dark by the time we turned our rafts around and our torches weren´t very bright, but we were able to see a capybara swimming across the lake ahead of us... well I mean we saw its water ripples and splashes trailing behind it. We also saw red eyes of a caiman in the dark water. After the lake, we hiked over to a dark lagoon where a caiman was sitting. We could see its red eyes in the water, but not its body. Our guide told me that caiman can be 1.5 to 8 meters long from head to tail. We had no idea how big that caiman was. We threw sticks at it to try to make it move so we could see better, but thankfully it remained still as a rock. Ya...we were basically antagonizing an alligator.
After getting bored with the caiman we hiked the trail back the way we came. I previously mentioned that this was a very marshy trail. There were parts where we had to walk over logs across the water, and parts where we had to wade through boot-high water. During the 2 hours or so while we were hiking and floating in the lake, the river rose by about 3 feet! What was boot-high water at the beginning, was now waist high water that we had to wade through. Then, where there was no river before, now there was a river with a current that we had to forge! Thank goodness for Joe, he literally had my back while I was using my best form of body mechanics against the current to cross, and our guide grabbed my arm and pulled me the rest of the way to shore. Our guys were at the end of the line to cross. The current was so strong, our last guy lost his balance and nearly fell in. All the guys quickly linked arms to pull each other to safety. The only thing I could think of crossing that piece of river was, ¨This current is going to sweep me away into the lagoon with the caiman that we were just throwing sticks at 20 minutes ago.¨
Our water issues were not over yet. We came to the last stretch of water we needed to cross, and our boatman was waiting just on the other side of the reeds. But of course, the water had risen too deep to wade through. So, our guide started yelling, ¨Frederico! No puedo pasar! Ven aqui!¨, across the reeds. Thank goodness for jungle men and their jungle senses. Frederico actually HEARD us yelling! He maneuvered the boat to the water where we were stuck...but then he got stuck because of a tree. So, our guide busted out his machete and carved a new path for us through the reeds so we could get to our boat. We made it! Now, we just had to drive the boat in the dark, with no light, against the current back to the lodge without capsizing. We celebrated our survival (again) with dinner and muchas cervezas.
I was so ready to crash in bed, but of course, the adventure was not over yet. Shelby found a giant cockroach in our room. She was gesturing that it was as big as her hand, and of course, I didn´t believe her. We set ourselves up in cockroach killing positions, she had the can of cockroach-killer spray, and I was ready to pull back the shirts and jackets hanging on the wall behind which the not-so-little bugger was hiding. I pulled a shirt back...nothing. We decided to switch roles, now I had the can. Shelby pulled back another shirt...nothing. She pulled back Helena´s jacket...nothing...oh wait THERE! It was camouflaged against the wall. It was literally the length of the palm of my hand. Shelby was exaggerating a little bit, but nonetheless, it was ginormous! We hosed it down as it continued to do its pre-death scurry towards Helena´s bed. We hosed it down so more. It finally stopped moving and I kicked it out of our room. Of course, this was all done maturely and quietly... not. Good thing our walls were paper-thin. I thought the cockroaches in my house in Texas were big. Nope. Sorry Texas, everything is bigger in the jungle.
Day 4: Canopy walk and the roadtrip back to Cusco
We said goodbye to the lodge and enjoyed a beautiful morning boat ride back to the port... until a wave splashed us in our only dry clothes. I knew I should have hidden under my poncho from the start! I was worried about the road conditions and landslides since it rained all weekend. We were lucky. I think we were only stalled twice or thrice. Granted, I was passed out from Drammamine, so I could have missed a couple. We stopped at a canopy walk in the Cloud Forest, near the entrance to the park. It was a nice little walk. We saw a small snake. We got to cross 2 suspension bridges above the valley. Don´t worry they were so sturdy that only 4 people could cross at a time. It was a nice little break from sitting in the bus. We made it to Cusco that night safe and sound.
No more crazy adventures for me until rainy season ends. I hope you all have a Feliz Navidad! Shelby and I are playing Santa Clause for our 5 patients at the leukemia ward we currently work at. We asked them what they wanted from Santa earlier this week. If any readers would like to help us buy their presents, any donation would be much appreciated. My PayPal account is under firstname.lastname@example.org. (mark your donation as a ¨gift¨so you´re not charged a fee). Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!