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September 26, 2004

The Jungle

I spent five days in the jungle last week. Or more accurately, about 3 days in the jungle and 2 days driving there and back. The more upscale tours drive in and fly back, and now I understand why. It's an interesting drive, but grueling, and there's little need to do it more than once. Except, I suppose, to transition mentally and physically out of the jungle the same way you transition in. My group was Dante, the guide; Lukas, a guy from Switzerland taking Spanish at the same school; and me.

Dante picked us up in his aging 4x4 jeep about 7:00 Monday morning and we headed out. About 30 minutes outside Cusco, we headed up into the mountains on a narrow, winding dirt road. The next 2 1/2 hours were dry and dusty; dust puffed in through cracks in the floor or something, and my feet, my backpack, my hair, and my lungs, were all coated in a layer of very fine, yellowish dust. It was hard to breathe, and hard to think about much else but the dust.

We made a brief stop at a pre-Incan burial site, and a few hours later stopped in the first town of any real size, Paucartambo, for lunch and a welcome chance to stretch our legs and de-dust a bit. We walked around the town while our lunch was being prepared and Dante told us about the big folkloric dance festival held there every July, and about the local folklore about the son of the mountain and the annual pilgrimage up the hill on the winter solstice to be blessed by the first light of the new year.

After another hour or so of dust and brown rolling hills, we crossed a final ridge and suddenly entered a much wetter, greener, lusher environment. Apparently the mountains keep the moisture of the Amazon basin from moving any further west, so there's a stark contrast between the humid, moist atmosphere of the Amazon west of the Andes and the dry, dusty expanse on the east side, along the coast. The drive got more interesting as we headed into the bosque nublado, or cloud forest, then into the high jungle where we'd spend the next few days. The cloud forest is literally in the clouds most of the day, so it's especially moist, and different plants thrive there than in the jungle proper, at a lower altitude. The hillsides grew more and more green the further east we traveled. At one point, Dante let us out to walk a portion of the way, so we could move more slowly and see the abundant plant life and hear and see the animals. Throughout our time in the jungle, we could hear many, many more animals than we ever saw. So many of them stay hidden, or are nocturnal, that it's quite difficult to see very many, especially on a short trip. But we did see some birds called cock of the rocks, that are rather famous in the cloud forest for their brazen mating dances and the male's bright red breast feathers. As we met up with Dante about 1/2 a mile down the hill, he pointed out some brown capuchin monkeys hiding in the trees near the car. Lukas and I started snapping photos, and then I was worried we were taking too long, and I'd gotten the impression that there are plenty of monkeys to be seen, so I said as much to Dante as I headed towards the car, but he said "No, esta suerte"--This is lucky. So I went back and took more pictures!

A little while later, Dante unexpectedly stopped the car in the road. I looked around for what exciting wildlife we might get to see next. Dante said (in English) "Maybe not just me, but I step on a snake." It slowly dawned on me what he meant, and we got out of the car to survey the damage. The 2-foot-long, bright green vine snake, deemed to have been dead before our arrival, was flung off the road, and we continued on our way. I had my eye out for snakes on every single hike we took, especially after later seeing in Dante's field guide just how many exist in the jungle, but for better or worse, this is the
only one we saw on the entire trip!

We finally arrived at our first destination, the Albergue Gallito de la Roca (named after the Cock of the Rocks) in the tiny jungle town of Pilcopata, about 4:00. We rinsed off all the dust, blew the dirt from our noses, and then walked around most of town in about 15 minutes. This area just got electricity about a year ago, and it's still a mellow, relaxing place. We headed to bed about 9:00 since we had to get up early the next morning. The next day we drove about 30 minutes to an even smaller town, Atalaya, on the bank of the Rio Alta Madre de Dios, one of the tributaries that eventually feeds into the Amazon River somewhere in Brazil. There, we transferred all the gear from the jeep into a boat, and met Horatio, Jesus, and Carlos, guys who live in the area and work for the tour company, and who would be with us for the next three days. Dante said we'd be traveling upstream to the campamento, which made me assume it would be a pretty bare-bones structure. After just a 10-minute boat ride upstream, a fabulous, treehouse-looking structure appeared on a cliff above the water. I sighed, wishing we could stay in a place like that, which surely was reserved for much more expensive tours than ours. But the boat headed towards the bank, and I realized that this was, indeed, to be our home for the next two nights. I couldn't believe it! It was everything I'd hoped a jungle lodge could be, with a porch overhanging the water, complete with a hammock and rocking chair; and two huge covered platforms, one with a big dining table; and one for sleeping, where we each had our own tent. Even though we were so close to Atalaya, I didn't see a single other person or boat pass our lodge the whole time we were there.

We relaxed that morning and went for a swim, which required walking through the jungle, barefoot, about 15 minutes upstream. I didn't know this was what I was getting into, and I couldn't believe I was walking barefoot through the jungle! Thankfully I didn't see any living things besides ants on the way, but it was rough going on my woefully soft feet. We came out to the river at some huge rocks, where you could jump into the water from either 30 or 10 feet. I went for the lower option, which was still a little freaky. We then swam across the river to a waterfall, then back across the river to the lodge. It was a tough swim, as you had to shoot a bit upstream and fight against the current, hoping you'd make your mark and not be swept downstream. After lunch, we went out in the boat to search for caiman, animals kind of like alligators that are common in the jungle. We didn't find any, but we then stopped in another spot where there were tons of food plants growing, like avocados, limes, lemons, bananas, mandarins, coffee, and cacao. The cacao trees had some pods that were in their wet stage, when you can cut them open and suck on the wet, slimy fruit that surrounds the seeds that can later be used to make chocolate. It looked really gross, but the flavor was good. We sampled a few other things too, and it was cool to be eating fruit right off the tree, in its purest form.

Day three was the toughest, as we got up at dawn (not that difficult, I soon learned, as the sounds of the jungle begin to escalate as the sun comes up!) and rode upstream about 20 minutes, then hiked 1 1/2 hours back to camp. I'm not sure why we had to get up so early for that hike, but it was interesting. This and the one before were done in rubber boots, which Dante insisted was better, as a precaution against snakes, which I certainly couldn't argue with, but it was tough going and I was worried it would be hard on my foot, which needs arch support to be happy. Thankfully, my foot wasn't much of a problem all day. After a huge breakfast, including guacamole (brilliant--guacamole for breakfast!), and a little relaxing, we set out on another hike, this one to last several hours and starting off with a huge climb practically straight up the mountain. It was really tough going, and Dante and Lukas were moving much faster than me. I felt like it was a race, and I wasn't enjoying myself at all as I tried to keep up with them. I felt like I was missing out on some of the explanations Dante was providing about things we passed since I was further behind. And the worst thing about being last is that they would wait, and then
start moving again as soon as I caught up, so I never got to rest. Once I just worried about myself, and took time to rest, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle surrounding me, it was much better. Jesus accompanied us on several of these hikes, and was wonderful about being patient and staying behind me, which was reassuring and prevented me from feeling stranded in the jungle! The view from the top of the mountain on this hike was pretty amazing, and Jesus passed around cups of juice and some snacks that he'd carried all the way up there. The terrible swarms of bugs were the only things preventing us from staying there a long time. The way back was just as tough, heading almost straight down and it was hard for me to find proper footing and it took a long, long time to get back, it seemed. My thighs were killing me, and my calf was getting tight too. We were supposed to go play soccer with some local kids in Atalaya that afternoon, and I told Lukas I probably wouldn't play since I could hardly walk, and he said "You don't do much walking at home?" I could think of no response except "Yes, I do." I realized later, though, that he probably meant hiking, not walking, and I can attest that this was certainly nothing like my walk to and from BART in San Francisco every day. I also figured out later why Lukas was so far ahead of me on all the hikes. He's from Switzerland, where they learn to walk on hiking trails, and he goes tromping right through any terrain like a tank, hardly even slowing down to navigate a route or decide where to place his feet, even when crossing streams and such. The last thing I wanted to do after finishing the second hike was walk some more, but the call of the river was too strong, so I found myself walking barefoot through the jungle again. This time Jesus walked in front of me, clearing debris out of the way for me, which helped a little, but not much.

In the morning, we left the lodge a little begrudgingly, and headed back through Atalaya to Pilcopata, where we packed just enough stuff for one night and headed off on a 2-hour hike to a native community in the mountains. Luckily most of this hike was on a dirt road, or I might not have made it! It was also fully in the sun, though, which made it much more difficult. We basically camped out that night, although thankfully our tents were under a thatched roof, because it poured that afternoon.

I though that visiting this community would be a highlight of the trip, but it was actually a bit of a disappointment. Dante didn't tell us very much about the community. What little I know--that the official community's been there about 30 years, but these people have lived in this area for thousands of years; that an American volunteer helped them set up a safe water supply; that the local chief is a world-renowned expert in medicinal plants--I learned only by asking questions. We wandered around in the afternoon to a few people's houses, but didn't stay long, and hardly had a chance to talk to them at all. All of the kids were off on a field trip, and it was threatening rain, so it was very quiet. I'm not sure what the point was in our going there if there was to be no cultural exchange of any kind. Oh well. At least there was a very nice swimming hole!

It was sooooo humid and hot that night, I hardly slept. I was thankful when morning came, and slightly happy to be heading back to Cusco, where I could dry out! The drive back was much like the way out, but Dante was able to patch a few holes with chewing gum wrappers (really!) so the dust was much less of a problem. I read most of the way back, amazingly not getting carsick. Reading was better than keeping an eye out for trucks coming the other direction, which made me nervous, even though Dante's driving was good and we made it back in one place, arriving back in Cusco by 6:00 pm on Friday. And that's my trip to
Parque Manu in one very big nutshell! I'm really glad I had a chance to go, and despite my earlier concerns, I think it was a sufficient amount of time, and I got a decent sense of what the jungle is like, and it was great to see a different part of Peru.

Posted by Amy on September 26, 2004 04:37 PM
Category: Peru

don't you feel like Ironwoman now? How's your PF holding up?

Posted by: cg on September 27, 2004 10:11 AM

Love reading your posts, keep 'em coming. Did you know Doug Christie of the Sacto Kings also is suffering from plantar fasciitis? But he's out for 4 weeks and you're scaling peaks in Peru...

Posted by: jld on September 27, 2004 03:50 PM


I love your travel log. It makes me want to go back to my Peace Corps days.

Posted by: Duyen on September 27, 2004 05:13 PM

you are such a bad-ass. way to conquer the jungle! i like the gum wrappers idea. might try that on my next beater car.

Posted by: mia on September 28, 2004 02:57 PM
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