The Ultimate Guide to Exploring Peru’s Manu National Park

Sunset at the Manu National Park
Sunset at the Manu National Park | © Manuel Orbegozo/WWF Perú
Manuel Orbegozo

Visiting Peru’s Manu National Park is like going back to the origins of life on Earth. As one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Manu National Park in the Amazon is, in the most part, an unexplored paradise with indigenous cultures that haven’t made contact with modern civilization in the last 150 years. Here’s the lowdown.

Manu National Park is home to more than 4,000 animal species and 20,000 different plants, which inhabit the Manu’s vast 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres). You can catch the famous otorongo (jaguar) resting on a tree, or experience Ayahuasca like nowhere else in the world, all while living and sharing with the wonderful Machiguengas people who have welcomed you into their sanctuary; seeing the Manu is a privilege very few get to see.

Cocha Salvador

Access to the park is nearly impossible if you’re not traveling with an organized tour. Jose Chirinos, operations manager for travel agency One Earth Peru, has visited the Manu countless times in the last 10 years.

“Mother Earth will welcome anyone who’s mentally prepared to come to her,” says Chirinos.

Tours like the one offered by One Earth Peru take months to plan as permits are required to enter the sanctuary. The tour begins in Cusco. A van will leave early in the morning, arriving at the Manu National Park gates six to eight hours later. The road is winding and sometimes unpaved, often crossing high peaks, so make sure to take a pill to counteract high altitude sickness.

A short stop is often made in Paucartambo, a colonial town full of Christian traditions where you’ll grab some light lunch.

Two hours later, you’ll arrive at Acjanaco, one of the entrances to the park located at 11,483 feet above sea level. On a clear day, you can see the Manu and the Madre de Dios river from there. Soon, you’ll begin descending, circling mountains for an hour before you get off to see the gallito de las rocas, Peru’s national bird. You’ll notice vegetation getting thicker and the climate more humid. At night, you’ll reach a town called Asunción, where you’ll spend your first night in the Manu. But the trip hasn’t started yet.

Next morning, the tour company will make sure you buy plastic boots for less than $10 that are essential for your trip to the rainforest, as well as tons of repellent and sunblock. Your last stop before hitting the river is Atalaya port, where you’ll read a huge sign that warns visitors of making contact with uncontacted tribes. Atalaya is the civilization between Cusco and Madre de Dios region and the last place you’ll find a store. From here you’ll get on a boat and sail the Madre de Dios river for six hours. During the ride you’ll see two types of jungle, upland and lowland tropical forest and the Andes getting lost in the background.

Atalaya sign that warned outsiders about making contact with isolated natives

Before entering the Manu sanctuary area, you’ll stay at a lodge close by, which is run by families from the Yine ethnic group who can offer to paint ancient symbols on any part of your body using huito (genipa) ink that will last for about a week. Early in the morning, you’ll take another long boat ride to the ranger’s check point. Notice how the river changes color to a brighter brown: it’s the rich sediment of Manu river and this is where your trip truly begins. It’s important to hire a tour company that has legal permits to access the Manu. This way rangers can keep track of who comes in and out as they watch out for illegal loggers.

A baby sloth named Mochila

During your boat ride into the Manu, pay attention to the animals like capybaras, jungle condors and alligators eating or resting on the beach. The Manu has very few lodges available. One of them is Casa Machiguenga, a lodge two hours in from the checkpoint. It is run by Machiguenga natives who were depicted in Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Storyteller, who described them as people who had a strong relationship with nature as well as a complex cosmogony that allowed them to communicate with all the living things in the Manu. Machiguengas are the biggest community in that part of the Manu and very friendly and curious to outside customs. They lived in paradise and they were aware they had to protect it more every day.

Manu scenery near the checkpoint

You should not be concerned about food or water. Every tour to the Manu includes food and unlimited water in their deals, although some offer better quality meals. One Earth hires specialized chefs and a team of assistants who travel with the group and cook three meals a day, including appetizers.

Showers can also be a concern, but most lodges have fully equipped bathrooms for visitors. Take a bar of soap and shampoo. Some lodges offer towels but you should carry yours in case they don’t. Cabins can be outdoors, and every bed has a net to protect you from mosquitoes. It is crucial you get a yellow fever shot 10 days before your trip since there have been cases of people getting bitten by mosquitoes that carry it, although organized tours usually avoid areas where cases are known. If you have a phone remember there’s no signal in the Manu, but most lodges can provide you with a charging station.

Linder, a crew member and a Yine native, contemplates cocha (lagoon) Otorongo

Tours like the one offered by One Earth Peru and Winners Jungle Tour Operator include everyday activities that consist of a morning walk into the wilderness, animal sight-seeing, and spending time with natives – an awesome soccer game in the snow can happen. You can even learn how to hunt by using an arch. A visit to Cocha Salvador, a lagoon with a small island in the middle, is a must. You can hear and see howler monkeys, as well as river otters, the black caiman and a wide variety of birds, so it’s essential you bring binoculars.

An otorongo (jaguar) resting on a fallen tree at cocha Salvador

Ask your tour guide to take you to the Manu’s oldest and tallest tree, the Lupuna, believed to have saved species from extinction after a flood submerged the Earth – similar to the Noah’s Ark narrative. Touch it, hear it breathe. It’s alive and you’ll feel its energy. It’s located near a camp that has been abandoned for a few years after it was attacked by uncontacted natives. You will learn how, during the Caucho Fever from 1879 and 1912, natives were taken in as slaves to work in the rubber industry, deforesting their own land and fighting their own nature. They had to force themselves to seek isolation to avoid abuse.

Mateo, a Matsiguenka curandero (shaman), in a cushma tunic holding a sign that promotes the Manu’s ecological importance

Due to modern illegal logging in the area, uncontacted tribes are starting to emerge after losing their homes and resources, sometimes attacking other communities in a desperate attempt to survive. If your tour guide happens to warn you about their presence, do not make contact since your common flu can wipe out their entire community.

Sunset at the Manu National Park

A trip to the Manu cannot be completed without an Ayahuasca session. It’s a serious mental and physical cleanse that could change anyone’s life in less than three hours. A trip to your deepest self can mean a lot more if done with other natives who fill the session with live music and chants in their language. Your tour guide will let you know of any risks of taking Ayahuasca.

Chirinos believes every group has a different experience when visiting the Manu.

“Most visitors end up feeling like family after traveling together to one of the most remote and well preserved places in the world. The only recommendation is to be respectful to nature and those who inhabit the Manu. This is the only way you’ll be allowed into the heart of the Pachamama (Mother Earth), who’ll receive you with open arms,” he said.

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