Peru Adventure

Walking through the jungle in Manu National Park, I could almost hear the Giant Otters calling to me. This was my second trip to Peru – on my first visit, rain foiled my only chance to see these animals. Now, we were heading for an oxbow lake, where a family of otters is frequently seen. I could hardly wait.

But something else was calling first. High in the trees, we heard a sound like distant jet engines – Howler Monkeys roaring. Our wilderness guide, Renzo, stopped and held up his hand. We all froze, looking up. There was a crashing of branches, and suddenly, we were surrounded by Squirrel Monkeys, dozens of them, leaping and scampering from tree to tree. About a foot long (plus tail), tan with black muzzles, they are cute as can be, the acrobats of the rainforest. Far above us were the Howlers. It took me a while to spot them – when I did, I was startled by their size. Powerfully built, with tawny red fur and manelike beards, they reminded me of lions. Renzo told us that these monkeys live at the lake, and are part of a mixed troop that always travels together.

Our monkey encounter was the highlight of a day filled with amazing experiences. That morning, we rose before dawn so we could reach the macaw lick by sunrise. We sat quietly in a large blind, watching a cliff above the river where parrots and macaws flock each morning to eat the mineral-rich clay. The parrots began to arrive shortly after we did, and soon there were 30 or so Blue-Headed, Orange-Cheeked and Mealy parrots clinging to the cliff. Some time later, the first Red-and-Green Macaws gathered in the treetops. The parrots, following a strict protocol, dispersed, leaving the clay for the larger birds. The macaws were skittish, though – they would drop from branch to branch, getting lower and lower, but before they reached the cliff face, something would spook them and they’d fly off, squawking. Finally, they decided all was well, and one after another they moved onto the cliff, until there were more than a hundred, bedecking the wall like jewels.

After the macaws and the monkeys, it didn’t seem like the day could get any better. We continued to the oxbow lake and climbed onto our boat. Two oarsmen paddled us across the glassy water as we sat and watched nature unfold. Manu is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and during our excursion, we saw a least 12 different species of birds – Horned Screamers, Hoatzins with their Vegas-showgirl headdresses, and Jacanas (called “Jesus birds” because they appear to walk on water), to name a few. As we reached the middle of the lake, we saw three dark heads bobbing – Giant River Otters! They swam past us, big and sleek, nearly six feet long, with large, blunt faces and thick tails. One had caught a fish and was swimming on his back, gnawing on it. These aren’t the cuddly sea otters of California’s Monterey Bay – they’re strong, cunning predators, but with a sense of playfulness and mischief.

All told, we spent 13 days in Peru. Our tour was designed to explore the country’s remarkable biodiversity, and it more than delivered. Peru has an amazing variety of terrain – miles of coast, rugged peaks, lush jungles and cloud forests, arid plateaus – and we experienced it all. Unforgettable images stacked up like firewood: the Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru’s national bird, performing a mating dance; the floating Uros village on Lake Titicaca (where the boats, houses and even the islands themselves are made of reeds); and of course, the famous Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu. But the memory that stands out most vividly is our incredible day in the jungles of Manu.

Ellen Hall