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Be careful, it´s a jungle out there. May 6, 2007

Posted by Cheryl in culture, Peru, South America.

Whilst at the South American Explorers Club we noticed they were running a trip to the Manu National Park which is reputed to be one of the most unspoilt tracts of virgin rain forest in South America.  The trip was only for 4 days so it would slot nicely into our itinerary before the Inca Trail, and it was also excellent value, being run not for profit by a new company setting up a tourist industry in their section of the jungle to help the local people make a living, seeing their old livelihood of logging has been outlawed in the park. 

We set off in good spirits from Cusco cramped into the back of a mini bus for the 9 hour journey down to the rain forest.  En route we stopped at the pretty town of Paucartambo on the edge of the jungle.  It has a number of beautiful colonial buildings in their trademark white with blue balconies and an over powering smell of pee.  Paucartambo like many places in this area was an Inca town, and when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived here, the Incas had all fled into the jungle.  Legend has it that they wouldn´t have fled randomly into the jungle and must have left for a place in the jungle that was there already.  The Conquistadors followed them into the jungle, but weren´t fit for jungle warfare and after a number of their men had been slain, they returned to Paucartambo and made that their last stronghold.  People in the area still strongly believe in the existence of an Inca city in the jungle which has never been found and there have been a number of expeditions over the years to try to find this city.  Nobody has yet found it, but when you see the thick carpet of trees and vegetation over the jungle, you can readily imagine that there could be an ancient city hidden beneath it.

Manu National Park 

The road from Paucartambo to Pilcapata in Manu National Park was really terribly hairy.  We could see where the road had recently been completely washed away in landslides and was still being rebuilt.  The mud was so thick that the minivan slid all over whilst the sheer drops off the road into the jungle below left us clinging to our seats.  On a couple of occasions, we came head to head with a lorry coming in the opposite direction on one of the tight hairpin bends.  Really, I would rather not have been sitting at the front of the car to witness this first hand.

With the harrowing journey over, we were finally in Pilcapata village to enjoy the warm steamy jungle which had us feeling sticky in seconds and the mosquitoes (though not nearly as many of them as I imagined).  We rode horses out to one of the small communities in the jungle, which blew out any romantic notions I harboured of what a jungle community would be like.  The community, though still leading a very simple rural life and living off the land, are not completely untouched by modern life and outside each wooden house, was a neat sink plumbed into a block of stone and concrete.  The people were perfectly friendly, spoke Spanish as a second language, and weren´t nearly as savage as I´d hoped.  They even let us play with their bows and arrows made from palm trees, which they maintain that they still hunt with, though I´m not convinced that wasn´t just the patter for the tourists. 

They have a small medical center in the community, which they apparantly all eschew in favour of the local “pharmacy” which is a section of medicinal plants that they´ve cultivated over the years.  It is very interesting to see people living so close to the land, and who can blame them for their modern conveniences where it makes what must be a hard life that bit easier.  After taking us for a swim in a beautiful spot where the river makes a natural pool, we were “treated” to their home brew alcohol called “chicha” which is made from the yucca plant (similar to the potato).  We spilt the first bit of chicha onto the ground as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth)  according to local custom before imbibing.  I had heard that they chew the yucca to soften it before spitting it out and using it to make the chicha.  I swear it wasn´t only this that put me off, but the stuff was really pretty foul.  I abstained as far as possible whilst trying not to appear too rude.

The following day we took a boat trip on one of the wide local rivers for some typical jungle scenery.  It was very beautiful.  We left the boat and walked into the jungle with a guide who showed us some fascinating plants including a fern which rolled up it´s fronds when you touched it, a tree which bled red blood, the “leche leche” (milky milk) tree which bled milk and vines which when sliced open poured out clear spring water.  The leaf cutter ants were incredible, lines of them that seemed to go on for ever with marching ants carrying segments of leaf back to the nest.  We saw some of them slicing through the leaves with their knife like jaws.  They are fascinating creatures who are apparantly the only creatures apart from humans which cultivate their own food.  They take the leaves back to their nest where they are put in green houses where a fungus grows on the mulch.  The ants live on this fungus.  When the leaves are dead, they are removed from the nest and new ones brought in. 

On our last evening there was a big fiesta with all the locals doing Peruvian dances.  We went and watched them in the village square sporting their elaborate local costumes and doing local dances.  The small children were first and their dancing was very comical.  An intriguing view into a life that is so very different from our own.



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