We Went to the Amazon (and Saw a Swimming Jaguar)!

Blanquillo Clay Lick

“Run away!” These are two words we didn’t want to hear from our guide in the Amazon jungle.

Already backing away from the growing buzz, we turned and ran back up the trail as the bees poured out of the hive in the massive clump of bromeliads that had fallen from the jungle canopy a few days before. Michel, our guide, and Jason, our new Aussie birding friend, stirred them up as they walked ahead of us.

We watched from a distance as the swarm slowly mellowed, and after we walked-quietly-then-ran past the obstacle nearly blocking the trail, we rejoined Michel and Jason and laughed, “Everything here wants to kill us.”

The sun was setting, the trogons were calling, and we were discovering the mysteries of the Amazonian jungle.

Cocha Salvador

Erin booked our nine-day trip to Manu National Park before we left the U.S. When she was a kid she read a Scholastic story about a plane going down in the Peruvian Amazon and a girl somehow surviving in the jungle by drinking her own urine, eating frogs, etc. It was by far the most important destination on our trip. “I have to go to the Peruvian Amazon,” Erin told at least 70 people before we left.

Capybara - Manu Reserve Capybaras are the world’s largest rodent. Apparently tasty too, because you don’t see them outside of the Reserve Zone.

Manu National Park is one of those very special places in the world. It is a subwatershed within the greater Amazon Basin and encompasses both high-elevation cloud forests and the dank lowland jungle. It is home to 15,000 plant species, 1,000 bird species, and has earned labels like “biosphere reserve” and “world heritage site.” At 4.5 million acres (about the size of Delaware), the Park is one of the largest protected rainforests on earth.

 Scientists have recorded 2,000 species of insects in just one of the enormous kapok (ceiba) trees

A number of communities lived in this ecosystem until, in the 1920’s, Mr. Ford and his Model T invaded. Well, actually it was the rubber industry. People from different tribes in the Manu area were enslaved by rubber entrepenours and those tribes were forever lost.

The rubber boom was thankfully shortlived, but in the 1970’s a logging road was punched into the forest and the valuable cedar and mahogany trees began disappearing. Luckily, with the timber barons came a few people, including a famous Polish-Peruvian taxidermist, who saw (and stuffed) the animals that were being lost, and advocated for a park, which was created in 1973.

Today, the mystery of the Manu is probably best represented by the Mashco-Piro people, an “uncontacted” nomadic tribe that lives within the Park boundaries. Those people who were enslaved to work the rubber industry? A group of them escaped and settled in what would become Manu National Park. Thus the vast majority of Manu is completely off-limits to people, which has allowed this “new” tribe of people to remain undisturbed for decades. However, a number of recent contacts have occured with the Mashco-Piro, including a raid of one of the guard stations upriver from where stayed, which is now closed.

Last morning on the boat

Trip mates Jason, Theresa, and Christine. Not indigenous.

Our visit to the Manu began with the tour van picking us up at 4:30am in Cusco, and by mid-morning we were at the Park entrance, surprisingly 10,000 feet high in the mountains. By this time we had established two important things: 1) Our guide Michel was well-versed in birds and his English was good; and 2) The third member of our tour group, Jason, was the exact opposite of what we expected/feared for our 9-day trip — a comfort-seeking 60-something who booked this on a whim to see some monkeys.

No, Jason is a 31-year-old Aussie bird-nerd who will ignore a small army of mosquitoes picnicking on his arm if it means he can get a good picture of the Drab Water Tyrant. Turns out he has a great eye, too. We were ready to rock.

   Ready to rock

Our impromptu birding session (flowerpiercers, tanagers and hummingbirds) at the park entrance ended and we began to drive down, waaay down, a road that clearly has no business existing. Halfway through we were informed that the primary bridge was under repair so we would be walking our gear across a new temporary bridge to a different van waiting for us. Fine.

Walking across the bridge under repair

Not pictured: the bee stinging Erin’s ankle while carrying boxes over a 500ft-high temporary bridge

Terrifying road in Manu National Park Landslides dotted the valleys, including above and below the road

But the new “van” was actually a short bus circa 1980 that barely fit on the one-lane gravel road (and I use that term loosely) with 1,000-foot dropoffs enough to give anyone’s sphincter a workout. Our only solace was that the bus was driven by an old logger-turned-tour-driver who knew the road like the back of his hand. Unfortunately that didn’t stop Erin from nearly having a nervous breakdown as we plied the cliff-side road.

Our 14-hour travel day ended when the sun set at 6pm and we arrived at our first night’s accomodations. But not before seeing wooly monkeys and more incredible birds, including one of the most unreal birds you can imagine: the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. It is one of the stupidest names for one of the stupidest looking birds you have ever seen. Oh, it is also the national bird of Peru. And we got to watch about 7 of them attempt to impress some non-existant female birds at their mating lek.

Andean Cock of the Rock                               I will buy a Coke for whoever can come up with the best caption for this Cock-of-the-Rock photo

“Breakfast at 5,” said Michel. Our second day started early because we had to catch our boat and start our journey down the Madre de Dios River to our next lodge. We arrived at the bustling gateway community of Atalaya and said goodbye to cars for the next six days.

Boarding the boat in Atalaya

I’m on a boat!

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Mom and kitty in Atalaya

On our boat ride we passed farms burning in between chunks of second-growth jungle, small piles of large-dimension lumber sitting mysteriously on the shore, and many boats going up and down the river. The boat drivers didn’t wave to each other. They weren’t sharing an adventure. There were tourists like us and then there were people working; working in the buffer zone of Manu National Park. And that is when it hit home: the Amazon is not as untouched as I thought. Even in National Parks. Not by a long shot.

Cattle Grazing - Madre de Dios River

The slashing and burning of jungle for cattle is still a reality

Growing up with National Geographic magazine and Nature, I had sewn a mental quilt of what the Amazon should look like: unbroken jungle for days with primal-looking people living in anonimity and intrepid adventurers visiting with much effort and sacrifice.

It turns out the Amazon is more like a patchwork quilt, and only a few squares are like I imagined. The rest, the majority, is cleared, farmed, burned, logged, mined, and more recently, squeezed for oil and gas. It reminded me of the moment in college when I learned that only ~10% of our forests in the United States were untouched by logging.

But I digress. Back to the jungle. This is a hoatzin that we saw on our first day on the boat. They make scary hissing noises and babies are born with claws on their wings. Seriously.

Hoatzins Hoatzin – craziest looking bird on earth?

Our first afternoon at the Pantiacolla Lodge was a time to get settled, since we would be here for three nights. Erin relaxed in the hammock on the deck of our shared cabina and I decided to bite the bullet and drink some stupid Nestle instant coffee.

For those who don’t know us, we boycott Nestle because it has tried for six years to bottle public water in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area an hour from our house (read more). My organization, Bark, and a ton of others have succeeded in stopping the proposal so far.) The humidity and heat was making me fall asleep standing up, so there. I drank the Nescafe.

And thank goodness, because I was wide awake when a troop of tamarin monkeys came passing by us at the beginning of our afternoon bird walk.

Saddle-back tamarin video

              Female saddle-back tamarins mate with multiple males, ensuring the multiple “dads” help her carry the babies, which are unusually large for young primates.

The next morning I was at the dining hall at Pantiacolla at 5am, waiting for the group to congregate and head to our first parrot clay lick, when I heard an ominous roar in the distance like that perfected by Hollywood sound engineers to portend doom. I convinced myself that I was hearing static from the lodge radio. Then the male red howler monkey in the tree 100 yards in front of me responded to the miles-away call with his own roar.

This is what they sound like

Red Howler Monkeys - Pantiacolla Lodge

Red howler monkeys lounging around

After a wonderful morning of birding at the clay lick we went further upriver to a hot springs. Yup, you heard that right. It was 80 degrees outside, 80 percent humidty, and we went to a hotsprings. It was awesome.

Alex taking a hot shower

The stream water pouring in at a “cold” 75 degrees to offset the scalding thermal spring feeding the pool

There we were joined by our two other tripmates: Christine, a 60-ish British molecular biologist living in Germany and Theresa, a young Chinese tourist. They arrived to the hotsprings on a different boat and together we went back to our lodge. Christine was packing binoculars and a copy of Birds of Peru (yay!) and Theresa was packing a nice camera and was excited about everything that moved (phew!). Our team complete, we went for a bird hike that afternoon.

Bullet ant - most painful sting and bit in the insect world

Our birding hikes always included finding some of these guys on the trail. You don’t ever ever ever want to get stung by a bullet ant

“On the boat at 5,” said Michel. Nobody is complaining about the ten-hour boat ride because today we enter the Manu Reserve Zone. No logging, no farming, only a limited number of tourists and what a difference it made. Pantiacolla, our tour company, owns a big chunk of land, which explains the tamarins and great birds at the lodge, but once your boat turns off of the Madre de Dios River and starts up the Manu River into the reserve, everything changes.

First of all, the river is chocolatey with soil being washed down river. Unlike the Madre de Dios, the Manu does not start in the mountains, it drains highly erosive jungle soils. Secondly, the wildlife didn’t just start showing up, it literally came to us in our boat.

Oops sorry, our pic isn’t that great. Turns out when animals swim to your boat you lose control of your body.    

Collared peccary

Jason did a little better. Thanks for the photo!

The collared peccary huffed and puffed its way across the river and when it made it to shore it slowly moseyed across 100 yards of sandy beach, despite being easy prey in plain sight.

Swimming Jaguar - Manu Reserve

Jaguar head

Yup, 15 minutes after a tropical pig swam by our boat, the top predator of the jungle also swam right in front of our boat. According to Michel, we had a 10%-15% chance of seeing a jaguar, and all of us thought that was the percent chance of seeing a spotted cat butt disappear into the forest. Instead, we got to watch one of the most powerful animals I have ever seen drift by while we soaked it in.

Thankfully Jason took this video:

Jaguar video

The jaguar is the third largest wild cat in the world and has the strongest bite for its size of any cat. After watching it drag itself out of the river I can say that the jaguar is built like a tank.

Okay, one more photo from Jason:

Jaguar photo

It’s a boy!

Honestly, after this happened we were all stunned. There were a lot of “I can’t believe it”s. The trip could have ended there and we would all have agreed we got our money’s worth. But it was only day five! And besides, that very same afternoon we had another magical wildlife encounter.

Giant otters, or los lobos del rio as they are known in the Manu, are the largest and cutest members of the weasel family. The are highly endangered and increasingly popular thanks to a wonderful special by the BBC.

Salvador Lake, an oxbow lake formed by a former channel of the Manu River, is home to the famous family of otters in the TV show. And after 10 hours in the boat, still shaking our heads at the jaguar, we arrived at our camp in the Manu Reserve for the next two nights and immediately walked 30 minutes to the lake and began paddling around looking for otters. And there they were: eight adults and four babies.

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                 Giant otters are identified by their neck markings.

In silence the five of us watched the otters as the sun set with no concern for the pitch-dark hike through the jungle that awaited us. We had headlamps so no biggie, right? Our headlamps illuminated bullet ants, whip-scorpions, and a seven-inch-long bright yellow leech on our hike back. I can’t imagine what we didn’t see.

Bugs, especially of the biting variety (sand flies, mosquitoes, chiggers, sweat bees, etc) played a large role in our Amazon adventure. Perhaps most memorable were the sweat bees that swarmed our faces while we stood on a platform 120 meters (about 400 feet) up in a giant kapok tree. As we gazed out over the surrounding forest and nearby oxbow lake, they made their best effort to take up residence in our eyes and nostrils. Alex and I couldn’t hack it and descended after about 15 minutes. Back on the jungle floor, we swatted mosquitoes for 20 minutes while we waited for our tripmates.

View of oxbow lake from Observation Platform (120m high) - Tambo Blanquillo

The view from 400 feet in the air

120 meters high in a giant kapok tree

The last morning of our trip, we visited the Blanquillo Clay Lick at dawn, one of the true highlights of the whole tour.

Sunrise Hike to Blanquillo Clay Lick Sunrise on the way to the famous Blanquillo clay lick

Every morning, multiple species of macaw, parrots and parakeet gather to feed at the lick. It is believed that minerals in the clay help in digesting toxins ingested in their regular diet or provide an important source of sodium. Blue-headed, yellow-fronted and orange-cheeked parrots, and the stars, the red and green macaws, all arrived by the dozens or hundreds to feed at the lick. The flurry of color and sounds was breathtaking and a beautiful end to a once-in-a-lifetime trip!

Blanquillo Clay Lick

Our complete album of photos of video of the trip are here.

Manu Bird List: scarlet bellied mountain tanager, mustached flower piercer, brown backed chat tyrant, tyrean metaltail, masked flowerpiercer, mountain wren, black throated flower piercer, shining sunbeam, blue and yellow tanager, variable hawk, white throated tyrannulet, creamy crested spinetail, red crested cotinga, white collared swift, spectacled redstart, black faced brush finch, masked trogan, superciliaried hemispingus, cinnamon flycatcher, blueband toucan, andean potoo, dusky-green oropendola, cock of the rock, highland motmot, plumbeous pigeon, yellow throated tanager, orange-bellied euphonia, green jay, common bush tanager^, black eared hemispingus, golden naped tanager, bronze green euphonia, montane woodcreeper, golden crowned flycatcher, black phoebe^, blue and white swallow^, russet backed oropendola, amozonia blue grey tanager, tropical kingbird^, speckled chacalaca, silver beaked tanager, booted racketail, sparkling violetear, chestnut fronted macaw, red capped cardinal, palm tanager^, dusky headed parakeet, great potoo, yellow rumped cacique, social flycatcher, southern rough winged swallow, violaceous siskin, swallow tanager, violacous jay, bananaquit, grayish saltator^, purplish jay, neotropical cormorant, giant cowbird, white winged swallow, little blue heron, amazon kingfisher, swallow wing, mottled back elaenia, bluish fronted jacamar, long tailed tyrant, black billed thrush, fork tailed woodnymph, black capped donacobius, hoatzin, orange backed troupial, smooth billed ani, striated heron, purple gallinule, pale legged hornero, squirrel cuckoo^, yellow capped woodpecker, yellow browed sparrow, roadside hawk^, burrowing owl, undulated tinamou, cattle egret^, black caracara, fasciated tiger heron, olive oropendola, casqued oropendola, collared trogan, scarlet macaw^, spix’s guan, cinnamon throated woodcreeper, black fronted nunbird, black vulture, lineated woodpecker^, fork-tailed palm swift, black crowned tityra, double collared seedeater, emerald toucantet^, blue throated piping guan, blue crowned trogan, cinerious mourner, yellow bellied dacnis, white eyed parakeet, scarlet hooded barbet, green honeycreeper^, king vulture, white hawk, rufous motmot^, mealy parrot, white fronted nunbird, blue headed macaw, blue headed parrot, gray capped flycatcher, boatbilled flycatcher^, plumbeous kite, white winged swallow, drab water tyrant, yellow billed tern, silver flycatcher, purple honeycreeper, crested oropendula, vermillion flycatcher, streaked flycatcher, buff rumped warbler^, osprey, spotted sandpiper, cocoi heron, pale vented pigeon, ringed kingfisher^, pied lapwing, tui parakeet, cobalt winged parakeet, blue and yellow macaw, large billed tern, black and white hawk eagle, greater yellow headed vulture, horned screamer, black skimmer, anhinga, red and green macaw, sand colored nighthawk, green kingfisher^, orinoco goose, sungrebe, razor billed currasow, collared plover, pale winged trumpeter, green and rufous kingfisher, gray necked wood rail, muscovy duck, wattled jacana, green ibis, purple gallinule, slate colored hawk, agami heron, rufescent tiger heron, bi-colored hawk, pink throated becard, limpkin^, bare necked fruitcrow, sunbittern^, screaming piha, gray breasted martin, wood stork^, capped heron, swallow tailed kite^, yellow crowned parrot, orange cheeked parrot, laughing falcon, chestnut billed seedfinch, short crested flycatcher (^ denotes birds seen in other countries on this trip)

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8 thoughts on “We Went to the Amazon (and Saw a Swimming Jaguar)!

  1. Tom Madden

    How about the caption, “Morty looks for his other Muppet pals in the Amazon.” Amazing story and photos as usual. Great adventure for you to share with us. Love you both, Dad Madden

    Like

  2. Missy

    Holy cats, you guys. Of all your amazing adventures, this one has me with my jaw on the floor. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  3. Joy Keen

    Hey Alex, at least you didn’t drink the Kool-Aid;) But seriously, you have a lot of work to do if you’re going to top the last two blog posts. Let us know when you’re back in civilization and want to do a Skype visit.

    Like

  4. Allie Brown

    Caption: “Who, me?”

    …more than the universe.
    Mom A

    Like

  5. Linda Denslow

    Amazing experience you are having! I am so enjoying your blog. I wouldn’t do well with the mosquitoes! Love all of the wildlife pictures.

    Like

  6. Carrie Richardson

    Amazing stories! You have pretty much scared me out of the Amazon for life with your bug descriptions, so I’m glad to have experienced it from afar. The jaguar was just too amazing. Evelyn loved it. Missing you guys tons and getting more inspired with each post!

    Like

  7. Stanton

    Capybara footnote – because they spend so much time in water, the Catholic church long ago determined that they are ‘fish’ and therefore can be eaten during Lent.

    Like

  8. Jessica

    Amazing as always. Love you both! XO

    Like

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