Thursday, August 25, 2005


The Pinquen River in Peru meanders through the isolated, barely touristed Manu Biosphere Reserve, which contains some of the world's most diverse flora and fauna. -Photo Credit: National Geographic/Getty Images Photo

The Manu Biosphere Reserve is a sort of buffer zone for the much larger Manu National Park, which is about as big as Switzerland but is off-limits to all but authorized researchers. Located along the eastern slopes of the Andes and sliced by a tributary of the Amazon River, Manu is one of the world's largest biosphere reserves, a U.N. designation for land that includes one or more protected areas managed by the government to promote both conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

As our tour operator's pre-departure guide pointed out, there is actually little "jungle" in the reserve. The vast lowlands of the Amazon Basin are correctly termed "rain forest," but they call it a jungle anyway. There are no herds of antelope sprinting by the Range Rover, either. A rain forest quest is one of tracking, listening, patience.

It boasts 1,000 bird species, 1,300 butterfly species and five different landscapes, each with its own climate, geography, flora and fauna.

Only 800 people visit Manu each year, according to the records at the Manu Wildlife Center, the park's visitors center. There are only three lodges and one tent camp in the buffer zone. All are privately owned concessions that operate within government rules on trash and human waste disposal. Tourists must come in with dedicated guides and are grouped with other small parties that have also hired an authorized guide. Ours was 29-year-old Edward Montalvo, and he was the key to our happiness. Edward's parents, he laughed, thought they were naming him "after an American president, Edward Kennedy."

Well, close.

With a master's degree in biology and a special interest in ethnobotany (the study of how plants are used in a particular culture), Edward could spot a flock of macaws two miles away and a rare bug or leaf inches beyond our footsteps. He heard birds long before he found them with his high-powered binoculars and tripod, which he carried on his back. He helped us find not just a couple of monkeys but enormous troops of monkeys swinging through the second layer of the triple-canopy rain forest.

If you're the kind of vacationer who likes to get up early and keep moving, but your husband and teenage son would rather crack the lodge door at 10, then Edward is your man. With a daily itinerary that began with breakfast at 5 a.m., Edward took the nagging out of the trip. No one wanted to disappoint him. And he didn't want us to miss even one sunrise, or one spider, or one moment of perfectly still bird-watching atop a 30-foot-high lookout.

"I love the nature, and the nature loves me," Edward told us over dinner, as we pried out his life story. A soft-spoken man with the broadest of smiles, Edward preferred, he said, to live mostly alone, in the jungle, than anywhere else in the world. He brought us up into a treehouse, constructed 100 feet up a graceful ceiba tree, and served us a pancake breakfast as the deep orange sun came up and the parrots flew by. Then he coached us, one by one, into actually letting go of the platform and dangling down with only a rope harness. Squeals of delight came from everyone--age 8 to 57--on their acrobatic descent.

Even more, Edward let us see the rain forest through his eyes. He found three-dimensional spider webs, see-through butterflies, the pseudo-suicidal fern (which goes limp when touched, to protect itself) and the amazing vine-tree that "walks" as it devours its host tree. With infectious wonder, he would stop suddenly and point to a hollowed-out tree trunk surrounded by the new tree. There, crawling up the moss, would be a rare primitive spider, with fangs that flex up and down, not to be confused with modern spiders that bite horizontally.

With his bird-watching help, we spotted the hoatzin, a unique prehistoric species; giant hummingbirds; the elusive, crimson-colored cock-of-the-rock; and two species of trogons. On the two occasions we climbed above the rain forest canopy, we discovered not only an elegant, gauzy sunrise but four species of macaws and their bright green parakeet cousins. Not quite beyond the range of his binoculars, we spied a huge crimson-crested woodpecker.

Just Wild About Peru


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