At first we lived in Heaven. Then we found a
large seiba tree, and descended to the Forest. We
liked the Forest more, and decided to stay here.
Cuzco is the most beautiful city of the Americas. Its altitude is 3,800 m above sea level, so it has interesting weather, with splendid sunsets. It is a living museum of architecture, populated with very nice people. Many still wear traditional clothes, speak Quechua, and fly the seven-colored flags of Tawantin Suiu (the Inca Empire) from their rooftops. Local markets are of particular interest to botanists, because Peru is the center of origin for many agricultural plants. You can count ten species of potatoes on one market, all tasting differently.
My main goal was getting to Manu National Park, the last large area in the Andes where all vegetation zones from lowland rainforests to paramos were intact. It was also famous for having the highest level of biodiversity in the world. A ten-day tour to Manu cost $500-2000, and there was no regular transportation.
I went to the park office and asked if they could allow me to visit the park as a guest researcher. They gave me a 40-minute test to make sure I really was a zoologist, and said it was OK if I didn't mind helping rangers from time to time. I didn't mind. Two days later they told me that a boat was to leave for Rio Manu from Shintuya, a village on Rio Alto Madre del Dios. I had a day and a half to get there. I filled my backpack with rice, dragged it to a market from which buses and trucks were leaving for Manu area, and got on a pickup truck to Pilcopata, a village five miles before Shintuya.
The trip across the mountains was scenic, but very cold. Even native people who shared the trunk with me got very cold, despite being dressed in alpaca ponchos. While they were singing monotonous travel songs in Quechua, I watched ibises and other wildlife along the road. Just after sunset we climbed the last pass, and immediately found ourselves in cold clouds. It started raining. Cloud forest was like a black wall around us, only huge white orchids reflected the headlights occasionally.
After two more hours, it got warmer. The clouds disappeared, and millions of fireflies surrounded us. Weird creatures were crossing the road: shrew opossums, spiny arboreal rats, horned frogs. By the time we got to Pilcopata, the air was hot and humid. I spent the rest of the night sleeping on a table at a local market, then hitchhiked to Shintuya, and got on a dugout boat to Romero, a ranger station in the lowest part of the park.
I spent a week there with two rangers. Our job was to check all boats entering or leaving the park, and to tell the tourists about the park rules. Here I was a big help, because the rangers didn't speak English. Boats passed by at noon, so I spent the rest of the day and most nights patrolling surrounding trails. The forest was easy to walk through even between the trails, and there were some cochas (oxbow lakes) around, each with more wildlife than a medium-size zoo. It was the peak of the dry season, so the air was hazy, and the water level in the river very low. There were almost no mosquitoes, so I mostly walked around naked - clothes would make too much noise in the undergrowth. The afternoon hours were hot, so I tried to spend them in the river. I had to put on a swimming suit and a T-shirt to do that, because tiny fish there liked to bite nipples and other protruding parts. Snorkeling was good in the river, but even better in small tributaries. In the lakes the water was mostly too murky, but swimming with giant otters and black caimans was fun.
Rio Manu was meandering widely across the forest. I could hike for half a mile from the ranger station, then jump into the river, and float downstream for six miles until the river delivered me back to the station. It proved to be the best way to see wildlife, not only the common riverside residents such as skimmers, nightjars, and parrots, but also shy creatures that usually disappear if they hear a boat engine: jaguars, guans, wild cats, and many others. The main attraction of river banks were colpas, places where soil contained minerals sought by wildlife. Each colpa had its own kinds of visitors. The most famous ones were macao colpas; others attracted ungulates, monkeys, or small parrots. Swimming up small creeks was also great, because fauna was completely different there.
Surrounded by the unfathomable diversity of the forest, my fellow rangers were bored to death. Fishing wasn't very good because lines got bitten off every few minutes, so their only entertainment was talking on the radio with people all over Eastern Peru and adjacent Brazil. Their only visitors were twelve species of cockroaches and occasional tairas (large marten-like animals, often very tame).
The so-called tourist zone of the park had no native people, and tourists never got far from the river, so it was the best place in South America to see large forest mammals. Peccaries walked around in herds of two hundred or more. Land under fruiting trees was trampled by tapirs, deer, and giant armadillos. A few hours in such a tree was enough time to see hordes of visitors, from monkeys and squirrels to toucans and trogons.
Later the park administration asked me to set up a temporary post higher upstream, near two large oxbows called Cocha Salvador and Cocha Otorongo. I lived in my tent, cooking rice once a day. At daytime, beautiful large Panacea prola butterflies covered me and the tent as one colorful moving carpet. Once army ants went across the tent roof, but couldn't get inside. A local police officer told me that some tourists had been killed by army ants in the early 90-s. They got drunk, and their tent was a fancy one, so they couldn't figure out how to untie the entrance for a few minutes. By the time they got out they'd been bitten so severely that the officer had to shoot them. I don't know if he made up this story or not.
I didn't escape the horrors of the jungle, too. Turning over some rotten logs, I found a tiny Dipsus snake, breathtakingly beautiful. I tried to get it to an open place to take a picture, and got bitten in the back of my hand. The snake wasn't supposed to be venomous, but soon two painful sores developed from the fang marks, and remained visible for almost a year.
Once I was walking along a lakeshore at dusk. The moon was bright, but the sky was still pink. Suddenly I saw two young jaguars playing in the shallows. I was in the middle of the territory of a large black male jaguar, so tame that I managed to take his picture once. But these two were strangers. I watched them play nonstop for at least an hour. It always amazes me how unmeasurably better is the life of a traveling naturalist compared to the pitiful existence of other mortals! Next morning I heard the cats roaring and fighting on a nearby beach. All howler monkeys in the area joined them. I ran to the beach, but saw only tracks of three animals in the sand and some fur, no blood. Apparently the black male either chased the youngsters away easily, or simply made a point and didn't really fight with them. May be they were his kids.
After camping there for a week, I moved to Pakitza, the last ranger station at the edge of non-tourist zone. This was the area of low hills, so instead of periodically flooded forest, the river was surrounded by terra firma, the land which was never flooded. Flora and fauna were absolutely different. Pancho, the only ranger there, was used to talking to Indians, so he spoke slowly and clearly. He was the first person I could normally communicate with in Spanish. Pancho showed me a harpy eagle's nest nearby, and I spent a couple days watching it. He was married to Yoli, a nice girl from Machigenga tribe, and told me tons of folk stories, myths, and jokes. Here's one:
A gringo is walking along a street in Cuzco. A boy approaches him and says:
"Senior, this is Atahualpa's skull. I can sell it for a hundred dollars."
"Wow!" says the gringo, and buys it. Then he meets an old man, who says:
"Senior, this is Atahualpa's skull. I can sell it for two hundred dollars."
"But I already have one, and it is larger than yours!"
"This one is Atahualpa's skull when he was a kid."
Understanding some tales requires knowledge of zoology.
Uakiri (Cacajao calvus monkey) was very handsome, with thick fur, and looked like a gringo. Girls liked him.
"Why do girls like you?" asked Mono Sapo (Ateles monkey).
Uakiri hid his thumb under his palm, showed Mono Sapo his hand, and said:
"Because I have no thumbs."
Mono Sapo took a machete and cut off his thumbs. Girls still didn't like him, but he could jump in the trees much better. So much better that Uakiri got envious, and tore away all hair on his head. That's why Mono Sapo has only four fingers on each hand, and Uakiri has bold head.
Then one morning everything changed in the forest. It was suddenly full of frogs, thousands of them, as colorful as butterflies or coral fishes. In the evening, a thunderstorm came. It lasted less than two hours, but it was enough: flowers began to open all over the forest, filling it with strange smells. The dry season was over. Now the air was very clear, and we could see how close we were to the Andes.
I made a trip to Tayakome, a village of Machigenga Indians further upstream, to help visiting health officials with vaccinations. It was very interesting to talk to the local hunters. We taught each other many things. Having no flashlights, they didn't know much about nocturnal fauna, so I took them on guided tour of their own forest at night, and they showed me around at daytime.
My permit was about to expire, so I had to get back to Cuzco. I asked the health workers to pick me up if they see me in the river, put my backpack in their boat, and got in the water after midnight. My plan was to swim as far downstream as I could, viewing all colpas along the way. It was raining, but the river was almost hot to touch. An hour later the rain started for real. I had no way of getting back, so I kept floating down, trying to avoid underwater logs. My head was cold, so I had to take rest under large fallen trees from time to time. Their undersides looked like caves, inhabited by bats, swallows, moths, and caimans. Soon the river was rising, and it carried huge logs, but they moved with the same speed as I did, so it wasn't as dangerous as it looked. The only problem was that the water was cooling, and the boat just didn't show up. Once a huge Dinizia tree fell in the river ahead of me, but it soon got stuck on a shallow, and I passed it.
At noon the rain stopped, and happy wildlife showed up on shores. It was like riding through a safari park. I almost got warm. Then it started raining again. The river was now flooding the forest, and the logs were ramming young growth. I expected to find some tourists at Cocha Salvador, but there weren't any. Instead I saw a cougar nearby. They are as common as jaguars in Manu, but prefer terra firma and almost never can be seen from the river.
It was dark when I reached Romero. My friends were stunned to see me without hearing a boat first. I had to drink a kettle of tea before my lips warmed up and I could tell them how I'd gotten there. They called Pakitza on the radio, and Pancho told us that the boat had left half a day later than planned because of engine problems. Next day they arrived and took me to Boca Manu at the confluence of Manu and Madre del Dios rivers.
I made a side trip to Tambopata, a large Nature reserve downstream, and then returned to the foothills. The weather was surprisingly cold, and it was raining most of time. The tourist season was over. I climbed up to the mountain pass in three days, exploring the forests along the way. They looked different every hundred meters: new birds, new flowers, new insects, new frogs. I saw the lekking of a very beautiful bird called cock-of-the-rock along the way, and found an extremely rare rabbit-size deer known as Northern pudu.
Mountain ridge along the border of the park is the southernmost paramo in America. A few hours of hiking along the side road took me to a small hut on top of a rocky outcrop called Tres Cruzes del Oro. It is famous for splendid views of the Amazon and for strange optical phenomena often seen at sunrise. The only permanent resident of the hut was a tiny shrew, but at night there were lots of deer around.
After watching the famous sunrise, I hiked back to the road. It started snowing, but I got a ride on an ambulance car soon. Despite two punctured tires, we got to Cuzco the same day. By that time I was considered totally crazy by the park stuff, so they sent me on a trip to the most remote part of Manu below Fitzcarraldo Pass. I visited Machu Picchu along the way and returned to Cuzco a week later. They offered me to become a full-time ranger, but I had already overstayed my visa. I typed some reports and articles for them, and had to leave.
I risked staying in Peru for two more days to see the Altiplano. I went to Puno, rented a reed boat and explored Lake Titicaca for a few hours. Local Uro Indians live on artificial floating islands made of tule. Snorkeling under these islands is a very unusual experience: the underside is inhabited by huge schools of fish and giant toads. Nearby is an ancient burial complex called Sullistani, a very interesting place.
I took a night bus from Puno to Tacna at the Chilean border. We rolled across the frozen plateau for many hours. Most passengers were sleeping or listening to a preacher, an old gray-headed senior with soft voice and kind eyes. He tried to remind us about simple values: love your neighbor, help each other, respect even the poorest ones. A stack of religious books he was selling was disappearing fast.
Suddenly the bus stopped. A tiny van was lying on its side in a roadside ditch. A small group of Aymara Indians was standing around it, shivering from cold. The passengers got out to have a look, but freezing wind made them get back inside the bus.
"Why did we stop?" the preacher asked the driver.
"We'll just pull them out. It will only take a minute."
"Are you crazy? We are already behind the schedule! They are just peasants! I'll let your supervisor know, and you'll be fired! Let's go, now!"
"OK, OK, but let me take the people in..."
"What? These dirty pigs? By the Blessed Mother of..."
"Let's go!" said some other passengers.
"International Control Inspection!" I finally made it through the piles of luggage, jumped out of the bus and humbly introduced myself. "Please report the situation, seniores!"
"Senior Inspector," bowed the preacher, "What an honor! I'm just trying to get us back on schedule."
"All men, outside!" I commanded. "What are you two waiting for? Get the cable!"
In less than a minute the van was back on the road. The preacher tried to assist me in overseeing the operation, but I accidentally pushed him under the knees with the cable, and he fell in the water-filled ditch, breaking through thin ice. For the rest of the trip he was very quiet. He had to take off his wet clothes and sit on the hot engine cover beside the driver.
It was very cold, wet, and gray in Tacna. And it was the latitude of Fiji. What will it be like in Tierra del Fuego? My only hope was the spring. It was already September.
I shared a taxi to the border with a Japanese tourist. She said she was an English teacher, but she could hardly say anything except for "yes", "no", and "please." The customs officer asked her to show what was inside her tiny backpack.
"No, please!" she said, holding to it.
He was surprised, but took the backpack and started getting things out one by one. The further he got inside, the more desperate she was. Soon he was sure there was something awful hidden there, heroin or plutonium. Using her protesting cries for navigation, he soon narrowed his search to her purse.
"No, please!!!" she shouted, turning pale. I got ready to catch her if she'd collapse.
With a sadistic smile, the officer turned the purse upside down. It contained a compact, a hairbrush, a tampon and a few condoms. The poor girl was at the verge of a seizure, but the officer couldn't understand why she was so hysterical. He automatically torn apart the tampon, and let us go, looking very puzzled. He didn't even notice that I'd spent almost two months in Peru with a one-month visa.
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