Manu Wildlife Center: A journey to deepest, darkest Peru

Manu Wildlife Center

Manu Wildlife Center Review

A few months back, in April, I ventured once again to the southern Peruvian rainforest and to the Manu Wildlife Center, located in the buffer zone of the Manu National Park. Having already visited Chalalan lodge in Madidi National Park, Bolivia, and having later been on an epic journey with my colleague James to three lodges in Tambopata , it was easy to compare and contrast the remote amazon jungle lodge offerings in Peru and Bolivia.

A remote Amazon lodge

The journey to Manu Wildlife Center Lodge is an adventure in itself and was far more adventurous than to the lodges in Tambopata, and even to the lodge in Madidi.

It is reached by a 45-minute flight from Lima or Cusco to Puerto Maldonado followed by an 8-hour journey by car and boat – the route I took on my visit. It is also possible to get there overland from Cusco, via Paucartambo and through the gorgeous, sloping landscapes of the cloud forest between the Andes and the Amazon. However, this is a longer journey that requires an overnight at Cock of the Rock lodge, allowing for more opportunities to spot animals at a higher altitude (Cock of the Rock is at around 1,600 metres of altitude).

Although in theory it is possible to fly to the Boca Manu airstrip at the confluence of the Manu and Madre de Dios rivers, the operations there are so temperamental that it is not currently viable for any airline to run a commercial service. Operators in the area also reluctant to rely on charter services as this can lead to delays: travellers can miss an entire day of their program if the charter flight doesn’t run according to schedule.

Travelling from Puerto Maldonado by road

Arriving at Puerto Maldonado airport at noon, we set out with our guide Jose Luis along the Interoceanic highway for two hours. We had a fleeting view of some of the effects that gold mining is having on the region, with large swaths of rainforest having been scorched to extract gold, and makeshift towns made of tarpaulin and corrugated iron hugging the bankings of the highway. These desolate scenes reminded us how lucky we were to be travelling to one of the places where the rainforest is still virgin and pristine.

Catching the local ferry

Then the journey got more interesting. Turning off the highway, we ventured for 20 minutes along a bumpy dirt track before arriving at a local river port of Inambari, from where we took a local ferry across the river. Embarking on the other side, at Puerto Carlos, we jumped in to a local taxi, driving for a further hour to reach Manu Wildlife Center’s own ferry transport at Boca Colorado. Jose Luis explained that they use local transport to give people in the area a steady source of income, though at all times the transport was private to our group and the vehicles of very good quality.

Journeying on Manu Wildlife Center’s Boat

Boarding the Manu Wildlife Center boat, our journey towards the Manu National Park began. Travelling upstream along the Madre de Dios river, and taking care to maneuver around the abundance of tree trunks that had been swept down in the strong currents of rainy season , it took a full 5 further hours to arrive at the lodge. Along the way we enjoyed views of the jungle and watched signs of civilisation slipping further behind us. There was a storm rumbling away in the distance that added to the atmosphere.

By the time we arrived at the lodge it was 8pm: anyone who wants to undertake this adventure should arrive in Puerto Maldonado as early as possible in the morning to ensure you aren’t travelling along the river after nightfall. On the plus side, we were treated to some quite spectacular sunsets over the river.

Hearty food at Manu Wildlife Center

A very tasty dinner awaited us at the lodge, and I soon learnt that the quality of the food at Manu Widlife Center surpasses that of the other lodges I have been to. Throughout the four days we were treated to usual favourites such as spaghetti bolognese, chicken with rice and beef with potatoes, but the lodge also added Peruvian flare with such dishes as Yucca with huancaina sauce, quinoa salad in a vinaigrette,  and also provided healthy meals like spinach soup. Everything was very well presented and very tasty, and at breakfast we were treated to fresh fruit, cereals, yoghurt and scrambled eggs. I was surprised by the variety in this remote place and my stomach agreed that this was a key advantage of staying at Manu Wildlife Center.

Bungalow accommodation

To sleep, and my first glimpse of the accommodations here: there are 22 bungalows that can be adapted for either single, twin or matrimonial occupancy. They are all very comfortable, with clean private bathrooms, soft linens and mosquito nets (something Tambopata Research Center did not have). In the evening, the bungalows are lit by candlelight. At the main lodge there is a generator with electricity for those who need to charge their iPhones, the power runs for a few hours after nightfall each evening and there is even a very weak and unreliable wireless internet connection if the urge to check emails proves to be just too strong.

The bungalows are all scattered around one large building, with various paths leading between them, beautifully lined with gardens of tropical plants, flowers and fruits. As well as acting as the dining area and meeting point, the central building has a bar with a selection of cocktails and various areas with soft seating to relax . There was a few books, magazines and pamphlets to flick through, as well, though nothing that could be described as a comprehensive library or research center.

Putting the ‘rain’ into ‘rainforest’

The following morning, it did not rain but it poured! We waited for the deluge to subside before going out on our planned excursion. Unfortunately the rain was to be a recurrent theme: as one might suppose, a part of travelling to the rainforest is that you have to expect rain. The downside is that this can lead to reduced chances of wildlife sightings, but as soon as we got out on to a stretch of the lodge’s 48 kilometres of trails it all started to happen. We saw spider monkeys and capuchin monkeys, crazy looking orange caterpillars, giant forest snails and these amazing tiny little frogs that affectionately nibble away on your finger. We also learnt about the different types of  foliage, clambered amongst the epic, winding roots of ancient trees and admired different varieties of colourful jungle flowers.

Oxbow Lake Exploration

The next day we were out on the water, and a nearby oxbow lake. Following a circuit around the lake, we saw all different types of bird: kingfishers, toucans, hawks, flycatchers, nigers, hoatzins and macaws. Quite appropriately, the nimble little Aracari made an appearance, darting around the treetops in the distance. We also saw gangs of bats clinging to logs that protruded above the surface of the water, perfectly camouflaged to unaware passers by who don’t have an excellent guide like Jose Luis to point them out. On the way back to the lodge we saw a proud white caiman on the muddy shores, eyeing us up despite well knowing that he had no chance of biting my arm off.

Wildlife at Manu Wildlife Center

I’ll admit that this journey to the jungle was not to be the most prolific opportunity I have had to observe exotic fauna. To my chagrin, I did not get to see a wild jaguar, they continue to elude me. However, our reduced chance of sightings appeared to be entirely due to the rainfall, and the chances of seeing wildlife at Manu Wildlife Center are definitely as high as at Tambopata Research Center or the Chalalan lodge in Bolivia. The biodiversity in this part of the planet is greater than that of any other place on earth; more than 800 species of bird have been identified in the 1.5 million hectares that constitute the Manu National Park, 13 species of monkey, 12 species of reptile, 77 species of amphibian and over 100 types of bat. It’s just a matter of luck, and what happens to be crossing your path when you are out on the trails.

Canopy Tower

In terms of features and facilities Manu Wildlife Center has a far superior canopy tower to the lodges in Tambopata. At 40 metres high, it provides a privileged vantage point over the rainforest canopy. Although we were also able to see numerous Macaws at the clay lick a short walk from the shores, one key advantage that the Tambopata Research Center has over Manu Wildlife Center is the access to the largest known macaw clay lick in the Amazon. This was very telling as I did not see nearly as many macaws at Manu Wildlife Center. Nevertheless, Manu Wildlife Center also has access to a tapir lick, which we unfortunately did not make it to due to the rain. Instead, we took the opportunity to go fishing for piranhas, so there are a multitude of activities possible even when the weather conditions are adverse.

Authentic jungle experience

On the whole, despite the rain,  I felt that something about the whole experience at Manu seemed more authentic and wild than other parts of the Amazon jungle that I have visited. The whole area is still so pristine and untouched, perhaps aided by the fact that Manu is still relatively cut off and hard to get to. This also means that there are far fewer visitors than to the very popular and accessible Tambopata lodges.

Above all, Manu offers a  sense of adventure to one of the last frontiers of human discovery, a romantacism that has been fuelled by the likes of National Geographic with their famous 1994 feature on the National Park. It was well worth the journey to get here, and I would thoroughly recommend it to more adventurous travellers. Moreover, with facilities improving at other lodges in the area, such as Romero and the Manu Learning Center, and with the possibility that the airstirp at Boca Manu will be upgraded in the coming years, the opportunities for travelling here are sure to increase.

Although I feel very privileged to have visited all these places in the rainforest, still the disappointment at not seeing a jaguar lingers. A couple of days after I arrived back in Lima, I received an email from Jose Luis, which he had sent just after we had parted ways. “On my way back to the Manu Wildlife Center we saw a jaguar, he just popped his head out for ten seconds before disappearing in to the wilderness. It was so impressive.”  Next time, perhaps…

Alternative Accommodation in Manu National Park

Aracari’s top recommendation is the Manu Wildlife Center, located east of the Manu River on the north bank of the Madre de Dios River. Deeper into the jungle is the Manu Wildlife Tented Camps, located just across the river from the trail to Manu’s prime wildlife viewing location, Cocha (Lake) Salvador. The lodge offers simple but comfortable low-impact accommodation in double-occupancy room-size tents.

Best Amazon Lodges in Peru

Interested in visiting the Amazon? Here we provide a round up of some of the best jungle lodges near Tambopata, more eaily accessible from Puerto Maldonado. For a more luxurious amazon lodge experience, we recommend Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica and Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion.

Contact us for more information on where to stay in Peru’s Amazon and to speak to an expert travel consultant to plan a tailormade trip to Peru.

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