Fly to Cusco and settle in to your hotel. Spend the afternoon exploring the city.
Your overland journey begins with an early departure from Cusco. Your destination is the lush cloud forest region where the Andes fall away to the Amazon basin. A day of scenic drama and striking contrasts, first visit a mountain wetland habitat which is teeming with migrant and local waterfowl before crossing two mountain ranges between the Cusco valley and the Paucartambo valley. Follow a sinuous ribbon of highway on its plunge through an extraordinary world of forested cliffs, waterfalls and gorges and take leisurely stops to see mountain villages, pre-Incan burial chambers, and the abrupt ridgetop of Ajanaco. If the weather is clear, breathtaking views await at the top of the cloud forest. After a picnic lunch, descend through the startling and rapid environmental transformations characteristic of the tropical Andes. Pass from grassland and stunted trees through elfin forest until you wind through a lush and magical world of overhanging trees, giant ferns, monster begonias, countless orchids and bromeliads, and a diverse and teeming birdlife.
Take a secluded nature walk on a short trail loop to the river and back before breakfast, then continue your drive. View the ever-changing landscape and stop at Patria to visit a plantation of coca, which is grown for the Peruvian coca lead market. Reach Atalaya in the afternoon and follow the river’s broad, rushing course past the last foothills of the Andes. Overnight at a lodge near Boca Manu and embrace an array of new forest sounds. As night falls, the whistling call-and-response of tinamous gives way to the loud shrill of cicadas.
Make a short visit to the village of Boca Manu, the riverside capital of the remote and sparsely populated Peruvian province of Fitzcarrald. View the process to make dugout boats, which are sturdy water craft for the river. Logging is prohibited so villagers work entirely with lumber brought downriver by floodwaters. Turn northward up the chocolate-brown waters of the Manu River into the lake-rich lower Manu National Park. Check into the park at Limonal ranger station and proceed upstream. As the boat is steered through the shallows and driftwood snags, view the Orinoco gees and horned screamers as they strut on the beaches. After roughly six hours on the river, arrive at InkaNatura’s Manu Tented Camp, a simple but comfortable low-impact lodge. Take a short walk before dinner to stretch your legs and enjoy your first encounter with the virgin rainforest.
Visit two lakes near the camp in the morning. Park authorities will determine the time of your visit to Cocha (Lake) Salvador; depending on this schedule, visit Cocha Otorongo earlier or later in the day. The trail to Cocha Otorongo begins 30 minutes downstream from the camp and the brief river journey to the trailhead offers the chance of a thrilling wildlife sighting. On the short trail to the lake, hope to spy one or more of the park’s 13 monkey species as they leap through the canopy.
The lakes are oxbow lakes, formed when the river changed course, leaving a landlocked channel behind. Abundant in fish and wildlife, they provide optimum habitat for caimans and the Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), one of the Amazon’s most endangered mammal species.
Cocha Salvadoris is the largest of the area’s lakes at two miles long. It is also home to a family of Giant Otters. Cruise the lake on a floating catamaran platform for superb new perspectives of lake and forest. The lakeside trees are often alive with monkeys; Scarlet, Chestnut-fronted and Blue-and-gold macaws beat a path overhead; a variety of herons and egrets scout the water’s edge; and the reptilian eyes and snouts of caimans, motionless as logs, may be spied beneath the branches. Somewhere on the open water or in among toppled bank-side trees, hope to spot the sleek heads of the shy Giant Otters.
Set off downriver at dawn and return to the Limonal park station. After reaching the turbulent union of the Alto Madre de Dios and Manu rivers and the village of Boca Manu, you may drop off some passengers who are returning to Cusco. After ninety more minutes downstream, arrive at Manu Wildlife Center -- the exciting final stop of your journey, just in time for lunch. Walk through the forest and reach the Macaw Lick Project. In groups of twos and threes, the scarlet Macaws come flapping in, landing in the treetops. Watch as they eye the main stage below: an eroded clay bank of the river visited by the occasional villain, a menacing and unwelcome Great Black Hawk. The drama plays out first in tentative and then bolder approaches to the lick, until finally, nearly all the macaws form a colorful and noisy spectacle on the bare banks, squabbling as they scrape clay from the hard surface. Continue to explore the rainforest and discover its lore and plant life on the network of trails surrounding the lodge. Arrive in late afternoon at a 112ft Canopy Tower. On its platform, witness the frantic rush-hour activity of the rainforest canopy at twilight, before night closes in. Set off along the “collpa trail”, which will take us to the lodge’s famous Tapir Clay lick. The lick features a roomy, elevated observation platform above the forest floor, which is equipped with freshly-made-up mattresses with pillows. Each mattress is covered by a roomy mosquito net. The 10-m-long, elevated walkway to the platform is covered with sound-absorbing padding to prevent our footsteps from making noise. This Tapir Experience is unique and exciting because these normally very shy creatures are visible up close, and flash photography is not just permitted, but encouraged. The hard part for modern city dwellers is to remain still and silent anywhere from 30 minutes to two or more hours. Many prefer to nap until the first Tapir arrives, at which point your guide gently awakens you to watch the Tapir who are a mere 10-20m (33-66ft) away. Most people feel that the wait is well worth it in order to have such a high probability of observing the rare and elusive Tapir in its rainforest home.
Leave the lodge early in the morning for your two and a half hour boat trip downstream to the Colorado Village, with breakfast served on board. Stop in the far-west type gold-mining town of Colorado before you start the overland journey to Puerto Carlos for 45 minutes before crossing the Inambari River for a 15 minute boat trip to Santa Rosa. A van or bus will drive you approximately two and a half hours to Puerto Maldonado City, where you will fly by commercial plane to Cusco or Lima.
$875 single supplement