Cusco, Peru

Supersized in the Jungle

Andi Cross
Adam Moore
February 22, 2024
6 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

The Amazon is a realm of superlatives. It's not only the sheer size of everything that astounds but also the abundance. This place boasts the highest diversity of flora and fauna on the planet. Immersing ourselves in the Amazon, it felt like we were witnessing the world's most expansive living collection right before our eyes. So our plan was to cover as much ground in the jungle as possible, but most notably at the river itself. This way we could use its breeze to escape the heat.

Exploring in the off-season meant more rain, but luckily we experienced an abundance of wildlife sightings. Birds, bats, monkeys, reptiles, fish, and a myriad of insects were omnipresent. A standout feature, however, was the staggering plant diversity in Manu National Park, Peru. Within just one hectare, you could encounter up to 300 different tree species, a record within the Intangible Zone of the park. This is a stark contrast to the mere 32 species found in the likes of Sequoia National Park in the USA, for example. 

During one of our treks, we came across a tree known as "the giant of the Amazon," or the Ceibos tree, a remarkable entity that forms its own ecosystem. Capable of soaring over 60 meters (196 feet) with roots sprawling wide and a trunk diameter reaching up to 3 meters (10 feet), the Ceibos stands as one of the jungle's tallest trees. 

The Ceibos, with at least 21 different species identified, holds a sacred place among indigenous communities. 

The tree we encountered is used as a burial site, with the deceased placed among its vast root system, which embodies the spirit of the jungle. These giants, stretching beyond the canopy and topped with an umbrella-like crown, clearly dominate the landscape. In an intriguing study, scientists encircled a Ceibos tree's base with a net and used a scent to attract insects. This experiment revealed that a single Ceibos could host up to 1,000 different insect species, cementing its role as a bustling hub of biodiversity. 

Speaking of insects, they are truly everywhere! This constant presence in the Amazon makes it a less than ideal destination for those wary of bugs. They’re completely unavoidable—so visiting this place means you inevitably will be touched, landed on, or be buzzed by these creatures. Not to mention, their nighttime noises will potentially infest your dreams.Their bites are also far from ordinary, often resulting in blisters, pus, and swelling. Lovely right?

The glasswing butterfly is one of the more profound creatures of the jungle, with its stunning transparent wings. Butterflies here are so abundant, they're almost overwhelming. Then there are the larger residents like the black millipede and the owl butterfly. For bug enthusiasts, the Amazon offers a unique perspective on the resilience and adaptability of these creatures in their ever-changing jungle habitat.

Following our trek, we returned to the Manu River for a journey from the guts of the Reserved Zone (where only few humans call home) towards the more accessible Buffer Zone (where small, local communities live along the shores.) This trip would take nearly a full day of besting the river rapids and momentary bursts of rain. Enjoying a rare moment of calm, I was on the verge of dozing off when suddenly, the riverboat lurched with a loud bang. We had encountered a caiman, a creature resembling an alligator, fully attacking our boat! 

The black caiman, exclusive to South America, reigns as the largest member of the alligator family, reaching lengths of up to 5-6 meters (16-19 feet). 

As ambush predators that thrive in freshwater habitats, an encounter with one in the wild is an adrenaline-pumping experience. In Manu National Park, most caimans sport a white hue and are noticeably smaller. The black variety, like the one that assaulted our boat, comprises only 10% of the park's caiman population. Following a brief moment of shock and quick recovery, we sped away from the scene, eager to leave this calamity behind us.

Navigating towards the confluence of the Manu and Alto Madre de Dios rivers, we were flanked by dense jungle. Among the myriad of species, Cedar, Mahogany, Stranglers, and Aguaje Palms—often referred to as the tree of life—stood tall here, each vying for sunlight in this densely populated forest. In this wilderness, survival is a relentless pursuit for its inhabitants. “Survival of the fittest,” while an expression we’re all familiar with, is truly brought to light in a biome as fertile and competitive as this one. 

Arriving at Boca Manu, the main Amazonian village situated in the Buffer Zone, we prepared to finally rest for the night. This small village sat on a sheer drop directly into waters teeming with caimans, which was unnerving to say the least after our up-close encounter. Yet, the sunset here was epic, as everything else is here in the Amazon, offering a moment of awe amidst our apprehension. Everyone in the town casually dangled their legs off the cliff’s edge to watch as day turned into night and as an entirely new side of the Amazon came to life. 

On our way back to our bunks, a robotic "hola" echoed from above, followed by a series of emphatic whistles, reminiscent of a cat-call. 

Puzzled, we searched for the source until we spotted a vibrant multicolored parrot camouflaged among the foliage. Locally called the "Aurora,” this clever mimic had taken an interest, playfully ruffling and puffing its feathers in my direction. There are so many species of green parrots in the Amazon, it was hard to tell at first what type this one was. But, the yellow crown and slight red on the wings revealed it to be the “Yellow-crowned amazon,” one of the more talkative birds in the rainforest. 

While they can live up to 20-30 years in the wild, they’ve been known to live up to 60-80 years in captivity. Unfortunately, they are still highly sought after as pets in the illegal animal trade. These parrots are only found in South America, Panama, Tobago and Trindad, making them an extra special tropical bird. Scientists are unsure of the number of these birds currently in the wild, but they are listed as “least concerned” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. And we hope it stays that way!

The Aurora, abandoning her perch, flew down and landed squarely on my head—talons gripping at my hair and scalp. Her greeting? A big, juicy poop right down the side of my hat, face, shirt, and onto the ground—a sign of love if I’ve ever seen one. This parrot hopped between my shoulder and hat, seemingly helping to clean the sweat and grime from a day's trek in the jungle. 

Naturally with our encounter, I felt an instant connection to this bird, making it that much harder to leave her in the morning after being cat-called yet again. Even this bird had a larger-than-life personality, proving that everything in Amazon truly is supersized. 

To be continued … 

[Special thanks to Manu Ecological Adventures and their Jungle Specialist team (shout out to the Biologist Jose Medina) for crafting what was undoubtedly an exceptional itinerary, allowing us to experience the breadth of the park to the fullest.]


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