Cusco, Peru

The Reserved Zone

Andi Cross
Adam Moore
February 26, 2024
7 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

We were up well before dawn. We needed to be in order to not only see the ‘claylicks’ firing but also to get a head start on our 10 hour day on the water. Our commute from what the locals called the Buffer Zone (or the area that is inhabited and populated surrounding the national park) to the Reserved Zone (or the area that sits close to the Intangible Zone where there’s little to no human inhabitants) in the Amazon was going to be a long one on the Alto Madre de Dios river. 

It was pouring rain, so our chances of seeing macaws eating clay to get their daily salt intake was zero percent. But the great trek was happening rain or shine. It was surprisingly cold that morning in the Amazon, but this wasn’t so unusual for off season and El Niño conditions. “Anything is possible in the jungle,” as our seasoned guide, Jose Medina, would say regularly to us. 

Raincoat, sweatshirt, gum boots and wool socks donned, we were off to the wild. 

The river was moving fast and small waves were spraying us as we mobilized. Clouds sat around the mountains behind us as we ventured into the more traditional jungle zone and out of the highland forests. The first two hours were peaceful in the rain and, once the weather settled, the life of the forest began to emerge. We passed a green parakeet claylick, where easily 100 birds were chirping, feeding and socializing. We spotted a massive capybara, which is a rodent that resembles a giant beaver. And periodically we (and by we I mean me) docked on muddy beaches to relieve ourselves among the dense plant life. 

We eventually left the Alto Madre de Dios river and spent the next seven hours going up the Manu river, bringing us closer to Amazonian nature. Endangered brown woolly monkeys surrounded us on one of our hikes, throwing branches at us to scare us away. Alpha males hollered at us to intimidate, while the babies eyed us wondering what kind of monkeys we even were. Hanging upside down they would stare, until their leader commanded them to stop. 

Spider monkeys were also among our curious observers, using their tails to aid them in their playful banter. And the tiny squirrel monkeys ate fruit by the water, throwing the leftovers into the river making hilarious sounds while doing it. Birds of all kinds, from the beautiful macaws to the near threatened Southern mealy amazon bird flew around us. And Taricaya turtles sunning on logs had yellow and white butterflies swarming their heads, sucking up salt just like the parakeets earlier at the claylick. 

Every tree, log, branch, muddy bank was alive with life. And we had it all to ourselves. 

When we made it to the next camp, our boots were covered in mud, our faces drenched with sweat and bug bites seemed to be covering every part of our bodies. As wild and dense as the Amazon is with its wildlife, some of the most compelling dwellers of this region are the off-grid tribes of humans living here.

By around 9:30 we arrived at a small village that was situated in what felt like the middle of proper nowhere. We came to learn this was home to close to 600 native people, part of the Diamante community, and was headed by a fearless female leader in its long history. Called either the ‘Gine’ or ‘Piro’ people, they spoke a local language that was a blend of Spanish and Italian. Walking up to the first group we saw, they welcomed us with two massive catfish and a wild pig they were carving, caught that very same morning. 

Watching these jungle dwellers carve up their meals for what looked like it was going to be weeks, it was clear every part of these animals were to be used in some way. The touring chef, Ida, and her daughter, Lorena, who were traveling alongside us were both from this community and well versed in living off the land. And even though modernity has infiltrated in some ways, there’s still pieces of their jungle culture hanging on.


Like many places around the world, traditional cultures are dying. It’s no different here. Some hut homes actually had internet access, but none of them had working bathrooms. A few had butchers posted in front of them, carving up the daily catches from the raging river below them. This harsh contrast was unlike anything we’d seen. Besides the Diamante community, which is in the Buffer Zone on the edge of Manu, there are other communities in the depths of the park called Boca Manu (the closest to the border), Yomibato and Tayakome (the farthest in). But that’s about it. For the most part, this region of the Peruvian Amazon is uninhabited. 

However, there are some undocumented humans who fully live off the grid called the Mashco-Piro people and can be only found in this region in Peru. 

They have no concept of money, possessions, belongings or government. They live naked, spend their days hunting with bow and arrow and have no access to the larger modern world. As nomads, they wander through the jungle without establishing any one place as a home base, but are always on the move in search for food, shelter and protection when needed. 

The undocumented (Mascho-Piro) and documented (Piro) people of Manu do not coexist with one another at all. However, that's been changing in the last 20 years. Known historically to be hostile towards outsiders, the undocumented people are now starting to integrate with Amazon communities. But there are stipulations. Undocumented people who want to be community dwellers have to first learn the life order and rules before being accepted into the Diamante tribe. Once they do, they can call the community borders their official home. 

After watching the pig carving, two little piglets started running around our feet. They were the newest pets to the family in the process of eating their mother. Little did those piglets know that their days were numbered. Once they were big enough, they’d be up next on the chopping block. Life in the jungle is both simple and difficult. The days are hot and humid and much like most ancient ancestors, hunting and gathering is the key to survival.


After our stop off in Diamante, we made our way to the Limonal Ranger Station to sign in to the Reserved Zone. 

With hardly any visitors this time of year, we were the only ones heading to the Reserved Zone and in fact had most of the park to ourselves. The rangers on staff at the time of our arrival informed us that they are protecting 60,000 hectares each year here, with only 29 rangers making up the Manu team, with 11 of them being local. That’s a small team for such a huge area! 

We came to learn that Manu is the third biggest national park in South America. Brazil boasts the largest protected area which is more of a wetland and marsh than it is a traditional rainforest. And the second largest is right above Manu called Alto Purus National Park. The maps in the ranger station showed the scale and size of the Intangible Zone, leaving us thinking about how much land the undocumented people have explored throughout their lifetimes. Completely removed from and unknown to the modern world. 

Living in Manu, it’s estimated that there are 100 to 250 undocumented people, also known as no-contact people to the local rangers. With so few sightings over the centuries, that number is a vague estimate. It has also been said that the no-contact people don’t hesitate to kill those they deem as trespassers on their lands. In 2012, there was a story of an archaeologist from the Spanish Geographical Society who claimed to have captured photos of the no-contact people. He was accompanied by a local guide who was found dead with a bamboo arrow through the heart only six days after the sighting. 

So not only is the Intangible Zone off limits for THAT reason, but also the dangerous wildlife that inhabits this area freely. 

Amidst our globally connected, modern and largely digital world there are still tribes of humans living exactly as they did millions of years ago. Their largely unknown ways of life, harmoniously coexisting with the natural wild of the Amazon, perhaps can serve as a lesson to the rest of us. Like so much of the sprawling, massive and dense rainforest that we have left on this planet, we’ll perhaps never fully know how these mysterious people pass their time. But, that’s the beauty of the wild—some of these details are best left undiscovered. 

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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