Cusco, Peru

The Road from Cusco to Manu

Andi Cross
Adam Moore
February 24, 2024
8 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

Our caravan of six was heading from Cusco deep into the jungle. In the front was a field biologist and his dependable driver, cracking jokes to one another that were sadly lost in translation to me. Adam and I were in the middle, but Adam was somewhat absent for the ride as a result of some suspected food poisoning from the day prior. 

In the back was a chef and her charming daughter, both sleeping through this routine ride and its familiarity. But this was far from familiar to me. Between the epic landscapes of lush green forest engulfing us and the lengthy ride ahead, it was the perfect opportunity for some introspection on just what led me to this moment in the first place.

The road from Cusco, the ancient Incan capital, to the heart of the Peruvian Amazon felt like an epic odyssey, with every twist and turn tempting us to leave the car and fully immerse ourselves in the breathtaking surroundings. It was the off-season, revealing the striking contrast between the red rocks of the Andes mountains and the lush greenery that stretched as far as the eye could see. Not to mention the yellow corn fields in every direction—an almost surreal landscape.

We devoured fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven and indulged in spicy tamales by the roadside. These simple yet satisfying culinary experiences served as a prelude to the day's trek, drawing us deeper into one of the most exceptional parts of Peru. Far removed from the usual coastal regions we explore, instead we found ourselves venturing into a different kind of wilderness—a realm that promised to transport us to another time and place. 

Manu National Park is one of the most biodiverse parts of the Amazon that’s relatively accessible to humans. However, our end destination lay in some of the least explored corners of this remarkable region—the Reserved Zone. To reach this pristine wilderness is no ordinary commute; it involves hours of driving to reach the park's entrance and then a lengthy boat voyage. We’re talking days, not hours. 

For adventurers with the endurance for such a voyage, the reward is nothing short of astonishing. Here, you'll encounter what they call megadiversity, including 1,025 bird species, 221 mammals, over 2,000 butterflies, 8 feline predators, 15 monkey species, 27 macaw varieties, 155 reptile species, 300 types of ants, and approximately 650 beetles (because around here, everyone’s counting!) Faced with these impressive statistics, we made the decision to trade our fins for hiking boots and trek into the world’s largest rainforest.

The remote Manu National Park was initially brought to our attention by Meg Lowman.

For those unfamiliar, Meg is a trailblazer in the field of canopy science and one of the first women to leave an indelible mark in this traditionally male-dominated domain. Our discovery of Meg's groundbreaking work in the Amazon didn't just ignite our curiosity; it also fueled our desire to witness her pioneering efforts firsthand and to meet this living legend who has made the jungle more accessible in a sustainable manner.

In our research, we came across four entry points into the Amazon from Peru: Pacaya Samiria, Alto Purus, Iquitos, and Manu National Parks. Ultimately, we chose the fourth option due to its exceptional richness in both fauna and flora, its remote and untouched nature, and the unique opportunity it offered us to explore the Reserved Zone during the off-season. In a delightful twist of fate, just a few weeks before heading to Peru, we had the serendipitous privilege of meeting Meg in person. And that’s when she shared a peculiar fun fact about Manu—the presence of flesh-eating mosquitoes.

Meg candidly expressed her deep affection for this particular stretch of the Amazon, albeit with a tinge of caution—this wild terrain could be unforgiving, even potentially life-threatening. Her words were a valuable warning, but we were too curious and had traveled too far down the Manu path to turn back. After all, we'd heard similar tales about the dangers of our home country, Australia, and had managed to survive that much. Undeterred, we made an immediate pit stop to replenish our supply of 80% DEET mosquito repellent. Nothing could deter us—not even Meg somehow lowering the bar even further for mosquitos.

Before venturing further into the park's territory, we made a detour to the Ninamarca Archaeological Site—an ancient pre-Incan cemetery. Grave robbers (known as "Huaqueros" in Spanish) had plundered the tombs, making off with mummified remains, gold, and silver that had been interred long before the Inca era. 

This site was home to around 30 burial sites (or "chullpas”), perched at an altitude of approximately 3,500 meters (13,000 feet) above the an Inter-Andean Valley. As we gazed out over the high grasslands, we couldn't help but appreciate the rich history that lay beneath our feet. Yet, due to the depredations of tomb raiders, much of the history of these regional mummies, all facing the imposing Ausangate, Cusco's largest mountain, remains shrouded in mystery.

This archaeological site was another stop meant to set the stage. 

Each small village we passed was known for specializing in something—be it bread, chicken, pork, corn or guinea pig. Yes you read that correctly. Guinea pigs (known as “cuy”) are farmed in this region and are considered a signature and celebratory dish. Only knowing these small creatures to be pets, we weren’t sure about trying this one. But here, it’s tradition and a culinary must. Instead of opting for the full roasted guinea pig, we chose to eat them in nugget form (one of my personal favorite preparation styles generally!) Thankfully that was the approach we took, because the full spread was not for us. It’s dark, non-gamey meat, but certainly has a distinct taste that’s for those who love a weird and wild culinary quest. 

And obviously, being in Peru, we would inevitably be required to eat the country’s mascot: the alpaca. It’s been described as having the taste of venison (for Americans) or ‘roos (for Australians.) Channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain, we dove headfirst into these culinary oddities. The only real option in these circumstances is to embrace it. 

About six hours in, my heart was racing with anticipation as we made it to the border of Manu National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site and a Biosphere reserve. This entrance wasn’t even the main event and it alone proved to be a natural wonder, with deep clouds surrounding us and sheer cliff drops right at the wheels of the car. On one side, it was impossible to see what was below us and on the other, ancient forests with plant life that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The shades of green were almost overwhelming.


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