Planning a Trip to Manu National Park
From ants that bite like bullets to parasol-sized Cecropia leaves, there is nothing insignificant about a trip to Peru’s southern Amazonas.
Peru may conjure images of the ice-capped Andes and colorfully clad llamas but the large, coastal nation really belongs to the jungle. Sixty-percent of the country is covered in selva (jungle) and Peru has the second largest portion of the Amazon Rainforest after Brazil. Most tourists seeking a Peruvian jungle adventure will head to the northeastern city of Iquitos. Less traveled and far better preserved are Peru’s southern Amazonas, and Manu National Park is considered among the best places in the entire region to view wildlife. In part due to its inaccessibility, the 1.7 million hectare park was well protected before it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The park boasts a staggering number of flora and fauna – including the now endangered giant otter – making it one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Manu is also home to a number of communities who, to this day, have had little to no contact with the modern world.
Planning a trip to Manu can feel a bit daunting, with many a guide over complicating the matter. Here are the basics and what to consider for planning this once in a lifetime experience.
Where to go
Buffer Zone (Zona Amortiguamiento).
Because it’s essentially the only area where tourists are allowed. Also known as Zone B or the Manu Biosphere, the Buffer Zone runs along the western and eastern edges of Manu’s southern tip. The zone includes the Madre de Dios River and the riverside settlements of Acjanaco, Atalaya and Boca Manu. The zone is considered part of the national park but dwarfs in comparison to the park’s restricted areas, known as Zone A, where only a handful of scientists are allowed to visit.
When to go
There are only two seasons in the Amazon: wet and dry. Wet season in Manu sees the inundation of the Madre de Dios River and runs from October through May. Dry season is June to September with cooler temperatures and fewer mosquitoes. Seasons are affected by the El Niño-La Niña cycle, where the former brings heavier rains every 4-5 years followed by drier, La Niña conditions.
Trips to Manu are possible in both seasons, each with its pros and cons. Jungle trekking may be more comfortable in the dry season, but river journeys may take longer, or involve a bit of boat pushing due to low water levels. Tourist season, at roughly 5,000-6,000 visitors per year, coincides with the drier months but wildlife viewing is possible all-year round.
How to get there
Car and boat.
All travel departs from Cusco and it takes a solid day’s descent by car through the Andes to reach the first lodges in the clouded forests of Manu. It takes another day by boat down the Madre de Dios River to reach the lodges from where trips are possible to the iconic macaw and tapir clay licks, and giant otter oxbow lakes.
See Over the Mountains and into the Forest for how we spent five days in Manu National Park.
A small airline company regularly flew to Manu but operations ceased due to poor plane quality and low passenger volume. Flights were also heavily dependent on weather conditions with no guarantee of departure or arrival, much to the frustration of travelers. Private planes can be chartered but they will not come cheap. Lodges and tour operators can provide more information on charters and schedules.
Lodge or tour operator?
There are a handful of lodges throughout Manu. Lodges can organize tours and typically have forest trails onsite. There are also a number of tour operators offering multi-day tours through the park. Tours may appear to come with a hefty price tag but given the logistics involved are usually fairly priced. Consider what kind of experience you would like to have and choose a tour operator or lodge accordingly. Many lodges and tour operators can tailor, at least parts, of an itinerary based on clients’ interests.
How many days?
As is the case with how to get there, how long to stay will depend on how far into the forest you would like to go. At least a five-day trip is recommended for visits to the clay clicks. It is possible to visit the clay licks over a three-day trip but it will mean substantially longer days, mostly spent in transit. When deciding, remember that the environmental conditions in the Amazon can be unpredictable. Budgeting for additional time will ensure you see all the “musts” without the unnecessary stress.
Food for Thought
A trip to the Amazon is a truly magical experience, warranting not only admiration but also respect. It is not famed for its five-star accommodations or spa treatments, Michelin-star meals or covered 4×4 jeeps. The wonder of the Amazon is in the smallness one feels surrounded by the most incredible of creatures, in the most unique of places. It is not an adventure in modern luxury. It is a journey into the jungle. Keep this in mind as you plan your trip.
Photos during a five-day tour with Amazon Trails Peru.