A FAMILY JOURNEY FROM THE MANU RAINFOREST TO THE HIGH ANDESAn utterly beautiful Erythrina tree in flower above the Madre de Dios River, Manu National Park
It took a lot of organising – a month in Peru with our three teenage boys. Our itinerary was to take us deep into the rainforest, back onto the beaten track of Cusco and Machu Picchu and then up to the remote cragginess of the Cordillera Blanca (think Touching the Void … albeit we were to be trekking in sunshine and not ice climbing).
Pre holiday packing
The preparation – acquisition of head to toe anti mosquito outfits (including anti mosquito socks but drawing the line at anti mosquito underwear), trekking kit – and entire bags full of medical supplies seemed to take up most of July.
I arrive in Cusco – the “Inca Capital of Peru’ at an altitude of 3400m – clutching Patrick Leigh Fermor’s : ‘Three Letters from the Andes’:
Leigh Fermor’s description of the tiring, dazzling climate is brilliantly accurate “the glare is blinding, the shade cool and sunset icy … the briefest walk is exhausting; one is short of breath, hearts pound and heads throb’
But then he and his charismatic 1971 party (which included an international ski champion cum high end jeweller, the Deputy Director, Historic Buildings, of the National Trust and the Duke of Devonshire) seemed less dependent on maleria tablets and altitude sickness medication than the modern traveller- relying instead on daily rations of two vast ‘double’ whiskies per head.
The unnerving if hilarious altitude sickness poster that greets you at Cusco airport
We spend two days getting used to the altitude and beginning to enjoy the newness of South America:
Flower seller in Mercado Centrale de San Pedro, Cusco – a fantastic balance of magenta, red and bright green
one of the many kinds of sweetcorn we tasted in Peru – along with some of the 3500 varieties of potatoes and quinoa cooked 100 ways including these rather delicious pancakes:
Fantastic pale blocks of stamped cheese which look like giant bars of old fashioned soap
Leigh Fermor did have some problems on his travels – for example he had to switch from fountain pen to pencil as the altitude affected the ink flow of his preferred writing instrument. I would like to trump this by warning you in advance that my camera plus new lenses – which were to bring you gorgeous blow by blow illustrations of the jungle and wildflowers of the Andes only survived a few days in the high humidity of the rainforest. So instead I will give you a whistlestop collage – with grateful thanks to my iPhone – of some of my favourite Peruvian things:
We set off to the Manu National Park with two wonderful guides from the Crees Foundation – which runs education and research projects to develop sustainable Amazon rain forest. Our hearts skip a beat as we arrive at the Elfin Cloud Forest:
Looking down onto cloud forest at the entrance to Manu National Park
At ground level, I am entranced by a shrine-like arrangement of tIny egg-yolk yellow Odontolglossum orchids amongst sphagnum moss, lichen and a dancing headdress of skinny ferns.
Looking up, the first silhouette of long limbed Cercropia trees confirms that the rain forest is beginning.
We walk down towards our lodge, drinking in the new sights:
The brilliantly named ‘firework bamboo’ whose arching stems bear starbursts of green foliage.
gorgeous green-stockinged, dancing-leg ferns
the sudden brilliance of a tiny velvety slipper flower
dusty, palest pink Begonia trailing lightly down the steep banks to the roadside
Slender, coral-red fuchsias against tightly regimented fern leaves
There are jauntily angled tree ferns throughout and branches laden with bromeliads just coming into flower:
Tree ferns make for a vibrant understorey.Bromeliads on branches
I am gently frustrated because this is not really a botanist’s trip (I have a newly besotted twitcher husband and three boys whose highlights are the jaguar, camen alligators and monkeys we are to spot in the next few days) so I just drink in the lushness and the patterns and start quietly planning my return trip …
We spend the night in a stilted hut at a lodge with paths lit by these simple post and corrugated iron lamp holders:
Post and corrugated iron lamp holder
We rise early rise to watch a dawn display of the Cock-of-the-rock (the national bird of Peru) and then travel on, excited to glimpse at last the Madre de Dios river through fans of the vigorous pioneer grass, Gynerium sagittatum:
Madre de Dios River seen through Gynerium sagittatum
We are soon loading our boat which will take us to the Manu Learning Centre:
We say goodbye to the few brightly coloured shops and houses at the river edge:
And set off with nothing but river and rain forest ahead of us:
At the Manu Learning Centre we have pretty rooms on stilts, open to the heady, looping birdsong of the jungle and we put our head torches onto our bedside tables for midnight trips to the bathroom and nighttime treks to find frogs and spiders…
The next day is dark and furiously noisy with constant heavy rain. Our guides, Leo and Andy take us on a soaking walk through paths milky with deepening puddles. It feels autumnal, almost, but every falling leaf is giant and doubly bright:
Andy shows us the most amazing, rose-like fungal patterns which form on some of the leaves:
Beautiful fungal patterns on leaves
Strings of lipstick red passion flowers festoon the path edge:
strings of passion flower budsPassion Flower
Everywhere there is a root more extraordinary, a leaf more luscious, a tree taller than I am expecting:
We arrive at the Mirador and I meet my favourite jungle tree – an Erythrina which is in full flower and radiant even against the heavy grey of the soaking skies:
View from Manu Learning Centre Mirador
I love the almost Japanese quality of this spare burst of colour from leafless branches framed by the tight dark green foliage of the neighbouring trees:
The next morning we visit the Mirador again – it is positioned above a salt lick and the Erythrina tree is a magnet for pairs of Blueheaded Macaws, Crested Oropendola, Sparkling Violetear hummingbirds (what an name!) and many other birds:
A pair of Macaws arriving at the Erythrina tree
It is enthralling to see the early morning cloud, gently rolling, quilting the black-emerald, densely laced, canopy of trees:
As the sun rises the flowers of the Erythrina glow suddenly and brilliantly:
The Erythrina tree illuminated by the morning sun.
As we learn about the rainforest – the pressure it is under from logging and mining, the hopeful work of organisations such as Crees in regenerating depleted forest, I am reading Germaine Greer’s ‘White Beech’ – her account of trying to regenerate 60 acres of sub tropical rainforest in Queensland Australia. It is not a smooth read but I admire her spirit and am shocked by her reminder of the United States’ use of ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam – apparently by the early 70’s, 20% of the Vietnamese rainforest was destroyed, as well as tracts of rainforest in Laos and Cambodia. Greer is unrelentingly feisty: “For years I carried a can of Agent Orange in my luggage, ready at the first opportunity to spray it on the White House rhododendrons..”
As we head deeper into the rain forest, the quality of light on the Manu River is increasingly memorable.
We spend ten hours travelling down river just watching and reading – and eating ‘Juane de Gallina’ for lunch – a fantastic parcel of rice, yucca, chicken and olives steamed in Bijao leaves from the forest:
Our Amazonian lunch – Juane de Gallina
Bijao growing in the rainforest.
We spend a wonderful late afternoon on a wooden catamaran, rowing quietly about in an oxbow lake, following a family of giant otters. The water is completely still and the reflected forest is beautiful:
Our guide, Andy Whitworth, Head of Research at the MLC
On our final day we are back in our boat before sunrise. The sunlight swells up, pink then orange, creating fantastic filigree silhouettes. We eat a perfect breakfast of cold, slightly lemony pancakes and fruit salad – papaya, watermelon, pineapple – with plastic cups of Nescafe while we watch.
And completely suddenly it is bright daylight!
All at once we are bundled out into dusty logging village, racing for a plane. The colours are bright but there is the sudden slap of plastic and petrol and sexy calendars and women walking with grubby babies under strangely genteel, pastel-coloured umbrellas amidst towering piles of sawn timber:
The ghostly leafless trees we pass speak for themselves:
Dying trees in logged rainforest South-Eastern Peru
After a couple of days in a regular hotel back in Cusco – and supper the first night in a brightly coloured hamburger bar enjoying the calming music, red wine, chilled fizzy water and all the comforts we thought we had been missing – we were simultaneously hit with that wave of disappointment you always feel when you have exchanged the intense for the ordinary.
We feel rather tied into a visit to Machu Picchu and head off with an air hostess of a guide by car along the Urumbamba River. Luckily I am perked up by the ruggedness of the views and by the exciting cowboy-cactus planting and gorgeous Inka stonework at the town of Ollantaytambo:
View from the the Urubamba Road
Tough native plants scrabble for survival on the hills around Ollantaytambo
Beautiful simple carving at the Inka settlement at Ollantaytambo
The next day we take a terrible Peru Rail ride towards Machu Picchu – we feel hemmed in by the unspeakable Andean-piped Beatles’ songs and drinks served on Inka-style table mats and even a fashion show delivered by a cheery combination of both rail stewards AND passengers to show off a range of luxury Alpaca ponchos …
I remember, enviously, the almost outrageous freedom of Patrick Leigh Fermor and his party who visited the site on foot in 1971: ” We found a few marvellous giant yellow orchids, growing as large as daffodils on the tips of bamboo-like stalks six feet high. Carl (the ex ski champion and jeweller) and Andrew (Duke of Devonshire ) laboriously hacked up the tangled roots of one of them next day with a kitchen knife. It is to be replanted in the new conservatory at Chatsworth, and if it takes, we’ll all get cuttings or bulbs.”
At least there are still some splendid views and some lovely wild flowers to see on our day long approach to Machu Picchu:
Sobralia dichotoma – an orchid commonly found on the Inka Trail – with long stems up to 6m in height
Oreacallis grandiflora or Llama Llama plant near Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself – resplendant with proud single stem tree at its centre
And there are some wonderful five hundred year old examples of a view perfectly framed:
An Opening in a stone wall frames the view magnificently at Machu Picchu
That night we stay at the gorgeous Inka Terra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. This time I am completely ready for crisp white sheets, eucalyptus scented hallways, paths lined with headily perfumed Brugmansia arborea:
Brugmansia arborea at The Inka Terra Machu Picchu
handsome stone holders for outdoor candles:
… and a wonderfully controlled lush view from my room:
View from our bedroom at the Inka Terra Machu Picchu
Our final leg of the journey is by bizarrely comfortable, black-leather seated all night bus to Huaraz, high up in the central Sierra of Peru.
The sky on the days we are here is a constant exhilarating blue. We are at over 3000m altitude and climb quickly by taxi to the cosy, eco b&B ‘The Lazy Dog Inn’ at 3600m
There is an uplifting, almost aching, clarity to every walk. By the time we reach a magnificently cold, milky blue glacial lake a half day trek – and a further rise in altitude of 600m – from our hotel, air is rasping at our lungs. The wind suddenly whips down the temperature and one of the boys throws up – a swift darting reminder of how fragile we are in this beautiful wildness.
Glacial Lake, Cordillera Blanca
I love the Cézanne-like jagged shapes and shadows of the mountains:I love the sculptural toughness of the Agave americana and its soaring flower stems against the bleached blondness of the sierra:
There are postcard perfect empty valleys where we find swathes of wild lupins:
Andean Wild Lupin – Lupinus mutablis
And everywhere there are cushions of brightly flowered cactus nestling on rocks covered in fine webs of spun wool:
cushions of flowering cactus
The turf in the valleys is nibbled tight and studded with the tiniest palest blue primrose like flowers: At the valley edges stands of thorny Barnadesia horrida are alive with humming birds and the Andean bee:
As a taxi takes us back to The Lazy Dog Inn at the end of another trek – the soft late afternoon light illuminates the silvery wands of roadside pampas grass:
Pampas grass growing by the roadside
Me with my cheery, bearded, traveller-husband in the Cordillera Blanca
We return to The Lazy Dog, to cosy soups and chocolate chip cookies and fragrant fires made up with Eucalyptus kindling and started with dry Eucalyptus leaves:
Eucalyptus trees towering over the stables at The Lazy Dog Inn
The view before nightfall is barely believable:
Sunset viewed from the Lazy Dog Inn, Cordillera Blanca