By: Walter Wust
Dawn in a tropical forest: a
dense mist envelopes everything, accentuating the song of thousands of birds greeting the
new day. The sun lazily creeps up between the treetops and its first rays turn the tiny
dewdrops on the leaves into shining pearls. Soon, as if from nowhere, a slim canoe makes
its way slowly through the quiet waters of a lagoon. Standing in it with perfect balance
is a man watching the surface with great attention. He is carrying several arrows and a
chonta bow, which he uses with great precision to push the boat between two semi-submerged
tree trunks. He pauses to stare into the water. He tenses his muscles and gets ready to
He is doing what his ancestors did thousands of years ago in the very same place, perhaps
also using chonta arrows and a similar type of canoe. And maybe they, too, heard the
birds´ songs resonate throughout the forest of the Peruvian Amazon and were enveloped by
the dawn´s mist in the morning.
With a buzzing sound, the fisherman releases his arrow and it pierces a small-mouth
silverback fish weighing about two kilograms as it breaks the surface of the water. He
loosens the fish with ease from the arrow, and places it in the canoe. His family will
have breakfast this morning.
This is Manu, several days' canoe journey down river on the snaking rivers of the Madre de
Dios department. Considered one of the best preserved parts of the world, it is a site of
incredible natural wealth and serves as a home for native groups who live in harmony with
their environment just as their ancestors did.
This vast and unaltered jungle is the most diverse spot on earth, and has been declared by
UNESCO as a Natural Patrimony of Humanity. With an extension of almost two million
hectares - half the area of Switzerland and double that of Puerto Rico - the Manu Reserve
has areas subject to strict protection (the National Park) and others that are
resource-managed. These include the reservation zone and the cultural zone.
The Manu Reserve was established in 1973, after British zoologist Ian Greenwood
recommended its creation. The Peruvian government put him in charge of proposing an area
of the forest that had both the beauty and natural resources necessary to merit
preservation. Greenwood traveled through the entire eastern portion of the country without
finding an area with these ideal characteristics. Disappointed, he returned to the
government offices to present his findings. There, he met Polish naturalist Celestino
Kalinowski, a wild plant collector and hardened traveler who had lived in the upper jungle
outside of Cuzco.
Kalinowski had come to the capital in order to propose that the government create a
reservation in a part of the Amazon known as Manu, a difficult zone to enter, but home to
some of the greatest natural wealth imaginable. Within a few days, the two men traveled to
the area and reached a definite conclusion: it was absolutely necessary that this corner
of the world be protected.
The Thousand Faces of Manu
A number of attributes contribute to the natural exuberance of Manu. Chief among these is
the surprising variety of ecosystems that comprise its interior. This is partly due to the
fact that the park exists at a high altitude, and the resulting series of microclimates
and environments combine to make it a complex and abrupt geographical zone.
Manu begins at 4000 meters above sea level. A steep mountain dominates the landscape,
and a frigid wind sweeps unceasingly across the exposed ichu (a type of grass indigenous
to the area). The majestic Andean condor watches over the land from unreachable heights.
The people from this region are known as Apu Kanahuay, which means "He who is close
to God." In the heights of Paucartambo, an Andean enclave east of Cuzco, nature
created the greatest natural balcony on the planet. Known as "Three Crosses," or
Aacjanaco, this place offers a spectacular view of breathtaking beauty. The clouds -
literally at the viewer's feet - emerge from the jungle in their ascent to the mountains.
A great profusion of light and an intensity of color accompany sunrise, which is why it is
said that the most beautiful sunrise on earth takes place here.
Descending from these heights, the humidity becomes increasingly more intense. The ichu
gives way to strange forests that appear to grasp craggy slopes. The trees are curiously
shaped: small and twisted. These are the dwarf forests of the puna. They are filled with
incredibly colored birds and a huge collection of rare creatures, most of which are still
unknown to modern science. The tree trunks are warped from the harsh climate and
persistent drizzle, and form an entanglement of lichen and minute flowers. It is a setting
of blurred dimensions, where there are shiny beetles the size of sparrows and elusive deer
known as Chilean mountain goats that are only 30 centimeters tall.
Father down, the incline becomes more pronounced. The mountains appear to be sliced
vertically, and the earth disappears beneath a thick vegetation of palm and bamboo
forests. The peaceful streams of the Andean plain begin to run faster here, falling into
crystalline waterfalls and strong currents. There are forests of mist, orchids, ferns,
bromeliacae, giant begonias, butterflies and hummingbirds in a world of moss that covers
everything indiscriminately. It is the home of the tunqui bird, the ucuman (Andean bear),
the quetzal and countless monkeys. It is a habitat of astonishing beauty, but also one of
Leaving the cloudy heights, one enters a more agreeable climate. The receding mountains
in the background now seem more like intensely green hills. It is a land of clear rivers
and abundant fruit, a place where ancient Andeans discovered and cultivated coca - the
sacred leaf of the kings, aji (a Peruvian variety of chile) and granadilla (passion
fruit). Here, the sun warms the days, and the nights are fresh with the scents of flowers
and mushrooms. In the distance, the tepid air of the lower jungle beckons invitingly.
Following a turbulent descent, the rivers slow down considerably. They wind slowly, like
copper cobras, leaving behind soft beaches of fine sand carried down from the Andes. This
is the Amazonian plain. Here trees stand 60 meters high and their trunks, branched by
colossal limbs, are so big that it takes 20 men to move them by hand. Hanging from them
are vines as wide as oxen, and their canopies are so huge that they can be spotted from
jets flying overhead. This is a territory filled with beautiful animals of prey, like
jaguars and caymans. There are also tapirs weighing more than 200 kilograms, rodents the
size of German Shepherds, and creatures that have not changed at all since prehistoric
times like anteaters, armadillos and sloths. The trees are inhabited by more than 600
varieties of birds, ranging from powerful monkey-eating eagles up to one meter tall to
tiny hummingbirds barely larger than insects. One can also spot flocks of colorful macaws,
toucans, herons, wild turkeys, partridges and much, much more.
For most visitors, the jungle looks exuberant, but impenetrable - as if it were asleep.
Actually, it's just the opposite. In the midst of the forest's relative tranquillity is a
fierce ongoing war of survival.
Each organism competes for food and vital space, and at the same time tries to avoid being
prey to a cunning predator. Plants are perhaps the best example of this double
personality. Although outwardly immobile, they battle for each centimeter of earth in
search of soil and light.
They have developed powerful chemical defenses and effective armor to avoid being
devoured, while their enemies have developed powerful antidotes and tools to combat them.
Every inch of space is overflowing with life, and yet is directly related to the rest of
the forest in a surprisingly complex ecosystem. This apparent chaos has been functioning
perfectly for millions of years. The result is an unprecedented balance: each life form
occupies a place on the food chain and is indispensable to the survival of the next
species, like the bats that pollinate flowers, which in turn produce the fruit that feeds
the monkeys and birds. Micro-organisms play a vital role in the life cycle of the forest.
The jungle regenerates itself everyday.
The Machiguenga, like the Yaminahua, Piro, Amahuaca and Amarakaen - Manu's native groups -
observe nature and try to understand its processes in order to control it. Their
adaptation level is so advanced that they have lived here for thousands of years without
exhausting their resources. They have developed agricultural methods for farming the
jungle, and have learned to employ the endless types of plants and animals for various
purposes, including food, clothing, housing, medicine, and even magic rituals. They have
discovered plants that serve as pain relievers, insect repellents, contraceptives,
anti-scarring potions, and cures for venomous snake bites.
All this knowledge wouldn't have been possible without a strong respect for life in all of
its forms. Manu's jungles offer an opportunity to see tropical forests today as they were
thousands of years ago. By familiarizing themselves with the processes of this amazing
tropical forest, it is possible for people to learn the jungle's secrets. Manu is one
treasure that Peruvians, and the entire world, should conserve.