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Manu Tour Advice

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Hi everyone, after returning from my second trip to Manu recently, I was giving tips and advice to a friend for her upcoming trip to Manu. She was thrilled with the advice and I realized that I had a lot of information that others might find useful when planning their trips. I have a unique perspective having been to Manu twice in one year at different times of the year with two different tour groups and also having the gained some additional insight from a new friend & veteran guide who has worked for several different companies.

My trips:
In November of 2007 I took my first trip to Peru and to Manu. It was my first solo trip (anywhere) and I had an amazing vacation. I hiked the Inca Trail and visited the Manu Reserve Zone. Along the way to Manu I was enchanted by a village called Paucartambo. Our guides told us of an annual festival held there at the winter solstice where dance troops come from all around and the village is packed with people and colorfully costumed dancers celebrating day and night.
Photos: http://gallery.me.com/soccerose#100015
http://gallery.me.com/soccerose#100029

After the trip I corresponded for several months with my Manu guide. When I decided to return to Peru to go to the Festival Virgin del Carmen in Paucartambo (that I had heard of during my first trip) and also take another trip to Manu with my guide friend, he helped me select the tour from a few that he worked for and once again I had an amazing vacation. I have become good friends with my guide, Rivelino, and he has given me interesting insight into the tours and groups as he has worked for many of them. Rive has been guiding for over 6 years, grew up in the rainforest, and kind of specializes in birding.
Photos: http://gallery.me.com/soccerose#100202

Specific Manu details of my trips:

November 2007 (early part of 'rainy season') - I went with Manu Ecological Adventures (http://www.manuadventures.com) on the 7 day tour to the reserved zone. Drive in / fly home from Boca Manu. On this trip we rafted to Erika Lodge and I did the zip lines. We went to the parrot's clay lick and were in the reserved zone for about two days. This tour takes you further into the Amazon and into the Reserve Zone, but because of this you are packing and moving almost every day.

Tour Itinerary Pros: Visited the Reserve Zone. Zip line was fun.
Tour Itinerary Cons: Parrots clay lick wasn’t that great. Constantly on the move.

July 2008 (dry season) - I went with Amazon Trails Peru (http://www.amazontrailsperu.com) on the 8 day tour - drive in / drive out. On this trip we saw the macaw's clay lick (it was raining the morning we were to do the parrot's clay lick, so did not go) and spent 3 nights in the mammals clay lick. This tour does not take you all the way into the the reserved zone, only to the Boca Manu area, but you are able to stay in one lodge (Makisapayoj) for 4 nights and have multiple opportunities to see the different clay licks and lakes.

Tour Itinerary pros: Macaws clay lick was awesome! Saw Tapirs in the mammals clay lick. The best thing about this tour is that you stay in one place for several nights and have multiple opportunities to see the macaws, otters, or tapirs. If the weather is bad one morning when you are scheduled to see the macaws, you can try again the next morning. We went to the mammals clay lick 3 nights and saw tapirs on 2 of them! (Rive was exhausted after that, the guide usually stays up all night watching for the tapirs, while the rest of us sleep – then he wakes you up if they make a showing. But he was a trooper and took us every opportunity we had.)
The 42 meter platform (Camungo tower) had amazing views.

Tour Itinerary cons: Didn’t get into the Reserved Zone.

Note: Both tour operators offer different tours; Manu Adventures offers shorter tours that don't go all the way to the reserved zone and Amazon Trails offers tours to the reserved zone. Manu Adventures now is advertising a mammal’s clay lick, but I don’t know what mammals you will see there since it was not on the tour when I went.

I would say the Manu Ecological Adventures is one of the less expensive, bargain tour companies and Amazon Trails is in the mid to high-range category. Manu Expeditions & Inca Natura are higher-end companies, but they are also the most expensive.


Differences in tour groups – what do you get for your money?
One thing I find myself asking when shopping around for anything is “what am I getting for the extra money?” Here is what I have found to be the main differences between the cheaper tours and the more expensive ones. It’s usually true that you get what you pay for, and that holds true here too. The decision for me is "do I need/want the more expensive features"? Hopefully this will help some of you decide how much to spend based on your desires and needs.

Bus Transportation – One of the biggest differences is the road transportation. Manu Ecological Adventures has terrible cars. I saw first hand that their vehicles are crap. On my trip with them our bus was “serviced” while we were in Paucartambo. Jacked up and they did who knows what to it. On my second trip (with Amazon Trails), we saw a stranded bus, it was one of theirs. I saw another post about them where the poster had had car issues. I would not use them again, you ride on some pretty precarious roads and I just would not feel safe after having seen all the bus problems.
Amazon Trails uses well maintained buses as do the other high end companies.

Boat transportation - It’s not much different in the low end (Adventures) and mid-range (Amazon trails) – they are locally made boats with wooden bench seats with cushions. The boatmen are all local natives and know the river well. With the higher end tours, like Manu Expeditions, they have faster boats with captain’s chairs. I saw them pass us a couple times on both tours. You are on the river for a lot of your trip, so if you have back problems or such maybe this is a consideration – to me the local boats were fine and adequate

Air transportation - Everyone uses the same plane (I believe it is plane, singular). After waiting for the plane in basically a hut, our luggage brought out to the airstrip in a wheelbarrow, and all communications by means of shouting into a CB-type radio – I was worried about what I would be flying in. But I was quite pleased with the new airplane that we were flown on and the very professional pilots. The co-pilot looked about 14 though. Kidding, he did look really young though! Weather affects everyone. No matter what group, you can’t fly if the weather is bad (either in Manu or Cusco).

The difference in air comes with the fact that it is a chartered plane – and will not fly if they don’t have a full flight. They need 12. The high end Manu Expeditions charters the whole flight, so they will fly regardless. I don't know if any other of the higher end companies charter the plane. On my second tour, the group flying back had to wait an extra day for a full flight. On the positive side, they got an extra free day on their tour.

Accommodations - Amazon Trails definitely had nicer digs. Each room had a bathroom. Manu Adventures had shared shower/bathrooms. I really don’t mind roughing it but here’s the problem with that – do you have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? I do. My first night in the forest I sat awake having to pee so bad, but could not bring myself to venture out of my room, into the pitch black, to the bathroom. It’s really not far from the room, but I just couldn’t do it. I lay in bed miserable until there was a little morning light. Of course, by the end of my second trip, when we camped on the beach near a local village, I got up in the middle of the night, walked by myself down the road along the shore to use a bush. No problem. Still, it was REALLY nice having your own bathroom. Overall everything was cleaner too.

Once you get into the Reserved Zone, all the accommodations are pretty much the same. No bathrooms in rooms, no hot water.

Oh and then there was getting trapped in the shower at Erica Lodge (Manu Adventures). I was taking my shower in the evening and I pushed the wooden door shut – it shut tightly. When I went to leave I realized there was no door knob! And you had to PULL the door. It was flush with the wall, nothing to pull on! I tried desperately to hoist myself over the high wall, but just couldn’t do it. I had visions of spending the night in the shower stall. Finally one of the workers came for a shower and I was able to call to him for help. He kicked the door open for me. What an experience!

I believe that as you go up in price, you get even better accommodations. I don’t know what extras you would get, you would want to check out photos. Hot water (though that is usually ‘to the first 5 customers’) and electricity are probably the only extras worth considering.

One small touch that I thought also made a big difference was the fact that Amazon Trails provided a towel On my Manu Adventures tour, even my high tech camping towel just stayed damp due to the humidity and by the 3rd or 4th day it was smelling gross like mildew and just was not dry. I survived of course, but Amazon Trails provided a clean, dry towel in the room, and on about our 3rd day in Makisapayoj (just as it was kind of starting to feel damp and smell), they gave us a fresh, dry, clean towel. That was a joy.

Food – The food wasn’t fantastic with either tour company for me. Neither was it terrible. I don’t eat any meat except fish. With Manu Adventures I got a whole avocado instead of the meat several times. One night with Amazon Trails I got rice and potatoes with gravy as my meal. With Amazon Trails we had some great spreads the first couple days and it seemed like the fruits and veggies got used up. The first breakfast was this glorious spread of yogurt, granola, and fresh fruits. But we didn’t get that after that. My Manu Adventures cook made a lot of Chinese style dishes that were a little too rich for my tastes, but others seemed to enjoy.

Wildlife The chance to see large mammals (ie: jaguars) is slim when you are out walking in the forest, and if you happen to see them from the boat (ie: we saw capybarra on both tours) they are quite distant. More chances for the jaguars in the Reserve Zone. You will see monkeys no matter what tour you take. If you love macaws, I’d say the macaw’s clay lick is a definite must! I have never experienced anything quite like that.
Macaw’s clay lick: http://gallery.me.com/soccerose#100015/PICT0435&bgcolor=black
The parrot’s clay lick doesn’t compare. You are too far away and only small parrots are there. Parrots are about 20-30 cm. There are both parrots & macaws at the macaw’s clay lick and you are on an observation platform where you get a great view and opportunity to take lots of photos. Not only are you closer, but a macaw is almost a meter tall so they are easily viewed through your camera zoom.
The tapir’s clay lick was the other wonderful experience. Tough to do – 1 hour hiking to the colpa, then you sit for hours without making a sound and maybe you see one. When we went on our last day, we had planned to hike back early and not stay there over night because we had an early departure for flights. But our blind friend showed up at 10pm and didn't leave till midnight. We then had to hike an hour through the forest back to camp at midnight! Since we had not planned on staying that late, we had not arranged for dinner and hadn't eaten. Our cooks got up at 1am and pulled together food that they had saved for us. 6am came really early the next day. Nonetheless, I am so glad I did it!
Video of our blind tapir: http://gallery.me.com/soccerose#100209

We saw lots of caiman on my first trip in the reserve zone, only a few on the second trip. I don’t know if this was due to entering the Reserve Zone, or more likely because that trip was during rainy season and the river was high and it was cooler. I think all the tours go to the same “Cock of the rock” viewing platform.

So to me, the difference in companies, when it comes to seeing wildlife, is this: having multiple chances (mentioned many times), access to clay licks, and the guides (see below). Believe me, you will be in amazement when a good guide suddenly stops the boat and brings you to the shore to see monkeys, or a Harpy Eagle that they somehow spotted as you were cruising along. You would never see most of the good stuff without the guides.

Guides – I, of course, thought I had the best guide! Yeah, he’s my friend but I am amazed at his ability to identify a bird by sound or flight, spot a toucan at the top of some tree, or rattle off the English, Latin, and often even the German name of any bird or animal we see, as well as migratory and feeding habits, etc.. The guides really do make a difference.

Needless to say, the cheaper companies pay the guides less and therefore get new and less knowledgeable guides. We had an assistant guide on the Amazon Trails tour who was “training’. He had done a lot of guiding on the Inca Trail and was trying to move to the rainforest. He knew a lot of Peruvian history, but very, very, little about wildlife. The difference between him and Rive was painfully obvious. A lot of the boatmen are kind of aspiring guides, so often they spot animals when you are on the river too. You might be able to ask for a specific guide or years experience when you reserve, consider this if you choose a cheaper company. Go online and look for names of good (and bad) guides in reviews. Or just ask for Rivelino :) Personally, I don’t think the skills you want in a guide are easily learned on the job. I think there are two groups of guides that to me seem the best. First the natives, these guides grew up in the forest and already know how to spot and locate animals. The probably hunted them for food when they were younger. As guides they learn the taxonomy. The other group is biologists/scientists. There are many guides that come from universities around the world and stay and guide. They know the taxonomy and learn how to spot and locate the animals. Of course English skills are also important. I think your guide should have at least 5 years experience. Most of the reviews I have read about bad experiences are due to a lousy guide. I know it is common for birders to ask specifically for a birding guide so I would think you could ask for a specific guide based on their website (all the websites have bio’s of their regular guides). Couldn’t hurt to ask.

Spotting Scopes – Manu Adventures had a mediocre spotting scope at Erica Lodge that is used when you go to the parrots clay lick. They don’t take it out when you are walking in the forest or beyond Erica Lodge. Amazon Trails owns several scopes and all the guides take them. No matter what tour you use, you should ask if the guide will have a telescope. They really add to the experience because it far better than any binoculars you might have. Rive had his own a couple years ago, but it was stolen by a band of Bolivian thieves (no joke). They were actually later caught, but of course his telescope was long gone. He’s saving up to replace it (a decent one that will hold up to the humidity is more than a month’s salary so it’s a big deal) and then he can then have it no matter what tour group he guides with. So if you get a good guide, even on a less expensive tour, he/she might have their own scope. Ask.

Payment – Interestingly, Manu Ecological Adventures took credit cards, Amazon Trails Peru did not. I paid cash when I got there and hadn’t put a deposit down, so I’m not sure how they take their deposits. A lot of the tour agencies apparently do not take credit cards due to the fees. Make sure you know the exchange rate. I caught Amazon Trails rounding the rate to their advantage. I have seen various posts about the integrity of the companies and trying to rip you off. Bottom line, they are all out to make money, period. Look out for yourself.

Recommendations:
Reserve zone- is it worth it? This is a tough question for me to answer. I am glad I did it. I really don't know that the forest or river was that dramatically different - I think we did see more wildlife on the river and in the forest. But you have to do the mammal’s clay lick and the macaw's clay lick to really see the animals. Amazon Trails offers a reserved zone tour that gives you both, so that could be a good way to go. But it would have to be an 8 or 9 day tour. To me it was just amazing to know I was in the reserved zone far, far, from civilization.

Itinerary. Make sure you have enough time. If you have limited time, fly out (or even fly in too). Especially if you are going during the rainy season, make sure you have more than one opportunity to see the clay licks. The big advantage of going to Makisapayoj and staying for 4 nights as opposed to constantly moving lodge to lodge, is that you have multiple chances to see the clay licks (colpas in Spanish). Our first night at the mammals clay lick we did not see the tapir. two nights later we returned and saw a deer and a tapir. The following night we went again and saw two tapirs - the second was the big old blind guy who stayed for 2 hours!

Drive back or fly back - I will say that if you do the Amazon Trails tour, flying home is a nice option. The one thing you miss is the hot springs. For me they were amazing and one of the highlights of my trip, but I have never been in hot springs. It was like nothing else to be sitting in the hot springs with the forest surrounding you. If you have other opportunities to do hot springs, it would probably be better to fly home. The boat ride / drive "home" to Cusco is really long!

Oh, and if you do the hot springs, don't be stupid like I was and not put shoes and long pants back on before enjoying your breakfast on the beach. My feet and legs were devoured by those stupid little black flies and the itching afterwards was almost unbearable. After I had done so good the entire trip to stay covered up and unbitten, they got me the last day!

Clothing – spray your clothes with premitherin. Wear long sleeves and long pants whenever you go out side. One of my fellow tourists didn’t wear her long sleeve shirt when we went to sit at the store in Boca Manu. It was only for about a half hour and on the river shores, not in the forest. By the time she got to our lodge it looked like she had the chicken pox. Her arms were covered in bites. And you don’t realize those buggers are biting you.

Time of year – August is the best time to see the macaws. Between December and March is the rainy season. If it’s raining, you will just sit in your room, animals are hiding from the rain too. Rive says March is terrible; they call it the month of the dead because it rains so much. If you are going during the rainy season, you really should consider an Amazon Trails type of tour where you will have multiple opportunities to see the clay licks or lakes. Also, do a longer tour for the same reason.

Binoculars – I read all the posts before I left on what the numbers on a pair of binoculars meant, but still didn’t figure out what I needed for the rainforest. You will want: water resistant (water proof is good, but water resistant will be fine), at least 42 diameter lens (ie: 7x42 or 8x42). This will affect light and field of view (you can search on posts or internet for this type of detail – I’m certainly not an expert). What I can say is that for a Manu trip, when you spot a bird or monkey in a tree, you need to be able to quickly bring your binoculars to your eyes and find it in that tree. You might have one crooked branch in a sea of identical trees as a reference point. Field of view is important. The little buggers move fast. If you don’t have a large field of view, it’s really hard to find what you just spotted quickly before they run off. If you are trying them out, what that means is when you look through them, you see a really big circle. You obviously want some magnification, but the more magnification, the smaller the field of view. To test them, look for something on the wall and then see how quickly you can locate it with the binoculars. I’m still trying to figure out how much magnification I (personally) need, I just got a new pair and they are 8x42. While I would like a stronger magnification, the higher magnifications become difficult to hold steady and you need a larger lens to get your field of view (=$$). If your guide has a scope, you have the chance to see things through that – but it won’t be used when you are on the boat, can’t keep it steady enough. Scope is great for sloths, not so great for jumping monkeys.

Money - you need more than you think. On all my trips I found myself wishing I had brought a little more cash. Smaller bills and coins, particularly for buying drinks and snacks in Boca Manu, and enough money to give out tips. To give you an idea of who you might tip – you will have a cook and 1 or 2 cook’s assistants, a boatman and his assistant, and a guide (sometimes 2 if it’s a big group). So it’s better to have small bills so you can give a tip to each of the cooks and boatmen different amounts. You can give the cook, for example, a little bit more and ask them to share with their assistant – but it’s really better if you can tip them each individually. The more small bills & coins you have, the more options you have. U.S. money is fine too. Note that pretty much the fare of one tourist pays the wages of all the workers (guide, cooks, boatmen) and supplies. They aren’t paid a lot, so tips are pretty important to them. There were also opportunities on both tours to purchase some locally made jewelry and goods.

Sleeping bag? I brought one the first trip and didn’t need it. All the lodges, including Manu Adventures, had clean bedding. If you choose a tour with Amazon Trails and will be visiting the mammals’ clay lick, you will need one for that. They only have some cushions to sleep on. Doesn’t have to be heavy duty, its hot there! You have to carry to the colpa, so small and lightweight is best.

Miscellaneous stuff: Bring multiple batteries – you will probably not be able to charge things, electricity is limited. Put your camera in something waterproof, at least when you are not using it. The humidity can cause problems with your digital gear. Bring hydrocortozone cream or other itch relief. I tried Benadryl for my bites and it didn’t help. I got some Hydrocortozone when I got back to Cuzco, but it was only .5% and while it did help, it wasn’t a lot of relief. Bring something strong from home. If you are not doing Manu Adventures, bring 2 towels, if you go with higher end company, you should still have a towel. Rubber sandals (flip flops work) for shower and rafting.

One of the couples on our tour had some balloons in their day pack. They blew up a few for the kids in Boca Manu and they were delighted. I liked the idea because they are easy to pack. Just a neat idea. Snacks – you are fed plenty, but I have found that having nuts and maybe a little chocolate or such along with me was great. Bring a book. You are on the river sometimes for 5 hours, and while it’s beautiful, it’s not particularly exciting after a while. If it rains, you’ll want something to do in your room. Don’t be afraid to bargain on the cost of the tour. Go with a group smaller than 10 – you will have a better chance to see animals. Smaller groups are quieter and the guide is better able to give you attention.

I hope this post helps some of you out. I’m happy to answer questions and I really tried to be objective with this information. No matter which you choose, you will see the same beautiful forest and you will have the opportunity to see the most spectacular sunsets you have ever seen.

Que tengas buen viajes!
Rose

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