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Manu Biosphere Reserve Review

Readers of the British children's series A Bear Called Paddington know that the title character "came from darkest Peru." The stereotype is quite outdated, of course, but the Manu Biosphere Reserve, which has been called "the most biodiverse park on earth," will conjure up the jungliest Tarzan-movie images you can imagine. And the reserve really does count the Andean spectacled bear, South America's only ursid, and the animal on which Paddington was based, among its 200 mammals.

Straddling the boundary of the Madre de Dios and Cusco provinces, this reserve is Peru's second largest protected area. Manu encompasses more than 4½ million acres of pristine primary tropical-forest wilderness, ranging in altitude from 3,450 meters (12,000 feet) down through cloud forests and into seemingly endless lowland tropical rain forests at 300 meters (less than 1,000 feet). This geographical variety shelters a stunning range of wildlife—and a near total absence of humans and hunting means that the animals here are less skittish and more open to observation. The reserve's 13 monkey species scrutinize visitors with the same curiosity they elicit. White caimans sun themselves lazily on sandy riverbanks, whereas the larger black ones lurk in the oxbow lakes. With luck, you'll see tapirs at the world's largest tapir collpa. Giant river otters and elusive big cats (jaguars and ocelots among them) sometimes make fleeting appearances. But it's the avian life that has made Manu world famous. The area counts more than 1,000 bird species, fully one-ninth of those known. Some 500 species have been spotted at the Pantiacolla Lodge alone. Birds include macaws, toucans, roseate spoonbills, and 1½-meter- (5-foot-) tall wood storks.

Manu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is divided into three distinct zones. The smallest is the so-called "cultural zone" (Zone C), with several indigenous groups and the majority of the jungle lodges. Access is permitted to all—even independent travelers, in theory— though vast distances make this unrealistic for all but the most intrepid. About three times the size of the cultural zone, Manu's "reserve zone" (Zone B) is uninhabited but contains the Manu Lodge. Access is by permit only, and you must be accompanied by a guide from one of the 10 agencies authorized to take people into the area. The western 80% of Manu is designated a national park (Zone A). Authorized researchers and indigenous peoples who reside there are permitted in this zone; visitors may not enter.

Updated: 11-22-2012

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