Yes, I was Jane of the Jungle for 4 days and 3 nights, in the Manu National Park.
We were a group of 13 people, instead of the 5 promised by the agency. The guide was quite surprised as well, and not too happy. So we had a big, old bus, really old-fashioned looking, very cute, but slow. The bus ride to Manu took twelve hours. We stopped for breakfast, where we sort of met, where the Austrian lesbian couple and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes at the two young (20 and 26 years old) Dutch sisters who kept on exclaiming “Ohhhh!” or repeating the last word of what people said very, very, very enthusiastically. These two pretty Dutch sisters would always be late for everything. They’d be the ones falling down and screaming out and laughing loudly and carrying impossibly heavy bags for no reason at all. But they were sweet -- once you got past the initial irritation. We also stopped at the last village before the jungle, where, for some unexplained reason, we were made to visit the museum of folkloric dance. Later that night we all made fun of the museum but each time someone spoke, it turned out we had learned something of some interest! I, for one, hadn’t known that Peru had imported slaves from Africa to work at the haciendas, and it was interesting to read about how the most important religious festival in the region stemmed from these slaves. We walked around the pretty little town, with its blue and white colonial buildings and imposing stone bridge built by the Spanish to take all the gold from one region to the next. We ran into our guide’s toothless old mother who was selling fruit on the street. Then we got back on the bus and shook and trembled for another eight hours. EIGHT hours of torture. What’s strange is that despite all that shaking, the sharp turns, the dangers, the non-stop Danish coming from the girl behind me, with her ugly, cracked voice, I couldn’t stop sleeping. That was a god-send. Otherwise I’d have lost my mind. I was barely holding on to it by the time we finally reached our lodge. But we had a pleasant dinner and especially afterwards, conversation was fun and then we went to bed, praying that the next day would be better. We had fortunately left the bus once in a while to walk on the road, and we even got to see some Capucin monkeys (which our guide called Cappuccinos) and we had lunch on a corner of the dirt road, in the jungle.
Who was in our group? Two Spanish guys traveling together, a Spanish couple, an Austrian middle-aged lesbian bohemian couple, a Danish couple, the Dutch sisters, and me. One of the Spanish guys was unwittingly hilarious. He was a heavy-duty patriot. I bought an orange at the town market and told him Peru made me want to eat all the time and that everything was delicious. The only thing he could find to say was that oranges weren’t specific to Peru, that the streets of Seville were lined with orange trees. Hmmm... OK... Later, I was talking about how wonderful Peruvian cuisine was and he said it was no different from Spanish cuisine, that they had exactly the same things. I said, well, no, they had a whole different style, of fusion with Chinese food. Jungle food and lots of other regions. He rolled his eyes and said, well, no, he was Spanish and he knew. Next, I asked the Spaniards how they felt when they went to the museums and they read all those explanations about the horrors Spain had inflicted on the country and how the natives tried to gain their independence etc. He said, well I liked Cusco, didn’t I, and if Cusco was so beautiful it was only thanks to the Spanish, just as the only bridge left standing in that town we had visited was built by the Spanish, and he enumerated other cities.
I said the Spanish had built Cusco from all the stones they’d taken from the old Inca palace and fortress that used to stand there. Last, I laughed about the fact that I had learned Spanish Spanish with the “th” in gracias, but had to unlearn this in Peru, where they say grassias and that I would have a hard time getting used to the “th” again once back in Europe. He said that even I Peru I should continue to sue the “th” as that was the correct version and the millions of Peruvians (and other Latin Americans) all had it wrong!!! (My French friends in Arequipa had the same colonialist or imperial attitude towards my Belgian French. In Belgium, we allow ourselves to say “un bête film”, instead of “un film bête,” which the girls found unacceptable, as they did some of my other Belgicismes – get over it, guys).
The Austrians were working in Cusco on an art project meant to combat discrimination. They were great. Everyone liked them. I couldn’t stand the Danish girl and I ended up making her cry and I didn’t even regret it. She drove me so crazy by talking non-stop for four days, I couldn’t even take a nap because I could hear her talking next door THROUGH MY EAR PLUGS. When I asked her to speak with a slightly lower voice, she refused to accept that there was a problem so I let myself go and told her in no uncertain terms how I had enough of hearing her loud voice all this time. She started to cry and left. Good. We kept our distances from then on. Still, she refused to lower her voice and again, I couldn’t take a nap (I put on some loud music but I don’t know if she took the hint—but I at least I couldn’t hear her) and I didn’t go on the night walk the last night because I couldn’t bear to hear her some more and wanted to be asleep before she came jabbering back. Argh. May she rot in a hell composed of yelling devils.
Anyways, the second day was great. We started off by walking through the village where our lodge was situated. It was a kind of Wild West place, with a large dirt road running through it, old, dilapidated houses with iron roofs, antique trucks, chickens and a huge parrot roaming free! We walked over a big river and into the forest. Our guide set up his telescope here and there and we looked through it at plants and birds and tried to decipher his interesting explanations in poor English. Willy was a great guide, a truly sweet person, but if only he could take a few hours of English class!!! He and I got on very well and I tried to teach him a few tricks. He practiced his English and I my Spanish. He had a 4-year old daughter, who we met, but he and his wife were divorced. He said they got along better now. He had no sense of humor, or rather, he didn’t get my jokes, like when I saw a tree with strange spiral markings on it and said “hey, look! Inca art!” and he said no, it was the so-and-so tree. I insisted, nooo, it’s Inca art and he tried to explain to me that it wasn’t. It’s only when I asked him to not to ruin everything and shushed him that he got it and gave me a whole high five and hand shake! The next day we saw what he said were the footprints of a mother Puma and her baby. The last day, when we were walking far far away from the jungle, I saw some prints and said “hey look! Puma prints!” and he said, no, dog, woof-woof prints. Grrrr....!
So the second day we walked, we got back on the bus, we walked again to the village of Atalaya, built on a tiny “port” from which tourist boats go off into the jungle. We got on our boat and stopped at a place on the river from which we could dive from a huge stone into the water and get caught up in the strong current and try to swim back to the rock! We had lunch from tupperware boxes on top of that stone (luxury! The poor cook went all around the rock, asking us if we wanted mayo or mustard).
We got back on the boat and disembarked again, wore our rubber boots, walked over a stone beach, through another river, took a path through huge bamboos, arrived at the forest, climbed up and up and up and finally arrived at our very rustic lodge! We had huge rooms but barely any walls and there were big spaces where the top of the wall should have been so we could hear EVERYTHING, let alone screaming Danish girls. There was no electricity and of course no hot water. The rooms all leaned backwards, so if you dropped something round, it would roll all the way to the back. I chose the bed in the middle because the three other all leaned sideways.
I’m trying to write chronologically but the three days have become a total jumble in my mind. We got up early and had good breakfasts of omelets or pancakes and fruit. We went out, got on a boat and got off and walked through the jungle, really ludique, fun paths through humongous bamboos or other trees, walking straight through shallow rivers or mud banks, invincible in our rubber boots, stopping to admire a plant, ants working feverishly, birds, snakes, frogs... We climbed a high mountain but it was so cool under the canopy that we didn’t suffer too much and the view from the top was beautiful.
And we got to see some Spider Monkeys, swinging from tree to tree! We swam in the river, looking for the cold currents to cool down from the otherwise warm waters. Then we got dressed and went back to walk through deep mud paths and reach an incredible place where tens of different types of birds decided to congregate as the sun set. I was so exhausted I felt drunk. Looking through binoculars and telescopes also made me very dizzy.
Half the group left us on the morning of the 3rd day, after we got up at 6 to watch the parrots come to eat a certain mineral from a certain cliff to cleanse their digestive systems of the toxic fruit they would eat the whole day. Some of our group members went on to the reserved, deeper part of the jungle, to see otters and jaguars and more monkeys, more animals and more mosquitos (!) and others returned to Cusco. Only the Dutch sisters and the Danes were left, to my great dismay. The Dutch sisters had a Zip Line included in their package and I decided to try it out, too. We got up at 6 on the last day (yaayyyy, the Danes didn’t want to come!) and walked up a mountain and through mud and rivulets and went down and up narrow, steep paths and arrived at a lodge which owned the zip lines. We were handed pulleys (the sisters couldn’t carry their own material so the young guy responsible for the Lines carried everything for them) and harnesses which we wore, then walked up a path and up a platform on a tree (I’m totally incapable of remembering how on earth we got on that platform). Once there, we were faced with THE CABLE, on which we placed our pulley and tried to gather the courage to let go of everything and just SLIDE! I wondered what I was doing there, but the elder of the Dutch sisters was so much more afraid than me that I felt it was my duty to show some bravado and make believe I was fine with it. So I was first to go! The lines were wet so the brakes didn’t work well. We had to keep an eye on the young guy who was already on the next platform, signaling when we had to lift the pulley to go fast and when we had to lower it to brake. I braked too soon and got stuck before reaching the platform. I’m proud to say I didn’t panic at all. I pulled myself forward with my hands and got on the platform. The problem is that these platforms are extremely rustic, meaning that they seem to be hastily and carelessly made, with huge gaping spaces between the planks so there you are, shaking from your ride, meters away from safe, lovely ground, huge ants from the trees crawling all over you, and you still have to be careful about where you place your feet!
You’re tied to some ropes on the tree, you’re always safe if you fall, but you just don’t want to test all that security... I didn’t dare let go of anything I could get my hands on but I also had to swipe the ants away from my face and arms... So the sisters arrived, the younger one as cool as a cucumber (grrr!), the elder arrived much, much too fast and ran straight into the tree, but she was OK. Off we went for the much, much longer second one (the lines measured a total of 350 meters). Again, I went first, but it was so much more difficult to start! I realized only the next day that I didn’t have to hold on to the pulley for dear life, as the pulley was only to regulate speed; what was holding me was the harness. I was stressed because my hands were all sweaty and I felt I wouldn’t be able to hold on to the pulley and I’d fall. I wish the guide had been a bit better at understanding our fear and doing away with it! Anyways, I took a deep breath, reminded myself to enjoy the ride, and let off a joyful yell. It’s cool once you’re sliding. All is well. I actually looked down and around and said wow, this great, but in between rides it’s just horrible. It’s horrible to be on that platform, horrible to anticipate the next start! I kept joking that the elder sister and I were old enough to know better, that this was all the younger sister’s fault... The elder was in such a state of petrified fear, it was painful to see.
But if you think these three rides were bad, let me tell you about when our guide suddenly, and without any warning, lifted a part of the platform from beneath our feet (that’s how lacking in empathy he was) and told us we had to go through that hole and climb down the Jurassic age tree. We were given gloves to hold the rope, but my glove was for a left hand, which of course worried me...So you’re in your harness, you settle on a rope, you regulate the speed with your right hand and hold the rope straight with the left... and you slide down and down and down... But no one thought of our backpacks, which got stuck against the branches, and no one thought to tell us to use our legs to keep away from the tree... I just held on and let myself slide. I don’t feel I controlled anything. I think it’s that young guy who was holding the rope way, way down who did everything... It was so strange to be among the branches of that monstrous, fairy tale tree. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I should have. I was worrying about my bag, about how to get unstuck, then the elder sister somehow got lost on the tree and went the wrong way (how on earth did that happen?) and I worried about where I was...It seemed to take ages. I kissed the ground when I finally reached it and said I would never do that ever again. Right now I’m not so sure. It seems this exists in the Ardennes. I’d like to manage to take only pure pleasure from the whole thing. You should have seen our guide, holding the pulley with just one hand as he videoed the ride... I’d be so scared of dropping my phone! The younger guy had on slippers. I’d have been petrified of losing them in mid-air!
They never told us we’d have to slide down the tree... I saw that tree while we were walking and remarked on its Jack and the Bean Stalk, fairy tale, Lord of the Rings, Jurassic appearance...I would never have guessed I’d be coming down that exact same tree and hour later!
I’m really happy I did it, but the feeling of fear persisted for a while afterwards, a nasty feeling, near the heart. Also, I was a bit disappointed in myself, that I hadn’t been debonair and more courageous about it all. I wish I’d been cooler!
We took a pleasant way back to the lodge, by the river, instead of going up the steep paths through the jungle. They had prepared a huge fruit platter with papayas, grapes, kiwis, melons and pancakes! Fear was forgotten.
We were so ready to stay on the bus for 10 hours after such an adrenaline-pumped morning!! The ride was of course horrifyingly bumpy and tiring and noisy and long, but we arrived in Cusco at 7. I hurried to my hotel, were I was joyfully greeted by my old friends with “Ola! How was Manu? Nice to see you back! We kept your room for you!”, which was very heart-warming. I put on earrings, mascara and lipstick to hide my jungle dirt and went off to meet Laura and a friend of hers for drinks and dinner. How strange to be back in civilization! Cars. Pollution... But the back streets of Cusco were as magical as the jungle and the restaurant was as splendid as they always are and the pisco sour and wine and alpaca steak were wondrous. It was incredible to have a full, complete conversation in correct English, after 4 days of continuously saying things like “Look! Where? Here! What’s that? Look!” or just making observations or asking questions in simplified English or Spanish such as “It’s so hot! I’m hungry. How long will we walk? Are we there yet? It’s so muddy! It’s so steep!” But I’m already nostalgic for the river, the sinuous paths, the bird calls. Strangely, there was no smell. I searched for it, but the jungle didn’t smell. Sometimes the mud stank really bad, but that’s it. None of the flowers smelled, either. Also, it wasn’t as hot and humid as I’d feared. There weren’t as many mosquitoes as I’d been led to expect. I got bitten really badly only during the zip line experience, the last morning, through my pants, and despite the repellent!
And so that was my jungle experience. I hope one day to go deeper into a jungle, and suffer from the heat and humidity and see big cats and other animals, but I wanted to save time for the North, where I’m heading now, as I write on this bus.