TRIP REPORT, THE MANU ROAD, CUSCO, WITH SUNSTREAK TOURS LED BY ANDREW NEILD, 1-15 NOVEMBER 2017
Wednesday 1 November
The long leg from Madrid to Lima was with Iberia and I was able to get an aisle seat for the 11½ hour flight. It was dark when we landed at 7pm local time and I went straight to the Wyndham Costa del Sol airport hotel located at the terminal and was in bed 90 minutes later.
Thursday 2 November
Up at 3.30am and down for a bit of breakfast before departing at 4.45 for Cusco. The Avianca flight was delayed for an hour whilst 'repairs' were carried out. At Cusco our driver awaited us - it was Juan who had ferried Adrian, David Geale, Mark, Regine and me last year - and by 9am our long transit had commenced. Once outside the urbanisation we stopped at Laguna de Huarcapay and made a fairly unproductive lap of it then picked up the dirt road which would lead all the way to the Manu Road. This was dry territory planted with eucalyptus for construction and firewood and not at all picturesque. Once through Paucartambo a lunch stop beckoned at the hairpin known as Kebrada Chusa and the first bit of butterflying was possible with the lovely Vanessa braziliensis putting in an appearance.
The last 50km down the eastern flank of the Andes started in cold low cloud, not surprising because we were at 3,400 metres. On the descent we stopped a few times until wearily reaching Cock of the Rock Lodge where we'd spend the next 3 nights. I was very happy with chalet #6 illuminated by 3 candles when the generator wasn't operating (6 to 9pm only). The bucket of sand outside the door wouldn't have been much use if the lacey curtains had caught light. Dinner was at 7 and by now there was a coolness in the air, understandable at 1,500m.
Friday 3 November
Got up at 5.30 and was outside soon after and once the sun hit around 6 the butterflies began to appear becoming quite busy as I made my way to breakfast at 7. An Aguti was a little bit startled to see me as it bumbled across the road shortly before a large family group of glum-faced Brown Capucin monkeys made their regular morning raid of the feeders. At 7.45 we took the minibus down the road stopping several times on the way to the bridge and hairpin at Quitacalzon by most accounts THE hotspot on the Manu Road. In the hot sun the butterflies were crazy and with great selectivity rattled off 500+ photos. Asterope leprieuri was one of the prized targets for most of us and here it was - in fact, by the end of the day, we'd discovered it was quite common!
The sun disappeared around 2.30 with low cloud rolling down the mountainsides, and with it went the butterflies. So, by 4.30 we had returned to the Lodge and I took the opportunity to check out the Adventure Trail but by now the dense forest was very quiet and I soon turned back. Now was the time for me to select what looked like the day's best shots after which a hot shower was a treat. By 6.30 I was in the dining area to charge my batteries before dinner at 7 and to down a Cusquena. A thunderstorm hit around 8 but I'd remembered to bring my kagool for the shortish walk back to #6. Candles were blown out at 9.15.
Saturday 4 November
Enjoyed another solid sleep from 9.15 to 6am but awoke to discover that the taps were dry. The night's heavy rain had caused a blockage in the pipe where it drew water from the river, soon remedied however. The day was looking ok despite the absence of any early sun. Today we would head a short way up the road to a higher elevation but it was nothing like as sunny as yesterday had been and by lunchtime a light rain had set in. The dearth of Lycaenids, Riodinids and Papilios was surprising. Given the low cloud from midday we had returned to the Lodge by 3.30 for the usual routine except that by 5 I had plugged in my batteries and laptop ready for charging as soon as the gennie was turned on. Dinner was good, a nice vegetable soup then tasty chicken with sweet potatoes and plantain. Shared a brolly with Mark on the way back to our rooms c8.30pm.
Sunday 5 November
Got up at 5.30 to re-pack and discovered I'd been bitten, mysteriously mostly on my torso. Bed bugs again, a repeat of El Paujil? The itinerary today would see us heading down to the biological research centre at Villa Carmen situated at c500 metres in Amazonia but a long stop en route at Quitacalzon was excellent once again, albeit after a slow start. At last the Lycaenids put in an appearance. Around 1.15 the sun had gone behind the clouds and after picking at my packed lunch departed c2.30 for Villa Carmen, taking a left turn at Kosnipata.
Villa Carmen is superb - excellent accommodation with room-width picture windows (mosquito gauze actually) overlooking the forest – where we’d stay 4 nights. Mark encountered 3 bats roosting under the two steps leading from the lobby to the bed-sitting room, a complete mystery as to where they got in, and out, and a group of the prehistoric-looking, and noisy, Hoatzin sat around high up in the trees. Wifi is available here too but only close to the router located in the admin office and lab but at least I was able to catch up on things and send my wife Jean a text. Food was excellent too and mains electricity gave the place a truly civilised feel. We stuck our noses up Trucha (Trail) 2 which promised to give us a different range of species to those seen thus far. Took advantage of the prepared mozzi net as I hit the sack at 9.15.
Monday 6 November
Met a small tree frog in the shower/loo during the rainy wee small hours - a smart little green fella. Woken by the dawn chorus/cacophony at 5.30.
A fantastic day ensued on Trucha 2 after a slow start but Lycaenids and Riodinids were buzzing along with some attractive Satyrids in the high humidity. Insect repellent - deet-based Jungle Formula - had to be applied for the first time on my hands and kepi. Then just as lunch time arrived so did the rain having warned us in the usual breezy way and I had to don my kagool and make a dash over the final 400m to dinner. I made my way back to the room to sort 670 photos. Went to the admin block to check emails etc then returned to do more cropping, 1¾ hours-worth in fact. The fan suddenly stopped as the power failed but within 15 minutes it was back on and by now there was steady rain in the fading light. Time for a shower and to grumble to myself about my creaky knees, a tad troublesome these past couple of days or so. It rained to/through/after dinner.
Tuesday 7 November
Up at 5.40 on a cool, grey and misty morning that would slowly clear up. Handed in a bag of smelly laundry. Today we'd be on Trucha 3 wearing wellies going down to the river where the only butterfly activity was a couple of skippers on a bird dropping. Alone at the far end of the spit I suddenly became aware of the possibility of encountering a Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) so made my way back to join the others. A long time was spent in a group huddle trying to get shots of a Sarota so I waited patiently before getting my photos. I had difficulty in finding where they'd gone and ended up at the centre to discover that Mark had been bitten on the jaw by a Bullet Ant (Paraponera clavata) and was recuperating in his room, so I called in to see if he was ok - no anaphalactic reaction fortunately. He was in some discomfort, but ok. Back on my own again I located Trucha 1 and soon caught up with the others on Trucha 5. Pretty hot now. The pre-lunch highlight for me was to spot Eumaeus toxana deep in the shade.
The afternoon was fading fast but a quick visit to Trucha 2 seemed like a good idea but by now things had slowed right down. So, time to wade through 600 more photos before a nice hot shower and dinner, then back to my room by 9 in light drizzle, getting heavier quickly to the accompaniment of thunder. Maris gave me a blob of Anthisan to apply to my body bites - seems like everybody's got them.
Wednesday 8 November
Up at 6.15 on what looks like a sunny day ahead. Today we'd head down the road towards Atalaya making 4 stops before reaching the mirador overlooking the Rio Madre de Dios. On our return we stopped at again at the fourth of these where a track led off the road at a sharp right-hand bend over a stream flowing deep below. Sometime I'll discover a name for this place! A highlight here was 3 mint condition Swallowtails imbibing something on the track, all Heraclides thoas. Stop #3 was also visited after which it was ice creams all round in Kosnipata, a kind of wild-west town close to our turning for Villa Carmen to where we returned by 4.45. I sorted my photos for an hour and a half then prepared for dinner.
A huge storm hit during dinner, easing temporarily and conveniently whilst I visited the Lab for the wifi connection, passing a giant toad lurking by one of its feeding stations, a path light. In light rain and with lightning flashing almost continuously I made it back to my lodgings and within two minutes of arriving a massive bang directly overhead plunged the room into absolute blackness: my head lamp was still in my rucksack, now where did I put that down? Another flash illuminated it. Water was cascading from the roof as I clambered under the mozzi net around 9.30, the thunder crashing and lightning flashing constantly through the night.
Thursday 9 November
Heavy rain and thunderstorm through the night, but electricity back on. Slept in a bit, up at 6.10 to pack then carried the case up to breakfast in light rain. Collected my laundry. Everybody said they'd never experienced a storm like last night's. As it was still damp and murky we were in no great rush to get away and so visited the vegetable garden where several Sarota were flying. The relatively short drive up the road to Chontachaca and a right turn down a narrow and steep-ish stony track promised much and after a slow start didn't disappoint, this proving to be another superb location. New for me was Morpho godarti amongst many others including Anteros acheus, and Anteros chrysothrastus. We went right through lunch up and down the track pestered by sweat bees and flicking large cockroaches off many of the leaves.
On the way back at Quitacalzon we were shocked to see a bunch of collectors parked up, several of them armed with nets on incredibly long poles. But Andrew recognised some of them and soon established that this was an eminent group of lepidopterists working for Gerado Lamas and collecting for the Museum of Natural history in Lima and also for the Smithsonian Institute. Their leader was Mike Mackiness and included the world's #1 expert on Hesperiidae: Jim Brock, who also leads trips for Sunstreak, was one of the expert group. Still didn't like what they were doing though! They were staying next door to us at the Manu Paradise Lodge and Andrew agreed with Mike that they would keep out of our way by letting us know their plans each day. Checked back in to chalet 6 at Cock-of-the -Rock (COTR) at 5pm, sort of 'back home' for a couple of nights – but COTR has bumped a couple of us out in order to accommodate a big group of 16 or so and Andrew asked for a volunteer to join him, so I volunteered, the only one to do so. An inducement of $300 for the inconvenience struck me as being unnecessary and way way over the top, and so I refused.
Friday 10 November
A quiet night though I slept poorly - mistake to have a coffee after dinner maybe? - and got up at 6 on a cool, overcast morning with a noticeable breeze coming east>west up the valley. Mike was true to his word so as they went up the road we headed down it, back to Chontachaca. It was much quieter here today with no sun until 10am and around noon it became dark, heard rain whispering over the treetops, and by 1.30 the day was effectively over but we'd nevertheless managed to see some good butterflies.
Back at COTR by 3pm Andrew and I visited Manu Paradise Lodge, a mere 600 yards away, to check it out. Priscilla and Roberto welcomed us to their place and I immediately preferred its homeliness and smaller size, not to mention a smashing large room up a spiral fire escape with high views downstream over the Rio Kosnipata valley. With mains electricity and a hot shower I'd tell Andrew that $200 would be more than generous but it would have been zero had Jeff not insisted! The evening was cold under a clear sky: although I was already wearing a sweater I nipped up to the room to get my fleece and hurried back to my room after dinner by 8.15! Maybe tomorrow will be hot and sunny?
Saturday 11 November
Up at 5.15 to pack after a rainless night and with high cloud and left my case at the admin block. Today we'd head downhill again through Chontachaca to the right turn leading to Ticary Amazon Lodge where we dismounted. Very slow at first - the usual thing - but gradually this became a red-hot site and being lowland was humid and in the sharp sun between noon and the next 45 minutes I was literally dripping, by far the hottest experience of the trip so far. Andrew reckoned we were seeing several species new to the Manu and even one or two new to Peru! This was borne out by Mike Mackiness' gobsmacked reaction to several of Andrew's photos later that day, including Adelpha paraena.
Settled into Paradise around 5pm having made 4 or 5 short stops on the way back from Ticary then Andrew and I walked to COTR for dinner. Afterwards Juan gave us a lift to the top of the Paradise drive as it had started to rain a bit.
Sunday 12 November
Slept soundly lulled by the constant rush of the river. Awoke at 5.30 to light rain and dozed off again 'til 6. The rain was to persist all day, our first wash-out. But we still gave it a go by going down again to the town of Patria where the collectors said there was a good spot some 5km down a turn-off. In the rain Juan drove 10km through mostly agricultural land and degraded, secondary forest until we could go no further through a swollen river. So, we returned to Patria and treated ourselves to an ice cream and I bought one for a couple of young girls communicating my intention through their granny. Passing through Chontachaca we stopped at the local collector's house notable for its Tom & Jerry mural and got a sense of his business and the rich harvest he was taking. At Quitacalzon we pulled in and opened our lunch boxes, as usual containing far too much. Still raining we were dropped off at Paradise around 2pm but an hour later I noticed that the rain had stopped so popped out to see what was on the move, other than Altinote species and Skippers = not a lot. Returned to my room at 4.40 and the rest of the evening followed its usual rhythm.
Monday 13 November
Woke at 6 to a dry morning, still overcast but with high cloud and a light cool breeze. The decision for today was to go up the road to marker K62 stopping briefly at the Mirador Chontachaca with its views down the Rio Union valley and also at the Virgin Mary shrine. Apparently, a rocky scar on the opposite side of the valley resembles the Virgin Mary hence the building of the shrine. Being early and cool there was little activity. But when we finally stopped at Rocatal the day improved from 19 - 20° and occasional spots of rain to brightness and finally 15 minutes of hot sun around 3pm. Many Perisamas here and interesting Satyrs too, not to mention a glimpse of a beautiful green and orange member of the Quetzal family. On the way back we stopped again at the Virgin site and watched a mostly white and black moth/butterfly casually drift towards us up the slope to settle nearby. Great excitement! This was the rare Riodinid, Styx infernalis, and it was already 4.45pm!
Andrew insisted I accept the full $300 as that was Jeff's instruction, so I determined it would be spent on the drinks tomorrow night in Pisac.
Tuesday 14 November
Transporting my suitcase down the tight fire escape required concentration and Juan was waiting to collect our cases at 6.50 before breakfast as Andrew and I bade farewell to our hosts. The long transit home would begin today with an overnight stop in Pisac, our ultimate destination. Of course, it had dawned bright and sunny! The long pull up the Manu Road was punctuated by several stops but the sun didn't last all that long and soon developed into low cloud though some of the landscapes were magnificent. At a reasonably long stop we picked up Memphis alberta and Opoptera arsippe but could have lost Juan as he tried to jump across river tributary, and ended up falling in.
Lunch was taken at Kebrada Chusa, as on the way up, but it was cold and nothing was flying. On the outskirts of Pisac we arrived at the Paz y Luz Guest, Healing and Conference Centre, a kind of late hippy community but with reasonable quality accommodation and dining area. The drinks bill was considerably less than the c$100 I'd imagined coming to only $50 despite containing a bottle of red, bottle of white, at least 10 Cusquenas and Pisca sours! Climbed under my heavy blankets at 9.45
Wednesday 15 November
Up at 6.10 after a fitful night, inevitable really. It was cold here at 10,000' but the sun was already lighting up the brown hillsides. A later breakfast at 8am preceded our farewell to Martin, our photonics companion from Hong Kong. We all left an hour later to visit the Inca site known as 'Sexy woman' - Sacsayhuaman - above vast, sprawling Cusco stopping briefly en route at the Pisac terraces. A spot of last-minute butterflying at the site included Colias euxanthe, Vanessa carye, and a Junonia.
Effectively now at the end of the trip, our estimated number of butterfly species exceeded 700, not bad for less than two weeks work!
We disembarked at the airport at 12.30 and were able to catch an earlier flight to Lima, happy with that, arriving at 2.45pm. My case was the first off the carousel where I said goodbyes to all the others and made my way upstairs to Pikeos café, my base for lunch and to while away the next couple of hours until the Iberia desk opened. I was able to check-in online and was pleased to discover that aisle seats had been allocated for both homeward legs. Once airside I picked up some gifts for the family. The 11½ hour flight departed 30 minutes late at 9.30pm but I managed a better sleep than usual, though it was still of the stiff-neck variety!
Thursday 16 November
At Madrid a mere 40 minutes was available for transit from the time of landing to the Heathrow departure and it was a good work-out to cover the long distances involved in time, a mad rush. But I found time to text daughter Liz to wish her a Happy birthday! My case was second off at T5, car was waiting, M25 very slow, and I got home at 7.15.
POSTSCRIPT from late 2021 - this is the way the world is heading....
News received from friends and fellow travellers paint a devastating picture of the future of this wonderful place:
Currently observed many surveyors up and down Manu Road, along with several new housing facilities, setting concrete monuments along the way.
Locals tell us the Chinese are going to pave the road to get access to future gas and oil exploration.