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PERU, the Manu Road and Rio Madre de Dios, 16 -24 September 2011


Friday 16 September

We descended into a grey Lima morning sometime after 6am. Alex, our Peruvian guide, awaited our arrival and by 7 our taxis were making their way out of the airport along the scruffy road into the city. Our hotel, erroneously named 'Bay View', on the hilltop at Miraflores next to the Pacific Ocean was reached around 8am and whilst our cases went into temporary storage we had breakfast.


The protected wetlands at Pantanos de Villa on the southern outskirts of Lima became our first trip location and most of the morning was passed there. Low cloud to about 150m and the grey-brown backdrop set the tone. Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) were common but butterflies limited to a few skippers and pierids. The tiny nest up in the reeds of a Many-coloured Rush Tyrant (Tachuris rubrigastra) was one of the highlights. Lunch was taken back at the hotel accompanied by a welcome Cusquena beer. Bob was to be my room-mate for the trip and together we sorted out the items we'd need for the rainforest as the rest would be out into storage in Cusco until our return.


Saturday 17 September

An early start, up at 5am and off half-an-hour later for the airport and the 7 o'clock Star Peru flight to Cusco over desiccated brown mountains. Arriving around an hour later the sun felt hot at altitude even though the temperature was only 54°. An old red bus was waiting for us and we separated our jungle gear from the suitcases that were to stay behind. 


Once out of the city after 30 - 40 minutes we stopped at the very scenic Huarcarpay Marshes but there weren't too many butterflies about mainly some skippers and Clouded Yellows (Colias sp). A very nice breakfast was laid out at the back of the bus consisting of a sweet bread and jam, coffee, and bananas. The sun was increasingly hot. After an hour or so we pushed on detouring through Pisac as our chosen road was closed for repair delaying us on our long journey to, and down, the Manu Road. Beyond Pisac the road became unmetalled, a stony rutted track - but reasonably smooth - gradually climbing the Andes. Introduced eucalyptus was pretty much the only tree in what became a progressively blitzed landscape of rolling brown dusty fields and slopes. Lunch was taken on a bleak windy corner around Colquepata necessitating fleeces although hilltopping Brazilian Painted Ladies (Vanessa braziliensis) didn't seem to mind the conditions.


Eventually we descended into Paucartambo and along its river valley where the vegetation began to change, becoming increasingly varied and tropical-looking. The final climb took us into the rain and cloud forest and at the start of the Manu National Park, the Ajanco Pass at 3,530m, we alighted to stretch our legs. Below lay the rolling green of Amazonia as far as the eye could see. Fortunately, the rain had stopped but our stay was to be a short one and soon the bus was heading down into the forest. Three more hours were to pass before our first forest lodge would be reached, and the Manu Road became muddy and one-vehicle wide with sheer drops the norm. In places landslides had taken away the road only for it to be bulldozed back into existence: at one particular spot I began to wonder what on earth we were doing! A wheel had to be replaced in the dusk but at least it provided another opportunity to stretch legs. Thankfully Posada San Pedro came into view at 7pm and it was a huge relief to dump our rucksack in the small room to be shared again with Bob. This had been a marathon transit. A very good dinner followed in the centre consisting of vegetable soup followed by fish, rice and beers and a couple of trapped butterflies and moths brought out the cameras. At 1,600m the evening air was surprisingly cool but the mosquito nets were presumably fitted for a purpose, so we used them. With no external locks to the room doors and no generator after 9pm we soon turned-in.


Sunday 18 September

I was up at 6 and went for a leisurely stroll along the forest road on a cool, breezy, grey and cloudy morning until the birders returned from their earlier trip. The dawn chorus hadn't been up to much today. After breakfast I went back to the road for 15 minutes or so at 9am before we all set-off in the bus to go back up the road a couple of k or so. Gradually the sun pushed through and the butterflies appeared between 11am and 1pm in increasing numbers - but photography was difficult as most were continuously on the move and nectar sources were few and far between. Several species of Perisama were seen here along with our first Ithomnids and Adelphas.


A very good lunch of stuffed peppers was taken back at the lodge and an hour later we all walked back up the track towards the Cock-of-the-Rock site butterflying as we went. The generator kicked-in at 5.45 and another decent meal was delivered sometime later.


Postscript: it was remarkable just how many species were seen at this location in a very short period of time - 72/300, c25%.  I commented 'It would be well worthwhile returning to spend a full two or more days here in the field'.


Monday 19 September

The night was interrupted by a massive thunderstorm bringing sustained torrential rain and lightning that illuminated the room in white light. At one point I took a look outside thinking that we might get washed away - but the ground seemed to be coping 'in its stride' with the deluge. I also worried about the state of the road we were due to travel deeper into the Manu after breakfast. But the thatched roof didn't let in a single drop! So, at 5am we extracted ourselves from mosquito nets and went across for breakfast 15 minutes later. An hour after that our bus set-off for Atalaya stopping a couple of times in light rain to look at birds before the road hit the plain: a Fasciated River Heron (Tigrisoma fasciatum) was quite impressive. Butterflies were largely absent except for a pair of skippers and a distant Callicore. Once on level ground the presence of humans became more apparent with occasional clearings and shacks alongside the road. The town of Puerto Buena Vista with its muddy main street felt like a frontier town from the 1860's Wild West where we stopped for a short time to buy water etc. Before reaching Atalaya and our boat we made a final stop and walked the last kilometre or so down into the town on the banks of the Alta Madre de Dios, a very wide, grey, fast-flowing river carrying much timber and doubtless swollen by last night's rain. Wellies were issued and we boarded our long narrow boats at 11.20 suitably life-vested. The river was fast and at times rough, just like the sea: great swirls indicated submerged trees and vast shingle banks braided the course in places. The trip was superb ending at 1pm with our arrival at the next destination, Pantiacolla Lodge. Many butterflies were taking salts and nutrients from the river mud and amongst the pebbles and the camera worked overtime! This is a great location and the lodge campus has a quality feel to it and Bob and I dumped our stuff (in another unlockable room) and headed for lunch. The restaurant hall is a fine timber building and the chicken salad was very good. In the open, the sun was very hot. At 2.15 I joined a birders’ walk through the forest in my wellies and soon 'lost' them but, to be fair, Alex spotted one of the Owls (Caligo sp) and a Piera Satyr (Haetera satyr) with its largely transparent wings - I doubt I'd have seen either of them on my own. Being ahead of the others I ventured onto the shore again and took more shots and as I wandered back to the lodge a Prola Beauty (Panacea prola) - one of the species I had on my wish list - came to join me and stayed around for the next 45 minutes! Very privileged indeed!! I then became a prop for the rest of the group as they returned from their birding around 5pm, the Prola still being on my back. Bob relaxed in our hammock as I went for a cold shower and washed a couple of shirts - shower was tough at first, but ultimately very refreshing. With no generator here we dined by candlelight and head torch with the only disappointment being 4 small beers to divide between 8 thirsty necks. Beds were reached and candles blown out before 9pm but not until a large White-spotted Satyr (Manataria hercyna) had been inspected in the toilet block.


Tuesday 20 September

Up at 5am, coffee in the restaurant, then off at 5.30 in the boat to a parrot scrape/lick some 15 minutes upstream. The river had already dropped about 4 feet from yesterday's level and had left much soft black mud for us to wade through. Now I knew why we'd been issued with wellies! One by one we walked the plank off the boat then tried to get through the mud without either falling flat into it or leaving a boot behind - Liz scampered over the surface like a wader!  The dawn had been soft but 'nice'. Clouds of parrots and macaws were assembling in the trees across an inlet but none draped the scrape - as we left another party was seen returning to its boat and we suspected that they'd been too close to the birds and had deterred them from feeding. Going downstream Pantiacolla was quickly reached and by 7.30 we were enjoying breakfast with the sun just breaking through.


A male Gibberosa Stripestreak (Laothus gibberosa) with its pronounced 'shoulders' attracted a lot of attention on the lawn as it ignored everybody before another birding trip departed at 8.15 into the deep jungle behind the lodges. We took a rectangular route initially parallel to the river upstream before taking two successive left turns and eventually arriving back at the lodges around 1pm. En route I found a basking Achilles Morpho (Morpho achilles) and waited until the rest of the group caught up and whilst butterflies weren't abundant they were hard to photograph the moment they left the path. A Squirrel Monkey was seen high up in the trees. The last hour or so I spent alone at the riverside was excellent although the butterflies were skittish and restless in the heat of the day. This time an Amazon Beauty (Baeotus aeilus) took a fancy to me and, once again, I felt mighty honoured!


I couldn't wait to get back to the river after lunch and dashed back on my own by 1.45 ahead of our 2.30 departure by boat to see what butterflies we could find on the south-facing banks. We didn't need to travel very far since every landslip was festooned by butterflies but photography was a bit hopeless with so many people in relatively small areas. Our final stop at around 4pm was on a shingle bank but by now the sun had dipped behind clouds and the butterflies had already gone.


The rest of the evening descended into a worrying time as I misplaced my first memory card and couldn't find it anywhere despite searching high and low.


Wednesday 21 September

Awoken at 4.45am by a thunderstorm, the rain making a real racket on the tin roof for about an hour. The memory card search continued before egg and peccary breakfast at 6am and I was much relieved when it turned up when packing - I knew it would! We set off by boat in rain that became increasingly heavy necessitating the roll out of blue plastic sheeting to keep off the worst of it but as I happened to be in the middle of three I didn't get wet at all. After a couple of hours we pulled in at a deserted lodge site - sad, because the lodges had been built to a high standard and even the remaining settees, chairs and beds were quality. A few trapped butterflies were released from their window prisons.


Back on the river for another 2 hours passing the confluence with the Rio Manu which turned the grey Madre de Dios to a rich brown, the two separate waters running alongside each other before merging. An amazing amount of timber was either partially submerged or forced into vast dams and the swirls indicated much below the surface too. The rain eased late morning so that when we arrived at the shanty town of Boca Manu around noon for lunch it had stopped completely, but remained overcast. An old veg patch and a sort of heliotrope plant was attracting several different heliconids and glasswings and the locals looked-on bemused as we tracked them with our cameras. Our packed lunch was taken inside a kind of warehouse next to the village store. At 12.45 we left under brightening skies for the final 2-hour leg to Oropendula Lodge, now recently renamed the Amazon Manu Lodge. A couple of morphos crossed the river as the sun came out strongly by 2pm and 30 minutes later we reached our next destination. We quickly dumped our bags in the room and went straight out to explore, finding the nearby stream very fruitful. This was a great spot where you were in the thick of it straight from the front door. Towards dusk I wandered the Tapir Trail with Mike finding 'heliconid corner' where several species seemed to be gathering to roost - but they were very difficult to get near enough to photograph.


Got back in twilight around 5.15 and enjoyed a hot shower - bliss. The rooms had limited electricity from a generator that would enable us to recharge batteries and give some evening light. Dinner was excellent and the unit's lights attracted several moths, including a large hawkmoth (Sphingidae sp) and an even larger species. With nothing left to do I secured the mosquito net and turned-in.


Thursday 22 September

Another early start, this time up at 4.30 for a quick coffee before setting off by boat to visit the Blanquillo macaw scrape some 45 minutes downstream. This spectacle was one of the highlights I hoped to see. Alan had seen a rat in his shower and a frog had dropped on his head in the toilet! The journey was atmospheric as the sun rose to our left, lifting pink through the early morning mists. Another boat had already moored by the time we arrived and the walk through the forest to the hide was taken at a fast clip. The lick was an old river bank, now part of an ox-bow lake and although there were plenty of parrots and macaws flying in, none braved the presence of a Roadside Hawk (Rupornis magnirostris) that was only interested in lizards - only a pair of Yellow-crowned parrots (Amazona ochrocephala) were taking the risk as we arrived. The hide was well-built with a long viewing gallery and swivel chairs and a very good pancake and jam breakfast was prepared for us. After some time I briefed Mike and Alex and stole away from the hide to look for butterflies but I only had the Olympus camera with me, no hat, and no water. My expectation was the same as for a couple of days ago - that we'd be back at the lodges for 8.30/9am. The Olympus batteries then ran out! Salt was rubbed into my wound as we stopped at a shingle bank to observe a mass of puddling pierids with the odd swallowtail and swordtail thrown in - but no photos!


I grabbed my Pentax, skipped lunch, and went 'into the field', mostly to see puddlers on the riverbank. Around 3pm Mike and I reached the 120' canopy observation tower ahead of the others. The ascent seemed endless and the tree-top view was impressive - green as far as the eye could see through 360° - and the descent was even better as a Red Cracker (Hamadryas amphinome) was spotted and successfully photo'd basking on one of the steel beams. The rest caught up and did the tower before we all moved on to the Tapir Lick for 5.30pm. What followed was both amusing and bizarre: a wooden hide on long stilts was set out with mattresses so that we could lie down and watch the Tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) through a narrow slit in the thatch. Dusk became inky black, fireflies dotted the scene, someone began to snore, the odd strange noise came from the forest. Then Alex turned on a powerful beam - nothing at the lick! At 6.45 we trooped off in a line through the forest, head torches lighting the way. Alex somehow spotted a Nightjar (Hydropsalis sp) deep in the trees.


The lodges were reached at 7.30, time to observe an Owl butterfly attracted to the restaurant outside light, and gaze in wonder at the starry sky.


Friday 23 September

Heavy rain and thunder joined us in the night and Howler Monkeys (Alouatta caraya) (growlers more accurately) joined in the dawn chorus at 5am. My first sortie was made at 6.50 and lasted a couple of hours during which time I'd seen a large Owl butterfly, several different skippers, and some metalmarks (Riodinidae). Rain had started again but lasted no more than 10 minutes, followed by a brief period of sunshine, then another overcast hour. Thunder rolled distantly. Proper rain began to fall at 10am, and didn't stop, so I used the time to review my photos and to do some id'ing.


In the rain at 2.30 some of us set off to walk through the forest to a lake where Alex reckoned he would catch piranha. A fine Owl species was seen and also one of the Olivewings (Nessaea sp), both in deep forest. Around 3.15 the rain stopped. I watched Alex casting a few times but the piranhas were immediately eating the bait and couldn't be hooked. We'd noticed previously that butterfly activity really began around 11am and was largely over by 4pm, and today was no different. But Lucy drew my attention to a couple of Owls resting above the stream and some heliconids fluttering to roost occupied my time - half a dozen had assembled on the fine twigs of a bush overhanging the stream, and a few others were still dithering about.


A small caiman had been caught in the nearby stream and the local guys showed it off outside the restaurant after dinner. This was a little disconcerting as my plan was to wade down the stream to re-visit the roosting heliconids. Fifteen were immediately visible - a great sight - and using manual focus and flash I managed to get some OK shots. Fortunately, no Caiman came to see me!


Amazonia will be left behind in the morning but I'll be back - next time on a dedicated butterfly trip!


Saturday 24 September

A very long day lay ahead so it was up at 5 to light the candle, breakfast at 5.30, and off by boat at 6.20 having packed etc. Rain had fallen most of the night but had stopped by breakfast. It was grey and overcast as we left and cool into the breeze on the river - quite pleasant really. Our route back to Cusco to start the Inca Trail took us further down the Madre de Dios stopping at the frontier town of Boca Colorado that came into view around 10am just as the sun broke through. Three Toyotas, two of them pick-ups, ferried the group along a busy forest road for an hour to the ferry point where we'd cross the Rio Inambari. The road was bordered by several forest clearings, initially burnt, and human activity was further evidenced by brand new and as yet unopened petrol stations: this part of Amazonia is going to get much busier to the detriment of the forest and natural world. Our vehicle stopped to pull a bald-tyred taxi out of the muddy edge, then we joined the others at the busy riverside.


Our ferry turned out to be a couple of low-slung boats but the crossing was short to Puerto San Carlos. Whilst we waited for our minibus there was time to do some butterflying around a bit of a tip, but there was some good stuff there. About 11.30 we departed and it as a bitter-sweet delight to reach the smooth tarmac of the Brazil-Peru Highway: a further 8 hours would be spent travelling up the Andes onto the Cusco plateau through changing terrain and habitats. A couple of short stops to eat our packed lunch and find some bats in a drainage pipe underneath the road, punctuated a steady climb up the mountains to where snow lay beside the road and llamas grazed the hillsides. The unplanned, bustling and dusty outskirts of Cusco were reached in the dark and our hotel, the Amaru Hostal, was entered up a noticeably chilly, narrow-cobbled, street not far from the Grand Plaza, opening out around two internal courtyards - very nice, with free-vend coca tea available from an urn.


Sunday 25 September

Part two of our adventure would commence today, another story ending on 2 October, the arduous climb over the Andes on the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, not for the faint-hearted, and on this occasion not for butterflies either!

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