At a glance
With elevations spanning between 150 m and 4,200 m of elevation, Manu National Park encompasses an astounding variety of climates and a bewildering number of plant and animal species. So many, in fact, that researchers continue to find undiscovered flora and fauna even after decades of intensive research. Accessible from Cusco and from Puerto Maldonado, Manu and its handful of lodges provide a chance to experience a wonderland of habitats from cloud forest to lowland rainforest in a setting unlike any other in Peru or the world.
Scattered archaeological sites testify to a long history of human habitation in this remote area of the Peruvian Amazon.
The Pusharo Petroglyphs are stone carvings representing faces and abstract figures. The site is located on the banks of the Palotoa River, a tributary of the Madre de Dios River in Manu National Park. The origin and significance of the glyphs is still unknown, but are believed to be between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. They were first described by a Dominican friar in 1921. The 2015 issue of the Peruvian 1 Sol coin has an image of the carvings on one side.
The Legend of Paititi originated after the Spanish Conquest of Peru. According to 16th century chronicles, a pre-Columbian kingdom called Paititi based in the jungle was able to resist the advances of the Inca imperial army. A second version says that after the capture of the last Inca king by Spanish soldiers the remnants of the Inca elite retreated to the rainforest along with their sacred objects crafted in gold and silver. Throughout the colonial period, various expeditions set out in search for the lost city of gold. Usually, they found only disaster.
Spanish settlers founded the city of Paucartambo to control trade in coca leaves, gold, and textiles between the Andes and the Amazon, adapting an old Inca route which served the same purpose. Today, Paucartambo is a necessary stop between Cusco and the Manu cloud forest.
1968 – Manu area designated national forest.
1973 – National park status formalized after pressure from Peruvian preservationists and international supporters.
1987 – Manu Biosphere Reserve recognized by UNESCO as natural heritage site.
Located north of Cusco in the southwestern corner of the Amazon, the Manu rainforest includes a total area is 18,811 km² which breaks down as follows:
- Manu National Park – 15,328 km²
- Biosphere Reserve – 2,570 km²
- Cultural Zone – 914 km²
This territory spans elevations between 4,200 meters and 150 meters above sea level including high Andean puna, mountain cloud forests, and lowland rainforest. The result is an extremely broad range of ecologies that have fostered the evolution of highly diverse species.
Vast and geographically isolated, the park has no roads and requires some effort to access. The only way to get around is by boat. The Manu River and the Madre de Dios River form the southern and eastern borders of the reserve.
Manu National Park Facts
- covers entire Manu River basin
- spans eastern Andes mountains (cloud forest) and Amazon basin (tropical lowland rainforest)
- 2,000 to 5,000 species of plants, including 250 species of trees
- more than 1,000 vertebrate species including 200 species of mammals and 850 species of birds, 68 species of reptiles, 77 species of amphibians
- 1,300 recorded species of butterflies
- 13 species of primates
- rare species: giant otter, giant armadillo, jaguars, puma, Andean mountain cat
- pre-Inca and Inca ruins and petroglyphs indicate long history of indigenous settlement
- small communities of the Matsigenga Amazonian tribal group, largely along the Manú River or one of its main tributaries
Manu Biosphere Reserve
The Manu Biosphere Reserve is divided into 3 zones:
- Parque Nacional Manu (Zone A) – the core and largest zone. Access is highly restricted. Within this area, Cocha Cashu Biological Station is an important site for tropical rainforest research center.
- Reserved Zone (Zone B) – the Buffer Zone set aside for research and tourism. Located mainly within lowland rainforest, it harbors diverse microclimates and quantities of flora and fauna by the side of rivers and cochas (lagoons formed in the bends of rivers) as well as clay licks.
- Cultural Zone (Zone C) – the Transitional Zone with small settlements of indigenous people. Allows organized visits with guides. Restrictions in place to protect animal and vegetable life.
Located 2.5 to 3 hours from Cusco, Paucartambo is a point of transit on the overland route between the imperial Inca city and Manu National Park. Paucartambo is also famous for a 5-day festival in mid-July that draws revelers from all over the region in celebration of the Virgen del Carmen Festival.
Tres Cruces Lookout Point — Mirador Tres Cruces
An additional 60km from Paucartambo, Mirador Tres Cruces is a lookout point over the meeting place of the Andes and the Amazon. On clear days, it’s possible to see the peak of the massif Ausangate all the way down into the depths on the jungle basin. In the dry season from May to August, a natural phenomenon causes the illusion of three rising suns that flicker into cross shapes – hence, “tres cruces.” As the sun rises, clouds begin to evaporate, the moisture interacts with the sunlight to form a prism. During the Virgen del Carmen festival, shared vans transport tourists to the lookout point in time to see the gradual lightening of the sky and the sun rising above a thick mat of clouds around 6 am.
Kosñipata River Valley
From Paucartambo, continuing past Acjanaco Pass (12,630 ft / 3,850 m) and the turnoff to Tres Cruces, the road begins its ascent into the gorgeous Kosñipata Valley dropping thousands of meters in elevation. This the place to go for river rafting and mountain biking tours through Peru’s gorgeous cloud forest mountains. It’s also the route to rainforest lodges in Manu including Paradise Lodge, Gallito de las Rocas Lodge, and Erika Lodge. The Quechua word kosñipata means “place of smoke” in reference to the heavy mists that shroud the eastern flanks of the Andes as they plummet to meet the Amazon.
Located at the meeting point of the Madre de Dios and the Manu river, the village of Boca Manu has a small airport that receives charter airplanes. It’s also a stop on the route over land and by boat from Puerto Maldonado. The checkpoint to go further into the park is in nearby Limonal.
Manu is an ideal destination for rainforest ecotourism in Peru. Nature in its most pristine form is the main attraction and a strict conservation plan helps to keep it that way. Go to Manu and you’ll discover a variety of microclimates home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna.
- Wildlife Spotting – Monkeys, bugs, and reptiles abound in the rainforest. If you’re lucky, you might also see the otorongo (jaguar), black panther, tapir, collared peccary, deer, and capybara. Forest trails and cochas (secluded lagoons) are the best place to spot wildlife while learning about life in the rainforest, medicinal plants and food.
- Bird watching – Many travelers come to Manu specifically for the birds. And with one of the largest bird lists in the world, Manu certainly merits such a specific interest. Airborne residents include the harpy eagle, jabiru, roseate spoonbill, and the cock of the rock.
- Clay licks – Special attraction in Manu where travelers can see macaws, parrots, and parakeets flock by the thousands for morning meals of clay.
- Canopy towers – See the rainforest from the perspective of creatures who live at canopy level. Scattered tree towers in Manu range from 30-40 meters (100-130 feet) tall. Standing on the platform reveals a alternate dimension of rainforest activity that can’t be seen from the forest floor.
Manu’s extreme topography creates multiple microclimates. Lower elevation areas are hotter with average temperatures ranging from 35 C during the day to 25 C at night. In Manu’s higher elevation areas, temperatures are generally cooler. Expect warm temperatures during the day and cool nights.
Temperatures can drop after heavy rains, reaching as low as 10 C (50 F). Another weather phenomenon, called “surazo” or “friaje,” occurs when polar winds from Patagonia sweep up the mountains and into the rainforest. Temperatures can be as low as 8 C (46 F).
Keep in mind that this is the rainforest and showers are possible at any time of year. Officially, the rainy season is from December to March. May to August is comparatively drier, though also much warmer.
What to pack: bring light, quick-drying clothes. Preferably synthetic fabrics, as the humidity prevents cotton from fully drying out.
The Amazon rainforest lodges in Manu provide unparalleled access to a diverge range of ecological habitats, flora and fauna. Many lodges work in partnership with conservation organizations whose priority is to keep the rainforest pristine. Lodges therefore tend toward rustic, but provide all the amenities you need to stay comfortable while experiencing nature in its most unadulterated form. Depending on location within the national park, lodges are accessible through a combination of travel by road and by boat from Cusco and from Puerto Maldonado or from the airstrip in Boca Manu.
Lodges for Manu Amazon Tours
Manu Wildlife Center
- Basics: 16,190 ha./40,000-acre private rain forest reserve adjacent to the “Amarakaeri Reserved Zone” which measures 1 million acres. Jointly operated by InkaNatura Travel and Manu Expeditions
- Accommodation: 22 roomy bungalows with private bathrooms, hot water showers, hair dryer
- Facilities: battery recharging, wireless Internet connection, thatched roof, spacious all-wooden dining hall with bar and lounge
- Highlights: tapir lick, macaw and parrot lick, rain forest trails teeming with monkeys, two 120-foot-tall (35-m) canopy platforms, two nature lakes with abundant Hoatzins, caimans and Giant Otters
Orquídeas de San Pedro
- Elevation: 1700 m.a.sl. (5100 feet)
- Capacity: 36 people
- Accommodation: double rooms with comfortable beds, linens and mosquito nets
- Facilities: screened dining room and kitchen, shared bathrooms with hot water, and hammocks overlooking the rainforest. Generator provides limited hours of electricity in the evenings.
- Highlights: 5 kilometers of trails around the lodge
Cock of the Rock Lodge
- Basics: 5,060ha./12,500-acre private cloud forest reserve
- Elevation: 1,600m/5,200 ft
- Accommodation: 12 double-occupancy wooden bungalows with balconies and private bathrooms with hot water
- Facilities: large dining room. Lodge staffed by local highland family
- Highlights: Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola peruvianus), the conspicuously brilliant red-and-black national bird of Peru. Males do a mating dance every morning and evening within view of the lodge. Diverse birds and monkeys inhabit the surrounding rainforest.
Casa Masiguenka (Casa Machiguenga)
- Basics: Indigenous-owned lodge in Cocha Salvador area of Manu
- Capacity: 24 people
- Accommodation: 12 fully screened twin rooms. Beds are furnished with mosquito nets
- Facilities: communal dining areas. More than adequate toilet and shower facilities.
- Highlights: Local Matsiguenka guides accompany guests on the trails, sharing encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants and other rainforest wonders. Interactive interpretation center and locally made souvenirs are for sale
- Basics: 900 hectares of surrounding forest, extending from 350 to 1200m above sea level with 9 distinct forest types
- Accommodation: 4 bungalows with 2 rooms each with shared toilets and showers, and 1 bungalow with 3 rooms with private toilets and showers
- Facilities: Candles for lighting; generator to recharge batteries.
- Highlights: Lounge with exhibits of animal remains found in the forest around Pantiacolla and also ancient pottery brought in by the explorers looking for the lost city El Paititi in the Pantiacolla Mountain Range.
- Basics: Former tea plantation in 1970s, established as the lodge in 1980 by Yábar family from Cusco
- Accommodation: 17 rooms and a total of 34 beds. 8 bathrooms with flush toilets and hot water showers
- Facilities: cell phone coverage for calls and Internet connection. Dining area, great food, lighted walkways at night,
- Highlights: excellent trail system, and superb birding right at the lodge
How to get to Manu
There are three routes to get to Manu:
- From Cusco: by car to Paucartambo, through the Kosnipata Valley to the Manu River
- From Puerto Maldonado: by car to Santa Rosa Village 2.5 hours, cross Inambari River to Puerto Carlos, to Boca Colorado 45 minutes, up Madre de Dios river.
- To Boca Manu: charter flights land at small airstrip, river transport to lodge.
- Sector Acjanaco: S/. 10
- Manu River lower basin: S/. 150
(prices subject to change)
Amazon Tour Essentials
- Dry bags or ziplock bags – humidity is intense, keep your gear and important documents dry
- Long sleeve shirts and long pants – keep insects off, preferably breathable and quick drying
- Insect repellent – protect yourself from mosquitos and other biting critters
- Cash – there are no ATMs in the rainforest. Bring small bills to pay for drinks, snacks, and gratuities
- Headlamp or flashlight – many lodges have no or limited lighting after dark
- Comfortable, closed shoes – sticky, slippery, sometimes muddy rainforest trails make sandals and heels impractical
- Camera gear – extra batteries, lenses, memory cards
- Water resistant binoculars – get a good look at wildlife
- Daypack – carry water, poncho, and other essentials during daytime excursions
What can I expect at an Amazon lodge in Manu?
Many lodges and tour operators in Manu abide by ecotourism standards where the emphasis is on leaving a low carbon footprint. Visitors can basic but comfortable lodging. Mosquito nets are provided. The architecture will resemble that of local communities and uses materials that are locally available. Food is simple, but good. Cooks make use of locally grown foods, including fruits and vegetables. Lodge kitchens can accommodate vegetarian and other specific diets when notified in advance. All that said, it’s generally true that you get what you pay for. A higher tour package price might get you “extras” such as hot shower and electricity. Be sure to check with the tour operator to see what is and is not included.
Which is better – Manu or Tambopata or Iquitos?
Depends on how much time you have and your specific interests. For short itineraries, Tambopata probably has the most accessible wildlife-viewing. Iquitos offers the unique chance to cruise the Amazon River. Manu is well-suited for travelers with more time who don’t mind basic accommodation in exchange for a unique experience of spectacular bird life, clay licks, and unique habitats.