On the morning of our third day we rose at dawn to travel up the Manu River, which joins the Rio Alto Madre de Dios a few kilometers upstream from Boca Manu. Unlike the relatively clear Rio Alto Madre de Dios, which flows over a cobbled bed, the Manu is a brown, muddy stream and its banks frequently bear the scars of turbulent flows in the wet season. Piles of branches and washed-over trees line the banks and impede the flow of the water in many places, providing refuges for both animals and birds.


On the morning of our third day we rose at dawn to travel up the Manu River, which joins the Rio Alto Madre de Dios a few kilometers upstream from Boca Manu. Unlike the relatively clear Rio Alto Madre de Dios, which flows over a cobbled bed, the Manu is a brown, muddy stream and its banks frequently bear the scars of turbulent flows in the wet season. Piles of branches and washed-over trees line the banks and impede the flow of the water in many places, providing refuges for both animals and birds.

The journey, which took about five hours, gave us some excellent opportunities for seeing riverside birds and gave us our first views of caiman (the crocodilians that live in the Manu River). Our destination was the jungle lodge of Tambo Blanquillo, from which we would leave before sunrise on the following morning to visit the bank of a billabong where hundreds of colourful parrots ““ including macaws ““ made daily visits to eat clay.

Accommodation at Tambo Blanquillo was the most basic of our entire trip. The walls in the lodge were un-screened and the lodge was dormitory style rather than consisting of separate huts.

This part of the trip showed us some of the tremendous richness of species the Manu area contains. It is truly a bird-watcher’s paradise! We made several stops on the way to Tambo Blanquillo, sometimes when the boat slowed to allow us to see and photograph animals or birds and at other times so we could stretch our legs. On these stops we were lucky enough to see hundreds of species of birds as well as some of the iconic animals of the Amazonian jungle, including black and white caiman and capybara (a large aquatic rodent that is related to the guinea-pig). We were also able to get some excellent shots of yellow-headed side neck turtles, the most abundant reptile in the river.


A large black caiman waits on the river’s edge for unsuspecting prey.


A smaller white caiman slides silently into the water. Photographed with the 75-300mm lens at full tele extension.


A yellow-headed side neck turtle with a sulphur butterfly on its nose. We often saw these two species together.


A family of capybara foraging for food on the riverbank. Backlighting made it difficult to obtain a clear shot showing the animals.


A single capybara, photographed on the sand with a giant cowbird as an escort. The bird picks parasites off the backs of herbivorous animals.


A group of sulphur butterflies looking for sources of nitrogen on the riverbank. Photographed with the 75-300mm lens on the EOS 400D after we arrived at Tambo Blanquillo.


A dragonfly photographed with the Ixus 750 in the transition zone between the jungle and the water.

Having dropped our bags at the lodge, we set off through the jungle on a 20-minute hike to another billabong, Cocha Blanco (literally ‘white lake’) and a small jetty where a ‘catamaran’ (actually a wooden platform sitting on two riverboat hulls) awaited us. As we arrived we heard a loud crashing in the jungle behind us and, on turning around were startled to see a herd of peccaries rushing along the path we had just left.

Our guide estimated there were at least 100 animals in the group and said we had been lucky not to meet them on the track. Such was our collective astonishment that nobody got a camera out until more than half the animals had passed so we missed having shots of the leaders, who were the largest and most impressive looking. As it was, low light levels meant most shots had some degree of blurring although, by panning, I managed to record the shot below.


Peccaries rushing through the jungle, photographed with the 75-300mm lens. I had no time to increase the camera’s ISO setting and, therefore, had to pan to record this shot.

Sitting on chairs on the raft’s platform, we were paddled slowly (and silently) about on the glassy-calm water by the crew of our riverboat. Until the sun set behind the jungle’s fringes, the primitive raft made a great platform for picture-taking ““ provided the animals you wanted to photograph were in the right place and close enough.


A ‘catamaran’ raft carrying another group of visitors on the water at Cocha Blanco.


Our guide, Ruby, shades her eyes as she scans the water looking for animals and birds to point out to us.

From the raft we were able to see a multitude of different birds and, most exciting of all, obtain our first glimpse of the giant otters that are one of the top animal predators in the region. To our delight, a family of these fascinating beasts ““ consisting of parents plus two well-grown cubs ““ swam in a leisurely fashion across the lake right in front of us. Although not really close enough for taking good pictures, they were very entertaining to watch, especially when one of the adults came up with a large fish and processed to eat it.


This is the best shot I obtained of a giant otter on the trip. Because they hunt (and often eat) in the water and tend to hide when they are on land, giant otters are difficult to photograph, even when there is plenty of light.


Three cormorants paddle through the water.


A Hoatzin, one of the most unusual birds of the Amazonian swamps, photographed with the EOS 400D and 75-300mm lens. These birds have a ruminant digestive system like that of cattle, for breaking down plant materials. This enlarges the crop, making them poor flyers.

We were up well before sunrise on the following morning to hike to the hide from which we would be able to watch the macaw lick. This is nicely set up, with both fixed and movable seating and (very basic) toilet facilities and it is located on a swampland about 100 metres from the clay cliffs visited by the parrots. When the first birds ““ the blue-headed parrots ““ began to arrive, it was too dark for picture-taking but it was fun to watch them jockeying for position and squabbling noisily over the best sites on the cliffs.


The first macaws arrive in the bushes above the clay lick. This shot was taken with the 75-300mm lens at full tele extension and cropped by about 60% to produce the picture shown. These birds are Red and Green Macaws. We also saw a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws in the nearby trees but they did not visit the lick.

The sun had risen by the time the first macaws turned up but they remained elusive for several hours, perching high up in the trees behind the bank ““ too far away for decent photos. Also too far away to be photographed effectively was a group of five red howler monkeys who were enjoying the early morning sun and a breakfast of shoots in a tall coral tree well behind the clay bank.

Our breakfast, consisting of pancakes with bananas and mugs of coffee, was served while we waited for the macaws to come closer, helping the time to pass and satisfying our hunger. Gradually the macaws approached the clay lick and finally, just after 9.30 am, the first birds descended to the cliffs. Soon others joined them and, immediately, we saw them jostling for position and pecking at the cliff face until, after occupying the lick for about half an hour, something ‘spooked’ them and they all flew off.


A group of Red and Green Macaws on the clay lick. This shot, which was taken with the 75-300mm lens at full tele extension, has not been cropped.

We returned to Tambo Blanquillo lodge to collect our bags and set off by boat to go back to Yine Lodge for the following night before embarking early in the morning for a 5-6 hour trip up the Manu River into the heart of the Reserved Zone, where we would camp deep in the forest.


Our accommodation deep in the Reserved Zone allowed us to enjoy the jungle environment by day and night.

A forest hike in the afternoon gave us the chance to explore the area around the camp and we were lucky enough to see black spider monkeys in the trees above our path. Unfortunately, like all the other monkeys we had seen, these animals were difficult to photograph, being either hidden behind leaves and branches or silhouetted against the sky. The shots below are the best I obtained in each of these situations.


A black spider monkey silhouetted against the bright sky.


A better view of the monkey’s features was obtained when it moved lower down in the trees. However backlighting still presented exposure problems.

We ended the day with an after-dinner walk around the campsite, which provided some excellent subjects for close-ups with the Ixus 750 using the built-in flash.


A colourful grasshopper photographed after dark with the Ixus 750 and flash.

Another early morning saw us hiking a short distance through the jungle to the edge of Lake Salvador, where we boarded another ‘catamaran’ for some more wildlife viewing. As the sun struggled to penetrate the early morning mist, our guide Ruby and the boatmen identified a family of giant otters emerging from their hide on the opposite bank of the lake and propelled our craft silently across the water towards them.



The sun struggles to penetrate the thick mist on Lake Salvador.


With binoculars we were able to count five animals: the parents and three well-grown cubs. It was lovely to hear the splashing and chattering they made as they romped along in the water, fishing for their breakfast. Unfortunately, the mist made picture-taking very difficult and manual focusing was required for many shots.


Thick mist and a too great camera-to-subject distance, meant few good shots of the otters at Lake Salvador were possible. A Cocoi heron lurks in the bushes on the bank, waiting for fish that have been disturbed by the otters.


A Cocoi heron flies off with a fish. These birds often associate with giant otters.


A Green Kingfisher, perched on a dead branch, photographed as the mist began to lift.


A Red-Capped cardinal provides a splash of colour against the dark waters of the lake.

When we returned to the camp for breakfast we had some bad news: all flights out of Boca Manu had been cancelled for the next five days. We would have to return to Cusco the way we had come in to Manu. Arrangements were hastily made to pick up the bags that had been left at Yine Lodge and obtain some extra fuel for the trip up the river. Our guide also notified Pantiacolla Lodge, approximately three hours from Atalaya, to expect us late in the afternoon. We then boarded the riverboat for the gruelling 5-6 hour journey back upstream.

It was a tough journey and several times the men in our group had to jump out of the boat and push it upstream through the rapids while we women waited onshore. By the time we approached Pantiacolla Lodge it was dark and too dangerous to attempt to push the boat through the last set of rapids so our assistant boatman and cook set off with torches to seek help to ferry us to the lodge while the boat driver steered the boat into a quiet backwater, where it would be safe for the night.


Pushing and pulling our riverboat up the rapids in the late afternoon. Taken from the riverbank with the Ixus 750 camera.

The next hour or so was interesting, to say the least. We had to get out of the boat with out daypacks and camera bags, walk across the rocky riverbank to an adjacent channel of the river and wait for a boat from the lodge to pick us up. When the boat arrived we had to take off our shoes and socks and paddle through about 15 metres of shallow water before we could get into it.

The trip to the riverbank was relatively short and staff from the lodge helped to load our bags into the rescue boat and then carried them up to the huts in which we would spend the night. Fortunately a meal was awaiting on our arrival.

On the following morning it was back to our regular boat, which had been moved from its refuge at first light. By 6.30 am we had set off once again for the 3-4 hour trip upstream to Atalaya, where a bus would await us for our return to Cusco. It was interesting to retrace the road we had taken into the Manu jungle ““ and somewhat less scary at night than it had been on the days we drove in. We arrived back in Cusco an hour before midnight, thankful that we would not miss the first of the series of flights that would take us home on the following day.


Low clouds fill the valleys and encircle the hillsides as we leave the Amazonian cloud forests en route for Cusco.