Friday, May 13, 2011

Getting to the Jungle

“There’s a problem with the airplane,” said Fiorella, a representative for Inka Natura Travel, the company which was supposed to guide me through the Peruvian Amazon Jungle in two days. She was meeting with me at the guesthouse which I was staying at in Cusco, Peru, to give me a briefing on the trip. 

“Huh?” I said, unsure whether I heard correctly. Well, that wasn’t a good start! “What do you mean, there’s a problem with the airplane?” I asked her.

“They are waiting for a part,” she said. 

“Uh, oh...definitely not good,” I thought. The part was apparently coming from the United States. I’ve had my share of experience in the field of aviation and know that parts don’t move fast. The part gets shipped, then it gets stuck in customs in your host country for a few days,’re delayed...sometimes.................very delayed!

A couple of months before, I had booked a trip to the Manu Wildlife Center through REI Adventures. They, in turn were using Inka Natura, as the local operator. My husband and I were traveling to Peru to see Machu Picchu, and explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Although his time was limited and he couldn’t accompany me, I had the opportunity to extend my trip and go to a place which I had missed nearly 2 decades ago, while backpacking through South America. That place was the Manu National Park area in the Southern Peruvian Amazon. 

Manu, renowned for it’s abundant and diverse wildlife, is also a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and a World Natural Heritage Site. I wanted to go and observe, for myself, the Macaws eating from the clay lick which I had seen so many times in magazines like National Geographic. I also hoped to see giant river otters frolicking around; monkeys; tapirs; sloths; snakes; morpho butterflies; and lush tropical rainforest. I wasn’t so keen about the mosquitoes, chiggers, and leeches—those, I could do without, although I’m sure they serve their purpose in the balance of nature!

It was Thursday evening and I was meant to be flying from Cusco to Boca Manu on Saturday morning, but now that was unlikely to happen. Apparently, a plan had been devised—without my knowledge or input—to drive our small group to the Manu Wildlife Center from Cusco. That would take two full days of overland travel, which would have been a spectacular and fun adventure, if it had been added to our time in the Manu Wildlife Center. However, it was going to be deducted from that precious time—a development which I did not welcome.

Fortunately, I had a bit of flexibility with my dates and Juan Carlos, the Operations Manager for Inka Natura, was willing to work with me on finding a resolution. After an extended phone conversation with him, and follow up calls, he told me that they would try to get me on their Monday flight.

On Monday morning, Nico, from Inka Natura, came to pick me up at my guesthouse “Casona Les Plaeides” promptly at 8:45. We continued on to two more hotels, where we picked up a friendly California couple, Dan and Charmaine, and a quiet New York based Japanese guy, Shinji. It was going to be a nice small group, which was perfect for wildlife viewing.

When we arrived at the Cusco airport (Aeropuerto Internacional Alejandro Velasco Astete), Nico led us to a special check-in area where there were a group of people surrounding a scale. It was another Inka Natura representative with a small group of victims. It was that dreaded time to weigh in! Aaaarrgh! They placed each passenger’s duffle bag and backpack on the scale, then the individual had to step on the scale. Good thing this was after a week of walking around Cusco and Machu Picchu! I had worked very hard to get my duffle bag and back pack down to the 22 pound weight limit (including camera gear). My bags easily passed the weight test. However, getting my body weight down to the actual number which I had optimistically written down in the pre-trip application form, had been another matter! Luckily, for my ego, it didn’t seem to be a problem.

After waiting for a couple of hours for the pilots and airplane to arrive, we were led out of the security zone, around the building to the tarmac. A blue and white Twin Otter aircraft belonging to the Peruvian Air Force, was waiting for us! Apparently the other airplane still had “issues” and Inka Natura had arranged for the Peruvian Air Force to fly us into Boca Manu!

Upon boarding the airplane, I saw a bunch of boxes piled up on the floor leading aft. It looked like our aircraft was doubling as a cargo plane for the transportation of provisions into the jungle. I turned left, and looked forward for an empty seat. There were no seat assignments. 

Neither was there a safety briefing. After everyone sat down and the pilots completed their checklist, we simply taxied and lifted off, flying out of Cusco, heading East towards the Amazon.

The flight was about 40 minutes long, and we descended from the Andes, at an altitude of nearly 11,000 feet (3326 m), down into the Amazon rainforest. The scenery changed from alpine, to cloud forest, to dense jungle. I started to peel off my layers of clothing as I began to feel the heat and humidity.

We landed on a grassy landing strip in the middle of the jungle.

The runway

Our Peruvian Air Force Pilots

Jungle provisions coming off of the airplane

The Boca Manu Terminal!

Yours truly ready for a jungle adventure!

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