The small airplane bumps down on a grass airstrip hacked out of a dense jungle far from civilization.
A dirt path leads to a river where six of us—three journalists, a photographer and two guides—board a long, narrow Native boat. We motor down the Rio Madre de Dios, a fast-flowing tributary of the Amazon, ever deeper into the Peruvian jungle.
We finally arrive at the Manu Wildlife Center in Manu, Peru, and are led to a small thatch-roofed cabin on stilts.
Later on, that same afternoon, we take a hike, sweltering along a soggy trail with wild and bizarre growth pressing in on us from both sides. Within minutes, sweat soaks my clothing.
Hours later, in pitch darkness, José Padilla, our guide, turns on a powerful lamp. “Pssst, a tapir is coming,” he says. A 500-pound pig-like animal, lumbers to an earthen bank near us.
We begin the hike back to the lodge from the Manu Wildlife Center, and Padilla’s flashlight illuminates a tailless whip scorpion, a blunt-headed snake and a gladiator tree frog.
“Don’t touch it,” Padilla warns us, pointing at the frog. “The sweat is used by Natives to make poison for their blow-darts.”
When we return to the lodge, I shower, then meet up with some birders, including Dr. Charlie Munn, an internationally renowned conservationist and birder. We discuss the day’s adventures as the charismatic Munn talks about jaguars, macaws and the jungle.
The next morning, at the break of dawn, we travel to a wooden blind across from a clay bank. Munn, who works for the Manu Wildlife Center, tells us about one of the birds we might see.
“Macaws come from six miles distance. At first they circle around the upper canopy while sentinels check there are no predators,” he says, “then they slowly venture downward.”
As Munn talks, I watch the blue-headed, mealy and yellow-crowned parrots, courier toucans and green ibis. The red-and-green macaws look like technicolour rainbows.
Munn breaks my concentration. “The macaws’ main diet of seeds, contains toxin, which are neutralized by the clay…”
“A few years ago, Natives shot 45 macaws here,” Munn says. “We established the center and park to protect this. My passion is to establish high-quality ecotourism, so Natives will have jobs, and they realize that the land has value if it is preserved. The Manu staff consists almost entirely of local Natives, and we are working to get craft displays at the village.”
That afternoon we climb a shaky, spiralling metal staircase that leads 110-feet up to a platform nestled in the upper reaches of a giant kapok tree. A delicate orchid cactus grows on a branch. And far below, parakeets flit through the foliage.
As we hike back, something bonks me on the head. “Look,” says Padilla, “a troop of monkeys are eating nuts in the canopy.” We laugh as pieces of nuts come showering down like hail.
On the final afternoon, Munn leads us to a cliff’s edge. A loudspeaker plays macaw calls and corn is sprinkled on the ground. Within a minute, two pairs of scarlet macaws, magnificent splashes of brilliant color, land almost at our feet.
As we boat up the Madre de Dios on our last day, I’m sad to be leaving. I have felt the profound forces of nature and evolution around me, and wish Munn luck with his efforts to help the Natives and save the jungle.
This story was originally published February 3, 2014.