caiman in peru
A caiman, the South American crocodile that can outnumber humans, rests on a river bank.
The Washington Post

Just Wild About Peru

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005

My children began counting caimans -- South America's crocodiles -- as soon as our motorized dugout canoe took off at dawn up Peru's Upper Madre de Dios River. Twelve hours later, as we glided into the dock at dusk, caiman number 18 was gliding out.

In the Manu Biosphere Reserve, caimans and other untethered creatures vastly outnumber Homo sapiens , tourists included. We spotted only two of those during a refueling stop, and they were perceptible only with binoculars.

Our destination: Manu Lodge, a thatched-roof, 10-room structure made of fine Spanish cedar logs beached by floods years ago and polished to a handsome shine. It had taken us three days to get here from Cusco, our base for the first week of a two-week trip to Peru hiking the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu and surrounding Sacred Valley.

The trek included a jarring 10-hour ride in a truck along a dirt road so narrow it required several three-point turns where waterfalls had washed away the road, and a two-day stay at the lovely Manu Cloud Forest Lodge, at the southern tip of the reserve next to a rushing river and 400-foot-high waterfall.

Now, we stepped out of the canoe onto slippery palm fronds laid atop the deep mud. In vanishing daylight, we hiked the last half-mile to the lodge. Gigantic hanging vines and spider webs, and the thickness and dampness of everything, made us think twice about our big vacation.

But the idea of escaping cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops and the news, all for only an hour's time difference from the East Coast, had been too alluring to pass up. Besides, in the era of post-Sept. 11 terrorism, South America is an al Qaeda-free zone, although narco-traffickers, various guerrilla groups and ordinary crime are as prevalent as ever. Peru's own insurgents, the Maoist Shining Path, were all but vanquished more than a decade ago. Happily for us, the tourist industry hadn't caught up, and our days in Peru were pleasantly uncrowded.

The first pitch-black night in the rain forest, though, required some adjustments. Red howler monkeys roared like the afterburners of F-16s. The pauraque, a cousin of the whippoorwill, squawked to a beat. Cicadas competed aggressively for a place on the sound waves crashing through the netted canopy that protected each bed, and each sleeper, from the Wild Things.

Our kids, then 8 and 13, were restless and worried.

"What if something happens?" asked the 8-year-old.

"Nothing will happen ," I answered, mustering the most relaxed voice I could, considering it had just dawned on me that a rescue plane would take eight hours to evacuate anyone, and then only if the shortwave radios worked as advertised.

"But what if it does?" she persisted.

It was a logical question -- but, by the second night, no longer a concern. And by the third night, no one was even complaining about having to stumble alone out the door, through the mudroom, down the steps and along the log path, flashlight in hand, to find the ecologically friendly bathrooms crawling with not-so-tiny night life.

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