Peru: Manu Biosphere Reserve Sep 20—Oct 05, 2017

Posted by Steve Hilty

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Steve Hilty

Steve Hilty is the senior author of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia, and author of Birds of Venezuela, both by Princeton University Press, as well as the popular Birds of ...

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A visit to the Manu Biosphere Reserve is a trip into one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions on the planet. It is also a trip that takes one back through a remarkable timetable of human history. We may never know how long early humans have occupied the Manu and Madre de Dios regions—but surely thousands of years—and what impact, if any, they have had on the flora and fauna we see today. Recorded history, on the other hand, began about 1567 when Juan Alvarez Maldonado, a conquistador and survivor of numerous battles, was living in Cuzco and was asked by Peru’s Viceroy to conquer and govern the province of the Mojos, an Indian nation rumored to be living in the jungles of the present day Manu and Madre de Dios regions. And, of course, these natives were rumored to possess large amounts of gold.

Maldonado soon formed an expedition of 250 Spaniards, an estimated 200 horses, and a large quantity of armor, arquebues, cross-bows, and munitions of all kinds, as well as mules and provisions. He set out in March of 1567. Days later they reached Paucartambo (we were there by noon our first day even with a road construction detour), and from there Maldonado and his army spent 37 days descending to the area of present day Pilcopata. There, claiming all lands for the Spanish Viceroy, he returned to Cuzco for more provisions but left 80 men with instructions to take horses, build rafts, and continue further exploration downriver. Only two would ever return—a priest and a blacksmith. The rest died after encountering a competing army of Spaniards, an encounter that resulted in a vicious fight to the death for all but the two, as well as a few Amerindian natives that witnessed the fight.

Maldonado did return to the region again, traveled as far south as the Beni of Bolivia, and later claimed he encountered fortresses and great riches of gold and silver. His story lived on after his death, but over time his stories were largely forgotten. Forgotten, in fact, for more than 300 years, until the rubber boom of the late 1800s had penetrated almost all portions of the Amazon except the Manu. Because of rapids on rivers lower down, access to the Manu region by river was impossible. It remained untouched by the rubber boom until a rubber baron named Fermin Fitzcarrald, with thousands of slaves, dragged a steamship from a tributary of the Río Urubamba over a low pass and into the Manu region. As soon as he was in the Manu drainage he was beset by fierce natives and fought his way downriver with little opportunity to tap rubber trees. Eventually, arriving in Bolivia he sold his boat to another rubber baron and soon thereafter drowned in a river rapid trying to save a friend.

Read Steve’s full report in his Field List.