Our Rain Forest Lodges
A Cloud Forest Trip Tale

By Dr. Dinah Davidson, Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.

Like most other naturalists, I have my own registry of wild places and wild things – experiences so spectacular that they enliven all the senses, even in retrospect. One near the very top of my list is swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos, where the animals soar by, just a centimeter away, amiably accepting one as part of their group. Equally vivid is the experience of crossing the ecotone which separates the western and eastern escarpments of the eastern Andean cordillera. This year, I made this journey for the seventh time, traveling in a truck up the desolate western slope. Ahead, clouds lapped over the peaks, like so many sassy tongues alternately protruding and recoiling from the aridity.

Although prior experience had prepared me for the breathtaking transition to come, it could not diminish either the anticipation or the pleasure that I felt at the sudden appearance of the ‘ceja de la selva’ (‘eyebrow of the jungle’). This zone of perpetual mist and frequent rainfall is as favorable to plant life as the arid western slope is anathema. I breathed deeply, soaking up both the sweetness of the humid air and the view, as all of Amazonia lay spread out before us.

This was to be a trip unlike any other. On all previous occasions, we were racing to the lowlands, where we had arranged transport in motorized dugout canoes to one of the world’s most remote and legendary biological research stations. East-bound traffic on this precarious one-lane road was authorized only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and west-bound vehicles on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The trucks we had rented were available for just a day, and stopping to view the unique plants and animals of this important life zone was out of the question. For a biologist, traveling through here without a stop was like visiting an ice cream shop with no money. Salivating each of us thought about our own particular favorite ‘flavor’ of plant or animal and longed for the day when we could sample some of the imagined treasures.

For me, that day had finally arrived. I was here at the invitation of a Peruvian friend, Boris Gomez, whom I first met at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Manu National Park, one of the largest and most pristine rainforest parks in existence. Although Boris had already begun his career in tourism, working at a luxury hotel in Cusco, Peru, he was at Cashu as a field assistant of an ornithologist, and – though he didn’t know it at the time – preparing for a lifetime of developing ecotourism in the upper and lower reaches of Manu. In 1985, he founded Manu Nature Tours (MNT), then centered around a beautiful lakeside lodge on Cocha Juarez in the lowlands. Just last year (1998), he opened a new Cloud Forest Lodge at about 1,800 m elevation along the precipitous eastern Andean escarpment. I could not have imagined that such luxurious accommodation could be possible in an environment that had previously been so forbidding and inaccessible. The success of this endeavor is testimony to Boris’ many years of experience in ecotourism within the region, as well as to his careful planning, his determination, and his perfectionist nature.

The local manager of the lodge showed us to our beautifully wood-paneled rooms and described the workings of the hot-water showers, an exceptional luxury for an Amazonian tourist lodge, but a welcome one in view of the cool, humid climate at this elevation. Accustomed to the very basic facilities of other tourist facilities where we had worked, we were amazed to encounter top quality, hygienic toilets that flushed not once, but twice. Without a doubt, the beds were more comfortable than those at any of the lodges where I’d previously worked, equal to my own bed at home. During the cool nights, we settled beneath warm comforters, whose brightly colored covers in earth tones perfectly accented the wood paneling. Best of all, our room and personal deck overlooked Union creek (quebrada), whose soothing cascades masked any and all noise from adjoining tourist quarters. No human structure was visible from there - only a wall of tree ferns and epiphytes on the opposite side, from which we heard the tinkling crystal voice of the Andean solitare.

Finally, meals at the Lodge were not just exceptional in quality, and rich in fruits and vegetables; they were presented with a colorful artistic flair typical of fine European restaurants.

The most spectacular entertainment here is provided from a blind overlooking a cock-of-the-rock lek, where brilliant red male birds dance and call during early mornings (especially) and evenings. The performers are conscious only of competing males and of females, who fly to the pulsating stage to select a mate, tap him on the back and consummate their reproductive roles. We were fortunate to observe them during the height of the reproductive season in late August, and as many as eight females were visible at the lek simultaneously. Although we were specialists in insect-plant interactions, rather than birds, we managed to see Highland Motmots, Andean guans, and Slate-throated Whitestarts. Also seen here from the road, or from the several trails maintained by MNT, are booted Racketail Hummingbirds and Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals, as well as Wooly Monkeys and the elusive Spectacled Bear.

For us, the biological attractions in the vicinity of the Cloud Forest Lodge included the high species endemism typical of this altitudinal zone, and the possibility that ancient, relatively weakly competitive groups of plants and animals have been

driven out of the lowlands by more recently arriving taxa and survive only in refugia (i.e., refuges) at these elevations. Per unit area, this altitudinal zone contains the highest percentage of endemic amphibians, mammals and birds encountered anywhere in Peru, a country recognized by Conservation International for the ‘megadiversity’ of its biota. The rate of discovery of new vertebrate species also continues to be greatest here. We had come to sample the associations of Cecropia ant-plants with ant colonies that live inside their hollow stems and offer protection against insect stem-borers and folivores. Among our exciting finds was an association with a group of ants (Pheidole), previously unknown as an inhabitant of Cecropia. Also included in our collections was a species of Myrmelachista, an apparently ancient genus of ants, whose lowland representatives seem to have been driven by competing ants to extraordinary levels of specialization. The species we studied feeds only on the queens of Azteca ants, which are the usual symbiotic associates of Cecropia, and which colonize Cecropia in high numbers. After just a week at the Cloud Forest Lodge, we had ample evidence of the biological uniqueness of this zone, and we are determined to continue our studies here in future years.

MNT’s Cloud Forest Lodge provides a range of accommodations to meet the needs of its diverse clients. Options range from camping on wooden platforms beneath rain-proof roofs, to the luxury accommodations made available to us. Most visitors here will also want to allow sufficient time to visit Cocha Juarez in the lowland area of the Park. Any of the Parks 13 primate species, as well as capybara, tapir, and even jaguar, can be seen here, especially after ‘friajes’ (cold fronts), when mammals, caiman and birds come to the beaches to warm themselves. Birds seen regularly on this trip include Tiger, Cocoi and Capped Herons (my personal favorite, based on its coloration), Jabiru and Wood Storks, Orinoco Geese, Horned Screamers, Swallow-tailed Kites, Bat Falcons, kingfishers, Sand-colored Nighthawks and numerous species of parakeets, parrots and macaws. At all its elevations, the Manu Park offers a spectacle of sights and sounds that rank at the top of ecotourism destinations worldwide.