The old adage “write what you know” comes in handy when creating the types of stories I write. I can pull from my travel experiences, face my own phobias (from a safe distance), and relive thrilling adventures. Not only does doing this make my settings more authentic, it brings back memories of favorite places I’ve travelled to. And one that is on my top five list is Manu National Park, in Peru.
Manu National Park is situated north of the tourist capital of Cuzco (the stepping-off point for trips to Machu Picchu). A recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, Manu covers an area of 18,811 square kilometres (11,688 square miles). According to scientists, the park has over 15,000 species of plants, and up to 250 varieties of trees can be found in every hectare. Birdwatchers from all over the world travel to Manu to study the 1,000 plus species of birds. The only humans allowed to permanently live in the park are those in the “cultural zone”—several small tribal communities of the Matsigenga Amazonian group. The centre of the park is restricted to scientific and educational professionals who are invited by the indigenous communities.
When I lived in Cuzco, I had the chance to join a tour at the last minute. Individuals aren’t allowed into the restricted areas unless they are with a certified tour group, so I filled the final spot, packed my bags, and jumped on a bus. We bounced in and out of potholes along narrow roads that hugged the mountainside. I did my best not to gaze into the bottomless canyons only a few feet from where I sat, gripping my seat of the speeding bus. Along the way we visited a cluster of Chullpas—burial chambers that date back to pre-Inca times. Plunging into the swirling mist of the cloud forest, we eventually arrived at a river and transferred by dug-out canoe to arrive at Manu National Park proper.
For ten days, we paddled, walked, climbed, and swam. Nights were full of strange bird calls and howler monkeys screeching overhead. More than once I heard rustling and sniffing outside my tent. And unlike my heroine, Tess, I did not leave the tent to investigate. One of the most memorable mornings started off with our usual early rise (when monkeys chatter above your tent at five in the morning there’s not much choice, really) and a visit to the Macaw Salt Lick. Travelling by boat, we sat underneath a camouflage and stared in awe at the wall of red, blue, yellow, orange and green feathered friends perched happily on the high banks of the river, licking salt from the clay walls. The only place in the world this happens is in the western Amazon where the birds can fill their dietary need for salt.
Our travels took us to Oxbow Lake and our search for the Giant Otter. Once close to extinction, the otters are the world’s largest fresh-water carnivores and are now only found in Manu. Paddling quietly along the lake, my eyes strained to find the tiniest ripple or air bubble on the surface to indicate an otter was nearby. Just as I had given up hope, I spotted one sitting on a fallen log, eating a huge fish. Oblivious to our presence, the otter devoured its meal, slid into the water and dived under, disappearing from view but forever etched in my memory.
I braved tarantulas (I can’t even begin to tell you how arachnophobic I am), avoided fire ants, got bitten from head to toe by invisible insects and endured heat so intense it makes me sweat thinking about it now. But I survived. And I loved every second of it. Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve been to many jungles in the world now, but I’ll never forget my first love, Manu National Park.
So when my heroine Tess is swinging from vines and crossing treacherous rivers, I imagine being in her shoes. The rotting undergrowth makes my nose twitch, the sun burns my skin and I experience the thrill of the unfamiliar, knowing I’ll be a changed person as a result.
Has visiting a particular destination changed you and, if so, how?