North from Cusco to Atalaya

North from Cusco to Atalaya

The Urubamba river runs around 1000 Km from Cusco to its eventual junction with the Tambo river at Atalaya. This description of travel down it offers a link that ties the circuits around Cusco to the land route from Atalaya into the central sierra. You absolutely must have malaria protection if you intend to follow the lower reaches of this route. [More here]

The river flows down from the Andes and into an area of lowland forest, threaded with many huge rivers. This was once an area of pristine dense forest and scrub. It still has some of the most diverse jungle populations of native peoples in Perú. However, the joint impacts of logging - chiefly around Sepahua - the Camisea gas project have brought in many unwelcome influences from the outside world. This is best seen as a part of a circuit rather than as a destination in its own right.

Please note that this is a unidirectional route in December-March, as it is impossible to head up-river through the Pongo de Mainique, and hard to find road transport at its head even if you were able to achieve this.

Quillabamba can be reached from Cusco by road and by rail. The same rail service that stops at Aguas Calientes for the Machu Picchu site goes on to Quillabamba, passing through dramatic valley scenery as it descends. The town can also be reached by road, either from Santa Teresa (just downstream from Machu Picchu, but not directly connected to Cusco by road) or from Cusco via roads which wind up into the Cordillera Urubamba and eventually find their way to both Santa Teresa and Quillabamba. A variety of public buses and lorries ply these roads.

Click here to see a series of images The route out of the sacred valley leads from near Ollantaytambo through a series of steep switchbacks to the Abra de Málaga (4180m), a pass which offers fine views of the sierra Veronica. Scrubby forest - in the lower reaches - and fully-blown cloud and elfin forest higher up - supports a wide range of birds. The area is extremely popular with those in search of high altitude species, as it is both little affected by humanity and reasonable accessible from Cusco. There are ample jumping off points for local walks, and the hills are scattered with low-key Inca and pre-Inca ruins. The Rosaspatas ('pink feet or hooves') site is a fine Inca ruin close to the village of Huancacallo in the La Convencíon province.

The North side of the Urubamba mountains is much drier than the south face, and those who might expect a replication of the green forest-clad cliffs around Machu Picchu will be disappointed. The road winds down precipitately at first, and then follows the Urubamba to the town of Quillabamba through widening valley walls.

Click here to see a series of images The town itself lies in an open and seemingly shallow bowl, with patchy forest and exposed rock. Butterflies are much in evidence. One or two story houses cluster around the Urubamba river in sub-tropical conditions. Modest hotels and basic facilities are available, and there is a pretty Plaza de Armas and church.

Poor earth roads lead on down the river to the small and impoverished villages of Kiteni and Tintinienkato. The valley begins to close in again and rainfall increases, bringing with it plant, animal and - extremely evident - insect life that is typical of the jungle. (Once again: you absolutely must take precautions against malaria if you follow this route, and be aware of the hazards of sand fly bites and the Leishmaniasis which these can carry.) This area, in common with much of the Cusco region ceja de selva was and is used for coca production, some of it licensed and some of it very definitely not. Narcotics transport is a major issue in the region, and the armed forces and police are active in searching vessels and vehicles.

The Pongo de Mainique

Tintinienkato is a township built from wooden boards, and it offers no meaningful facilities to the traveler. It is, however, the end of the road and it is necessary to take to the river if you wish to go further. This leads to the remarkable Pongo de Mainique.

The name means the "gully of the bears", perhaps a reference to the spectacled bears which are found in the surrounding forest. The Urubamba breaks through circling foothills in a four kilometre-long sheer cańon that is around 50-75m wide and surrounded by 1000m of vertical, fern-and-orchid clad rock. The river is relatively tranquil the dry season, and extremely demanding to all but local boatmen and white water specialists in the wet period, offering Class I and II rapids. It is, therefore, essential only to attempt this in the wet season (December - March) with the appropriate advice, guidance and equipment.

There are limited stopping places in the Pongo, which is a pity as the traverse is remarkable. Convection off the cliff faces means that morning clouds are driven in from the lowland jungle, and these drop their moisture to create valley walls that are clad in dripping foliage. The small amount of taxonomic investigation that has so far been made of this area has nevertheles suggested that this is a place of extreme - or perhaps unique - biodiversity. Butterflies and orchids are said to be subject to an extreme degree of endemicism. This said, only a tiny amount of the difficult terrain has been accessed and there is much more to learn. Macaws, parrots and other birds abound, including glorious species such as the golden quetzal and the cock of the rock. Military macaws nest in large numbers in holes in the cliff face, easily seen from the river. One may spot assorted species of monkey scrambling about on the rocks.

The Tonkini waterfall crashes directly into the main river from its discharge point several hundred metres higher up the sheer cliff faces. This glorious distraction hides the Tonkini rapids in the main river, which are the main challenge to any boat passing down the Pongo. The local Machiguenga people thought of this rapid as the entry point into the next life, where fine souls were sprayed up to heaven and those with a dark past ground to grit.

Machiguenga territory

The river emerges rather abruptly into open land, covered with sparse forest. The area at the exit from the Pongo has now been established as the 89.000 square kilometre Machiguenga Megantoni National Sanctuary. (Megantoni means "the place of the meganto", or Macaw.) Some 800 people live here, and take a very active role in both its management and political representation. The remarkable climate, the highly dissected land surface and isolation has made this area extremely biodiverse, and - perhaps because it has been subject to more study than other areas of the ceja de selva - it is estimated that more plant species are crammed into a given area than anywhere else on Earth. The intense mist coverage in the mornings means that species which are normally found far higher mix and mingle with lowland jungle plants, and a corresponding richness of their predators follows on from this.

Click here to see a series of images The first landfall is Timpia, settled by the Machiguenga, and many choose to camp here are the local people are set up to provide hospitality to foreign visitors. Timpia has the Machiguenga centre, set up and managed by around 125 families drawn from the local Machiguenga people. They offer guidance of forest walks, local cuisine - chiefly fish, baked in leaves in ashes - and dancing. There are story-telling sessions and explanations of the remarkable cosmology and medical practices of the Machiguenga shamans. In general, the centre offers insight into how their lives are led, and the complex relations they have developed with local plants and animals. Some of this is reviewed below.

The centre also includes a jungle lodge, from which local trips can be organised. The Pongo de Mainique can be partly accessed on foot, and at least some of the large number of waterfalls, the orchids and other wildlife can be seen in this way. The main trail runs about 50m above the river, and at its end gives a good view up the Pongo and of the Tonkini falls. The extremely energetic can use lesser trails and game tracks to scramble some way up the 1000m cliffs that line the gorge. The centre also accesses at least three colpas, clay licks to which birds and animals come to nibble. (Clay is needed to absorb the complex toxins which tropical plants secrete to reduce predation.) Macaws, in particular, come in their hundreds to these clay licks, and it is possible to see green-wing, blue-and-gold, scarlet and military macaws in large numbers. Unhappily, our visit coincided with a ten day deluge and we have no worthwhile pictures to show you.

The Machiguenga live life following traditional patterns. Cloth is woven from forest products, although alpaca and wool are beginning to make an apearance, as are t-shirts and shorts for the men. Houses are constructed from wood and thatch. Famiilies live by hunting, fishing and by growing mixed gardens in which they chief crop is manioc (Manihot esculenta.) This has to be purged of its naturally-occurring cyanide by soaking before being boiled and eaten with every meal. It is also chewed by the women and spat into fermentation vessels, from which a thick drink emerges some days later. This is called obuiroki, and visitors are expected to accept a welcoming drink of it. (Not to take this is an offence against hospitality in all but the villages most habituated to the weird ways of foreigners.)

Hunting is carried out with much ritual, including offering the dogs specific mixtures of dried tissue from a given prey species with hallucinogenic and stimulant herbs. They tend to stagger around and snap at the air for a while after taking this, and visitors are advised to keep their distance. Arrows are made from reeds and bird's feathers, with the heads being carved from various hardwoods, depending on the prey species. It takes a full day to make a single arrow, work usually accompanied by non-stop chanting.

Shamans are known as seripegari, or users of seri - tobacco. This is not smoked, however, but roasted and ground finely with other herbs and blown into the user's nose through the leg bone of the Curasoa, a large bird. Shamanic ceremonies are known as kamarampi, and make use of a wide range of hallucinogens from the forest. Most are accompanied by chanting, drumming and music from the odd pegompi, a stringed instrument held in the mouth. Drugs include the widespread Banisteriopsis caapi, known here as kamarampi and elsewhere as ayahuasca, and urubambashi, Psychotropia species. The two are needed together - Psychotropia releases dimethyl tryptamine, the active agent in many new world hallucinogenic plants, but Banisteropsis inhibits the enzymes in the human liver which tend to inactivate this. Mamperikipini is a Fitonia species which also secrete dimethyl tryptamine, and is sometimes used in place of Psychotropia. An extremely rare orchid (Stelis species) known as kemishitsa is used to "consecrate" trainee shamans, apparently pushing them over some indescribable barrier into free hallucination. Kosharishi (Codonanthopsis species) is used to bathe babies, and is a skin-absorbed tranquilliser. Many other plants used for this purpose have similar properties.

Down the Urubamba

Downstream, the Urubamba - now a slow, muddy brown 300m wide picture of lethargy - flows between red-walled banks topped with 15-25m trees. There are a myriad of stopping places, and walks into the forest are rewarding. However, please note that it is exceptionally easy to get lost as the area is continually eroded and recreated by erosion and the forest is featureless. Vivid blue Morpho butterflies are everywhere, and the banks attract many species to drink on the wet mud. Sand bars are tempting camp sites, but please recall that these host the sand-flies which carry a very dangerous disease, and that if you must sleep on them, use repellent, nest, long sleeved shirts and long pants.

Click here to see a series of images There is only limited and largely slow commercial river transport to Camisea. Beyond this, however, the river is plied by a wide range of vessels, ranging from fast little boats to huge passenger and freight carriers. It may be sensible to plan your trip with this in mind, as the boats good for the Pongo are going to be rather slow on the wide expanses of the lowland river. Please note, too, that there are a myriad of small and large tributaries to the Urubamba which it is possible for the well-prepared to explore. Part of any such preparation is, however, the hiring of a competent guide and a thorough discussion of the security situation with the local police. Do not even think of making a spontaneous trip on the spur of the moment, as these are wild places with essentially no law save that which the local people make.

Camisea (250m) is the first substantial settlement down river. It sits on a truly enormous gas deposit, first explored by Total in the 1970s, Shell in the 1980s and now exploited by a motley consortium. As a Shell employee, I visited the area in 1980, when the town was little more that a river-side collection of wooden shacks without the benefit of a jetty. Since then, over US$2bn has been spent on the project, of which local drilling was a small fraction compared to the pipeline that had to be run to the sea. This passes through an area of exceptional social pluralism - where each community needs to sign up to a compensation package - over two mountain ranges (one of them a nature sanctuary), through one of the chief centres of guerrilla activity during the Sendero Luminoso period before dropping to one of the world's most seismically-active areas. It exits to the sea at the exceptional and fragile nature reserve of Paracas.

Exploration of the hydrocarbons reserves had an unhappy history. Total was unable to elicit active cooperation from local people and, as a consequence, it brought in many thousands of highlanders from Cusco to work on the seismic mapping of the region. At least several thousand of these caught la verruga, Leichmaniasis, and the Governor of Cusco was besieged in his office but the resulting riots. A decade later, in the early 1980s, Shell lost several seismic line operators to sniper attacks from local archers and it was eventually deterred by these many difficulties. The sensitivities around the project are such that it was only through the active participation of the Perúvian government - and against all-out activism by a host of NGOs - that the project has been brought to near-completion in 2004.

Camisea is, however, now utterly changed, as are the lives of the Nahua, Kugapakori and Machiguenga living around it. The current consortium group have been actively supported by the Perúvian armed forces, and whilst all proprieties have no doubt been observed, the atmosphere is not happy. There are many facilities in the town - including an air strip and a mini-red light district - but few travellers will wish to linger. Security is tight, with a focus on preventing the transport of narcotics, and all boats and items of passenger luggage are searched.

Another point downstream at which few will want to linger is Sepa prison, which also was used as a leper colony. The aim of the prison was both to isolate dangerous criminals and also to rehabilitate them by training them to work and live in the jungle. In practice, it was Perú's Devil's Island, but without a trace of romance to it.

Sepahua (200m) is the next port of call. This is another once-sleepy settlement that has recently become a centre of activity. Its chief product is forest timber, and large amounts of hardwood can be seen floated off downstream for processing at Atalaya or Pucallpa. Estimates are that around two hundred thousand tonnes of timber are felled each year.

The town itself runs back from a port area to the airstrip some way behind. The streets are unsurfaced and the red tropical mud mixes itself into a sticky paste during the rains, and is churned into a maze of pools and potholes by the traffic that wallows through it. Most houses are made from roughly sawn timber, with thatched roofs and raised floors. I saw upward of a dozen spiders with bodies the size of boiled eggs in the thatch of the place where I stayed overnight. A locally-plentiful ant, (Paraponera species), is called the "24" or veinte cuatro for the length of time its bite continues to hurt. These grow to between two and three centimetres in length and make unwelcome guests in a sleeping bag. The local people call them muishi. Unwelcome insects are something of a feature of the settlement, as is malaria and the other consequences of poor drainage.

The population of the town centre are now largely coastal mestizos, who run virtually all of the commerce, hotels and shops. Machiguenga, Amawakas, Piro and Yora people have settlements ringed around the town, which serve as buffers for those from the deep forest who come to barter handicrafts and herbal medicines for manufactured goods. Many now work for the timber companies; others offer curandero or shamanic services. There is a heavy military presence and river traffic is once again subject to search.

Sepahua is a three day land trip from Lima, via Atalaya, Satipo, Oxapampa and over the Andes on the Carretera Central. [More here] One can also make the trip by air in around an hour, although services are erratic. A third option is to continue down the river to Pucallpa.

The forest ebbs and flows along the riverbank as one continues downstream to Atalaya. It becomes increasingly sparse and thorny as the town is approached, and settlements also become increasing common. Cattle are seen on the shore amidst Lantana scrub, and palm trees are common. Atalaya is a relatively attractive town.

Click here to see a series of images The town of Atalaya has been a settlement for as long as the river has conserved this piece of bank. It began its modern life as a rubber-trading centre in the Nineteenth century. It has a single little hotel, a bank and a telephone service. It is fundamentally a set of houses that have developed between a landing strip and the river and, as the area has been flooded and eroded, subject to sedimentation and re-established for millennia, not much remains that is of interest.

The chief group living around Atalaya are the asháninka, with a scattering of the the Piro. The port area consists of a medley of boats moving people, timber and, more recently, supplies for the Camisea gas field. The atmosphere is what one normally gets when many truckers sit down in the tropics and consumer beer. I once met Mick Jagger there, marooned by his pilot whilst filming the movie Fitzcarraldo.

There are a variety of places to visit around Atalaya. Guides can be acquired in Atalaya, although there is no established travel business in the town beyond the river traffic itself and very few people speak English. A short walk - two hours, or 20 minutes by water - brings the Tigre de Piedra and Toro Incantado rocks. These have been carved in to a cat-like and bull-like shape by unknown hands. The Quebrada Aerija is a gully that delivers a crystal stream, and can be reached in three hours from Atalaya. It is worth visiting only as a focal point, but offers pretty scenery. The Quebrada Sapani is another stream that flows into the Ucayali, in this case two hours North by boat or eight hours walk from Atalaya. The path leads through a number of Asháninka villages, and the stream itself is a pretty place, with many quiet pools. Away from the rivers, an eight hour walk through around as many kilometres of scrubby forest, rich with animals and insects, will bring you to the Canuja y Caracol monoliths. As with all of the longer walks, you will need to camp there overnight.

Another longer walk takes a day and a half to reaches the little Cordillera Negra range. One normally follows the Unini river to its source in the Laguna Encantada, noting that this requires around eight hours of mountain walking under tropical conditions. The 'enchanted lagoon' lies in deep forest, sandwiched between rock faces in an area which is, like all of this jungle, teeming with birds, insects and plant life. You will of course need a guide, and pack animals if you do not want to carry all of your equipment in the tropical sun. The Unini has hot springs at around three hours from Atalaya by boat. The village of Buenos Aires, two hours from Atalaya by boat, offers a large cave full of bats. It has never been explored, but is reportedly short on oxygen once one advanced more than a dozen metres into it.

A fifteen minute hop by scheduled light aircraft will bring you to Gran Pajonal, an area of open scrub and thorny bushes. Here is located one of the more remote Asháninka settlements, where around thirty to forty communities live in much the same ways as their ancestors. Clothes, language and social customs are completely untouched by the outside world. You will, however, need to conform with their expectations, as discussed above, and you will have to live with the community and not simply camp on its doorstep. Enquire whether a day trip is possible: it depends on the schedule of the aeroplane.

Boats from Atalaya ply downstream to Masisea and Pucallpa, and eventually to Iquitos. Information on Pucallpa is here. It is also possible to come to Atalaya by boat from Satipo, by way of Chancamayo, Tarma abnd the Carretera Central from Lima. Details on this are shown here.