27.03.2012 - 31.03.2012 29 °C
One of our “bucket list” items for this trip was to spend some time in the Amazonian jungle. While we had lived for several weeks in the Ecuadorian tropical forest, we didn’t feel that we had fully experienced the “real” jungle, whatever that was! So based on the recommendation of fellow travelers and our trusty Lonely Planet, we called Rainforest Expeditions to see if we couldn’t leave with them in the next 72 hours (we hate to plan things to far in advance!)… and so we left, on April fool’s day, for the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado, a 45 minute flight away from Cusco.
The scenery from the airplane window could not have been more different than what we saw on our flight from Cusco to Arequipa! Here, a vast ocean of green seems to stretch out to infinity, interrupted only by the bright red ribbon that meanders through it. The plane touches down and to one side, we see Puerto Maldonado: a small town whose main activity is to serve as a jumping off point for the many tourists who come here in search of pristine nature. We are met at the airport by a wave of warm and humid air (so nice after chilly Cusco!) and our guide Pedro, a gentle and smiling Peruvian.
Our trip starts with a quick stop at the Rainforest offices, where fresh starfruit juice and friendly spider monkeys await… Yes, it seems we have chosen the right tour operator! The monkeys are hilarious, and very interested in this new batch of two-legged visitors: they scurry up to us and examine our clothes and cameras with curious and intelligent eyes. Suddenly, one of them grabs the hand of a tourist and squawking excitedly, tries to drag him along to the back of the building. He is like a little boy who can’t wait to introduce his new friend to his mother! And while I am at the restroom, a small white-bellied capuchin monkey joins me and examines himself at length in the mirror while I wash my hands… I have always loved monkeys, and am constantly amazed at how human-like they are! Their dark searching eyes, their mobile faces, their agile hands, their social behaviour, their curious nature… They are so like us!
Our first stop is Refugio Amazonas, one of the three lodges operated by Rainforest. To get there: a 45 minute bus ride on a dirt road to the “port”, followed by a 2 hour boat ride on the Tambopata river. The sun is shining, and the river runs fast… very fast! It looks as if a giant is pouring buckets and buckets of milk chocolate sauce from the top of the mountains (further up the river, you can see the Andes from afar), and it runs thick and fast. And on either sides: green. Dense, lush, green. A uniform mass of foliage, vines, trunks and branches with occasionally, a taller tree that emerges here and there. On this first segment of the river, we are still close to civilization: one side is inhabited by local farmers, but the only sign of life we see from the river is their blue wooden long boat, moored on the riverbank. The other side, however, belongs to the Tambopata National Reserve and is inhabited only by wildlife, as evidenced by the numerous capibaras and birds we spot along the shore.
We arrive at Refugio Amazonas around 2pm, and after a 10 min walk through the forest, we discover where we will spend the night… It is dreamlike! An open, two-story, wooden structure, with thatched roof and smiling staff that welcome us with fresh juice and cool towels. We are definitely not roughing it! The Refugio is absolutely beautiful, and set in a picture-perfect site. The 2nd floor common room has hammocks and ample space for the girls to let loose. Our rooms have white beds, covered with white mosquito nets, and no outside walls – “to better allow our guests to fully enjoy the jungle experience”, says the brochure. The trees are just a few meters away, and at night, the sounds and smells of the jungle will lull us to sleep…
That evening, after a yummy dinner, we were supposed to go on a caiman (a member of the alligator family, we learned) hunt – searching for the red gleam of their eyes with a spotlight from our boat… but this being the rainforest, the skies open up, forcing us all to tuck in early. Exactly what the doctor ordered… We were asleep by 8:30pm.
The next morning, Pedro invites us for our first hike: a walk to a nearby “ox-bow” lake, created when the river shifted its course to another direction – a regular occurrence given the strength of its current. We walk for approximately an hour, and along the way, soak in the beauty that surrounds us… The filtered light that reaches us through the thick canopy of the trees, the magnificent giants that soar up to more than 50m, the swirls and knots of the complex root system that covers the forest floor, the hundred shades of green of a hundred types of plants and trees that surround us. But perhaps most fascinating are the sounds of the forest: birds chatter incessantly, and from time to time, the monkeys chime in. Our guide watches and listens like a dog tracking its prey in order to find hidden treasures to share with us… and quickly spots a family of black spider monkeys having a grand ol’ time in the canopy! We’ve seen them in zoos before, but nothing compares to the experience of watching them in their own habitat. We giddily watch and point and run around the trees to get a better view, like children in a toy store on Boxing Day!
At the ox-bow lake, Pedro takes us for a paddle around the lake in a wooden pirogue, and again, we observe a variety of birds – including a flock of hoatzin, a brown and gold-crested fowl also known as the “stinky bird” because of its unpleasant odour. We also get to feed sardines and piranhas, which practically jump out of the water to nip at the bread we throw at them.
On the way back, Pedro collected a fresh castana (brazil nut) for us, and we play the guessing game: how many nuts in the shell? They can contain up to 20 to 25 delicious brasil nuts, which I have decided I adore when fresh... the texture of fresh coconut, but a taste I much prefer!
Then, its back to the boat, to push further down the Tambopata, towards the Tambopata Research Centre, where we will spend two nights. As we progress down the river, our guide points out the change in scenery. Soon, the river becomes wider and we leave behind the inhabited zone to enter in the National Reserve, where human activity is strictly forbidden. The vegetation seems denser, and the tall trees, taller. In various spots, we can see that the river has literally torn away its banks: trees large and small are piled haphazardly by the shore, beaten by the running current. The river banks are not very high, but where the river has bitten into them, the earth is red and raw like a gaping wound. Our guide promises a coca-cola to the first girl who spots a capibara, which keeps them interested and focused for a good two hours, until Chloée spots a huge one munching on some reeds by the water.
The Tambopata Research Centre (TRC) was founded some 20 years ago, by a few scientists who came here to study the behavior of wild macaws. Some 14 species live in this area, and all of them congregate every morning to a “clay lick” (a cliff face whose soil has a very high proportion of clay), where they eat clay to supplement their diet with needed minerals. Within a few years, the project had drawn the attention of adventurous tourists and a pair of business-minded scientists founded Rainforest Expeditions as a way to supplement their research funding. It was an instant hit and the organization now manages three lodges on the Tambopata River (one of which is a joint project with a local indigenous community named “Infierno”, hell!, because of the heat and bugs that characterize the area!).
The TRC is not quite as luxurious as the Refugio, but has been designed in the same spirit: open rooms, open dining room… and really nice staff. We arrive, freshen up, and quickly head out for another hike before sundown. There are number of trails around the centre, and for the next two days, we will explore them one by one, under a shining sun. The forest here is truly pristine: the tall trees are so tall you can’t see their top branches through the canopy! This is the land of the giant ficus, whose roots buttress its enormous trunk like the stone buttresses of gothic catherals; of ironwood and seiba tress whose trunk are so large that it would take more than the four of us to encircle it; of the majestic castana trees (brazil nut tree), whose fruits are so large and fall from so high that the guides require you to wear a construction helmet when walking on the Castana trail!
Here, we saw more beautiful wildlife: frogs, beautiful insects, tarantulas, pecaries, caimans, turtles, snakes, amazingly industrious leaf-cutter ants (these ants cut and carry millions of pieces of tree leaves to bring to their underground nests, where the leaves are composted and serve as a mushroom farm... each ant has its role: the cutters, the carriers, the inspectors, the farmers. Amazing!).
We also saw two other types of monkeys: the small dusty titi monkey, and the large – loud! – red howler monkey. To hear the latter is an absolute marvel: their roar echoes for kilometers across the forest, and eerily resembles the sound of jumbo jet taking off. Given that they tend to “chat” right before sunrise, we where happy that they had chosen to set up shop a little further away from our room!
But the highlight of our stay at the Centre was undoubtedly our two morning visits to the clay lick. We rose at 4:30am to head out to a small island some 100m away from the clay lick, and by 5am, were seated on our small field stools, with a cup of tea in hand, waiting for the action. As the sun rose, macaws, parrots and parakeets began making their way to the area, flying in colourful pairs (they are monogamous and faithful for life) and pausing to loudly discuss the morning’s news on top of the trees. And as the morning light became brighter, so did their colours and their cries. They numbered in the hundreds, and came in all shapes and sizes: the giant, long-tailed scarlet macaws and their blue and gold brethren; various short-tailed green parrots, each species with its unique colouring – blue head, white head, chestnut fronted; the tiny parakeets. Both days, we stayed until 8am to watch the proceedings. First: gather on the highest branches of the tallest trees. Second: proceed towards the clay lick by moving to the shorter trees. Third: flee!! Hawks and vultures are on the prowl! Fourth: If you are among the brave (or the most in need of a hit of clay?), proceed to the clay lick for a quick nip and then fly away with your friends. They say that macaws are the second loudest animals on the planet, after the mighty lion, and when they left, the sound of silence seemed deafening.
And at breakfast, we were visited by the "chicos" - scarlet macaws that were raised by the scientists in the early stages of the project, and who are now 20 years old. They live in the wild, have wild mates and observe all the necessary social norms of wild macaws but... they have never forgotten the hand that fed them. So they regularly pop in to say hello, and steal pancakes from the plates of unwary visitors (often with the wild mate staying in the rafters to act as a diversion, while the chico swoops down on the dinner table)! Needless to say, they were quite popular with everyone!
While at TRC, we also had the opportunity to observe the work of a group of scientists who were monitoring macaw nests (both artificial and natural) in the area. Rosie donned rock climbing gear to climb to the top of a very (very!) tall tree, where she retrieved a fledgling baby macaw. The chick was lowered to the ground in a pail, where two other scientists measured and weighed it, and treated it for worms, before it was returned to its nest. What a privilege to quietly witness this sight!
On our fourth and last day, we left for the Refugio once again. En route, Pedro produced a fruit he had collected in the jungle and, with its juice, drew tattoos for the girls. Fascinating… the juice goes on clear and within 24 hours, becomes a deep indigo – and nothing can wash it off, until it fades away on its own (he says within two weeks, so we’ll see!).
When we reach the Refugio, we have time for one last hike to the Canopy Tower: a 97 foot tower, from which you can see above the canopy… Pedro explains that the jungle is divided into five strata:
- From 0 – 2m: the jungle floor
- From 2 – 7m: the lower story
- From 7 – 15m: the mid-story
- From 15 – 35m: the canopy
- Above 35m: the emergent layer
From above the canopy layer where we stand, we see a vast ocean of green stretching off to infinity, with islands of tall trees peeking out here and there. From afar, we see a few toucans flitting about, up and down, like dolphins above the waves.
And once again, we were blessed with wonderful travel companions: a family from Vancouver with two teen-aged children, and one from London, whose 11 year old daughter became Chloee and Arianne’s partner in crime in no time. It was wonderful company for the girls, as well as for the parents! Alain also enjoyed a few football games with TRC and Refugio staff, and the evening aperitif in good company was delightful…
And the best surprise of the whole trip? NO MOSQUITOES!! Or very few, at least! This was the best news ever for Arianne, who cried for a week that she did not want to be eaten alive again (as was the case in Ecuador). I’m quite certain that if we had ventured off the beaten track, the jungle may have been a bit more wild and dangerous but this trip was perfect: safe and comfortable travel, a loveable and knowledgeable guide, great food, wonderful company and… all the magic and beauty one could possible absorb.