It was the first day of our holiday. Peru lay below us, an undiscovered vista. As the flight swerved south from Lima, we were greeted by views of steep, sharp edged, snow-capped mountains with inky blue lakes on their laps vying with the clouds which cast shadows of almost the same colour to confuse and tease. Rivers meandered through valleys and flatter vistas with greener mountains, fir trees and gentler slopes were marked with walking trails and villages. After a bird’s eye view of Cusco, the plane took off towards Puerto Maldonado. Around midday we descended through layers of thick clouds to our first sight of lush rainforests blanketing the banks of the Tambopata River.
Guides from Rainforest expeditions picked us up in a van aptly named ‘Capybara’. A twenty minute stop at the office where we repacked and left some bags in storage, and we were on the ‘Capybara’ again, headed towards the Tambopata River. For an hour we bumped along a red clayey road bordered by lush green vegetation and residential houses sporadically scattered around. It was much colder than expected, thanks to a cold wave from Patagonia, explained our guides. We were treated to snack boxes of little bananas, banana chips and sugar coated Brazil nuts in little woven baskets dried grass.
An hour later we had reached the bank of the Tambopata River to board a simple country boat powered by a motor. Waters were high after recent rains and we balanced precariously on our seats, strictly distributed in equal numbers on both sides. Visibility was surprisingly clear considering the heavy clouds which hung above. Our boat lurched forward on brown waves bordered by the rainforest.
On the way we were served lunch (vegetable and cheese rice in wrapped leaves washed down with a lemon drink). We saw yellow tailed oropendola birds, beehives, vultures, monkeys and capybaras which stared at us and then waded into the water with disdain. Two and a half hours and we had finally reached the stairs to dismount for Refugio Amazonas.
A fifteen minute well marked trail took us to the lodge where we were greeted with hot chocolate and hot towels. The charming manager, Claudia, explained how the lodge worked and then we were handed keys for our rooms. We walked through an open corridor to rooms with an ‘open plan’-basically a large veranda that had been divided into a number of compartments with beds and an en suite toilet and shower. We wondered what the keys were for, since entrances to the room and toilets were just guarded with curtain, before we discovered the locker.
Dinner bell at 7 pm was followed by a sumptuous meal of soup, salads, chicken and potatoes. Dessert was chocolate mousse. Claudia did warn us that she was having to watch her weight since she joined the job! We met the rest of our group: a couple from Oxford, and a group of five from the US, as well as our guide, Luis, who would be leading us about the rainforest over the next few days.
The next morning we woke at 5 am to the sounds of what seemed like a strong wind. We went out to check, wondering if the weather was still rainy and wet but not a single leaf appeared to tremble. We were later to learn about howler monkeys, the jungle’s very own alarm clock. An early breakfast at 6:15 am was followed by our first 25 minute muddy walk to the Canopy tower. On the way Luis pointed out various trees (such as the Brazil nut tree, which he renamed the ‘Peru nut tree’) and wild life (Macaws, butterflies and brown agoutis), identified various bird calls- the most distinctive being the oropendola mating call which sounded like a stone hitting and sinking into a large vessel of water.
The canopy tower is a narrow 32 metre structure of 150 stairs which led to a level at the top of the rainforest. On the last level there is a trapdoor that you go up through to see the rainforest from the level of the highest trees that stand between 25 and 35 metres. It was a clear day and in the distance, that snow capped mountains of the Andes could be seen. Luis pointed out in the direction of Puno. He also pointed out the four other layers of rainforest beneath us, the patterns of leaves forming colourful carpets on the forest floor.
We descended after some photos and began our next muddy walk through the forest that would bring us to the Oxbow lake in about 45 minutes. On the way Luis stopped and painted us with ‘war paint’ leaves which exuded a red juice supposed to keep insects away. Looking suitably fierce with red lines on our cheeks, we trudged on trying to avoid the armies of ants taking pieces of leaves to their nest in neat lines which went on for several metres. A few were carrying colourful petals which would be refused by the ‘guards’ at their nest. All that labour for nothing! Reaching the lake, we found the canoes filled with water which Luis began to bail the water out of with a puny milk bottle. My husband tried to help him, only to find out that the tin he was using had several holes in the bottom. Therefore, he decided his hands would make a good substitute. After 15 minutes, Luis decided the canoe was cleared out well enough and we climbed aboard. We sailed around the lake in a tranquil float viewing the Hoatzin, (or the ‘stinkbird’ as it was called). A close enough view/shot will reveal the bright blue eyes against the rich brown colour in a striking contrast. ‘88’ butterflies with their black markings which are easy to see where they got their name from, perched on our shoulders and fingers, amazingly curious and friendly.
We arrived at the other side of the lake and got off the boat, and walked up to two gigantic strangling fig trees- one around 300 years old, the other possibly 500. One of them had a hollow space in the trunk we could enter, the perfect tree room with windows and a roof that reached up into a high cone.
Back to the lodge a lunch of flavoured rice, chicken in a spicy sauce, and poached pears was followed by a quick siesta. At around 3:30 pm, we pulled on our wellington boots yet again this time ready for a muddy hike to the the peccary clay lick. Our trail began on a moderately muddy path, before we came across a group of people taking down half fallen trees that blocked the usual trail. After a moment’s hesitation, Luis indicated for us to wait as he checked for anything dangerous in the denser forest. When he knew the path was safe enough, he took his machete and began hacking at small vines that hung in the way to create a path to let us through. After about 40 minutes of tripping over rotten tree trunks and grabbing vines to prevent falling over, we reached the other side and were back on the usual path.
The peccary clay lick showed no mammals in sight so Luis made it up for us by locating a fluffy, rather disgruntled looking juvenile harpy eagle which we saw through his binoculars.
That night after dinner we went on a ‘Caiman hunt’. We embarked the motorboat in darkness lighted only by the flashing fireflies. Within ten minutes, we had spotted our first Caiman floating among the grasses, showing only its snout and bulging eyes - a baby. We saw 8 or 9 others, the final one a full sized rather hunky white Caiman resting on the bank posing for photographs like it was used to the show.
We had another 6:15 breakfast having woken up to the chorus of howler monkeys yet again. This morning it was a spread of pancakes with pots of honey and chocolate spread. There was also a selection of fruits, including passion fruits, which I had started to gain a passion for. After breakfast, we pulled on our wellie boots once again, and headed to the port for a short boat ride under lovely, clear blue skies. Two muscular white caimans were basking on the banks giving us a daylight view of rippling leather.
After 15 minutes, Luis asked the driver to pull over to the bank, so he could test the soil to see if it would hold our weight. We clambered up behind him and hiked deep into the rainforest, surrounded by fragrant flowers, fluttering butterflies, and bird song that became more dramatic as they competed for a mate. A fresh jaguar pug mark raised our hopes to the sky. After a while we decided to rely on the less ambitious peccary paw marks. However paw marks and a promising crashing sound reverberating through the trees was the best we go.
Though we were told to avoid grabbing trees without checking for ants and spiders, it was rather difficult to avoid reflexes when our boots were slipping. Another 45 minutes and we reached the parakeet/macaw clay lick which had two shanty huts. We perched ourselves for a silent wait. Scarlet macaws started coming in 2’s and 4’s to perch on the trees near the clay lick.
On the way back Luis stopped near a hole and stuck a long stick into it to nudge a chicken tarantula. Furry black and around 6 inches in diameter, the name comes from its babies which follow the mother like chickens following a hen.
Titi monkeys greeted us like a welcome band as we returned to the lodge. After lunch of beef stir fry and potato skins loaded with tuna and egg, we bid bye to the resident brown agoutis and titi monkeys in the midst of their afternoon playtime, this time leaving for an ethno botanical farm. On the way, Luis showed us various herbs and an abandoned ‘medicine clinic’.
At the ethno botanical farm, we were greeted by the owner who lives a solitary life on the banks of the Tambopata, with two cats and his hens for company. Luis cut down fresh oranges and sweet papaya from the extensive farms for us.
The sun was just dipping below the horizon as we boarded the boat for our last dinner at Refugio Amazonas. The brown waters swished with a hint of powerful currents bordered by the deep forests which had hardly given up its secrets. Sunrays flowed over the water and greenery like thick wild honey- sweet, strong and enticing.