Traveling up Peru’s Tambopata River from Puerto Maldonado beneath an evening Amazonian sun, I am given the obligatory lecture to stay centered in the narrow boat — no sudden movements please, no wild rushing to one side and the other to snap photos of rain-forest creatures, for there is no telling what we might see here in a place both rare and beautiful. Here in the southeastern corner of Peru, nearly 80 percent of the region of Madre de Dios is protected.
And so I am mildly surprised when the boat driver stands and shouts, abandoning the tiller to lean far out over the port side, cellphone camera in hand. Enzo Mariche Ancasi is right beside him. Enzo gestures to me and I join them, the three of us — rule-breakers all — leaning out to gape at the black caiman, eight glorious feet of prehistoric reptile, stretched upon the riverbank.
“It is very unusual to see them on the river,” whispers Enzo. “They are mostly living on the lake, and even there they are shy and it is hard to see them.”
Our boat throbs idly, holding its own against the sweeping brown river. No one takes his eyes off the caiman.
Very softly my new friend Enzo says, “The nature is amazing.”
Regarding nature, Enzo is, of course, spot on. But better still for Enzo and those who visit Tambopata, few places showcase the amazing breadth and depth of nature like the Amazonian rain forest: otherworldly creatures, astonishing adaptations, and terrible Darwinian battles for survival — up, in, and under a riotous canopy that comprises just 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet holds 50 percent of its species. Perhaps most astonishing of all is that, despite this cornucopia of ecological excess, Peru’s rain forest is often overlooked by travelers.
As Enzo’s fellow Rainforest Expeditions guide Katherine Torres puts it one night over dinner, “The face of Peru is Machu Picchu."
|Yes, you should visit Machu Picchu, but it is a mistake to ignore Peru's rain forest glories.|
This is a profound shame. Don’t get me wrong. I have been to Machu Picchu and it is indeed a life-changing place, but now I can also tell you that Peru’s rain forest will accomplish precisely the same magic, stamping you with moments and memories you will never forget.
Happily, too, you won’t have to roll out your sleeping bag in a skeeter-infested bog to garner these memories. Although ecotourism has only come to the Tambopata region in the past 20 years, already some 10 different companies line the river, and with their coming, and their competition, the level of luxury has risen accordingly. I traveled with Rainforest Expeditions, staying in two of their three lodges along Rio Tambopata. Posada Amazonas (a 45-minute boat ride upriver from Puerto Maldanodo) and Refugio Amazonas (3½ hours upriver) rise out of the jungle like some Swiss Family Robinson oasis, only the Robinsons’ digs weren’t polished to a sheen, with soft beds and turn-down mosquito netting, hot buffet-style meals (often featuring Peruvian cuisine) served at long tables in the high-roofed dining area, and other civilized touches like soft rolls stuffed with olives waiting, post hike, at the lodge entrance. (Farther upriver — four more hours from Refugio Amazonas — Rainforest Expeditions’ third lodge, the Tambopata Research Center, is more rustic; more removed from man, though, it offers greater opportunity for wildlife encounters.)My favorite part, however, was that we were still very much in the jungle. Walking to breakfast each morning, I heard monkeys chattering and shrieking as if engaged in some debauched frat party, and cartoonishly colored birds regarded me from the trees. At a little past nine each night the electricity was shut off, plunging the world into velvet darkness so that you might lie in your soft bed listening to sudden blurts and steady drones and deep-throated staccato burstings.
And oh, the stars.
Days revolved around guided events of guests’ choosing. Rainforest Expeditions offers everything from bird-watching tours to canopy climbs. I simply chose to see as much of the rain forest as possible, and Enzo proved to be the ideal guide. He had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle, in part because he was born and raised in Puerto Maldonado (his grandfather fished the lakes with a bow and arrow), in part because Rainforest Expeditions guides are trained by biologists. Enzo possessed an instinctual grasp of when to keep things simple (“little frog,” “big spider!”) and when to discourse at length (Did you know the ungainly looking capybara — picture a very large rat — swims like an Olympian, only Michael Phelps can’t stay underwater for up to five minutes? Enzo tells me this after one of them nearly leaps into his kayak from the riverbank). Best of all, adventuring with Enzo was like exploring with your 12-year-old best friend. Pausing on the trail, Enzo would bend and peer into the brush, “Let’s see what is in the hole over there.”
As you might imagine, there were plenty of big things in the rain forest: plate-size spiders and fist-size snails, the harpy eagle (the Americas’ largest raptor), insects of such girth that you felt their passing breeze, and kapok trees with limbs as thick as Volkswagen buses. There were insanely colorful birds — white-throated toucans, chestnut-eared aracaris, and all manner of macaws — and heaps of cavorting monkeys — brown capuchin, dusky titi, and squirrel — whose leaps caused boughs to dip and crash as if assaulted by overweight raindrops. And yes, there were piranha: four species of the ragged-toothed fish in the Tambopata region, the largest of which, the black piranha, grows to nearly a foot. As we prepared to fish for piranha one dawn on Tres Chimbadas Lake, guide Yuri Rivera raised an eyebrow. “But you know we don’t have any fishing line, so we are going to have to use our fingers.” Masters of the jest, those rain-forest guides.
I enjoyed the grandeur of the rain forest (twice we climbed tall towers to gaze upon a green-canopy sea stretching to every horizon), but it was the countless nuances that rendered me spellbound and riveted. Enzo pointed out how the roots of plants and trees snaked out for impossible distances because there are few nutrients beneath the first few inches of soil. He chipped a piece of bark from a garlic tree, informing me that it made for an excellent bug repellent (a handy thing to know). He traced a finger beside a procession of termites making their way up a tree trunk to their nest.
“If you get lost in the woods, you can eat them. They have lots of protein.”
This begged the obvious. With Enzo’s permission, I tried them.
He watched my face. “Unique taste, actually,” he said. “Like wood.” “Mmmmm,” said Enzo. “And there are millions and millions of them. Termites are very important in the Amazon.”
Everywhere there was something that made you marvel again upon the diversity of our world. Birds (hoatzin) that release a horrible smell to repel predators; strangler figs that crush and drain the life from their host tree; plants that ease arthritis and, perhaps of broader interest, are said to serve as a sexual attractant.
Even the seemingly inconsequential was not so. Hiking one humid-thick afternoon through yet another tunnel of fern and leaf and vine and creeper, Enzo stopped to delicately draw a fat leaf down toward my nose.
“You see?” he asked.
I leaned closer because I didn’t see. Masters of blending, these denizens of the rain forest.
Actually this ant was easy to see, being shoeshine black and half a size bigger than your average ant. But it still looked like an ant. I wondered if Enzo was finally running out of things to show me.
“Bullet ant,” he said. “Very poisonous. I talked to the researchers and they told me it’s the same kind of poison as a king cobra’s, only much less. But still, you do not want to be bitten.”
Hence the three simple guidelines posted in both lodges. “Make questions,” “silence is good,” and “avoid manipulate alive organisms.”
Although the small things never ceased to swarm and surprise, the rain forest was quite capable of producing its klaxon calls. Late one afternoon, the setting sun sending foggy beams of light down through the canopy, the entire forest suddenly echoed with a long roar, something like the passing of a great, deep wind. It was followed by a series of guttural grunts.
I turned quickly to Enzo, but he made no move to run.
I wished to make a question. What in the world was that?
“Howler monkey,” said Enzo. “It is the noisiest animal on earth, after the blue whale.”
The howls continued, primitive and now lovely in the waning light. It was the drumbeat of a different world. It is good for us to hear such things.
Enzo looked up to the gloaming sky, as if tracking the grunts bouncing about in the canopy, and then he smiled.
“The nature is amazing.”
VISITING THE TAMBOPATA RAIN-FOREST REGION:
|Rainforest Expeditions |
+1 (877) 231-9251
|Cox & Kings, The Americas|
+1 (800) 999-1758
Getting There: You’ll fly into the small town of Puerto Maldonado from either Lima or Cusco. A bus takes you to the river; a boat takes you upriver to the lodges.
When to Visit: The dry season, June through August, is best, when animals are on the move looking for food. If you want to avoid your fellow man, try the shoulder seasons of April/May and September/October, but be prepared for rain.
Where to Stay: Rainforest Expeditions runs three lodges, each one deeper in the rain forest.
Posada Amazonas A 45-minute boat ride up Rio Tambopata from the town of Puerto Maldonado, this 30-room lodge is easiest to get to.
Refugio Amazonas Farther upriver (3½ hours), but still luxurious and family-friendly, with a play area and a rain-forest trail designed for children.
Tambopata Research Center Deep (four hours upriver from Refugio Amazonas) in an uninhabited portion of the Tambopata National Reserve, here’s your best chance to see wildlife and have the fun chance to talk with biologists and ecologists conducting fieldwork. Amenities are slightly more spartan (i.e., shared bathrooms), and you’ll need to invest more time to get here.
Must Bring: Sunglasses; hat; mosquito repellent; rain gear; loose-fitting, lightweight clothing that dries quickly and keeps you cool. Long sleeves to help protect from insects. Yes, there are a lot
- Tres Chimbadas Lake, with a chance of giant river otters
- The Tambopata River from a kayak
- The rain forest at night
- Glowing gator eyes at night (The Tambopata region is home to four species of caiman.)
- The gargantuan strangler fig on the other side of Lago Condenado
- A harpy eagle, the Americas’ largest raptor (ask Enzo)
Must Hear: Howler monkeys (the second loudest creature on earth)
Must Sample: Copoazu The chewy sour-sweet fruit is used in desserts, drinks, and candies.
Ceviche Raw fish marinated in lemon juice and nicely spiced (Peruvians like their spices), this is pretty much Peru’s national dish.
Aji de Gallina Chicken cooked in milk and aji sauce.
Pisco Sour Peru’s signature mixed drink is made with pisco, lemon, egg white, and syrup. Nice to have something to cool the spice.
Must Read: The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness by Peter Matthiessen; Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon by John Hemming; In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon by Redmond O’Hanlon
Learn More: For general information on visiting Peru, contact the Peru Trade Commission