Thursday, November 9, 2017

Peruvian Adventure 2. Amazon Jungle and Tambopata River

Red and Green Macaws 
After leaving the Inca Trail, the next stop on our Peruvian Adventure was the Amazon jungle. Six intrepid travelers, including my husband Jeff, flew east from Cusco’s highlands to the small town of Puerto Maldonado. Puerto Maldonado is a jungle town located in southeastern Peru. It is the gateway to the Tambopata National Reserve, a primary rainforest of enormous biodiversity. Courtesy of G Adventures (, our destination was the Pata Ecolodge on the Tambopata River. After meeting our guide Elvis, we boarded a small bus. The ride from town to the river was eye opening. 

Painted Pumas in Puerto Maldonado 
The town oozed energy and purpose. We drove past crowds of people and busy storefronts, well kept two- and three-story apartment buildings and streams of motorbikes. On the outskirts of town the scene change radically – we passed rough, clear-cut fields filled with ramshackle, tarp-covered shelters – sadly reminiscent of the homeless encampments on the freeway shoulders around my hometown of Seattle.

Condors of the Amazon and their fellow vultures
After the settlements, we passed by productive papaya plantations. Papaya is the only commercial crop exported from the region. In about 30 minutes, we arrived at the banks of the muddy Tambopata River. Like the main stem of the Amazon River, the smaller tributaries that rise in the Andes carry a heavy silt load that makes the water the color of cafĂ© au lait. Elvis said we’d be eating lunch on the boat since the trip to the Ecolodge would be two to three hours. We purchased cold beer from a riverside kiosk, walked down steep wooden stairs to the dock, donned our life jackets and embarked on our river adventure. Elvis handed out individual lunch boxes – delightfully packed in insulated cloth bags. Inside we found individual canteens stuffed full of hot fried chicken, manioc (or yucca as it is called in Peru) fries, a nice selection of vegetables and a couple of small sweet bananas. That’s what I call a box lunch.
Capybaras in their native habitat

The flat-bottomed, canopied boat was the perfect site from which to observe the river and the birds and animals on shore. Elvis told us to get our cameras and binoculars ready in case we encountered any wildlife. Within a few moments, the boat driver stopped near the shore. We had the pleasure of watching two huge vultures the so-called “Condors of the Amazon” finish off a dead capybara while a flock of smaller black vultures pecked at the edges. Capybaras are the world’s largest rodent, a round brown-furred animal that lives along the shores of tropical rivers. Capybaras are herbaceous and can consume up to 50 kilos of grass a day.

After watching the vultures, aptly named “garbage men of the jungle” clean up the carcass, we continued upstream. The banks of the river were broad, muddy berms that stepped up to the edge of the forest. Here and there, exposed clay cliffs rose more than twenty feet above the water. Suddenly Elvis started jumping up and down. The driver swung our boat towards the shore. In front of us, perched in twos and threes on the mud cliff, was an extraordinary sight. More than 50 green and red macaws hung on the exposed cliff, feeding on the clay lick, ingesting essential minerals. The sight of these largest of all macaws congregated together on the cliff is something I will never forget. We sat quietly, in awe, using our binoculars and cameras to record the majestic birds. Macaws are rarely seen in such abundance. Sightings of the density we experienced are a matter of chance. My husband, who is a tropical river scientist and has worked in the Amazon jungle for more than 40 years, was as stunned as the rest of us. All at once, in response to an unheard signal, the macaws rose in pairs from the clay lick and, flapping their wings, flew into the air, across the river and out of sight. What a beginning to our jungle adventure.

Entralled by the jungle
Thus began our immersion in the primary rainforest of the Tambopata ecosystem. Pata Ecolodge is a settlement of small thatched roofed cottages and a larger building that houses a bar, complete with games and books, and a dining room. Electricity is solar powered. Trails to a small stream and through the dense jungle crisscross the site. On our first night Elvis took us for a walk in the dark on one of the trails– his chief intent was to introduce us to the sounds of the night jungle. Elvis told us to turn off our headlamps and follow him in silence and darkness so that we could experience the velvet night more completely. At first I was nervous but soon the wonderful sounds – frogs, cicadas, jungle rats and bats – filled my senses and I forgot to be scared.

The next day reminded me of summer camp – there were so many activities I didn’t have time to worry about mosquitoes! We met for breakfast at 6:30 am and walked down to our boat before 7:15. We headed upriver to a jungle trail that led us to Lago Condenado - literally the condemned lake. It is a former oxbow that is now filling in with sediment and vegetation and likely to disappear over time. The lake is home to an endangered species of giant river otters and many other animals and birds. 

A black caiman skulking in the shallows
As we arrived at the trailhead, Elvis spotted a juvenile black caiman lurking in the shallow water. After watching the wary creature for a few minutes, we started out on our hike. Every few minutes, Elvis, who we discovered was remarkably skilled at spotting hidden creatures, would stop. He’d flash his green laser beam and show us a monkey, a bird, an unusual insect or plant that, without his keen eyes, I never would have seen. Perhaps a favorite siting was a capuchin monkey who sat high in a fruit tree, lording it over every other monkey around while he feasted on bright red fruit. He jumped from branch to branch chattering and tossing seeds down into the leaves below. Capuchin monkeys are very smart – they are the monkeys you might remember from old movies, the monkey dressed in a smart little jacket and cap jumping around its organ grinder owner with a tin cup collecting coins. Watching our wild capuchin I was sure he would have been a most successful organ grinder monkey.

A sampling of the farm's produce
Later that day, after lunch and a dip in a small stream close to the main lodge, we crossed the Tambopata by boat to visit the plantation of a local farmer. Our host farmer practices mixed crop agriculture – the planting of multiple crops together in clearings rather than the more traditional contemporary practice of planting endless fields with a single crop. On the farm we saw multiple fruit and vegetable crops interspersed in fields and orchards. 
Young Star Fruit
Papaya, cacao, lemons, oranges, corn, manioc, bananas, star fruit and plantains grew in a bright green jumble. Pigs ate the plant waste and chickens ran around squawking and pecking. The farm was largely a self-sustaining system with cover crops providing nitrogen and animal and plant wastes providing vital compost. The farm gave our host a good living through the sale of fresh food to our lodge and in markets in nearby Puerto Maldonado.Later that night, before dinner but happily after cocktail hour, we returned to our trusty boat and explored the downstream riverbanks. In the pitch black darkness Elvis promised us the opportunity to see white caimans. First he showed us an interesting video about the challenges of protecting the river from gold mining and the life cycle of the caimans. Next we were cruising on the river in warm darkness. The green laser shone and there in front of us were miniature white caimans standing still on the mud bank. Further down the river we found larger caimans with beautiful black and white markings. The caimans are solitary creatures. They live alone, abandoned by their mothers at a few months of age. Only the strongest survive the six or seven years needed to reach sexual maturity. These primitive creatures look like something that should have lived several millions years ago. It was a privilege to see them at home.

My husband and a giant Kapok tree
When we decided to go to Peru together to hike the Inca Trail, we opted to visit the Tambopata River, a tributary to the Amazon. Despite many visits to the lower Amazon and the Brazilian rainforest, we wanted to explore a headwater system. Sometimes a place that we think we know surprises us with new sights and sounds. Our visit to the Tambopata was filled with such experiences. From the sustainable jungle farm to the giant kapok and strangler fig trees to the macaws, the caimans and all the extraordinary creatures in between, we had the privilege of experiencing the rich diversity of the Peruvian rainforest.

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