We considered an adventure into the deepest, darkest Peruvian Amazon as the “tent-pole” event of our 6 months in South America. As older millennials, we grew up with school plays about the Amazon, BBC nature documentaries – bless you, David Attenborough -, and news of increased deforestation centred on the rainforest. Our unwritten Bucket List had a trip to the Amazon placed firmly in the top three.
With all that said, no amount of plays, documentaries or news bulletins can prepare you for the impact that the Amazon Rainforest has on you. Until you have experienced everything that the Forest offers, you’ll have only seen a fraction. And once you’ve witnessed Rain that can only be described as “biblical”, you’ll understand the sheer power that exists above and below the canopy.
However, before the excitement began, we had to get there and our journey, or course, started in Cusco.
After a few days hopping between The North Face, Patagonia and Rockford, as well as myriad knock-off travel shops, we were packed and ready for 5 nights in the Refugio Amazonas and Tambopata Research Center (TRC) in the Tambopata Reserve. Our early flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado began with an in depth explanation from the girl behind us regarding her anxiety of flying- this should have been a clue! Before we knew it we were traversing the Andes and soaring over the rainforest and muddy waters of rivers and oxbow lakes below. The views were interrupted by a call for medical assistance, Daisy disappeared off to see what was happening along with several other doctors, wisely she retreated leaving many doctors discussing the anxious girl and the need for oxygen!
Departing Cusco and arriving in the rainforest was a tale of two humidities; one crisp and dry, the other sweltering and damp. We gave each other knowing looks at baggage reclaim, which is to imply that we knew it was going to be a warm wet week. Of course, we were correct, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.
To reach the TRC we took a plane, a 1-hour minibus between Puerto Maldonado and Comunidad del Fuego, then a 4-hour boat ride up the Tambopata River, which sits in the Madres de Dios region of Peru, to Refugios Amazonas for our first two nights. Technically, it is the Amazon Rainforest, but it’s not on the titular river. The reason that we chose TRC (via Refugio Amazonas) is that the center is a working research center, specifically for Macaws and jaguars, so while you get to visit the deep jungle, you get to do so surrounded by scientists and volunteers. It was a nature nerd’s dream.
Our final destination was the TRC, which sits a total of 8-hours upstream, however, as divulged, our first two nights were at Refugio Amazonas. Undertaking the entire journey to TRC would be impossible to finish in daylight from the city of Puerto Maldonado. No captain in their right mind would sail up the river at night as there are logs everywhere! Nevertheless, this mandatory stop was welcomed by the whole group.
Safety briefing complete and rooms assigned.
It was time to get into the green stuff.
While walking through the forest, every angle – up, down, close-up, wide – offered something different. On hikes we often had to stop –
Oh, look at this mushroom! … Wait, is that a huge ant? … Did you hear that bird? … Was that a monkey above!?Couple of Voyagers, Amazon, repeatedly.
5km hikes took far longer than they should have, because, with every forward step, we had something new to look at, smell, touch (although only when our guide said we could) and to listen to. It was a sensory overload. At one point, before the rain had started, our guide was teaching us the difference between the Reserve and National Park when, not 100 metres away, a tree collapsed. The accompanying sound was like nothing we had ever heard: perhaps a giant had uprooted and snapped a 40 metre tree and slammed it against the jungle floor? No, it was just the immense power of nature that surrounded us. Like the best roller coasters, we were not in control and it was thrilling.
Obviously, while not in the …relative… safety of the research center, we were dressed the part. There was something comforting about our head-nets, especially when the others in our group were swatting away mosquitoes throughout our excursions. Under the canopy only 5% of daylight reaches the jungle floor, so insects are active during the day, but at night is when even nets cannot reliably protect you. Everything was bigger in the Amazon; bigger mosquitoes, bigger crickets, bigger locusts and bigger spiders decided to invade every corner of our room, or posted up on walkways and staircases. In fact, even the baby tarantulas, despite their cute pink feet, occupied handrail space and caused momentary lapses of muscle movement.
Is that a t-t-t-tarantula?Not Shaggy or Scooby Do
Our room, a loose term for the 3-wall, ceiling-less space that we slept in, was an adventure in itself. Much like the best Brechtian theatre, the fourth-wall didn’t exist; there was a vast space that looked out into the dense jungle, which gave us a fantastic view and the insects a fantastic point of entrance. We frequently showered with gigantic beetles, avoided hand-sized crickets and hoped that no tarantula would join us. Every evening we dashed from the shower, crept under the mosquito net and spent the next 20 minutes tucking in the net and inspecting the corners, all in preparation for a bug free night! One morning we realised we had not been alone that night. A monkey or possibly a possum had been roaming around and pooped on our clothes. Another moment of realisation, this was their rainforest and we were mere guests.
If we weren’t walking around in awe of nature during the day, we were running around being literally bombarded by nature at night. Nevertheless, the Night Walk around the TRC was fun. In a moment reminiscent of the movie Arachnophobia, we were being taught about species of spiders that spin webs together. Our guide shone the torch at a lone spider at chest-height, explaining that these are often found in large groups. As he was talking, he moved the light up, above head-height, revealing a huge web system with hundreds of spiders busying themselves within the 1m cubed white mass. A few of our group recoiled in horror, and encouraged a swift departure from that particular tree. Later on during the nocturnal jaunt we saw the Two Stripe Poison Dart Frog, the second-most deadly frog in the world, which was extremely small but incredibly cute. I mean, it could have killed every human inside the TRC but it looked really cool.
One of our most treasured sightings was the juvenile Harpy Eagle. Despite being less than a year old, this male bird of prey had a wingspan of just shy of 2 metres and was calling loader than anything in the vicinity. It was such an amazing experience to witness, and he was by far the most badass character we saw during our time in the jungle.
The greatest aspect of the TRC was being able to choose different activities to do in the jungle. We were spoilt for choice during our time there, with our days filled with trips to mammal and parrot Claylicks; a trip up a 30m tower to the jungle canopy, from which it was possible to see the sunrise, parrots, other birds and wasps; a hike to the Oxbow lake followed by a boat ride; daylight and sunset walks, boat rides to find jaguar and the aforementioned Night Walk.
The non-exhaustive list of animals that we saw over our 5 days in the Amazon is below. There was a whole load more insects and reptiles, but we didn’t reliably identify them via our guide.
Red Howler monkey
Dusky Titi monkey
Black Spider monkey
Red and Green Macaws
Blue and Yellow Macaws
Harpy Eagle (yeeeeeeees!)
Hoatzin (double yeeeeeeees!)
Chestnut throated Toucan
Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
Great White Egret
Blue-throated Piping Guan
Red capped Manakin
Reptiles and Amphibians
Two-Stripe Poison Dart Frog
Yellow Bellied Piranha
Pink Footed Tarantula
Have you ever seen rain so hard, and so strong, that it collapsed trees mere metres from your bed? Until our third night in the Amazon, we were in the group of individuals that could answer “no” to that question.
The night prior to the rains we were given a heads up by mother nature; while having a beer at the bar a sudden infestation of insects descended on the white sofas in the communal area. Quite a shocking site to see the white cushions turn black. The barmen hastily attempted to brush them off with little success exclaiming ‘the rains are coming’. You’re telling us!
For 22-hours, we were surrounded by torrents of rain. “It’s rained off” took on a whole new meaning that day. The pathways on which we walked not a day before were flooded; the banks of the river burst and 2.5 metres of water had crept closer to us. The day we arrived we had surmised the reason, but after the rain we saw why the walkways existed and our room was held up by 6m stilts. It became impossible to do any trips outside of the lodge.
Breakfast and lunch were not rained off, and we ended up chatting with the rest of our stranded group for the majority of the day. Many topics of conversation were navigated, until we were interrupted by Tabasco, one of the Macaws, or “chicos”, that the old conservation programmed helped rescue. That original programme no longer exists because the birds became too fearless of humans, which harmed their numbers. Fearless birds are much easier to catch and smuggle, with Macaws fetching $2500 each in the US. The older birds had also taught their partners and offspring to visit the TRC for a free meal which although lovely for us was damaging to them. It’s very much a “hands-off” programme now, which is to say that there is minimal human interaction to help protect the birds and keep them as wild as possible.
That said, for Tabasco, old habits certainly die hard, and he was the start of the lunchtime show for an hour. We snapped at the chance to get a selfie with him before he pestered the chefs for bread.
It rained so much that talk of delayed boats, minibuses and flights was a real possibility. We didn’t have the luxury of spending extra nights in the rainforest due to our plans, but it looked at one point like our hand would be forced.
Then, just like that, the rain stopped. And 12 hours later, the river retreated, leaving a brown, muddy mess that required gumboots to traverse. Thankfully, by the time we left the TRC the water was back down to the same level as when we had arrived. In fact, the only evidence that we had witnessed such a biblical rise in water were the felled trees and stained foliage by the riverbank.
Since our Amazon experience, any slight sniffle or sneeze has been followed up with “do you think I have Dengue?”. And the mosquito bites have only just subsided. Nevertheless, our memories remain, and our time in the rainforest will be long in our thoughts.
The end of Peru began with an extended week in Chucuito, a terrible birthday and a proper illness, and ended with a border crossing, but more on that when we return.
Until next time.
I & D/