An Amazon adventure

I started my career straight out of university as a communications assistant for World Wildlife Fund in Washington, DC. Bottom of the totem pole in the department when I started, I ended up working for the organisation for five years and when I left, was the Communications Manager for WWF-Australia. Working for a global conservation organisation like WWF fostered and focused my love of wild places and belief that these areas, wherever they occur around the world, should be protected for future generations.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Amazon rainforest but until this week, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit. Although our trip has been a tiny taste of this magnificent place, it has fed my desire to spend more time here. It truly is spectacular.

Arriving in Puerto Moldanado from Cusco was a bit of shock. Suddenly jeans, fleeces, long underwear and parkas were relegated to the bottom of the backpack. It was 38C. And humid.

On arrival we were met by the Rainforest Expedition bus which delivered us to the office, 10 minutes down the road. Like for the Lares Trek, we were asked to repack our bags and only take our bare necessities with us into the jungle. Parkas, et al could remain at the office in their storage. We were given 5 minutes to re-pack. As Zoë said, ‘that’s a panic pack.’ So panic pack we did. Which means we forgot some things and brought others that we didn’t need. But oh, well. It’s all a learning experience.

From the office, our bus drove a very bumpy, dusty road for an hour to the port on the Rio Tambopata. We boarded the boat about 2pm and it was a 3.5 to 4 hour journey up the river to our first night’s lodging. We were given lunch on the boat: a vegetarian rice dish, cooked and served wrapped in plantain leaves. It was delicious.

Along the way we saw capybara, the Amazon’s largest rodents. Cute enough, if you like overgrown guinea pigs. They graze on the grass beside the river and we watched as a heavily pregnant female walked down into the water and submerged herself.

We also saw a number of birds like herons and egrets.

On arrival at Refugio Amazonas, we were greeted with cool towels and a welcome juice before the manager briefed us on the lodge and our activities. Since it was already 6pm, we opted to miss the evening lecture and relax before dinner at 7.15. Dinner was delicious and they catered for my gluten free needs easily.

Rooms at the Refugio Amazonas were lovely. We had three single beds in our room and while we ate dinner, the staff came in and readied our mosquito nets over the beds for us. The bathroom was large and there was hot water for showers. All of the rooms have three walls (although they don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, so you can hear everything next door – and I mean everything!). There is no outside wall to the room; it’s open to the jungle.

We kept our lights off as much as possible to avoid attracting insects into our room and used our headlamps if we needed light. Electricity is provided at the lodge three times a day. There is wifi, but it’s patchy.

The two girls in the room next to ours left their light on while they went to dinner and their room was full of bugs when they went to bed. Zoë and I went to sleep laughing our heads off at their antics to remove the bugs from their room. They were ridiculous and provided a great evening’s entertainment for the two of us.

We were up at 5am on Saturday morning to meet our guide, Pedro, and follow him to the viewing tower. At 33m (97ft) in the air, it was a test of my vertigo to see if I could make it to the top. After the Lares Trek, I figured I could do anything so I just kept looking out, rather than down, and took it step by step. I made it to the top and was rewarded with a view of sunrise over the canopy of the rainforest. It was stunning. We saw a number of birds, including a couple of different types of toucan and Weaver birds. On our walk back to the lodge for breakfast Pedro showed us Titi monkeys and capuchin monkeys. I was starting to think the Universe had given us a fantastic guide. Once we started joking around with him, it wasn’t a matter of thinking it; we knew it.

Breakfast was at 7.15 and by 8 we boarded our next boat to head another four hours up the river to the Tambopata Research Centre. There were eight of us on board as passengers, one guide (Pedro), one navigator for the boat (necessary as the river is quite low at the moment and we didn’t want to run aground) and the skipper Jesus. There were a couple of points where the front four passengers and Pedro had to move right to the front of the boat to get us over the shallow bits. We quickly worked out that the eight of us were going to be a group over the next few days so we spent a bit of time getting to know each other. Besides Zoë and me, there were Hans and Helmie (a Dutch couple who now live in Houston), Jim from Houston (his wife is teaching this week in Lima so he’s come here) and Dan, Sam and Josh (a dad, 20 year old and 18 year old from Seattle). It’s been great to have Sam and Josh in our group. They get on very well with Zoë, have both done the IB for high school, have traveled all over the world with their dad (their first trip was Sierra Leone when they were 10 and 12) and are very interested in wildlife and being here. The whole group is very easy and we’ve become good friends over a short time.

The Refugio Amazonas is located in a buffer zone along the river where economic activity is allowed. Eco-tourism, farming, Brazil nut harvesting, mining all take place in this area. About an hour up the river from the Refugio Amazonas, we reached the National Park on one side of the river (where absolutely no human economic activities are allowed) and the National Reserve on the other. We knew when we had reached this point because the water colour changed — less muddy, more green blue. Within the national reserve, Tambopata is the only lodge. It was built as a macaw research centre in 1989 before the reserve was declared and was allowed to continue to operate with strict conditions afterwards.

Once we entered the national reserve area, it took another hour to reach a Control point and then another half an hour to a clay lick. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many macaws at that clay lick so we climbed back into the boat and made our way for another hour and a half to our final destination: Tambopata Research Centre (TRC).

Brian, the manager of TRC, met us on arrival with cold drinks and gave us our briefing. Then it was time for lunch. More amazing food. Even more amazing, considering how everything here has to come in by boat up the river. Just as we finished lunch, we were joined by two hand-raised scarlet macaws who flew in just to steal some bread. Zoë almost ended up with a metre-long bird sitting on her head!

After lunch, siestas in the hammock area was the order of the day as we waited for the temperature to cool at least a bit.

We met up with Pedro again at 3.30 to walk through the rainforest. Almost immediately we came to a huge ironwood tree that macaws use for nesting. Ironwood trees only grow 3mm around each year, so they are super slow growing. Unfortunately, outside the parks and reserves, they are cut to turn into charcoal or parquet flooring. Inside the reserve, they are home not only to macaws, but to harpy eagles high up in the branches, and are important habitats for bats too.

We walked a bit further and found a family of red howler monkeys. Howler monkeys are the second loudest animal on the planet (behind lions). The males make a deep call that can be heard throughout the forest. The group we found were hanging out and weren’t that interested in vocalising for us. (Each morning, the red howler monkeys start howling around 5am. It’s a spooky sound to wake up to and yet, strangely wonderful at the same time.)

Pedro showed us a number of plants used in medicines. He also showed us Walking Palms, trees that walk. These palms start growing in one place and if they can’t get enough sunlight through the canopy, will start to grow new roots in a different direction and literally move the whole tree toward the sun. They can move a metre or two over a couple of years. Once they reach the canopy, they send down more roots to make themselves stable.

We finished our walk at a beautiful overlook over the Rio Tambapata. From this point, the water will flow downstream, joining three other waterways, changing it’s name each time before becoming the Amazon. Then 4000kms from here, it will reach the ocean.

Back to the lodge for a relax before dinner. After dinner, Dan, Sam, Josh and I went out with Pedro for a night walk to find night critters. Zoë was too squeamish so she opted to stay back at the lodge, have a shower and talk with Hans and Helmie.

The night walk was fantastic. We found a new type of caterpillar that even had Pedro stumped. He sent photos of it to his entomologist friend to see if he could identify it. But if not, maybe we found a new species! Then we played with a mother tarantula for a while. That was fun. Female tarantulas live up to 18 years, much longer than males. Especially since females kill males after copulation. We found a number of toads and frogs and watched leaf cutter ants make short shrift of a plant. Pedro had us turn our headlamps off at one point and after our eyes adjusted, asked us what we could see. All of us spotted fireflies (which made me homesick for Michigan summers as a kid) and the bioluminescence of click beetles. We played with the click beetles for a while which was also a bit of fun. We spotted a number of hunting spiders and decoy spiders and just before we returned to the lodge found a Wandering Spider that is 18 times more potent than a Black Widow and there is no antidote. All in all, a great creepy crawly hour.

Rooms at TRC are designed similarly to those at Refugio Amazonas, but TRC is older, more established and smaller. Where Refugio can have around 80 guests at any time, TRC is limited to 40. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere and one that both Zoë and I enjoy much more. The Centre isn’t full this week. In fact, for much of our time here there’s only been our group of 8 and another group of 8. The staff are fantastic and friendly. The manager, Brian, ensures every meal that I get something special made just for me — despite the fact that almost everything on the buffet is gluten free. Sunday morning, the chef made me empanadas exclusively! I felt very spoiled. Also, I’ve become known as the lady who eats chilies. There are four special condiments made here and my favourite is the hottest. It contains tiny chilies that the locals call ‘tiny eyes of fish’. Pedro was shocked that this was my favourite. He won’t even touch the stuff as it’s too hot for him. I just pour it on everything – from eggs to breakfast to roast pork for Sunday lunch. It is amazing!

Another 4.30am alarm and on the trail by 5am on Sunday morning. We took a boat over to a nearby island, where we walked 10 minutes to a great viewing point for the Colorado Clay Lick. Macaws and other parrots here (as well as a few mammals) need to eat clay to help neutralise the toxins in some of the fruit they eat. Just after dawn, the macaws come to the clay lick. It seems as much a social occasion as much as anything. And hundreds of macaws and parrots are loud. Blue and yellow macaws are almost extinct in the wild sadly, but here at Tambopata, the population is healthy. It made my heart sing to see these majestic birds soar above me in the morning sunshine. There are three main species of macaw at TRC: Scarlet, Red and Green and the Blue and Yellow macaw.

Some toucans also showed up while we watched the macaws. We had coffee by the clay lick but returned to the lodge for breakfast. On our way back to the lodge, I spotted a dwarf caiman sticking it’s nose out of the water. Pedro had the boat turn around so everyone could see it. It was small (less than a metre in length) and a bit scared of the boat.

After breakfast we followed Pedro on a bamboo walk. The lodge has a number of set activities to choose from and over dinner the night before we, as a group, had decided it really didn’t matter what we chose, as long as we had Pedro as our guide. No matter what walk or trip we were on, he would go out of his way to find wildlife for us to see. He carried a powerful scope with him and whenever we found something interesting, he would quickly set up the scope and then ask for my iphone. He helped me take some amazing photos of wildlife close up. The others quickly caught on and handed over their phones to him too, but he kept asking for my iphone 8+ as he was amazed by the camera clarity and sharpness.

We walked through rainforest to get to the bamboo forest. On the way, Pedro stopped at a Sacha Bufeo plant (also known locally as the Follow me, follow me plant) and explained that it was used by medicine men to make love potions. The medicine man crushes the leaves and makes a juice which is mixed into a potion. The person puts a few drops of the potion on their hand and then touches the person they want to fall in love with them, then they go away and three days later that person will fall in love with them. Pedro said he’d seen it work a few times. He took a chance that none of us would fall in love with him and crushed one of the leaves for us to smell. It had a lovely, spicy aroma.

A few minutes later we heard a crash in the trees above. Pedro took off in a rush and told us to be very quiet. We followed along and were rewarded with a view of a large group of black spider monkeys. These monkeys are only found in the protected area because outside of the reserve, they are eaten. They are the largest monkey in South America. They eat leaves, flowers and fruit. They usually travel around in groups of 15-20 monkeys at a time and can travel through the trees very quickly. Pedro said we were very lucky to find them resting because when they feel threatened by jaguar or a harpy eagle, they make an alarm noise and move fast. It was their alarm that Pedro heard first which is why he knew they were there. They have one baby every two or three years and the baby stays with its’ mum for 18 months. We were very lucky to get to watch a gorgeous baby girl and her mum. What struck me was that the mum would half throw the baby up in the air and catch her, much to the baby’s delight, and just like I used to do with Zoë when she was a baby.

Mesmerised by the monkey family, we hated to move on. But we had to. We continued through the bamboo forest, watching various wildlife, eventually coming out to a series of three overlooks. Below us on the river bank was a large family of capybara. With the rising temperature, the adults in the group had found shade and were eating and resting. The two youngest (Pedro tells me they are called capybarita, but I’m not sure I believe him or whether he was joking) ran around the group, creating havoc, and made all of us smile. Much like small human children, they had more energy in the heat than the adults.

Like the adult capybara, we were fading in the heat. We retreated to the lodge for lunch. Brian met me with a huge smile as I walked through the dining room. At breakfast, I asked him if there was a chance I could either get the recipe for the ‘little fish eye’ salsa or meet the chef and learn how to make the salsa directly from him. Brian laughed, as I really was the only guest eating this stuff and I had already eaten more than a litre of it. They were definitely going to have to make more to keep me supplied! So, now Brian was happy to report that the chef had invited me to his kitchen at 6.30 that evening, before dinner, to make a new batch. Zoë and Helmie both asked to come too.

Lunch was roast pork, rice, soup, an eggplant frittata, more empanadas for me, three types of salad plus dessert. We all needed a siesta after the huge meal. I tried to sleep in our room, under the mosquito net, but it was just too hot. I gave up and went out to the lobby (which really felt like a huge living room) and laid there on a sofa. I wasn’t the only one. Zoë, Sam and Josh had all been playing cards there but were now crashed out on sofas. Other guests had found their own areas too.

At 3.30 we went on a jaguar search. This involved taking a boat out on the river and cruising around, looking for wildlife. We all voted that it would be be coolest place to hang out for the afternoon and Dan and Hans organised an esky (cooler) from the bar and stocked it with beer and wine just for our little party. The bartender thought this was hilarious and loved it. He said no other guests had thought of doing such a thing before. I couldn’t believe it! Our jaguar search became a jungle party boat.

Not much wildlife was spotted, other than the sandflies that attacked. My feet were bleeding by the time they had finished their feast and I was covered in both DEET and citronella! But the wine made the experience a bit more pleasurable. At least we were all laughing and having fun. We raced a capybara who swam next to the boat for a kilometre. We cheered him on, making up stories about how he was in training for the capybara Olympics. And that was BEFORE we had drinks!

We turned for home and our cooking lesson. But the boat ran aground on some rapids which provided some entertainment for our group. Pedro and Mariono (another guide) pushed the boat off the rocks after a bit of struggle and after telling us that we would have to get out of the boat and walk back to the lodge. Zoë (who has seen too many episodes of Giant River Monsters) wasn’t impressed.

Back at the lodge safe and sound, there was just time to drop our daypacks before Zoë, Helmie and I were due in the kitchen. Brian escorted us into the kitchen and gave us hairnets. The health & safety requirement of closed toed shoes didn’t apply. I was in thongs.

The chef showed us all of the ingredients: white vinegar, red onion, white tomatoes, black peppercorns, salt, ginger, sweet baby red capsicums (peppers), and of course, the ‘little fish eye’ chilies. He prepared the salsa in front of us, explaining in Spanish as he went. Brian translated. I wrote down the recipe on my phone and took photos. The rest of the kitchen staff were bemused. Three were busy finishing off dinner to be served at 7.15pm and one was busy whipping cream to decorate a two layer birthday cake for one of the guests. I was fascinated by the kitchen and took some photos while I was there. We were very impressed by the pantry with it’s extremely fine mesh screen for keeping insects and other critters out.

I’m happy to report that I have the recipe now and am going to try to recreate it at home, despite the fact I have no idea where I will get ‘little fish eye’ chilies.

Dinner was another delicious affair where we all ate too much. Then it was time for Zoë and me to say goodbye to Pedro. The rest of the group were staying on for a few more days (and all had been trying to get us to change our flights and stay too), but we have to go home. We still had a few colouring books, textas, crayons, hair ties and hair clips that we had brought to give to kids on the Lares Trek, but then we didn’t see that many children. Pedro told me he would distribute them amongst the kids in his village and they would be so grateful. We were grateful to find a good home for them and not have to take them back to Australia.

After dinner, one of the macaw researchers gave a talk about their research. Then our group had one last drink before we all said goodbye. It was very sad and neither Zoë or I wanted to leave. We went back to our room to pack as our bags had to be left in the corridor before we went to bed for housekeeping to take down to the boat. We were left with just our daypacks for our 5am boat ride back to civilisation the next morning.

I laid in bed, under my mosquito net, looking out at the stars. I can’t believe our time in Peru is coming to an end. I really don’t want to leave, we’ve met some amazing people, seen some incredible sights and laughed our way through the last 16 days. And yet, it’s time to start heading home. It’s a long way from the research centre in the Peruvian jungle, back down the river to Puerto Maldonado, then a plane to Cusco, another plane to Lima, 28 hours or so in Lima, a plane to Santiago, 7 hours in Santiago, then a plane to Sydney and another to Canberra.

As I lay there thinking about our experience, I thought of my friend Sue who used to live in Peru, had undertaken research at Tambopata and had suggested TRC to Zoë and me. Sue and I used to work together at WWF and shared a house together all those many years ago in Washington, DC. Somehow, despite both of us moving around the world a number of times, we are still in touch, still visit each other (she was in Canberra in November last year and I was in Washington to see her in December) and talk on the phone a few times a year. I’m grateful for her friendship and grateful that she recommended TRC to me. It’s been a wonderful experience to end our Peruvian adventure.

2 thoughts on “An Amazon adventure

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  1. Lisa my love I am adoring your writing and walking every step with you – and tasting every dish. I have birdseye chillies but now must try little fish eyes. xxx

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    1. Oh Vickie, I’m so glad you are walking with me and tasting every dish. Today I have done a gourmet tour of Lima. It will be the next post, probably written as I fly to Santiago this evening! If I can find little fish eyes, I will make you some of my special salsa! Xx

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