After our epic Machu Picchu hike, we took a couple of days off to rest. Callum had gotten a cold and I was just plumb tuckered out. When we recovered, we went on a 4 day tour of the Amazon. This was something we had wanted to do in Brazil, but the Amazon in Peru is just so much cheaper. We visited two specific areas, starting with the Tambopata River for three days and Sandoval Lake for the last day.
After the chilly temperatures of Cusco, we were ready to feel the warmth of the jungle, and it did not disappoint. It was kind of sweltering, and the mosquitos were there in full force. We basically had to bathe in insect repellent in order to survive. The journey to our lodge on the river was quite an adventure. We first flew over the Andes from Cusco to the city of Puerto Maldonado, where we were greeted by our guide and taken to the company office in order to finish off paperwork and pay the remainder of our bill. I took the opportunity to change from my sweat pants (necessary in Cusco) to my lightweight travel pants. We then piled into a 4WD with another couple from France and were on our way for an hour and a half drive to the banks of the river where a boat was waiting for us.
We drove through the mud and it was good fun for a while, until we got stuck. Like really stuck. So stuck that we had to get out of the vehicle and find pieces of wood to try and get the jeep out of the mud. After about half an hour of our sweaty efforts, I asked our guide if there was anything else we could possibly do, and if we should just walk to the boat. My clothes were now filthy and the sweat was fairly unbearable. We abandoned the driver and the jeep and made our way through the sticky mud to the boat. We got to the lodge and were given a late lunch before getting to shower. Sometime while eating, our luggage was delivered to us, which was a good sign: they must have gotten the jeep un-stuck.
The first activity after showers was an afternoon/evening stroll through the jungle to find creepy crawleys. I was very interested in the frogs and that’s about it, making sure to close my eyes whenever a tarantula was discovered. I took pictures of trees and ants and frogs and refused to give the camera to Callum because he wanted to take pictures of spiders. Yuck! It was quite an adventure walking through the jungle in the complete dark except for our headlamps, and at one point I was convinced that our guide Mario was very lost. He even asked himself aloud and in English, “Where is the trail?” I replied nervously “Ha ha, funny. Not something you want your guide to say, ha ha.” We were not lost thankfully and made our way back to our little lodge. By the way, we had no electricity except from 6-9pm which was just enough time to take a warm shower, cool off with the fan afterwards and charge camera batteries ready for the next day. We were pretty tired quite early and didn’t mind going to bed like little babies by 8:30pm.
The second day we rose very early and were in a boat for an hour and a half ride down the river to get to a clay lick. This is where all the colourful birds go to eat salty clay. Unfortunately for us, we were about three or four weeks too early for the high season and only saw a couple of birds from a distance. We reflected that the company seemed to take advantage of tourists and that they really shouldn’t book tours in the off season. We waited and waited from a very safe distance among the tall grass, sitting like statues on our little chairs with another group of tourists who clearly did not care two licks about being there. They were not very quiet and I wanted to strangle all of them because if you want to see wild animals you need two things: 1) patience and 2) to be fricking quiet, dangit. These 20-something year old yuppies were neither. However, despite their stupidity, we did see a number of blue-headed parrots and about six red and yellow macaws as well as a small family of three howler monkeys. We waited for about three hours and finally two of the macaws (one of them red and green, the other red and yellow) began eating the clay. I learned that macaws are very shy and won’t go down to the clay from the treetops until they feel extremely safe, whereas the smaller parrots went easily as a large group to eat.
As we were about to leave our spot (about half an hour after the group of youngens finally left, noisily, I might add) we saw something that is apparently very rare: the howler monkeys were going down to have a taste too. Our guide said he had only seen this a few times before.
In the afternoon we went to a fruit farm to learn about some local fruits and even try tasting a few. It was a good sweaty day and we went to bed that night satisfied despite not seeing a huge amount of birds.
The third day the other tourists (which included a Canadian family of four from Waterloo and the French couple) left to go to the Sandoval Lake while Cal and I had one more day on the river with our guide. We went for a long jungle walk to try and see some animals, but they were all pretty shy and secretive. We did see some more howlers and we even got to hear their low grumbling calls, which was kind of magical in the middle of the hot jungle. As we were walking towards “home” and the end of our walk, we heard the most bizarre sound. The noise was like a group of animals grunting and making noises kind of like the African khoisan clicking languages. They were peccaries, or, wild pigs. We heard them and saw a few of them crossing a path. Immediately, Mario had us back track slowly and we circumnavigated around a large area of the path. I thought we were avoiding the pigs because they were too dangerous or something, but then Mario stopped, got down low and indicated we should do the same. We heard the peccaries in a greater number and watched as they crossed another small path only about 15 meters away from us. They were communicating with their clicks and grunts and were looking for food. I got a cramp in my leg and so stood up, which startled one of them who stared at me with an expression on his face which I can only describe as shock and awe. It was as if this pig was saying to me “What the heck are you?!” He grunted and lifted his snout to smell the air and I’m sure, whatever scent I was giving off. He took a few steps towards me. None of the others noticed. Mario suggested we take a few steps back but I was trying to get a picture and also a video. Eventually, the peccary who noticed me must have signalled danger to the others and they all ran away, squealing and grunting and clicking as they went. It was such an amazing experience seeing wild animals that had never seen humans before. It’s unreal.
Our final day we made the journey back to Puerto Maldonado and the office of the company we went with to drop off most of our bags and repack one small overnight backpack. Off we went on another boat along the Madre de Dios river towards Sandoval Lake. We first had to get out of the boat, walk to another park entrance and then walk along the muddiest trail I’ve ever seen for 3kms which took over an hour. This track was so muddy and difficult to navigate that I quickly lost my patience. We couldn’t just walk in a straight line because the mud was too sticky and deep so we kept zig-zagging along the sides of the path to get to drier mud. It was terrible. My boots kept getting stuck and I nearly fell over several times not to mention the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes, and having to carry a bag. At the end of this 3kms I had lost my sense of humour completely and bought a coca-cola from a small vendor, drinking most of it in one go. I do not normally enjoy soft drinks. My face was like a storm and Mario knew I was not happy.
The next part of the journey was to get into yet another boat but this time it was a paddle boat. I sat in the middle and made the boys do all the work and cheered up immediately. We were in a swampy area and saw a little caiman just hanging out. It looked exactly like a log and as we stared at it for several minutes, my faith in Mario wavered a little. “I am taking pictures of a piece of wood right now” I thought to myself. But then, he moved! It was actually a caiman! Also, I looked at the pictures I had taken and zoomed in close enough to see that indeed, that was an eyeball on a real animal. Callum said he’d never have noticed it as we rowed by. I said “Well, that’s why Mario is the guide and you are not”. He laughed and said that if he were, he’d be pointing out a lot of logs and saying they were caimans. Never lose faith in your local guide.
As we rowed (or relaxed and took pictures in my case) along the banks of Sandoval Lake, trying to spot different types of birds, Mario again proved his worth. He heard the noise of giant lake otters. We did not. He said “Can’t you hear them? They’re that way, about 1.5 kms away. They sound like children.” Nope, couldn’t hear them. He authoritatively guided our boat in that direction, saying that this might be our only chance to see them.
It has been at the top of Cal’s wish list since the beginning of our trip to see these giant otters. We found out later that in this 3km by 2km lake, only 8 otters live, so it’s not a guarantee that you’ll see them. But on we went, Mario stopping only once to confirm the location, declaring that now he could see better and knew where they were. We caught up to them and saw the otters playing, diving, hunting and eating in the water. Wow! They were so cool! We watched through the binoculars and I couldn’t believe how cute and ugly they were at the same time. They are known as the wolfs of the water because they hunt in packs. To our dismay, the otters swam quickly away from us. It soon became clear that they were heading towards the edge of the lake where a large dead tree was floating like an island. We went that way and the otters all got out and confirmed for me that yes, they are giant. We ended up watching as they all shook themselves dry like dogs and scratched their bodies along the rough surface of the tree, trying to get comfortable. How fortunate were we to see these otters, when the rest of our original group told us they hadn’t seen a single one? So lucky. All the sweaty muddy itchy experiences of earlier were forgotten as we marveled at the otters.
While at our second lodge we also saw squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, agoutis, blue and yellow macaws, herons, wild ducks, and a strange bird called a hoatzin but affectionately called the stinkbird. We were pretty lucky with wildlife.
The fifth day was just getting from Lake Sandoval back to Cusco. So we had to go by row boat, traverse the mud trail again, motor boat, car, plane, car. Whew! I don’t think I have ever sweat as much in my life as I did in the Amazon jungle. I was happy to be back in chilly Cusco. At least there are no mosquitoes there at this time of the year.