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“Macaws are a feast to the eyes, but sore to the ears,” explains Edwin, our guide as we wind our way through the lush virgin rainforest. We spot the pair of multicoloured squawkers flying overhead.
We’re in the south-east of Peru’s sprawling Amazon, where it rains 270 out of 365 days a year. I’d been mentally preparing myself to sweat gallons under the brilliant sunshine and drip-fest levels of humidity, but when we arrive at Puerto Maldonado around midday, it’s surprisingly overcast and relatively cool. Despite the “cold weather” (as the locals say), the air is balmy and it has me reminiscing about Far North Queensland – the air seems saltier, too.
Compared to the bustling tourist hubs of the Andes, the Amazon is delightfully quiet – perhaps due to its remoteness, or perhaps because of the diversity of exotic (read: frightening) wildlife one might encounter here. By “remote”, I mean a 30-minute flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, followed by a three-hour journey by van (23 kilometres) and then boat (45 kilometres) to reach the eco-lodge nestled among the Tambopata National Reserve. I count off cacao, papaya and mango trees growing among small farms and eyeball a few monkeys as we shudder along in the van. As we speed along the Tambopata River in a fibreglass motorised canoe (better for the environment than cutting down 30-year-old trees), we spot capybara (like a giant guinea pig), taricaya (yellow-spotted side-necked turtles) and a baby white caiman.
The Amazon makes up nearly 60 per cent of Peru’s landscape. A full 44 of the country’s remaining 48 native languages are spoken here. But the basin was once much richer, with around 2000 different nations calling it home. About 65 indigenous groups remain today, including an assumed 15 uncontacted tribes somewhere in the north-west. Most of the lodge’s staff were born in this very area, so they know its rich flora and fauna intimately. They teach us that pumas and jaguars are intrinsically curious about people, but don’t generally pose a threat; and while our guides wouldn’t actively go swimming in known caiman territory, these relatively small crocodilians (the four-metre-long black caiman excluded) are generally scared of humans. A rotund capybara, though, is not off the menu.
Our residence for the next two nights is The G Lodge (Tambopata Ecolodge), which has been operating since 1991. It’s been doing wilderness bungalows long before we all caught log-cabin fever, so it has the recipe down pat. The bungalows are made from local natural materials, with traditional roofing woven from the fishtail palm, which is sturdy enough to last five to six years before it’s replaced. Simple fly netting prevents bugs from entering the rooms, while still ensuring guests get the respite of the cool night breeze. There’s no electricity, but hot showers are powered by solar and candles provide all the lighting one could need. “Some call it romantic,” Edwin says. “Some call it rustic.” There’s a hammock on the deck for enjoying a quiet moment of solitude or groups can come together to relax among cane furniture in the lodge’s communal lounge, with a Cusqueña beer from the well-stocked bar.
Around 25 kilometres of signposted trails zigzag the lodge property and its conservation zones, and our first foray into this habitat is a guided night walk. Pant legs tucked into socks and flashlights in hand, we venture into the darkness to spot nocturnal jungle life. “This is not a zoo,” Edwin warns, preparing us for the uncontrolled environment. Our first stop is a small burrow just outside my sleeping quarters where we watch a mother tarantula leave her nest.
We continue along the trail to uncover intriguing insects, while bats fly close to our heads. Back in my bungalow, I fall asleep to the delightful collective song of cicadas, crickets, birds and frogs, only to be woken a few hours later by male Howler monkeys filling the air with a call that sounds like haunted wind.
The next day, we walk. It starts off cool yet relatively muggy thanks to the lingering cloud cover. But soon the sky is blue, the sun radiant, and we’re sweltering among the fat tropical flora. We're lucky to be gifted this sunny weather – two days previous a characteristic downpour had turned this jungle trail into a sloshy pigsty. “We only have the rainy season and the very rainy season,” Edwin says. “And the temperature only varies two degrees from dry to wet season, so the trees never stop growing. Life in the Amazon never stops.”
Evidence of this continuous growth is present in the towering 150-year-old strangler figs, 400-year-old ironwoods and the curious and thorny walking palms that we pause to admire. Edwin uses his machete to cut us a clear route off-trail to reach a handful of playful saddleback-tamarin monkeys swinging from branch to branch. We have monkeys to thank for the wild cacao trees we discover – they eat the sweet flesh of the cacao pod, swallowing the seeds and “dispersing” them throughout the jungle. Edwin also points out various plants used for medicinal remedies and botanical dyeing along the trail.
Reaching Lake Condenado, we jump aboard a “party pontoon” to cross the freshwater body teeming with piranha, caiman, turtles, anaconda, electric eels, sardines and freshwater stingray, while hoatzin (known as the “strangest bird in the Amazon”) fly about the jungle’s edge. Apparently, piranhas have a soft spot for soda crackers.
On the return route back through the rainforest, the sound of a single “crunch” in the distance (like a knock on a wooden door) alerts Edwin to a herd of wild hogs, known as huangana or white-lipped peccary. We try to approach for a sightline quietly, but our scuffling among the leaf litter results in the large pack running in the opposite direction.
Back at the lodge, we tuck into lima-bean soup, fried yuca, fresh avocado and tomato, and caufa (a Chinese-Peruvian medley of rice and stir-fried vegetables), which we top with a hot sauce made from cocona (a yellow fruit related to the tomato and eggplant) and ojito de pescado (spicy native fish eye peppers). Each meal is also accompanied by fresh juices like carambola (starfruit) or granadilla (similar to a passionfruit). Fruit trees dot the property and the kitchen team sources as much produce as it can from a local farmer. What isn’t sourced locally still comes from within Peru – nothing is imported.
While we’re devouring slices of drunken pineapple (soaked in Pisco, of course), Edwin explains the bird we can hear with song sounds like a “wolf whistle” is a screaming piha, while the “water droplet” call comes from an oropendola. The latter weaves elongated teardrop-shaped nests and these fascinating structures can be seen hanging from trees around the reserve. Afterwards, we crack into the shell of a Brazil nut (yes, they’re grown in Peru and Bolivia, too) with a machete and taste the fresh interior, which is far more delicious than any Brazil nut I’ve eaten back home. A South Amazon red squirrel and small team of brown agouti rodents come to see if we’ve dropped any scraps.
For our last night in the jungle, we take a boat out to spot the nocturnal caiman. With all the lights switched off, we careen along the river in total darkness. Our driver must have some form of night-vision superpower as I am utterly amazed we don’t collide with half-submerged rocks or forget to take a bend in the river.
One of the guides (seemingly also with superpowers) swiftly traces the riverbanks with a torch, left to right, left to right, and my neck aches slightly from trying to keep up with his speed. He has an uncanny ability to spot even the tiniest baby caiman way over in distant muddy banks. After the excitement of getting quite close to caimans of various sizes, we pause for a meditation in the middle of the river, resting our heads on the boat’s edge and tilting our gaze up to the myriad stars. The river’s current pulls us along, and we indulge in the Amazon’s spirited soundtrack once more.
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