Coordinates: 12°36’00”S 69°11’00”O
When I was barely an adolescent, I got a hold of an issue from the National Geographic magazine, a gift that I treasured for many years. One of the articles presented a group of scientists that accomplished one of the first modern expeditions to the Peruvian Amazon forest. The images captured by these explorers got stuck in my mind and at that moment, the wish to someday travel to those corners of the world was born.
More than thirty years later, the idea of seeing up close those trees, animals, rivers, and birds, captured by the National Geographic explorers using a Leica Camera, became a reality. Nature tourism has gathered momentum and the development of eco lodges has proliferated incredibly. This activity is considered one of the pillars of the economy in countries whose natural resources are vast and diverse. Although technology has greatly advanced, traveling to these corners of the world is still a challenge and requires good planning.
From Cusco to Puerto Maldonado
Our voyage was organized so that we stayed three days in one of the reserves of the Peruvian Amazon forest, whose distance did not require monumental efforts of transportation. Nevertheless, our adventure to this place required a few hours of traveling by plane, canoe, and foot to reach our destination.
The trip began in Cusco, where we took a LAN Peru commercial plane. A little over an hour, we arrived at Puerto Maldonado. Both the change in climate and vegetation around the airport was impressive. When the transport touched land, the typical rainfall of the world’s biggest forest welcomed us, as well as the exuberant forest area. The cold and dry climate of Cusco was left behind and the humidity of the jungle filled the air and our lungs… it felt good and necessary.
Our transportation guides took us to the company’s building to receive safety instructions and the details of the trip.
Your boots won’t work…
Soon after we settled in, they explained to us that several men would be in charge of taking our belongings and that we should only carry on our backpacks the essential items. The guides clarified that the route to get to the eco lodge required an additional boat ride and a four-kilometer hike in the jungle. The best part was when he told us:
–Your boots won’t work for this trip. We recommend you use these rubber boots because the trail is difficult and muddy.
At that moment, I remembered that the National Geographic article mentioned that the explorers had to mend their boots, as the trail was tough. I asked myself what this place, which now attracted my attention even more, would offer us after the explorers’ statements.
Mother of God
We then parted to the Madre de Dios River, which is one of the tributaries of the majestic Amazon River. That immense liquid arm patiently transported billions of gallons of water, even under a persistent rainfall that would easily overflow any river in our Caribbean island. After getting close to the bank, our guide pointed at that large canoe with a wooden roof, plastic curtains, and engine, which would be our transportation for eleven kilometers upstream. Even though I was doubtful about the security of this boat, they gave us personal flotation devices. They also gave us food, a Peruvian fried rice dish (arroz chaufa) and juice, before starting the trip through that vast river. On the boat, there were several gasoline containers. Various family members also accompanied us; I asked myself where could they be going. Directed to the west, the canoe left the shore towards our destination and lodging for three days, the Sandoval Eco Lodge.
The downpour almost stopped near the next port. When the enormous canoe docked at the port, I understood why we had to change our boots. The people that accompanied us on the trip were the wife and children of the forest ranger, who lived in that area of the reserve. The gasoline tanks were needed for the inn’s generators.
For hundreds of meters, we could see thousands of leafcutter ants carrying leaf fragments back to their nests to feed their offspring. The trees visited by these ants had a unique aspect caused by the pruning of these natural gardeners.
As we progressed along the sinuous trail, a bulge at the top of a species of yagrumo tree caught our attention. After looking closely, we realized it was a sloth. Unafraid of our presence, he peacefully continued attached to a branch. After defeating the mud, we reached a wooden dock where another canoe awaited us. This time, due to restrictions from the Peruvian government to ensure the area’s conservation, the boat did not have an engine. Once we got out of the narrow canal, the rowboat got deep into the Sandoval Lake waters. After a long time, we noticed a silhouette that followed us closely… in just a few minutes a black caiman of almost three meters long came up close. The guide assured us that although it comes near the boats, it isn’t considered dangerous. His statement didn’t calm me down… but we continued rowing up to our camp.
Tarantulas, Scorpions, and Spiders
Once we arrived at the Sandoval Eco Lodge, they gave us the necessary instructions to avoid an unwanted encounter with some of the area’s dwellers. Some of the safety measures were to place the boots upside down at night and check them next morning to make sure no spider or scorpion got in. At night, we also had to tie the mosquito net that hanged from the ceiling with the mattress to avoid contact with the insects. They also explained to us the details regarding the use of electricity and hot water, which depend on a generator that is only turned on twice a day.
After we settled into our room, we took some time to get to know the life of this place and its surroundings. I immediately perceived how welcoming the biological richness of the Amazon is. In the same entrance to the reception area, there was a stingless beehive. The green color of the enormous palm trees along the edge of the lake was stunning. There I learned that this body of water was part of the course of the Madre de Dios River, which closed and formed this spectacular natural resource full of life.
Hike through the Forest
The hike with our guide, a young, educated biologist and an expert of the resources of this area, was very pleasant. Our surroundings were literally a natural zoo without fences or protecting walls. While we walked, we observed some enormous bullet ants that were on the trunk of a tree; it was a powerful reminder of where we were. The bite of this insect, which is more than an inch long, is similar to having a cigarette burn on your skin for twenty-four hours. We then saw a much smaller ant that seemed harmless. The guide mentioned that the bite of ten of these insects could cause a fever, so he recommended not touching the trees.
We’re in the Amazon!
That night, after eating for dinner local catch and fruit juice, we went to rest. We remembered to keep our boots upside down in our rooms and verify the beds before going to bed, as tarantulas are very common in this part of the world. Before the generator was turned off, I was able to take pictures of the insects that got close to the lights. One of the wonders I was able to observe was a six-inch long gecko. I didn’t think they could grow that much, but then again, we’re in the Amazon. The sounds of the jungle lulled us to sleep all night.
Goliath Bird-Eater Tarantulas
The next two days were unique, as we had the opportunity to do a hike at night, a trip in a double canoe, and one last hike at the other side of the lake. During the tour, I was able to appreciate one of various Goliath bird-eater tarantulas, whose size can reach up to nine inches in diameter. We also saw the cylindrical nests that cicadas make during their mating season. That night, we also managed to photograph some beautiful European tree frogs. Mother nature gave us two days with clear skies that allowed us to see the stars like never before; it was spectacular. On our last day, we went on an excursion to find anacondas, but they turned out to be very evasive. During that journey, we were able to see enormous Brazil nut trees and figs that were hundreds of feet high. I also had the opportunity to see several mammals, such as spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, agoutis, the running ocelot, and a family of river otters that reside on the lake. The birds and their coloring were impressive. The extravagant hoatzin with traces of bright orange, the Ara macaws with blue feathers and flocks of green parrots at the distance. No one prepared us for the beauty of the Morphos butterfly, which is not only huge, but also has a dazzling metallic blue color.
Dream Come True
After returning from this trip, I felt that I accomplished one of the dreams of my youth after reading that National Geographic article. I felt hopeful after seeing how the government and civilians are efficiently managing human activities in that area to preserve the health of this environment. However, thousands of kilometers away from that area, the forest is disappearing at a dramatic rate.
This trip to Madre de Dios served various purposed in my life as a husband, father, owner of an environmental business, and human being. Environmental conservation has many great obstacles that shouldn’t be dealt by others but by ourselves. My experience in the Peruvian Amazon was unique and lifelong, and thanks to it, I have a greater appreciation for Latin America and its natural surroundings. From my list of dreams… this one was fulfilled.
Conscious Travel Practices:
1. Show respect to nature and every living thing.
2. Acknowledge the greatness and ecological value of the Amazonian Forest.
3. Connect with the energy of the environment.
4. Promote the economy in the local lodging.