Luis, Our Peerless Amazonian Guide (Tambopata National Reserve, Peru)

I’ve had my share of good guides, even great ones, whenever I go traveling. Guides are indispensable for finding out more about places than is described in a guidebook. It’s true that many seem like they’ve memorized a script and there is no spontaneity nor drawing from knowledge that only comes from vast experience. The good ones leave you with some satisfaction that you decided to use their services. The great ones make you feel blessed for having the fortune of getting them.

Luis is one of the great ones. I had no idea that a guide was going to be assigned to my wife and me at Posada Amazonas, an ecolodge in the Amazon Basin next to the Tambopata River. I knew in advance what activities lay in store for us, so I assumed we were just going to be part of a group. We (and other guests) were met by Luis at the airport in Puerto Maldonado. On the bus ride to the boat launch, he immediately began his orientation. Nothing remarkable, I thought, just doing his job. Then, on the 45-minute boat ride upriver to the lodge, he began pointing out wildlife along the shore. This was a glimpse of what was to follow. All the activities we were to do in the following three days were with Luis. During the shoulder season in September, only one couple from Switzerland was part of our group. He was almost a personal guide.

First a little background. Luis was born in Infierno, the community of 200 or so families on whose land the lodge (and a few others) operates. He grew up as a hunter and later joined the lodge staff, doing odd jobs, including helping to build the lodge, for years until he decided he wanted to be a guide. He has now been one for ten years.

Luis relies on visual cues to find hidden animals. On one of our hikes, he flushed out a giant tarantula from its nest. The technique involves twirling a dried blade of grass in such a way that the spider thinks it’s prey. One false move and the tarantula retreats. During a night walk to look for insects, he knew exactly how to look to find frogs hiding underneath forest litter.

Luis’ visual acuity is without parallel. Underneath lake grasses during a catamaran trip, he saw a juvenile black cayman’s eye from what must have been 50 yards away. It wasn’t until his passengers got much closer that they saw the same thing, even then after much coaching. Spotting birds and monkeys in trees or a family of otters off in the distance were no challenge for Luis. One got the feeling that the slightest quiver of leaves didn’t escape Luis’ detection.

He is also a master of identification, whether the subject be plant or animal, often using the scientific names for them.

Many years ago, his was a hunter’s life, on the very soil we were visiting, so these accomplishments may not seem such a surprise to anyone who has known good hunters. For me, Luis’ most incredible ability was to use his acute hearing to sense the nearness of animals when they made no discernible sound, at least to our ears. As if some internal radar were activated, he would stop in his tracks, turn his head first left then right (or vice versa), look high up into the forest canopy and spot a monkey or toucan or porcupine. He would literally have to position us in certain spots for us to see the same thing.

Most of all, Luis took care of us. Guides feel a particular responsibility for their clients, and Luis was no different. He saw to our every need. He was with us for most of time, even eating at our table for all meals. He became our teacher. Invested with a sense of humor and quick with a smile, he also became a good friend.

On our final outing, Luis showed us how to fashion a blowgun from forest material: bijao leaf, a spine from a kind of palm and cotton-like fibers from the ceiba tree. Then, he instructed us on how to blow it. With venom from a poison dart frog, it would be a lethal weapon. But, this was all for entertainment, just as posing with a headband made from palm leaves and a bow-and-arrow when we asked him to join us in group photos. Once a hunter, he is now a steward. Luis wants to protect the land that sustained him, encouraging his charges to invite friends so that ecotourism will be a viable alternative to cutting down forests for profit.

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