When I told relatives and friends that my wife and I were going to Peru, their first thought naturally enough was Machu Picchu. I would have assumed the same. But when I said that we were also going to the Amazon rainforest, some were surprised, others were intrigued, and a few wondered why. Aren’t there wild animals, bugs, snakes, poisonous frogs, piranhas—and mosquitoes? Unbearably hot and muggy? Yes to all that.
But, the Amazon is the most biodiverse rainforest in the world. Ten percent of all plants and animals, in some cases 20 percent, live there. Observing life in their habitat would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A safari. Who would want to pass on that? Simply the idea of it got me pretty excited.
To make life more comfortable, Crooked Trails and One Earth Peru, our travel organizers, arranged to have my wife and me stay at Posada Amazonas, an ecolodge on the Tambopata River. The lodge is a cooperative project between the Infierno community and Rainforest Expeditions, a Lima company, to promote ecotourism and provide additional source of income for the community. More on that later.
The flight from Cusco to Puerto Moldonado, the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, was somewhat of a surprise for a short jaunt from one of the highest places in Peru at 11,000ft to one of the lowest at 600ft. It was no more than a half hour into the flight that I could see the vast rainforest for as far as the eye could see. The Tambopata River came into view, choked with muddy, rusty water that prior rains produced. To my shock and dismay, there were pockets of smoke from fires that got me shaking my head at the thought of yet more clearing of land for cattle grazing, but later learned that controlled burning was a way for farmers to enrich the poor rainforest soil with ash nutrients.
The tropical heat and humidity hit me like a wave as I stepped off the plane. Puerto Maldonado is a little under 900 miles south of the equator. Lodge guests were met at the airport by a guide and boarded on a bus to transport them to the boat launch on the river. Rumbling down the road, the bus kicked up heaps of dirt. Years of vehicle traffic covered the plants and trees alongside the road with reddish dust that disturbed the image of unspoiled, lush tropics.
But, after I boarded the boat, heading upriver to the lodge, I began to get a feeling for the Amazon Basin. The Tambopata was wide and murky. The forest was growing right up to river’s edge. Sounds of animals echoed from the canopy. Parrots streaked across the sky.
The trek up to the lodge was an introduction to what to expect on all the hikes. Despite the high and dense forest canopy, there was still a soft glow overhead, with occasional shafts of light penetrating to the forest floor. There was an oppressive humidity in the air, dampening our clothing and lungs, and the sounds of birds, insects and monkeys. Later, I got a glimpse of the canopy from above. I made a vertigo-inducing climb to the top of a 90-foot (30m) metallic tower from where I got an awe-inspiring view of the forest’s crown, the Tambopata River, and an occasional monkey at eye level. I climbed back down after a beautiful, cloudless sunset.
A truth I learned is that wild animal spotting is impossible without a guide. A creature doesn’t reveal itself easily to humans. You have to know what to look for and how. In an ecosystem as rich and diverse as Amazonas, you might think that seeing a monkey or tarantula would be easy, but you’d be wrong. Without our guide Luis, ninety percent of the animals I saw would simply have been heresay. Included are white cayman, black cayman, red howler monkey, brown capuchin monkey, capybara, giant river otter, hoatzin, neotropic cormorant, capped heron, ringed kingfisher, anhinga, red-capped cardinal, amarynthis meneria, and more. Luis had to point out almost everything to us, our ability to see dependent on whether we were looking where he was.
Forest sounds are another matter. They are everywhere. Rarely is it quiet. Squawks, trills, shrieks, hoots, buzzing, chirps. Strange that I didn’t hear the racket of night creatures since every room at Posada Amazonas has one side open to the jungle. In Puerto Rico and St. John Island, the din was almost deafening. The most baffling sound had to be what seemed like the far-off roar of wind but was the bellowing of howler monkeys. I am really fond of these natural sounds.
Ethnobotanical Garden, or Nature Cures
A visit to a botanical garden was also included as part of the activities at Posada Amazonas. It was billed as an ethnobotanical tour, so it was really my misconception about what that meant that led to surprises. The ‘garden’ is actually a loop hike through a portion of the Tambopata Reserve, led by an Infierno community member who periodically stopped to explain medicinal uses of various plants along the route. For instance, the psychotropic ayahuasca plant, long regarded by outsiders as a way to have the ultimate trip, is used by local shamans as a diagnostic tool to analyze patients’ illnesses, whether physical or psychological. Similar descriptions were given for chacruna (used with ayahuasca, also for migraines, Parkinson’s), caña caña morado (coughs, fever), sanipanga (produces a natural red dye, often used in cooking), uña de gato (treatment for early cancer, liver problems), cordoncillo (analgesic), and para para (rainforest Viagra). At tour’s end, we got to sample four extracts, all fortified with pisco. Not sure what this was about except to tickle tourists. I recall reading that Western medicine continues to research Amazonian plant properties and synthesize promising active ingredients. My takeaway from all this was indigenous peoples are still getting healed by shamans with their plant preparations. Western medicine is not the only answer.
I admit that the lodge made my whole experience nicer. I don’t claim to be an adventurer, so some creature comforts, not necessarily luxuries, were important. Rainforest Expeditions has gone to great lengths to make guests’ stays comfortable. The rooms, while spartan and spacious, are open to the forest on one side, with paper-thin walls and no ceiling that provide no sound buffer against neighbors or barrier to little critters. All meals were worthy of a good restaurant. Lunches and dinners featured Peruvian fare. There even was a bar where the bartenders made expertly crafted cocktails (I had my first maracuya sour and Cusqueño, Peru’s beer). Lounging areas open on all sides provided cooler areas to relax. This is not real life in the Amazon, I realize, only a way to sample it without commitment.
I truly enjoyed my experience. Maybe not the stifling heat so much (one day, it got up to 40oC), but it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to get to know a little about the community of Infierno, primarily through our guide Luis, and to finally set foot in the greatest rainforest of the world.