Part 5


Madre de Dios River, flying into Puerto Maldonado.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


Fresh jaguar tracks




As spectacular as the Andean region of Peru is, there is much more to the country. Over sixty percent of Peru is tropical jungle. After thoroughly exploring the shops and art stalls in Cuzco, we boarded yet another plane and took off for a completely different experience -- the Amazon basin. This part of our trip was organized by Rainforest Expeditions, a small company that has enlisted the local people as their business partners. In exchange for an agreement not to hunt the wildlife or cut down the forest, the local inhabitants receive 60% of the profits from the lodge.



Taking bananas to market along the Tambopata River.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


After arriving at the city of Puerto Maldonado, along the Tambopata River, we boarded a shallow boat and headed up river for the first of the lodges we would visit, Posada Amazonas. The river was wide and brown, slowly meandering along the flat terrain. Our guide pointed out numerous species of birds and explained the nature of the 11 small communities in that area. She told us that the largest one had a secondary school, a small hospital, a few small stores and, best of all, a soccer field.

Needless to say, the weather on the river differed considerably from that in the Andean highlands. It reminded us of the Atlanta summer we had left behind. And in spite of this being the "dry season" in Peru, it rained every day and most nights while we were in the jungle. When it wasn't raining, it was dripping, constantly. The trails were wet and muddy, but the lodge had racks of rubber boots for every visitor, and we soon learned to plop and squish our way along the trails.



Capybara, the world's largst rodent -- up to 40 kg., Tambopata Research Center.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


The next morning, after a pre-dawn excursion to an oxbow lake, we boarded our boat and headed for the Tambopata Research Station, another 5 hours up river. This remote lodge is in the Tambopata National Reserve, where tourism is not usually allowed. The lodge is actually a research station for the study and propagation of macaws, and the only facility in the area that is allowed to house a few tourists.

It was worth the extra 5 hours to get there. Unlike the rain forest of Costa Rica, this was a jungle that matched the picture in my imagination. In this flood plain forest, the trails were literally hacked out through the thick foliage and reclaimed weekly from the encroaching plants. We climbed several canopy towers to view the forest from different heights. We hiked past monkeys and exotic birds, with macaws screeching overhead. One afternoon, we came across fresh jaguar tracks and nearly caught up with the elusive animal as he took off through the undergrowth. (I had mixed feelings about missing him.)



Fresh jaguar tracks, Tambopata Research Center.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


Night falls quickly in the jungle. It was dark by 6:00 pm. With no electricity, and only a few flickering candles to light the rooms, I discovered it is a good idea to set out clothes for the next day while it was still daylight. It's hard enough trying to find something in a suitcase that has already been through almost 2 weeks of packing and repacking, but in the dark? We each carried flashlights so we could find the bathrooms, which were down the hall. I say "hall", but the rooms were actually open-air partitions under a common high thatched roof, separated from each other only by thin bamboo walls about 7 feet high. The single beds were each covered with mosquito netting, and there was a lock box to keep any snacks away from curious creatures.

At night, we gathered in the open air dining room at 7:00 pm for our communal meal. The food was simple, but very tasty, with fresh fruit, several different kinds of potatoes, and meat and rice dishes. A small bar made cerveza and pisco sours available as well.



This "chico" was rescued as a chick, Tambopata Research Center.
Photo: Stephen Mills.


The routine was to rise before dawn, go out for wildlife viewing, and return for breakfast around 7:30. One of the big attractions in the area is the clay lick, where macaws frequently gather at dawn. But they are finicky and won't land if the sky is overcast or there are raptors in the area, and we waited in vain for them on a small island about 600 feet from the lick. Back at the lodge, however, our breakfast was enlivened by a half dozen of the colorful birds who had grown accustomed to the presence of the researchers and had no fear of humans. They hopped around on the tables, clearing the left-overs, and happily landed on our shoulders if we held bananas in our hands. In fact, we quickly learned that if you don't want one to land on you, don't try to eat a banana.

One of our last treks in the jungle region was one of the most interesting. We visited a shaman, who runs a small hospital in the jungle using remedies from medicinal plants he grows. He explained the various properties and uses of the plants, from the "Viagra of the Jungle" (known locally as the "wake-up plant") to the Cat's Claw, which one of the major pharmaceutical companies has patented for boosting the immune system. One of the remedies was to soak the bark of a plant in pisco for 8 days and then drink two cups a day. I wonder which substance was the efficacious one. The Ajosacha plant, which smells like garlic, is used to repel mosquitos -- and anyone else within range. The "Peruvian LSD", or Ayahuasca, is a strong hallucinogenic. The Shaman takes it so that he can diagnose his patients' problems while he is in a trance. It is not used for parties.



Steve relaxing on the ride down the river.
Photo: Marcia Brandes.


When it was time to leave, our return down river was a much quicker trip. Overnighting once again at Posada Amazonas, we traveled by boat, then by truck, and finally by plane to arrive in Lima, where we still had time for a four-hour city tour before being driven to the airport for our flight home. Standing in the airport in Lima, it was easy to guess who had been to the rainforest -- we were all the ones with dried mud all over our luggage. Three month's later, it's still there.

Many of you have asked to see pictures of our trip. The travel agent we used for this trip, Inka's Empire Tours, has posted a number of our photographs on their web site. If you would like to see pictures of an exhausted Steve and Marcia at the Sun Gate, check out For general information about travel in Peru, their web site,, has photographic, historical, and practical information galore.





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