MEET THE MEAT
We were up at 3:15 the next morning, if you can even call that morning. This was something of a theme of the trip. It seemed like every time we needed to travel we had to get up in the middle of the night.
The taxi ride to the airport was smooth, and the terminal was busy but efficient. We arrived at the airport at 4am, as we’d been told repeatedly that we had to be there 2 hours before our flight. We checked in, dropped off our luggage, paid our departure taxes, and made it through security by 4:20. I’m not really sure why being there so early was necessary. We spent the next hour and a half lounging around the gate, wondering how other travelers had managed to get their Starbucks through security.
There had been plenty of dining options (including the previously mentioned Starbucks) on the other side of security. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to choose from in the actual gate area. We had some cinnamon buns from the grocery store in Lima, apples from New Zealand (via the United States), and a Coke Zero. One thing I liked about Peru was that Coke Zero was easier to find that Coke Light (i.e. Diet Coke). Obviously Peruvians know a superior product when they find one.
I was a little nervous about our flight. I mean, how often do you hear about a plane crashing in some 3rd world country? Maybe once a week? We were flying on Star Peru from Lima to Cuzco, and then from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado. Landing in Cuzco has a reputation for being tricky, as the airport there is tucked into a deep valley between the mountains, and the weather is frequently dicey.
The plane was actually pretty nice. We had some difficulty stowing our packs in the overhead bins, but we managed. The flight was nearly full, and we were treated to juice and rolls shortly after take off. We departed on time, and once we got above the fog I enjoyed scenic views of the snowy Andes while Christy napped. The landing in Cuzco was uneventful, and we waited on the plane for the departure to Puerto Maldonado.
The second flight was nearly empty. This fight was scenic, too. Once we cleared the snow-capped mountains, an endless expanse of water and trees came into view. We descended into Puerto Maldonado, a frontier town on the edge of the jungle.
We disembarked, located our luggage, and found someone holding a sign with our name on it in about 5 minutes. We piled into a van and made the short drive through the ramshackle town. Along the way I noticed that we were one of the few “normal” vehicles on the road. Almost everyone else was on a motorbike or in what appeared to be a cross between a moped and a golf cart.
We considered a number of jungle lodges when we planned our trip. Eventually we narrowed it down to three or four lodges near Puerto Maldonado. Ultimately we settled on the Tambo Jungle Lodge, which is on the Madre De Dios River a few miles downstream from town. We picked this one largely because they offered an attractive list of activities, including visits to Monkey Island, Lake Sandoval, and the Taricaya canopy walk.
We attempted to book this lodge through an agency, SAS Travel. However, SAS responded that they were no longer doing business with this lodge due to numerous customer complaints. Instead, they recommended the Corto Maltes lodge (http://www.cortomaltes-amazonia.com/us/about.html), which is nearby. That one looked nice, but their standard 4-day program didn’t include a visit to the Taricaya canopy walk. That was the one thing Christy and I were most looking forward to.
I inquired as to whether we could alter the standard 4-day program to include the canopy walk. I suggested that we could skip the program’s normal day 3, which features a visit to a local community. After much back in forth, I was told that we could make the change for an additional $35 each. We booked it.
We arrived at the Corto Maltes office and checked in. We stored our extra luggage (consisting of what we would need in Cuzco, but not in the jungle) and met our guide and fellow travelers. Our guide, Lucy, was friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and extremely fluent in English. We also met a family from California that was on the same tour. They consisted of Jeff & Nicky and their daughters, Luz and Bonnie. Jeff and the family were well traveled, and Jeff and Nicky had actually lived in Central America years earlier.
It was too early to depart for the lodge, so Lucy led us to a viewpoint of the confluence of the Madre De Dios and the Tambopata Rivers. My initial impression of the Madre De Dios was that it looked big and muddy. That first impression never really changed.
From the overlook, we noticed a big, fancy bridge under construction. The bridge is part of the Inter-oceanic highway, which will connect Peru with Brazil once it is complete. The road will bring major changes to Puerto Maldonado and this portion of the Amazon basin. Currently this part of Peru is isolated. It is extremely difficult to reach without flying. The big question is whether the impact of the highway will be for good or ill.
The group headed back to the office, and I stayed behind to take photos. I returned to the office a few minutes later to find that everyone had disappeared. I wandered around for several minutes before running into another guide. He led me around the block to an ice cream shop where everyone was hiding. Yes, it’s true – Christy abandoned me for ice cream. Apparently at the first mention of ice cream she completely forgot that she is married. Well, it’s nice to know where her priorities are.
I probably shouldn’t neglect to mention that the ice cream was really good. I’m not sure if it was because Peruvians are good at making ice cream, or if it was due to the 90+ degree temperatures and 100% humidity. When we first stepped off the plane, I thought there had been a horrible mistake and we were back in North Carolina.
It was still too early to head to the lodge, so we took a tour of the town. We visited the main plaza and wandered through the market. The market was certainly an eye-opener. Everything you can imagine was for sale there. It looked like a cross between a flea market, a yard sale, and Wal-Mart. It was kind of like EBay before the internet. We limited our purchases to a bag of Brazilian nuts that were fantastic. My favorite part of the market was the meat. All sorts of raw animal flesh was on display. There were skinned chickens, slabs of beef, and more mysterious forms of carne, hanging on metal hooks out in the sun. After seeing that, I’m sure Christy was feeling pretty good about her decision to become a semi-vegetarian.
We returned to the office and then boarded a large motorboat for the ride downstream to the lodge. The ride was smooth and quick, as the Corto Maltes lodge is only a few miles from town. We checked into our bungalow, which was quite nice despite the heat. Fortunately the lodge grounds are rather shady, which kept the temperature inside reasonable. We enjoyed a refreshing dip in the pool before heading to the dining room for lunch.
Lunch was quite good, although I’m not exactly sure what it was. Our waiter claimed that it was Caiman (a relative of the Crocodile), but it tasted an awful lot like chicken to me. In fact, if you believe our waiter, we dined on something exotic every day. There was Anaconda sausage, Ocelot stir fry, and Piranha Filets. By the third day, Christy got into the game, telling Bonnie that we were looking forward to our dinner of Tarantula Pot Pie.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
After lunch we lounged in hammocks through the hottest part of the afternoon. Later, Lucy took us on a nature hike in the jungle beyond the lodge. The hike was a great introduction to the flora and fauna of the jungle. Early on we spotted a Capybara, which is a large rodent endemic to the area. Other wildlife included a Tarantula (a first for me), an interesting assortment of ants (including 1” long bullet ants), termites, and a wide variety of Macaws and other birds. The flora was also impressive. Highlights included Acacia, Ironwood, and Palm Trees, as well as Ficus, which consume other trees. Most impressive though was the Ceiba Tree near the end of the hike. The Ceiba is the king of the jungle, as they frequently grow to 150’ to 200’ tall.
We hiked for 2 hours before returning to the resort. Christy took a nap, while I roamed the resort taking photos. The subject of most of my photos was a colorful assortment of Macaws and Toucans. The birds are technically wild, but they prance around the resort like they own the place. I was photographing a Scarlet Macaw when apparently I got too close. It charged me, its wings spread in an impressive display of aggression. I resisted the urge to play dead and retreated to a relatively safe distance.
After dark we took a boat cruise on the river in search of Caimans. Caimans are actually easier to see after dark because they have reflective eyes. Hunting them requires the use of a searchlight. Each time we spotted one, it immediately disappeared into the water. Our trip was productive – we probably saw 15 caimans in about 30 minutes. The biggest highlight was spotting another Capybara. This one looked like a pig. It must’ve been at least 70 pounds!
We returned to the lodge for dinner. My meal was quite good, but Christy’s dish was rather disappointing, as it consisted primarily of rice and potatoes. That evening we enjoyed a cold beer at the bar and suffered through a tortuous game of pool. We really liked the Corto Maltes lodge, but that pool table is almost impossible to play on!
We managed to sleep that night despite the lingering heat. We went to bed early, but it didn’t really start to cool off until after midnight.
We got an early start the next morning. Up first was a short hike to view parrots and parakeets. We met Lucy, Jeff, Nicky, Luz, and Bonnie at first light and headed out. We arrived at the clay lick a bit after 6am and settled in behind a blind. From the blind, we had a clear view of an open clay bluff just beyond a stream. We endured a long, quiet wait there. Fortunately, there weren’t any mosquitoes around.
After 30 minutes or so the first birds began to arrive. At first they circled high above, apparently wary of predators. Then they began to settle in the trees above the clay. Cautiously, they began to work their way down to the clay to eat. They were still extremely wary though, and a few stayed behind in the trees as guards.
Before long, the clay lick was covered with hundreds of birds. Virtually all of the birds were a bright green, although we did spot one that was a brilliant yellow. We watched them for several minutes, before something finally spooked them. They all bolted at once, and the sound was intense! It was like having a 747 take off directly above us.
Once the excitement was over, it was time to head back to the lodge for breakfast. We indulged in eggs, toast, fruit, juice, and coffee. Afterwards, we had a chance to relax in the hammocks on the front porch of our bungalow. By 10:30 it was time to depart for our next adventure.
We all boarded one of the boats for a trip downstream. Along the way we passed several gold mining operations. Apparently there is gold in the riverbed. The mines dredge the river bottom, sucking everything up and then dumping the silt back in the river. As a result, the Madre De Dios River is muddy and horribly polluted.
Our first stop was at Monkey Island. It’s a large, wooded island in the middle of the river. As you might guess, our reason for stopping here was to search for the resident monkeys. We disembarked, met another group from the lodge, and walked across a broad sandbar towards the jungle in the middle of the island.
Beyond the sandbar, we hiked a well-beaten path through a mangrove swamp. The swamp was dry though, as we were in the middle of the dry season. This made for easier walking, and there were no bugs. In fact, we only saw a couple of mosquitoes the entire time we were in the jungle.
We wandered around for some time, but the monkeys weren’t anywhere to be seen. One of the other guides even baited them with bananas (what else?), but to no avail. Missing out on the monkeys was disappointing, but we still enjoyed hiking through the lush jungle flora.
We returned to the boat and headed back upstream. After a short distance, we stopped at a landing at the entrance to the Tambopata National Reserve. From there, we’d hike and paddle to Lake Sandoval. First, we made a short walk to the park entrance station where we signed in. Then we hiked down a badly rutted dirt road through the jungle. Along the way we passed a massive Ficus Tree and spotted Army Ants, Leaf Cutter Ants, and an assortment of birds.
After an hour or so we reached a dock on the edge of a swamp. There we boarded a large, wooden canoe. Lucy steered us down a narrow, twisting channel, pointing out all sorts of wildlife along the way. Highlights included more fascinating birds and several black caimans. Caimans are related to crocodiles, but they tend to be shy. The ones we spotted here were mostly submerged. Typically the only thing visible was a pair of eyes and a wrinkly head.
A few minutes later we reached Sandoval Lake. Sandoval is an Oxbow Lake, formed in an abandoned channel of the Madre De Dios River. Origins aside, Sandoval is gorgeous. Its shores are undeveloped, and the water is surrounded by old-growth forest. I had picked the Puerto Maldonado area for our jungle adventure largely because I wanted to visit Lake Sandoval. Now that I was here, I wasn’t disappointed.
Lucy paddled us across the lake through brilliant sunshine. We beached the canoe on the far shore and settled in for lunch. We were just starting to relax when we heard rustling in the trees behind us. We walked into the woods a short distance and quickly spotted our first monkey of the trip! Before long, more monkeys began to appear. I’d been disappointed by the lack of monkeys at Monkey Island, but this more than made up for it!
At first, all of the monkeys appeared to be Squirrel Monkeys. Then somebody spotted a larger species, which we think was a Capuchin Monkey. Before long, more and more monkeys began to approach us. After a few minutes, they were everywhere. We were literally surrounded. I’d guess there were several hundred monkeys in the trees around us. For a couple of minutes there, it was actually a little scary. It reminded me of a scene out of a bad horror movie.
Watching them was delightful. We saw one after another cross a branch above us like it was a bridge. A bit farther away, we spotted more swinging from one tree to another. The biggest highlight though was probably seeing a mother carrying a baby piggyback across a limb.
Eventually the monkeys moved on, and the show was over. We returned to the lakeshore to eat. Lunch consisted of a chicken leg and yellow rice cooked in a banana leaf. It was absolutely fantastic. Seriously, it might’ve been the best meal of the whole trip. Of course, having it on the shore of a beautiful lake probably added to its appeal.
It was 3pm when we headed back across the lake. At this point, we could’ve gone straight back to the lodge without seeing anything and the day would’ve been a roaring success. However, the best was yet to come. We were in the middle of the lake when we spotted its most famous residents. Sandoval Lake is home to a single family of Giant River Otters. Giant River Otters are extremely endangered in this area, and we were extremely privileged to see them. Even if they weren’t endangered, seeing them would’ve been breathtaking. Giant River Otters can grow to more than 6’ in length! When I first saw them arc out of the water, I thought we were looking at dolphins! We weren’t allowed to get close to them as it was mating season, but that was ok. I was thrilled with our view from a distance.
After the otter sighting, we followed the lakeshore looking for more wildlife. We spotted more birds, turtles, and black caimans. One highlight was seeing a woodpecker high up on a dead tree. Eventually we reached the channel leading back to the trail we’d hiked in on. We made a quick hike out, and took a sunset cruise back up the river. Along the way we spotted more White Caimans and another Capybara.
We returned to the lodge at 6pm and had a refreshing dip in the pool. A couple of Cusquenas also helped to cool us off. Afterwards, I enjoyed a dinner of roasted Capybara (actually, I think it was lamb). Christy’s meal was much better than the previous evening, too. Afterwards, we headed for bed, exhausted after a long but fascinating day. It was another hot evening, but we were tired enough that we managed to sleep.
We slept in a bit the next morning. We had breakfast at 8am, which was identical to Tuesday’s breakfast. Afterwards we lounged in the hammocks for a bit.
The day’s adventure began at 11am with another boat ride. Initially we joined a large group of recent arrivals at Monkey Island. We made a quick visit to the island, where we once again failed to see any monkeys. From there, we continued farther downstream, bound for the Taricaya Project Research Center. The project features a rehabilitation center for injured and abandoned wildlife as well as a canopy walk. The canopy walk is a swinging bridge suspended between two trees, offering views over the rain forest.
Joining us on this part of the trip were Miguel and his fiancé, from Lima. They had just started a travel agency, and were checking out the lodge. They seemed like a nice couple, and we enjoyed talking with them about Peru.
We reached the research center a bit later. We disembarked, and wandered past some buildings to the animal rescue center. There we saw Macaws, a Toucan, Red Howler Monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, two Tapir, an Ocelot, a River Otter, and even a Jaguar. The Jaguar is El Gato Grande!
One of the Macaws was able to speak. Christy said “hello” to it, but got no response. Disappointed, she said, “I guess I didn’t say it right”. The Macaw replied with “nope”. I cracked up. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to coax him into further conversation.
After visiting with the animals it was on to the main event. We hiked the Mullet Trail (which isn’t in West Virginia!) deep into the jungle. We crossed a couple of swinging bridges along the way, and the couple from Lima actually spotted a large, yellow and green snake. Regrettably, everyone else missed it. Lucy speculated that it might have been a Whiptail Snake based on their description.
We reached the base of a massive Ficus Tree a bit later. The canopy walkway arced across the sky high above us. We all craned our necks to see where we were heading.
We had a snack break there before climbing up the Ficus on a series of ladders. Eventually we reached a platform about halfway up the tree. From here, the walkway stretches out – and up – towards an immense Ceiba Tree that towers over the rest of the jungle. Prior to our arrival, I had expected the canopy walkway to be a level swinging bridge. It’s not. It climbs a considerable distance before ending in the crown of the Ceiba.
I let everyone go ahead of me because I planned to take lots of photos along the way. Initially the going was easy as I walked high above a swampy portion of the jungle. Then the bridge began to climb, gently at first, but more steeply the farther I went. As I climbed higher, the views gradually opened up. Before long I was looking down on the tops of the trees.
The last part of the traverse was rather exciting. The walkway climbs steeply at the far end, and the footing is slippery. The walkway seems to be reasonably secure, but slipping along here wouldn’t be pretty! I was a little relieved when I reached the final ladder that took me up to a platform in the crown of the Ceiba.
We hung out there for a bit enjoying the views. However, the flies and bees up there were awful. They were literally all over us. As a result, we didn’t stay up there as long as we would’ve under more pleasant circumstances. I found this rather ironic, as we didn’t really encounter any other bugs elsewhere in the jungle.
Going back down was scary. I hung onto the sides of the bridge while sliding my feet from one 2x4 to the next. The boards were evenly spaced, with only a steep, slippery surface between them. Needless to say, I didn’t spend much time looking at the scenery on the way down!
We returned to the research center and made another quick pass through the rescue center. Then we made a short hike parallel to the river to the center’s restaurant. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch featuring a spicy chicken and rice dish. Afterwards, we boarded the boat for the ride back to the lodge. On the way back, we made one final stop at Monkey Island, as Lucy had lost her cell phone there that morning. Several of us joined Lucy in searching for it, without luck. We also once again failed to see a single monkey there. Later, after returning to the lodge, we discovered that someone else in another group had found her phone.
We saw several more White Caiman on the return voyage, along with a lovely sunset. Dinner that night was delicious, and we enjoyed another refreshing visit to the pool. Afterwards we showered and packed, as our departure was scheduled for early the following morning.
We were up at 5:45 on Thursday. The usual breakfast was at 6, and we were heading back upstream by 6:40. The ride back to Puerto Maldonado seemed to take forever. However, this wasn’t due to the distance back to town. Rather, it was because my intestines were in full rebellion. Apparently they were unhappy with something I’d eaten, and now I was paying the price. My stomach was queezy, and my entire digestive system was making some fascinating noises. I made several trips to the restroom between breakfast and our departure, but I still wasn’t sure if I’d survive the boat ride back to town.
I wasn’t the only one feeling bad. Nicky and Luz had similar symptoms. In fact, Luz appeared to be in quite a bit of pain. Christy, Jeff, and Bonnie were doing ok though.
We reached the Corto Maltes office at 7:15. We picked up our extra luggage there, and we all took turns using the toilet. From there, they shuttled us over to the airport. We arrived at 8am, an hour before our flight to Cuzco was scheduled to depart. This was a little tight, but the Puerto Maldonado airport is tiny (daily flights to Cuzco, with connections to Lima!). It only took a few minutes to check in. At that point, we discovered that our flight was delayed anyway. Cuzco was fogged in, and all air traffic was grounded until conditions improved.
We hung out in the lobby and alternated between watching the World Cup on T.V. and a giant spider climbing up the adjacent wall. Occasionally one of us would shuffle off to the airport bathroom, which was rather disappointing. I mean, you would think that an airport bathroom would at least have toilet seats! This raises an important series of questions. Did the authorities just not install seats to begin with, or did they disappear at some point? Seriously, do people steal used toilet seats from public restrooms in Peru? That’s hardcore. What kind of black market is there for used toilet seats? Can you buy them on EBay?
The funny thing though is how much our perspective on toilets changed over the next few weeks. By the end of the trip, we would’ve been thrilled with facilities on par with those at the Puerto Maldonado airport. In fact, by the next week, we were spending much of our vacation playing a game of Peruvian toilet roulette.
Peruvian toilet roulette starts with a visit to any public toilet in Peru. As you reach for the door, you wonder, “What will be missing from this facility?” The answer was often surprising, sometimes unpleasantly so. For example, the restrooms in the Puerto Maldonado airport were missing toilet seats. Here’s a quick list of other items that you might reasonably expect to find in a public restroom. The list is organized in descending order, with the most items most likely to be found in Peruvian restrooms at the top:
A solid floor (have you seen “Slumdog Millionaire”? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.)
Toilet (you might think that would be a given, but not always.)
Trashcan / bin / box / bucket for used toilet paper (we actually saw a sign in one restroom above the can that said, “Please deposit your used toilet paper here, so that it may be reused!”
Water (sometimes there’s a barrel of water and a bucket outside…)
Toilet paper (BYOTP – bring your own toilet paper)
Paper towels (see “toilet paper”)
I’m not saying that this list is scientific in any way. However, I’m pretty sure that between us we saw almost every public toilet in Peru, so I will claim that we used a valid sample size.
Probably the best advice I received before our trip came from my cousin, who had traveled to Bolivia a few months earlier. He strongly encouraged us to keep some toilet paper on hand at all times. Little did I know we’d go through enough TP in a month to “roll” the White House. Boy, would that be the most spectacular prank of all time, or what? Anywho, stayed tuned for lots more insightful information regarding Peruvian toilets in the next segment!
We were eventually allowed through security, and our flight departed at 11am. The flight was smooth, and we landed in Cuzco eager to begin the next part of our adventure in Peru.Continue reading about our trip as we visit Cuzco and The Sacred Valley.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!