The day after Christmas, somewhat reluctantly, we climbed on to a bus bound from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, in Peru. We had spent just over a week in Cusco, staying with a friend of Udi’s who has been living in Cusco for a decade.
Originally from Ireland, Ev is now running her own (fantastic) clothing design shop called Hilo (thread in Spanish). Her clothing is quirky, unique and elegant. I am a huge fan – if you ever go to Cusco, do check it out! She lives high up on a hill overlooking Cusco. Needless to say, the view is sublime.
Alongside Ev’s generosity and several Christmas celebrations she invited us to, our time in Cusco was vibrant, uplifting and very full.
From connecting with old friends, meeting new friends, being introduced to Pratec’s CEPROSI through Elena, participating in a powerful Quechua ceremony (see previous post – Learning in a Quechua Ceremony) and climbing on the sacred Inca stones of Saqsaywaman, Ollantaytambo and Machu Pichhu, we felt disheartened to leave yet another beautiful place we were beginning to felt deeply connected to. It is hard to continue being open along this journey, especially when it is time to move on.
The Cusco bus station was chaotic. Although we were the only ones on the bus travel list just three days before, somehow the bus was now completely full. Waiting for our luggage to be placed on board beneath the bus, a young Quechua woman was trying to convince the bus driver that her enormous bag of grain should also be considered luggage.
It was an all-night bus trip over the windy roads of the Andes Mountain range. We were to descend over 3,500 metres from the high altitude of Cusco to the lowlands of the Amazon where Puerto Maldonado lies.
Thankfully, in spite of the questionable odours permeating the recycled air of the very crowded bus, we fell asleep quite soon. I awoke only once and was blessed with a view of ice and snow glittering in the moonlight as the bus wound its way higher and higher into the Andes over what I guessed was another summit.
We reached Puerto Maldonado the next morning. Very early. Nearly 2 hours before we were meant to meet other guests also travelling to an eco-lodge we where we would be staying for three days, about 1 hour up the Tambopata River into the Amazon forest. Unlike the cold thin air of Cusco, Puerto Maldonado is lowland jungle. It was very hot and very humid.
I have been fascinated by the Amazon rainforest since I was a child. I remember reading eagerly about the different animals, plants and people that populated this huge, vast region. I could never seem to acquire enough information.
During my university years, I remember writing a paper in an environmental studies class about the debt-for-nature swap set-up (forgiving financial debt with the promise/exchange of preserving Amazonian forest). That we were passing through the Amazon, to get from Cusco in the Andes, to the lowlands of Peru and then into Acre, the southwest state in Brazil, seemed to me quite an obvious choice that we should spend a few days there to explore! This was in spite of the expense that was definitely over our very low-budget norm.
I had looked into various options to stay. Over the past few years there seemed to be an explosion in the numbers of eco-lodges being constructed along the river. The best deal we found was at the Explorer’s Inn in the Tambopata Forest Reserve. It is one of the oldest eco-lodges in the area and one of only a few within the Tambopata reserve. There is also a sustainability ethic that permeates all aspects of the Inn.
The boat ride to the Explorer’s Inn lasted about 90 minutes with a quick stop to have our passports stamped at a ranger station in Tambopata National Reserve.
It turned out that the couple with us on the boat were also from the west coast of the USA – from Humboldt County, where the last stands of redwood trees still thrive in the thinly protected boundaries of Redwoods National Park. The Redwoods outside of the park are under constant threat of logging (similar to the Amazon).
Arriving at the docking point for the Explorer’s Inn, we walked up the muddy hill and along the elevated wooden walkway into the main lodge. Inside, just at the bar area, we noticed a tarantula resting on one of the wine bottles. We were told it was the friendly bar tarantula. I had only ever seen a tarantula in a glass cage.
Alongside a night walk to identify nocturnal animals, a range of insects, plants and frogs; a trip to the macaw and parrot clay lick; an evening boat trip to locate any alligators on the edges of the river (we saw just a pair of eyes), there was also a 10km return walk through the forest to Cocococha oxbow lake to see about finding giant river otters, birds or any other mammals, such as the elusive jaguar.
When we left toward Cocococha lake, it was lightly raining. There were six of us in total – the other couple from California, two guides and us. We were all wearing long rubber boots that were offered by the Inn. The walk was easy and flat, along a well-marked trail through thick forest. About an hour into our journey, however, the light rain became heavier and we were walking in water past our ankles. I kept trying not to think about the return journey.
Our guide pointed out different tree and plant species along the way, describing different medicinal values. The bark of one tree in particular, is known to have properties helping to reduce the effects of malaria. I was the only one aside from him who volunteered to try it. The taste was strong and bitter.
We arrived on the banks of Cocococha after a couple of hours. The rain was now in a steady pour. I had managed to keep my feet dry up to that point. The couple with us both had to empty out the water that had filled up some of their rubber boots.
We were urged by both guides onto a boat – which was basically two canoes connected together by a plank in the middle. Three of us climbed onto each side – one guide per couple. The guides rowed at the back of each.
We were told that the lake had a plentiful supply of piranha and anaconda. I tried to keep myself pre-occupied with the beauty of the edges of the lake – the trees, the unusual birds that kept coming into view – rather than focus on the rain that was gathering into small pools on the bottom of the boat(s) and consider what it might be like to be forced to take a swim.
Suddenly I spotted a few heads surfacing the water about 200 metres or so in front of us. There were, in fact, more than a few. I counted 8.
Unfortunately we did not bring our camera on the walk because of the rain. The photos of the giant otters below are from two different websites.
The guides were also suddenly very excited, explaining to us that there was a family of 8 giant otters living at the edges of the lake.
Giant river otters, or lobo de rio (river wolf) are endangered and it is apparently quite rare to see one, let alone 8! The guides told us that they had never seen the whole family together. Due to hunting, the population of giant otters dwindled down to less than 100 in the early 1970s. The population has risen steadily since then, but they are still considered endangered.
As we approached, they otters came into view. In fact, they seemed to be heading toward us, swimming at an alarming rate. They were moving faster than the speed of our rowboat. All 8 of the giant river otter family were all advancing together toward us, extending their long distinctively patterned necks and making horrifyingly loud screeching noises. We were invading their territory and they were not very happy!
Giant river otters are around 2 metres long and are known to be aggressive when threatened. The guides began to turn the boats around. To say that I felt vulnerable sitting in pouring rain out on small boats that were filling up with rainwater on a lake with angry, screeching giant otters, piranhas and anaconda, is quite an understatement. We were relying on the strength and expertise of our guides who also appeared to be a bit shaken.
The trail was a shallow river by the time we headed back. The water was nearly at our knees every step of the way. The guide in front of us was using his machete in front of him to warn off any creatures in the water. I kept wondering about the likelihood of snakes, but as luck would have it, we did not encounter any.
As we tiredly walked into the lodge to return our boots, we were greeted by the encouraging shouts of the manager’s little girl who had told the kitchen staff about a pink python that had wrapped itself around one of the wooden beams holding up the main building of the lodge. The snake was beautiful and seemed very happy just to be hanging out.
I kept wondering what it must be like to be a child and grow up in such an area – to learn about the forest’s secrets and vast knowledges embedded within the soul of each living being. And also to look at the many tourists coming in and out of the doors of such a place with continuous curiosity.
The Tambopata area surrounding the Explorer’s Inn is a nearly 1.5 million hectare rainforest preserve that is firmly protected from being cut. In areas where the Amazon forest is not firmly protected legally through some form of legal regulation, it faces serious threats from ranchers, loggers, farmers, etc.
As we drove along the highway from Puerto Maldonado toward the border of Brazil, the views looked uncannily familiar. This was in spite of the fact that I had never been to this part of the world before.
I remember as a teenager and young adult feeling an intense sadness seeing photographs and films of sections of the Amazon forest being clearcut with the primary purpose of converting the land for cattle-grazing. Its aftermath appeared as an eerie open space with intermittent canopy trees left to listlessly stand and provide thin areas of shade for the overheating cattle.
The road we drove on was only just recently paved. For at least 50 kilometers on either side of the highway was grazing land. I noticed the intermittent canopy trees and felt the exact feeling I had felt 20 years earlier. It was a feeling of mourning and loss.
Udi reminded me that beyond these 50 kilometers there were vast areas of protected forest. The Amazon is under continual threat from different types of intrusive development – logging, mining, ranching, dam construction…The pressure and threat of deforestation will not end anytime soon.