Awesome tour of the Madre de Dios region in Peru, Lake Sandoval and the Tambopata National Reserve.
Hiking and canoeing through the reserve to spectate the gorgeous nature and wildlife.
Ellen, Robin and I told ourselves that it was a good day to go further into the jungle on a tour of Lake Sandoval, despite the torrential downpour. Better a cool, rainy day than a hot, sunny one. Besides, we reasoned, the trees would surely create a canopy over our heads and block most of the rain. Nevertheless, by the time we made it down the Madre de Dios river, which joins with the Tambopata River and also runs all the way to Cuzco, I was very grateful to the tour agency for supplying me with rubber rain boots. For an hour and a half, our guide, Dagger, a Manu National Park native, led us through the muddy trail of the Tambopata National Reserve to get to Maloka Lodge. In front of me was a blanket of green trees and a thick, brown path, with the occasional scatter of bright color. A blue butterfly here, a red parrot’s beak flower there.
You could hear life all around you, the sounds of crickets and cicadas and bird calls filling your peripherals, yet everything seemed quite still. A rustling palm frond made us all look up. It took a while for me to spot it, but I saw a monkey! A real, live, wild monkey. It was a squirrel monkey, I was told, and it looked a mixture between a human and cat. Soon I was watching for more moving leaves and branches, for more monkeys, climbing the palm trees to get to the dates at the top. Some of them had little baby monkeys on their backs. It was freaking adorable. Dagger hurried to guide my steps and catch me when I stumbled as I clumsily tried to follow them off the trail and snap pictures, not looking where I was stepping. I stopped short of walking through a spider web, thank god. We continued our walk in the sucking mud, steadily getting more and more wet even as the rain let up. Our guide spoke in a quiet voice and was able to identify every animal sound, smell, track and dropping.
Finally, we arrived at a dock, a row of wide canoes bobbing gently under the canopy of jungle, and we climbed aboard one and made our way through the swamp and trees. The scene before me called to mind pictures I had seen of riverboat cruises in New Orleans.
Eventually, the narrow canal opened up to a vast body of water, Lake Sandoval. It felt like the rain stopped just for us, like the universe wanted us to take in the wide expanse of the lake without precipitation. Tall white palm trees stood like sentries around the perimeter, guarding the jungle beyond. Ours was the only boat on the still, metallic water, rich silt skimming the surface. We were gliding peacefully in a concert arena for the sounds of the jungle. Birds whistled and cawed and squawked, some even sounded like pigs. Water clunked along the side of the boat, cicadas hissed, bees buzzed, squirrel monkeys made whistling sounds and howler monkeys made throaty sounds that made it seem like the jungle’s stomach was rumbling.
Mine was rumbling, too, and I was relieved when we docked the boat and walked to the lodge for lunch. The meal that awaited us on a nicely dressed table in the elegant hut of a dining room was a sort of rice and chicken tamale cooked in banana leaves. It was delicious, and I ate too much.
After lunch and a nap, we set off again to the lake to watch the sun set and wait for black cayman, people-eating rainforest alligators. We rode around looking at the trees, using Dagger’s binoculars to spot howler monkeys or herons soaring through the air. We watched as yet more monkeys began rustling the branches and leaves. There was a horde of maybe 50 squirrel monkeys, soaring from one branch to another, making their way to a resting place to sleep for the night.
At dusk, a cayman appeared next to our boat while we were looking out at the water. It just floated there and soon a few more popped up in the distance, coming from nowhere and doing mostly nothing. Bats were flying around our head in the limited gray light, adding to the start of jungle nightlife. Dagger took out a high-powered flashlight and instructed me to scan the lake slowly with it, looking out for flashes of red eyes belonging to a cayman on the dark water. Whenever we spotted one, we slowly rowed over to get a look at the carnivorous predator, floating there staring at us, and occasionally making moves to get behind our boat and take us by surprise.
When it was time for dinner, we docked our boat as another group was beginning their search of the caymans. While we walked back from the boat, Dagger spoke in that quiet, monotone voice of his, rattling off a list of the jungle pharmacy’s roots and barks and medicinal plants used for ailments from asthma to Parkinson’s to ring worm. I marveled at the knowledge growing up in Manu, the conserved biosphere on the Madre de Dios river, had bestowed upon him. What did I know about my land? Maybe that’s why I can’t stay in one place for too long; my ties aren’t strong enough. I am not a part of the land I came from and it isn’t a part of me, at least not in the way that Dagger and his land are one. I realized that he probably spoke so softly because he was used to respecting the quiet wildlife in the jungle. Yet he always made himself heard, drawing our attention magnetically to where he was pointing, spotting parrots or snakes or monkeys, a tree or a plant with some significance.
After a dinner of chicken, rice and potatoes, Dagger told us that we’d be meeting back at the dining room at 4:30. “In the morning?” I asked, uncomprehending. He nodded his assent. I nearly laughed in his face. “So, what, are we going to watch a sunrise or something?” I asked, remembering the time I had to wake up that early to climb the Masada in Israel and watch the sun rise. He told me that we’d be going to a place called the Clay Lick to watch the macaws feed. Birds? Is he serious? I had already seen my monkeys and alligators, and I’m supposed to be excited about getting up at some ungodly hour to watch birds lick clay out of a tree from a distance? Looking at the New Zealanders’ eager faces, I shut my mouth and resigned myself to my fate, making sure to ask if there would be coffee that early in the morning. There would be. Fine.
So at 4:20, I got up and dressed quickly in the dark; the lodge had turned off the power at around 9 last night and I’m sure wouldn’t turn it on until later that afternoon. Frugal Peruvians. We drank shitty black instant coffee in the dining hall, also in the dark, and set off back to our boat onto the lake. It was worth waking up to see the change the early morning light makes on the water and the trees. So far I had seen the lake at midday, at sunset and at night. Now I was seeing it in the light of dawn, gray and still, almost as if the lake were covered in dew, the sun slowly rising behind the palms, turning the sky pink and the water to honey.
We took the familiar muddy trail back into the national park and then down a small side trail to find the macaws. It was light by then, and we stood at a distance of 75 meters or so away from a dead palm tree with around 20 red-bellied macaws latched on, picking apart the bark to get at the minerals inside the heart of the tree. We watched for about ten minutes. I was over it in about thirty seconds, leaning against a tree and going through my camera to delete poorly taken photographs until Dagger, thankfully, told us we could go. I was too tired to feel cranky that I had been woken up for this, too tired to hate the carpenter bee with a personal vendetta against me, buzzing circles around my head like a halo on the boat ride back across Lake Sandoval to the lodge.
After breakfast and some time to rest, we trekked back out for our last excursion of the day, to look at the giant, sturdy Capirona Trees, which Dagger referred to as “Save a Tree,” due to their threat of extinction by illegal loggers who covet the thick, durable wood for profit. The bark of the tree has also served natives as an anti-fungal and wound-healer. It seems that whenever the jungle produces an ailment, it also produces a cure.
So, back on the boat and onto Lake Sandoval.
We docked the boat across the lake at the beginning of a trail and set to walking, the rubber boots more of a hindrance on this sunny, hot day, threatening to give my calves a heat rash. We took a three hour loop through the hiking trail, Dagger dubiously pointing out things along the way, like walking trees that grow new legs that look like teepees to move on the rainforest floor, or a termite hill that size of a bush, or a hole that he coaxed a tarantula out of, making bile rise in my throat due to my illogical arachnophobia.
At one point the air was filled with a sweet smell, and Dagger identified it as the smell of dates and looked up to search for dining monkeys. He whistled a low whistle, once, twice, three times, and soon monkeys, capuchin and squirrel, were jumping from branch to low branch right over our heads. We stood in awe. I giggled like a maniac at the proximity to these amazing creatures who looked and moved so much like us. I watched, amused, as one capuchin monkey, and then a few more, slammed coconuts against trees to get to the juice inside, and I wondered if humans only knew how to get inside fruit by watching monkeys and other animals do it first.
We passed a few of the gargantuan Capirona trees, each one seeming bigger and more twisted than the last. When we reached one that was particulary large, we stuck around and listened to Dagger tell us that hunters pay tribute to these trees that he called the King of the Forest before a hunt, and that people would bury their loved ones under them, or else use them for shelter. I could see why. I stood in its monstrous shadow, pressing my palm flat against the straight, smooth bark of the tree. This particular tree had been alive for 420 years, Dagger said. I took it as a good omen and began to climb its sturdy trunk, imagining a world where I could build a house around the tree and live in it and under it and with it. I asked why the bark was so smooth, and Dagger replied in his hushed tones that it sheds its bark once or twice a year.
While we were walking back to the boat, distracted by this plant or that butterfly, Dagger suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, listened, and then took off at nearly a run, urging us to follow quickly. We reached the spot where we had docked our boat, and he motioned for us to be quiet and look in the direction he was pointing. About three river otters were feeding and playing right near us. We observed them quietly, amazed at our good timing; they only fed about once a day. Dagger told us that he heard the sound of a baby otter cry and knew that they were feeding, and that this was our chance to spot them. I could see my look of childish glee reflected on Ellen and Robin’s faces, which only doubled when the otters came right up to our boat to check us out and huff air loudly at us. They swam away from us playfully, one diving under the water just as another broke the surface.
It was a beautiful way to end our tour, and I slept peacefully on the motorboat down the Madre de Dios river back to the Tambopata.
A quick talley of animals seen in just 2 days: squirrel monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, tayra, giant otter, tarantula, parrots, macaws, snake, black caymans, herons, 100 species of butterflies, dragonflies, so many flies, so many insects, lizards, frogs, toads, fire ants, termites, bats….I think that’s everything.
PS- I loved this gift from my mom and little sister! Kept my electronics nice and dry, and looped around my wrist.
by Rebecca Bellan