Enjoying a tour in the jungle outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru with Yakari Eco Lodge.
Ziplining, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and Monkey’s Island.
I spent my last day in Puerto Maldonado enjoying a jungle tour with Yakari Eco Lodge. For 95 soles, I partook in ziplining, a canopy walk, a log walk, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and playing with monkeys on la Isla de Monos. Not much to say. It was a visual day. See it through my eyes…
My perceptions of the small city by the Peruvian Amazon, Puerto Maldonado.
The city before the jungle, the biodiversity capital of the world, civilization outside the rainforest. The town is always moving, but it moves slowly, constantly conserving its energy in the heavy heat that coats the town and makes you sweat while you sip on your morning coffee (instant Nescafé with canned milk). A town where you can get drunk and eat street meat at 2 am on a Monday. A town that doesn’t get shut down by the terrifying torrential storms. Where motorcycles and motocars fill the air with the sound of small beeps. Where crosswalk doesn’t mean cars will let you walk. Where it’s normal to blow red lights and stop signs. Where eye contact and the slight fluttering of your fingers where they rest near your thigh is enough to call the attention of a motorcyclist in a yellow vest who will take you to wherever you need to go in town for a sole. Where women on corners offer choclo con queso, in sing-songy voices. Where refrescos are cold and papayas grow on the city streets and restaurants make fusions with yuca and ginger and plantains. Where the homeless and the drunk take afternoon refuge in bushes. Where you you learn not to flinch when an insect lands on you or your table. Where the street art makes beautiful the suffering of the natives under the hands of the Spanish conquistadores. Where you can hop on a motorboat on the Madre de Dios River and sail to Cusco…
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.
Find out what it’s like to rough it in the Peruvian jungle outside of Puerto Maldonado.
Despite the sticky heat, power outages and general lack of hygiene, my two weeks volunteering with a family in the jungle were the highlight of my time in Peru.
All I can hear is the sound of my borrowed moped’s engine revving, of pebbles clinking off the exhaust. In front of me, the meager bike light barely illuminates a narrow dirt road, flanked on each side by lush jungle. Behind me is pure darkness, above me, the solar system. I had long since been out-biked by my companions on their actual motorcycle, the light on the back of their bike slowly extending beyond my field of vision. I was alone, save for whatever else skulked in the night, lurking behind palm trees and around obscure bends. Was I afraid? Hell, yes. But I told myself to be cool, that this is the only road back to the house I’ve been staying at Playa Cayman outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru, and that I couldn’t very well pass it because my fellow volunteers would undoubtedly be waiting outside for me to make sure I arrived safely. So I looked up at that gorgeous sky, I sang to myself, I experimented with gears, and I kept my eyes open for landmarks like that little wooden bridge or the km 6 sign. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the fantastical feeling, albeit slight, that I was about to be ambushed, either by a roam of natives who wanted to sacrifice me to their sun god or perhaps a hoard of snakes that would fall out of one of the trees to inject me with their venom. I scared myself, hearing things in the hiss of the jungle and making up scenarios like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, magically real. The worst that jumped out at me was a frog and a few mangy dogs.
How is it that I found myself alone on a moped in the middle of the dark Peruvian jungle? It all started out fairly mundane. We needed to go into town to use wifi, outlets and showers. Our jungle cottage had been out of power, and therefore running water, for nearly every day that I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for a week and a half. The house where I’m volunteering in Puerto Maldonado is owned by a California-native, Kristen, her Peruvian husband, Luis, and their adorable three-year-old daughter, Mar. Five years ago, they bought land on the outskirts of the city along Tambopata River, a little under a hectare of jungle, and have been slowly creating a self-sustainable home here. The couple have employed volunteers from helpx for the past eight months or so, like myself and my moto companions, Ellen and Robin, a traveling couple from New Zealand with whom I share a damp room on the top floor of the small wooden house.
This day had been particularly hot. It was Sunday, so we used it as an excuse to move slowly and not work on the house. I think I really would have passed out if they asked me to do some of the heavy yard labor that we’d been doing (only after I had given a gift to Pacha Mama/ Mother Earth to assurre her that I would do good for her land), such as digging a drainage ditch so they don’t lose their house to flood (again) during the rainy season, hacking up trees that fell after storms for kindling, collecting river water, and gardening.
Instead, I hopped on the back of Kristen’s moped to head to town where we bought supplies for a barbeque such as two kilos of pork, some coca cola, and ice that I held, dripping and numbing my crotch and Kristen’s back, on the way home. We spent the day moving only enough to pour a cold piscola (peruvian liquor called pisco mixed with rum…try a pisco sour, too!) and keep the bonfire going to heat the grill. Some friends of Kristen and Luis’s came by with haunches of beef and some yummy, spicy Brazilian nut sauce, and took over the sweaty job of working the grill. I was thankful to the guests for cooking because I could barely cut a tomato for the salad, I was so hot.
The heat here has been nothing like I’ve experienced before, and I toured around the Israeli desert for 10 days on a sweaty bus with 40 other kvetching, hot Jews. I’ve spent hours incapacitated by this weather, lying in a pool of my own sweat on a mattress that smelled like other volunteers had done the same thing as me, melting slowly while trying to lie as stationary as a statue. I’d wait and pray for a gust of wind, please, just one blessed bit of wind to move the still air, thick like flannel on my skin and wet like the bayou in my lungs. I’d have turned on a fan, but, alas, the power has been out. It takes energy just to wipe the sweat out of my eyes. It’s inescapable. No taking cold showers for me, or sticking my head in the fridge for a second’s respite. The only solution is to go to the river, which we had done the day before, forsaking our machetes and shovels for beer and chips on the beach.
The beach is located about 100 to 200 meters away from the house, along the treacherous, muddy banks of the Tambopata. As we walked through the mud rich with minerals, we spotted cayman tracks, the local, human-hating alligator. Kristen told us not to worry about them now because they only come out at night, but I was too hot to be deterred from sinking into that cool water.
Turns out the water is not so cool, and it is very shallow, only going up to your thigh at its deepest. But the current was semi-strong, so we anchored in the mud and opened up some beers and passed around cigarettes while we weren’t playing with Mar. When the sun felt too hot, we rubbed the rich mud on our skin to protect us from the harsh rays and annoying mosquitos. When we ran out of beer we yelled up to our neighbors who apparently have a small store to deliver us some warm ones and bags of chips. It was a blissful way to spend the afternoon and bathe, and afterwards, I cooked my new family seco de pollo by candlelight.
On the day of the barbeque, however, a hot river bath just wouldn’t do the trick, and I could see by Ellen and Robin’s exhausted, sweaty faces that they agreed with me. We left the locals accustomed to this swamp to enjoy the river with their kids. Rather than hitch into town and then pay 1 sole to one of the many motorcycle taxis in distinctive yellow vests to take us across town, we borrowed Kristen and Luis’s bikes and enjoyed the freedom of riding towards a deliciously cold shower at Tambopata Hostel. I actually giggled aloud as the clean water washed away the dirt and bugs and sweat that I had been living with for four days. So worth the 5 soles. Afterwards we stopped at our local haunt, the best restaurant in the Plaza, El Asadazo, for refrescos (half juice, half water, served cold) of apple and pineapple before we set back off down the dirt path.
I am staying now at Tambopata Hostel until I leave for Cuzco on Wednesday, a place with one fan in each room, real coffee, a few hammocks, a lush garden at its center, and gloriously clean water. I was starting to get cranky with jungle life. I could have handled the lack of power and water I suppose, but you don’t realize how much you take for granted the ability to simply flip the faucet up and watch clear water come out. I could have dealt with the fact that no linen ever dried, ever, and that my light colored clothes took on the dirty brown hue of the local water. I could have ignored the bugs that tried to make a home in my hair and skin. I mean, the land was just so beautiful, the Tambopata river and Playa Cayman were my backyard, and I fell in love with the family, with Kristen’s laid back humor and high energy, with Luis’s good vibes and funny stories in Spanish, with Mar’s smile and cute voice asking for leche or to look at pictures of my perrito on my phone. I just couldn’t get over those damn roosters, waking me from my slumber at 2 am with their crowing and leaving me awake on my uncomfortable bed, seething and fantasizing about how I would kill them and feed them to the family. I can make the best out of many situations, but you fuck with my sleep, and I’m out. I also wanted to get to dry land before one of the many jungle ailments that the others had been subjected to came to get me. These include, but are not limited to, Asango/chiggers (little bugs that burrow into your skin and make you itch and burn), mosquito bites, skin and nail fungus, heat rash, parasites, botfly, diarrhea, and bronchitis. I already had migraines from the heat, possibly dehydration, a few hornet stings and some surprisingly painful fire ant bites.
Now I’ll spend some time recuperating and getting to know this bustling little city of Puerto Maldonado.