Home > Peru, worldwide travel and exploration > More Tales from the Amazon

More Tales from the Amazon

August 31st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The night before I flew down to the rainforest, I stayed at a hotel in Cuzco.  There was a startling and curious mural stretching the length of the dining room which showed a Body Shop fantasy of an Amazonian paradise:   bare-breasted maidens bathing in idyllic pools surrounded by luxuriant greenery and compliant jungle animals;  the only thing most were wearing was a pendant of vaguely Incaic design.  Pass the jojoba shampoo.

I was not quite sure what I expected from the Amazon.  It’s become such a romanticised  ecological symbol – a flagship of all we stand to lose – that it’s become hard to see the trees for the wood.   Which is why I wanted to spend some time in one small patch of land, a reserve near the Peruvian town of Puerto Maldonado,  close to the border with Bolivia and Brazil.

Most of my previous journeys to Peru had been to the Andes where the cold could at least kill off most of the bugs;  one reason I’d chosen this remote part of the Peruvian jungle is that, while deep in the Amazon, it’s considered free of malaria.

Another is that, as the early naturalist explorers like Henry Walter Bates discovered, the wildlife gets richer the further west you go from the Atlantic:   the Peruvian Amazon has a much richer density of species than the Brazilian.

Although that richness may now be at risk.  Puerto Maldonado stands on the route of the projected Transoceanic Highway, the first major road to cut across the Andes from the Amazon to the Pacific, so linking Brazil more directly to those countries greedy for its hardwood, like China and Japan.

At the moment Puerto Maldonado is a pleasant small jungle town, with plenty of couples strolling round its wide plaza eating fried chicken (forget their famous taste for guinea pig – Peruvians would much prefer a KFC to go) ;  but with the coming of the road it could swell tenfold.

My local guides were ambivalent about the project. As citizens they were pleased that the area was about to boom;  as naturalists they could also see how the reserves could be harmed, particularly by Brazilians wanting to plant the ubiquitous soya – about the only  cash crop that can successfully be harvested on cleared rainforest, even after a few seasons it leaves the ground exhausted.

We were heading in open motorised canoes down the Madre de Dios, the ‘Mother of God’ and one of the greatest of Amazon tributaries.  Although thousands of miles from the sea, it’s still wider than the Thames in London. Goldpanners were dredging the sandbanks.  With luck they can find 10 grams a day, worth $300, a fortune in local terms, so it’s a popular if damaging trade:  the destruction of the sandbanks causes problems downstream.

With the sun on our faces and a cooling breeze, the Madre de Dios is a fine river highway into the Amazon but a lousy place to see wildlife.  For that we turned off into the quiet Lake Sandoval, part of the Tambopata National Reserve, a tranquil body of water filled with catfish and piranha ( the locals joke that the piranha may be bony to eat, but then the fish probably say the same about us).

I’d chosen to stay at Lake Sandoval Lodge, run by a non-profit organisation in tandem with the local community, and  a simpler place than some of the other jungle lodges that have sprung up.  It is also right on the banks of the lake, a beautiful palm-fringed retreat where you hardly need to move to see the wildlife .  Within moments of our arrival a troupe of capuchin monkeys were passing overhead.

Much of the following days was spent floating around the lake with the guides tracking rare river otters.  Far from being benign and playful as I had imagined, the Spanish term fits the Amazonian river otter much better – lobos del río, ‘river wolves’.  Sleek , muscled and over six feet long, they bristle with aggression. The otters hunt in groups and when we finally saw them one dawn, they rippled along the shore in a menacing pack, climbing onto logs to eat some of the five kilos of fish they need a day.

And then came an extraordinary moment:  a great white egret, one of the giants of the bird world,  landed on the lower branches of a tree by the water.  Without pausing, the otters launched themselves out of  the water and tried to dislodge it.  When the alarmed egret scrambled higher up the branches, the otters even tried to climb the tree.

A further sequence of wonders followed as we floated past:  a troupe of white-throated toucans played hide-and-seek with us in the tree-tops, though their curved bill and bright colours make them easy to spot;  a young tiger-heron standing solemnly in the shallows peering at the water as if lost in thought; the ridiculous and ungainly hoatzin (which the guides nickname ‘the stinkbird’ from its poorly digested vegetarian diet), with startled hair and wild eyes, like a young punk experimenting with eye-liner;  blue-headed parrots peering down from the tops of the palms.

These same Mauritius palms provide a refuge for one of the most threatened of Amazon species, the macaws:   their toxic diet of largely unripe fruit requires them to lick sodium as an antidote, and the clay licks that provide this are few and far between. So naturalists have lifted PVC nests into the tops of these palms as their bark can also provide similar nutrients.

Macaws help propagate a tree crucial to the region’s survival – the Brazil nut.  As one of the few birds with beaks strong enough to crack open the adamantine shell, they spread it through the forest.  For reasons to do with pollination that have proved very beneficial to the survival of the rainforest, Brazil nut trees cannot grow easily in single species plantations. In order to preserve their enormously productive crop, acres of mixed forest are needed around each tree.

Many of our guides come from families of Brazil nut gatherers, who were the original colonisers of the lake, and they took us down some of the trails they had used to  search for the elusive nuts.  On some trees we saw the ‘bracket funghi’ that harden like book shelves so firmly on a trunk that they could support the multi-volume Flora and Fauna of the Amazon, and the termites the locals use as snacks (peppery and insubstantial, as if you were eating snuff) . There are large-nosed fruit-bats stretching themselves like elastic bands, first pinging one side then the other, and the remarkable ‘walking tree’, the socrates exorisa, that can shuffle along the forest floor in its search for a gap in the canopy above, retracting and discarding root systems to do so.

The lodge itself is large and open-plan, with hammocks and bedroom wings spreading to either side under mosquito nets; it’s cool and spacious but the bedrooms all open to the same shared roof for ventilation and you can hear a mosquito squeak two rooms away, let alone a bed creak, so perhaps not great for couples – any love-making would have to be done at the pace of the local sloths.

For more privacy – indeed complete isolation– you might need a remarkable new development at a lodge nearby, the Reserva Amazonica, where Joe Koechlin, the  ecologist and hotelier who helped Herzog with his epic Peruvian films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God, has just built a bedroom 90ft up a tree.

I had been asked to be the first guest and ‘guinea-pig’ (not a comforting concept in Peru). When they’d told me I’d me sleeping 90 feet up a tree I had assumed this was latin hyperbole;  but no, there  it was, at the very top of the rainforest canopy, clinging to the slender trunk of a cepanchila.  To get there you had to climb a wooden tower and then a series of rope walkways to what must be the ultimate tree-house.

There was some trepidation from the management as to how the first guest might find it.  I was issued with a panic button so that if necessary a member of staff could rush in, strap me to their chest and abseil down to the ground, like a ninja turtle – a solution that seemed considerably more frightening for any nervous guest than staying put.

In the event I kept my finger off the button., although sleeping that high in the canopy was certainly an intense experience;  I enjoyed the exposure.  The nearest analogy I can think of is being in a small cabin at sea, with the wind and outside noise amplified, as when a troupe of monkeys descended on the cabin, rattling the walkway and playing on the roof.  In the early morning, the dawn chorus was raucous and spectacular, from the horned screamer bird which some say sounds like a donkey drowning, to the ‘water dropping from a giant tube’ gloop-gloop-gloop noises of  the oropendola.  There were also tree frogs that sounded exactly like digital cameras bleeping.

My guide Eric joined me in the treehouse at 5.00 am so we could see the sun rise over the top of the Amazon rainforest.  It felt like a biblical moment, a moment of creation. I had become used to seeing  the sun slowly filter its way to the forest floor – but above the canopy it came up fast, like a searchlight, and illuminated the heads of the matate and ceiba trees so that they looked like fibre optic lamps.

Eric pointed out a paradise tanager in a nearby tree, its blues startlingly vivid even by the standards of exotic jungle birds. As we looked out over the still unspoilt jungle, Eric listed the ways in which the locals could survive here:  by logging or gold-panning, which was destructive to the environment;  or from gathering brazil nuts which was slow and subject to the whims of the commodity marker;  but the best of all, said Eric, is you – the tourist.  Tourism is one of the few economic factors that can persuade a government to preserve a rainforest.  It’s a curious and unexpected thought but he may well be right:  if we really want to save the Amazon, then we should go and stay there.

 An edited version of this appeared in the Guardian (concentrating on the tree house section at end)

See factfile

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.