Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Peruvian Amazon - Sin Ange

This blog is the first deviation from Ange and I's system of her being the exceptionally interesting writer and I being the picture guy. It is not because I had a particular urge to take over both facets of our travel log in some sort of  masculine power move, but because it reflects our first deviation in our typical travels, that is, me actually travelling with her. In a word, I 'ditched' her for a few days to go to the Amazon with my friend, and now she has put the onus on me to create a small log of our adventure.

Now, I should mention that this blog is particularly delayed, it has been about a month since the activities I am about to chronicle took place. This is in part due to my well developed skill of procrastination, but mostly because I have been pretty sick from a combination of food poisoning and a respiratory infection that has had me mostly in bed for the last three weeks or so. Perhaps, you may be thinking, prime time to be blog writing, but for the most part, TV watching on our laptop was the extent of my abilities. (Firefly and Frozen Planet are excellent by the way).

Now that I've digressed sufficiently from the point of this blog, let's get to the point of this blog. As Ange mentioned in a previous post, our friend Neil came to visit us for a pretty significant portion of our trip in Peru. He was able to come down for Machu Picchu which turned out to be as spectacular as was anticipated. The question remained of what to do with Neil's remaining two weeks or so in Peru, and since he was wrapped up in his second semester of Kinesiology back home, it was left to us  to sketch out some plans for his time with us. Having been friends with Neil since my childhood, I knew of his boyhood fascination with insects/creepy crawlies/amphibians and most of all: spiders. Stories of him catching live bugs and throwing them in spiders nests to watch the spider hunt kept coming to mind. Given Ange and I's last Jungle experience with innumerable multi-legged arachnids all over the place, I thought we could satisfy the boy in Neil with another trip to the jungle.  Neil confirmed this with the loose guidelines he provided in an email to me for a successful trip in Peru: "Some sort of hiking in mountains, surfing and beach time, and an Amazon trip would be cool."

We were in Lima at the time of planning this and had to research our jungle options via internet. Though there are some very interesting jungle areas in more remote areas of Peru and Bolivia, we ended up choosing a lodge near a jungle city in the south east of Peru's portion of the Amazon basin: Puerto Maldonado on the Tambopata River.  Despite being a highly developed touristy area, it provides the most efficient way to see primary rainforest while guaranteeing you will have a decent knowledgeable guide and at the same time, decent food/lodging.  The lodge we chose also has a community partnership with the indigenous in the area, where after a certain amount of time, ownership of the lodge is transferred to the locals. As with most things, you get what you pay for. The lodge in general was more expensive than Ange and I's previous jungle outing, so we were hoping that it was in general a better experience than the lodge we stayed at in Ecuador, in terms of guide quality, and food. We also decided to fly from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado to save time from the 12 hour or so bus ride and also make the best use of Neil's time. In the end, due to the price of the lodge/flight, and Ange's lack of enthusiasm of spending additional close time with the creepy crawlies of the jungle, Ange decided to stay behind and leave this one to be a boys adventure. It turned out to be for the best as it provided Ange with some downtime after the Inca Trail to recover from her bout of Bronchitis.

The flight to the jungle turned out to be pretty stylish. We found a deal with a Peruvian Airline where a business class return flight was cheaper than any other option. After budding to the front of the line via the first class lines for check-in and boarding, we settled down into our comfy first class seats ahead of the rest of the lowly economy peasants. Though I was half hoping for a glass of champagne or hot towel to further inflate my new found feeling of economic self-importance,  I was disappointed to find we were treated the same as any other passenger; only that we were just closer to the front to witness the pilot flirting with the flight attendants. In the end we were rewarded with a very scenic flight out of Cusco which provided some pretty beautiful scenery. It was interesting to see from the air the drop from the Ande's into cloud forest, and then jungle. Landing in the jungle itself was pretty hair-razing as all you see is the canopy of the forest approach you at an alarming rate and you become increasingly certain that you are approaching your imminent death... then suddenly... runway; a safe landing after all.

Primary Rainforest Canopy (Tambopata River in the backround)

We were greeted at the airport by the numerous representatives of all the lodges and tour agencies in the area. We located the sign for our lodge and had our first introduction to one of our two guides: Jorge. Jorge made a quick introduction with some pretty broken English and hurriedly explained to us that his English is bad but improving, and that our other guide, Lenny, was much better than him and spoke better English. I assured him that was fine, that my Spanish was equally as bad and we could practice with each other.  He bustled us over to the tour van and told us, the best he could, that we were waiting for two other people that will be in our group. During our 10 minute wait I think he travelled between the airport terminal and the tour van about 5 times to make sure we were alright and  to assure us the other passengers would arrive any minute.  He ended up being as nice as his gestures were and we enjoyed our broken conversations with Jorge. He is from a local indigenous community, and is in the training stage of becoming a guide, part of which is learning to speak better English. It was a nice example of the efforts the lodge is making to transfer the lodge into the hands of the locals entirely.

Tambopata River

Once all the passengers arrived, we met the Swiss couple who would be joining Neil and I, and we were joined with another group for our transfer to the lodge. The van ride took us to the lodge office where the guests could leave excess luggage and have a brief refreshment on the way to the river. This was our first introduction to the other persons who would be at our lodge. The most noticeable people in that group consisted of three British fellows who had promptly identified the single female portion of their group and loudly introduced themselves and one began explaining the best features of his new Canon D-SLR to them. Typically they had some sort of loud comment to make about anything that happened around them, including a energetic  "ROCK and ROLL!" when our boat started moving up the river towards our lodge. Needless to say, Neil and I suddenly felt fortunate when we found out that our group was going to be separate from theirs for the duration our jungle stay. In the end we ended up sharing some activities with their group, but it was relatively painless overall.

The van transferred us from the tour office to the river where decent sized river boats were ready to be loaded by the passengers and our gear and take us up to the lodge. The river was much larger than Ange and I's last jungle experience. In a non-word, it felt much more Amazon Rivery. Wide open, silty brown river with tall jungle banks and trees on either side. One side of the river was mostly primary rainforest (rainforest at its full potential without recent devastation such as wildfire or human deforestation activities). The other side of the river was mostly secondary rainforest, which is the later stage of regrowth in a forest after major devastation. The primary forest was incredibly lush,  had a much higher, more consistent canopy due to more emergent tree species at full growth, and in general just seemed more alive. Amazonian rainforest can take hundreds of years to reach the level of biodiversity required to be considered primary rainforest, which is why logging and slash and burn is so destructive. Having such a clear example of primary versus secondary rainforest really put it in perspective for me what human influence in the jungle can mean for a 'healthy' jungle.

Tambopata River at Sunrise. Typical boat used at the lodges on the river.

The boatride was fairly interesting in other aspects, with several bird spottings including vultures and parakeets, and a glimpse at a caiman (small freshwater river crocodiles) scrambling into the water. Our first lunch was served during the boat ride and included a rice mix served wrapped up in a large leaf the locals use to preserve/transfer food. Delicious.

Arriving at the lodge we got to meet our other guide and the last members of our group, three very nice German ladies, who had left their husbands behind for a vacation in Peru. As they had been waiting for our arrival for an hour or so, we were given a few minutes to drop our bags off in our rooms, and we were off to our first activity to the lodge's canopy tower.  To reach the tower we had a quick walk through the woods, identifying a few interesting species on the way. At one point we saw some parrots high up at the top of a palm tree. After a few moments of squinting up into the bright sky, Jorge came over and handed me his binoculars. After a few more moments of squinting through his binoculars I finally nodded and said "Ahhhhhhh. Yeah, cool." Jorge was silent for a moment and then said "You didn't see anything". "Yeah, not a thing." Apparently I wasn't very convincing. We both had a laugh over it.

Our guide Lenny describing the "Walking Palm". A very interesting tree which has the ability to "walk" using it's long above ground roots to move to areas with more sunlight. (Some further Wikiresearch shows that this is probably a myth as there are some more plausible theories that explain it's tall above ground roots.)

 Some colourful Flora of the jungle.

Arriving at the enormous rickety tower anchored above the tree line of the forest was like finding out you actually signed up for a thrill seeking adventure ride. The tower was approximately 30 m in height. It was tall and limber and kind of reminded me of those drop of doom rides that spring people really high in the air.  A climb of a few hundred steps up the beast, all the while wondering how strong the support wires were on the tower, got you to the top. The german ladies had lost heart at about the 6th flight of stairs and had to turn back. The whole thing swayed gently each time everyone moved, however the view made it entirely worth it. The jungle stretched endlessly in all directions. We hung out up there taking pictures of various birds that ventured near and got to see the sun drop over the horizon. Really beautiful.

The Beast (100 ft tall canopy tower)
Sunset from the Canopy Tower

Later at dinner we experienced the first of many delicious meals. The food turned out to be really excellent at the lodge. We had another laugh when Jorge spent a good 20 minutes trying to ask of us if we had seen a small jungle mammal that was yay big and yay hairy and looked like this. With his limited English vocabulary and my limited Spanish Vocabulary it took a while to figure out he wasn't talking about an otter, a beaver, a rat, a jaguar, a puma or any other thing we'd ever actually heard of. Finally after we were convinced "Yeah he must be talking about an otter" for the 5th time, he lost his patience, grabbed us from the table and showed us a wood carving on the bar of the strangest looking animal that neither of us had never seen before. Turns out it was a Capybara, the worlds largest rodent. It was good for a laugh once we figured it out.

Each night Neil and I made a habit of going searching for animals using our flashlights in the forests near our cabin. We found tonnes of insects and spiders. It did not take long for Neil to regress to his boyhood and start searching for insects to feed to the spiders we found. Very fun, and interesting to see the spiders hunt.

Spiders in the Dark

A tree frog we met in our room. He was lurking around in the bathroom hunting cockroaches for us.  It was a nice opportunity to see one of these creatures up close as most of the time they are incredibly well camouflaged in the trees.

The next morning we had a shared activity with the other group where we left before sunrise to get to an oxbow lake down the river a little ways. They had rafts which they paddled through the lake that wouldn't scare away wildlife as we made our way around. It was incredibly peaceful that early and in spite of the loud chatter from the British gang we were still lucky to see a lot of wildlife including Hoatzin birds, anhingas, herons, and giant river otters.The rest of the morning consisted of a stake out behind a bird blind at a macaw salt lick. We had a few glimpses of the birds but they seemed to keep their distance, probably due to a big hawk camping out in the area as well.

Daybreak at the oxbow lake.
Various birds encountered during our trip. An anhinga, hoatzin, and scarlet macaw.
Protective spines on various tree trunks and vines.

 In the afternoon we visited a Shaman's farm and had a look at the plants they use for local medicines. Many locals still use Shaman's for medical treatment as more modern medicine is prohibitively expensive for a good portion of Peruvians. The Shaman's use a variety of plants to treat anything from the flu, to colds, to menstrual pain. A lot of the plants have common properties that are found in modern medicine like aspirin and novocaine. One of the common treatments is the use of Ayahuasca, which has a highly hallucinogenic derivative that the shamans use to go into trances and heal the spirits of the sick. These days there is even a tourism industry based around people coming to see the shamans to basically trip out on one of the more powerful hallucinogens in the world.  Though we were given samples of typical healing drinks that they use, we were not given a sample of a Ayahuasca preparation. Perhaps for the best. Despite that, the British boys managed to down their samples with a "Bottoms up!" while getting a new facebook profile picture in the process. I'm pretty sure the drink at the time was an example of mixture used for the treatment of menstrual pain. 

A sign marking the Ayahuasca plant in the Shaman's garden.

In the evening we joined our guide for a more formal night walk where she pointed out some tree frogs and interesting insects. Like a girl after Neil's heart, she ended up locating a tarantula nest and in an effort to lure out the brute, she captured a little stick bug to try and get it to come eat it. Despite her best efforts though the Tarantula hung back, though Neil was still impressed.

Stick bug
A large grasshopper shedding it's exoskeleton, while hanging upside down on a leaf. This was a particularly cool experience. During one of our night walks we encountered this large grasshopper moulting while hanging from a leaf. Really neat event to see close up in the wild. 

Our last day was pretty relaxed. A couple more activities including some nature walk where we spotted some monkeys, macaws and various other wildlife. We spent our free time in the afternoon following lizards around in the grass near our hut. Neil was in his element, creeping up the lizards on his belly to get some pretty great close-ups.

Neil, lizard hunter. 

Lizard close-up.
Dusky Titi Monkey

Later in the afternoon we visited a local indigenous families farm. They grew everything from bananas and papaya, to various jungle potatoes including yuca. They also had all their own livestock, including pigs, chickens and geese. Their house was a very simple raised, open air structure with dirt floors and a patched up corrugated roof. It was very interesting to see how they live. The little money they do make from selling their fruit or excess livestock is used to supplement grains and other foods which they don't grow, and to send their kids to school in town. A simple life, but common for a large portion of Peruvian indigenous population, as there isn't a lot of government support for these communities.

Banana tree and animals at a local indigenous farm.
Sunset over the Tambopata River

Our last night was really interesting and particularly school-boy-ish. We dragged Jorge out into the jungle for one last night excursion. We found one particularly large spider web-nest, about the size of a basketball, home to a spider that was about the size of a golf ball. Neil found another piece of bug-bate for it and tossed it in the nest, which produced a seemingly unnaturally fast pounce by the spider and several dramatic strikes to kill the little bug. The three of us (including Jorge) were giggling like pre-teens as we filmed the experience in the light of our dim flashlights. 

Returning to the lodge, we found the sky to be brilliantly lit with a full moon and puffy scattered clouds littering the sky from horizon to horizon. Pictures below. Very picturesque way to spend our last evening at the lodge. Our last morning ended with a relaxed boat ride back to Puerto Maldonado where we had a flight to catch that would take us back to Cusco and Ange.

Moonlit sky and our lodge building.

Zoom-shift of the moonlit sky.
Overall, our trip to the jungle proved to be well worth the investment. It was a very positive experience which gave us the opportunity to learn a lot about the jungles ecosystems, as well as meet the indigenous locals and learn about their way of life.

Phew. Now that I'm finished with this I can get back to picture taking and leave the writing to Ange. Thanks for reading all!

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