Up the Madre de Dios River into the Amazon
05.08.2012 - 09.08.2012 26 °C
Peru has three extremely different enviroments: the coastline is almost all desert, then you have the high-altitudes of the Andes cutting down the middle of the country like a backbone, and on the other side of them, the lowland tropics where the Amazon basin starts. Before we left on the Inca Trail, we booked a five-day excursion into the Manu National Park, which encompasses the Peruvian part of the Amazon. Two days after we got back from the trail, off we went. Besides G and me, there was one other couple from the States on the trip - a guy and gal in their early to mid 20s who were very nice, but also strictly observant Jews whose determination to keep kosher on the trip caused some amusing complications now and then with Jorge, the cook. The leader of our little group was our Abraham, a SUPER pleasant and friendly guy who turned out to be an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guide.
The drive there was amazing. I thought we were already pretty damn high up in Cusco, but we had to go higher still. Up, up, up with the landscape getting even more dry and bare and the icy peaks getting closer and closer until we went over the Abra Pirhuayani pass at almost 15,000 feet. There was very little up there - just an isolated homestead now and then where the few locals who live here breed llamas. Heading downhill from there, things slowly started getting greener as we caught up with the Madre de Dios River, which eventually pours into the Amazon River itself. By the end of the afternoon, when we reached the small city we were to stay in that night, we were already surrounded by rainforest and, if you kept your eyes peeled, you could occasionally already see parrots and macaws flying overhead.
We got an even better look at them early the next morning. We took off at 5:30am, drove 40 minutes and pulled off the road next to what they call a 'clay lick' - a vertical wall with a high percentage of clay, which happens to contain many minerals that certain tropical birds need, but can't get in their diets. At dawn, big groups of them tend to gather at such licks to nibble at the walls. Jorge and Abraham set up a table and chairs on a broad shoulder next to the road with our breakfast, and as we ate we watched dozens and dozens of different kinds of parrots and even a few big, colorful macaws arrive for theirs. Very cool! After another half hour drive, we arrived at a small side river of the Madre de Dios. All our food, water and gear for the jungle was loaded into a rather rickety boat that looked like a mini version of the African Queen which took us across.
Then we piled ourselves and our stuff into two 'taxis' waiting at the mud bank opposite, which took us for another hour over a very bumpy, unpaved road to our the last outpost of civilization - a tiny dirt town called Colorado on the Madre de Dios itself. We had to wait there a couple hours before loading into another boat and starting on the five-hour journey upriver into the jungle and the small lodge where we´d be staying. We´d gotten up really early and I kept dozing off now and then, but kept jumping awake everytime Abraham shouted out the name of birds and animals he spotted along the way - and man, that guy could pick out a sand-coloured baby cayman on a sand-coloured beach at 200 paces. His eyesight was amazing! Unfortunately, being so sleepy I was a second too late when he yelled "Jaguar!" By the time I looked in the right direction, it had dashed back into the bushes. But I did see the capybara it had been after, which had jumped into the river to escape from being caught and eaten. The lodge was simple (no electricity in the rooms - just candles) but comfortable beds with - thank God - good mosquito nets. Cruising up the river you aren´t bothered by bugs, but the second you step on land they´re everywhere! Still, I gladly put up with getting my first few bites that evening after the sun went down: I think the last time I saw such a stunning starry sky - the Milky Way was a clear and vivid cloud against the inky black - was when we were camping on top of Nemrut Dagi 25 years ago. This was the view we had from our lodge.
We were out on the river again before the sun rose the next morning so we could make it to another clay lick before the birds started arriving. After we got off the boat we had a 20 minute hike to get to it, with Gerard thoughtfully helping to carry our refreshments.
Even though we saw a lot of cool things in the following days, the next few hours that we spent at the lick were - for me - the highlight of the Manu trip. To start with, it was HUGE - much bigger than the one we stopped at the first day. The parrots were sweeping and flying back and forth overhead by the hundreds when we arrived, and they loaded the trees above the lick like ripe apples. They kept twittering and darting around, and Abraham explained it was always a nerve-racking wait for the first one or two to start feeding: it puts them into a very vulnerable position with their back exposed to predatory birds, and only after a few have safely started, will the other ones follow. Should an eagle fly overhead, or anything else spook them, they´ll all immediately flee the lick for the day. As the parrots kept trying to make up their minds, the much bigger and brilliantly multi-coloured macaws slowly started to arrive - it was like seeing countless little pieces of rainbow streaking overhead. Eventually, there were a couple hundred macaws in the trees as well, but the parrots just didn´t want to settle down. Eventually they started swarming away, the macaws, however, suddenly started fluttering lower and lower down the trees, and within just a couple minutes, they were all over the lick. It was such an awesome sight! All told, we were at the lick viewing platform for a few hours - Abraham and Jorge had brought along a simple, but great breakfast of fresh fruit salad, bread and butter, and coffee and tea that we enjoyed while we were there.
Afterwards, it was back in the boat and down the river a ways where we got out and headed into the jungle again. Visually, it was just spectacular, with amazing plants and trees, including huge palms with fronds as big as my living room. Abraham was a walking encyclopedia, explaining and pointing things out. He had a great telescope with him which he´d stop now and then to set up, so we got incredibly close looks at monkeys, birds and massive hornets nests up in the trees. But what made the most impression on me were the sounds you heard all around. Chirping and chattering and eerie bird calls unlike any I´d ever heard before. At a certain point, Abraham shushed us, peered ahead up the path, and whispered "wild pigs". Using our own binoculars, we could see three or four shuffling and snuffling for palm kernels a couple hundred feet ahead of us. Suddenly, we heard some strange crashing in the bushes ahead to the left of us, and Abraham said it seemed like there was a good-sized pack of them. "Stay still, and don´t move", he said with a smile. "Maybe they will go away, but if they start coming toward us, climb up a tree or run back as fast as you can to the boat, and I will head them off". I gave a little giggle, then looked at him again.
He was dead serious.
With the adrenaline rush I had at that moment, I´d have been at the top of the nearest tree in NO time. Thankfully, it wasn´t necessary. After another 30 seconds or so, there was an increasing sound of rustling and crashing in the bushes up ahead, and suddenly, a whole HERD of pigs was stampeding across the path and off into the trees to the right of us - there must have been 30 or 40 of them! A real Close Encounter of the Swine Kind! Once they´d taken off, we continued on and soon reached our destination - a simple wooden viewing platform built 120 feet up in a huge kapok tree. Once up there, you had a stunning view over the jungle canopy below, and we spotted a bunch of new types of birds, including a huge owl sleeping in one of the kapok tree branches.
Then we hiked further on to a lake where we saw a couple of giant otters, started to get seriously baked by the sun, and - despite constant spraying of repellent - got increasingly nibbled on by bugs. Getting back to a screened in porch and late lunch at the lodge was very welcome - as was the cold shower afterwards! Late that afternoon, the others hiked off from the lodge to a different kind of lick (salt) that attracts tapirs, but I opted to chill out with a book in the dining hall. As it turned out, I didn´t miss anything - no tapirs showed up anyway. For dinner that night I had my first taste of alpaca - and MAN is it ever delicious! Very tender and with a faint, but rich, flavour that´s really hard to describe. Am definitely planning on having that again sometime.
The next day was full of more lake visits and jungle hikes - saw giant termite larvae, poison dart frogs, hummingbirds, toucans, amazing butterflies and bullet ants that were almost as long as my fingers. Their sting is apparently horrible - it can cause paralysis and even (if enough of them bite you) death. The indigenous people who live in the Amazon (we saw a number of them camping and fishing here and there along the river) tie people who commit really serious crimes (i.e., sexually abusing children) on top of their nests for a specific period of time as punishment. Unfortunately, we did not get around to the piranha fishing I'd been looking forward to. When Abraham explained that the site was in the full sun at that time of day, even I lost my enthusiasm for the idea.
The next day was all taken up with the long trip back to Cuzco. Thankfully, the return river trip to Colorado only took three hours instead of five, as we were heading downstream. Still, it was 7:30pm before we got back to our hotel. It was really an amazing excursion, and we may be going back into the Amazon later in our trip, because it is NOT all the same everywhere. Only now am I getting a real idea of how incredibly huge it is, and what a variety of different ecosystems it contains. What we saw in Peru is quite different than what we might see in the Brazilian part. As long as we have enough DEET, I´m more than willing to dive in there again!