Emme, Brett and I landed in the teensy Puerto Maldonado airport on Saturday, March 24th. The flight in was stunning: gorgeous blue mountain lakes and pastures melted into endless, flat Amazonian jungle. Instantly after deplaning, the humidity made everything feel soggy and sticky. A young guide named Jesus was waiting for us with a sign that had Emme’s name x3, and then one solo name scrawled under. Since our plane was late, we had to wait a half hour for the last guy, but it gave us a chance to get to know our guide, Raul. He was super friendly, and explained what kinds of animals we should expect to see – all in Spanish. And Jorge, the guy we waited for (a thirty-something model from Spain who we secretly called Jorge de la Jungla), only spoke Spanish to him as well. I started to accept that we had accidentally signed up for a Spanish tour and that I would have to engage my brain on high-comprehension mode for the next three days. Once we got to the office, I realized Raul was just an oddball, and that he spoke perfect English. He pointed out a sloth in a nearby tree as we waited for our boat to take off for the reserve. It felt like we were on a different planet, stalking sloths in our lightest outfits along the big, brown Madre de Dios River. I was so happy to get to wear my summer clothes after weeks of wearing just my three winter outfits.
A few different groups loaded into our little canoe-type motor boat, and we set off for our thirty minute trip up river to the Corto Maltes Amazonia Ecolodge. The lodge was like a little paradise tucked on the banks: it had a cozy bar, a great big dining room, and gorgeous grounds dotted with private huts and a pool. We were shown to our rooms and given a pair of knee-high galoshes to wear on our expeditions before sitting down to our first group meal. Since Jorge was alone on a Spanish tour, he joined our “English” table for meals, which consisted of us three and two American girls who were on a holiday from studying abroad in Cusco. The food was great – bread, soup, and a large main with watered down, but refreshing lemonade. Several soups went uneaten, so Brett and I went to town finishing everyone else’s. We left for a short nature walk around the grounds after the meal, and saw the resident toucans, macaws, and agoutis (small rodent/bunny creatures). Afterwards, we had a short break before our nighttime caiman cruise on the river. Madre de Dios is home to both black and white caimans (basically alligators) that can grow up to 16 feet long. On the cruise we only spotted one baby caiman, but the humidity had died down and the skies were clear so it was still pretty epic.
The next day we had an early wake up to make it out to the Tambopata Reserve by mid-morning. We boated to the park entrance and then started a hike down a path that varied between 6 inches and a foot deep with slick mud. Raul had given us little to no heads up about the amount we’d be slipping on the wet trail banks and getting our galoshes stuck in the suction-cup mud pools. Both Emme and Brett accidentally grabbed onto needle spiked-trees to avoid falling and consequently got their hands speared. And on top of all this, Raul refused to tell us we had three miles of nonstop swamp ahead of us. I felt a lot of negative things about him by the time we reached Sandoval Lake. The day quickly turned around as we loaded into a tiny, unpowered canoe with some bagged sandwiches.
We spent a few hours on the lake paddling around the edges, with Raul and Jesus using their expert animal-spotting skills to point out various birds (macaws, giant quail, stinky birds, cranes), monkeys (howler, capuchin, squirrel), and caimans. Our favorite encounter was getting super close to a troop of over 100 tiny, yellow squirrel monkeys. They’re adorable and some were no bigger than the size of my fist. Raul also got us up-close-and-personal with a 6ish foot black caiman. He swam right up next to the canoe while Raul taunted it with a water bottle, which made us all feel very safe. While we weren’t taking hundreds of animal photos, we got to chat a lot more with each other. Raul told us about how taking ayahuasca helped him use his “real eyes to realize the real lies” and lose over 50 lbs. He said it has helped with the ladies, but it’s hard to find a good one in the jungle. I don’t know much about jungle-dating, but that seems like a fair assessment. Our evening activity was moved up due to high winds coming in, so we got to have a relaxing afternoon at the pool beforehand. About a mile behind our lodge, they had built a seven-story platform above the highest layer of the tree canopy. Climbing up to it was a single flight of narrow, rickety stairs that did not look like they were in great shape. We were only allowed to walk up a flight one-at-a-time, and once we got to the top, the bugs attacked us with such a vengeance that we didn’t need another excuse to get back down as fast as we could. It’s good that we did too because a group that came later ended up with a tree falling down on part of the deck! After another extra-soup filled dinner (where Brett and I were told that there are two kinds of people in the world, and we are in the group of “soup people”), we snuck our way onto a new group’s caiman cruise for round two, but they came up with zero sightings.
Since we had arrived, we sweated through our clothes by JUST DARING to sit outside, so we really didn’t buy Raul’s story that a cold-front was coming in. But sure enough, that night the wind blew so hard that pool chairs slid into the water, and lots of trees came down by the river. So the next day, the air did feel a little bit crisper, and as an added bonus, the wind had blown away or killed a lot of the mosquitos. That granted us the serenity to wear short sleeves (DEET still applied heavily) on our trip out to an “Amazonian farm.” Maybe you’re thinking, “oh cool, so like a cacao or coffee bean farm?” So were we. But it was more like an abandoned fruit farm, with an aggressive domesticated macaw and a completely random assortment of plants. Raul and Jesus scaled trees that I would have thought were impossible to climb, and using their machetes, carved up some weird, new things I’d never heard of before. Then, they took us over to a “native village,” which was full of surprises. When we boated up, a small family greeted us in some traditional clothing, and quickly changed a baby out of a batman onesie into his more native-looking birthday-suit. They had a dog wandering around that was the most sickly looking creature I’ve ever seen in my life and made me feel ill. The father of the new baby was 15. Even though all but one spoke Spanish, they didn’t eat lunch with us and kind of left to do their own thing for most of our time on their property. The patriarch showed us how to use his native bow and arrow to hunt, and then the women showed us how they create the thread to make their clothes. Afterwards, they showed us some jewelry they’d made in case we wanted to buy some, but a lot of it was sparkly, plastic beads that looked straight out of a Michaels craft store. They did not make a sale. Our last relaxing night was filled with piña coladas, playing pool, and watching the sunset. We laughed a ton over dinner and felt the bummer set in about our very short trip coming to an end.
Our last morning included yet another early rise, and a short trek out to a blind to watch parrots fly into a clay lick to eat. Our group arrived before the parrots did, and it was cool to hear them slowly descend out of the trees into the little river bend we were watching. Around 50 flew down and littered the brown-red wall with their neon green feathers. They stuck around for about 10 minutes before all flying off at once. We grabbed a last breakfast at the lodge and had a minute to pack up for our trip back to the airport.
Emme, Brett and I boarded our plane to Lima, and watched the mess of trees become the giant Andes, and then the desert cliffs of the coast. Peru is such an insanely diverse country, and seeing it all stretch out below me was more striking than observing it over hours and hours on our countless bus rides. Arriving in Lima meant Brett’s and my time in South America was quickly coming to an end, but I’ll save those final thoughts for one last Peru post.