A tiny lime green snake slithers by mighty close to my feet, while sprightly spider monkeys swing on vines nearby and raucous blue and yellow macaws screech overhead. Welcome to Peru’s Amazon rainforest, a riot of colour and sound, located in the southeast of the country, wedged between the forested Madre de Dios and Puno areas downstream from the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado.
Flying in from Lima, it looks like a dense green carpet with coffee-coloured rivers and streams meandering through the pristine wilderness, dotted with occasional eco lodges, small towns and riverside villages.
It was back in 1990 that the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected area of over one million hectares was created, earning the Reserve a reputation as the biodiversity capital of Peru.
Today, we are on an adventure to the Inkaterra Rainforest Canopy Walk in an area that is home to more than 540 species of birds, 135 species of mammals, 151 species of fauna, 362 species of ants, 313 species of butterflies, 322 species of insects, 442 species of spiders and 44 species of molluscs. The trouble with these figures is that new species are being discovered regularly, so it’s hard to keep count in what’s often termed the last biological frontier.
Our guide Hermian, who loves sharing his rainforest secrets, is passionate about his own back yard. Attuned to every tiny squeak and rowdy squawk that pierces the air, he points out some of the most unusual rainforest “characters” on our muddy walk to the canopy towers and swinging bridges.
“Here’s an insect that leads a double life – it changes colour if it senses a predator is close by, turning green to match the leaves,” Hermian says.
Then there are spiders that collect twigs and debris and form a stick spider in a gossamer web to confuse their enemies.
“Look here – isn’t that clever! They make something that looks like a spider and while they have the enemy bluffed they are safe beneath it,” he says.
Nests known as ‘Goat’s Beards’, inhabited by very aggressive ants that protect the Tangarana tree in exchange for food and refuge, are also pretty cool. As we climb the sturdy tower steps, we are reminded that there are no guaranteed sightings in the rainforest, where trees grow to 45 metres and occasionally up to 60, but we are assured there are always surprises.
“I don’t think you will go away disappointed,” Hermian says as he points out bright green mealy parrots and a black fronted nunbird with a bright red beak, flying by. Fingers crossed we will spot a jaguar, but we have been told our chances are pretty slim.
At the top of the 29-metre-tower, we cross a swinging bridge which takes a little getting used to, but once assured it is completely safe, we cross one by one, stopping to check out the rainforest canopy and the forest floor below.
You soon feel at one with the rainforest and half-way across I stop and look out over the canopy in awe of nature in its finery. There’s definitely a rainforest hierarchy here, top of the rainforest are the brazil nut trees and the hard wood shihuahuaco trees that tower above the canopy. Strangler figs wrap themselves tightly around tree trunks and termites make their home in tangled branches.
“The stiller and quieter you are, the more you will see,” says Hermian, and he’s right as a whole new world opens up to us.
You don’t have to be dedicated twitchers to enjoy watching birds dart around the rainforest but binoculars definitely help. Taking photos isn’t easy as they sure don’t hang around for long.
But just as I am midway across the third bridge, that has quite a wobble up swaying from side to side, there’s a disturbing noise in the distance. It starts as a low, rumbling growl, then rises to a high-pitched blood curdling scream and I hasten to get to the next tower as it gets louder.
Hermian smiles as he informs us it is just a red howler monkey staking his territory and he could be up to four kilometres away.
“He’s just letting everyone in the monkey world know that it’s his turf,” he says.
Later we see cute marmosets – small rainforest monkeys – leaping from branch to branch, watching us from afar. Once down on the forest floor, relieved I didn’t come face to face with a howler monkey, it is time for the Amazon butterflies to take centre stage. The bright iridescent blue ones are my favourite as well as those with translucent, lacy wings that flit from one bright flower to the next.
As we retrace the muddy track back to our lodge, Hermian talks about the partnership in the rainforest that has developed over more than 200 million years of evolution.
“Here everything relies on something else – that’s the way it is in the rainforest,” he says.
“There are even certain vines and trees that ooze sap that attract ants. The queen ant then uses the interior to lay her eggs and form a colony – later, the ants patrol the plant, protecting it.”
Luckily we don’t need protection as our home for three nights is at Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion, that offers rustic, chic cabanas with king-size beds draped with mosquito nets, ensuites and enclosed lounge areas.
Inkaterra, an eco-tourism pioneer since 1975, has a handful of amazing lodges in Peru and is dedicated to conservation and rainforest preservation. The property is a former cocoa and rubber plantation that was “rescued” by Inkaterra in 1979 and developed into a research centre with the lodge added years later. The environmental education centre is sustained by income generated by tourism activities.
As part of Inkaterra’s conservation and ecological philosophy, the power generator is closed down for several hours every day and evening so guests can rest and enjoy the rainforest symphony and sights at their back door.
All tours leave from the eco-centre where knowledgeable guides are based and there’s an impressive library of educational books. The very large preserved anaconda in a large glass case receives great attention and makes that little lime green snake that crossed my path seem tame.
There’s also a small spa perfect for a relaxing massage after a day of rainforest exploration.
Dining is an adventure in the rustic dining area of the two-story Casa Grande, with gourmet meals inspired by the tropical flavours of the Amazon region with delicious fish, salads, tropical fruit and afternoon treats. Later we sip pisco sours, Peru’s national drink, looking out over the lush rainforest, creating memories that will last forever.
Another day we head to nearby Lake Sandoval where we canoe across a beautiful, mirror-like oxbow lake and spot the endangered giant river otter that watch our every move before swimming off and hiding in the reeds.
Those noisy red howler monkeys are also present as well as colourful macaws, prehistoric hoatzins and yellow spotted side-neck turtles. Later, in a smaller lake we try our luck at piranha fishing but it seems the famously flesh-eating Amazonian movie stars aren’t hungry. Instead we land several small silver fish that don’t put up much of a fight and are released and returned to their watery life.
We also venture out on a night cruise on the swiftly flowing Madre de Dios River skirting the banks to spot caiman lazing in the shallows or stretched out on the banks waiting for prey.
The river is home to three species of caiman – black, white and dwarf. Black caiman is the largest predator in the Amazon ecosystem, it snacks on fish, reptiles, birds and mammals.
Further on we spot the hefty capybara, the largest rodent in the world that reminds me of an overweight rat. We learn the record weight for these animals is a whopping 90 kilograms and they aren’t in too much of a hurry to move on after we spot them.
Three days in the Amazon is an amazing experience and the longer you stay the more you discover. Slight sounds and small movements you would have once ignored or not even noticed now have heads turning and ears straining.
My favourite animal of all is the cute three-toed sloth that we see most afternoons in the same tree near the Casa Grande. He rarely moves, surveying the scene below with what seems like a sly smile on his face. We are told it can take a sloth a month to digest one meal so his life is definitely in the slow lane.
As for that elusive jaguar – not a glimpse – but that’s the allure of the Amazon rainforest, it just gets under your skin and makes you want to return one day.
Who knows that South American big cat may be sitting on a tree stump as we pass next time. •
Photography by Richard Sloane.
LATAM Airlines offers regular flights from Lima to Puerto Maldonado. 1800-126-038; latam.com
WHAT TO DO
• Inkaterra Canopy Walk
• Wetlands Tour
• Night Cruise