Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Peru Trip: Puerto Maldonado

Our  trip to Puerto Maldonado was crazy. We purchased tickets on an overnight sleeper bus through the same travel agent that helped us book our hike to Rainbow Mountain. The bus was a disaster from the start. It was an older bus, the fan and lights didn’t work. The cabin smelled of oil and diesel fumes and there were no windows to circulate the air. We were sold a direct route and came to find out there were five stops along the way through out the night. At one point the driver stopped on the side of the road, and in his white button up shirt and navy slacks climbed into the engine compartment in the back of the bus to fix something. We seriously considered getting a taxi at that point, but we were in the middle of who knows where and it was still dark outside so we chose to get back on the bus. At around 8:30 am we finally made it to Puerto Maldonado.

The bus station was small and there was no tourist information so we got on line and contacted the tour operator I had researched in the States before arriving here. A SeƱor Abel is the owner of Tambopata Jungle Tours. We were able to negotiate a 25% discount on the package deal by waiting until we arrived to book.

He sent a taxi to pick us up and drive us to his boat launch area on the Tambopata River. We descended some steep stairs and crossed a wooden plank to reach a floating barge. Our guide Marco introduced himself to us and led us into a motor boat where we rode for 20 minutes to reach the Tambopata lodge where we would be staying.

The Lodge is sew a ways back from the Madre de Dios river. I have to admit that when we disembarked I got a bit worried at seeing the single structure by the dock. I thought that was going to be where we were staying and it wasn’t much. I think it is used as a storage area.

The whole area is just dirt, or mud when it rains. To help reach the actual lodge they have set up a path made of tree trunk rings.

There is a main common area with a bar, dining and sitting area. It is quite large and tall, with stairs leading to an upper loft. Separately, there is a sleeping building with a row of rooms and a lanai with hammocks in front. 

The room walls are made of wooden slats and mesh screens. Tall curtains hang from the ceiling to offer some privacy. Each room has a bathroom and shower but no door.

Each bed had a mosquito canopy to protect from bugs at night. The same screen that allow the breeze to flow through the room also allows noise to carry from outside.

While at the lodge we met three older couples from England traveling together. One of them was sleeping in the room next to ours. The husband snored really loudly, fortunately we were all tired and could sleep though anything, including his 3 am conversation with his wife and obnoxious 4 am alarm.

Upon arriving at the lodge we checked into our room and hurried with Marco to catch the boat that dropped us off near Sandoval Lake inside the National reserve.

It had rained torrentially the previous night, so what could have been a leisurely 1.5 mile hike in flip flops ended up being a challenging 1 hour and 15 minute walk though deep mud. We were lent some rain boots at the lodge and we put them to good use. With a walking stick for balance and to test how deep the mud puddles were in front of us we made it to a small docking area where some canoes were tied up.

After boarding we rowed through a small channel that reminiscent of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland and emerged on Sandoval lake. The lake is 3km wide and up to 15 meters deep. It is surrounded by a wall of tall green trees and vegetation that reach all the way to the water. We took turns rowing around the Lake and spotting local fauna until we reached the lodge for lunch. While out on the water we spotted a heron, wild chickens, small bats, big king fisher birds, a jumping spider and macaws flying in the distance.

The Sandoval Lodge is run by a family who has lived there for the past 70 years. They first settled the area to farm fish for the Peruvian government. When the project ended the family loved the area so much they decided to stay and turn to agriculture of Brazilian nuts for income. Approximately 20 years ago the Peruvian government turned this area into a natural reserve and they were able to leave farming for tourism. Farming allowed them to survive, tourism allows them to progress. The family has 5 children. They were able to send one of them to Trujillo to study tourism at the university. When he returns they hope his knowledge will bring additional improvement to their family enterprise.

These are really simple people. They live on the lake, use propane tanks to cook their food and have to bring their drinking water in from Puerto Maldonado. They fish and grow their produce locally. They use the same canoes and hike the same trail we took to transport those supplies to their home. Yet the food they served us of mashed potatoes, lentil and chicken breast was delicious.

After our late lunch we stepped out into their court yard and spotted several wild monkeys walking along branches and leaping in between trees. Their movements reminded me of cats. The family also keeps a pet tarantula nested in a cactus tree near the house. Her name is Rosita. We could see her body and legs when peering into her cocoon but she did not come out for us (which might have been for the best).

Eventually we got back on our canoe, finished circumventing the lake, spotting animals, and headed back the same way we came.  One thing we noticed on the trail were the ants. In order to cross the path  they set up an outer wall of stationary ants creating a channel for the other ants to flow through. It was quite interesting to see.

We arrived back to our dock as the sunlight was dimming (5:30pm) where we met up with our British friends to spot cayman (small alligators). By that point it was dark outside and our guide used a flashlight to scan the bank of the river as we rode to see if he could see a reflection of their eyes shining back.

It took a while, and I have to admit I had already given up seeing some when Marco finally spotted a baby cayman. I am amazed at his eye for wild life! It is incredible how much he can identify from long distances. The alligator was even looking away from the water but somehow he saw it. It was approximately 12 inches long. They grow to be up to four feet in length.

After spotting the alligator we headed back to our lodge for dinner and to rest. The lodge uses a generator for power and only runs it for three hours in the evening so we all rushed to shower and charge our electronics before lights went out.

The following morning we awoke at 4 am and got ready in the dark as we didn’t have electricity. At 4:30am our guide loaded us into a small boat and we traveled for 90 minutes up river to see the clay licks the macaws and other parrots like to visit.

We got to enjoy seeing the sunrise from the boat and shortly there after pulled up to the spot. It is a flat vertical surface approximately 60 feet high with small caves carved into the rock towards the top. Sparse trees cover with high top canopies cover the wall. The birds like to perch on the trees or hop into the small caves. The clay rock is an excellent source of minerals and allow them to sharpen their beaks, much like the stones people buy for their birds at home. This area is also a social gathering place for the macaws. They are monogamous birds and they visit the clay licks to meet their mate. Macaws can live up to 50 years in the wild if they can avoid predators, a few years shy of what birds in captivity last.

While out bird spotting we also saw a sloth curled up on a tree. They sleep 18 to 20 hours per day so, no surprise it was sleeping when we spotted it. We got close to the shore with our boat and stopped at a good distance. While we were observing the sloth stretch out and move around to the back of the tree outside of view.

After our sightseeing we rode back to the lodge for breakfast before heading back to Lima by plane.