The sharp crack of thunder woke me from what seemed like a dead sleep. As I opened my eyes, streaks of lightning came one after another – each one followed by a loud boom that seemed to be off in the distance. I glanced at my watch. It was 2:46 am. The rain was torrential hitting the thatched roof above my head. It sounded as if the skies had opened up. The sounds were especially loud due to the open-air construction of the lodge. There were no outer walls. Each guest room was completely open on one side except for the railing that kept you from falling into the jungle. The flashes of light appeared just seconds apart with the usual loud crack a few seconds later. I felt as if I was right in the middle of this whole thing. The deluge didn’t abate for over an hour. Wow!!! I wanted to experience the rainforest. What better way than a batten-down-the-hatch type storm that just didn’t stop. I couldn’t sleep at all after it started. I was laying on my bed looking through a mosquito net to the most amazing storm. I just pulled the covers up and listened to it unfold.
The next morning, the staff indicated this was much stronger than the typical storm. During the storm, the boat drivers, who have their own lodging overlooking the boat dock, noticed one of the boats was taking on water. Before they could correct the issue, the boat capsized. It took about ten of the staff to right the boat and secure it. I can’t imagine what it was like to accomplish this feat during a storm of this magnitude.
It was just a few days ago that I had arrived in Puerto Maldonado, Peru’s gateway to the Amazon region, after a three-hour uneventful LAN Airlines flight from Lima (including a brief half hour stop in Cusco). The Rainforest Expeditions staff greeted me, and about 15 other arrivals, at the airport. I met Robin, who would be my team’s tour guide for the duration of our stay. Robin was a member of the local community and had been guiding for Rainforest Expeditions for seven years. I would be staying four nights/five days, which was two nights longer than the seven others (all from Great Britain) on my team would stay. This meant it was just Robin and myself for the last two days. Wow, my own personal guide. Yuri would be the tour guide for the remaining arrivals (two from Ireland, two from Sweden and six from the USA, which included a woman who was celebrating her 80th birthday). I would be truly inspired watching her handle the elements over the next few days.
After both teams climbed into the lodge’s bus and a brief stop at their office, we headed off for a 40-minute drive to the river, over pot-hole marked dirt roads, at which point, we climbed into a long, narrow boat for the 40-minute ride upriver to the lodge. We learned quickly that balance in the boat was critical because it rolled easily to the side with the most weight. It was hot and humid – definitely a difference from the 60 degree weather I left in Lima. There was a nice breeze hitting me when riding in the boat; however, the 15-minute hike from the river landing to the lodge reinforced that it would be warm and humid.
We arrived at the lodge about 3:30 in the afternoon. After a cold drink and cold towel upon arrival (which felt pretty damn good), and settling into our rooms for about a minute and a half, we were off on a 30-minute hike through the jungle to the lodge’s 120-foot high observation tower. Robin suggested we wear long pants and a long shirt to guard against bugs, mosquitos and the sun. I really wanted to wear shorts and a t-shirt; however, I did as Robin suggested. I figured his words came from experience. I packed mostly quick drying clothes. They’re light. They dry quickly. They’re great for a hike in the jungle.
The tower is nothing more than a series of pipes, a wooden staircase and floorboards which create a landing about every 10 feet in height. When first looking at it, it didn’t appear very sturdy especially thinking how high up I would be. Once we started climbing, I could tell how sturdy it was by the guide wires to each corner every 30 feet up or so. At the top, we were above the tree line and had a commanding view of the local area. Trees, trees and more trees – that’s basically all I saw except for a slice of the river. It seemed so expansive, so far-reaching. What a great first excursion – giving an overall perspective of the jungle.
Excursions give a glimpse into the rainforest's life
The day starts early at the lodge. On the first morning, breakfast is at 4:30 and the first excursion, a trip to a local lake to see the natural habitat, starts at 5 am. Wow. Welcome to the Amazon rainforest where the animals don’t wait for tourists to wake up at 8:30 in the morning. It was great to get out early. It’s cooler and a beautiful time of day.
The morning excursion, on the first day, included the short hike back to the river, a 20-minute ride upriver in the lodge’s boat and then a 30-minute hike to a local lake. It was already warming up. We had the place to ourselves. We climbed into a raft-like boat that had bench seats and one big oar in the back to propel the boat along. For the next two hours, we slowly moved around the lake observing the local habitat as the lake’s custodian and our tour guides navigated the pretty large oar in the back. It was fascinating to see birds and animals that I previously might have seen only in a zoo or bird sanctuary. We even went fishing – catching a few Piranha that make their home in this lake. After unhooking them, Yuri held each one firmly exposing their razor-like teeth so we could get pictures. The guides indicated swimming in the lake is fine even with the piranha. They've done it a number of times. Just be careful if you have a cut and release blood into the water. Yikes! After a few minutes, he returned each to the water.
In the afternoon, we headed downriver to the local biologico center to visit the region’s shaman (the local medicine provider/healer) and learn, in a very simplistic way, the medicinal use of various plant and tree products grown in the local area. Our two groups listened intently as we moved from one tree/plant exhibit to the next as the shaman described in Spanish, and then Yuri translated, the background and purpose for each tree/plant.
One plant contains Novocain and is used for achy teeth
Another plant can stimulate an erection, and if taken correctly, can provide an erection lasting up to five days according to the shaman. Wow, you don’t have to call the doctor after four hours I guess.
Other plants can reduce the effects of arthritis or even cure certain diseases
The plants that had the most discussion were the ayahuasca and chacruna vines that when boiled together and prepared in such a way can cause hallucinogenic trances in the person who drinks even just a small shot. Our two tour guides stated they had tried it, which put them into a state of mind where they were in touch with a spirit world and had visions of their lives and families. The shaman and our tour guides indicated you should never do this without the presence of a shaman who can guide you through the experience. It reminded me of the effects I had read many years ago of someone on an LSD trip. Over the last few days, I have found places online (in Peru), like private clinics, where one can go and drink the ayahuasca beverage. Umm, I think I’ll be skipping this drink.
Each excursion had a destination that we would hike or take the boat to. At the destination, we would either observe/learn about the local animals and birds OR learn different things about the local region such as the shaman or visiting a local farm. One of the things that made the excursions so much fun was getting to the destination and back. The guides had great knowledge of the local area and were very good at spotting various wildlife as we were hiking. As they listened to the various sounds of the jungle, they would focus on the sound of one bird's call and whistle back engaging in a communication with them. They would stop in the middle of the jungle, give us a quick shhhh, and within minutes point out some bird or animal that we never would have seen. We saw many birds unique to this region such as macaws, tucans, parrots, parakeets and vultures to name a few. We saw monkeys, wild turkeys, an anteater, trumpeters (a small turkey-like bird) and tarantulas.
On one excursion, it was just Robin and I hiking on one of the jungle trails heading to the tree with the largest base in the entire Amazon region when we came across a whole pack of monkeys. As they moved away from us literally leaping from tree top to the next tree top, Robin decided to blaze his own trail through the bushes, vines and everything else in his way. Since I had no idea where I was, I made sure I didn’t let him out of my sight. Who knew how far he was going to head after them. He did this on two occasions. I was totally amazed when in the middle of absolutely nowhere, Robin knew exactly where to pick up the trail.
On the last two mornings, Robin and I headed out from the lodge at 5 am when it was just barely getting light. It’s such a beautiful time of day. The air is cool. The animals and birds are already out squawking up quite a commotion. The macaws and the howler monkeys were the loudest as they filled the morning air. A 15-minute hike took us to what they call the clay leak. It’s a little wooden shack on the edge of the riverbank that acts as a “blind” where guests can observe the local birds without being detected. We observed 30 to 40 parrots, macaws and parakeets feeding on the clay that made up the riverbank walls. It’s just something that you don’t see in your typical day. Besides observing the birds, we were able to view the sunrise coming up over the jungle as a low bank of fog was creeping across the river.
One of the things I enjoyed was the camaraderie with the other team members. From the moment we got into the bus together at the Puerto Maldonado Airport, I knew this was going to be a fun group. Everyone was chatting and excited for the next few days to unfold. The bus and boat rides to the lodge got us off on the right foot. The tour guides made it easy. Their relaxed and communicative style made interacting with them fun and easy. We went out on excursions, ate our three meals a day and even drank in the bar in the evening as a team.
I thought the food was awesome. It was primarily local Peruvian food comprised of everyday enjoyable foods such as chicken with local herbs, spices and sauces to flavor it. For the most part, the food was not spicy; however, at most meals there was pico de gallo or a spicy sauce for those wanting a little more heat. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I saw many people going back for seconds. And there was plenty of it.
One of the lunches -
Potatoes in huancaina sauce – sliced boiled yellow potatoes are covered with huancaina sauce (fresh Peruvian cheese, hot green yellow pepper, onion, garlic, milk and soda crackers). The dish is served garnished with hard-boiled eggs, black olives and lettuce. The sauce comes from Huancayo – an Andean Peruvian city.
One of the dinners –
Tomato cream soup – with minced onion, garlic clove, minced and skinned tomato, oregano, tomato paste, chicken or vegetable broth, flour, milk, salt and pepper.
Chicken in Brazil nuts sauce – chicken, Brazil nuts, onions, garlic, eggs and oil
Rainforest Expeditions has a 20-year agreement, which is set to expire in 2016, with the local native community to operate three lodges – Posada Amazonas (the one I stayed at), Refugio Amazonas (two hours upriver from Posadas) and the Tambopata Research Center (six hours upriver from Posadas). Rainforest Expeditions receives 40% of the profits. The local community receives 60%.
The lodge is an open-air facility, built a few feet above the ground, with 30 guestrooms. There is no air-conditioning. It does get warm and humid. Walkways that separate each section of the lodge are also raised off the ground and are exposed to the elements. The lobby, dining and guestrooms all have roofs.
The guestrooms are comprised of a sleeping area (one side is exposed to the jungle with just a railing on that side) and a bathroom (including wash basin with running cold water, a flush toilet and a shower with hot and cold running water). The walls are made of bamboo and do not completely close off the guestroom; however, it never seemed to be a problem. There’s even a hammock in the room next to the exposed portion of the room. Biodegradable soap and shampoo are provided.
There is a dining area, where three meals a day are served buffet style at specific times of the day. At one end of this area, is a lounge with seating in comfortable chairs or at the bar.
I was very impressed with the smooth and efficient operation of the lodge – from organizing all of the boat rides (there are only three boats available to transport guests to local areas for excursions and get arriving/departing guests to and from the lodge); providing quality meals for the lodge guests on a timely basis; organizing each person’s itinerary. Everything went smoothly from start to finish. I was surprised that most guests departed after just two nights, which meant they only had one full day for excursions. The extra two days that I had, I felt, really allowed me to get a good glimpse into life in the Amazon rainforest.
If you ever get the opportunity, take a trip into the Amazon region. Yes, it is warm and humid. There are bugs. However, it’s an experience of a lifetime. Consider booking your reservations with Rainforest Expeditions. Checkout their website at perunature.com.