Peru: The Andes to the Amazon - Part Two

Published: September 28th 2011
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After our time exploring Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, we were off to the Amazon. We had pre-booked a three day/two night package at Sandoval Lake Lodge, as well as an extra night's stay in the jungle village of Puerto Maldonado. The lodge was run by InkaNatura, which is owned by a non-profit conservation group, so even though the tour was expensive by backpacking standards, we were happy to have our money go towards conservation of the beautiful places we were visiting.

Just getting to the lodge was an adventure in itself! It took almost the whole day, and included flying from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, then travelling down the Rio Madre de Dios by a motorized longboat, before hiking through the Tambopata Reserve, and finally taking a canoe across Sandoval Lake to our Lodge. The flight was only about 40 minutes but had great scenery - changing quickly from the large mountain ranges of the Andes to the vast greenery of the Amazon. We welcomed the humid, warm, oxygenated air as we disembarked the plane - yet another drastic change in the short distance we covered. The airport was small, and there was no security for arrivals, so
Got an Itch!Got an Itch!Got an Itch!

Baby Howler Monkey
we walked straight through the airport and found our bus waiting for us in the parking lot. We could have walked straight from the tarmac into the rainforest. After a short drive through the village, we stopped off at the Lodge headquarters so guests could leave excess baggage before heading to the river. We were travelling with only one other family - they were British-Peruvian, thus fluent in Spanish, and also avid birdwatchers.

We reached the wide, brown river and boarded a long wooden boat, with a simple roof and motor. As we were transported down the river, we were given a local rice dish served (and cooked) in a banana leaf. From the boat we had a great view of the large bridge spanning the river, part of the Inter-Oceanic Highway currently being constructed to join the Atlantic and the Pacific - we were about five hours away from the Brazilian border. After some distance, we were taken to shore to get off the boat. I think there were more butterflies along that part of the river bank then I had seen in a whole year! Evidently, they are attracted to the salt in the river banks, and gather there by the dozen. We would continue to see a myriad of butterflies, large and small, throughout our visit in the Amazon. After registering at the Park Office of the Tambopata National Reserve we walked for hours along the trail, not because it was long, but because we stopped every few feet to observe or listen to the wildlife. We saw many species of birds, butterflies, ants, and lizards, and even spotted a ghost bat, an agouti (this is a large rodent that looks a little like a ground hog), an amazon porcupine, and a snake! After our walk, we all climbed aboard a wooden canoe where we followed a small river to Sandoval Lake, the plethora of wildlife sightings continuing. As soon as we reached the lake, we spotted our first hoatzin (to our surprise there would be many more to come). Strange birds, roughly the size of a pheasant, they are thought to be the closest living relative to pterodactyls, and they sound the part as they screech loudly in the jungle. Hoatzin's are born with clawed wings, allowing them to safely climb back to their nests in the event that they need to throw themselves to the riverbanks to avoid predators. As we continued our canoe tour, we came across the Giant Otters the lake is renowned for being home to. These playful creatures can reach up to two metres in length. We were lucky enough to observe them hunting - the lake seemed to have plenty of fish because they rarely surfaced empty-handed. After an hour or two of being paddled around the lake, we reached the lodge. We were given a refreshing glass of fresh fruit juice and half an hour to check the place out before our night tour would begin. The lodge was a big rustic bungalow with several private rooms. It had generator powered electricity for a few hours a day, and a large, screened common area for relaxing and meals.

Our guide for the three days was Bigner, a Quechua native about our age. His English was good and he was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the Peruvian Amazon. It was very dark by the time we set out for a walk through the jungle. We could hear monkeys screeching and jumping around in the treetops, but we could not find them with our flashlights. We didn't need to venture far before we found our first "beautiful tarantula" as Bigner put it. We saw several of these, we even found one with a nest full of babies (which were bigger than the spiders at home!), as well as some other nocturnal spider species. We learned that the tarantulas are the only venomous spiders in the Amazon. There were several fireflies (though a different species from home), and other interesting insects as well. We made our way back to the lodge where we had local catfish for dinner which was better than expected, especially considering I'm not a big fan of seafood. By the time we got back to our rooms, the electricity was out. After our night tour of the jungle, we thoroughly checked under our sheets for creepy-crawlies with our flashlights before tucking our mosquito net in tightly.

The next day we were up before dawn for an early morning excursion on the lake. The cool stillness of the morning and the calm of the water made for a wonderful outing. Again we saw many species of birds and monkeys. After breakfast, Bigner took us on an "ethno-botanical" tour of the jungle. When we had seen this portion of the tour when we booked our package we thought we would walk around a garden in a big group and a guide would point out a few things. We couldn't have been more wrong! Bigner took Andrew and I out into the jungle and we were amazed at his knowledge and the rainforest - he pointed out plants to treat venomous snake bites, cancer, malaria, headaches, stomach pains, and the list went on. We were able to taste, touch, or smell some of the plants, and even a few of the insects! We could point out any tree, animal, or sound and Bigner was able to tell us what it was and what it could be used for. One of Andrew's favourites was the rubber tree - a small slit in the tree with our guide's knife and it began oozing a thick white substance, which once removed from the tree, became sticky and stretchy and turned into dark rubber. Our trust in our guide was strong, and Bigner was able to convince us to try some termites - but they had to be arboreal termites and not ground termites. Not only a good source of protein, apparently they are good for the prostate too. I squished them before I ate them, so I didn't have to worry about feeling them squirming in my mouth or biting me. The termites just had a faint taste of wood and mint.

The next day, we toured through the jungle again as we headed back to the village of Puerto Maldonado. We had booked one night's stay at the Anaconda Lodge. Our plan was to check in and then head back into the village to explore. When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly Swiss man with a baby monkey riding around on his shoulder. Donald and his Thai wife, Wadee, own and operate the Anaconda Lodge and are also known in the town for nursing sick monkeys back to health.

This was the one part of our trip where we had booked accommodations with shared bathrooms, since it was a big cost difference to upgrade to the private, luxury bungalows. We were in luck, however - they had a tour group staying and had double-booked our room, so we got the free upgrade to the private bungalow! As Donald walked us through the palm-lined property we were greeted by many playful monkeys. Although they are wild, they usually call the lodge their home. Once we reached our bungalow, we were very pleasantly surprised! We dropped our bags and climbed into the two hammocks on our balcony where we relaxed and watched the monkeys. We decided it was too nice to leave, and instead spent all of our remaining time at the lodge, rather than going back into the town which we had already driven through twice. We spent the afternoon lounging in the hammocks, watching the monkeys playing (we even got to hold the baby Howler monkey for a few seconds!), and swimming in the wonderful pool, before having a delicious Thai dinner and a few beers. We hadn't put much thought into it when we booked our stay at the Anaconda Lodge, but it turned out to be a hidden gem in the rainforest. Although we only saw a small part of the vast Amazon Rainforest, we were able to witness first-hand the wonders and beauty of such an awe-inspiring place.

We spent a half day in Cusco - the "archaeological capital of the Americas" - both before and after the Amazon. The city was the Incan capital, built into the mountain range at 3300 meters. Like the other mountain villages we had visited, the people are predominately of Quechua ancestry (rather than Spanish) and are proud of their heritage. We attended a show at the Cusco Native Arts Center, where we learned of the history of the native Peruvian people, and we were treated to a show featuring many of their traditional dances and costumes. The theatre was packed - we were lucky to even get seats! We spent time walking through the streets of the city, taking in the views and the culture, and stopping in museums and markets along the way. The main plazas were well kept (we weren't even allowed to walk on the grass) and beautifully lit up at night. We stopped for dinner in a nice restaurant overlooking the plaza to sample the local delicacy - guinea pig. Rather than order it in the traditional style - the whole animal roasted, and brought to you on the spit - I decided to order half of a guinea pig, which would presented in a much less vivid fashion. As it turned out, I think I should have stopped after the alpaca and the termites - guinea pig certainly isn't a favourite of mine, but at least I can say I tried it! Andrew had some delicious pasta, which I must admit I stole a few bites of.

High above the city is the ancient Incan temple and military fortress of Sacsaywaman, meaning "Satisfied Falcon." We opted to take the long walk up to the ruins from the city, allowing us to experience Cusco away from the touristy downtown area. The stones used in the construction of Sacsaywaman are very large and smooth, an indication of the great significance this area had to the Incans. Here we were able to see Peru's other species of camelid, the smaller and furrier alpaca, which live at high altitudes. From the ruins, we were able to look out over the entire city and the surrounding mountain ranges. A storm began to roll in as the sun started to set, turning the sky mystical colours of orange and yellow. We couldn't have picked a more beautiful time to explore the ruins.

Our last day couple days were spent in the capital city of Lima. Although we arrived in Peru via Lima, we stayed in a hotel near the airport for only a few hours, so we hadn't experienced the city yet. Our flight from Cusco arrived relatively early in the morning, and we were scheduled to leave in the early afternoon the following day, giving us just enough time to get a feel for the city. Although we had stayed in some of the nicer, "flashpacker" style hostals at points throughout our trip, we decided to splurge on our last night and booked into the Radisson. We took a half hour taxi ride from the airport to hotel, which was located near the coast. Of course, the fancy hotel wouldn't let us check in early (as every other place we had stayed had allowed us to), so they held our bags and told us to come back in an hour. We went out to explore the metropolitan area, seeing many shops and casinos before reaching a park with a small market. Back at the hotel, we were told once again to come back in an hour (after waiting half an hour to hear this), so this time we went to the coastal area. The grey Pacific swells allow for good surfing along Peru's coast, and we saw several surfers catching waves despite the cool temperatures. The mention of surfing to locals brings tales of world champion Peruvian surfer Sofia Mulanovich. We had actually watched her compete at the RipCurl Pro when we were in Australia; the locals always seemed proud that we knew who she was. We had lunch overlooking the ocean in the LarcoMar Shopping Center which is built into the oceanside cliffs and dominates the Miraflores coastal area (we hate to admit we went to a mall for lunch while we were travelling, but we were hungry and it was the only reasonable place we could find with a view!).

Once we were finally able to check-in to the hotel, we happily accepted an upgrade to a suite for our earlier troubles. The hotel was fantastic, and it was nice to get a bit of little bit of luxury for our last night. We certainly wouldn't want to travel this way on a regular basis however, as we felt very isolated from the local culture. For the afternoon we took a taxi to the more historic area of Central Lima. In contrast to the many other historic areas we had visited on our trip, Central Lima was the basis for the Spanish Empire. We visited the Lima Cathedral and the home of the President, but most impressive by far was the Monasterio de San Franscisco. The church and monastery, with it's yellow walls and baroque architecture is impressive from the outside, but even more remarkable is what lies beneath. After a guided tour through the church, we descended a narrow passageway to the catacombs below. The first public cemetery in Lima, the catacombs are the final resting place for an estimated 25,000 bodies. We followed the underground passageway to pits, meters deep, filled with the bones and skulls of the deceased. Despite Lima's history of devastating earthquakes, the catacombs have never been damaged; our guide claimed this was partially due to the mortar made of sea gull egg whites.

Our trip to Peru was both inspiring and educational. It is a beautiful place with kind and genuine people. Though we only saw a small part of the country, it proved to have a diverse and magnificent landscape and a plethora of wildlife. It was great to travel on another adventure, and we hope to one day explore more of South America. Next year, we hope to reach our goal of travelling to six continents!

Thanks for reading!
Cass & Andrew

Additional photos below
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Ghost Bat Ghost Bat
Ghost Bat

Hiding Under the Palm Leaf

29th September 2011

Nice!!!! We are jealous. Which continent next??? Africa?? Antarctica? Will we see you at Mom's for Thanksgiving?

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