Arriving in Puerto Maldonado
Avianca flight 809 touched down with a bounce and a squeal in the Amazon basin’s booming metropolis called Puerto Maldonado. The gateway to the Amazon. The edge of civilization. The almost frantic braking of the plane gave us a sense of the short runway the pilot was working with. We slowed and made a single turn and parked at the airport. A blast of humid heat, as though opening the oven while checking on the Thanksgiving turkey came through the plane. Our first indication that we were in one of the remotest parts of the world was the single other plane docked at this two-slot airport. Instead of the 10-mile moving-sidewalk maze that defines most other airports, we walked a mere 50 feet from the plane to the baggage claim. This airport had a single room for baggage collection but had in fact entered the 20th Century due to its actual baggage carousel. Somehow, despite only 30 people on the plane, our bags came out last which inspired all kinds of thoughts of lost luggage problems. With our luggage in tow, we were quickly relieved outside to see our guide who was going to transport us
safely to our Amazon Lodge.
We boarded a ‘jungle truck’ which was correctly named and was outfitted like a ride at Disneyland. Except we weren’t heading into the climate controlled jungle adventure. We were heading into the wild, actual jungle which served as the inspiration for all these things including our jungle truck, river boat and eventual Lodge. In the Disney experience you might wait in a long line. Or you might experience a temporary stoppage of the ride. And having been jostled on an intense ride for about 43 seconds, you would merely feel a momentary spell of dizziness. But here in the real jungle, Dengue Fever, piranhas, 10 foot boa constrictors and anacondas were the reality.
The Inkaterra Lodge
The guides took us briefly to a reception center where we could check into the Lodge. This is partially because here in the ‘big city’ we still had the technological advantages of things like a computer and the Internet. The other reason was that we had to sign a Loss of Life Waiver. In my many travels throughout the world, I have never had to sign a Risk Assumption In Case of Nearly
Certain Death waiver just to check into my hotel. I have signed these to race at breakneck speeds around a track. I have signed similar forms to fly a massive kite in the sky while attached. Also to plummet down an icy river in a rubber boat. But this was literally the hotel check-in form. What were we getting ourselves into? The guides transferred us and our luggage into a boat which more closely resembled a slightly longer canoe and was just as narrow. This Lodge location was apparently very remote and only accessible by piranha infested river. Thus the Risk Waiver. Or at least this was the part of the Risk Assumption that I could appreciate at this time. More Risk and more realizations would come later.
We motored (thankfully not paddled) downstream on the Madre de Dios river. However we sat very still. Fearful of moving around and doing anything that would land us in the river and on the evening news. The Madre de Dios wis a major tributary to the Amazon and flows from lofty, snowy Andean peaks down to the humid Amazon Basin and then roars and pours down into Bolivia. In
Bolivia it eventually has a change of mind and direction and takes a 180 degree turn after picking up more runoff and comes back into the Amazon Basin via Brazil. It then eventually flows into the actual Amazon river.
After a 45 minute boat ride down the Madre de Dios river, we eventually arrived at the Inkaterra Eco Lodge. This lodge was nestled into the rainforest far away from civilization far from roads and outside contact. Our first hint at how remote we actually were came after reading through the Lodge Guide where it explained the concept of ‘limited electricity.’ So no. There was not going to be wifi or Internet or streaming Netflix. Neither were there going to be any phone lines. And in fact we were lucky to have the limited electricity that they could supply. And to further underscore our remoteness, we were warned about wandering away off the established paths between the cabanas as there was no boundary wall between lodge and jungle.
The Inkaterra staff welcomed us graciously and immediately took us in the main Lodge for lunch. Since we were hours overdue for eating, we were ravenous as
a frothing school of piranhas. The dining area was a very large round lodge that was fully mosquito screened for 360 degrees. So it afforded an amazing and close-up view of the jungle from any and every angle. All of the furniture was hewn from the very trees that were removed to make this clearing in the jungle. Ironwood, we learned later was the type of wood. And it has been aptly named due to its density, weight and extreme painfulness to sit upon. Each of the dining room chairs, if we can call them that, are still closer to a log in its natural habitat than a chair. And the fact that they are cut from ironwood was not lost on the carvers because they went to great lengths to ensure that the word ‘iron’ was foremost in your mind and rear every second that you sat upon that chair. I have never wished harder for either a cushion or a plumper rump than each of those hours we sat there for a meal. The chair itself still fully resembled a log that has been propped up on end and a small, flat area sawed out for a seat.
This ensures that not only is the seat as straight and hard and painful as possible to sit upon but the chair’s back is as ramrod straight as a flagpole. This so-called chair is more closely related to a dreadful, blood soaked medieval torture device. And after an hour of waiting for your food and eating, you feel as though your posterior had spent several hours under the direct attention and focus of the Spanish Inquisition.
Each of the cabanas was a 20 by 40 foot, open air cabin built up on stilts. They were completely open to the outside elements excepting a thatched roof and mosquito netting along the walls. And as long as you kept the door shut, you could keep the mosquitos and the dengue fever on the outside of both your cabin and your body. The inside of each cabana was a drastic contrast to the wild outside. Inside we found inviting hammocks for lounging away the afternoon while reading and napping. There were chairs for sitting and viewing the incredible outdoors in a 360 degree panorama. The beds and furnishings were all natural but unnaturally perfect and appointed. The beds each had
a mosquito net canopy that in the same instant conveyed a cozy quaintness and an ominous premonition. Each cabana had an open-air bathroom and shower with at least enough privacy to afford a small amount of modesty. You really could not come closer to sleeping out in the wide-open Amazon without actually just bedding down on the jungle floor. But the luxurious contrast between untamed outdoors and 5-star furnishings was delightful. It is indeed a strange feeling making eye contact with strangers while showering.
During the first afternoon Tyler and I wandered down the meandering footpath over to the Eco lodge. All the footpaths in the Eco center are made from 4” thick ironwood cross sections laid in an undulating line of wooden rings. Each path is lined with oil lamps at 10 foot intervals and plentiful warning signs about NOT leaving the Eco Center without a guide. We arrived at the tour center to hear about the possible adventures in the wild jungle. If just being in the Amazon was not enough adventure itself, we could elevate our existing tension by going out into the deep jungle looking for additional excitement. On the way to the
Eco lodge itself, we had our own jungle encounter by spotting a small herd of feasting outside our cabana. Further along the tree-stump walkway we were nearly tripped up and carried away by an incessant stream of Amazonian army ants trooping in time across the jungle floor. They didn’t appear to be transporting anything at all— merely trooping jauntily along their way one after another with some exotic destination in mind. Some carefully excavated hole in the forest floor or perhaps the pungent insides of a decomposing carcass.
At the Eco lodge, our sweaty tour English-challenged guide Leon was explaining in terrifying but accurate detail the various tours and hikes that are available to the brave souls who have ventured this far into the wild. One would think that if you have signed up for not only a trip to South America but a side trip into the Amazon, that these same persons would have an unconquerable spirit of adventure. But as Leon explained the wide variety of excursions available, I also realized that there are a wide variety of individuals on the adventure spectrum.
One of end of this adventure spectrum
was a mild walk called the Amazon by Night nature walk. “However," he cautioned us in his broken English, “if you have a phobia about spiders, this walk would not be for you.” Another relatively simple, a Level II hike, is called the Canopy tour. This consists of climbing a 100 foot tower to the tops of the trees and then walking across a series of rope bridges that are suspended between these towers. The bridges sway and wobble as you would expect. He went on to warn us that “if you have a phobia of heights, you should avoid this outing.” But not to fear, there was a net below the 100 foot high wobbly bridge in case you were to loose your footing. So no worries there. If you were to unexpectedly tumble from this 100 foot height you would be easily and comfortably caught by this net.
Another interesting outing was called the Lake Sandoval walk. And by walk he meant a 3 mile, one way slog through thigh deep squelching, grabbing mud. And if that wasn’t enough, he said you might not see any wild life. And there would be lots of sun.
Or possibly torrential rain. And certainly there would be clouds of swarming buzzing mosquitoes. And sometimes the monkeys you had set out to see by trudging through this epic swamp might be lounging back on the porch of your cabana. And lastly he added, that if all of these possibilities was your idea of a good time, then this adventure was for you. His last warning: no complaining allowed.
A final explanation he gave was a boat ride to harmless sounding Lake Valencia for fishing. This fishing excursion involves catching one of the most fearsome, Hollywood-hyped predators alive, the Amazon piranha. I would expect there to be quite some thrill involved in being in a rickety boat in piranha-infested waters chummed to a froth with meaty bait and you being at the proverbial top of the food chain attempting to catch these swarming meat eaters. It is entirely too bad that the piranhas don’t understand that they are NOT the top of the food chain. And if you had the opportunity to explain this to them, they might relent from ripping you to shreds. But if just fishing for the fearsome fish was not enough, the culminating
part of this adventure is to jump in and swim in the lake. No seriously. That is part of the adventure. Our guide Leon assured us that as long as you weren’t bleeding, the piranhas would stay away. "They almost always do", he thoughtfully reassured us. And he attentively added, “So will the poisonous sting rays." And if they weren’t staying away, he told us the crew would “make a lot of noise” to make them go away. Ahh, such relief. With those warm assurances, I would certainly be comfortable to swim in those teeming waters. I suppose that in case I had not caught any piranhas, this new form of exciting, large, slow and pale bait would be sufficient to draw in all the piranhas within a 15 mile radius. The most interesting part of this explanation is that I don’t think it really occurred to our guide that he was actually offering us up as bait. And for some strange reason, Tyler and I were the only ones with our hands up. Surprisingly, they never found any additional takers for that particular adventure.
That evening, we took a river ride in the total blackness in
to go see if we could spot crocodiles. We quickly learned that nearly all the 100 billion bugs in the Amazon basin would suddenly swarm onto you and your flashlight if you turned it on. So despite the possibility of sliding unceremoniously down the mud bank into the river, we opted for no lights. As the guide shined his light across the water towards the bank, pairs of sinister red unblinking eyes stared back. Behind and below those evil eyes was the tensed body of a 15 foot crocodile waiting in the water for a hapless tourist to lean just a bit too far over for that prized photo. Most of these reptiles would suddenly disappear into the water when the boat came too close. But we did get a close look at several of these nocturnal hunters.
The evening was serene, quiet and dark. There was no traffic, no lights, no noises, no TVs or sounds of music. You forget how used to the convenience and noise we have become. In fact, stepping out to the river’s edge in the dark of night was a step that would take your breathe away. The view of
the Milky Way and of a billion stars exploded above us in the night sky. That is another luxury that we have mostly forgotten about— the view of the night sky unimpeded by light pollution. How many places are left on the earth where this majestic site can still be seen in its pre-technology glory?
Later that evening we sat quietly reading and enjoying the quiet in our cabana. There were explained scurryings, munchings and scufflings coming from the jungle. At one moment there was a noisy crash and tumble noise up on our thatched roof followed by a thud on the ground. Tyler and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows that said not only “What was that?” but “Do we run?” Silence resumed as did our imaginations as to the owner of each of those jungle sounds in the inky black. I suppose having large crashing noises pounding up against your cabana in the jungle is part of the typical Amazon experience. We happily and eagerly placed the mosquito nets over our beds before retiring. This gave us the assurance of not waking up in some late-stage throws of dengue fever.
The morning calm was shattered by the cacophony of a dozen species and possibly hundreds of birds going off at once like an air raid siren. Each bird was trying relentlessly to one-up the birds around it with a louder and more intricate tune. Any brief pause in the din was suddenly filled with 10 more birds trying to get a squawk in edgewise. All of this began at 5:30am, which was much to early to be starting the day and much too early to appreciate the ornithological choir. If we had been more in sync with nature and the bird’s schedule, we would have gone to bed much earlier and been able to be woken up by and fully appreciate the morning choir.
After a brief but hardy all-natural breakfast of fruits, nuts, juice and out of place American pancakes we set out on our first adventure. The Jungle Walk. We followed our guide and jauntily walked away from this lowest level of civilization into the untamed jungle that surrounds the Center. We followed a rough pathway through the undergrowth and stopped every few minutes for Leon to explain different trees, plants, insects and birds.
Most of the jungle was thick, dark and completely unpassable. Without a machete and a well-toned swinging arm, you would not be able to walk 3 feet in any direction. Not to mention the myriad of vines, spiders, insects and other creatures that would accost you immediately. In fact, standing in one place for any moment of time was usually enough to attract fly bugs and probably a troop of ants to start exploring their way up your leg. Despite this thick jungle, there was occasionally a lone tree standing isolated in a small clearing. The fire ants had claimed this tree as their own and given themselves a fair distance and warning away from others. The guide explained that the bite of a fire ant would make a grown man cry and that many of them could be fatal. As we walked away from that scene I thought I felt something tickling my neck and brushed at it. Wild imagination. Just thinking about ants crawling up your legs can make them tingle and flinch. But there it was again— that tickle. This time I grabbed and pinched and came away with yes, a fire ant. And he had already
sunk his mandibles into my neck and the burn was building up. This single bite ended up leaving me with a flaming welt that stung for several days. The first half hour was the worst as it felt like someone kept stabbing me with a needle in my neck repeatedly. Eventually it faded off to a dullish heated throbbing.
Our guide Leon continued to explain the various vines, trees and plants as we came upon them. There were trees that could actually walk by slowly moving their roots. There were other parasite trees that would grow up alongside a mature tree in search of sunlight and nutrients but eventually kill off the host. There were thousands of vines growing every which way and many inviting a Tarzan-like swing through the canopy. There were trees that had poisonous bark, poisonous leaves or 3-inch thorns. Everything here in the jungle cries survival of the fittest. Every tree and plant has an attitude of kill or be killed.
We eventually made our way the second part of our morning adventure— the Canopy Walk. We approached a 100 foot lichen covered wooden tower that ascended to the tops
of the trees and above the jungle canopy. We climbed what felt like for hours to the observation point at the top of this tower. There we had a sweeping 360 view of the surroundings. There was jungle as far as you could see in every direction. And nothing else. No mountains, no buildings, no hills, no cell phone towers. Just unbroken wilderness. At the top of this vine-convered tower there was a swinging bridge extending 40 feet to the platform in the next tree over. The bridge’s slats were only 12 inches wide, but thankfully there were two wire handrails to each side to help you balance as you wobbled and bounced your way over the yawning drop below. Trying to hold on with one hand and take photos with the other on a wildly swinging bridge was quite the tightrope exercise. We crossed 6 of these bridges in all, some longer and some shorter but all equally shaky and narrow. Each time I crossed the chasm and reached the relative safety of a 100 foot high wooden platform, I sighed a small breath of relief. At the end of the last bridge there was an actual tree fort.
A two-person room nestled up in the tree tops. For a mere $1000 a night you could spend your days and nights living in an actual tree house. The staff would transport your luggage, food and room service up that tower each and every time you beckoned via radio. You could wake up like Tarzan with the birds and monkeys right on your porch.
After a filling lunch and a brief respite in the cabana, we set out on the afternoon adventure, The Botanical Gardens and Lagoon. But first we had to leave our comfortable shoes and force our way into heavy rubber boots. We were now definitely leading a new clothing trend that these boots plus our shorts and knee high socks completed. Heading upwind and against the current we motored to the twin Lodge site belonging to Inkaterra, Hacienda Concepcion. We slurped into the muddy dock and climbed a short hill up to the trail head. Another brief tromp down a soggy path led us on our way to the medicinal gardens, This pathway squashily confirmed our need for the trend-setting rubber boots we had donned back at the Eco Lodge. At first we
dutifully walked around and carefully maneuvered to avoid the swampy parts of the trail. But after a few minutes and realizing we were wearing knee high rubber boots, we fully embraced the mucky trail and happily squished our way right through the muddiest and deepest portions. We arrived at the gardens with our guide and group and there received a highly detailed and very long description of such exotic plants as ginger, yellow grass, and turmeric. Not quite as exotic as I had hoped. And the explanations bordered on old wives tales mixed with a heavy dose of jungle mythology.
Next on the itinerary we tramped in our now muddy boots to a lagoon entrance, where, these knee high boots came to the rescue. We slogged through nearly knee high mud to get on a canoe. All of us. All 7 of us adults. And once the first 4 or 5 people were aboard and the rocking had subsided, I was not a little concerned to see that the water line was about 1 inch from overflowing into the vessel. But “Not to worry!” our optimistic guide said. “Everyone will fit!” Fitting is not what I was
concerned about. Not drowning in a murky, nameless swamp in the Amazon was. I was the last one in the boat and with a hopeful shove I pushed us out into the lagoon. The water level remained at near flood level, but as long as everyone kept their wits and their movement about them, we might be ok. Leon began to paddle us through the lagoon at an almost imperceptible rate. Whether trying to maintain quiet or prevent capsizing or both, I might never know. But we paused at some low trees whose branches extended clear over and into the lagoon. From inside these branches there burst forth the strangest huffing and puffing and clicking noises I have ever heard. And then the branches would shake and sway ominously like some heavy, hungry predator was about to launch out directly at our helpless canoe. It turns out that all this racket was caused by a chicken sized bird with a comical head piece. There were many of these birds in the trees throughout the excursion and they continued their prancings. This lagoon seemed to continue on for many miles and at the slow pace of Leon’s paddling, I was sure
we were going to end up at the Atlantic ocean. But eventually we did hit a dead end and he turned around and leisurely paddled us back to the starting point.
At this point we were exhausted from a very full day and were very glad to arrive back at our cabana for showers and the lodge for dinner. It was a strange combination of not wanting to sit again on those log stump chairs but wanting to eat and rest in a most desperate way. The dark comes early this close the equator and by 5:00 it is getting dusky and by 6:00 full darkness. The total obscurity of the jungle was impressive. The kind of blackness where you literally cannot see the hand in front of your face. Or in our case, the tarantula on your shoe. We did actually see several large tarantulas waiting patiently on a tree for their prey. The quiet evening back in the cabana is unlike any experience I have had in recent memory. The darkness is complete. Our room was only lit by the small flame of a gas lantern. And the total silence was only broken by a
few energetic cicadas who know exactly when to start and stop their buzzing so as to create maximum annoyance to the humans in their habitat.
During the afternoon hours, Tyler and I decided to conduct our own little jungle tour, against the wisdom of the plentiful warning signs. We walked blatantly and confidently past one such sign and ducked under a couple of vines to enter the wild. We followed what appeared to be a trail for a while and did not see much in the way of wild life. Which is probably good. We did find many jungle vines and snapped Tarzan poses while attempting to swing. Leaves and water came pouring down each time we yanked. Suffice it to say that you cannot, without considerable risk, swing from tree to tree on a vine. We eventually came to a muddy river and were forced to turn back.
On our last night we went to the Eco Lodge and had a personal tour by our guide Leon. We did our final adventure called Night Jungle Walk. It began right outside the Eco Lodge itself where he showed us multiple hairy tarantulas waiting
outside their nest to pounce on some unwary bug who might wander too close. They do in fact jump suddenly on their prey as he showed us later. We took a turn down a dark pathway with only our small flashlights and headed into the inky black of the Amazon jungle. Fortunately Leon had a very large spotlight with which he identified many different insects and other creatures on our night time stroll. At several stops he had us turn off all our lights which plunged us into absolute darkness. The kind of darkness where not a single light can be seen in any direction. The kind of imagination-enhancing blackness that has every tickle and hair movement on your leg being one of those tarantulas making its way up inside your pants. Or possibly some dangling spider slowing dropping into your neckline. During these tense moments, we heard many more unidentified jungle noises approaching. And this was invariably followed by Leon saying “Follow me!” and us charging off the path directly into the underbrush in search of that scary noise. One such scramble led us to the base of a tall tree where we saw an opossum feasting on palm
nuts up in the heights. Another bushy clamber had us looking up at three night monkeys swinging and tousling their way through the branches. One last time Leon urged us “Ok, turn off your lights.” We reluctantly did so. And after a few minutes he illuminated a dark hole right by our feet where no fewer than 5 hairy tarantulas were poised and waiting for our misstep. He used a stick to goad several of them out of their hole. And they vigorously attacked his prodding stick. One of these spiders was easily as large as my hand and nearly as strong. He led this movie-sized beast over to my hiking boot and with a swift poke to the spider encouraged it to sink its fangs right into the toe of my boot. “These are good quality, right?” He asked me after the spider had lodged its mandibles into the rubber. On our way back to the lodge he spotted the unlikely but thoroughly Amazonian scene of TWO scorpions engaged in an epic mortal battle. They lunged and dodged, clicked and danced. It was a scene that only Planet Earth’s David Attenborough could accurately describe. If only I had more
than my iPhone to record. And I was glad to not have to camp on the jungle floor for 3 months to get the shot. With some relief we emerged back onto the manicured lawn and the relative safety of the Eco Lodge. He later explained, “Many of those scorpions roost up in trees and when you shake branches or vines, they fall down on you.” Which is also why you apparently would never want to grab a random vine and attempt to swing on it. Good to know.
The next morning or trip back out of the Amazon was lengthy, but as uneventful as you could hope for. In backwoods Latin America lots of hiccups can easily mess up your travel plans so transferring from boat to bus to jungle truck and to the airport i just compounding risk for some kind of delay. As a parting shot and maybe because of pent up snacky demand, we bought a bunch of chips, pop and cookies to munch as the plane lifted off and away. It was a incredible trip and and opens up a new 3/4ths of a continent of future exploration possibilities.
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