Many years back, when Facebook was still in vogue, some friends had posted spectacular images of blue headed macaws with comments that the images didn’t do justice to what they saw. It was then that I was initiated to the bounty of South America’s Rainforests, and had nursed a wish to travel there sometime. This wish came true in November 2019 when our friend Varun helped plan our trip to Tambopata National Reserve.
My wife, Shubha & I chose to do a mid-life sabbatical of sorts in Peru. We figured that our children, Krishna & Varaa – then 9 and 8 respectively, were young enough to accompany us without protest and expose them to an alien culture. We chose a country exactly on the opposite side of the world (Lima is 12˚ South and 77˚ West, Bengaluru is 12.97˚ North and 77.6˚ East). We spent 8 months in Peru and travelled around the magnificent country. The Rainforest remains one of the highlights of our many travels there.
As our flight to Puerto Maldonado reached lower altitudes before landing, we were treated to views of a meandering river amidst dark green forest cover. We were picked up from the small airport of PEM (airport code for Puerto Maldonado) by our hotel/resort Inkaterra, and our bags were marked with luggage tags of cut-outs of an exotic local bird. We later learnt that this bird “Hoatzin”– is endemic to this area and has existed from pre-historic times.
We were then shuttled to a ferry that transported us our hotel. The ferry along the brown, muddy Madre de Dios river was about half hour. The river is muddy because it meets the Tambopata river here. I was told that it also could be muddy because of illegal mining that happens in the area. (Apparently, this river flows into Bolivia and then to Brazil to join Madeira river and finally Amazona river, which then flows into the Atlantic Ocean about 4000 kilometres away). I already felt I was on familiar ground as the vegetation, humidity and muddy waters reminded me of home and the Rain Forests of Sahyadri Western Ghats.
At Inkaterra Hacienda Concepcion, we met Pedro, who was to be our guide for the next couple of days.
The first afternoon was a walk around the property. This erstwhile cacao & rubber plantation housed a large broken steamer – one of the oldest in the region – which apparently belonged to the Spanish doctor who owned these lands earlier. This ‘ship’ was a floating hospital and the doctor and his wife sailed to interior lands to treat people. Pedro pointed to yellow headed vulture on top of a tree – he said it had come in from Bolivia. Looking down on the forest floor, we saw mushrooms that help decay the tree faster; and walking palms that went in search of light.
We learnt that the slow growing Lianea vine – enmeshed into many trees was older than some of the trees. The fly catcher bird was continuously making a sound, and Pedro said there were over 650 species of birds in the region. We saw cocoa plants and mango and palms trees, and I picked an interesting looking pod – told it was the monkey hair brush (common names are always disputed) – it was that of a Bignoniaceae – Amphilophium crucigerum.
There was a night boat ride to spot animals that come to the edges of the water. We saw caimans – many baby ones that had just hatched weeks ago. The caimans are fresh water reptiles and not man eaters. The highlight of the evening outing was spotting the capybara / capivara – the biggest rodent in the world. It was resting on the bank and Pedro put a floodlight on it. Varaa was scared and started crying.
On Day 2, we were asked to report very early to the jetty for our tour of the Tambopata National Reserve. The early hour departure was to avoid the heat. After a short boat ride, we walked a few kilometres into the Reserve. En route we saw the Ceiba tree – the biggest tree in the Amazon and believed by locals to connect to the heavens.
Pedro took us off the path into an area filled with noisy parrots.
The Amazonian macaws with blue and yellow colours were feeding here before flying off to the clay licks. We then canoed into an oxbow lake – Lake Sandoval. We also saw the wood rail bird – green yellow beak, grey neck and pink feet.. We heard the howler monkey and got a glimpse of this fellow high up on the trees. These monkeys apparently sleep upto 16 hours a day and are the loudest animals in the Amazon. They make sounds to mark their territory.
Once on Lake Sandoval – we saw many Hoatzins – entire families lazily sitting on the trees. They don’t fly much or far, and are always in groups. Further into the lake we spotted a giant river otter – the largest of otters and an endangered species. This guy was playful in the water – swimming once to the left and then right – and we later saw him again from up close as he was drying himself and resting on a low branch of a tree.
Pedro paddled the canoe up close to a palm tree that had black spots on them and on a closer look, we realized they were bats – all lined up on the palm tree that we first thought were black holes on the trunk of the tree.
Spotting animals is an art, and Pedro had mastered it. And it requires a lot of patience and quiet – and we waited a while to see a caiman almost catch a heron (the heron escaped – but was beautiful to see the planning and final jump to catch it).
On Day 3 we went to the salt licks or clay licks to see the birds that come to feed on the minerals and salts from the clay off a cliff. Again, we waited patiently for the birds to arrive and they came in a group – all noisy and screaming, as if putting on a show for us. These were the parakeets and parrots we’d seen the day earlier. The binoculars helped us view them from close. Most were blue headed macaws – native to Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. There were the common green parakeets too.
Pedro spotted a solitary scarlet macaw – majestically perched on top of a tree.
Later downstream, we saw a sloth on one of the trees in slow motion moving about the higher branches of the trees, and hanging upside down. These sloths too are endemic to the rainforests of South & Central America.
That afternoon, Pedro took us canoeing to spot more local birds and to fish piranhas. Krishna was excited about fishing for the first time – ironic, as it was, for us vegetarians to even venture into this expedition. We were given fishing rods with pieces of beef (instead of worms) attached to the hooks (neither of us had the courage to touch the meat). The smart piranhas ate the beef but didn’t get hooked to our fishing rods. We were not fast enough to get them in time.
There was a fatigue of waking up early for our excursions, but we never tired of being in this region or spotting the various birds and animals. Our tours and animal viewing had the feeling of a packaged experience – but in the end it was entirely worth it. It is true that being here and seeing these flora and fauna live was better than seeing them on Facebook. As the saying in Kannada goes, two eyes are not enough to see the beauty of this place. We hope to return some day.
Photo credits: Shubha Bhat / Krishna Bhat