In a country globally known for its Inca and pre-Hispanic civilisations, floating islands, and mysterious ancient lines on the ground, it is easy to overlook the natural beauty available in Peru. We are not usually fans of waking up wild but at least this didn’t look like your run-of-the-mill campground.
To be honest the main goal of our South America trip was to spend some time gazing in awe at Machu Picchu and bouncing on the floating Uros Islands of Lake Titicaca. But it was interesting that our tour itinerary also included a few days in an eco-lodge in the Peruvian Amazon, which sounded a little bit special as well.
It’s a nice way to start a trip, going to a place you really know nothing about and have little idea of what to expect. It’s like a version of living on the edge for safety-conscious people. And Amazon eco-lodges sound very exotic!
Now before the geography Police come crashing through my front door to read me my right to consult an atlas, I will clarify that there is no part of the enormous winding waterway known as the Amazon River that barges across the border into Peru. We are in fact taking the liberty of including all parts of the catchment area which shall be referred to as the Amazon Basin. Crisis averted!
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
We hopped a short flight from the bustling Lima Airport to the grandly named but substantially less busy Padre Aldamiz International Airport in Puerto Maldonado which is one of the main entry points to the Peruvian Amazon Basin. Next stage, a quick and bumpy minibus ride to the tour office to leave our main luggage and grab our pack-down bags.
I don’t know whether it was the small children running through the house and trying to sneakily check out our group of interlopers or the many chickens ignoring us to go about their daily chicken business, it could even have been grandma doing the washing in a big tub beside us but whatever it was it was not something you would expect to see in a tourist company office.
Bags packed and tossed onto the roof of the minibus it was time for another 10 minutes of offroad-style driving down the streets of the town as we headed to our embarkation point on the banks of the Tambopata River.
As you pull up at the main office/giftshop/restaurant you start to realise that things are a bit more primitive in this part of the world. And I mean that in a good way. In many parts of the world when you first arrive and the tour company has a fancy office, fancy uniforms, and fancy beverages you may start to wonder how authentic an experience they may actually be providing. But here you get a feeling that this is more about showing you the local heritage and less about becoming a global tourism brand.
Sailing down the river in my dugout canoe.
Hat and cold drink purchased to combat the blazing sun it was time for the next mode of transportation, and while maybe not exactly the dugout canoe I alluded to in the heading, it was only a step or two above that.
After navigating the “rustic” staircase and jetty we were settled into the longboat. There had been quite a bit of recent rain which had made the river look more like gravy than the pristine blue water you may expect in a rainforest. Seeing this in other parts of the world may make question the cleanliness and have you rethinking your travel plans but here it just seemed to add to the adventure.
For 45 minutes we swept down the river, pausing occasionally to witness some local wildlife or watching the indigenous locals at work. There was also a welcomed local snack of rice and veggies cooked in banana leaves which was pretty tasty. And finally, we came upon the front door of what would be our home for the next three days, the Nape Lodge.
Welcome to Hell.
You may now be wondering how things might deteriorate so much to have me jumping to that heading, and the truth is it was an amazing place in every respect.
What I mean is that the local tribe is the Infierno people, a name which translates to their land literally being Hell. Now I’m not religious but if this is Hell then I don’t know what all the fuss is about.
The first building that comes into view is the communal dining, lounge, and bar area where you will take all your meals, meet before heading off on your daily adventures and settle in for a refreshing beverage each evening. From there a path branches off to the individual accommodations.
The first thing I noticed after entering our room was that there appeared to be an entire wall missing. I wasn’t sure if this was due to cost-saving measures, poor design or if they were just waiting on a window shipment to arrive. Whatever the reason we would be sleeping under a roof, protected by what I hoped was an industrial-strength mosquito net, but otherwise completely open to all of the bushwhacking animals that inhabit this jungle.
After a bit of an evening orientation walk where we had the chance to experience some more of the native fauna, including an impressive firefly display and a more disturbing tarantula display, it was time to settle in for our first night.
The sun had now set and the noise of conversing with our new travel companions ended. As we turned off the light and lay under our protective netting the jungle came alive. It seemed every creature within miles was now welcoming us to their home. Not just crickets and the other usual suspects but nerve-wracking noises from God knows what. And above everything came the tremendous boom of the Howler Monkeys reminding us who was in charge around here.
I got some wild, wildlife.
Should be a good day today, waking up to the most incredible natural alarm clock I can imagine, a bit of a river cruise, some fishing on the lake, and a leisurely walk through the bush. Sounds so peaceful, kinda like a wellness retreat!
The day turned out to be an incredible opportunity to spot the local birds, fish, and animals. Now seeing animals in a zoo is cool sometimes if they are looked after well and you may not have seen them before, but seeing animals in the wild going about their daily routine is far more impressive.
During the boat ride along the river, there are times when you just don’t know where to look. The scenery is untouched and beautiful, the brown river, lush green vegetation, and clear blue sky so stunning that no Photoshopping could ever improve it. And it seems there is wildlife to see around every bend in the river.
We witness the unusual sight of dozens of Parrots eating the clay of the riverbank, obviously not very tasty but better than dying from the toxins in other parts of their diet. Apparently the clay absorbs the toxins present in some of the seeds they eat allowing them to pass harmlessly through the bird’s system.
A few hundred metres later we notice another similar but birdless section of muddy riverbank which looks like someone has emptied a big bag of green leaves, that is until the leaves start shimmering and flying off as if caught in a nonexistent breeze. It takes a while to realise it is actually hundreds of butterflies and is another unexpected moment of magic.
After spotting a few distant Howler Monkeys purveying their kingdoms from the treetops we came upon what I now consider to be my Peruvian spirit animal, the Capybara. We are both pretty chilled out, have less-than-flattering body shapes, a unique vocal repertoire, and can sleep anywhere! They are more social than me though and eat their own dung, so maybe not exactly the animal I should brag about being like.
After about an hour we docked further down the river and it was time for a bit of a short jungle hike. Now sometimes you can just enjoy the sounds of nature and other times you have to answer the call of nature, so luckily we found a toilet in the middle of the jungle. It does seem a bit out of place but the location was not the unusual thing, the inclusion of a machete beside the door made this feel like the most adrenaline-fueled ablution I had ever experienced, wondering what man-eater I may need to defend against.
A quick stop at a local native camp for some freshly picked bananas and another 15 minutes of hiking found us at the edge of a tranquil and beautiful lake. Now there are some places you go and think you have found peace and quiet but this place, in the middle of a rainforest, is on a whole other level. We were here to do some fishing.
I love having the chance to learn about the history of a place or to experience the traditions and ways of the locals and here was getting better and better. We learned the way the natives fished this area for generations, letting your baited hook gently hit the surface of the water, which to a fish is like some potentially tasty morsel falling from the trees above.
After getting lots of nibbles our guide eventually caught the fish of the day, a terrifying Piranha! (Pause for dramatic effect) Well, not really terrifying as it was slightly smaller than my hand, but after watching a demonstration of this little guy’s biting power I wasn’t going to be making fun of his size.
Our guide held the fish and put a leaf up to its mouth, an audible snap of jaws and there was a perfectly cut piece of leaf missing. Next time you are using a hole punch at your office it should give you a good idea of how a Piranha operates.
Fishing adventure over we cruised around the lake for another hour or so, an incredibly relaxing experience for everyone except our tour director Vanessa who was desperately trying to get cell service to confirm something on the next stage of our trip. We were woken from our meditation by some noise in the water about 20 metres from our boat.
I had read earlier that a family of sea otters are sometimes spotted on these tours and it was our lucky day. Just the two adults at first as they summed up our threat level but after disappearing for about five minutes they reappeared with kids in tow. It really brings out the child in you to watch an animal family playing together in the wild and this was like nature’s answer to Disneyland.
After they left it was time for us to do the same. Reverse hike, reverse boat ride, and back to the lodge for a late afternoon rest before dinner. Oh, and speaking of dinner, turns out the guide kept the Piranha and had the chef prepare it for us. Now a hand-sized fish between nine people means a pretty small serve but I can now add Piranha to the list of obscure things I have eaten, and before you ask, it doesn’t taste like chicken.
And let’s not forget the bonus late-night boat ride where we went spotlighting the local Caiman. It’s a bit scary seeing the glowing eyes on the bank and then hearing the gentle splash in the dark, you know that means there is now at least one more of the nasty-looking guys in the river with you now.
Needless to say, none of us felt any urge to put our hands outside the boat and check the water temperature.
That’s how it’s done in Hell.
A new day once again opened up with nature’s unforgettable combination of a glorious sunrise over the jungle and the sounds of the animals and birds getting ready to do it all again. Today was about the traditions of the Infierno people and I was looking forward to finding out more.
Part of the area surrounding the camp has become a garden of sorts, now hosting a wide selection of the plants local natives have been using for generations as part of their bush medicine.
Until recently tribesmen would have to search long and hard to find some of these much-needed and highly valued plants, but due to modern medicine now finding so many of the properties of these plants incredibly useful, the locals have been given grants to collect and grow some of these traditional varieties.
We were led along a path with snaked through the jungle, many of the plant species were labeled and the guide explained the uses of each even getting us to try some of them like a mouth-numbing leaf that has been used by the natives as an anesthetic for centuries.
One of the plants on offer had no volunteers after we were told it was the local’s version of Viagra and all the men were concerned about any potentially embarrassing occurrences. Not sure if any quietly asked the guide for some to take back to camp or sneaked back later that day but I wouldn’t have been surprised!
The afternoon was learning about traditional hunting, what they hunted, and the weapons and tools they used to get the job done. There was even the chance to try your hand at using the native long bow, which proved one thing to all of us, if we were left to hunt for our own food we would all have died from laughter or starvation. It is way harder than it looks but at least I (barely) hit the target, unlike many others.
Everyone out of the pool!
It was hard to say goodbye to this place as the final morning dawned, a bittersweet moment for me. I had loved every minute of this experience as it had pushed me out of my comfort zone and usual travel style but I also felt I had seen it all and it was time to go. I am just not the kind of “sit around and relax” type of guy.
Not enough people get to experience the amazing privilege of spending time in an unspoiled part of nature, which is sad for them but good for nature. It is something that I can not recommend enough. Learn about the locals, help support their communities and enjoy the Amazon Rainforest before “civilisation” cuts it all down.
There was one special surprise Mother Nature had in store for us before we jumped back on the boat to Puerto Maldonado. An hour before departure four of us decided to have one last walk through some of the tracks around the camp and what a reward we got for our efforts.
A group of about 60 Black Spider Monkeys came from nowhere and started swinging through the trees above our heads. We kept quiet and just took in this unbelievable experience, almost forgetting to reach for the camera at all. I took a few snaps that turned out blurry but I don’t care at all. Sometimes it’s much better to be there in the moment rather than look back and your amazing photos and I can assure you the images in my memory are crystal clear.
We had the opportunity to do this as part of an Amazon and Inca Adventure, we were not sponsored in any way and had never really considered organised group tours, but I can think of no better way to experience Peru than with a small group of like-minded travellers and excellent local guides.
Speaking of our guide, if you are looking and doing anything in Peru and would be interested in a personal guide then Vanessa and Marek from Adventurous Travel Guide are the people you need to get in touch with. Vanessa was our Tour Director on this trip and nothing was too much trouble for her, they are both highly qualified and experienced and based in Lima.
Where was the place you have been that got you closest to nature?