Going to the Amazon rainforest had been on my bucket list for quite a while, and having missed Manaus in Brazil to instead check out the Pantanal and waterfalls near Brasilia, I decided that it was high time I threw myself into the green wilderness. Cusco is only eight hours from the reasonably large city of Puerto Maldonado, which sits on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
It would certainly be a worthwhile experience, what with amazing views, sightings of beautiful species and hearing the eternal buzz of nature. Also, I’d realise the true meaning of the word ‘mosquito’.
A friend had jokingly asked me if I was going to take a short flight (under an hour) to Puerto Maldonado, as that’s what the Wikipedia page for the city said. However, anyone who knows me will know that expensive flights don’t form part of my itineraries, and travellers should jump on buses, not only for financial reasons, but because public transport is often the setting for great adventures and the place where you meet the most interesting characters.
Getting in and getting on a tour
Getting in was no problem as I’d paid to go with a decent bus company, and despite an approximate one-hour delay in leaving, after tackling the curves coming out of Cusco, the journey was pretty much smooth-going along the flat roads into the jungle region, and I even managed to get some sleep. Fast-forward a couple of days, and I’d kind of understand why the more affluent tourists prefer winged transport.
After approximately 10 hours I arrived in Puerto Maldonado at about 5am and all I had to go on was what Shirley, the juice vendor from the market in Cusco said, backed up by online travel forums, that tours could be found at a series of agencies near the Plaza de Armas, the central square. Getting in early was part of my plan as I hoped to get on one of the tours leaving that very day.
I thus jumped in a taxi for 7/S and the driver dropped me where the agencies were and recommended I go to a particular one, saying that he’d told me to go there. As it was still early, nothing was open, so I sat in a café, drank Peruvian style coffee, thick syrupy coffee made from a high concentration of grains to water, to which you then add your own hot water to in order to dilute. A concept most visitors to the country, including myself, initially struggle with, especially when breakfast buffets seemed to have limited amounts of the beverage available.
There are about six or seven agencies on the corner of the square and they all pretty much offer the same tours to the same places, and they can be done across 2 nights/3 days or 3nights/4 days, or you can choose particular activities to squeeze into a single day. I’d recommend the longer stay, as you get more time to relax in the jungle, can do all the excursions, and importantly, staying over allows for getting up extremely early to catch the wildlife, which is most proliferous just after dawn. Give or take a small amount, it generally costs 150/S (almost 50USD) per day of the tour with tours, transport, food and accommodation included, although if you ask for a discount, you’ll usually get one. In the end, I went with Carlos Expeditions, as they seemed the most informed and professional. I paid 600/S, about 175USD, for four days, though note that this is the type of tour that doesn’t go the parrot ‘clay licks’, places where you can see storms of brightly-coloured birds attracted by clay, apparently their favourite food.
Admittedly, to get to Amazonia Lodge we didn’t go really deep into the jungle, about half an hour or so, though we did pass several other lodges on the way. In our particular group, there was a Canadian pensioner on the same programme as me, a French girl staying just one night, and a trio of day-trippers: a huge long-haired Russian guy, and the most boring and moany couple you’ll ever meet, from Germany, strange as I usually find Germans really easy to get on with. Our guide was David, a twenty-something-year-old whose English was decent (guides all over Peru generally have excellent vocabulary for their field), but rather akin to talking himself into trouble, as I’ll soon explain.
I was delighted to score a double room with two double beds all to myself, equipped with mosquito nets to create a force field of protection from the bastards. I had a bathroom with refreshingly cold water, and the French girl seemed a little narked about not having hot water in her room. I declined to comment.
Our first activity was to explore the area surrounding the lodge, and we saw some really cool trees, including ‘walking’ trees, which have several roots that with time move into the sunlight and carry the tree with them, and other invasive trees, which attach themselves to other ones, smother the base of their trunk and effectively grow into the tree, meaning the old roots are detached. The trees are very tall and there are moments where the canopy completely covers the sky above. There were also Tarzan ropes hanging from some trees, and the ease with which I scaled the vine impressed me somewhat, though I was careful not to go too high.
We didn’t see any animals on the tour, but we were given a rousing welcome by masses of mosquitoes that incessantly buzz around you. Believe me, you don’t know what mosquitoes are until you’ve been to the real jungle. Luckily I absolutely covered myself with repellent, and my trousers were of the right netted, double-layered material, so they couldn’t sting through them. The French girl, on the other hand, had chosen to wear leggings, a colossal error, as the mosquitoes are able to pierce the material, no matter how much repellent you spray over. Her legs were an absolute wreck the next day. The same went for the Russian, who’d failed to bring spray, and though I lent him some, he was tortured by the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes wouldn’t leave us alone and it’s extremely important to keep moving and wave your arms around, as if you stay still they zone in on you. Never had I heard such buzzing in my ears and I resorted to spraying my ears, face and even my hair so as to repel them. All of the above seemed to do the trick, as I finished the day without a single mosquito bite, which, safe to say, couldn’t be said of the others.
After this we had lunch, which is rather basic and became quite monotonous over the next few days, though I’m not one to complain, as if I’d wanted gourmet meals, I’d have had to pay gourmet prices. Chicken, avocadoes, potatoes and fruit jelly were a theme of the canteen, and the aforementioned Germans were lamenting the quality of the food.
Next we went to Monkey Island, named as such because it apparently abounds with the creatures, and we’d been reassured by an Ecuadorian couple who’d been the previous day that we’d see loads. Unfortunately for poor David, when we went to the island, a 15-minute boat ride away, they’d decided to hide away and we didn’t see or hear a single one and were instead tormented by mosquitoes. The Russian man continued to be obliterated and eventually abandoned the walk in the canopy to get to the river bank where there were less of them. Needless to say, the Germans weren’t impressed and remained stony-faced throughout, and David didn’t help the situation by repeatedly apologising and mentioning that that normally monkeys were seen and he didn’t know why they weren’t there. He kept talking and talking when it would have been better to keep quiet.
In the end we spent less than hour on the island, and if a complaint might be made about the tour, the trips out were often rushed, and the Canadian rightly mentioned that there would have been no harm in taking things a little more slowly, if only to appreciate the trees a bit more. As a result we had a lot of free time back at the lodge, where there wasn’t particularly much to do, and I spent most of mine sleeping, once I’d figured out that one must tuck in the mosquito net to the corners of the bed.
Our evening activity, as the sun was setting, was to go alligator-watching, and we saw quite a few. David got really excited every time we saw one and was perhaps trying to overplay seeing them so as to make up for the lack of monkeys, as to be honest there isn’t exactly a lack of alligators in the region. To be fair, it was the first time I’d seen the smaller, white-bellied species, so it was a novelty for me, as was seeing how their eyes glowed red when our flashlight was beamed at them.
One of the most amazing things about the jungle is the cacophony of sounds constantly in the background. Thrown together are birds singing, insects chirping, frogs belching, monkeys howling, along with the wind and rain, all combining to really remind you that the rainforest is absolutely full of life. Talking of precipitation, when it rains, it pours non-stop, but luckily the overnight rain came to halt before we set off on our early excursion.
We had breakfast about 4am before getting on a boat and going to Lago Sandoval, a lake in the middle of an island, arriving about 15 minutes later as day was breaking. In contrast to the previous day, we saw loads of animals as soon as we disembarked on the island; allegedly they come out looking for food early in the morning and they are especially abundant after a bout of rain. We caught a glimpse of several types of monkeys, and heard a howler monkey in the distance. There were all types of birds and butterflies, as well as squirrels, which particularly enthused David, and we walked along a path for about an hour and a half to reach the lake itself.
On the lake we took turns to paddle the boat, the veteran Canadian insisting on doing more than his fair share, and we circumvented the whole thing hoping to see animals. The sun was really bearing down on us by this point, but thankfully mosquitoes were nowhere to be found, though a few wasps were in our faces at the start. We got quite close to some alligators by the edge of the lake and through binoculars we were able to see a family of giant otters fishing and feeding. The sound of them is really intriguing, and similar to the noise often attributed to mermaids in cartoons. Birds hovering over the lake included cormorants, herons and pelicans, and a birdwatcher would have been in their element, but knowing nothing about winged creatures, I couldn’t appreciate how rare some of them were.
In the evening we went out on a night walk and this time saw lots of spiders and tarantulas that come out in the dark, often lurking on or around holes in trees. Our guide’s ability to spot animals was impressive throughout the four days and fortunately so as otherwise we’d have stepped on the dozens of snails underfoot.
It absolutely poured all night long and into mid-morning, so we left our activities until later, eventually going fishing, though it was quite a failure. We fished in a shallow swamp with quite poor excuses for fishing rods, so I was wholly surprised that the group who’d come out the previous day had managed a catch. Apparently the rain means fish don’t come near the surface, nevertheless I persisted for about half an hour knee-deep in sloppy mud hoping that I’d repeat my glories of my first ever fishing trip in Brazil a few months earlier. Inevitably, nothing was caught and we went on to our next activity, zip-lining and crossing a hanging bridge up in the canopy. We scaled a tree and from there did the zip-lining. There were only two cables to be zipped along, to another platform and back, and unlike on previous occasions, I hooked myself in alone, following David’s instructions before he took off to the other side. As I’d always been accustomed to an instructor hooking me on to the cable, I had slight doubts as I launched myself off the platform, but luckily I didn’t plunge to my death about 50m below.
After this we walked along a creaky hanging bridge to a spot where you can get a good panoramic view of the surroundings, but as on other occasions we were a little rushed and didn’t really have time to appreciate the views, much to the views of the Canadian gentleman, who I later learned was retired in Colombia.
I spent the rest of the afternoon either in the fly-filled swimming pool, reading or sleeping, and wasn’t too bothered about the fact I was being lazy, as the walk to Machu Picchu had involved enough early starts and trekking for a while. As it was David’s last day, I tipped him 50/S before leaving, as the general rule is to give 10% of the tour price, and I felt he was very enthusiastic and friendly, even if he did invite problems upon himself by constantly asking whether everything was OK with our rooms and apologising for the non-appearance of animals. Tourists tougher to please than us might have caused him problems, to be frank.
Puerto Maldonado: the city
The next day the boat departed at 8am, dropping us back in Puerto Maldonado less than hour later, where we were picked up in a 4×4 and driven about two minutes down the road to the travel agency. Buses from Puerto Maldonado to my next destination, Puno, only went at night, so I left my bags at the agency and spent the day in the city, which to be honest, is not much to write home about.
I went and had a look at the suspension bridge built over the river Rio Madre de Dios, a tributary of the Amazon. On the other side of the bridge began the road that eventually leads to Brazil and goes through the heart of the rainforest. I trekked around pretty much the whole city in a couple of hours, stopping only for a simple 5/S lunch and to pick up my bus ticket for later that evening. When I was back at the Plaza de Armas I sat in a café eating ice cream and cakes and drinking coffee, beer and juices, all while using their WiFi.
By this point my dislike for taxi drivers had thawed as most of them had been charging the price that I expected to pay, and I had an interesting chat with the tuc-tuc driver who I flagged down. He told me how he’d managed to get out of military service when he was a teenager, only to be summoned at the age of 29, much to his dismay. However, he said it was all worth it when he was taken on a ride in a helicopter, an event which he ranked above the birth of his children.
All in all the trip into the Amazon had been fulfilling, despite the tourism not being so developed in Puerto Maldonado. I reckon that other places deeper in the Amazon would afford more sightings of more exotic species and you would have a greater feeling of being in the middle of the jungle. As it was, we were relatively close to urban civilisation, but nonetheless the experience was worthwhile, if only to hear the weird sounds of the rainforest and to see some animals for the first time. Perhaps in Iquitos, in northern Peru, tours were better organised, but getting there would involve a flight or three days on several buses, something that doesn’t so easily fit into backpackers’ itineraries whose trail is concentrated more around the central and southern parts of the country.
Next stop would be a return to Lake Titicaca for me, having been there seven years previous on the Bolivian side.
This time I would visit the Peruvian city of Puno, and the journey there would certainly be one to remember.