The word Amazon invokes quite a few thoughts – anacondas, aborigines, dense forests, tall trees with hanging roots, wild rivers and of course the e-commerce platform in the 21st century. The Amazon forest had been long on the list, ever since I was a kid and was enamoured by Mowgli from the Jungle Book. Though it wasn’t exactly shot there, the concept of a forest with wild animals and aborigines always fascinated me. I couldn’t visit it during my trip to Brazil, that has more than 60% of it, last year. But was happy to know that it extends to Peru and Colombia, the other two countries where the majority of the rain forest resides.
Since I was traveling to Peru, I planned to combine it with a visit to the Peruvian Amazon. More than 60% of this country is covered by the Amazonian region-more than that in any other country. On further research I realised that Iquitos in Northern Peru is the most popular area for the Amazon. However, since I intended to travel down south, I initially chose Manu – a national park in the rainforest- that is not often accessed by regular backpackers. But the logistics turned out to be prohibitive since it was a last minute decision in a protected part of the Amazon. The traveller in me resolved to decide about ‘Tambopata,’ a tributary of the river Madre de Dios, at the last minute after meeting a few more travellers on the way.
Luckily, I was passing by Cusco first, the city where the Incas originated and resided, and a hub to go to Machu Picchu and southern Peru. Some backpackers suggested that I buy a tour to the Madre de Dios from a local agent and I did exactly that. Madre de Dios (Mother of the Gods) is a prominent river which has its main city – Puerto Maldonado. The overnight bus ride from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado (PM) was more than comfortable. The double decker bus was better than an airplane from the inside- plush seats with lots of leg space, small TV for movies, music and a hostess who served dinner! I reached the lodge at about 8 am, showered and left for Tambopata lodge at about 9.30 am- a minibus journey with other fellow backpackers- for an hour and a half.
En route from PM to the lodge, the bus driver stopped the bus in the middle of nowhere just to pick up a fruit, that resembled a coconut, from a huge tree. He told us that this was one of the most popular nuts in the country and was extremely valuable. Called the ‘Brazil Nut’, these were originally found only in Brazil but later discovered in other surrounding countries. Peruvians go to the forests with their families in search of these nuts. Each fruit has about 15-20 nuts inside them with hard shells that are broken down with a hand operated machine akin to the one used for cracking betel nuts in India.
The bus ride was followed by a 15 minute boat ride up the Tambopata river and then a walk in the clearing in the dense foliage that housed wooden lodges. Our guide explained to us all the safety measures and rules of the house. Though I was prepared for a no mobile network zone, just 4 hours of electricity in the evening came as quite a shocker! We Indians need the basic necessity of a fan while sleeping. That too in the forest where one is expecting a mosquito rampage!!
The lodges were made of wooden logs and were uniquely designed. Almost 2/3rd of it had a wooden wall while the rest had just a sturdy net. At night this gave a feel of sleeping in the midst of the forest as there was no clearing between the rooms and the thick foliage, except for a narrow walkway. The bed had a mosquito net on top and a hammock next to it. The wooden interiors were tasteful and raw. Finally, I felt that I had reached the Amazon. This was just the beginning…
Post lunch, that included some delicious salads, fruit juices and desserts for vegetarians like me, we went for a jungle walk. The jungle has a primary area which has shorter trees and less vegetation. The secondary area is thick enough to disallow the sunlight from touching the ground. We were told about the importance of most of the trees and how the jungle supports human life. Quinine that is used in treating malaria and is an important ingredient of ‘tonic water,’ is an import product of a tree here. So is Gum, that is used to make gum boots. The ‘Fertility tree’ has phallus shaped roots and is used to treat infertility while there are many hollow vines and roots that are perfect reservoirs for storing pure water and can be cut open to quench thirst. The forest is a complex ecosystem of trees, shrubs and vines including ‘parasite’ trees. The way the animals, plants and even invertebrates are interdependent is a microcosm of cohabitation on earth.
In the night we went for a boat ride down the river in search of the ‘cayman’ (crocodiles). The guide would put his torch on when he reached a certain wetland, that would expose the shiny eyes of stealthy crocodiles peeping out of the river. When he found one close enough to our boat, picked it up single handedly with a swift stroke of his hand (it was just 1.5 metre long) and shared it with a few of us to pose for pictures. Once it was ‘friendly’ with all of us, it was released back to its habitat and it disappeared without a trace.
It was raining all night and we had to meet the next day at 4.30 am to go to the ‘clay licks’. Hearing the heavy rains lashing at my cottage, I decided to give my body the luxury of a few more hours of sleep. But was woken up at 4.30 am by the guide, only to realise that everyone else had assembled at the river and the rains had decided to disappear exposing the clear blue skies. It took more than an hour’s boat ride in the dawn to reach a narrow waterway that led to this island. En route were a few illegal gold miners waving at us with excitement. The swampy island had a walking path made of bamboos and planks that led us to a watch gallery facing the clay licks. Hundreds of parrots and macaws of different colours pecked at the clay as if it were a party. The herbivores animals and birds in this region lick the clay to aid their digestion from sodium in the clay. These swarms of feathery colorful ‘aves’ (birds in Spanish) mesmerised us and we kept watching them in awe while they went about their daily ablutions, completely oblivious of the diverse onlookers they had attracted.
A leopard was spotted (pun intended) the previous day in the other direction close to the banks. So we were very excited to go canoeing in the evening in that direction. But we had no such luck. The kayaking in the river with strong currents itself was a calming experience that exercised probably the only muscles that we hadn’t used in those few days.
While piranhas have always been looked upon as dangerous by most of us, especially after watching its namesake movie, they are treated like any other fish and are an important part of the Amazonian diet. So when we went ‘piranha fishing’ the next day it was with some excitement and a lot more apprehension as well. The boat ride to the other island, walking through the mud and getting on to a fishing boat was definitely joyful. But hooking up the bait to the road and trying to catch the slippery piranhas had me jumping in glee. It was almost turning out to be a frustrating affair as the fish were fast enough to devour the bait before I could barely feel the tug. After ‘wasting’ a lot of such meat, some of us finally got to see some results in the perseverance and were proud owners of the piranhas. Being a ‘chicketarian’ (chicken plus vegetarian) I decided to let my catch swim back in the river, much to the chagrin of the others.
The night walk was the perfect finale to our stay in the Amazon. It brought to life a whole different ecosystem of nocturnal beings that ruled the forest surreptitiously. The tarantula spider was the most notorious and a perfect beginning to our walk followed by giant beetles, bullet ants (they sting like bullets) and leaf carrying ants that look more green than their natural black colour due to the size of the leaves that they carry-a perfect education for an organised factory worker.
On the final day we left for ‘Lago Sandoval’- a lake next to Madre De Dios, that is completely a different ecosystem of Otters, sun basking turtles and a variety of birds. Gently gliding in boats through the lake felt like being transported to a fantasyland, where you could not only see but also ‘hear’ the turtles mating in serenity. The cacophony of otters was completely overlooked by the funny way in which they caught their fish and consumed them in glee.
The four days spent in the Amazon felt like a dream. A world where the only green you see is of the leaves, where there is no sign of plastic and where the earth is revered as ‘mother’- 'Pachamama' in the Inca language. The inhabitants respect all the constituents of the ecosystem, irrespective of their size, with the same respect. They diligently collect all the waste and transport it to the mainland daily. The passion that they have for their work reflects in their treatment of their guests and also that of ‘mamiferos’ (mammals). I left the Amazon with a heavy heart, knowing that the Amazon will never leave me and revived the ‘Mowgli’ in me to explore newer forests.