The Peruvian Amazon is no place for peace and quiet.
The jungle is noisy and monster bugs crash the party reports Peter Dewar.
Brochures for the Peruvian Amazon have you imagining unique wildlife under the shade of a rainforest canopy. Natural beauty and serenity removed from the bustling modern world. Nobody mentions it might get loud.
The rainforest wakes early and there’s no snooze button for jungle din. High-decibel sounds are striking: an insect’s hum is as loud as a neon sign; an aeroplane noise comes from monkeys; and a call by a bird at river’s edge sounds more like somebody gulping down a glass of water.
The Amazon Basin is one of the most densely populated locations on earth for things that fly, crawl, hop and slither and most seem intent on occupying our lodge room. A translucent green grasshopper sits on the mosquito netting. It’s the size of an index finger, and a cicada, at first mistaken for a baby bat, is flailing around the room trying to escape.
This is no ordinary camping trip.
Refugio Amazonas in the Tambopata National Reserve is home for four days as we trek along muddy paths looking for exotic wildlife. The tourist lodge is nestled in four-storey high vegetation and a 15 minute walk from a river coursing through the largest uninhabited part of Peru. Electricity is limited to five hours each day, toilets are paperless, and an open wall brings the rainforest to guests’ living rooms. Rise early and you might catch small, prehistoric looking animals pass by. During the day, the open room lets you soak in the sounds of the rainforest.
From the nearest airport, Puerto Maldonado, it’s a three-hour boat ride up a cocoa-coloured river to the lodge. Lulled into a trance by the putter of the outboard motor there’s time to wonder what’s in the impenetrable deep-green. We’re looking forward to encountering the creatures hidden inside, and it’s not long until our first sighting: a capybara – the world’s largest rodent, cousin of the guinea pig and something you might expect to see in Pixar’s Ice Age – nudging its square nose into the ground in search of food.
Lodge life is about trekking morning, noon and, if you’re up for it, night-time too. Slopping along paths, taking care not to trip over huge tree roots or hit your head on low hanging branches becomes routine. The lodge provides gumboots if night rains have swamped paths; you’re almost barefooted and able to feel the pebbles, mud and branches of the rainforest floor.
Amazonas Refugio takes its role as an educator seriously. There are night-time caiman (small alligator) expeditions, rainforest canopy climbs, a local farm visit, macaw watching and botanical tours. One can only wonder what mind expanding experiences await the shaman’s trek group.
Feeding piranha with bread and filming the action by dangling an underwater camera over the side of the canoe is a quirky highlight of our stay. The video-recording reveals only lightning fast thrashing in water too murky for precision shots, but it’s enough to discourage the most foolhardy prankster from dipping their fingers in.
But the prize for the most unusual trek goes to the clay-lick jaunt. At dusk, mammals go to a small cutting to lick the vertical clay face for salt and minerals. Tour groups sit quietly in a hut waiting for jungle mammals to pass by and indulge. Today there’s only a couple of bush turkeys and a peccary to see, which is just as well; at thirty degrees, the jungle hut feels more like a sweat lodge. Nearing home, on the hour long return to the lodge, the rainforest rewards us; it’s dark, but our guide somehow finds a small snake curled around a branch and porcupine in a tree.
‘As a boy, I used to go for walks with my grandfather in the rainforest. I loved the birds and he taught me how to make their sounds,’ says our guide, Fernando. The birds and mammals are shy; insects are the only creatures you’re guaranteed to get close to, so it’s important to have an experienced tracker.
Fernando is a Puerto Maldonado local who studied tourism for three years, polished his English skills and took a job at the lodge. Most of the group are decked out in the latest adventure travel gear and layers of protective sprays and creams. Fernando, who is built like a bricklayer, wears a humble T-shirt and shorts.
The lodge provides continuing training and Fernando, now an experienced guide, has been here for eight years. He’s often locked in deep concentration as he scans the forest. On a trail he will suddenly stop, pause and whistle to a bird. Through the expensive binoculars he lugs through the jungle and sets upon a tripod, we get some of our best views.
Locals and tourist operators are sensitive to natural ecosystems and feel strongly about the preservation of wildlife upon which their livelihood depends. During our stay, workers strike, unhappy a company is damaging the environment. On treks, Fernando makes sure none of the group step on a lines of leaf cutter ants toting leaves the size of a two dollar coin.
Four days following Fernando has been a test. Tired, unkempt with clothes that won’t dry in the humidity, we’re nonetheless proud of our expedition. The noise and weird-looking insects in our room now go unnoticed. We’re trying to avoid thinking of returning to a concrete jungle, no matter how appealing a sleep-in seems.
Good to Know
Qantas shares flights with LAN Airlines from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN Airlines has flights to Lima, Peru, then Puerto Maldonado. Expedition tour companies arrange transit from the airport by boat to rainforest lodges.
Rainforest Expeditions and Wildlife Guides, Refugio Amazonas Lodge provided a great experience while wildlife enthusiasts might consider The Tambopata Research Centre and Eco-lodge which is a seven-hour boat ride from Puerto Maldonado.
Don’t leave home without
Malaria tablets (locals insist this isn’t necessary, but seek medical advice), insect repellant, sunscreen, head torch, good quality poncho, lightweight light-coloured clothing, broad-brimmed hat, waterproof hiking boots, oversupply of socks and underwear, water bottle and day pack. The lodge asks that you take no more than 15 kilos of luggage and provide carry bags to repack at their Puerto Maldonado headquarters.
A camera with lens for distance and close-up shots will deliver unforgettable photos.
Tips are placed in envelopes at the end of stays for guides and lodge-staff.