Thirty-five hours of flying and layovers are not good news for anybody’s carbon footprint, but if that is the price to pay for a peep into Amazonia, this sigh-filled travelogue is redemption enough. GAYATRI HAZARIKA can’t help gushing as she describes the biodiversity she encountered on her sojourn in Peru’s rainforest paradise
So this time, would it be Nature’s theatre under the Patagonian skies, the big mammals in the African wilderness, or Amazonia in a northern country of South America? Peru won hands down. Not only did it have Amazonia on offer, but also the cultural hotspot of Machu Picchu as well as the stark moonscapes of the Andes. And for vacationers like us, for whom budget, time, and visa are the biggest considerations, this was a deal-sealer.
For a mid-sized country, Peru is unmatched in geographical diversity. Humid tropical rainforests; cold, barren mountains; arid Oceanic coasts; and ruins of ancient civilizations – all packed into a modest 1,285,216 sq km. This, to us greedy vacationers, meant taking a flight every two or three days on the two-week trip. But we were not complaining.
Landing in Lima on a cold, gloomy morning, after a staggering 35-hour flight and layovers, we were soothed by the grey expanse of the Pacific. Invigorated. Lima, interestingly, is the ‘surficial’ antipode (a place that is diametrically opposite through the centre of the earth) of Bangalore – Lima is 12 degrees south of the Equator and Bangalore is 12 degrees north; Lima is 77 degrees West of the Prime Meridian and Bangalore is 77 degrees East. A minor detail for many, but it made that day special for me.
In my ardour, I sallied into the streets of Lima, without resting or drinking enough water, and flicking my husband’s plea to go slo-mo for the impending jet lag, especially since I had hardly slept in the last flight. I was feeling so damn good! By afternoon, an adamant headache crept up and rose to a hammering pitch, till my system exorcised it by throwing up my lunch. In the meantime, we had sauntered through this beautiful, 500-year-old city ─ roaming its 16th century plazas and churches, as well as the 21st-century Larcomar, a tiered shopping centre embossed on a cliff overlooking the Pacific! No time to attend to bodily travails.
The next morning we boarded a flight to Puerto Maldonado, and landing in what was a tiny, semblance of an airport, the first thing we did was strip down to our T-shirts and shorts. At 35 degrees C and sprawling plantain and sugarcane plantations, you could say, we were possessed by a tropical trance. I still can’t ─ six months on ─ reminiscence those four days without smiling. Munching on Brazil nuts, banana chips and apples, we traversed four hours up the Tambopata river on a flat-bottomed longboat with outboard engines. There is no other route to reach the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), in the Amazonian heartland, but this river highway. It’s an eight-hour long upstream boat ride to TRC, but we would stop overnight at Refugio Amazonas, an eco-lodge halfway through, and move further up to TRC the next day. Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios, which eventually flows into the Amazon.
The riparian landscape, lined on either side by Cecropia trees, offered some sightings – Red-and-Green Macaws at a clay-lick (an open area where some birds and animals come to draw essential salts from the soil). Cutesy Capybaras – the largest rodents – were idling with Giant Cowbirds (because they hitch rides on cattle for free meals of flies, as mynas do in India) on the river beaches. There were also the elegant Capped Heron and the Horned Screamer, nicknamed the Donkey Bird because it ‘brays’. We witnessed the amazing phenomenon of butterflies licking the salty tears of turtles, which were sunning on river boulders. The headwaters of Amazon, being far from the sea, are deficient in salts. So, these macaws, butterflies and other animals compensate for the deficiency by eating soil around clay-licks. These clay-licks are the handiwork of the river. The constant heat and rain leach whatever little salts are available there, below the soil. As the river erodes its outer banks, these underground salt deposits are scooped out from the soil cross-section and lie exposed as clay faces and walls.
I am excited by such natural phenomena, which were aplenty in those few days. The very next wonder, however, was man-made. The architecture of Refugio Amazonas knocked me off my feet – after a 15-minute trek up the steep riverbank, the high-ceilinged elegant wooden structure, gleaming with warm varnish and a plush comfortable lobby, was surreal. The rooms, mostly built from local materials such as mahogany, palm fronds, and clay, have only three walls – the fourth wall is the forest. That night, after a caiman search trip on the river where we sighted the White-spectacled Caiman and fishing bats, we retired to the medley of Nunbird gurgles, Antbird and Woodcreeper trills, Motmot hoots from deep within the forest, and the throaty yodelling of Dusky Titi monkeys. Turns out that the rooms are also used by some birds to cross over into the forest. That night we slept with the rainforest!
Early next morning, a routine trek into the forest and a climb up an 82-feet canopy watchtower brought us face to face with Dusky Titis, Brown Capuchins, White-throated Toucans, and Chestnut-eared Aracari. Down again on the ground, we stumbled into a Parrot Snake, which stopped its racy glide, turned and threatened us in stunned rage. Soon tired of its bravado display, we continued our trek, and a little ahead, spied a Long-tailed Potoo, a relative of the owl. It was perfectly camouflaged on a dead tree stump, as these birds always are. Massive trees such as the Brazilnut, the Balsa, and the Kapok towered above. Calls of Red Howler Monkeys, reverberating through the forest that morning, were indistinguishable from the sound of air gushing through empty pipes, amplified many times over. Every time we heard them, we stopped in our tracks, awestruck.
After breakfast, it was time to resume the journey up the river to TRC – our ultimate destination. As we ascended, the vast and calm river grew narrow, bubbly, and confused, hindering our way with deadwood, shingles, boulders, and small eddies. The boatman and the navigator had to work harder, and even stop to conference. Gushing streams drained into the Tambopata in this stretch, about four hours on the timeline. A little before we reached our destination, we stopped by at a macaw clay-lick. Hundreds of them ─ Red and Green, Blue and Yellow, and Scarlet Macaws ─ congregated here. Creating a glorious ruckus, drinking salts at the clay-lick, flying in pairs from one tree to another, resting awhile and looking around, and then flying away to another tree. Driven by an unapparent quest, they continued to fly, rest, fly. Such loveliness, which I viewed mostly through my 400 mm ─ there goes a pair flying, but here’s a couple much closer, there is a close-up, change shutter speed, why not that one up there, a silhouette, and this one here, that one’s got a clean perch, let’s have this as a back-up, this one while I am waiting for a big moment… At the end of 30 minutes, my 16GB high-speed SD card groaned in pain; I managed to awaken the curiosity of a young Kiwi couple towards the lively surroundings – this couple who till not long ago were slightly bored and impervious to the physicality of the place; as well as break the reverie of my husband, who chooses to be unencumbered by any material pursuits such as a camera or greed (for photos) when in the midst of nature, enjoying it like a monk with a smartphone to take notes.
The same elegant wooden structure, smaller and spartan compared to Refugios’, welcomed us at TRC. The next two days were packed with several rainforest trails into different kinds of habitats: flood plains, palm swamps, riverine, terra-firma, and bamboo groves. Nearly 25 kilometres of trails are laid out in concentric loops around the TRC lodge. And rewards were aplenty. This time, there was the South American Coral Snake on a night trek, a Yellow-footed Tortoise, more Dusky Titis and Brown Capuchins, Black Spider Monkeys that deftly used their prehensile tails to canter about the high canopy, and several groups of White-lipped Peccaries. Avian sightings included the Nunbird, Greater Ani birds, exotic Hoatzins with their spiky crests, White-winged Swallows, Razor-billed Curassow, Silver-billed Tanager, Spotted Sandpiper, Muscovy Duck, White-necked Heron, Large-billed Tern, Neotropic Cormorant, Snowy Egret, and Sand-coloured Nighthawk. These, to a birder, were gratifying.
Situated on an island nearby is the Collpa Colorado macaw clay-lick. Nearly 200 metres across, it is the largest in Amazonia. This time, along with the Red-and-Green, Blue-and-Yellow, and Scarlet Macaws, there came Red-bellied Macaws, Chestnut-fronted Macaws, Mealy Amazon Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, and Orange-cheeked Parrots. We reached there at the crack of dawn, carrying small folding stools to sit on and watch these guys, about 50 metres away. Besides creeping up the clay-lick wall, all they did was – yes, you guessed it right – fly, rest, fly. Repeat. Along with the 400 mm, this time, I also spared time to use a pair of binoculars. The young Kiwi couple, who, by the way, had wandered into Peru on a whim, were much more involved in the surrounding flight fest, and my husband volunteered to be my spotter, showing me, among others, the Silver-billed Tanager and the White-winged Swallow – a little away from the macaws’ muddy feast. This time, even the nonchalant guide, with a thin and low voice to match, animatedly gestured at me towards photo ops. Later in the day, we went for a couple of treks – one in which a tropical squall continued to drum on the thick canopy high above. So thick and so high that not a stray drop could make its way to us.
In the wee hours next morning, we boarded a boat back to Puerto Maldonado, actually to a small port near it. An eight-hour ride down the Tambopata, followed by a quick bus ride from the jetty to the rest house (to collect our heavier luggage and freshen up), then on to a mini-van to the tiny aeropuerto, then on to the flight, lifting up over the snaking Tambopata, up over the Andean peaks, and by four in the afternoon we had landed in Cusco, the ancient Inca capital, 3,400 m ASL. Our fade-out from the tropical trance was complete even before the sun could set ─ the sun that had risen over the colossal trees around TRC that morning.
If it were not for the call of Machu Picchu and the stark moonscapes of the Altiplano (the most extensive area of high plateau outside of Tibet), I would have been a heartbroken woman that afternoon.
The soroche (acute mountain sickness) visited me a couple of times in the ruthless altitudes, snatching my appetite and sedating me with overpowering sleep. Much to the amusement of my husband who was spared the severity. But a magical day at Machu Picchu and another one aboard Lago Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the Andes at 3,810 m ASL, gave the Amazonian experience some stiff competition. But these stories are for another day.
Equal parts traveller, photographer, artist and writer, Gayatri Hazarika lives in Bangalore where she works as a senior marketing communications specialist in the IT industry. The Green Ogre thanks her for this guest post.