After being in Puerto Maldonado for less than an hour, I was already feeling significantly better. Our tour guide picked us up at the airport and got us a ride to the office. Here we would prepare for our 4-day journey through the Amazon.
We were given duffle bags for all of our stuff. This would ensure that we didn’t bring too much to carry on our journey. It was here that we gave up all of our non-essentials. I basically just put 4 days worth of clothes into the duffle bag and that was it. We threw our stuff into a cab and got another ride to the boat. Here we got an amazing lunch. Our tour guide handed me a basket and inside was a perfectly folded banana leaf. Inside was a mix of brown rice, vegetables and tofu. This was exactly what I needed! It was the first real meal I had eaten in a day and I ate all of it.
As soon as we finished our food, the boat driver turned up the engine and we started cruising down the river very quickly. We passed by the steep clay banks of the river, and some parts that had been turned into farmland. I even saw a few people swimming in the river. I had been told that this is a “locals only” activity, and you should really not swim in the river unless you don’t mind running into a caiman or two.
Eventually, the boat began to slow down, and we ran aground at one of the banks of the river. We would be getting off the boat here and walking for a few miles through the jungle. We climbed up the steep river bank and wondered through the forest until we found the trail. We followed this trail to a small lodge in the middle of the woods. This was the front office for the nature preserve. Our final destination was Lake Sandoval, a location famous for its amazing wildlife. Of course, the most famous residence of this lake are the family of Giant River Otters. These otters are some of the most rare animals in Peru, with only 150 living in the country and 1,500 living in the world. They grow up to 6 feet long, making them the largest otters in the world. If we were lucky, we would get a chance to see these wonderful creatures in the wild.
On the outside of the lodge, there were tons of pictures of the famous otters. This was also an opportunity for them to list a few rules about the reserve, but they were all in Spanish. “no feeding the otters” or something like that. Who knows.
What really captivated me was a poem that was written on the outside of the lodge. It was written from the point of view of mother nature, telling us how fortunate we are to have been given the whole world. All she asks is that we give her the most basic level of respect. It was so beautiful and humble. I was so glad that we were doing an excursion like this. We were really disrupting nature as little as possible out here and it really added to the experience.
We soldiered on along the path, trying to avoid the massive patches of mud that were sure to take the shoes right off of our feet. We really took our time on this walk, stopping for every rustle in the leaves or birdsong in the trees. Our tour guide was such a pro, he would occasionally stop and whistle back to the birds, like he was having a little conversation with them. We also noticed a few of the beautiful butterflies landing in front of us, trying to get a little taste of salt from the ground beneath us. The most beautiful of all is perhaps the blue morpho butterfly, which shines with a bright iridescent sapphire. Also along the path were legions of army ants. There were the tiny worker ants that were busy carrying things from place to place and then the massive soldier ants, about 5 times the size of the workers. Their job was to protect the workers so that they can focus on doing their job. Together, these insects efficiently scour the forest in search of prey. Pretty much anything that can’t get out of the way is fair game for the army ants. Some of the workers can link their bodies together to form bridges or walls to help the other workers move from place to place. If you really take a minute to squat down and look at them up close they are fascinating. Just don’t sit down, or you’ll notice some of them starting to crawl up you!
As fun as it was to be surrounded by wildlife, if we didn’t keep moving we would never make it through the jungle. Eventually after over 2 miles of walking, we came to a small creek with about a dozen canoes lined up. We hopped in one of them, and our boat guy, Simon, started to paddle us through the creek towards the clearing up ahead. Here we passed by submerged trees and we even saw a couple of caiman. Most of the caiman during the day are small, but at night the giant caiman come out to hunt. These animals can be up to 21 feet long and they have been known to eat people. This is why you don’t swim here.
Eventually we came to a clearing and the creek opened up to a huge lake. The beautiful water was surrounded on all side by palm trees and cecropia. On a nearby river bank, we saw a few Amazon river turtles basking in the sun. A few butterflies landed right on the turtles’ noses, illustrating beautifully the coexistence of nature in this special place. We slowly paddled through the peaceful lake, taking in all of the wildlife this magical lake had to offer. Eventually we arrived at our dock and started to walk up the stairs to the lodge.
The lodge was very modest. There were no windows, no electricity and very limited running water. There was a main area where we would be having most of our meals and this was screened in to keep the bugs out. Our place was a few hundred feet away from the main lodge, in a small wooden cabin. This was basically a hostel that we would be sharing with 2 other people. There was a wall dividing the two rooms, but this did almost nothing to block the sound so you could hear entire conversations from the other room. Although it would’ve been nice to have a little more privacy, it was fun to rough it out here. We were completely disconnected from the outside world, and although this made me worry a bit at first, I eventually accepted not being able to get online and started to relax and get back to nature a little bit. We were allowed to use electricity, but only between 7-9pm when they would turn the generator on. There was hot water, but it would either be boiling or non-existent so it wasn’t really worth using. All of the water in the area came from a small water tower on a make-shift scaffolding.
We met up with our group to head out on our first real excursion. Here we would be paddling around the lake as the sun started to go down. It would be light for the first half and then dark for the second half. We brought a couple of flashlights so that we could see at least a few things after the sun went down.
It didn’t take us long before we saw an entire troupe of squirrel monkeys. These cute little guys are some of the smallest monkeys in the area, and they love to travel in big packs to help keep and eye out for predators. It was magical just sitting there in the boat and watching more and more monkeys come out of the trees. There were so many, you could really just sit there and watch for hours and there would be no shortage of activity.
A little while later we saw a family of red howler monkeys, getting ready to settle in for the night. These animals are so much fun to see. The male howler monkey announces his presence by emitted a large bellowing noise from his throat that can be heard for miles away. This is how they establish territories, and up close they are so loud they sound like an airplane or a blender. It would be easy to mistake these growls for a jaguar if you didn’t know any better.
The darkness brought a whole new set of players to the lake. The fish eating bats came out in huge numbers, and began swooping over the lake in search of insect larvae. The nighthawks began circling overhead to catch the bats. There was a whole food chain unfolding right in front of us and it was incredible to behold. We started to notice a lot more caiman, which could be spotted hundreds of feet away with their glowing orange eyes.
That night we went to bed so excited to find out what the next day would have in store for us. We had already seen so much on one excursion, imagine 3 more in a single day. We couldn’t wait!