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Three Walls and a Roof

In the Tambopata Reserve

Around the bend in the Amazon basin: typical scene on the Tambopata River

Mon, July 26

And right on cue, Anica gets sick! It's been Jenn we were worrying about, but Anica woke up this morning saying her tummy was feeling funky, and during the 45 minute flight to Puerto Maldonado she threw up in spectacular fashion! Those airline barf bags don't catch everything, we found out. Poor Anica.

We met Johan, our guide/naturalist for the next five days, and he helped us travel with the other groups and guides by bus, then boat to "Refugio Amazonas." This part of the trip should be very appealing to Anica, but she hasn't been able to enjoy it yet. She revived briefly on the boat ride, although the things she liked best is how we could throw our entirely biodegradable lunch overboard when we were done with it (except the plastic fork!). The only evidence of human destruction were the hardscrabble gold-miners and their machines to pan for gold. Beyond the checkpoint, even that's not allowed.

This place is a goldmine! Literally.

Leaf lunch

We were soon spotting caiman and a capybara family along the shore, but then Anica started feeling nauseous again. So, by the time we arrived at the lodge, she was really upset at even the idea of climbing the stairs and walking the short path into the jungle. Johan tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, "Why is she crying?" Perhaps there's more of a language barrier than I thought. Wasn't it clear that Anica had been sick, was still feeling sick, was about to be sick again...?

It's alive! A caiman on the riverbank


So where are we now? In the Amazon basin. The rainforest. Inside a wildlife sanctuary called "Tambopata Reserve." We even passed a checkpoint and got a special passport stamp. The lodge itself is beautiful, all dark, luxurious wood built on stilts, with similarly-elevated walkways connecting the main building to wings of rooms. Our room, like all of them, has three walls with the fourth open to the jungle. There's no doors to the room or to our bathroom, just cloth curtains. It feels like you're outdoors all the time. Each bed has its own mosquito net. There's no electricity in the rooms; at dusk the staff light kerosene lamps on high shelves open to the walkways outside the rooms, then extinguish them at 9:30 PM. Lights out! There's a candle beside each bed, and we also have our headlamps. This is jungle Peru, at sea level, so it's always warm weather. No worries about staying warm through the night.

We've broken the fourth wall...

Net gain

Anica napped before dinner, and Jenn and I sat and talked and looked out the "window." We saw an agouti foraging around, and then a couple of bats came out. Anica will absolutely love this place when she's feeling better! Then we headed to the main building. Everyone sits with their guide at meal times, so we looked for the table with the place-card marked "Johan." He had arranged the "special diet" for Anica, which was chicken noodle soup. She would have that at lunch the next day, then dinner, then lunch on the third day until finally she convinced him she was ready for more than chicken noodle soup. It was punishment soup again! (See previous blog entry "Nature's Rewards and Punishment Soup"). We're going to learn a lot from Johan while we're here, but today we just concentrated on getting Anica feeling better. And Jenn!

Anica at Refugio Amazonas

Tues, July 27

Anica was feeling a little better this morning. We did the first of the children's activities with Johan, going to the playground to start learning the story of "Ania" (not Anica!) and the "spirit of the forest" and then following a trail to a treehouse with a rope ladder. They have a very gentle, child-centered environmental message here. The main idea is expressed in a puzzle that you assemble along the trail: "only children can save the earth."

Then we visited a farm across the river. There's only limited farming allowed in the reserve. This one is a real diverse mixture of crops, and Johan explained and/or had us guess what each plant, tree and fruit was. We really enjoyed the visit. I especially liked the small, round red peppers growing on bushes. Johan said "go ahead, try one", and I did. They were hot, but I like hot peppers. So I said, "your turn, Johan!" Then we picked a few more and I brought them to lunch and dinner today to add to my food. Talk about fresh. Anica liked painted our faces with achiote paste, and Johan showed her how the crab claw flower can turn her into a toucan!

Achiote face-painting

A decorative plant

Coming back, we spotted our first monkeys, some dusky titi monkeys. By lunch/afternoon, Anica was feeling worse again. Eventually, I went out alone to meet Johan in the main lodge to tell him Anica was a "no go" for the afternoon activities. He came back with a rehydration drink and some options for Jenn or me. Jenn opted for the rest (she's better without the mountain climbing, but not much better. The hikes here are more like 3 to 5 km at a time, and it's humid), and I went out exploring with Johan.

This was more of a free-form hike, and Johan took it at a faster pace for my benefit. What he does, though, is if there's no animals in the area, he'll just stop suddenly and point out the properties of a particular plant or tree. Or, if he does spot an animal, he'll stop even more suddenly, motion for quiet and then motion me forward slowly, pointing ahead or up so I can see it. The thrill here, unlike the Galapagos where the animals are "right in front of you" is that the animals are so elusive. We're all "hunters" here, and even if it's just for photographs and memories, there's an atavistic thrill to it.

On this particular walk, I was able to see a juvenile Harpy Eagle in its nest. Johan explained that it's the top predator in the air, and there's only one nest in the entire area. It's so rare to locate the nest that a bird-watcher/photographer has come here and had a special blind built just to photograph it. He's spending six to eight hours a day just doing that. Meanwhile, all we have is a little Canon sureshot. We're basically taking holiday snapshots. But I tried to use the digital zoom and get a shot of it. Even the juvenile is an absolutely huge and ferocious looking creature.

Heading, back to the lodge Johan did one of his "sudden freezes" and then motioned me to step up beside him. Just as I did, another group of people came noisily up the path behind me. I saw a flash of movement on the trail ahead, the sound of leaves and bushes being displaced, a blur. "Tapir!" Johan exclaimed. Then he swore. It was gone. I didn't really see it. It had been right on the open path ahead of us, only the third time Johan had ever seen a tapir, the largest mammal in the Amazon rainforest, in the wild.

He pointed to a tarantula...

I was happy to see Anica up and feeling better when we returned. Despite the punishment soup, she told Johan she was feeling better and was interested in going on the evening's "caiman search." This is done by boat, and a guide stands at the front with a floodlight, looking for glowing red eyes along the dark riverbanks. We enjoyed the search, especially when we found what I called the caiman kindergarten (six baby caiman scrambling around).

We told Johan that Anica was feeling well enough to move on to the next lodge tomorrow, as per our itinerary, the "TRC" (Tambopata Research Centre). Deeper into the jungle! For Anica, the antibiotics worked. For Jenn, they haven't seemed to, although it hasn't developed into pneumonia.

Wed, July 28:

Today is Peru's national holiday, their independence day, so "Felices Fiestas Patrias" to all Peruvians! The lodge is festooned with red and white bunting, and most of the staff wear little red and white ribbons during this week.

Our room at the TRC was the last one on the left

Anica is celebrating feeling better! After breakfast we took the short walk to the canopy tower they have here. It's 120 feet tall, bolted together and held by guy wires. Jenn, too, climbed the rickety tower, despite her fear of heights. Johan brought a telescope from the lodge to the top. At last we were above the trees! Only 5% of the actual sunlight gets through the canopy to the jungle floor, so other than on the river and in the clearing outside the lodge, we haven't had the sun beating down on us. We saw macaws, and many extremely colourful tanagers. The guides here all carry these laminated sheets to identify the birds and animals we're seeing. Peru has more bird species than any other country in the world, by the way.

Canopy tower


After that, it was a boat ride to the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). The boat had comfy seats, leg-room and of course a beautiful breeze. It was one and three quarters hours to a checkpoint, then two and a half hours after that. So, all told, we were about six hours from the nearest town. From here, there's nothing but wilderness all the way along the rivers to the border with Bolivia.

TRC is a smaller version of the same sort of lodge we'd been at the first two nights. No private bathrooms attached to the rooms, however. After just a few minutes, we went right out on a walk. Immediately we saw four "peccaries" (warthogs, or wild boar) cross the path ahead of us. We also saw leaf cutter and army ants doing their amazing work, and a (huge) razor-billed currasow. At night, we saw a couple of things we didn't want to see: a couple of beetles on the floor about the size of my fist, and a moth so big we actually heard it land. Mothra!

Thurs, July 29:

A big, active day in the jungle today! And all of us were feeling well, although Jenn still has a lingering cough and a sore feeling in her chest from it. Anyway, we were woken up just before 4:30 AM to go watch birds lick clay. That's right. Like Anica said early this morning, "this better be worth it." Later, she said "it actually was worth it."

The TRC is located near the "world's largest clay lick," which, because it's located on the side of a cliff, means that all kinds of birds will flock to it. They get valuable minerals from the clay to combat the natural toxins in their diet. Every morning, guides take visitors from the TRC to the clay lick. It's a short boat ride, followed by a walk (rubber boots provided) through shallow water and mud to the hillside opposite the clay lick. We sat in little camp stools and the guides served hot tea or instant coffee (thank goodness!). Then we waited.

First, we heard them. Then the birds started to arrive. Now, we're not bird-watchers, but this is an awesome spectacle. They're mostly all parrots, with some macaws mixed in. They blanket the clay cliffs like leaves and the sound is tremendous. We had our own binoculars, and the TRC had its telescope set up on the tripod for an even better look. We also saw a white caiman on the river bottom eating another, smaller caiman. There's the law of the jungle!

We left, as the parrots also did, around 6:30. It was time for our breakfast back at the lodge. Part of our breakfast was hijacked by a macaw, who swooped in, landed on my shoulder, then stole my food. And then did the same to Anica! The macaws that come to the lodge are the "chicos" (Spanish for "kids"), part of a research project to boost the population by raising "third eggs" that normally wouldn't survive and then releasing them to nest and mate in the wild. There was a lecture on the project that we attended after dinner tonight.

Next there was a three-hour hike through a dry swamp, where Anica bravely climbed a high platform with Johan and me. The highlight of the walk was seeing black spider monkeys, which are endangered in this area.

Finally, after lunch, a siesta. Anica saw a tayra that's often looking for food scraps around the lodge. I had no idea what a tayra was before today. It's like a cat/dog/weasel about the size of a greyhound.

One more walk before dinner, about an hour and a half. We spent a lot of the time just inside the jungle's edge because we saw so many monkeys right there, mostly tamarind and squirrel monkeys, and one or two Black Capuchin.

Relaxing at Refugio Amazonas

Fri, July 30:

Our last full day at the Tambopata lodges. We started the day at the TRC with Jenn acting as an alarm clock that said "Oh wow." She wanted me to see all the monkeys jumping from branch to branch, that we were able to watch without even getting out of bed. It was better than our morning walk even, although, as we were packed up and heading to the boat, we finally saw the herd of peccaries. They stink! It was a thunderous spectacle. They seem so aggressive, but they're not; they're scared of us, even though there were probably thirty of them.

On the boat ride back, we finally saw the howler monkeys that we'd heard the last two mornings. They're well-named: they howl like an approaching storm. It's spooky.

By afternoon we were back at Refugio Amazonas. We did the children's "Ania's treasures of the forest hunt," which was actually one of the more demanding trails. Maybe it's designed to exhaust the kids! During it we rowed across Oxbow Lake, along odd-looking birds called Hoatzins. We came to the last clue after nearly two and a half hours of walking; we'd already turned our head lamps on. Finally, Anica arrived at the little basket of chocolates and the "Ania" necklace, like the one Johan wears.

We each enjoyed our (cold) showers before dinner. Dinner was very Peruvian and very good. The food's been great at both these lodges. I assured Jenn and Anica the room was secure after sweeping out an enormous katydid that had "flapped" into our room. I think we're ready for that fourth wall now.

Posted by jennrob 08:43 Archived in Peru

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