Travel & Leisure Family, September/October 2006

Wild Things

Night is my favorite time in the Amazon because that’s when things get really loud. Some of the players in this orchestra can be identified: castanet frogs, for example, clickety-clacking rhythmically. Or the monkey frog, which makes an unpretty bonk, like an ambulance coming up on traffic. Occasionally, something crashes down through the brush, sounding awfully large–a big bat?A turkey vulture?An ocelot?

But the very coolest noise, as far as I’m concerned, is the call of the red howler monkey. This sounds nothing like the chimpanzee hoot of television and movies; in fact, I don’t know how it comes from an animal at all. An extended, whooshy roar–something between the wind blowing through trees and a blast furnace–it makes you think a twister is about to hit; it rises and falls like the sound track to a thriller.

My son, Asa, 11, and I were deciphering the cacophony from a lodge room on our first night in the Peruvian jungle when a striking multitonal plink! got added to the mix. It seemed almost electronic.

“Dad, did you hear that?” Asa blurted. It was so dark I couldn’t make out his shape in the next bed, behind the mosquito netting.

“Yeah. What do you think it is?”

His frame of reference came from lands far away.

“It sounds like Mario getting upgraded.”

The Amazon rain forest isn’t for everybody, I’ll readily concede. It’s steamy and buggy, and where it’s not wild, it can look a little squalid. But I’d spent extended periods here twice in recent years, researching Peru’s new Inter-oceanica highway for a book I’m writing about roads around the world. Of all the places I’ve been to for work, this was the one I most wanted to return to for pleasure–and with my wife, Margot, and our children, Asa, and Nell, nine.

One reason is that our kids love exotic animals and insects, which, of course, the rain forest delivers in seemingly limitless variety. Another is that the Amazon is a true frontier, untamed and incompletely understood, yet not too hard to get to. The tropical rain forest that fills most of the Amazon basin–an area, incidentally, larger than Western Europe–has been called “the lungs of the planet.” I wanted my family to see it as it is today: large tracts remain pristine, but by the time my children have children, most will have been ceded to cattle pasture and cassava fields. That’s already the case in Brazil, the country most identified with the Amazon, but Peru’s piece of it is said to contain the greatest biodiversity of any place on earth.

We arrived in Lima during Thanksgiving week and from there, caught an 80-minute flight to the river town of Puerto Maldonado. Halfway, our plane stopped in the colonial capital of Cuzco, gateway to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru’s best-known attraction. Many travelers combine a trip to the jungle with a visit to Machu Picchu (for details, see page 74). As we continued, we could see the snowcapped Andes quickly dropping off into the vast hazy sea of green that is the beginning of the rain forest. The giant brown rivers below, tributaries of the Amazon, are the traditional roads in this part of the world. One of them, the Tambopata, would be our link to the wilderness.

Most tour companies have their clients land in Puerto Maldonado and immediately spirit them away to a lodge in one of the protected zones that surrounds the town. But Puerto, with its dirt streets and one-story buildings, has an outpost appeal, making it the perfect midway point between civilization and the wild. Two of our gang’s favorite nights were spent here, at either end of our six-day journey: getting around by quaint three-wheeled motocar taxis, eating corn-topped pizza, drinking Inca Kola in the covered market, and thrilling to our first tropical downpours (winter is the rainy season– and in these parts, that means up to 79 inches of rainfall a year; Seattle, by comparison, gets 36 inches).

Our hotel–the thatched, slowly dilapidating Wasai Lodge–was replete with puffbirds, plica plica lizards, and even a sloth in a tree. Our real jungle adventure, however, began the next day. At the open-air headquarters of our outfitter, Rainforest Expeditions, Nell spied a tarantula on the underside of the roof. We were immediately assured by our Peruvian guide, Geraldine Coll, that it would keep its distance. Quiet and supremely attentive, with a dark braid, Geraldine, who would accompany us to the two lodges ahead, was an energetic recent college grad with impressive credentials in biology. Her specialty is medicinal plants, but she seemed to know something about everything around us, including the tree in front of the office–a marañón, or cashew, she explained, pointing out unripe nuts and picking two round fruits, which she cut up into sweet, liquidy pieces for us to eat as we boarded a bus to the Tambopata River.

In a village known as Infierno–that’s right, Hell–our group of a dozen visitors descended a wooden staircase by the riverbank and stepped carefully into the vessels that would take us downriver. Long and narrow like a canoe, each had an outboard motor on the back, individual upright seats, and a tarp roof to keep out the sun and rain. Posada Amazonas, our first lodge, was a couple of hours away.

Much of a trip to the Amazon is spent in boats like these–there’s no other route to the lodges. Along the way, the kids listened to their iPods, and guides plied us with plantain chips, passion fruit, and a delicious lunch of vegetable fried rice, each portion bundled in a bijao leaf and tied with a vine, a wrapping approved for disposal in the river. But mostly we all watched the primordial landscape drift by. It was a slowly unspooling movie of sandy beaches, high tree canopies, occasional glimpses of small farms–discernible by the top of a roof–and surprise creatures: ostentatious oropendolas (weaverbirds), with long, forked tails, their basket-shaped nests hanging from branches; black caracara raptors; and family pods of the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, grazing casually among the grasses. The river water is so opaque that a submerged hand is not at all visible. The presence of parasites–as well as piranha, caiman (an alligator cousin), and unexpected currents–makes swimming ill-advised, though we couldn’t resist getting a little wet.

Eco-conscious Posada Amazonas is announced by nothing more than a sturdier-than-usual staircase. The cane-lined main structure stands in a clearing; when approaching, you can see into the surprisingly monumental meeting area and the dining room. The roofs are churchlike in amplitude, high beams supporting traditional thatch. Everything is on stilts to keep it away from bugs and moisture. Walkways lead to the 30 guest rooms, each with one side wide open to the forest, beds under mosquito nets, bathrooms with cool running water (no need for hot water here), and so many candles and lanterns you almost don’t notice that there’s no electricity.

We stowed our bags and, though there was little time before dinner, donned rubber wellies from the lodge’s large collection, applied insect repellent, and headed out for the first of many jungle walks. Hikes in the rain forest are an experience of enclosure. The dense canopy above means that you seldom get a direct view of the sky and may not even know when it’s raining. The air is usually still and moist and hovers around 85 degrees. It smells of the carpet of damp leaves, of sweetness here and sourness there. The lack of sunlight limits plant growth, and the understory is relatively open. You’re in a soft-light world of spaced-out trunks, low shrubs, and fallen branches. And though you get the feeling that there are plenty of animals around, the challenge, we discovered, is finding them.

Thanks to sharp-eyed Geraldine and Asa, we spotted titi monkeys, hidden by vines, and tracked a pair of toucans as we stood atop a beanstalk-like observation tower. The next day, we peered up at kapok trees, the giants of the rain forest (some grow to be 200 feet tall), and white-trunked Brazil nut trees (sales of the nuts constitute a big part of the local economy). Geraldine pressed the leaves of a small fern to Nell’s forearm, resulting in a cool white tattoo, and pointed out the round spiky pods that give the monkey’s hairbrush tree its name.

Slowly, we began to appreciate the radical mix of outsize and minuscule wonders. We crossed a path, only six inches wide, that intersected with ours–a superhighway of leaf-cutter ants, coming and going in prodigious numbers. Each ant was hoisting a polygon of green leaf over its body. These plant pieces, Geraldine explained, were being hauled to a vast underground nest, where they would serve as a growth medium for the fungus that feeds the colony. The freeway was guarded at its edges by soldier ants, five times the size of the workers, with massive jaws. We kept our distance.

Rainforest Expeditions has been deservedly praised for its partnership with the local community, largely made up of members of the Ese’eja tribe. Posada Amazonas is built on their land; community members make up the kitchen and other support staff and sometimes work as guides. The two groups share profits from the lodge operation. Another benefit we experienced the next morning: a tour of the Ese’eja’s Centro Ñape, a medicinal-plant garden. The Amazon is famous as a source of medicines–25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals, including many cancer treatments, stimulants, and tranquilizers, are said to be derived from rain-forest ingredients (though only about one percent of its plants have been studied by scientists).

Our guide, Don Jorge Mishaja, sported a San Francisco Giants T-shirt and a necklace bearing jaguar and boar teeth. As Geraldine translated his Spanish, Don Jorge showed us plants that supply cures for maladies ranging from the common cold and fever to bad luck and sexual impotence.He passed around twigs from the cordoncillo plant and we touched the ends to our gums, which instantly felt numb; these, he explained, were used in dental procedures. He extolled the virtues of the uña de gato (cat’s claw) vine, which a Japanese woman in our group said was the only cure she’d ever found for her intestinal troubles. He also described the powers of the ayahuasca vine, central to shamanic rituals and legendary among hallucinogen-seeking hippies of earlier days. Asa perked up when Don Jorge told us how the liquid center of an achiote pod could dye the skin a deep orange. Minutes later, our son, face thoroughly self-painted, was ready for any ceremony a medicine man might bring on.

An afternoon boat ride of five hours–with a stop at a checkpoint to get papers stamped and kick around a soccer ball–brought us to Rainforest Expedition’s Tambopata Research Center (TRC). A scaled-down version of Posada Amazonas, TRC has hammocks in the common area, 13 dorm-size bedrooms, and a row of spacious individual showers/bathrooms down the hall. Started in 1989, the research station began hosting a small number of tourists in 1992. The two purposes continue, with tourism helping to fund the fieldwork, most of which involves something that interests visitors a lot: macaws.

These huge, garish parrots, though protected in this preserve, are shrinking dramatically in number, partly due to the pet trade–in which they’re highly valued (though exportation is illegal)–but also because their jungle habitat is being replaced by farmland and because they’re hunted for food. TRC’s scientists are researching ways to re-establish macaw populations. In one early experiment, scientists rescued baby macaws that would have died in the wild and raised them at the station; these chicos, as they’re now known, eventually flew off, but many still return.

Soon after our arrival, the kids and I were amazed to see a scarlet macaw crash loudly onto a snack table, grab a cellophane-wrapped pack of crackers in his beak, and fly off in a flash of color. The next day at lunch, another chico swooped in, tipped over candlesticks, and swiped some papaya off Margot’s plate. “Don’t let them do that!” research chief Don Bridesmith scolded, offended by the bird’s bears-in-Yellowstone behavior. But we couldn’t help but be thrilled. The chicos were impossible to resist–even for the staff. When Asa and an assistant scientist heard a chico calling noisily from a tree, the assistant grabbed a banana and suggested Asa place a piece of it on his shoulder. Seconds later, Asa’s head was enveloped by flapping red and yellow feathers, as the macaw gripped the back of his T-shirt and reached for bite after bite.

TRC is intentionally located near what is said to be the world’s largest macaw clay lick–a cliffside at which the birds engage in the geophagy (dirt-eating) they apparently need to stay healthy: many of the tropical tree seeds that make up their diet contain toxins, which the clay, a parrot Pepto-Bismol, is thought to neutralize. The lick is TRC’s biggest draw, and we learned all about it during a slide show by Bridesmith. But to witness the action without causing any disturbance, guests have to get there earlier than the birds, which means waking up at around 3:45 a.m. Nell and Margot passed on the outing; Asa, who had chosen the blue-and-gold macaw to study for a school report, insisted on going with me.

At first I wasn’t sure if he should have. With a contingent of EarthWatch volunteers, who were at TRC to help with a bird census, we stood in a clearing about a football field away from the lick and couldn’t see much of the mass visitation–up to 1,500 individual birds on a good day–without binoculars. Asa resorted to looking for feathers. But then, scarlet macaws and red-bellied macaws started flying over us, and a luminous blue-and-gold macaw–a sad, dusty version of which has been a fixture at our local pet store for years–landed right above our heads. Rush hour at the parrot airport had begun.

After breakfast back at the lodge (banana pancakes spread with dulce de leche), as we headed to a fishing pond, Geraldine spotted jaguar tracks in the muddy path. Satisfied that the cat wasn’t nearby, she taught us how to make a cast by dripping hot wax from candles into the paw print. The mold, framed in a shadow box, now hangs in our living room.

But the trip’s highlight–at least in Nell and Asa’s eyes–came at the end of a long day, when we should have been heading to bed. Instead, Geraldine took us on a night outing. It began in a boat from which she shined a spotlight into the water as the boatman trolled the shore, revealing dozens of pairs of caiman eyes. Returning to land, we walked along an embankment and, on Geraldine’s signal, turned off our headlamps; in the darkness, the ground glowed, a galaxy of bioluminescent firefly larvae embedded in it. Next, we slogged around in a swamp, lights out, waiting for the inhabitants to reveal themselves with their barks and peeps. Lights on, we spied them astride twigs and leaves: rain frogs, hyla frogs, monkey frogs. An owl hooted. A bat brushed my leg. As we turned back to the lodge, Geraldine focused a beam on a tiny tree in our path: coiled on a branch was a young parrot viper, one of the deadliest snakes around. The kids were ecstatic–indisputable danger! When the Amazon is right for you, it’s very, very right.

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