After 2 relaxed days in Cuzco, where we had recharged our batteries with amazing food, we finally flew to Puerto Maldonado to visit one of our last must to see places on our world trip: the famous AMAZON basin. After some 4000 kms by bus from Ushuaia down south in Argentina, through Chile and Bolivia up to Peru, it was our first flight after a long time, though we both had not missed it. Compared with our 18 hours flight from Istanbul to Buenos Aires, we literally hopped more than flew down the snow caped Andes into the lush green Amazon basin in less than 40 min.
The reduction in altitude at this part of the continent is more than exciting and brought us from 3400 m in Cuzco to less than 200 m altitude over sea level in Puerto Maldonado. From there the River Madre de Dios (and later the Amazon) has still more than 2000 km to go to its final ending in the Atlantic Ocean. This makes an average descent of not even ten cm per one km riverbed. But enough with number crunching, we both were pretty excited and full of hope to see the unique wildlife over there. As with some other places in South America we were here on recommendation of our dear friend Wulfi, a big thanks again to him at this point.
We left the super tiny airport through the main door and were directly welcomed by a friendly smiling young man who turned out to be our guide Paolo for the next 4 days. He was born in Puerto Maldonado and had spent a lot of time in the jungle since he was a kid. We instantly liked this humble guy as he introduced himself and gave us a short wrap up of the next hours.
Our home for 3 nights and 4 day would be the Sandoval Lake Lodge located on the high shore of the equally named Sandoval Lake about 1 hour down the river, 2 hours by foot through the jungle and finally another hour per paddle boat through the flooded forest and across the lake.
We enjoyed our lunch package from Paolo, the fresh air around our nose, the sun and the view from the boat while we were shipped down the Madre de Dios river over to the trail head. Paolo told us that we were actually the only guests in the lodge, only the next evening 5 Americans would make their way to the lodge as well, but they would have their own guide, which left us again in the unbelievable position to have a guide just for the two of us :).
When we asked why it was so quiet at the lodge, Paolo told us that during rain season only a few brave guests would make their way there, as it could be rainy all day which would make trips more difficult and also reduce the chance to spot the full range of animals as they almost humanlike would hide and try to avoid to get soaked :).
By now we three were hopeful as the weather had been bad the entire week before and we just hoped that Petrus would run out of water for the next days or would reduce the amount of rain because we are just nice people :).
At the trailhead we got to know one of the local porters. He would carry our duffel bags to the lodge, while we would, almost Inka trial like, have to carry only our daypacks. His name was Juan Carlos and he belongs to the local family which lives around the lake since a long time. Juan Carlos has not only a proud name. He also would play a major roles within our upcoming jungle and lake trips.
At the trailhead we put on our rubber boots, got a hiking stick and started to make our way into the jungle. We realized instantly why. The mud on the trail was at some parts more than knee dept and we followed Paolo as close as possible in order to keep at the surface. We took it slow as our group was so small and encountered the first 2 out of 6 different monkey species that live in that part. Furthermore the muddy trail attracted a lot of amazing butterflies in all different sizes and colors. Unfortunately they were too quick for the camera and we only managed to take a picture of one. Luckily, the leaf ants that we saw were easy to photograph.
The highlight at the end was our trip with the paddle boat. First we passed a small channel through the thick all year round flooded forest, which led us directly into the Sandoval Lake from where we crossed over to the lodge. Paolo told us the lake was a cut of meander from the main river. It was created by a flood during rain season and provides home and food to many birds, fishes, insects, reptiles and mammals for some hundred years. In the end the lake will die at some point when it is filled up with too much dead organic material and turn into a swamp.
Finally we reached the lodge in the late afternoon. It seemed more than spacious for the two of us (it offers space for 65 guests) . The high palm leaf covered roof and the absence of concrete outer walls created a somehow airy atmosphere. There was a constant fresh air flow around the house only filtered by the almost invisible anti mosquito mesh.
But the best place inside was without a doubt the hammock area with view over the lake where we would spend our siesta time after lunch until 4:30 pm.
After we had settled down and the day as turned into night before dinner, we went for a night walk with Paolo. Equipped with headlights and torch we chased the night active section of the wildlife around our lodge. Within a few minutes Paolo found us huge and hairy tarantulas, an impressive chicken spider, which is called that way as it can eat prey up to the size of a small chicken.
Also impressive was a mantis and her groom on a date of a leaf. Most probably he was waiting for dinner and did not know that he was actually the main course for her. Some big eyed night monkeys hushed through the trees around us, which we got told is the only night active monkey species on earth. In the strong light of our torches bats took advantage of the high concentration of flying insects and shot like stealth aircrafts around our heads. Even a little frog showed up to say hello :).
When we went to bed afterwards, we slept literally in the jungle, even though we had a nice room and a comfortable double bed. With almost no outer walls every single noise of even the smallest creature in the forest could be heard. I was totally fine with that while Natalie plugged in her earplugs to escape the noisiness. For me it was more like a well trained orchestra. It made me feel relaxed and I fell asleep not long after we had stretched out.
The next day started early at 4:30 am. We had some tea and coffee and then left with Paolo and Juan Charlos to go onto the lake with a paddle boat. Our goal was to find the giant otters out there. When we had discussed the offers from several lodges in the Amazon before, a good chance to spot these beautiful and unique animals was one of our high selection criteria.
We paddled along the shoreline of the lake. Everything was touched in the warm morning light and the lake around us was so peaceful, it looked like a mirror. But the otters were not around, at least not in the part which we overlooked. Instead we saw the Hoaxin again. A strange sounding and looking bird, spread around the branches around the lake.
We already saw him the day before. Its very bad flying skills are credited to heavy bones and body. It can only flatter a few meters from branch to branch. When it does so, it sounds like it suffers from a heavy asthma attack. Because of this it is also called asthma bird. Its third nickname is stink bird. It feeds only on leaves and three stomachs are needed to cultivate some sort of bacteria which turn the cellulose into something digestionable. This makes its meat, let’s say it pretty, not really best tasting for us. I would say this is probably the main reason why this unique bird is luckily on earth since a couple of million years :). It is the most ancient bird in the Amazon. A real living fossil!
We also got very close to many other water birds of the lake. The snakebird, (a kind of a cormorant), the huge Tiger heron and the Green Kingfisher came along. When we went back for breakfast the colorful red and blue Macaws had finally started into their day and flew in pairs or families across the lake to get some breakfast. They are so beautiful and elegant. For Natalie and me this is somehow the first picture which comes into mind when we think about the Amazon. And their bird call would accompany us throughout the day. Unfortunately it was very difficult to take a picture of them, as they were so high up in the trees most of the time. We only have one that shows two red and blue Macaws just before they fly away.
After breakfast we had a day jungle walk with Paolo. He explained us that many people in that region live of Brazil Nuts collection, which can not be cultivated and only grow wild in the jungle. The simple reason for that is that they depend on bees which live mainly of the nectar of some tree orchids. They transmit the pollen from the big Brazil Nut trees actually just by accident, but without them the Brazil nut tree would never have nuts.
He also told us that he works in this business when there is no guiding job for him. He would leave to collect these nuts after we left to earn some money on his off-days during the low season. We asked him a thousand questions about the why and how and we got first hand answers from someone who does this since many years. He would leave for a couple of weeks to work for a landowner who owns the Brazil Nut trees somewhere in the Amazon.
It is a very hard and dangerous job as the heavy nuts fall down from a reasonable height. The nuts scattered around the tree attract all kind of mammals which feed on these nuts and these attract a bunch of extremely poisonous snakes like for example the 5m Bushmaster snake. Many collectors are bitten every year and for some it is just a verdict to death.
In a second step the collectors have to open the Brazil nut fruit with their machete to get the nuts. While doing so, it is not uncommon that they cut off parts or complete fingers when they are too exhausted or unfocused. I tried myself on one of the nuts we found that day. It took me14 minutes and I was pretty exhausted at the end. Paolo needs only 3 minutes.
If you are still not convinced that this might be your future dream job, think about camping in the jungle for a couple of weeks with Malaria and some other jungle fevers waiting around the next tree and a salary of 20 Soles per collected 100 kg bag (which has to be carried back on your shoulder from the jungle camp to the landowner). A strong and trained collector can make 1,5 bags per day. This leaves him a daily salary of around 7 EUR!!! Paolo told as further that in one season he did not even get paid for two months work by the landowner. There is no written contract for this kind of work and sometimes they just disappear when it comes to pay the salary. We both have the greatest respect for him and his colleagues! Next time you eat this nut around Christmas time, think about the work that has gone into collecting these!
On our way back Paolo showed us a strange looking tree. With sort of legs instead of classic routs, my first thought was this tree looks kind of mobile. And unbelievable but true, it is named ‘walking tree’! Why? Because it is able to leave its position in the forest when it has a lack of nutritious soil or sun. It does so, not very fast, by growing new “legs” in the favorite direction and cutting of “legs” on the opposite side. Pretty clever, he :)?
After lunch and siesta time in our hammocks we went for a sunset paddle boat ride with Paolo. The main goal again was to find the otters, but it was clear pretty fast that they were still not around. I was happy nevertheless, because Juan Charlos absence allowed me to take over the paddle :). So I shoveled us over the lake into a beautiful beginning sunset.
Instead of the otters, Paulo found us a sloth peacefully hanging from one of the trees. And even better, a Tucan then showed up. The same as everybody in Germany knows from Haribo Tropical Mix. It showed its massive bill and sang his bird song while sitting not far from us at the top of a tree. How amazing :)! I could not believe it. Since we had been in South Africa and had seen a couple of Hornbills there, we were in love with these long bill birds.
The sunset was spectacular in as well. The blood red fire ball sank down and disappeared behind the flooded forest on the other end of the lake. The sky with some wild scattered clouds reflected all kinds of red and violet colors until it was almost dark. Paolo took out his torch and started to look for some reflecting eyes in the lake which would belong to the largest predator in the lake the Black Caiman. These guys grow all their life and there are specimens with reach a total length of up to 6m.
He found us Coco, which usually hangs around the mooring of the lodge. Coco is only 2,5 m long nevertheless impressive when she approached our boat. Paolo had touched the water surface with his flat hand just 3 times and there she was curious to find out if there was something to eat around. Natalie somehow took it personal and was scared like hell when Coco was just a half a meter away from her and looked her straight into the eye. She even placed her snout gently on the paddle which Paolo had positioned in front of her.
We both were happy and sleepy after we came back from our tour and went to bed straight ahead. The next day we would get up at 4:30 again.
We had another try with our otter family on the lake in the early morning. Well they did not show up, but Coco did not yet finish its night shift and was still curious around the mooring. It was as beautiful and quiet as the first day and again somehow magic to see how everything comes to life.
Some Cormorants were already warming up in the sunlight and we saw a pair of swallows sitting on a death tree in the water. We decided to stop at the rangers surveillance tower to have a better view over the lake. Once up there Paolo discovered a python right between the roof and the wooden structure. I was happy that we found one as a reptile lover, while Natalie was not so sure about her feelings about that :).
After breakfast we went out again for an excursion into the flooded swamp forest. We were lucky when a group of monkeys came along jumping from tree to tree. Even though they are two different species they live together in symbiosis. We watched them for almost 15 minutes. It was so much fun!
The main attraction for me that day, were however 5 super size fig trees which we visited during our walk. They are the largest trees in the Amazon. Up to 40m in height they tower over any other tree. The indigenous people call them mother of the forest. They are an important habitat for uncountable plants and animals. Their size is simply impressive.
While we walked through the swamp almost knee deep in water, I was hoping to see an Anaconda snake as well. Unfortunately, Natalie did not find that very funny :). I am so proud of her walking with me through the swamps in the Amazon. I do not think many woman would do that.
Before dinner, we also went onto another boat ride looking for the otters. However, the otters were still not around. Instead Paolo and Juan Carlos agreed to fish some piranha for us. Juan Carlos fished us 6 piranhas. Their jaws and teeth are so impressive. We then also had the chance to try them for dinner. Very delicious, they taste a little bit like dorade.
It was a great finish to our time in the Amazon. The next morning, before we left for the airport, we went out onto the lake again for one last try to find the otters. But they were still not around. The lake actually has some parts that are not accessible to the public. It is a protected Refugio for the otters so they can be undisturbed if they want. We had learned in South Africa, not to expect to see all the animals, just because you are there. It is still a gift every time if they choose to show themselves. So we were very happy anyway with our time here, despite not having seen the otters. We saw so many other animals in just 3 days, and had yet again another great guide that made all the difference. Thanks so much for everything Paolo!