The Peruvian rainforest in the Amazon River basin provides access to one of the richest ecosystems on the planet – and that includes some very big bugs.
When was the last time you stayed at a hotel without windows and doors that offers the services of a shaman along with psychoactive drinks that “heal the body and mind,” purgative plants that “clean people’s bad luck,” and a two-hour meditation with an ancient tree so you can “get in touch with his energy and renew yours”?
Well, that’s what you’ll find at the eco-lodge Refugio Amazonas and its affiliated Eyawasije Medical Center. The lodge is one of three Rainforest Expedition hotels located adjacent to the Tambopata National Reserve in the jungle of southeastern Peru.
My flight from Cusco, high in the Andes, to Puerto Maldonado, a frontier town in the Amazon basin, was only about 40 minutes, but the change in topography, altitude and climate was astounding. I felt better the second I arrived back at sea level. The warm, moist air, rich with oxygen, was delicious. My lungs savored every molecule after being 10,000 feet above sea level when I arrived in Cusco from Los Angeles.
Yordana Pardes, our pixie-cute jungle guide, was at the airport to escort us on the bumpy bus ride over shanty-lined red-dirt roads to the boat dock where we would board a motor-driven canoe for a two-hour cruise to our lodge. At the dock, I noticed some kittens dart under a stilt-supported shack. I wandered over to see if I could pet one, but when I looked down I saw enormous black ants swirling around my shoes and quickly beat it back to the boat. It was a wake-up call that I was in the South American rainforest, the most diverse, bio-rich ecosystem on the planet. Of all species known in the world, one in 10 lives in the Amazon rainforest, which includes 2.5 million insect species.
The boat ride was dreamy — a delight after the frenetic pace of preparing for my trip. Kinko, a Peruvian Indian, sat in the back of the canoe and expertly piloted the boat upriver against the strong current of the Tambopata, a wide, muddy waterway that empties into the mighty Amazon River. Along the way, Yordana handed us our lunch, a delicious rice concoction wrapped in banana leaves. When we were finished, no problem tossing the remains into the river since everything was biodegradable.
When Kinko spotted a pair of Green Winged Macaws playing in a tall tree, he stopped the boat so we could stare in amazement at parrots that most of us only see in zoos or pet shops. Farther up the river, he stopped again so we could see a family of capybaras, a semi-aquatic rodent that weighs up to a hundred pounds, munching grass along the river’s edge.
It was dusk when we arrived at the lodge. Steep wooden stairs led up from the riverbank to a smooth path in the dense jungle. After 10 minutes of walking, we saw soft lights ahead, and the path opened up to reveal the stunning, cathedral-like Refugio Amazonas lodge with its high thatched roof, polished wood steps and kerosene lamps casting a welcome orange glow.
This was a big step up from our modest hotel in Cusco. Now this was more like it! But forget about glass windows to keep guests separated from what lives in the jungle. The entire 24-bedroom lodge is completely open. There are no barriers between what lives inside and what lives outside. The only locked doors are on the tiny safes in each room.
Welcomed with a cool glass of fresh lemonade in the spacious lobby, if was dark by the time we made it to our rooms. The only light available was from the full moon, two kerosene lamps and our flashlights. Platforms suspended over the beds served to catch anything that might fall from the thatched roof, and from the platforms one could unfold a white mosquito net, which I planned to tuck very securely around my mattress!
After a tasty buffet dinner by candlelight in the lodge dining room, Yordana invited our group to take a night walk in the jungle, the perfect time to see nocturnal creatures like caimans (the South American crocodile), tarantulas and all kinds of glow-in-the-dark creepy crawlers. I wished the others well and returned to my room to prepare my mosquito net. Besides, the next day we were getting up at 4 a.m. to hike through the jungle to a clay lick frequented by macaws. Yordana said it would be a matter of luck if we saw them, but if there was one jungle animal I wanted to see, it was more wild parrots.
I slept exquisitely under the white net with the symphony of the jungle singing me to sleep. My flashlight was under my pillow, and I hoped I wouldn’t have to crawl out from my safe cocoon to venture into the bathroom during the night. I’d already seen a couple of 2-inch-long cockroach-like beetles waving their antennae at me as I brushed my teeth by candlelight, and I had no desire to encounter whatever that black thing was that bolted under the bed. Despite that, I was quite surprised at my lack of fear. When I saw these creatures, my reaction was just “Hmmmm,” not the scream that erupts when I see a small spider at home.
For our dawn hike to see the parrots, we donned rubber boots, sunscreen and gobs of insect repellant. The predawn light was eerie. Soft gray mist hung close to the damp earth. I marveled at the jungle fragrance — musky, sweet and full of life. It wasn’t hot like I had expected. The forest canopy seemed to cool the air. We tromped to the river, listening to the stillness of a jungle as its bio system changed from night shift to day shift. I noticed the river was already at work, moving tons of scrap timber, mulch and dirt toward the sea.
After a short ride upstream, we climbed up the riverbank, hiked through squishy brown mud and balanced ourselves along planks that served as bridges over pools of water. When we arrived at the thatched blind, we took front-row seats, cameras at the ready, to peer out of portholes at the clay lick. Parrots like the minerals found in the clay and, when inclined, will lick it for hours. At first, there was nothing — then we spotted green Amazon parrots, then Green Winged Macaws and finally, a foursome of Scarlet Macaws. Yordana pointed to the roof of the blind where two fruit bats hung by their feet, trying to sleep through all the human commotion below.
We watched the parrots for a couple of hours before hiking back to the boat, stopping to see sights like Brazil nut seedpods that fall like cannonballs from the branches of towering trees, ancient Ficus trees, and an incredible array of flora and fauna. The highlight of the day was seeing a family of monkeys that live near an organic fruit and vegetable farm, where Yordana offered us samples of sugarcane, sour star fruit and crisp red peppers.
Our last stop was Eyawasije Medical Center’s garden — really, it’s an outdoor pharmacy — where Yordana showed us plants that are supposed to cure cancer, herbs that work like Viagra (picked quite clean), flowers that heal skin rashes, even plants used for love potions.
By the time we got back to the lodge, we all were ready for a nap. Yordana said there would be another hike after lunch, this time to a lake and then to a forest-canopy observation tower. I wondered about the part of our itinerary that described reading a book in one of the property’s many comfy hammocks. I decided to take that option independently and told the group I’d sit the next hike out.
The others came back just as the sun was setting, their feet sore from the big rubber boots. I had a lovely afternoon lounging and napping, getting in harmony with the low energy of the jungle and sampling a delicious bowl of homemade Brazil nut and passion fruit ice cream. I was sad it would be our last night in the jungle before returning to Cusco. There was something so relaxing and soothing about the moist air and the cacophony of the jungle symphony. I could have easily spent a couple of weeks in this Garden of Eden.
As we packed the next morning, I found that the clothes I’d hung up on a dowel felt wet. Interesting that there could be so much moisture in the air. I wondered how they ever managed to dry laundry here. I shook out my pajamas, and a beetle the size of a walnut fell to the wooden floor. During breakfast, another huge beetle fell from above and crashed six inches from my breakfast plate — hitting the table loud enough to make us look to see if it had left a dent.
Ah yes, welcome to the jungle …
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