Peruvian Amazonia

by Pamela Wade / 11 June, 2011
Giant ants and butterflies, blue lizards, tarantulas … welcome to Peruvian Amazonia.

The snake’s business end was inside a hole in the bank but enough of it was still sliding across the path, shiny black in the torchlight, to make me to wonder why I’d thought a few days in Peruvian Amazonia would be a good idea. I hadn’t even reached the jungle lodge where, I’d been told, my room had only three walls, with the fourth side open to enable what the brochure enthusiastically termed “interaction” with the environment.

Two striped flying insects had started interacting with me moments after I stepped onto the tarmac at Puerto Maldonado airport; something unseen had leapt out of the water and touched my hand as it rested on the gunwale of the longboat that had taken us three hours up the wide brown Tambopata River; I had just stepped over a tree root being used by a stream of giant ants; and now there was a snake. “Welcome to Refugio Amazonas,” said Luis, without irony.

Softly lit by paraffin lamps, a steep thatched roof soared into a sky where stars twinkled through gaps in the rainforest canopy. My room had jungle on three sides, one of them merely a railing between me, the dark trees and whatever was making the eerie screeches and howls. The mosquito net seemed hopelessly insubstantial, the single candle produced more shadow than light and there was a frog in the shower.

When Luis tapped on the floor outside the curtained doorway, I didn’t know whether to be more shocked by the hideous hour of 4.00am or that I’d actually slept. Stumbling down the path, we climbed into the longboat, which lurched alarmingly as the pilot worked it free of the mud. After an hour further up the Tambopata (one of the Amazon’s many tributaries) and a 40-minute walk into the jungle, we stood listening to the cry of the screaming piha birds and cicadas whining like chainsaws.

Dawn revealed the orange clay bank where we hoped birds would land to feed on minerals. A pair of scarlet macaws drifted over the water, and flocks of green and yellow parrots and parakeets clustered in the trees, hanging upside down and squabbling, but something was worrying them. Abruptly, in a cloud of colour, they scattered.

A sudden wind shook the treetops. We heard the rain before we felt it, and had time to pull ponchos over our backpacks before it worked through the canopy. Like a line of multi-coloured Quasimodos, we scuttled along the path, leaping in fright when a nearby tree crashed to the ground. The river was churning brown and white, much of it already inside the boat, and we gripped the sides as a gust tipped it sideways. We surfed down the river, thunder and lightning overhead, trees thrashing in the wind. “Welcome to the rainforest,” said Luis.

For the next two days we kept bird-time, watching from a high tower as dawn flooded the forest, tinting the pockets of mist gold and pink. Toucans, macaws, tanagers and parrots swept past, woodpeckers tapped invisibly and monkeys made the canopy ripple as they swung in the branches. The middle of the day was for napping and chasing butterflies so big I could hear their wings flap.

At evening roosting time we were out again, frantic not to miss anything: oropendolas, jays, flycatchers, troupials. We sat in a boat on a lake with three centi­metres of clearance between us and the piranhas and electric eels and saw a row of hoatzin birds on a branch, ungainly as chickens, with garish turquoise eyeshadow and Mohican manes.

It wasn’t all birds: capybara, the world’s biggest rodent, grazed along the riverbanks. We saw tamarinds and squirrels, agouti and blue lizards. There were 2cm-long bullet ants that sting as well as bite. “Twenty-four hours of pain,” said Luis.

And then there was the tarantula, tempted from its hole in a woodpile when Luis tickled it with a twig. It came out in a rush, sturdy legs waving, before it realised the trick and retreated.

We returned to the lodge. There were shrieks and hoots echoing through the trees. More monkeys, I wondered? “Guests,” said Luis.

Pamela Wade’s trip to Peru was hosted by Adventure World ( LAN Airlines flies from Auckland to Santiago daily, with connections to Lima (
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