Up The Tambopato River into the Jungle

We arrived in Cusco at 5am on the overnight bus.  A short taxi journey took us to our hostel, which is attached to a convent, and part of the same building is a girl’s school.  They were not at all phased by us checking in at 5:45am, so we went to bed for a couple of hours and then had breakfast. Afterwards we went for a walk around Tourist Central, or Cusco as the locals call it.  It’s odd: in some places I’m disconcerted by the absence of other tourists, but here I’m disconcerted by their presence.  Often, when we’re travelling, there are just a few other obvious tourists, if any, so you have to interact with the local population on their terms: speaking Spanish, asking how things are done, working things out.  Here, there are so many tourists that the balance has swung the other way: if you stick to the central part of town, you can speak English all the time, drink in an English pub (The Cross Keys) or an Irish Bar (Paddy’s Bar, the highest Irish-owned bar in the world), buy coffee at Starbucks, and eat pizza.  There are so many pizzerias here it is untrue.  The climate is normally sunny and warm in the day but very cold at night, so we treat ourselves to alpaca and llama hats and gloves and wear our down jackets everywhere.
We’re here for a couple of days before heading out to the rain forest.  We’re flying to Puerto Maldonado, and then heading up the Tambopato river to stay in a couple of jungle lodges, walk around, and watch the wildlife.  We’ve figured without one thing, though: the unrelenting rain.  Yes, it’s a rain forest, so it rains, but this is supposed to be the dry season.  Unfortunately for us, there is an unseasonal bout of cold wind from the south, called a friaje, so while the temperature is cooler and more pleasant, it also rains a lot.  It’s raining, in fact, when we arrive at Puerto Maldonado.  Undeterred, we visit the serpenterio, where they have snakes and other animals, most rescued from car accidents or other mishaps.  Somehow, as I don’t usually like messing with the animals (I don’t hold with it: they’re wild, and being handled by people stresses them), I end up with a boa constrictor around my neck, for publicity shots for the local tourist board.
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Then we’re off up the river by boat.  It’s about three and a half hours to our first destination, Refugio Amazonas.  The river is wide here, and running quickly, because of all the rain.
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We will stay one night here, then carry on up the river tomorrow for four hours to Tambopata Research Centre, where we will hope to see the famous Macaw clay lick, where hundreds of macaws assemble at the river bank to eat the clay, which supplements their diet by providing sodium.  On the way up, we have a tasty rice lunch out of a big leaf.  Not sure about the sodium content.
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Our guide spots wildlife for us, although most of them were a tad too far away for us to photograph with good results, here goes.
You can’t tell, but this white caiman is HUGE.
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This is a capybara, a sort of huge guinea pig with long legs.
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Then our boat breaks down (well, isn’t everything we touch breaking down at the moment ?).  The engine won’t go at more than a snail’s pace without failing.  The guide gets out his satellite phone and in an hour or so we are joined (literally) by another boat who tows us up river to a nearby lodge.  Here’s our guide looking disconsolate.
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Unfortunately we still have another two hours to reach our own lodge and the rescue boat can’t go that far.  The replacement finally arrives and we have the honour of motoring the final section in the complete dark.  But the lodge is so luxurious and evening dinner so great we immediately forget the troubles.  The lodge bedrooms only have three sides, open to the forest, so it’s pitch black at night and all we hear is the sound of the crickets and the occasional howler monkey.  There aren’t even any insects worth speaking of in the buildings as they use a special oil on the wood as a deterrent.
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The next day we travel up river again to the Tambopata Research Centre, spotting wildlife on the way.  The weather is fine and according to one of our travelling companions who is an ardent bird watcher we log 32 different species on this section, from herons to hawks, huge geese and roseate spoonbills.  We arrive at another beautiful lodge, have lunch and don welly boots for a walk to the local lake.  It was more than a tad muddy!  After this photo was taken the mud was so deep Diane’s welly boots decide to stay put and she falls over, luckily backwards into the slurpy substance.
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The boats we are to take for our trip on the lake are also somewhat wet!
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But we do find a drier boat and venture out onto the lake for some birdwatching.  The guide’s way of diverting us from the pouring rain is to feed the fish with bread, then we realise they are piranhas!
We go for a muddy nightwalk and see tracks and hear the honking of peccaries (huge pigs), spot frogs, a tarantula and snakes, including this huge boa constrictor whose skin is glistening as it is just about to be shed.
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The macaws around the lodge knew where to come for breakfast!
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For the next couple of days we continue to walk out on local trails in the mud.  The foliage is amazing and the trees huge: here’s Diane with a vast leaf.  And some mud.
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The next morning is another early start and on the way we spot these cute turtles complete with butterflies on their noses (maybe trying to dry out?).
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And finally, one of the highlights of the trip, the macaw lick.  Our boatman moored up nearby – yup you guessed it, it’s still muddy!
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Unfortunately because of the continuing rain there aren’t many birds on the clay, although there are a lot in far trees.  We see a few chaps trying to do their stuff in between the showers but no photos as our lens isn’t long enough.  Even so, on the way back Diane seems to have had a good time despite here trousers being several shades a deeper colour of mud.
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We fly back to Cusco for a couple of days rest ….. Machu Picchu here we come J

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