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Reserva Amazonica
Destination of the Month for June 2011

When traveling to the Amazon in Peru, it may be a good thing not to know what to expect out there. With neither of us having been anywhere remotely similar to the Peruvian rain forest, the southern part of the Peruvian Amazon was a revelation. And just as well - I simply love surprises! The journey until Lima is quite a “conventional” one. International airports resemble each other and we are there to change planes only. Time elapses quickly and we board our flight. The flight to Puerto Maldonado takes a little over 2 and a half hours with a stop over in Cusco. I will come back to our impressions on the capital of the Incas when we fly in from Puerto Maldonado; for now, let’s focus on the rain forest.

After about 40 minutes of flying, the pilot announces we will start our descent into Puerto Maldonado. One wonders where that might be, for looking out the windows on either side of the plane, you only see green, and more green and no town, runway, control tower, airport, and we are flying low, and getting lower! Then, if you look back, you can see a very thin brown stripe…. a road! But still no runway and the plane is getting very close to the trees, which all of a sudden seem very big and tall! All you can do is hope that the pilot knows what he is doing.

Unexpectedly, out of the blue (pardon me, the green) you see the airport, people, a control tower, and the runway. Great pilot! As you step out of the plane, the humidity hits you. Warm and wet. Only 33ºC today and 100% humidity. We are finally here!

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A very friendly and welcoming Inkaterra crew greets us. Not to worry about our luggage, they will take care of it and we are rushed to the van where we are served a cool mineral water and feel relieved inside the air-conditioned vehicle. We wait briefly for the other passengers that are coming with us to the Reserva Amazonica Inkaterra and then we are off to our first stop, the Butterfly house, where we are greeted with cool face cloths and a cool tropical fruit juice and checked in. After 10 minutes we continue our journey towards the lodge. Puerto Maldonado is very picturesque. Hardly any cars or 4 wheel vehicles move around here; the main means of transportation is the motorcycle – even the taxis are motorcycles! You flag down a “cab” and you get on the motorcycle behind the driver and hold on to dear life by holding your driver’s waist. How romantic! There are bigger and more comfortable “cabs”; they are big tricycles with two seats at the back (you don’t have to hold your driver by the waist here). Larger vehicles are less common than motorbikes in Puerto Maldonado owing t fuel costs in this frontier town.

As soon as we have crossed the town of Puerto Maldonado, we get to the dock, where our boat is waiting for us. We embark on a one-hour downstream ride along the Madre de Dios River, one of the estuaries that feeds the Amazon River, nearly two thousand kilometers downriver. You can breathe Indiana Jones moments up ahead…

After less than an hour we get to the Reserva Amazonica. From the river almost nothing reveals the presence of the Lodge, except that there are a number of people glad to see us and greet us very warmly upon our arrival. Then, after climbing a few steps up the riverbank, the Reserva Amazonica opens up among the vegetation before us. We are guided to the dining room, where we are served a welcome drink and then sit at the tables in the restaurant. Its 4 o’clock in the afternoon and it has been a long day for us. We are served a delicious lunch. In the meantime, our luggage is already taken care of, and waiting for us in our rooms.

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The Reserva Amazonica is a series of bungalows on stilts, walkways marked by thickly cut tree trunks neatly laid on the ground, and bridges. We are here at the start of the dry season, but I can imagine that in the middle of the wet season you really need some separation between you and the ground. Bungalows differ in size, but are all very comfortable, fully screened, and the beds have their own mosquito nettings as well. There are Peruvian cotton bed sheets and pillow cases, bathrooms with all things necessary for your comfort, and you have a couple of hammocks on your screened in front porch! Electricity is limited but available - between 6am and 11am and then again between 6pm and 11pm. You certainly will not need it more than that. At Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica you are truly pampered, you get bathrobes of the finest Peruvian cotton, flip flops of recycled rubber, organic toiletries and a refreshing eau de toilette which allegedly acts as a mosquito repellent. Nevertheless, it is strongly advised to bring a 95-100% deet with you in order to avoid discomfort. Mosquitoes thrive on “fresh” subjects! During our visit in May, however, there were relatively few. My husband wasn’t sure if he had any bites, and I only had a few, thanks to deet and the time of year!

After a great lunch – you can choose one of 7 appetizers, one of 7 main courses and one of 3 or 4 desserts – we go to our bungalow to rest and get organized for our very first excursion that night. We are going to sail along the river with our flashlights (there’s a flashlight in each bungalow). We hope to see a white caiman. At 6:30 we meet at the “eco center” and we are the same group that flew in that day; two Peruvian families with kids, a young British couple on their honeymoon, a group of 3 British couples and us two. We did see a white caiman, about one and a half meters long, on the riverbank and you can see his picture here… scary! After this great introduction to the Peruvian jungle, we get back “home”. The kids are still talking about the caiman very excitedly. We are served a very nice dinner at around 8:30pm and then off to bed, exhausted but glad.

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The night in the jungle is full of new noises. The dawn is quite early; at 5.30 the sky is reddish orange and then the sudden explosion of the daylight! Beautiful day, bright blue sky, white clouds scattered on it, and a promising high temperature and accompanying humidity lingers in the air that morning. Early is our start… so we hurried through a delicious breakfast where tropical fruit and hot chocolate are the stars. At 6:30 we board the boat for a 25 minute ride up the Madre de Dios and then over a one-hour hike through the rain forest to Lake Sandoval. Another group heads towards Bolivia, a two-hour boat ride will take them to piranha heaven… where they may swim with them, fish for them and then have them prepared as a delicious lunch!

We arrive at our starting point for hiking to and boating on Lake Sandoval. Our guide, Jesus, tells the “captain” that we’ll be back in about 3 and a half to 4 hours, and we are off on our hike. A couple of us fall behind walking at their own pace. The trail is full of surprises: we see macaws, capuchin monkeys, green parrots, a distant toucan, a few golden spiders, termite nests on trees and leaf cutter ants… thousands of them at work!

We get to the entrance of the park after about 40 minutes, about half way to the lake. Some of us start thinking that the lake better be worth all the effort, which is getting harder as the temperature and humidity rise a bit – and it isn’t even 9 in the morning. We are hiking on a gentle slope, glad now for the early start.

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We reach the point where we take the boat. We get in, careful and one at a time, it wobbles as you step in. The water is murky and hides many surprises, stingrays, caimans, anacondas, piranhas, with all of which you would not want to shake hands. Our guide, Jesus, starts paddling effortlessly along the narrow channel, and then… I see one! A black juvenile caiman only a couple of meters from us! “Talk softly” had Jesus told us, otherwise you will scare all the animals around us. I whisper, caiman!, caiman, caiman and point… most of us get a good view of it, beautiful!

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As we reach the entrance of the lake, I see that the hike was all worth it! Lake Sandoval opens up before us in all its majesty! The lake is calm and vast, like a mirror, reflecting the trees along its shore. Superb. We see a king fisher, a woodpecker, bats, fireflies, butterflies, and then, out there in the distance, a black caiman. This time it is a big one! Given the distance at which we saw it, we calculated that it could easily be 3 to 4 meters long. Black caimans live up to 80 years of age and can reach 6 meters in length. It looked majestic, swimming slowly and steadily in one direction.

Everybody speculated on the length and age of the beast. Suddenly it went down. I asked how long a caiman could stay under water, and Jesus casually answered around 40 minutes. 40 minutes! What if it swims until it is right underneath us and tips the boat over! Scary thought, but, luckily, it is highly unlikely.

We were on the lake for about an hour, slowly gliding near the shore, and we had not covered a third of it.

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The hike back to the boat waiting for us on the Madre de Dios River was seemed fast, and quiet; it was quite obvious that each one of us was trying to digest all that we had seen.

That afternoon, right after a delicious lunch, we visited Inkaterra’s unique Canopy. Two tall towers are connected by a series of swinging bridges amongst the trees high above the forest floor – 30m high! Our group ranges from early 20’s to late 70’s. I think I can make it, being stuck in the middle of that range. I am afraid of heights. And as we get closer to the first tower, my fears rise! However, I get myself together and climb the tower along everybody in the group and Jesus, our guide. It is an exhilarating experience. The rain forest at this height is airy and light, and many species make their homes only here, far above the forest floor below. Inkaterra offers their guests other excursions which we can highly recommend, such as a visit to a Gamitana creek and a nearby farm, or the small lake near Hacienda Constance where we saw the amazing hoatzin birds, sometimes known as “punk chickens” for their bizarre plumage and fantastic colors. There are also walks through the rain forest at night, a guided walk through a forest garden for medicinal plants, and spa treatments are available.

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Have you read The Testament, by John Grisham? You can read it again after visiting Puerto Maldonado. Visiting Reserva Amazonica will give you a whole new understanding and perspective on the Amazon rain forest.

Some practical considerations: travelers to the Peruvian Amazon region should consult with their physicians regarding any necessary vaccines or preventative medicines. We had no particular difficulties, but following advice from our doctor we got a couple of vaccines and took anti-malarial medication for our visit. For photographers, a fast telephoto lens is very useful, and the lighting can be dim on the forest floor so high iso settings are needed. If you want to take photos at night – good luck! A flash or bright flash light will be needed. All of the photos you see here were taken by us during our 3-night visit; we were lucky with the weather and the critters!

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