Puerto Maldonado is sultry, noisy with bugs, and dripping with rain. Of course, this is what you expect when you are in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. The humidity, swarms of mosquitoes, and intermittent rainstorms are just minor annoyances compared to the luscious tropical plants, exotic animals, and relaxing bungalows filling the jungle around Puerto Maldonado.
My first taste of the jungle town was at a lodge close to the airport that felt miles away from civilization. The lodge was a cozy neighborhood of bungalows connected by muddy paths snaking through the leafy jungle foliage. I had a huge bungalow all to myself, complete with a hammock-filled living room and wall-to-wall screens. Despite being totally open to the outside, the bungalow seemed very secluded, because it was completely surrounded by big floppy leaves and flowering trees. It felt like it was just me and the jungle. Well, me, the jungle, and the bugs, monkeys, and birds making a ruckus right outside my screen.
On my first morning in the jungle, I wasn’t prepared for the entertainment that awaited me at breakfast in the main lodge. As I unsuspectingly scarfed down my plate of eggs and rolls, a group of monkeys came out of nowhere and started playing on the railing of the lodge’s balcony, right outside my breakfast table. They swung from the hammocks on the balcony, hung from the beams of the railing, chomped stolen bananas, and devoured a cactus. One even opened the door to the lodge and walked in like he owned the place. I was completely captivated by these comical troublemakers.
Reluctant to leave the show, I finally dragged myself away and hopped in a jam-packed minibus heading downtown.
After a day exploring the small town of short metal-roofed buildings, a plaza, and not much else, I rushed from the tuk tuk that brought me home and made it inside my bungalow refuge right before an intense rainstorm arrived. I was totally dry under my wooden roof but surrounded by the vivification of the downpour through my screen walls on all sides. The rain beat madly on my roof. A chorus of bugs sang me a screeching lullaby. Monkeys scratched at the screen while they swung from tree branches to bungalow to tree branches. (Apparently the rain does not stop them from having fun.)
The noise of the jungle was surprisingly soothing and lulled me right to sleep.
The next day it was time to delve deeper into the jungle. A tuk tuk took me and my luggage to the town’s port on the Río Madre de Dios, a tributary of the Amazon River, where I climbed into a long wooden boat that took me for a half hour ride down the swiftly flowing river.
The boat deposited me at a riverside jungle resort. I was led to a bungalow right on the bank of the river, with its own front porch containing two hammocks with river views. This huge abode was also all mine. How luxurious the jungle is!
I spent the afternoon lounging on one of my personal hammocks, watching the riverboats chug by every so often and having a one-sided conversation with one of the resort’s resident macaws. They are really good talkers, but they sure don’t like to listen! Lola loved to say “¡hola!” and “¿cómo estás?” over and over but she didn’t seem to care that I was “muy bien, gracias.” Then she would start laughing hysterically and it was impossible not to laugh with her. It’s so funny how the ability to speak can give an animal such a charming personality.
When the rest of my tour group arrived in the early evening, we tugged on Wellingtons and followed our guide Jose out into the soggy jungle. We trekked through the mud in our rubber boots under a canopy of huge leaves, palms, ferns, and all sorts of trees I’d never seen before.
Back at the resort, we piled into a boat and patrolled the river in search of caimans. It was pitch black outside, so our guides used spotlights to canvas the riverbank. It didn’t seem like it would be a very eventful night until one of the guides spotted a tiny baby caiman camouflaged in the tan mud on the side of the river. The guide grabbed him and paraded him around the boat so us voracious tourists could get a closer look. It was cool to see him up close, but I really felt bad for the poor guy! I was relieved when they released him back into the river.
It was a painful morning the next day when my alarm went off at 5am and I met my group for another excursion. Treading through the jungle in our Wellingtons, we reached a hut overlooking the river. We sat on a bench and silently waited. And waited. And waited. And waited.
A wall on the opposite side of the river is made of clay and normally attracts hundreds of parakeets and macaws in the early morning. The clay lick provides a mineral rich breakfast for the tropical birds, minerals that are thought to help them with digesting toxins in their other foods.
On this day, I guess the parakeets and macaws weren’t hungry for clay. After about an hour of sitting in silence, we finally glimpsed a few little green guys who stopped by for a quick nibble. But before we even had time to push the shutter buttons of our cameras, they had fled, scared off by a predator.
It wasn’t our lucky day. I wasn’t too upset, because I was having a great time just being in the jungle.
After breakfast, we jumped back in the riverboat, destined for the National Reserve. A three mile walk in the tropical rainforest took us through the mud under dense jungle vegetation, into kaleidoscopes of vibrantly colored butterflies. I felt like a kid again, stomping through the deep mud in my rubber boots, trying to get them as muddy as possible.
At one point, Jose stopped at a hole on the side of the path and nudged a long stick into it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I sure wasn’t prepared to see an enormous tarantula dart out! Shrieking in surprise, I ran ahead on the path, but not before I was able to appreciate the sort of ugly beauty of the hairy spider.
At the end of the path, a long canoe was waiting for us. We piled in and glided through a lagoon into a lake. It was Lake Sandoval, completely encircled by floating palm trees and other trees of the rainforest.
We paddled around the entire perimeter of the lake, gazing at the fervor of the lakeside jungle. Spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys dangled from the trees. Tiny turtles pretended to be rocks on drifting logs. Mohawked birds, called hoatzins and appropriately nicknamed punk chickens, rocked out on tree branches. Vultures inspected the trees for their dinner.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we didn’t see any anacondas, the illustrious snake of the jungle.
Shady, dank, and noisy, the jungle had become rather spooky on the walk back to our riverboat. I was in the front of the group and was completely caught off guard when I ran into the tarantula again. Luckily, she was just as scared of me and dashed back into her hole when I appeared.
Our next excursion was to a local fruit farm where we meandered around an orchard and sampled the different fruits being cultivated: papayas, cocoa fruits, oranges, lemons, limes, and sugar cane. The highlight of the visit was the farmer’s pet macaw who had taken on the role of guard dog. He kept charging at us, head down and colorful tail outstretched, then went back to hanging out with his friend, the actual dog. It was hilarious to see two buddies in such different animals.
Next we visited a local tribe where the grandfather taught us about the tribe’s old customs. The guy was certainly entertaining – dancing around for us, eating sardines head and all, chugging homemade beer – but I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing was a bit contrived in order to get tourists to buy the homemade souvenirs his family was selling. Or maybe I was just repulsed about how he bragged of his five wives. I did like his grandson, who spent our time there trying to catch me a butterfly. Such a nice gift! (Although of course I couldn’t keep it.)
My last day in the jungle started with a long boat ride to an animal shelter. Sick or injured jungle animals are rescued and nursed back to health here before being released back into the wild. Our first stop was at the cage of Preciosa, an absolutely gorgeous but feisty jaguar. She was pacing her cage and appeared to be going mad with cooped up energy. It was sad that she was locked up, but I was also relieved that metal bars separated me from her delirium.
We left Preciosa for another journey into the jungle. Thirty minutes in, we arrived at a suspension bridge whose opposite end disappeared up above the canopy of trees. We scaled the rickety bridge and emerged over the tops of the trees … at a tree house!
The tree house was built on a 150-year old tree and had a far-reaching view of the jungle treetops. Again I felt like a kid, bursting with excitement at getting to be in a tree house. I would have insisted we spend all afternoon there, but hundreds of tiny bees were flying around our faces, trying to get a sip of our dripping sweat.
Back at the animal shelter that afternoon, we met many other sick or injured animals – tons of monkeys and birds and the funniest animal I’ve ever seen, looking like the offspring of a pig and an elephant, a tapir.
And now my time in the Amazon is over. I must return to the mountainous land of southern Peru, in the city of Arequipa.