From the Incas to the Amazon
|Mother of God!: Sun rising on the Amazon River near Reserva Amazonica (Ted Stedman)|
If geography isn't your thing you'll be surprised to know that over one-third of Peru lies in the Amazon Basin. On the eastern flanks of the Peruvian Andes, all water leads into the mighty Amazon, an immense molasses of a river that expands to as much as a mile wide in some places, like some cappuccino-colored, jungle-lined inland ocean. This languid lowland is a tree-hugging paradise, teeming with completely secluded indigenous villages and the most diverse assembly of flora and fauna on earth. Naturally, this means top-tier eco-adventure opportunities.
Points of easy entry are few and far between. If you had to choose a single area for an Amazonian adventure, Puerto Maldonado rises to the top of the list. And for good reason: It's the take-off point for exploring the Peruvian jungle jewel known as the Tambopata Reserve, a haven of mega biodiversity. After flying in to the outpost of Puerto Maldonado, you'll get the sense you're on the edge of the frontier. Just beyond the city's limits you'll see little has changed since 1541, when Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana became the first European to gaze upon this primeval landscape. The wall of jungle looks impenetrable and even menacing, but the tangle of surrounding rivers are used as liquid highways, so exploring the living landscape and visiting shoreline indigenous communities is easy.
Obviously, this isn't standard backpacking territory, so you'll want a good leak- and bug-proof roof over your headand some cold beers and eco-activities wouldn't be bad, either. The hands-down choice for tourists in these parts is the Reserva Amazonica Lodge (1.800.442.5042, www.inkaterra.com), set in tropical splendor swarming with buzzing hummingbirds, surly toucans, boisterous macaws, flittering butterflies, rambunctious monkeysand on and on. Like the better remote lodges, the Reserva functions 24/7 as sanctuary, outfitter, transport authority, eatery, and bar.
To reach the lodge from Puerto Maldonado you board a motorboat for the nine-mile trip down the broad Madre de Dios River to the Reserva. The setting is phenomenal, a veritable eco-paradise on the banks of the massive Amazon River tributary, where well-appointed thatched suites are perched on stilts, and communal time is spent in an airy open lodge frequented by toucans and marmosets that stop in for handouts. Each day you'll rise 'n' shine with watchful guides to beat the oppressive midday heat, then head out for fabulous reconnoiters. My favorite was an incredible paddling excursion on the isolated Lake Sandoval. It's the most stunning lake in the Tambopata, a place where serious bird-watchers can check off their life-list sightings, like the positively prehistoric-looking Hoatzin bird I spied (a dinosaur with feathers?). Monkey Island is another day trip you'll want to schedule. The protected island is part of a conservation project where rescued capuchin, tamarin, and howler and squirrel monkeys have been reintroduced to their natural environment. And just down the trail from your bungalow you can get high on the Reserva's own 100-foot-high Canopy Walk with seven suspended rope bridges. Go during the twilight and you'll see the jungle come alive as nocturnal creatures heed their wake-up call. Yes, the insect world will be out and about, too, and stifling doesn't begin to describe the ceaseless humidity. Just consider these adversities the price of admission.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication