Jungle Whitewater on Peru's Tambopata

If South America has a Jorge of the Jungle, chances are he would be found near the take-out for Peru's Class III-IV Tambopata. The river's take-out is at the Explorer's Inn, one of the foremost scientific research centers in the entire Amazon Basin. Located 38 miles upstream from the village of Puerto Maldonado, the Inn—complete with cabins, a honor-system bar, and piranha-filled pools—is the heart of the Tambopata Nature Reserve, a 20,000-acre preserve containing the greatest diversity of wildlife yet discovered on the planet. So far, more than 570 species of birds and 1,200 species of butterflies have been discovered in the reserve, more than in any other location of its size in the world. And you encounter all of this only after you return to civilization.
Getting to the put-in is an adventure in itself. It requires a 24- to 40-hour drive that begins in the town of Juliaca, located at 12,000 feet on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the storied birthplace of the Inca civilization. The drive takes you over a 15,000-foot Andean plateau before depositing you with popping ears in the Amazon Basin 9,000 vertical feet later. From there, you drop 5,400 feet in 120 miles through Class III-IV whitewater flanked by the densest jungle in the world. The denseness stems from the river's location. Starting high in the eastern Andes before joining the Madre de Dios in Puerto Maldonado, the Beni in Bolivia and the Amazon in Brazil, the Tambopata lies in the direct path of gale-force Andean winds which often sweep down and break the rainforest's century-old trees like toothpicks. This lets extra light filter down to the forest floor, giving smaller plants a chance to flourish. (Some trees have adapted to the winds by growing teepee-like support roots and swollen lumps high in their trunks.) The fight for light is evident everywhere: one native vine attaches itself to trees and forms soil-generating bowls with its leaves so it can root into itself and continue upward. Another tree, the Tungarhana, produces a sugary sap to lure ants inside its trunk, who in return for the free accommodations eat vines trying to catch a ride up to the canopy. More than 45 species of ants were once found in a single tree.
When you're not marveling at nature's adaptations in the forest, you'll be marveling at the rapids, which come in quick succession and include aptly named Ants' Nest—named for an unsuspecting ant attack during a scouting mission on the first descent—Dead Frog and Class IV Monster. Around campfires you'll hear stories of groups forced to bivouac for days on end because of flash-flooding and groups forced to subsist on nothing but hand-picked bananas for three days. "The Tambopata is very crazy and unpredictable," maintains Toni Ugarte, a Peruvian who participated on the first descent of the river in 1979. "Different things can happen on each trip."

The fauna is as diverse as the flora, including everything from snakes, caimans (crocodiles with overbites) and jaguars to monkeys, parrots, and tapirs (mistaken in a Sherlock Holmes novel for a giant rat). "It is a very remote area," adds Ugarte. "Animals come to the Tambopata Valley from all over as a retreat because they feel safe here." That, of course, is what gives the Tambopata its name, which means "Resting Place." Which is just what you'll need as you hit the Explorer's Inn after your daily rigors.

Difficulty: It's Class IV, but its isolation steps things up a notch. Price Range: It's in the boondocks, so you have to pay for the privilege of driving close to 24 hours to get there, and hiring a motorized dugout to pick you up.
Best time to go: Trips don't go when it's too high. Plan on May-June for best low-water flows.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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