12 – 15 June 2019
At breakfast this morning, I skipped the coffee in anticipation of the ‘good coffee’ that was promised at Dan’s friend’s new cafe. Dan met us at the appointed time and assured us that the cafe would be open “I think”. Monkey Coffee was conveniently just around the corner from our hotel – however, it was a (gently) uphill walk.
On our first evening in Cusco, I assumed that vehicles weren’t allowed on these narrow lanes; I soon found out that they were – I then assumed that there was one-way traffic only. Wrong again – traffic goes both ways, and depending on who entered the lane first, the other vehicle would have to back out. Or depending on who is the more aggressive…
We got there to a closed door and no signs of life. As Dan tried calling his friend on the phone, some of the more desperate among us tried the more traditional method of knocking (banging) on the door…
What a relief when someone answered the door and we were let in – Monkey Coffee’s first customers! The owner, and Dan’s friend, Jose Aguilar greeted us with much warmth. Jose is also a photographer and many of his, as well as Dan’s, photos were on display. The coffee was indeed good – the barista serving it looked distinctly South Indian – he was. Rohith Subramanian is a biker whose travels have taken him across the world and was currently in South America – a documentary on his travels will be out on Netflix soon. He had been to Singapore too…in just one day he felt he’d biked the length and breadth of our little sunny island 🙂
Dan’s business partner, Alex also joined us – originally from Dover, he too like Dan fell in love with Peru and has made it his home. It was a lovely hour or so, chatting over good coffee – and the perfect way to end the ‘high life’.
It was airport time again – bags had to be loaded Very Quickly or traffic on the lane in front of the hotel would be backed up. Between our driver Bruce and Dan, it was a smooth loading up and we were soon at the airport for our flight to the Amazon. Actually the flight was to Puerto Maldonado but ‘flight to the Amazon’ has a more Flight of the Condor ring to it…
The Heat! The Oxygen!
Landing in Puerto Maldonado wearing Cusco-weather clothes was not such a good idea. It was hot and humid – and we had to pile into a crowded mini-bus with several others also headed to the same lodge as us. Our first stop was at our lodge’s ‘town office’ where passports were checked. We would then be taken to a jetty for the boat ride to our lodge.
There was some initial consternation as we were told that we would have to pack what we would need for the next two nights into duffel bags that would be provided. This was evidently a new instruction, apparently on account of there being a full boat and the need to reduce the amount of luggage. Fortunately this decision was reversed as we got to the town office and there was no need to repack, which was a relief.
The boat ride on the Río Madre de Dios (Mother of God River) was smooth, the breeze providing some respite from the heat. And I could breathe again! It was amazing how immediately I felt the effects of the low altitude.
Our lodge, the Corto Maltes Amazonia, comprised thatch roofed wood-floored little bungalows with mosquito-netted tents and a verandah with hammocks. There were no fans, at least not in our bungalows – but after Turkana, no problem. The bungalows were connected by hexagonal concrete slabs; by our second walk between our bungalows and the main building we knew just which section of the path was used as a thoroughfare by an army of red ants and on cue, we did a hop, skip and jump over this section.
After a delicious lunch of fried fish, a very healthy salad and fruits, it was time for our first foray into the jungle. We met our guide, Raul, and had our first lesson on how to get into a small-ish boat without falling over – ‘Walk in the centre’.
On the agenda today – Monkey Island…Monkey Coffee in the morning, Monkey Island in the evening. We were told to bring our raincoats, as the rains come quite unannounced in the (rain)forest. Sure enough, as we were about to clamber out of the boat at Monkey Island, the rains came down.
Raul and our boatman assured us it would stop soon, and once again, they were right. As we pulled on rain jackets and made sure we were waterproofed, Raul took his sneakers off and jumped off the boat barefoot. Dan laughed at our incredulity and said Raul just didn’t want to have to clean his shoes later.
Before we set off, we were warned not to touch anything without looking first, and especially not to place our hands on tree trunks for support – we found out why soon enough when Dan pointed out a tree trunk swarming with ants – which we just didn’t see, until we looked.
It was a bit of a trek through the jungle, walking single file, watching where we stepped while avoiding low-hanging branches, and keeping the camera as dry as possible. There were tree trunks to be clambered over, and holes in the ground to be avoided. I don’t know how Raul did this barefoot.
We eventually got to a clearing and Raul spotted some capuchin monkeys. I was rather surprised that we were allowed to use bananas to entice the monkeys down from their high perches in the trees – apparently getting this close to the wildlife and offering food is only allowed here on Monkey Island and not anywhere else in the Tambopata Reserve.
It was quite dark by the time we made the return trek to our boat – torches were deployed and were much needed to see the various obstacles. I managed to bump my head on a low-hanging branch, but otherwise we all made it back to the boat unscathed. We were warned to follow Raul to the boat and not wander off for a walk on the ‘beach’ as we could well sink into the soft sand…quicksand?? Needless to say, we followed Raul. Our first walk in the Amazon rainforest!
It was a surreal ride back to our lodge, with Raul picking out the nightlife on the riverbank for us with his torch. The caimans, though small in size, were particularly menacing looking. After a while, as Raul’s torch swept the riverbanks, I too could see the pinpricks of ‘red reflexes’ that dotted the banks…there were definitely more creatures watching us than the 6 of us in our little boat trying to spot them.
A Shaman & A Jungle Photoshoot
I slept well that first night – the slight breeze and cooler night-time air was pleasant, and despite a slight sheen of perspiration, I woke up feeling normal again. The wonders of oxygen. There was a bit of time before breakfast to wander around the lodge and photograph the resident macaw.
After breakfast, it was back on the boat to go downriver to visit some members of the Machiguenga tribe. It was a gentle boat ride, then a steep climb up a muddy slope to get to the village – I remember thinking that I won’t worry about how I was going to get back down that slope later. We were greeted by Noe, the resident shaman, who was joined by a young couple and an older one. Part of the greeting involved having our faces painted (to protect us when we go into the jungle…yikes!), and passing two different pipes around – one a smoking pipe, the other a musical one. The former required us to take a puff in a show of camaraderie – we all pretended to do so; the latter required us to blow into it to make a sound – some perfunctory blowing was attempted, no sounds were effected.
The elderly tribesman’s name was Adam, and his claim to fame was that he had met Pope Francis during his visit to the area in 2018. With Raul and Dan translating, Noe gave us a bit of insight as to how Catholicism reached the Machiguenga people. The Machiguenga people are ‘of the earth’ – they commune with nature, they believe if you respect the jungle, ‘mother jungle’ will look after you. When the first Christian evangelists appeared, in their attempt to convert the Machiguenga to Christianity, they laid down several rules, largely forbidding the Machiguenga from doing this, that and the other (think 10 commandments). Needless to say, this didn’t go down too well for this free-spirited tribe. Eventually, Catholic priests arrived in the Amazon – they told the Machiguenga they could go about their usual way of life, talking to fireflies, walking the jungle – the only thing the priests asked was for the Machiguenga to pray on Sundays. This was an easy enough ask, and so the Machiguenga became Catholics.
Time for our walk into the jungle part two. This time we were to follow Noe. He set off at a brisk clip and we worked hard to keep up. Here again we were in single file, watching where we stepped. Once again, warnings about branches, holes and potential trips were called out. We had to ask Raul and Dan to tell Noe to slow down several times. There were no beaten paths to follow and yet Noe knew exactly where he was going…less so, us. Often, we could only see a vague semblance of Noe’s robe as we scrambled to get him in sight.
As we passed little clearings and the sun shone through, we would get Noe to stop. Noe, the smoking shaman, was a willing subject and happily puffed away as we clicked, hoping we weren’t kneeling on creepy crawlies.
We spent a good bit of time in the jungle, in a little clearing where the foliage made for some interesting portraits. Noe was quite the showman, climbing up trees to smoke his pipe high in the branches – or nonchalantly puffing on a regular cigarette as he lolled on a trunk.
The elderly couple, Adam and Luzmila, had obviously been together a long time; it was sweet to see them holding hands, occasionally talking as they sat on a tree trunk while we photographed them.
The younger couple, Wiljer and Yeni, were a bit more recent in their togetherness. I thought they were just married, but Raul disabused me of the romanticism; Wiljer, with his trendy city-boy haircut, it seemed had a way with the girls.
When we got back to the village, I realised just how hot it was; our painted faces were melting and much water was downed. The walk down the muddy slope wasn’t as bad as anticipated and we were soon back on our boat to the lodge. It was a different boat though – one with a young French girl on board. As it turned out the boat belonged to her and her new young Peruvian husband – the boatman. Our earlier boat had had engine troubles and so this spanking new boat with its very new and unused life jackets had come to the rescue. We got to talking a bit – the girl had been a tourist and the boy her boatman/guide…another tourist-falls-in-love-with-guide story.
I was starving by the time we got back. Lunch was delicious – juane, a cross between Sri Lankan lampries and chicken biryani cooked in a banana leaf. It’s been quite an Asian experience since coming to the Amazon. It wasn’t just the heat and humidity, but the people too – they look like they could be Malay/Indonesian/Filipino – and many a time I’ve had to stop myself from saying something in Malay. I later read that after Brazil, Peru has the largest Asian population in Latin America – and that the third largest Chinese community outside Asia is in Peru. It figures then that the national dish, lomo saltado, is basically stir-fried beef in soya sauce with rice.
Sunset on the Lake & A Walk in the Dark
This afternoon is to be a relaxing one, out on Lake Sandoval in a canoe. But before we get to relax, there’s a boat ride on the Madre de Dios to the Tambopata Reserve, then a 3 kilometre walk to the lake. Fortunately, a board walk had recently been completed and it was a relatively easy walk, with several stops to photograph birds, monkeys and a walking tree. While not quite Tolkien’s Ents, these trees move 2 to 3 centimetres a day as their roots grow and move them to areas with better sunlight and water.
We finally got to the end of the boardwalk and to the canoe ‘boarding point’. Raul and Josleen picked out a canoe that seemed the most ‘sea-worthy’ and we all got on board by walking over another canoe – no one fell in and the canoe remained the right way up.
With Raul and Josleen rowing, we were off. It seemed like we were going right into the jungle – the sides and canopy seemed to close in, and I hoped nothing fell into the canoe from the branches above. I kept my eyes peeled for anacondas but I doubt I would’ve seen one even if it were there. As we rowed past a thicket of green, Josleen pointed out a caiman in its midst – I never would’ve seen it!
We eventually got to the lake – it was beautiful, and a startling contrast to the dark waterway we had just traversed. It was a wide open lake, the calm waters lined by palm trees, a stork on a sandbank here, a flock of macaws there. As we circumnavigated the lake, Josleen and Raul pointed out birds native to this area -Josleen’s fancy Swarovski binos were put to good use. We spent some time with the hoatzin or stinky bird; we were (un)fortunately upwind from the bird and had no evidence to tell for ourselves if it indeed was a stinky bird.
As the sun set, the colours in the sky and those reflected in the lake changed from blue to a fiery orange. It was perfect – and each of us was in our happy place – Shiv stretched out in the back of the canoe while the rest of us were in camera-mode.
Given that we stayed on the lake till the sun was almost completely gone, it was even darker as we made our way back to the boarding point – but not dark enough that we didn’t see a little black snake on a tree trunk right next to us as Josleen and Raul manoeuvred the canoe to the least muddy bit for us to get off.
Back on the boardwalk torches and headlamps were very much needed – though headlamps were quickly handheld as mosquitoes and other insects swarmed around the light. It was a slightly weird experience, walking through the forest on the railing-less boardwalk by torchlight – the sounds of the jungle quite different at night. Just as I was thinking this, Dan, bringing up in the rear, helpfully said, “Isn’t this the stuff nightmares are made of – being lost in the Amazon jungle at night…”
As we walked, the eagle-eyed Josleen jumped off the boardwalk, shining his torch at something – tarantula! I was persuaded to get off the boardwalk too to get some photos – while being assured that tarantula bites weren’t fatal…painful and unpleasant but not fatal. That was comforting to know.
The other inhabitant of the jungle in this area is the jaguar. Raul said we had to be very lucky to see a jaguar as these shy cats are usually deep in the jungle, far away from boardwalks and humans. Walking by torchlight in single file on the boardwalk, I thought we were very lucky not to see a jaguar – what an easy meal we would’ve made.
It was a quiet boat ride back to the lodge as tiredness swept over all of us. It was an early night – tomorrow it was a 5AM start to the claylick. Shiv decided on a couple of extra hours’ sleep instead of going to see macaws lick clay for their breakfast, and said she would give tomorrow morning’s activity a miss.
Clay for Breakfast
Dan had said that if it were raining when we woke up, to go back to sleep, as the macaws would skip their clay breakfast if it were raining. It was clear skies when I woke up so no extra sleep. The generator hadn’t kicked in yet, so I got ready by torchlight then went over to pick up S and G before going to the main building. Several others were already there, having coffee by torchlight.
It was a short walk to the clay lick; there was a sort of hide with benches – we just had to wait quietly, and hope the macaws turn up for their breakfast. We sat for at least half an hour looking at the clay walls, waiting. It is a curious thing, this clay licking – apparently only happening in the Amazon. It was initially thought to be a way of getting rid of toxins – however, macaws in other parts of the world have similar diets (and therefore, similar toxins) but don’t lick clay. It is now thought that the Amazonian macaws’ diet lacks sodium and that they lick/eat the clay for the sodium. I hope they don’t end up with hypertension.
The macaws finally did come – the all-green variety. Their breakfast lasted about half an hour – there was a loud gong-like sound that reverberated from the jungle, and with that, breakfast was over and the macaws were off.
We did a slow trek back to the lodge, and to our own (less salt-laden) breakfast. Our last full-day in Peru today. After breakfast, there was a bit of time to pack and check out the gift shop before we were back on the boat with our luggage. It was a longer ride this time as we were going against the current.
At Puerto Maldonado, there was some time to kill before our flight so we wandered around the local market for a bit – Shobs was in search of aji charapita (the Peruvian chilli padi) – found it but unfortunately not packed in sizes suitable for carrying on a plane.
Last Day in Lima
Here we were again – at the Casa Andina in Miraflores, Lima. It was a nicer room this time but Lima was still grey. We had some time to spare before dinner – Shiv, the ultimate risk-taker, went across the road to a non-English speaking hairdresser, while the three of us went to a nearby supermarket for chocolates and the like.
Dinner was Peru’s famous roast chicken which we surprisingly hadn’t had the entire time we were here. It was an evening of ‘extras’ – it was extra special as Dan’s lovely girlfriend, Carol, joined us – we had heard so much about her throughout the trip and she lived up to all the good things we’d heard; the already delicious chicken was enhanced by the extra hot aji specially made by our waiter; and the Pisco Sours were extra strong…it was a happy evening with lots of laughs, accompanied by many TV screens once again showing several different soccer matches.
The next morning, Dan surprised us by coming with us to the airport – he might’ve wanted to be sure we got on the plane. The goodbyes were heartfelt, as were the promises to be back, and requests for Dan to expand his operations to Columbia, Chile, Guatemala…and basically the whole of South America. Post check-in, the four of us split up – with GC flying to DC via Miami and the rest of us home to Singapore.
On the flight back, I listed in my head some of the more memorable moments of this trip – there were many…
- the day spent with Bernardnino and his family has to rate as one of the top highlights
- sunrise at Machu Picchu
- being in the Amazon rainforest…at night, by torchlight
- the very characteristic Peruvian turn of phrase…not just ‘thank you’ but ‘thank you for that’, being addressed by restaurant/hotel staff not as ‘ma’am’ but as ‘lady’ – as in, “thank you, come again lady”.
- my biggest Spanish language achievement – learning the subtle differences between churro (handsome man), churros (fried dough pastry) and chullo (Andean hat with ear flaps)…
And so another good journey ends.
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