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In this stage we travel for one day through Brazil to go from Cobija, still in Bolivia to Iñapari, in Peru. This road is part of the transoceanic road that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Peru and Brazil. The transoceanic road passes through Puerto Maldonado, a town on the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers. Both descend from the Andes highlands to the Amazonian plains. From Puerto Maldonado we join an organized tour to go deep into the jungle up the River Tambopata for more than 90 mi. Therein lies the Tambopata National Reserve, a gem for those who like the Amazon rainforest in its purest form.

Stage index:

From September 6 to 8, 2011: From Epitaciolândia to Puerto Maldonado
From September 13 to 17, 2011: Visit to Tambopata Nacional Reserve


Profile for the entire stage (From Epitaciolândia to Puerto Maldonado):

Stage profile


From September 6 to 8, 2011: From Epitaciolândia to Puerto Maldonado

How far is  Cusco?Yesterday "O pelado" replaced a broken spoke putting on hold all the work he had lined up. Furthermore he didn’t charge us for the job. Thanks pelado! Today, with the spoke fixed, we leave in the early morning towards Assis Brasil, on the border with Peru. The challenge of this stage is the temperature and the 70 miles. At noon we have to stop for a while due to the unbearable heat. The good thing is that every 15 mi or so, there is a kind of rest area, with shaded benches and a store where we can buy water. On both sides of the road, the forest has been replaced by cattle ranches. Throughout the day, the road is undulating and gentle elevation changes are almost continuous.


The next morning we go through customs in Brazil and head towards the bridge that crosses over to Iñapari in Peru. Here, after going through customs, we look for a transport company to ship our bag to Puerto Maldonado. Solved all the paperwork and stocked with gallons of water, we leave for Iberia. The undulations of the road continue on the Peruvian side. Judit is setting the pace and I notice that with every small climb I’m getting behind. After 10 miles I feel strangely tired. It seems that I have some fever and the heat is killing me, so we stop the first taxi that passes by and it takes us to Iberia. The driver is very kind and once we arrive to Iberia we tour the village looking for motorcycle shops to buy spare tubes with Presta valve. In Bolivia and Brazil they only have Schrader valve tubes. Gradually, our tubes got damaged around the base of the valve and we only have one left, counting the one we have repaired by putting a patch around the valve. Here in Iberia, we can’t find any either. I'm already half dead and we ask the taxi driver to take us to a hotel. After a cold shower I have a fever of 102. Of course, we start speculating about possibilities of malaria, dengue and the like. Luckily an antipyretic and a nap make the temperature drop to 98 in a couple of hours. At night I feel better and we go out for dinner. We have chaufa rice, consisting of rice with fried banana, raisins, scrambled eggs and vegetables. Very tasty. 

One day in Brasil

On the morning of the 8th I feel recovered and we decide to continue with our route as planned. We leave very early and we get to the village of Mavila, our destination, at noon, again under a very strong heat. The only accommodation is not very welcoming. The rooms don’t have mosquito nets and the wooden floor has a strong smell of diesel, used for waterproofing. Outside is probably above 105 degrees, we have cycled 54 mi and there are still 50 more to Puerto Maldonado, too much for today. The solution: we stop another taxi to take us to the comforts of Puerto Maldonado. There we stay in a hotel with air conditioning that will serve as a shelter during the heat of the day for several days.

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From September 13 to 17, 2011: Visit to Tambopata Nacional Reserve

Emerald boaAfter much thinking and bargaining, we have decided to pay for a 5 day tour to the Tambopata National Reserve. The tour traces the Tambopata River up passing first through the buffer zone of the reserve where the use of resources, including hunting, is allowed to indigenous communities. The second and third nights of the tour are spent in the Tambopata Research Center (TRC), located in the center of the reserve, 90 miles from Puerto Maldonado, where there are no communities and the forest is in its original state. One of the highlights of the tour is a visit to the Colorado macaw lick, a short distance from the TRC. A macaw lick is a wall of clay usually along a river bank where parrots, macaws and parakeets come to eat mineral-rich dirt. There are several theories as to why these birds eat dirt. One of the most accepted ones suggests that clay complements their diet with minerals. Another one speculates that clay counteracts the toxins of some of the fruits that are part of their regular diet. Whatever the reason may be, seeing hundreds of colorful birds flitting around the lick and the surrounding trees is a unique show in nature. 

Our journey begins in the offices of Rainforest Expeditions, on the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado. From there we travel by bus to the river port of Infierno (hell). By the way, very funny the name of the taxi company of the community: Hell express... From this point on, the only means of transportation is ​​by boat up the Tambopata River. We are in the dry season and the river level is quite low so our captain (and motorist at the same time) has to know its course quite well to negotiate rapids and shallow areas, especially farther upstream. In the first hours of navigation, the shores are dotted with stairs that climb the banks to the dry land area, showing the river flow difference between now and the rainy season. The stairs end in a patch cleared of vegetation, where a path towards an indigenous community begins. Often, at the foot of the stairs we can see one or two small peke-pekes. This is how the canoes used by the Indians are called. The means of propulsion is an explosion engine near the motorbike-like speed control, both located at one end of a long tube inside of which is the shaft that makes the propeller rotate at the other end of the tube, about 6 feet away from the canoe. You can imagine why the name: an explosion engine without exhaust and running at low speeds… peke-peke-peke-peke-...


In this area of the river it’s also frequent seeing people mining for gold. A floating platform sucks a mixture of water and mud from the riverbed through a pump and pours it into a series of screens and mats that retain the finest grit where the gold dust is found. The next process consists of accumulating the sand in a container, add mercury and trample the mixture as if you were treading grapes. The mercury amalgams with gold and the other metals that may be present like lead. The other minerals are discarded. The amalgam is then heated by fire and the mercury evaporates, leaving as residue the gold and the other metals. Obviously, all waste is poured into the river, including traces of mercury. In fact, it is said that fish in the area has a very high mercury content and is not recommended for human consumption. The miners on top of being in direct contact with mercury during the downtrodden, are exposed to mercury fumes, very harmful for their health. But it’s easy money, and for many who live in poverty, it’s worth paying the price, although more likely, they ignore the impact this activity will have on their bodies. Gold mining is the primary economic activity in the department of Madre de Dios, and despite the polluting effect in the environment, vested interests are too strong to control the gold rush in this region. Fortunately, both the Tambopata National Reserve and the neighboring Bahuaja Sonene National Park, are farther upstream, free of pollution. 

Russet-backed oriole building its nest

After the first checkpoint of the reserve we begin to see the first examples of wildlife, a family of capybaras smearing in the mud on the riverbank. For us it’s not too exciting, after the fantastic boat ride in the Yacuma River, a couple of weeks ago in Bolivia, but for the other tourists travelling with us, it’s the first exposure to wildlife in the Amazon. On our boat there are two groups with two different guides. One group is formed by (mostly) US citizens. The other one is just us. The guides are seated in front of the canoe searching for animals, when they are not napping. The heat (although the canoe is covered) and the long ride upstream would make it understandable if not for the price of the tour. We finally reach the first of the lodges of our tour at sunset. The lodge is located just a few minutes away from the river shore along a path never reached by the sun. The lush vegetation is brutal, both in the canopy and on the ground. This is an area of secondary forest, where trees have large leaves that only let 5% of the light go through. As a result, the lower layer of vegetation must strive to grow rapidly to reach heights with more light. This is our first contact during our trip with the Amazon jungle, as in Bolivia we decided to visit only the pampas, much more open. In the short and fast walk from the boat to the lodge we can see both the huge variety of vegetation and the abundance of wildlife. Looking at the trail sides, the view doesn’t reach beyond a few yards, blocked by trunks, branches, vines and leaves of many shapes and shades. As for wildlife, we don’t see any, but we can hear all kinds of birds, monkeys, crickets and other sounds that we can’t identify. Well actually, we hear noises we think we can identify, but in the coming days we will realize that the monkeys emit sounds that resemble bird calls, birds sing like monkeys, and some cicadas sound like a car alarm. And of course, from time to time, a hasty sound of dead leaves stirred by a land animal fleeing from the human caravan. 

Blue-gray tanager feeding its chicksThe lodge is located in a forest clearing. In one of the palm trees next to the wooden building, there is a nesting colony of russet-backed orioles, constantly busy in building their classic bag shaped hanging nests, made of weaved twigs and straws. In their coming and going in search of construction material, we can see them coming out of the nests and fly away to the woods. When they come back and perform the braking maneuver to approach the nest, they open wide the tail showing the lateral yellow feathers. One of the nests has been squatted by a couple of blue-gray tanagers dedicated to feeding their chicks.

Cicada changing its skinAfter the hearty dinner we return to the river for a night spotting session of caimans from the boat. The eyes of these reptiles reflect light from the spot lights and shine like red dots. The truth is that this activity is rather disappointing. All we see is a pair of baby alligators that, after what we saw in the Yacuma River, seem to us like lizards with armored skin. The only good thing is that we haven’t seen them at night. I think the red eyes is an irritation due to our flashes. On top of that, after 15 minutes we turn back. What? Already back? Here I get mad for the first time. Our expectations are much higher than watching a couple of lizards with irritated eyes and we let our guide know it. The walk back to the lodge is however much more fruitful and exciting. Scorpion spiders have come out of their burrows and stalk their prey with their disproportionately long front legs transformed into sensors. We find a cicada drying, just out from its old skin. While the old exoskeleton is of an unattractive brownish color, the eyes are bright yellow and the iridescent wings have green and blue shades in the light of our flashlights. However, without a doubt, the star of our evening walk is an emerald boa that Paula, our guide, discovers hanging perfectly still upside down from a tree. Its belly is yellow and the back bright green with white spots over the spine. The eyes are dark gray with thin vertical pupils. We go out of the trail to approach it making crackling sounds as we step on branches and dead leaves. We don’t know what we are most afraid of, the boa or other wildlife that may lie beneath our feet or above our heads. When we resume the march, it continues there, head down, still, as if it was made of plastic. No, it can’t be, I need to take off my head this idea quickly. Although the Chinese are making increasingly realistic replicas, this would be too much. The irritated eyes lizards’ disappointment is enough for today. 

In our room the mosquito nets cover the beds. We close the curtain separating us from the common hallway, light up the candles to complement the dim light of the oil lamps in the corridor and prepare for bed still with the image of the boa in our eyes. Is it still in the same position or choking its dinner? Perhaps one of the lodge workers has gone to pick it up so that the night moisture doen't ruin the delicate scales of plast... No! That idea again! If it only have moved a little bit ... out of my head! Fortunately, the jungle sounds are heard clearly from the bed and distract us and make us forget that devilish lie. There is a reason why we hear all those sounds perfectly. The wall of the room to the outside does not exist. A simple railing separates us from all the beasts that lurk out there. Now we wonder what’s the role of the whistle hanging from the headboard, mmmm ...

White-throated toucanAt 5 am of the next day we meet with Paula to climb atop the observation tower to see the dawn and watch the morning activity of the jungle. Along the way we glimpse an agouti, a rodent the size of a rabbit, darting away from the path. The platform is at the height of the top of the tallest trees. From there we can see the first flocks of parrots and parakeets, waking up the rest of the inhabitants of the jungle with their cacophonous calls. The sky gradually becomes purple, then orange and finally blue. Macaws pass en route to their licks. A white-throated toucan flies like a missile in search of eggs from a unattended nest that can serve him as breakfast. 


Heliconia flowerAfter our breakfast we go to the Condenado Lake for a canoe ride. As Paula rows, she tells us the story of the lake and points the animals she spots. The truth is that she has a trained eye that, in addition to her knowledge of biology, are very informative for each animal or curiosity we find along the way. In fact, all guides obtain their degree only after 5 years at the university, including a specialization in the tropical rainforest ecosystem. On the branches next to the lake shore we see a flock of hoatzins and one anhinga, but it catches our attention a group of bats resting under a log suspended over the water. As if the brown color of their skin is not enough to blend them in, when the breeze blows, they sway mimicking the movement of leaves in the wind. From the boat, we see a yellow-headed vulture riding the thermals and a king vulture, with its white feathers covering its body and most of the wings. Across the lake we walk to find a giant ceiba. Its flag-like roots are higher than us, the trunk is probably about 9 feet in diameter and 100 tall. No wonder the natives consider it the mother of the forest. Around it we witness a curious phenomenon. A group of caterpillars move in a coordinated manner. They don’t go one after the other, but forming a shapeless mass, crawling ones over the others. Those who walk on the upper layers of the bulk move faster than the ones in the inner layers, as when you walk on the conveyor belt at an airport. When they get to the head of the group, they move to a lower layer. With this rotary motion, chaotic but coordinated, they give the impression of being a larger animal and possibly saves them from being eaten by predators unaware of the trick.

Most of the rest of the day is spent sailing up the river to the Tambopata Research Center. After settling we go for a walk around the lodge. Here the forest is the primary type, with tall trees and small leaves that let through more light than in the secondary forest. Ground plants are less urged to grow and consequently are lower and farther apart, allowing for greater visibility. This is how we get to see the hind quarters of the last one of a herd of peccaries. We have been smelling them for a while, but it has taken us some time to spot them. We're not bragging about Amazonian hunter smell, they just stink a hundred yards away. Jaguars must smell them miles away. After dinner, Darwin, one of the researchers of the center gives us a talk about the macaw project, main activity of the TRC. It is a very useful presentation for tomorrow's visit to the Colorado lick. Among other things he tells us the success they have had with the artificial nests. These are PVC cylinders that mimic the hollow trunk of a tree, where the two species of largest macaws, red and green and scarlet, nest. Typically each couple lays 2 to 3 eggs, but usually one of the chicks dies of starvation. The parents decide whether there is enough food for all or have to sacrifice one for the success of its siblings. One of the activities of the project is to take these unattended chicks and feed them in the laboratory until they are able to feed themselves. These individuals are known affectionately by the name of “los Chicos” (the Kids). In the morning, while breakfast is served, some of the Chicos frequent the dining room to steal pancakes, bread rolls, butter boxes or anything edible that tourists, spellbound by the colors of their feathers, let them sweep away from their dishes. No one dares to confront them. Its huge and sharp peak could tear a finger off with no effort. Only the waiter dares using a cloth napkin as a bullfighter capote, harassing them until they release your breakfast or fly off with it to a branch a few feet off the ground. From there they scream they discordant victorious kra-kra-kra, laughing at us. 

Collpa Colorado

Today is the big day, the first visit to the macaw lick. Still dark, we board the boat and go upstream for a few minutes. We walk along a path besides a tributary of the Tambopata, but hidden in the undergrowth. In a few minutes we reach a clearing on the stream bank. There we sit on the folding stools we carry and we wait. Oh, oh! Here comes the second anger of the tour. Before us, across the tributary there are only reeds and trees. Hundred yards upstream there is a clay wall. Hundred yards downstream there is another clay wall. For a few seconds we feel like the spectators of a tennis match. Incredulous we move the head from one lick to the other. When we react we look at each other without knowing what to say. Paula breaks the silence by informing us that yes, those are the macaw licks. But they are 100 yards away! The macaws are going to look like sparrows, pigeons at the most. And what about the parrots? Forget the parakeets. My stomach and intestines start to twist and my brain starts spinning inside my skull. Heck, if they had warned us in the office about this we wouldn’t have come. Without professional birdwatcher binoculars or huge telephoto lenses we are going to see nothing. The guides have brought a couple of tripod telescopes, but we thought they were to see the souls of the birds. No, they telescopes are to see them, just see them and differentiate them from other colorful little things pecking the damn clay. The idea of having to settle for just watching the field guides with full-color cartoons of the birds upsets me. I complain bitterly, but the Sernanp, the Peruvian agency responsible for protected areas, is very strict with the rules for watching birds. We have to recognize that we did ask at the office how far away was the lick from the hide as one of the parameters to make a decision, but the response of a guide who was passing by was "about 200 yards”. The distance was so absurdly big that we assumed the guy didn’t know how to calculate the distance, which is otherwise a common thing among the locals. Frustrated I sit back on my stool. In the trees around the lick we begin to hear the calls of macaws and parrots. I think they're a million miles away, but it can’t be because I hear them. It must be only hundreds of miles away. It makes me think about starting to yell and ruin everybody else’s day. What happens thereafter is something we will not easily forget. 

Collpa ColoradoThe first couples of blue and yellow macaws pass flying over the river at our feet. The sun, still low, illuminates their belly and the underside of their wings. No wonder they are also known as the golden macaws. Sometimes they go in groups of 3, the couple and the baby. Then we see flocks of 6, 10, 15 individuals flying in formation to perch on the treetops tens of miles away. Then come the scarlet macaws. At first glance we only see parallel bright red blurry lines against the green background of the vegetation. They pass to land on their own treetops a few miles from our position. Through the 400 mm lens of our SLR camera, we can see them with decent size, but with much muted colors. Fortunately the brain is an almost perfect self-delusion machine. Having seen the macaw pictures during last night presentation, it knows how they look like, what color they are, how the feathers of the wings and tail are... Now we see something that vaguely resembles the photos and our brain correlates that image with the pictures and sends a processed image to the cognitive system. What we "see" is not what your eyes see, but an image enhanced by your brain. So what? Better enjoy the moment than keep our head down due to the 100 yards that separates us from them. And it really is an incredible show. The number and variety of parrots and macaws we see is amazing. The last macaws to arrive (of the 3 larger species) are the red and green, the largest of them all. They also have their own trees from which to control the situation before going down to the lick. The buzz is already considerable and in a few minutes we don’t know where to look. Flocks of parrots, parakeets and macaws are flying around a few tens of yards from us to join the others of their own species. There are some fearful attempts of some parrots to come down to the clay walls, but they quickly return to the trees. It seems like these are suicide volunteers, who take the risk of facing a predator on the prowl. As they survive the attempt, a few others dare to go down. Nervously pecking the clay and returning to the treetops. Gradually, the population of parrots and parakeets on the lick increases. The macaws wait a little more, expectant in nearby trees. Finally they decide to go down and now the explosion of colors on the lick is superb. Sometimes we can see the 3 species of large macaws and several species of parrots simultaneously. When the blue and yellow macaws flutter their wings, they produce blue and yellow flashes, while the scarlet stand out for the bright red. For the parrots we need the telescope (sniff). The concentration of birds at the lick comes to exceed 30 or 40 individuals at once, but many others are still hovering around or waiting their turn on the treetops nearby. The show continues in full swing for about 45 minutes, at which point all birds fly away screaming of terror. Those who were pecking hastily take flight and those on the trees follow them without delay. According to the guides, it’s a flash. Perhaps a predator has been spotted, but the guides are not able to determine the reason. In a minute the noise has subsided almost completely. We only hear the kra-kra of the macaws in the distance. Now a few hundred yards away for real. The show is over. We wait for a few minutes just in case, but they don’t come back. The brain begins to use another of its tricks, bringing images captured during the show, expanding and adorning them before showing them to us. We rejoice in remembering a particularly striking action, like a pair of scarlet hung upside down, playing with their beaks. Or a trio of blue and yellow doing stunts in the air. We pick up all we brought and return to the boat almost without realizing what we do, excitedly telling each other what we all have already seen. It must be a sign that we have enjoyed the show. 

Scarlet macawsBack at the lodge, we have breakfast while we keep talking about the very fresh images. In addition, two of the Chicos come visit us, of course to steel some food. With all boldness, they land on the table and take a roll and one of the butter boxes. Some of the tourists confront them, but the Chicos resist and the menacing beaks intimidate everyone. We spend the rest of the day walking around the TRC with Paula. One of the curiosities that catches our attention are the walking palms. This species of palm tree has roots that go directly down from the trunk 3 feet off the ground. The trunk itself finishes in a sharp tip but doesn’t reach the ground. The palm tree looking for more light tilts sideways. On this side of the trunk new roots grow to hold the weight. On the opposite side, old roots die and fall. In this way, the palm slowly moves to an area with more light. 

Blue and yellow macawsThe next morning we return to the Colorado lick and the show of macaws and parrots repeats. Today we focus more on the less common species. This is how we discover the blue-headed macaw, very rare, and the chestnut macaw. We can also see through the telescopes the orange-cheeked, the blue-headed, the mealy, the yellow-crowned, the white-bellied parrots, etc, etc, etc. Today the show is shorter. After an initial flash, some of the flocks go away, but at the second flash they all disappear. 

JaguarAfter breakfast, while waiting the time to embark down the river, we find an incredible variety of grasshoppers, spiders and other insects in the gardens around the lodge. The journey back to the lodge closest to civilization is pretty boring except for a few moments. The first of them begins when Judit asks me for the camera. There ends my turn to be on the lookout for animals on the banks of the river. Her sentece "Pass me the camera, I’m going to spot the jaguar" is convincing, but unlikely.  Not even a couple of minutes after, with a tone of suppressed excitement she says, "there it is!" I look at her with amazement, but she keeps the camera aimed at the rght bank with the zoom at maximum range. "There is something moving on the bank with 4 legs". Shoot! I yell her. Where is it? She tells me, but whatever it was, it’s already gone in the undergrowth. The commotion has caught the interest of the other travelers, who probably only understood the word jaguar. They look at us and then look at the point we keep scrutinizing on the shore. I haven’t seen it myself. I have to content myself with watching the jaguar on the camera screen. "She spotted a jaguar!" I tell Paula and pass her the camera to convince her. The camera moves from one end of the canoe to the other and from that moment Judit is the most hated person on the boat. 

Collpa Chuncho

Halfway down, we turn off the main course to land on a nearby island close to another of the big licks of the Tambopata River, the Chuncho lick. We walk slowly through the vegetation to reach the front of the clay wall. This wall is much larger than the Colorado and is full of macaws of the 3 larger species. There are hundreds of them. We are far away, but we cannot get closer because we have no reeds or bushes where to hide. The grandeur of seeing so many macaws comforts us. You'd think that these species are not endangered, but probably years ago you didn’t have to come to a lick to see so many of them gathered. At some point, something or someone scares them and they fly away to their places of forage during the day. Tomorrow they’ll come again, but we won’t be here to see them. Our days in Tambopata are about to end. 

TayrasAnother moment of excitement during the trip on the Tambopata is when we spot a young couple of tayras strolling on a beach. Tayras are related to otters, but have evolved to adapt to arboreal life, where they steal eggs from nests, which is a big part of their diet. Like all young, they are curious and stare at us from the shore, but when we get too close, they flee into the reeds. 

Howler monkeysOn our last evening in the reserve, we go to one of the watchtowers. This one exceeds the height of the forest canopy. From the top, we are delighted to see a family of howler monkeys sunbathing with the last rays. Their glossy coat reflects copper tones with the orange light. One of the adults is lying on a thick branch with one arm and one leg dangling. Others are sitting on the same branch, grooming each other. The truth is that they convey peace. They look very calm, as if they were at home :)

Parrots collpaIn the morning we still have time to visit the small clay lick near the lodge. This one is only visited by parrots and the smaller macaw species, but we can be seen much closer, about 20 yards. This small collpa is in the shade and the colors are not as spectacular, but the details of the plumage can be seen without telescopes. 

The return to civilization is boring, with no interest. The sadness of leaving a place as exciting as the Amazon rainforest consumes us. The best therapy is to remember the images and moments experienced during the last 4 days.


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