Peru Part V: Welcome to the jungle, again

In the jungle with my parents

Picking up my parents from Puerto Maldonado’s tiny airport is a strange experience. Of course, I am very happy to see them again. On the other hand, their arrival marks the end of my time as a volunteer in the jungle. From now on it will be much more like a family holiday instead of what I’ve experienced so far. Fortunately, I get to show them the rain forest from my perspective, before we move on to other parts of Peru. We visit Boca Pariamanu for two days, allowing me to meet up with some friends again. I show them the forest at night, which they later describe as ‘being in some sort of dream’. With my bright headlamp in front, I lead the way along the trails. At first, they’re not quite sure what to think of the caiman and the snake I’m suddenly holding in my hands. But they get used to having me as a guide. After a long day of hiking on Boca’s main road, it’s time for me to say a final goodbye to the town that has been my home for more than six weeks.
We don’t leave the jungle straight away, but my experience in the forest becomes very different. From now on, it’s all in control of my parents and the guides they have booked. We’re taken with a big boat on the Madre de Dios river, all the way to the Rio Heath which marks the border with Bolivia. Here we sleep in a small raised hut, and to me this seems like a useless luxury. Who needs walls in the jungle? A roof is enough in my opinion. And what’s up with the three course meal we’re getting served twice a day? Let me just grab my rice and veggies straight out of the pan. I have serious trouble adjusting to the new, more touristic way of traveling. Thankfully, we have Pepe; a very knowledgeable and friendly guide. I serve as his sidekick: the animals he fails to notice, mostly at night, are quickly spotted (and caught, if possible) by me. Through the eyes of my parents, I get to experience some things all over again. I share their enthusiasm when they see capuchins, squirrel monkeys and hoatzins for the first time. But also for me, many things are new. We climb a massive lupuna tree with a rope ladder to get a 360 view above the canopy and we watch one of the global top ten macaw clay licks from a floating platform. I have a close encounter with a group of coatis, a raccoon-like mammal that communicates with strange clicking noises. The most amazing view I get on the Pampas del Heath, a big stretch of savannah in a place where you would never expect it. It feels like suddenly entering Africa when the trees give way to the great open plain. This is where giant anteaters and the illusive mane wolf roam, but it’s also the stage of a daily spectacle when yellow and blue macaws return from the forest to their nesting trees. We even get a good look at the toco toucan, the biggest species of toucan in the world which is very hard to see in this part of the country.
When we’re transferred to our next destination I almost sleep through my parents’ first (and my sixth) tapir sighting. In the late morning we arrive at the most crowded piece of jungle I’ve seen so far: Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve. A long muddy road stretches to a small port, where a canoe takes us and our luggage through the palm swamp and on the oxbow lake. All hell breaks loose as buckets of rain pour down from the clouds. My parents scramble to get their rain coats on, while I’m happy for the frogs and plants that are finally getting some water again; it’s been ridiculously dry for the wet season.
We only have a day to spend in the lodge that we’re taken to. I wish I had more time in the reserve, as it turns out to be an amazing spot for wildlife. Brown agoutis roam the terrain, while squirrel monkeys and dusky titi monkeys jump from tree to tree. Our guide tells us he sees bushmasters on the path near our hut rather often, while I’m happy catching an olive forest racer. After the rain eases down, we venture out with the canoe to see what makes the lake famous: giant river otters. And are we lucky. The entire family shows up, playing and catching fish right before our eyes. We don’t even need Pepe’s binoculars to see them munching on their freshly caught food. The river otters (called ‘wolfs of the river’ in Spanish) used to be heavily endangered because of the trade in their fur. Now they are slowly coming back, repopulating the lakes one family at a time. As if this sight is not enough, a three meter black caiman decides to pay us a visit and show off its enormous jaws. We have no luck finding a tree boa, apparently common in this area, on our final night walk. The next morning we pack up, get back to Puerto Maldonado and check in for our flight to Cuzco. I’m grumpier than ever, now definitely leaving the forest and Maldonado behind me. The prospect of hiking the Inca Trail does not yet excite me; I arrive in the ancient Andes capital without a smile. But that’s about to change.

Video: a tapir swimming and climbing on the shore of the Heath River.

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The size of the toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) is not made clear by this far-away picture, but seeing this creature on the flat pampas was a very special experience. For our guide, this was his second sighting in five years.
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Red-and-green macaws (Ara chloropterus) enjoying their morning salt lick.
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The jungle provides readily made swings for anyone wishing to unleash their inner child.
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