It’s 2am and there’s a rustling in our room.
I bolt upright in bed and strain to hear where the noise is coming from. It’s in the trash can; something is tearing through plastic bags which I suddenly remember are full of food scraps from yesterday’s lunch. I get up to investigate and see something small and dark streak from the bin, but can make out a long tail. I drag my boyfriend out of bed to also investigate and a rock the size of a fist falls from above, landing at our feet. A rock? How? From where? With no electricity, there’s no way of flicking on the lights to hunt for this night-time interloper.
In the morning we recount the story to two guides. They look at each other and laugh. “Was it monkeys?” I ask desperately. “Were there monkeys in our cabin?” They laugh again. If we weren’t in the Amazon Jungle in Peru, I would never have believed it.
A Wild World
We’re in Tambopata National Reserve, a 275,000-hectare conservation area in Madre de Dios state, upstream from Puerto Maldonado in south-eastern Peru. It’s remote and wild but still easily accessible from both Lima and Cusco (where we have come from), making it an ecotourism hotspot.
Tambopata is known as one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. It has over 10,000 species of plants, 200 species of mammals, 600 species of birds, 1,000 butterfly species and 150 species of reptiles and amphibians. It’s home to some of the Amazon's most spectacular and endangered predators like the jaguar, the harpy eagle and the giant otter. The reserve also provides habitats for eight different species of monkeys, including ones that are easy to see or hear (and perhaps break into your cabin) such as the brown capuchin monkey, tamarin monkey and squirrel monkey.
What to Do and See
The spectacularly beautiful Sandoval Lake is one of the main attractions of Tambopata. But first, we’re given a pair of gumboots – it’s a 45 minute to one-hour trudge through the mud to get there. Along the way we learn about plants and their medicinal purposes, for maladies ranging from nagging headaches to more lethal ailments like malaria. We’re told not to grab on to any trees if we slip in the mud; a closer look reveals many are covered in vicious-looking thorns. We watch yellow and black butterflies dance around our feet and are careful not to step on the industrious leaf cutter ants, which are carrying pieces of leaf much bigger than themselves in impressive processions.
Anaconda Territory, Turtles and Birds
We eventually arrive at a pier where we are met by a small boat which takes us onto the lake. But first we paddle through a small, winding river with shallow water and thick vegetation cover - this is anaconda territory. After about ten minutes (and no anacondas spotted), the vegetation clears and we glide onto Sandoval Lake, a vast expanse of calm blue water surrounded by a towering wall of greenery. We spot two yellow-spotted turtles to our right sunning themselves on a log and a cocoi heron watching us from the trees. We also see the strange hoatzin, a bird which rarely flies and is a folivore, or a leaf-eater. Nearly as large as a turkey, it clumsily flaps across some branches as it nips off the leaves from the surrounding vegetation.
Night Time Wildlife Spotting
Armed with a giant spotlight, we’re on the hunt for two of Tambopata’s inhabitants – caimans and capybaras. When shined with a flashlight, caimans’ eyes reflect a brilliant red color, making them easy to locate at night. Soon we spot at least six.
Giant 'Guinea Pigs'
But the real highlight is finding a capybara, which is essentially a giant guinea pig. After about 20 minutes searching, we find four of these bizarre semi-aquatic creatures foraging for food on the river bank - mum, dad and two babies. Capybaras are the largest rodents in the world, standing 1.5 feet tall and weighing in at up to 150 pounds. They're closely related to guinea pigs and spend most of their time lounging in or near rivers, lakes and ponds, munching on six to eight pounds of aquatic plants and grass a day.
Visit a Native Family
It’s not just the animals that amaze. After a boat journey of about 50 minutes downstream the Madre de Dios river, we reach a native community where a local family teaches us about some of their customs, tools and activities. We’re welcomed with a song by an elder woman and a young boy, and a pan pipe performance by the community’s chief. He tells us, as our guide translates, that we are not only guests in his community, but we are also now family. He reinforces this by dabbing tribal markings on our face using paint made from crushed plants. The fun part begins when we are invited to join in their games. We each have numerous goes at shooting a bamboo arrow into a tree and spinning homemade tops.
Go in Search of Monkeys
We paddle downstream the muddy river in two person kayaks for about 45 minutes, passing locals in their boats, wild greenery lining the riverbank and most likely plenty of caiman. We’re headed to Monkey Island, home to numerous primate species like the black-cap capuchin monkey, black spider monkey, lion monkey and squirrel monkey. A walking trail takes us around the island, through bushes, over logs and under giant trees reaching out to each other to form a canopy. However, despite our guide making monkey sounds and even a “monkey buffet” on offer (a table covered in bananas), the monkeys this time don't come out to play.
On the way back to our kayaks we cool off in the river. It’s so muddy you can’t see your hand even just a few inches below. Given the lack of visibility I’m worried about caimans, but as my guide tries to reassure me: If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you!
Try telling that to the rock-throwing monkeys in my cabin.
How to Get There
Star Peru, LAN and TACA offer several daily flights from both Lima and Cusco to Tambopata’s main town, Puerto Maldonado. Most visitors prearrange tours to Tambopata in Cusco, however you can easily book a lodge visit through tour agencies in the center of Puerto Maldonado, like we did. Packages begin with 2-day/1-night arrangements (we chose this package staying at Yakari Lodge), but 3-day/2-night packages are better to see and do more. Lodges are located on the banks of the Tambopata River and are accessible within two hours from the airport. Access to the Tambopata Reserve is by boat from Puerto Maldonado. For trips to Tambopata, budget around US$100 per day, plus flights of around US$300.
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