ON THE ROAD AGAIN: FROM LIMA TO LA PAZ #2

PUERTO MALDONADO

The rainy season has started and I don’t forget to pack the rain poncho. I hope our flight is not delayed because of that. I don’t like much working on rainy season, the weather factor adds up to all the human factors (strikes, illneses, etc) that I normally face on my job. Luckily we leave almost on time, a miracle in Peru where “right now” can mean between next minute and next year.

Puerto Maldonado is hot, only a light shower refreshes the airport arrival, where our guide from Rainforest Expeditions is expecting us. The real trip begins on the boat, after a quick visit to the office to re-pack. On the way we see Capybaras and Spotted Sandpiper, a migrant bird. A different kind of sight are the gold miners on their rafts along the Tambopata River, a river that brings with its brown waters minerals that wash down from the mountains that give it birth. The miners are legal, some aren’t but nobody seems to care or at least be able to do something about it. Though we are right next to a protected area, gold-mining here is tolerated; the miners are too strong politically, and too many. A statistic speaks for itself: on Madre de Dios region, where Puerto Maldonado is, more gold is produced each year than on the rest of Peru altogether.  And I could stay talking about this subject for hours…This is a delicate topic on the area and it can get spiky sometimes. Not long ago miners organized a strike and Maldonado was paralyzed and on alert. The time before that, they set on fire the mayor’s office. Still this area remains the biodiversity capital of Peru and it’s one of the world’s hotspots for birds, frogs, butterflies, fish, insects, etc.

Capybara or Ronsoco

Once at the lodge we leave our stuff at the nice cabins and go for our first walk to the canopy tower, a 36 meter iron tower from where the landscape is observed above the trees: river, the levels of the forest and even the Puno and Cusco mountains can be seen.  It’s not hard to understand how this green hell was an ocean millions of years ago from this height. And that’s the reason why today you can still find otters, dolphins, giant snails, turtles, terns, etc in the Amazon rainforest. From the tower we catch a good sight of some White-bellied Parrots and Mealy Parrots, both common, on the trees.

The night is musical on crickets and bats, and the rain follows after. At morning we decide to wait for it to pass to go visit Laguna 3 Chimbadas, an oxbow lake which name makes references to the locals say that on dry season they can pass it on 3 paddles or “chimbadas”.  There we hope to see the elusive Giant River Otters, one of the largest and most endangered mammals on the Amazon, affected today more by miners than by hunters, who at one point almost exterminate the whole population. Only around 2 thousand of these amazing animals are left in all of the Amazon, where their population has been estimated to have been of 200,000 once.

Oxbow lakes are very important habitat on the Amazon and they are product of the ever changing rivers during the rainy season, when the streams are charged and may change course, leaving an arm or curve of the river isolated. This is the future oxbow lake, which eventually will become a swamp.

This Tarantula was the size of my hand!

On the high grass next to shore we see Gray-necked Rail and Azure Gallinule (first time!…and this is what birdwatchers call a “lifer”), a common migrant during austral summer only. This ecosystem is vital not only for otters, who tend to adopt a lake as a family pack territory, but for migrant birds. Last time I was at 3 Chimbadas on 2010 I saw Unicolored Blackbird, a first time record for Peru reported weeks before that first visit, but gone during this last visit. We also fish Piranhas but release back to the lake; don’t wanna steal from the otters’ lunch!

Yellow-bellied Piranha, one of 5 species at 3 Chimbadas

The afternoon is dedicated to visit a botanical garden where medicinal plants are grown and a medicine man attends locals from the Ese-Eja tribe, the ancient inhabitants of this area. The medicine man explains to us their rituals and a map of the gardens and why locals come on to him. Medicinal plants are a big part of people’s lives as here one is far away from the nearest hospital, and the nearest hospital makes you wanna go to the next one. Medicine men here, or so-called “shamans” (a word of Siberian origins rather than native American) claim to be able to cure cancer with the plants the jungle offers. And there’s Ayawaska, the master plant and entheogenic (or hallucinogenic) that the tribes of the jungle have used to cure their spirits and that a lot of people of the Western world are curious to try these days. Perhaps the first recognized westerners who came to Peru to try Ayawaska during the 50’s were Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, whose experiences are saved on the book The Yage Letters.

I buy some Chuchuwasi, a local tree cortex, for my raspy throat. I figure that can somehow help my leg hurt less with its properties. At least the alcohol in it will make my muscles relaxed…

The next day we are early off back on the boat ‘cause we need to catch a plane o Cusco. I always want more of the jungle, 3 days and 2 nights is too little. I like the jungle a lot. I feel like a fish in this green ocean.  

Dusk at Tambopata River

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