The Greatest Place on Earth

Itinerary:

  • Cusco – Puerto Maldonado
  • Puerto Maldonado – Amazon Garden Lodge
  • The Amazon Rainforest

At 6am, the bus pulled in to the station at Peurto Maldonado and Andreas, who was to be our Jungle Joe, met us. We’d come prepared in our jungle trousers but had not been prepared for the crazy humidity of the rainforest. Luckily, the mosquitoes in the town and apparently at the lodge too, weren’t too much of an issue so we both jumped at the chance to change in to some cooler clothing. We just weren’t used to getting our legs out after a month of travelling at altitude!

Following breakfast at a local cafe, we boarded a motor-powered canoe with our belongings, the chef, the food for the next 4 days and some life jackets. Turns out that despite paying for a group tour, we were the only ones staying at the lodge for the next few days and were getting a private tour experience.

As we drove along the Tambopata River, we spotted turtles basking in the sun, kicking off our animal sightings. The eco lodge itself, Amazon Garden Lodge, was tucked away behind the river banks a little downstream of the town. Everything was natural, with wooden stepping logs leading our path in to the clearing of the lodge. Our entrance was made even more special by two huge, metallic blue butterflies flying alongside us. Andreas told us that these were the largest butterfly in the Amazon jungle and we couldn’t believe how beautiful they were.


Andreas told us a bit about the lodge before showing us our room. It was a log cabin with two large double beds, princess mosquito nets, natural air conditioning and lighting and generally a room that was at one with nature. Perfect for relaxing and perfect for the jungle!

After a short rest, we had a wonderful lunch and then read our books in the hammocks whilst hummingbirds flew above our heads. It was insanely hot and humid and Miss Sweaty Betty herself was struggling in the heat. However, at 3.30pm, we were headed out on a forest walk and had to wear long trousers and sleeves. Christ almighty, to say we sweat through our clothes would be an understatement but still, we were in the jungle and it was amazing.

Along this walk, accompanied by Andreas and his machete-clad friend, we saw tarantulas, walking trees, highly toxic mushrooms, and a very long, green snake hiding in the palm leaves. Andreas taught us lots about the flora of the forest and the insects which protect them such as termites and bullet ants.


When we got back to the lodge we had some hammock time and then went out on a night walk. The main focus of this was for various jungle creepy crawlies and there were plenty of them about. We saw giant crickets, fireflies, stick insects, different spiders, grasshoppers, a tiny weeny frog, millipedes and bats. I’d never seen a firefly before and they looked so cool flickering in the dark. At one point, we all turned off our torches to fully experience jungle nightlife.


Back at the lodge we had our dinner and tea before being given the next day’s plan. It sounded like an exciting day and since our alarms needed setting for 5.45am, we head to bed fairly shortly after dinner. Back in our room and showered, Naomi and I tucked up in our giant beds complete with princess fortress mosquito protection. The sound of the jungle animals at night is something that some spas and hotels play to their guests and yet here we were getting all these noises in their most authentic way, without the exceptional price tags.


At 6 in the morning the jungle heat was more manageable, although no less humid. We sat down to a large two-course breakfast which included the most incredible, juicy fruit. With every meal we’ve also been receiving freshly squeezed juices and it was the turn of the white tomato that morning. A new fruit to both Naomi and I, the white tomato tasted similar to an apple and was very refreshing.

We took the motored canoe a little upstream to the entrance of the Sandoval Reserve. After presenting our permissions, we walked 3km in to the jungle. A hot, sweaty and extremely muddy walk! Andreas showed us the Kapok tree, the tallest in the jungle, and we saw a few camouflaged lizards hiding in the nooks and crannies. I also got my foot and welly well and truly stuck in a big mud puddle and had to be freed by Andreas pulling me out!


After an hours walking we arrived at a little outlet of the Sandoval Lake where we could grab a canoe and set sail out on to the water. This was such a special little place in the heart of the jungle that just seemed so surreal. As we began to paddle (really, Andreas was paddling whilst the efforts of Naomi and I were feeble), we heard a big splash from within the swampy banks. A closer look showed us that a juvenile caiman was perched in the water just watching us go by. Andreas assured us he was just watching, despite our fears that he was praying on us, since it doesn’t exactly feel safe to be paddling past a croc in 2 foot deep water!


The jungle opened up on to the big lake, lined by palm, iron and kapok trees to make really unique looking banks. The point of our lake trip was to try and spot Giant Otters. There are just two families that live at this lake and only 180 in total left in the world. For that reason, this endangered Rainforest species was a really special and rare sighting.

Andreas had his binoculars out with him and was thoroughly scouting the banks for us. He was the first of several guides out on the water that day to spot one of the otter families and started paddling shorewards. It wasn’t long before the other groups spotted us and the race was on to reach the otters! This was when we actually put in a little more paddling effort but the sun and humidity made doing much physical work very difficult.

We weren’t allowed too close to the otters because pregnant females are super sensitive to disturbance and can miscarry even with noise. Since they are rightly a protected species, we wanted to respect that. Luckily we had the binoculars and could spot 8 otters all sleeping, sprawled out in the sun. They were massive, some up to 2m long, with adorable little faces. We watched them for a while, went to explore the banks some more and then came back to see the otters again when the other groups had moved on.


When eventually we did continue paddling, we spotted some red howler monkeys high up in the trees. They were sleeping but so cute and whilst we watched them, we also came across various bird species. These included some macaws, a bird with chronic asthma (hoatzin) and some jungle geese with green necks.


Next up was a viewing tower on the opposite lake bank. From here, above the majority of the canopy, we saw the otter family swimming. We took our time here to relax and appreciate the availability of wind above the tree tops. It was also the point that our stomachs loudly let us know they were still there and it was time to paddle to the lunch point!

Lunch was at a little local family area in which they’d set up a restaurant type thing. We had been given packed lunches, jungle style; a rice and chicken dish wrapped in banana leaves instead of plastic. It was great food and we then spent half an hour lounging around on the swings outside (after Naomi initially fell off the swing!) whilst waiting for Andreas to have gossip time with his other tour guide friend.

The sun was incredible strong that afternoon and any paddling work in the canoe was such hard work. We let Andreas do most of it until even he found it too much and paddled in to the shade for some rest. Whilst lounging around, we spotted some Capuchin Monkeys around the base of the trees and shortly after, some yellow squirrel monkeys. These were definitely cuter than the howler monkeys we’d seen before and there were so many of them, flying through the air as they jumped from tree to tree. FYI, the Capuchin monkey is the most intelligent after gorillas and is the kind you see in all the movie, including the pet of none other than Dr. Ross Geller.


We made it back to the canoe station and past the still waiting caiman, and then back along the 3km jungle trail which was still just as muddy. We were tired and in a hurry to escape the dense jungle humidity and in the hast, Naomi slipped on the mud and went flying, slapstick banana style! I’m really going to miss her Bambi-on-ice ways when we part in a few days time.


Back at the reserve entrance we were asked to fill in an observation form of what we’d seen on the lake. Andreas joked that it was an exam and we sure as hell failed it considering we couldn’t even follow the instructions of how to answer each question. Rule number 2 of GCSEs, after writing your name and candidate number. The boat awaited us once we’d eventually completed the test and we head straight back to the lodge with the promise that the swimming pool had been cleaned and we could cool off.

The staff were super excited about the pool as it had only just been finished and we were the first group to use it. It certainly didn’t look clean but Andreas assured us that the water was subterranean and just coloured with sediments. It didn’t matter to me and I hopped straight in to freshen up, shortly joined by another fall from Naomi and dives from the various lodge staff. All of us were in the pool, the guys were racing, and it was such a lovely evening in the jungle.


We also sat there and watched a million and one macaws and anni birds fly away from the approaching storm in to the trees behind us. It was such a sight, they went on and on for a good 20 minutes. This was all topped off by a large toucan sat in the tree top above us, calling out. The day had been incredible and dinner had a lovely atmosphere to top it all off, with great food. However, we had to be awake at 4am the next morning and therefore, were both in bed by 9pm.

Bleary eyed and gasping for coffee, we jumped in the boat at 4.30am to pathetic chugs of smoke coming from the motor. The next 15 minutes were spent trying to fix the poor little guy so that we could get up to the parakeet clay lick, 1.5 hours upstream. Eventually we were on our way and whizzed up the river as the sun slowly came up. When we arrived at the clay lick, only one other boat had joined us for the morning which meant our chances of disturbing the birds were minimised.


The macaws and parakeets eat the clay for medicinal purposes, similar to taking charcoal and detoxing the human body. They have to detox as some of the fruits they consume are toxic. Andreas warned us that we might need to wait an hour or so for any of the birds to actually come down from the trees to eat but it was less than 5 minutes before we first spotted the chestnut-fronted macaw and then saw two blue-headed macaws in action on the clay itself.

The birds were extraordinary colours, with the most vibrant greens, blues, yellows and reds across their bodies, heads and wings. I’d never seen such beautiful birds before in my life. The other boat soon approached ours and scared the macaws so we went around the corner in the search for more birds. There we found at least 100 parakeets, bright green in colour, with some having red underwings too. We even got to watch a good percentage of them come down and feed on the clay. These birds didn’t eat for too long and after 5 minutes, the whole group, chirping in their unbelievably loud and high-pitched squawks, flew away in to the distance. It was unreal to see such amazing colours and hear such incredible sounds above our heads at 7 in the morning!


We had breakfast when we got back to the lodge and a few hours to nap and rest, given our early morning. Before lunch though, we were led about 600m from the lodge, learning about and tasting the fruit and plants growing along the way – bananas, cacao, paprika, bird of paradise flower, and other medicinal plants. As the forest cleared, we were met by some young children of a traditional jungle family who then took us down to their parents. Although first climbed trees like Mogili and picked us ripe fruits from the tree tops!


The family wore jungle robes and conversed to us their culture, both in their language which Andreas translated for us and then through our involvement. We sang, danced, played spinning tops (we were not very good) and shot arrows at banana trees (also no good but did spear several fruits when they landed). Their little girl took a shining to us and demanded to be picked up and played with and in return we purchased some jewellery from them and received face paint, indicating that we’d been welcomed to the family.


After lunch we had an exciting afternoon planned. Not that the rest of our time hasn’t already been exciting, but we got to kayak to nearby Monkey Island! Luckily this was downstream so it wasn’t too hard a task, but we still fret for our lives at being in the water at caiman-attacking height. A short 20 minute paddle and a little fight with the cross current later and we were on the island, walking past some American tourists who were crazily dressed with bare arms and legs!

Andreas led us deep in to the island where we spotted both the yellow squirrel and Capuchin within minutes. Right above our heads there were plenty of monkeys to watch, all leaping around the canopy, some with babies on their backs. We hadn’t even realised how long we’d been watching when we were told it was time to head back but yet again, we’d been super lucky to see so many animals.


Back at the lodge and fed on Cheetos, it was time (finally!) for caiman hunting. But the rainforest decided it was time to show us what it’s really all about: the rain. The heavens opened and we watched in wonder as deep puddles formed within minutes. We were grateful for the roof on the lodge! Andreas decided we’d have dinner first instead. After a short lesson about caiman’s, which are in fact alligators, we ate and hoped the rain would ease.

It did just that and the entire group, Naomi, myself, Andreas, the cook, the boat driver and the lodge keeper, all jumped in the boat for an hour out on the water in the dark. It wasn’t long before the torch light gleamed back at us and we’d spotted an armadillo, a big ol’ bird and then a baby caiman. All we could see was it’s head and as everyone climbed on one side of the boat to see and it tipped ever closer to the water, the two of us became extremely worried about being eaten! Once the light was fully shining though, we realised this caiman was, as I exclaimed, “muy chiquita”. Hernang, our driver, heard this and decided it was time to go and find something bigger to please me!


A few minutes later we spotted a white caiman. This was one bigger, although still no more than a meter or so as it was only about 5 years old. Still, we decided that it was more than sufficiently scary and watched it wonder off in to the bushes after being poked and prodded by our companions on board!


Back at the lodge we went straight to bed, without any cockroach fighting that night, thankfully. It was our last night and a really sad moment, so we made the most of our princess forts and jungle spa sounds as best we could. The morning was just as sad as we packed up our things, ate a great breakfast and drank our last drops of the world’s freshest, yummiest juices. Andreas had us make a feedback video too about our experience in the lodge and then we departed paradise. Both of us were in agreement about how amazing it had been and how great living in the jungle would be, if we didn’t suffer from profuse sweating, prickly heat and mosquito bites!

So, 163 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and as the day Naomi and I depart draws ever closer, we at least have the unbelievable Amazon rainforest experience to share together. The animals came out giving their best performances for us to spectate, the eco lodge was a paradise that we had private use of and the company, staff and atmosphere was incredible special. Amazon, you are the Greatest Place on Earth.

Gabby x

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