Visiting the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazon River Basin

Break_Out_of_Bushwick's picture
11 years
2013-07-04 to 2013-07-07

Visiting the rainforest had always been at the top of my bucket list. When I was a kid, I dreamed of adventuring through the jungle, seeing wild animals and traveling up river by boat. This past summer, I finally had my chance. I booked a four-day adventure with Inotawa Expeditions, an eco-lodge in the La Torre buffer zone of the Tambopata Reserve in the Amazonian River basin of Peru, and was promised that I'd see things I had never seen before. But first, I had to get there, which was easier said than done.

The riverMy daughter and I had been in Cusco for many weeks, taking side excursions to locations throughout Peru when we were able. We bid adieu to our wonderful hosts, and, in the frigid cold of the mountainous winter, we boarded the overnight bus that would take us down, down, down the mountain to the small town of Puerto Maldonado, just 34 miles from the Bolivian border. While the bus was comfortable enough, with reclining seats so that we could sleep, cruising down the mountain felt a little scary. Clearly, others were bothered by the back and forth of the bus down the switchbacks, as all night long, I heard people getting sick in the bathroom. Apparently, the road we were on had been redone a few years ago: what took us ten hours used to take many days. I shivered at the thought. 

At dawn, I drew back the curtains. No longer were we in the mountains, but in lush, green surroundings. Finally, we arrived to the bus station, where I nudged my daughter awake. "Ready to start our adventure?"


Our bungalowWe were greeted at the bus station by an Inotawa guide, who whisked us by cab to grab a quick breakfast at a local cafe, then the market to pick up last minute items we might need: rain ponchos and local snacks like Brazil nuts, mostly. Finally, we went to lodge's office where we were greeted by one of Inotawa's lovely owners, Christine. I signed the appropriate consent forms, dropped off the majority of our luggage (we wouldn't be needing all of our warm clothing in the rainforest!), played with a couple of the friendly dogs that lived at the office, and soon enough, took off in a car down the muddy dirt roads towards the river. While we were surrounded by green, I was struck by how few tall trees there were: clearly, Puerto Maldonado had been stripped by loggers. I found out later that it was rubber barons in the mid 1800's who first started to destroy the natural resources. Today, conservationists work hard to maintain the natural resources in the area. This is, as it always is, an uphill battle. After all, it's a question of indigenous people fighting wealthy oil, gold and logging companies.

Eventually, after passing a couple rather depressing shanty towns, we reached the river. Men were still loading our small banana boat with goods to bring to with us to the lodge, but soon enough, we boarded with our guide and headed up the Tambopata River. As the jungle quickly surrounded us, and with the purr of the motor drowning out the sounds of civilization, I started to feel really excited. A couple of hours later, we reached our destination: a thin, wooden staircase precariously positioned in the side of the muddy river wall. We pulled up, jumped onto the stairs, and made our way up. As we hiked down a path towards the lodge, I thought, "THIS IS IT! RAINFOREST!" My daughter, clearly delighted, pointed out numerous plants and insects crawling by our feet.

Capoc treeAbout five minutes later, we reached the lodge, and, after being warmly greeted by another owner, Ramon, were ushered to the bungalow where we'd be staying. I was pleased to find that the beds were comfortable and the mosquito netting sufficient. After some exploring of the immediate area, we walked back to the lodge, found the outdoor dining area, and were served an early lunch- delicious, hearty vegetarian fare with fresh juice made from fruits picked from trees close to the lodge. 

We met our guide, a hilarious young man named Jocelym who had received his education in biodiversity and leading tours. From the area, Jocelym was well-versed in local culture, and had many interesting anecdotes to tell us. For our first adventure, we hiked for a few hours into the jungle, listening to monkeys, birds and other creatures. A highlight was seeing one of the biggest capoc trees in the area. Some visitors to the lodge climb this tree, but we were content to marvel at its height from below.

After our hike, we had just enough time to freshen up at our bungalow before dinner, where we met some of the other people staying at the lodge. Eating in the dark by candlelight was both romantic and fun. After a tasty desert of fresh fruits, I looked over at my daughter, who, eyes heavy, was ready for bed. We headed back to our bungalow, got ready for bed by candlelight, and, after I had made sure to tuck our mosquito netting in, slept better than we had in years.


Early morning on the riverImagine: waking up before dawn in pitch dark by only the sounds of parrots and a strange, almost airplane-like sound that can only be howler monkeys. That's what it was like for us waking up at Inotawa. It was magical. I slipped from my bed, lit a couple of candles, and, after sending a handful of large insects scurrying, got ready for the day. Soon enough, we were walking through the morning fog to the dining lodge, taking care not to step on any of the paths of fire ants crossing our path. After a fortifying breakfast, we headed out to the river with Jocelym, where a boat was waiting to take us farther upriver. 

Twenty minutes later, we were dropped off on a muddy river bank. We hiked through the forest, getting our first real glimpse of a troupe of spider monkeys, and, in about twenty minutes or so, reached our destination: Tres Chimbadas, an oxbow lake on which we hoped to not only see the elusive Giant River Otter, but fish for piranhas. 

Sadly, the otters didn't make an appearance that day, although we did see a white caiman (which usually only comes out at night!) and a variety of birds. We also saw a path that had been cut by a huge anaconda snake through some of the reeds by the side of the lake.Eventually we reached a quiet, tree-covered spot, and, after Jocelym baited our wooden fishing poles (with beef, although he told my daughter it was monkey!), we got to work. It's harder than it looks to catch piranhas, as they're fast! Pull the pole up too quickly, and you get no fish. Too slow, and, well, those crafty little guys get the bait. Eventually, however, we caught one fish a piece. Although they were all too small to bring back to cook for lunch, it was still rather thrilling to catch piranhas!

By the time we returned to the lodge, we were just in time for lunch. And boy, were we famished! We met a couple who, after lunch, went with us and Jocelym to hike to a nearby fruit farm. On the farm we found lemon, cacao and other fruit trees, as well as low-growing herbs and berries. Overhead, a macaw flew by, and we were amazed to see a bird that we had only seen before in movies.

The day ended with dinner and then a night walk to the river, where, on the boat, we searched for caimans. Although we didn't see one, we didn't feel so bad. After all- we had seen one during our excursion to Tres Chimbadas!


This would prove to be our most exciting day in the rainforest. First off, we arrived to the dining lodge to find an ENORMOUS SNAKE. Although it was dead, it was scary nonetheless, particularly after Jocelym told us that it was a South American Bushmaster, the deadliest snake in all of South America. The night before it had apparently crawled over the foot of a fellow explorer, and the lodge staff- including Jocelym- killed it. While the staff believes in letting nearly all creatures in the area survive, this creature, being particulary aggressive and deadly, was simply too close to the lodge.

Many birds at a colpaAfter breakfast, we once again left at the crack of dawn with Jocelym for the river, where a boat sped us off to a nearby colpa. A colpa is a wall made of clay where birds and mammals come to lick the clay, which adds minerals to their diets. We sat in a thatched-roof dwelling up in the hills and, quietly, observed many species of parrots, macaws and parakeets visit the colpa. Wow, are those birds loud! We learned a lot about how some of these birds are caught and sold as pets. After hearing about the cruel practices, I vowed never to keep one of those birds in captivity.

Returning to the lodge, we spend a long, leisurly lunch with new friends, took a short nap back in our bungalo, and then off we went again with Jocelym. This time, we turned the boat towards La Torre, a small lake where we might see a lot of wildlife. First, we turned off the main river and went down the much smaller La Torre River before the boat dropped us off. We hiked through the brush- I sure was glad to have rubber boots! - and then finally hit the small lake. We hiked for a few hours, seeing all sorts of birds, mammals and insects. One, Jocelym stopped short and pointed to a hole in the ground. He picked up a short stick and stuck it in the hole. I was shocked to see that as he pulled it out, a fist-sized tarantula had bitten it and came out into the light! Apparently this was a Bird Tarantula, known locally as a Chicken Tarantula. The one we saw was a baby. I'm not sure I'd want to see an adult! 

That evening over dinner, both my daughter and I were sad that it would be our last night in the jungle. We stayed up as late as possible talking with the few other tourists visiting the lodge, as well as picking the brains of the guides for their knowledge about the jungle. I even treated my daughter and Jocelym to some cool beverages at the lodge's bar, which was lit by a generator. We went to bed exhausted but happy, and we looked forward to whatever the morning might bring.


Learning about medicinal plantsThe next morning, we woke yet again at the crack of dawn, took cool showers, and then ran anxiously to the dining area and ate as quickly as possible. We didn't want to miss even a minute of our last day in the jungle! Soon enough, we left with Jocelym, who spent a couple of hours teaching us about medicinal plants in the area. Ever wonder where aspirin comes from? Or salicylic acid in blemish creams? Look no further! We also found other tarantulas lurking in damp logs, and saw a toucan flying overhead. 

After our hike, we spent our last couple of hours swinging lazily in hammocks while trying to listen to the sounds of the jungle. Unfortuantely, a school group of teenagers also had the same idea, and were adding their own "noise" to the ambiance, but all in all, it was a great way to finish our day. We ate a light lunch, and then walked back to the boat, vowing to return. 

Once back in Puerto Maldonado, we were picked up by a car, which sped us off to the small airport. As we flew over the jungle towards our next adventure, I sat back and remembered the last few days, which I will forever count as being some of the best days of my life.


  • There are two ways to get to Puerto Maldonado: by bus or by plane. While we booked rides with Movil Buses at a much cheaper rate than it would've been by plane, the ride was ten hours long, and, although I had been told we'd be fine, I never felt particularly safe. Every year, many, many thousands of locals and tourists alike die falling in vehicles from mountain passes. Drivers move much too quickly, take corners too fast, and sadly, accidents happen. In hindsight, I wish I had taken a plane.
  • Insects in the jungle are no joke. Organic bug repellant just won't do the trick. Before I left for Peru, I went to my local adventure outfitters and invested in a bottle of something called "Jungle Juice." Being 98% deet, it definitely worked, although I made sure to carefully follow the directions for applying it so that I wouldn't poison us.
  • Listen to your guides! The first thing my guide told us was to never take off our rubber boots and socks while hiking or in the jungle. Once, while piranha fishing, under the heat of the sun, hot and sweaty, I forgot what he told me and took off my boots and socks. Within minutes I received a lot of nasty sand fly bites, which later required antibiotics. There was definitely a reason our guide warned us. 
  • Drink only bottled water or fresh-squeezed juice. Anything else will make you terribly sick.
  • Regarding fruit: if you can peel it, you can eat it. Never bite into anything directly, as you might get a nasty bug or bacteria. That said, the lodge knew how to properly prepare food, so we trusted whatever they gave us.
  • Respect the forest. It's illegal to leave with most plants and wildlife, even if you've picked up "dead" items from the forest floor. Peru takes this very seriously. 
Our boat awaits
Learning about medicinal plants
The bar at Inotawa
The river
Piranha fishing
Mosquito netting!
Our bungalow
Heading up the Tambopata River
Capoc tree
Many birds at a colpa
South American Bushmaster
Early morning on the river
Chicken Tarantula!
Our boat picking us up from La Torre
Our plane taking us from Puerto Maldonado
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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