As a native New Yorker, I am no stranger to long commutes, however, 8 hours traveling up-river on a flat-bottom diesel boat to the heart of the Peruvian rainforest was a test of endurance even for a experienced G train rider. Once at our destination however, it became immediate clear to me that I was in a world untouched by any human about to have my mind blown, and definitely would find it near impossible to find a good slice.
The Tambopata Research Center (TRC) is located deep within the Madre de Dios province of the Peruvian rainforest, a protected wildlife area founded in 1977. It is home to tens of thousands of animal and plant specie, from macaw to monkey, Jaguar to giant turtle. It is so prolific in fact, that while I was there, two new specie of spiders were discovered … walking from the boat to the lodge. It’s basically like God’s test kitchen that you can visit.
Getting there is not the easiest, which is why I absolutely love it. Upon flying into Puerto Maldonado, you are met by your personal guide, and brought by bus to the aptly named “town” of inferno, which seemed to consist of a bodega, bathroom, and small dock. There my personal Virgil (who’s name was Ramón and amazing) and a dozen other travelers jump on a 3-hour cruise to our first lodge, the Refugio Amazonas.
This remote outpost, with its shellacked dark wood, thatched roofs, and tall, cool drinks awaiting you upon arrival, echoes the romance and adventure that you would find in a Hemingway novel or an early Cary Grant film. After a warm reception, you are given the key to your room, which to me was curious considering you only have three walls; one wall is completely missing allowing the surrounding nature to engross you, which it does. The materials the lodge is composed of, the gently swinging hammocks, the fresh meals prepared for us, the fact that power is only offered for a certain number of hours a day, all truly thrust you into this beautiful experience without any delay. You are immersed in pristine nature, and you are only a third of the way to your final destination.
The next day you spend with your guide exploring the backcountry, trekking to an observation tower, which if you have the testicular fortitude to climb you are rewarded a sublime view of the 40 meter high Rainforest canopy. Traveling back you stop at a large lake, where a small man powered boat takes you across to view dozens of species of birds that make the watering hole their home. “Shall we fish for piranha?” our guide asks which of course the answer is “hell yes”. Soon he is carefully affixing a small morsel of meat on the end of a hook and line that look like Huckleberry Finn had just put down. “Here, just drop it in. Gently.” He handed it over to me as I placed it in the water cautiously having watched Shark Week one too many times, and before I knew it I had a small piranha on the end of my fishing pole. Our guide grabbed it and removed the hook, and let us all get a close look at the sushi that eats you back before returning it to the lake. I will have to switch to a California roll.
The next day we made the next leg to our final destination, the TRC, one, if not the most remote Amazon lodges in the world. As our repurposed truck engine blended us deeper up river, the nature completely took over. On the banks we saw Jaguars and Peccarie and Caimans, trees that came right to the river’s edge, their root system grasping on to whatever land the river allowed them to take. At times we would pass small barges with pumps on them shooting river water through a giant slanted sieve. “Those are illegal gold miners. This river is rich with gold.” Dangerous work, but apparently very well paid if you are lucky and not caught. About three hours in there was a fork in the river, and we docked at a weathered old landing that jetted out into the Tambopata River. We were at the Malinowki River Control Station, which looked like something out of the film Apocalypse Now. Screened in shacks strewn together, with bottle caps nailed into boards for traction, and a make-shift basketball hoop that defied attrition hanging on the side of a slanted tree, this was a mandatory control stop to enforce legal river traffic. In the small office, lined with weathered maps and young men with firearms, I had them stamp my passport to memorialize the event. I figured I’d never be this deep again in the rainforest; best have some ink to prove it.
Another two hours up-river and we finally reach the research center. Porters run out to grab our sacks, and we make our way through the lush forest, which is alive with noise. Boar-like peccaries bark at each other and shuffle through the low-lying bush, while howler monkeys scream to a rival tribe across the treetops. Graced with the grand entrance to the TRC lodge, it is even more majestic and beautifully organic then the last lodge, and would make for a fine base for the next three days where I would have the pleasure of exploring one of the most remote portions of the rainforest with some of the worlds most interesting people.
What Rainforest Expeditions offers that separates it from other tours is that you are in a functioning research facility staying with actual researchers and field scientists. This is more then eco-tourism, this boarders on getting actual college credit to go toward your doctorate. In the morning we visited one of the more active salt licks where my guide said we might see a few specie of Macaw feeding. By a “few” he meant a few hundred, and the colors, reds, blues, greens and yellows blurred before me like a Gaspar Noé titles sequence (Enter The Void, look it up). The shear volume of bio-diversity here is mind blowing, beyond any zoo, any safari on earth, and no SD card in the world has enough capacity to capture it all.
Dinners were exceptionally exciting as this was a prime time to mingle with not only the other travelers, but also the researchers and scientist that also stayed at the lodge. Here they would swap stories of what animals were seen, or new discoveries were made, or secret locations to best capture that perfect photograph. It was here I a young researcher and photographer, that invited me on what they called a “rainforest rave”.
“We go out at night, with UV lights, and discover bioluminescent insects. It’s a riot.” Basically this was the equivalent to telling a frat boy that there was a well-organized pub-crawl planned. After dinner we made our way out with blacklights in the pitch of night and let the forest put a show on for us that would have blown the mind of any burning man participant. Spiders that look like the 80’s puked all over them. Frogs that radiated pink and green like a neon sign. Did you know scorpions glow bright blue in UV light like a toy out of one of those grocery store vending machines? No. I didn’t think they could be any cooler either.
During the following days we explored riverbeds and trekked inland to natural waterholes, seeing all sorts of bats, turtles, barking caterpillars, and dozens and dozens of butterflies. 600 specie of bird, 200 of mammal, 1,000 of butterfly, and thousands of insects definitely keeps your neck loose as you constantly turn to see something new and amazing. My guide and I would travel downriver to a “Spiritual Retreat” that was being built for Ayahuasca ceremonies among other things. We met with the shaman, and saw the massive construction, and even took a tour of the jungle “garden”, getting face to face with the mind-altering hallucinogenic vine itself. Perhaps the most interesting interaction I had was after having met three young post-grads, I helped climb a 30 meter tree to hang an Macaw nest with a camera in it so that they could research the nesting habits. Of course assisting the researchers with manual labor is not something on the planned itinerary; it is something that was amazingly rewarding for me, and indicative of the type of immersive experience that only Rainforest Expiations can provide.
After 5 days deep in the rainforest it was finally time to say goodbye. We made our way back downstream to lovely downtown Inferno to reunite us with civilization. I had been to remote, wild places on earth before, but this however had changed me in a way that was wholly unexpected; the combination of sublimely, comfortable accommodations while being completely submerged in the most bio-diverse locations on the planet, surrounded by people who’s knowledge was so vast, that their entire existence was dedicated to the cultivation of yet more knowledge, was too much for my city forged mind to handle. I returned to my small apartment, 24 hour electricity and high speed internet a bit shaken, a bit more skeptical of packaged food, and much more enlightened. It would seem that Rainforest Expeditions doesn’t just take you to one of the most remote places on the planet, they take you deep down into your own soul, to places you might not have known even exist.
Go to www.getlostmagazine.com right now to continue the adventure and read more great places to go explore. Also, here is a little video postcard I put together for you. Enjoy;)