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The Peruvian Amazon, Andean Cloud Forests and Machu Picchu: September/October 2014


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I’ve been procrastinating on this, my first trip report, for months, and I know that if I don’t start now, it just isn’t going to happen. I’ve been justifying the delay on grounds that I need to spend time making sure the report measures up to so many other trip reports on this site that have been invaluable to me in plotting future trips. I’ve also been telling myself that I need to do more work on processing my photographs, which I sometimes think look amateurish compared to those of more experienced members. While there is a grain of truth to both these themes, the real reason for the delay simply is that I’ve not done this before and am a bit bashful. So enough of that. I’m taking the plunge, and will proceed as time allows. My work schedule is such that there probably will be gaps between postings, for which I apologize in advance. (You will also have to forgive me for any missteps I take in posting photographs. I'm like that baby giraffe just learning how to walk.)

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This report covers my first visit to Peru. Our itinerary was as follows (beginning 26 September 2014):


Day 1 – Arrive Lima

Day 2 – Lima

Day 3 – To Tambopata NR (Refugio Amazonas Lodge)

Day 4 – Tambopata NR (Tambopata Research Center)

Day 5 – Tambopata NR (Tambopata Research Center)

Day 6 – Tambopata NR (Tambopata Research Center)

Day 7 – Tambopata NR (Posadas Amazonas Lodge)

Day 8 – To Sacred Valley via Cusco (Sonesta Posadas del Inca, Yucay)

Day 9 – Machu Picchu (Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes)

Day 10 – Machu Picchu (Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, Aguas Calientes)

Day 11 – To Cusco (Novotel Cusco)

Day 12 – Cusco (Novotel Cusco)

Day 13 – Return home (PM)


I must confess, as you no doubt can tell from the itinerary, that we have many interests, and our vacations often incorporate excursions that are not centered on wildlife. In this case, we combined two lifelong desires: to see the Amazon and to see Machu Picchu. I have tailored this report to focus on the Amazon portion of the trip as well as the nature of the Andean cloud forests surrounding Machu Picchu. However, I cannot ignore Machu Picchu altogether, so please forgive me in advance and feel free to skip over the portions that do not interest you.

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Why Peru? Well, it didn’t start out that way. In September 2013 we took our first safari to Africa. It was a classic first-timer’s itinerary – 8 nights on two private game reserves adjacent to Kruger National Park in South Africa, followed by 5 nights in Cape Town. With multiple quality sightings of the Big Five, plus cheetah and wild dog, as well as a host of other fascinating creatures we hadn’t ever really thought about until then, we readily succumbed to a new addiction and were scarcely home before we started plotting a return to Africa. But I soon realized that Africa had affected me so deeply that I hadn’t yet fully absorbed our experience. In sum, my head wasn’t clear enough to settle on our next African destination.


At the same time, I felt the window for scheduling another vacation was closing. What to do? I needed a sign. As happens so often in life, it came subtly and unexpectedly. On a long weekend trip to Seattle, we happened into a fascinating exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum: “Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and the Moon.” We had always wanted to see Machu Picchu. At the same time, after our experience in South Africa, I wanted to see intriguing wildlife. One of the pieces on display in the museum exhibit was a stunning textile work covered in brilliant blue and yellow macaw feathers (c. 800-1300 A.D. and in amazing condition). Although the Inca were people of the high Andes, this work reminded us that there was an active trade network with tribes in the Amazon jungle on the eastern side of the mountains.


That was it: Combine Machu Picchu with the Amazon. The trip came together in a matter of weeks.


(Unfortunately, I did not think to take a photograph of the feather textile that planted the seed for this trip, but it is viewable on the website of the Museo Larco (Lima), which owns the piece:




Then click on “Huari Feather Standard.”)

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Fast forward to late September 2014. It is shortly after midnight, and we are standing in front of the luggage carousel at Jorgé Chavez International Airport in Lima. What is almost as big a mystery to me as to how the Incas managed to construct buildings with stones weighing up to 100 tons and cut so precisely that no mortar was needed, when they had neither the wheel nor iron implements, is why every airline from the United States arrives in Lima in the middle of the night. Why couldn’t we arrive at, say 6:00 in the evening, have a nice dinner and then turn in for a good night’s rest before beginning our trip in earnest? Well, because we can’t.


Our first leg on this journey will begin with an early morning flight to Puerto Maldonado via Cusco, followed by a three-hour boat ride up the Tambopata River to a lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve. The idea that we would undertake this jaunt in high heat and humidity with only a few, restless hours of sleep under our belts was rejected out of hand back in January. So, we lumber across from the airport to the Costa del Sol Ramada, where we will stay for the remainder of that night and the next, which gives us a bonus day in Lima.


Founded by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima’s location on the Pacific coast proved ideal for one of the Spain’s earliest industries in Peru: shipping out looted treasure, including, it is said, a roomful of gold and two roomfuls of silver that were granted as ransom for the kidnapped Incan emperor Atahualpa, whom, in the first of many double-crosses, the Spaniards killed anyway. For half the year, the city lies under gloomy gray skies (which the locals refer to with the appropriate-sounding word, “garúa”). Due to atmospheric conditions caused, in part, by the proximity of the cold Humboldt Current of the South Pacific so close to the shoreline, the area is a mild desert that receives some of the lowest rainfall totals in the world. Today, almost 1/3 of Peru’s 30 million citizens live in Lima, but tourists frequently avoid it beyond the usual airport connections. (A couple in front of us on our flight down listened with ever-widening eyes as an American guide working in Argentina told them that Lima is one of the most dangerous cities in South America and that they should exercise extreme caution at all times).


Our bonus day consists of a tour of Lima’s highlights with Haku Tours, a non-profit organization that aims to improve the state of tourism in the city. Our tour is broken into two parts: the morning with guide Edwin Rojas spent visiting the historic city center, which is situated around the Plaza Mayor and dominated by the Basilica Cathedral of Lima, the Government Palace and the Monasterio de San Francisco and its catacombs that span miles underneath the oldest parts of Lima, and the afternoon with guide Marco Polo Amasifuen at the Larco Herrera Archeological Museum, which contains the most comprehensive collection of Inca and pre-Inca artifacts in Peru and is located in an 18th Century colonial mansion that was constructed over a 7th Century pyramid. (It also has good restaurant.)



Monasterio de San Francisco



The Catacombs

Edited by Alexander33
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@@Alexander33 Glad you are taking the plunge into the world of trip reports. I love reading all of them and I'm especially looking forward to reading this as Peru, especially the Amazon, is on our travel wish list.

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Ah, good, I was able to post photos successfully. A few more......



The Cathedral


The original City center contains a number of fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture, but you will also find a variety of other architectural styles, including this whimsical Art Nouveau building, reputedly the first photography studio in Peru.


Shopping arcade. Not glass covered like the one in Milan. I believe our guide told us it was done in by an earthquake or just never completed.


The Museo Larco contains shelf after shelf, row after row, of incredible Moche and other pre-Inca pottery. All sorts of animal life that was sacred to the native peoples is depicted on these pieces, including jaguars, owls, turtles, frogs and various types of sea life. We were allowed to just wander through the stacks at leisure.



I should mention at this point that at no time did we ever feel unsafe in Lima. The city obviously has a bad reputation, whether deserved or not, but we found everyone to be extremely gracious and welcoming, and our guides implored us to tell our friends back home to not discount Lima when planning a trip to Peru. While I would not recommend that one go out of one’s way to visit Lima, I am glad that we stopped there for a day before journeying on to the interior of Peru.

Edited by Alexander33
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The next morning, we board our flight to Puerto Maldonado, with a stop in Cusco. This flight provides a broad overview of the three major regions of Peru: the coast (Lima); the mountains (Cusco); and the jungle (Puerto Maldonado). When the aircraft door opens in Cusco, we are greeted with crisp mountain air, quickly followed by dizziness and a slight headache. Cusco is situated at 11,100 feet (3,400 meters) high in the Andes, and the altitude can cause real problems for travelers. We have brought Acetazolomide tablets to help us deal with the problem, and we resolve to drink a lot of coca tea, which many people have said helps to prevent altitude sickness, although the actual effectiveness apparently has never been studied extensively. Twenty minutes later, the door has been closed, the airplane repressurized, the mountains are behind us and we are flying over miles of endless green, punctuated only by telltale murky red rivers and estuaries that snake through the wilderness: the Amazon Basin.


Tambopata National Reserve consists of approximately 1,480,000 hectares (3,700,000 acres) of tropical and subtropical forest in the Madre de Dios region, which is a major tributary system of the Amazon. From a traveler’s perspective, it is divided into two zones: the Cultural Zone and the Reserved Zone. The Cultural Zone contains a number of lodges, two of which we will stay in for one night each as bookends to our three-night visit to the Tambopata Research Center, which is located in the Reserved Zone about six hours up river by boat from Puerto Maldonado and receives far fewer visitors. The Research Center was founded in the 1980s when scientists discovered troves of macaws and parrots feeding at a nearby clay lick. The study and habitat preservation of the macaws has led to new knowledge and appreciation for the thousands of other species coexisting in the jungle with them, as we will learn. (This is why some at the Research Center refer to the macaws as “an umbrella species.” The interest in the macaws leads to funding and preservation that benefits not just the macaws but everything else around them, as well).


We have planned our trip for late September/early October because this is supposed to be one of the best times of the year to see macaws at the clay lick. Their appearance at the lick is not as reliable during the rainy season of November through April/May, and we have opted to avoid the more crowded dry season months of June, July and August. Despite the fact that it is still the dry season, the heat and humidity hang heavy in the simple metal building that consists of the Puerto Maldonado airport terminal.




We're not in Lima anymore.

We are met outside the building by Yuri Torres Rivera, whom we are told will be our guide for the next five days. Unknown to us at that moment is the great, good fortune we have struck in not only having Yuri (pronounced “Jury”) as our guide, but the fact that, due to a quirk in scheduling, there will not be any other people joining us. In other words, without planning it, we have landed a private guide.


At 33 years old, Yuri has lived most of his life in the jungle around Puerto Maldonado and has an innate knowledge of the plants and animals there. He began working in the gold mines downriver with his stepfather at 18. The work took its toll, and after suffering a venomous snakebite to his foot that almost killed him, Yuri turned to ecotourism as a career. He currently freelances, and we are very lucky to have snagged him. To top it off, he has a devious sense of humor that suits us to a tee. Guidewise, it’s going to be a great five days!


From the airport, we take a van through the dirt roads of a village of about 800 people (forebodingly called “Infierno”: “Hell”) to a landing on the Tambopata River, where a motorized boat will transport us up river. Soon we are passing by small groups of capybara on the muddy river shores. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and, despite widespread hunting by the native population, they are fairly common in the area.



Landing on the Tambopata River at Infierno.


We were transported from Puerto Maldonado to the river landing by bus. These buses serve all of the lodges (and there aren't that many) in the area. Upon disembarking, people are then shown to the boats that will transport them to their particular lodge.


Lounge where we waited for our boat.


The boats had on-board motors, but the going was fairly slow -- and peaceful -- with just enough breeze to keep things comfortable, while never letting us forget we were in the tropics. The relaxed pace allowed us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife on either bank.


On the water -- finally.


A pair of capybaras. They seemed oblivious to our presence. We would see larger groups in the upcoming days, but these two afforded us closer shots in the best light.




Edited by Alexander33
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After our amazing African experience, I have tried to establish realistic expectations for the wildlife we might see on this trip. We hear about jaguars and tapirs, giant anteaters and giant river otters, but I also know they are all very elusive. Aside from the macaws, which I definitely want to see, I try to open my mind to exotic plants, birds and frogs, which are colorful and interesting and will make good photographic subjects, and if we see any of the rarer mammals, that will be, as we say in Texas, the “gravy.”


The other concern is whether we will have the opportunity to take home quality photographs. Until last year, we were content with just a few photos on our i-Phones as keepsakes. Africa changed that. For that trip, we purchased a Nikon Coolpix P520 point-and-shoot with a 42x zoom lens that actually produced fairly good results for us, considering our lack of experience. For this adventure, we have also brought a new, beginner DSLR, a Nikon D5200 with a 55-300 mm lens that I think will be an improvement, but still won’t provide the reach we’d like for birds and other skittish wildlife.



Any questions about whether we would be able to capture quality photographs consistently was quickly answered. A chestnut-eared aracari (my first toucan!) taken from the boat. This is what 300 mm will get you. My binoculars afforded me a much better view, and I was thrilled, as only a first-timer can be.




The shore boasted an undisturbed forest of hardwoods and palms.....


.....and tropical flowering trees.

The concern about photography abundantly manifests itself when we stop at a small clay lick at a bend in the river, where perhaps a dozen pair of red-and-green macaws (with wingspans of up to 49 inches, or 125 centimeters, the largest macaw found in Tambopata and the second largest macaw in size after the hyacinth macaw) languish in the canopy in the mid-afternoon heat. Unable to produce a single high-quality photograph, I find them gorgeous nonetheless, and I try to sit back, relax and enjoy the atmosphere, for there’s no denying it now: we are in Amazonia!




Walking to the clay lick. Does it look hot? It was! There were six of us on the boat en route to the lodge, plus two guides (one for the other four guests and then Yuri for us) and two crewmen.



Red-and-green macaws.







Almost all the photographs here are untouched and straight out of the camera. I just started snapping away. I suppose I could do some work to make these a little better, but I don't know that it would be worth the effort and, besides, these give a good impression of what we saw. The silver lining is that this trip has inspired me to learn more about photography.....you know, things like exposure and composition?


View of the clay lick from the island in the river where we were situated. The macaws stayed in the shade of the trees while we were there. We passed only one or two other boats during our afternoon journey, and the few farms and other settlements we saw when we first set out became fewer and fewer as we continued upriver.

Edited by Alexander33
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This is a great report, glad you are doing it after all. I really appreciate the level of detail you are putting into this, always enjoy to learn more about these places not covered regularly here on ST. And I like your photos very much, maybe you weren´t able to zoom in as closely as you would have liked, but that way you are giving a much better impression of the scenery which often gets the short stick with a focus on close-ups. And very cool that you had a private guide by default! Looking forward to more.

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@ michael-ibk


Thank you for your kind words. Using the journal that I kept, I've decided to reflect my early frustrations unedited in order to express a more true-to-life unfolding of the trip. I hope readers won't give up on me before things start improving!

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HI, sorry I missed the beginning but we are inundated by snow. I have done portions of this trip, Puetro Mal; Cusco, Sacred Valley and MP....your pics and story are so much more vibrant that I could have ever expressed.


Thanks for sharing; I look forward to much more.


I could have moved to the Sacred Valley...just beautiful!

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@ graceland


Thank you for your encouraging words. We've had snow here, too -- in Texas, in March!

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Still in the more touristic Cultural Zone of Tambopata, where native people are also permitted to live and farm, we stop and spend the night at Refugio Amazonas, a comfortable lodge consisting of 32 rooms on raised platforms, with thatched roofs and en suite bathrooms (no air conditioning). Each room is open to the forest on one side, and the beds are enveloped in mosquito netting. There is also a large central dining area, sitting area and bar. We will find this same basic design at all our lodges in Tambopata (except that at the Research Center, bathroom facilities are shared and there are only about half the number of rooms).










After dinner, we take a night boat ride to search for white caiman in the river. We detect their eyes lurking just above the water, which glow in the spotlight carried by a guide in the bow of the boat. I am struck by how small these caiman are. I was expecting them to be about the size of American alligators, and although I am told they can grow to as much as 8 ½ feet (2.5 meters), the ones we see are no more than half that size. Although we saw caiman quite frequently during our trip, they were always submerged, often most visible in the evening or at night, and I never did get a decent photograph of one.


We are up at 5:30 the next morning for a visit to the canopy tower, a 30-meter high platform that offers us 360-degree views of the uppermost reaches of the forest trees, where we see red-and-green and scarlet macaws; the red-throated, chicken-like Spix’s guan; and a variety of parrots and parakeets, all too distant for decent photographs, but offering us a reminder that so much of the life of the rainforest occurs far above the ground. Later, Yuri points out enormous Brazil nut trees. These trees can grow up to 160 feet (48 meters) in height. Their fruit is the size of a baseball and can weigh up to 5 pounds. During January and February, they ripen and fall to the ground at speeds that can approach 50 miles per hour (glad we’re here in September). The shell is extremely thick and woody. Inside are anywhere from 10 to 20 large nuts arranged like segments of an orange.




The forest at Refugio Amazonas





We climbed the stairs of the tower for a canopy-view of the jungle.





A bird's eye view of the treetops.



I spy a small brown animal from the corner of my eye. Yuri smiles, holds up a Brazil nut casing that he has brought with him, and says, “It’s after this.” The “it” is an agouti, a rodent that looks like a large squirrel without the bushy tail, which has developed sharp, chisel-like teeth that make it the only animal that can crack open a Brazil nut (although I have read that macaws can do the same). Brazil nut trees cannot be farmed. They fruit only in undisturbed forest and depend on agoutis for dispersal of their seeds. The Brazil nut trade is an important source of employment and income for the native communities, an interesting (and all-too-rare) example of how industry and conservation can sometimes interface with one another.




Demonstrating the thick outer coating of the Brazil nut.





The Brazil nut's best friend: the agouti.







After a quick breakfast, we are back in the boat for the four-hour trip upriver to the Tambopata Research Center. Above the confluence of the Tambopata and Malinowski Rivers, the water becomes much more clear (gold mining activity along the Malinowski produces a great amount of silt) and the earlier traces of human habitation (the small, native farms; a few people bathing or washing clothes in the river; the small boats carrying loads of bananas to the market in Puerto Maldonado) all disappear. We begin to see chestnut-eared aracaris (toucans) high in the trees and endangered Orinoco geese on islets in the river. The light becomes brighter, reflecting off the water. That, plus the distance from the boat to the shore, makes photography more than a little challenging, so I try to relax with my binoculars and just try to take it all in.





The roiling waters of the Tambopata below the Malinowski River.





Orinoco geese.





Capped heron -- far away!

Edited by Alexander33
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We arrive at Tambopata Research Center shortly before lunch at 1:00 P.M. The heat is palpable and the humidity is so high that it feels like some kind of weight has been placed over the entire forest and that everything is moving in slow motion (most noticeably, us). We commence our first evening walk at 4:00 PM. Scarlet macaws are nesting in the cavities of several dead trees near the lodge, and their raucous calls pierce the heavy air. Deeper in the forest, we hear the rustling of leaves in the trees, and a colony of acrobatic spider monkeys appears, swinging from branch to branch and tree to tree across the jungle canopy. As the sun sets, birds begin to settle in for the night and frogs come out to commence their serenades.





Above the river at Tambopata Research Center.





Red-and-Green Macaws.





Walking through the jungle.





A typical view of the forest at Tambopata Research Center.





Spider monkey









Brilliant red orchids





Birds-of-paradise grew wild in the forest.



As I feared, photographing any of the wildlife presents constant challenges. The monkeys have been too fast and agile. When they aren’t lurking in the shadows of the dense foliage, they swing out into the open all too briefly between the ground and the blinding sunlight above the trees, backlit so much that I feel lucky if I can even manage to snap a full silhouette. The macaws stay in the canopy at least 60 feet above us.


As darkness begins to envelop us, my camera becomes a useless piece of matter: I’ve somehow got it on the wrong setting, and I can’t remember what I need to do to adjust it. Yuri assures us that we can try again tomorrow, but I can sense that he feels I am as incompetent as I appear. “Here’s this gringo with a fancy camera that he doesn’t even know how to operate,” I imagine him saying. The whole experience is made more maddening by the constant sweat dripping from my forehead and burning my eyes.


We return to the lodge shortly before the 7:00 P.M. dinner. Meals are served punctually and I am starving, so I put on a fresh shirt – long-sleeved – over my sweat-soaked torso and head straight to the dining area. We have been told to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants with closed shoes from 5:00 P.M. until 5:00 A.M. and to wear repellent in order to avoid the transmission of cutaneous leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection transmitted by the bites of sand flies. The air is still and the heat and humidity are overwhelming as I sit in front of my dinner. First course – hot tomato soup.** I blot my sweaty face with paper napkins and can barely concentrate on my meal. Even Yuri’s attempt at light humor fail to lift my mood. The wildlife will be nowhere near as good as in Africa, and what wildlife there is will be impossible for me to photograph, as evidently I am unprepared to use my camera despite practice at home for weeks prior to our departure (obviously not enough).


** And now, for a brief respite from this depressing scene, a note about the food and drink:


Hot soup seemed to be a starter at each dinner. I never figured that one out, but the food was uniformly very good – in fact, I would say “delicious” given the remote location and logistics that must have been involved in getting all the necessary ingredients to camp. Breakfasts consisted of eggs every other day and pancakes or French toast on the alternating days, with fruits, breads, yogurts and cereals available every day (not to mention delicious strong South American coffee and coca tea).


Lunches and dinners consisted of a combination of Peruvian and South American specialties (lots of beef, rice and potatoes) and staples such as pastas. I always drifted to the unique regional dishes, including a breakfast yogurt made of lucuma, a traditional healing fruit that is also popularly used in Peru for ice cream. The yogurt was more watery that is customary in the U.S. and was served from a pitcher, so on our first morning, my partner, who was in line ahead of me, poured it into a glass and proceeded to drink it down. The blank stares and puzzled smiles of the staff led me to more cautiously pair it in a bowl with some granola, which seemed to give comfort to the staff that we were not completely insane after all. I also took advantage of a limited range of Argentinian and Chilean wines available at the bar – sold only by the bottle (twist my arm).


We now return to our downcast protagonist:


I walk back to our room hot, tired and dejected. Electricity at the lodge is shut off at 9:00 P.M. In the darkness, I lie within the mosquito netting unable to think about anything but the stifling heat and my lack of photography skills. That’s when I notice lightning in the distant clouds from our open-air room. At daybreak, we are scheduled to go to the nearby Chunco clay lick, for which the Research Center is famous due to the multitude of macaws and other parrots that frequent it. However, rain not only will increase the humidity, if that’s even possible, but we are told that the macaws do not visit the clay licks during inclement weather.


Then, from the glimmer of a particularly brilliant lightning burst, I perceive movement in our room. What looks like a big rat scurries in between two of our duffel bags, and I hear what sounds like chewing. We turn on our flashlights and get up to shoo the rat away, but when we move the luggage, it is nowhere to be found. Yet each time we turn the flashlights off and climb back into bed, a soft, barely discernable crunching sound soon recommences. Señor el Rat may have disappeared, but he has not left, and now he is munching on something in our room, perhaps on something in our bags. I pop a Xanax, but still cannot make the words go away. I dare not utter them aloud, but they repeat themselves silently in my mind anyway, relentlessly: “Worst vacation ever; worst vacation ever; worst vacation ever…..”


(Hint: If it truly had turned out to be my worst vacation ever, I wouldn’t be writing this trip report).



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Not sure why that spider monkey reappeared at the end. I didn't post him there. But they're that way, you know?

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Even if you´re not happy with the pics you took, I am - really getting a good impression of what the scenery looked like. And I sympathize, I know from walking trips in the Pantanal´s forests how frustrating it can be to try to take pics of anything. You are an excellent storyteller, I had to chuckle several times reading your latest installment. I wanted to say how nice the open rooms are, but with your giant rat companion you probably beg to differ. :)

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@ michael-ibk


Thanks so much for your interest. Actually, we loved the open rooms. They really helped give a sense of place and atmosphere, and that rat was the only unwanted visitor we had the whole time. We never did find what he had been chewing on. Our belongings were all in fine shape the next morning.

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@Alexander33: welcome to the club !!! Not only have you chosen an expensive hobby by itself, travelling the world, but you are now sucked also into the never ending whirlpool of less noisier sensors and longer lenses. But do not despair, you have brothers in arms all over the world.

I am enjoying reading your trip report as you are an excellent writter, with that specific sense of humour. And your photos are good, really! OK the wildlife ones does not shows the tiny hairs around the monkey's eye but they surely depict the enviroment.

And taking photos in bright light of Africa is kid's play versus photographing in the deep shadows of rain forest.

So keep writting in all details and keep posting your photos.

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@ xelas


Thank you for your encouragement. It is comforting to know that I am in good company.


And taking photos in bright light of Africa is kid's play versus photographing in the deep shadows of rain forest.


That is so true. Our photos from South Africa were actually not bad. But if there is anything I respond to, it is a challenge. We're going back to South Africa in August, and while I naturally am very excited about that, I'm also ready to return to the rainforest and get back to work!

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We arise at 4:30 A.M. A few swigs of strong coffee, and then we are walking through the dark jungle trail to the river. At the shore, we are greeted by a gentle sunrise reflecting on the calm waters of the Tambopata. Any threat of storms has dissipated. It will be a clear day at the clay lick. My spirits rise up with the sun.




First dawn on the river.



I keep using the same word to describe the clay lick, the surrounding area and the bird life that descends upon it: Eden-like. This is pristine wilderness. In the quiet stillness of the morning, we see the silhouettes and hear the shrieking calls of macaws and parrots as they fly overhead, assessing the clay lick and the trees above it: blue-and-yellow macaws; scarlet macaws; green-and-red macaws, chestnut-fronted macaws; red-bellied macaws; mealy parrots; blue-headed parrots; orange-cheeked parrots; and white-bellied parrots. All are here, their brilliant plumage reflecting in the sun.




Panorama of the clay lick. You can see us sitting off to the right.





Blue-and-yellow Macaws gather above the clay lick, waiting for the sun to warm the banks.





The sun rises on the clay lick.





Mealy parrots were the first birds to descend on the lick. We took this with our i-Phone pressed against a telescope that the guides had brought from the Research Center.





The Blue-and-yellow Macaws then joined them.





As I mention below, the birds seemed to take turns, and there was never overcrowding at the lick. Many more waited patiently up in the trees above the cliff. These were all taken at 300 mm and have not been cropped or enhanced.



There are a number of theories as to why the parrots eat clay. According to Yuri, what is known is that they don’t just eat any clay, but, rather, clay that is high in sodium. Some assert that the fruits and nuts eaten by the parrots in the jungle are low in sodium, and so the clay makes up for this imbalance in their diets. Others argue that many of the seeds that the birds eat are poisonous and that the clay contains detoxifying agents to counter that effect. Whatever the reason, the birds do not stay on the clay lick itself for long. There seems to be almost a spirit of cooperation amongst them, as if they know there is only limited space and that they must take turns eating the mineral-rich clay. (We have also spotted a roadside hawk and her nest nearby, and the presence of this predator may have made at least the smaller parrot species a little jumpy.)


We return to the lodge after a few hours. At breakfast, I consult my camera manual, and although National Geographic still hasn’t offered me a job, I at least figure out what I was doing wrong last night and what I can do to best mitigate the challenges of rainforest photography within the scope of my limited skills and experience. We thus settle into a routine for the remainder of our visit: early morning wake-up and excursion; breakfast; mid-morning excursion; shower; lunch; rest; evening/night excursion; shower; dinner; bed. I even become more acclimated to the heat, so much so that I am not sweating constantly.


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Obviously, one of the main goals of our visit to the Tambopata Research Center is to see and learn more about scarlet macaws. Over the next two days, they offer us much better glimpses than on that first afternoon. It is thrilling to see these spectacular birds so close by.











One of the many threats to the survival of the macaws is the loss of natural habitat. The macaws nest in cavities of old trees, and the loss of suitable trees, as well as the birds’ naturally low reproductive rate, is an ongoing concern. The researchers have utilized a number of different types of artificial tree cavities since the Research Center began its work in 1989: from concrete, wood and fiberglass, each hoisted high up into the forest canopy, with varying degrees of success. Early on, however, scarlet macaws successfully adopted these artificial nesting sites, allowing the researchers to focus especially on this particular species. They learned that although females usually lay two or three eggs, the parents intentionally favor only one chick or two chicks, usually the eldest, resulting in a high mortality rate for the other(s).


In 1992, the researchers undertook an experiment where they removed the younger, weaker chicks from the nests they were studying and raised them until they were mature enough to fly on their own. To their surprise, they found that these birds (affectionately known as the “chicos,” Spanish for “friends”) adapted to the wild just fine. In fact, all but one pair of the chicos ended up pairing off with wild scarlet macaws (they mate for life).


Nevertheless, the chicos are more habituated to human beings than their partners, and they have remained fond of their childhood home, visiting the Research Center at least periodically and offering guests an opportunity to observe these magnificent birds at a closer range than they might otherwise be afforded. The single pair of chicos that bred with one another are quite notorious for their antics at the lodge, especially after breakfast, when they have no compunction about walking the tables in the dining area looking for scraps of food and stray bits of granola.


One of the "chicos." The chicos are more habituated than their wild mates and let us approach more closely.





One chico took an interest in our sweaty laundry hanging out to dry....





....and then sauntered into our room to inspect the contents of our dresser top....




....before flying up to the rafter, where he then proceeded to walk to the next room, scaring the bejesus out of the two women there who were taking a brief afternoon nap. Their screams were followed by delighted laughter. (They can really move, too. That's why this shot is kind of blurry).



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Over the next three days, we are fortunate to see all 7 monkey species found at Tambopata: spider; squirrel; brown capuchin; red howler; dusky titi; saddleback tamarin; and night monkey (although the latter three prove too elusive to photograph).


A troop of spider monkeys typically appeared in the forest at the edge of the lodge every afternoon. With their disproportionately long limbs and long prehensile tails, they are spectacularly acrobatic, seemingly all fiber and muscle and reminding me of Gumby covered in course brown hair.









One morning, the peaceful solitude of the awakening jungle is interrupted with a loud, piercing, drowning sound. It sounds like a freight train moving somewhere through the forest: the red howler monkey, signaling his territory with a howl that can be heard up to two miles (5 kilometers) away. Some claim that the howler monkey is the loudest land animal on earth.







The squirrel monkeys and the brown capuchins always traveled together. Yuri tells us that the squirrel monkeys like to travel with the brown capuchins because the capuchins, which live higher in the canopy, will sound alarms and alert the squirrels when eagles or hawks are present.


The squirrel monkey







And traveling companion, the brown capuchin







Another mammal that we come across on several occasions during our stay is literally smelled before seen: the white-lipped peccary, a bush pig weighing 50-80 pounds (about 22-36 kilograms). They travel through dense brush in colonies of 20-300, although the colonies we saw were on the smaller side, probably no more than 50. As I mentioned above, the first clue that they are in the neighborhood is a strange, acrid smell that slowly fills the surrounding air. Some have described the smell as “skunk-like,” although, to me, it smelled more like moth balls. You literally can smell them coming, with the odor becoming stronger as they get closer. Then, you hear rustling in the brush and the snapping of small twigs on the ground, indicating an imminent appearance. Finally, their short grunts are audible, and there they are. These peccaries can cover an impressive amount of ground in a day, as they spend up to two-thirds of their waking hours traveling and feeding, mainly on fruits, nuts, vegetation and small amounts of animal matter.


Due to the heavy canopy and dense foliage of the jungle, it was sometimes a challenge to see them clearly. Yuri could imitate their call, and he was able to lure one curious individual to come investigate.





The white-lipped peccary is one of two peccary species found in the Tambopata, the other being the smaller collared peccary (which we also have in Texas, where they are called “javelinas”). We did not see the collared peccary during our visit.


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Great sightings of the Macaws and the monkeys. In the Pantanal we were told to be very careful when seeing Peccaries, as they can apparently be quite aggressive. (Just one of the two species, and unfortunately I forgot which one.) Were you warned about them, too? I like what they are doing with the younger Macaw siblings. A lot of birds favour the firstborn, and fratricide is not uncommon as well. ( I remember a haunting documentary about Shoebill chicks.) I´m surprised that these chicks manage to do so well in the wild, but pleasantly surprised.

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@ michael-ibk


Thanks for continuing to read along. I knew from our experience at home to give the collared peccary (the smaller species) a wide berth, so I was not about to try anything foolish with the larger white-lipped. I was surprised at how close this one got to us, but he wasn't too close, and, of course, our guide was instructing us the whole time and had us crouch down so that we didn't display a threatening body position.


The shoebill -- now there's a bird I'd love to see. It always seems that some of my favorite bird species practice fratricide. I guess that's nature's way of ensuring survival of the fittest. Apparently, the researchers only experimented with assistance to the weaker siblings for one year (1992). I didn't ask, but I suppose that was due to the limited availability of natural nesting sites, which they are already trying to supplement as it is.

Edited by Alexander33
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@ Game Warden or another moderator:


I had meant to post this report in the "Worldwide" section. Any way to move it there?

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