We have read about the rainforest, especially the Amazon rainforest, frequently.
However, it represented just an amorphous concept until my wife, Marty, and I finally decided to see it for ourselves. Our trip there wowed us with the variety of plant and animal life (oh, yes, plenty of insects, too!), taught us much more about its ecological importance and gave us ample opportunity for enjoyable experiences.
To reach our destination in Peru's Amazon River basin, we flew from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, a relatively new city built after gold mining began in the region. Representatives of the lodge where we'd be staying picked us up at the airport and brought us to a wharf on the Madre de Dios River for the next stage of our journey. At this point, deep in Peru, we were 25 hours from Brazil by automobile and six hours from Bolivia via boat.
IN THE Rainforest
During the 40-minute trip to our destination, we learned a bit about the area's economy. Though gold offered a boost to employment, most area residents still turn to agriculture and forestry for their livelihood. Aside from timber, important crops are bananas, rice, papaya and nuts. More recently, tourism has become a growth industry, especially near places like the Tampopata National Reserve, where we would be staying.
Considering the negative impact some tourist development brings to wild and untraveled areas, we were happy to see an emphasis on ecologically sensitive experiences. Our accommodations at Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica Lodge offered a mix of rustic and upscale facilities.
We had one of 34 private, screened-in, thatch-roofed cabins on stilts. Within the spacious interior stood a comfortable double bed, complete with mosquito netting, a couple of small tables with chairs and two hammocks. The rear featured a full bathroom, including a terrific shower. Lighting posed challenges, as electricity came on only 12 hours a day. At other times, we made use of kerosene lanterns and flashlights.
Once unpacked, we enjoyed a lunch of gazpacho and beef brochette in the lodge's dining pavilion then settled in for orientation. After meeting fellow travelers and Reserva Amazonica guides, we got fitted with knee-high rubber boots and set out for an introductory walk.
TARANTULAS AT NIGHT
A guide was assigned for the week to each group of eight. Wilson Escalante, our seemingly quiet leader, proved to be knowledgeable, resourceful and quite personable. During an hour of leisurely tramping, he pointed out towering ironwood trees, buttresses that support other forest giants and huge termite nests.
When I tentatively leaned against an isolated small tree, he warned it was inhabited by millions of red ants. It's a symbiotic relationship (though not for me; I came away with a couple of irritating bites). The ants get nourishment, and the tree gets protected from vines and undergrowth.
That evening, Wilson led us on another walkabout. At one extreme, we found 50-foot root structures; at the other, half-inch frogs. Army ants, jumping spiders, mantis and the occasional gecko competed for our attention.
But the undeniable stars of this night show were the tarantulas. We never — and I mean, never — dreamed we'd get excited by the prospect of searching out these furry arachnids at night. Yet we became mesmerized by the quickness and maternal instincts of both the large brown tarantulas and smaller pink-toed ones.
One afternoon began with a 20-minute boat ride down the Madre de Dios to a trailhead. From there we hiked — slogged might be the better term — a couple of miles through the mud to Lake Sandoval. In rowboats, we toured for an hour or so, pausing frequently to focus binoculars on jungle oddities.
Birds were plentiful — yellow-billed terns, flycatchers, a large kingfisher with a white head and orange body. There were many beautiful butterflies. A colony of bats snoozed on one tree trunk; tree lizards lounged on another. At one point, we thought we heard an airplane overhead, but Wilson told us the noise was the calls of howler monkeys.
Another highlight was a canopy walkway. Treetop level has long been the least studied component of the rainforest. As researchers climb more regularly to the crests of forests, they're discovering a host of new species. Permanent rope and plank walkways have been built in a few areas, allowing the more casual observer a chance to sample that unique environment. This one, featuring 95-foot-high towers, six observation platforms and seven hanging bridges, stretched a full 1,135 feet long,
At any moment, our attention might be riveted by unusual moths, butterflies (we're told no region on earth boasts more species of butterfly) and especially birds. We saw plenty of hummingbirds, a bright yellow tanager, nunbirds and a multi-colored barbet. The greatest excitement accompanied discovery of a group of saddlebacked tamarin monkeys frolicking on nearby branches.
Exploring a botanical garden, we noted golden silk spiders, iridescent blue beetles and dung beetles. Flying around and above us were such birds as a blacktailed swallow and the primordial-looking hoatzin. Signage and commentary from our guide taught us about indigenous uses for many plants.
Late one afternoon, Wilson suggested we simply wander near our bungalow and look for birds. Amateur that I am, I figured that wasn't likely to be fruitful. But under Wilson's tutelage, we soon found silver-billed and red-brown tanagers, woodpeckers, a bright blue tucsin, several parakeets and the wonderfully-named social flycatcher. For good measure, we spotted a cacique near its hanging nest, the latter reminiscent of that made by an oriole.
In truth, there's no end to what can be found in the Amazon region. On TV's Nature Channel, I'd been fascinated by parades of leaf-cutter ants in single file carrying their eponymous specimens like flags. Well, we had ample opportunity to find similar parades. And how about a walking palm? This remarkable tree has the ability to throw out new stilt-like shoots so as to maximize sun exposure. Over time, the tree can move a few feet for a better vantage point. (And you thought walking trees were figments of Walt Disney's imagination.)
On our final evening, we took another boat ride down the river. Our quarry? The crocodile-like caiman. We found our share, including a cluster of babies. Along the way, we also sighted fish bats and a pygmy owl. High above in the heavens, the Milky Way shone remarkably bright. We spotted constellations including the Southern Cross and an upside-down Big Dipper, and also the planet Saturn.
No, we didn't manage to find piranha, capybara or giant river otters. And I can't say I left unhappy about the failure to spot a 40-foot anaconda. On the other hand, we did see tall palms, ficus that make our home varieties look microscopic, and strangler fig trees. A single trip to the rainforest can barely provide an introduction to the ecosystem's wealth and diversity.
We hope we'll have an opportunity to return.
E-mail Richard Frost at: firstname.lastname@example.org