Only two hours upstream from the chaotic city of Puerto Maldonado lies the true heart of Madre de Dios - of secluded lodges and serene forest, amongst a habitat rich with diverse wildlife, magnificent flora and a rare peace of mind.
Having spent the previous three months travelling across South America, from Rio de Janeiro to our fast-approaching final destination of Lima, my friend Lloyd and I had seen many forms through which this continent has shaped itself. From the glorious beaches of Brazil to the wilderness of the Andean Altiplano, or from the Atacama desert – the driest in the world – to our recent visit to the mesmerising lost Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, we had been incredibly fortunate to witness such a variety of ancient wonders. Yet there was one more place in particular we felt we couldn’t leave the continent without a taste of, and with little more than a week left in the country it was a rather instantaneous decision – to forgo the lost heights and cold nights of Cusco for the Amazon basin, hot and humid and home to some of the most diverse natural habitats on Earth.
We arrived early on Monday by bus, disembarking into the cloying morning air under swaying palms and a sky that was blue and grey and a dozen other shades of tropical. Our lodge was located two hours upstream, which we reached by boat, the murky waters slapping gently against the hull as we puttered towards the sun. Due to our rapidly-decreasing time schedule, we could only afford to stay for three days, although this turned out to be plenty of time to sink into the hidden paradise of the forest. Our lodge – Explorer’s Inn – catered to international researchers as well as tourists, and so there was an intriguing mix of characters we met during our visit. The lodge itself was wonderful, a simple complex of bamboo huts with thatched roofs connected by wooden walkways, and a central dining hall / restaurant / bar, where everyone would convene periodically for surprisingly delicious meals – as one might presume that due to the location and proximity to fresh produce, the dishes could have been far more basic. The staff were very relaxed and warm, yet the lodge ran like clockwork, efficient without feeling mechanical.
On our first night we ventured out onto the river – Lloyd and I, two German girls also our age, a couple from California and our guide, Christian – in an attempt to spot some caimans, a sub-species of alligator. Christian had the eyes of a hawk, and we were lucky enough to see one waddle out and momentarily stand rigid on the shore, before snaking off back into the depths. On our return, the driver closed off the engine for a few minutes, to allow us to hear the forest at night. We bobbed gently on the waters, surrounded by the whirring and howling cacophony of the jungle chorus, with nothing but paradise stars spattering the skies overhead.
The second day at the lodge was our only full day, and it was an early start to make sure that none was wasted. We trekked through the forest for about two hours, under thick dappled canopies and balmy skies, until we reached an oxbow lake with a hide facing out onto the unblemished waters. Here we left our bags before embarking onto a basic raft, and then paddled out into the blue. The main attraction was a family of giant otters that fed daily from the lake, but unfortunately there was no appearance for us. However, we did manage to see quite a range of other wildlife, including tiger-crested herons, caimans, howler monkeys, piranhas and cormorants. Returning to the lodge, we also spotted some tamarind monkeys, bouncing from tree to tree far above our heads.
In the evening there was a football match at the lodge, with everyone – staff, visitors, researchers and locals – participating, which was as fun as it was exhausting. I also took a wander down to the river with the two German girls to watch the sunset, which was magical - the gentle ebb and flow of the waters, the rustle of a million trees, all turning red and gold and pink in the soft haze of dusk. After dark had fallen, we set out on a brief yet eventful ‘night-walk’, following one of the many dirt paths throughout the surrounding forest. Surprisingly regularly, the velvet canvas of trees and bush was interrupted by a vibrant pulse of colour, such as a black and yellow poison frog, a writhing tree boa, or a giant, ornately decorated moth. The jungle is truly alive.
Wednesday soon approached, along with our departure, as we retraced our route back downstream under another hazy morning sky. Our next stop was all the way to the west of Peru, to a town named Nazca, which would require a 24-hour bus journey back over the Andes. We bade a temporary farewell to the German girls – we planned to reunite in Lima – and boarded out respective buses. The grumble of an engine, the stench of diesel, the bustle of humanity, it was a collective pinch to bring you back to the surface. But we left the hidden treasure just so, nestled amongst the river and trees, the birds and the bees – calm, peaceful, and waiting.