For most tourists Peru is mainly Inca ruins, beautiful coast and high Andes. But not everyone realizes that 60% of the country covered the Amazon jungle – pristine, green and very dense forest, in which man is only a guest of nature.
Which jungle to choose?
Jungle in Peru is divided essentially into two parts. Low Jungle, Selva Baja, which is located at altitudes of up to 1000 m.a.s.l. High Jungle, Selva Alta above 1000 m.a.s.l., that stretches on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Large differences in the climate at different heights (the heat of the lowlands and chilliness up in the mountains) makes the jungle a place of great diversity of fauna and flora. What’s more – thanks to the isolation of certain areas high up in the mountains you can find many unique species of animals.
Usually, for their destination people more often choose Selva Baja, which also simply known as the Amazon Jungle. To briefly describe it one can use just simple words – hot and humid. The average temperature during the day is 28°C and the humidity usually does not fall below 75%. Many rivers flow through it, including of course the Amazon, but also Apurimac (being the source of the Amazon), Urubamba, Manu and Madre de Dios. There are many national parks and nature reserves on the area of the jungle in Peru, created in order to protect this beautiful and very valuable landscape.
Among them two most popular locations for the trips into the jungle are Iquitos in the northern part of the country and Puerto Maldonado in the south, near the border with Bolivia. Because of the route of our trip around Peru we’ve chosen Puerto Maldonado. The city is quite populated, but not especially beautiful… After rather unappealing first impression, we decided not to dwell into the city. But after all we didn’t go come here to explore the city. It was about something completely different.
Final organization matters
Amazonian jungle is nothing like the Polish forests, so we’d definitely not dare to go into the jungle on our own. And therefore it was first time, since the beginning of our trip around the world, when went on an organized tour. We both share the same opinion that it’s better to pay a licensed tour operator which will take care of our security, than to take any risks.
We arranged all the details by e-mail before arriving to Puerto Maldonado. Once there, we learned that completely unexpectedly we have the guide exclusively just for us. Turned out there were no more people signed for the tour for the dates we chose in our language group. And we found this fact quite to our liking! After finishing the last formal arrangements, at the appointed time we took our backpacks and headed to the small harbor. From there, along with other tourist, we’ve had a 90-minutes motorboat trip to the oasis hidden in the jungle.
How can green and peaceful! Unlike Puerto Maldonado, the first impression of the jungle was very positive. Happily and relaxed we went for a walk around the neighborhood. The path was well trodden, but very narrow. After a while Mirko, our guide, started to show us first spiders and ants, frogs and strange plants, which we have never seen before. And then he warned us – if you feel anything (crawling) on yourself that was not there before, first check what it is. Instinctively smashing an animal or insect that bites, can lead to very serious consequences. Life-saving warning quickly became a habit for Dawid, and in the case of Patrycja, who had problems controlling her instinctive reflexes, fortunately there were no serious wounds.
Suddenly, Mirko told us to crouch and be quiet. A moment later we realized why. At a distance of no more than 10m from us we heard intensifying noises in the bush, snapping branches and oinking. It was a flock of about 30 adult peccaries went near us. We tried to spot them among the bushes, but we could only hear them. Mirko warned us, that it was better that these wild pigs didn’t spot or scent us. When enraged they can be very dangerous and he did flee on the tree several times in his life. We asked if there’s a possibility to see wild peccaries while staying safe. He said that there’s one slightly domesticated peccari living in the oasis. That’s right! Pumba, how we called it, turned out to be a mix of small pig with wild boar, very friendly and extremely curious. What’s more – he loved to approach people and request for some cuddling 😉
The same day, after lunch, we sailed to the nearby island of monkeys. On this small island lives a variety of monkeys – white and brown capuchin, squirrel monkey and saddle black tamarin (or tamarin). After the walk in the jungle that we had earlier, we were very excited at the thought of seeing more wild animals. Sadly… despite intense searches we didn’t see a single monkey. Quite likely that they hid on the remaining part of the island, inaccessible to people. Apparently the fruits that we brought didn’t smelled so intensely and invitingly to lure them out 😉
A moment of weakness
The second day was going to be very exciting. Waking up early in the morning, taking a motor boat to Tambopata National Reserve, doing a 3-kilometer-long walk through the jungle and then boating and exploring the mysteries of the Sandoval lake. We did, however, make one mistake day earlier and we did probably the biggest stupidity we could in the jungle. After brushing our teeth we flushed our mouths with tap water instead of bottled one. Usual habits took the upper hand… But in this case, tap water came from the river and was only slightly filtered. That night for both of us was very hard. In turns we spent long time in the bathroom vomiting and with diarrhea. Morning was not better… We felt so terribly weak and wondering whether we’ll survive a day trip. However, we decided to take our chances… And it was really worth the effort!
In Tambopata Nature Reserve we saw new amazing plants, which we didn’t notice the day before. We also managed to see the capuchin monkeys in the branches of trees. Howler and squirrel monkeys even were still enough to catch them on camera! Boating on the lake was simply sensational! The water was like the face of mirror, very calm and clear. We could see the fish passing near our boat. In the shady shores, just between the roots of trees caimans were watching us silently, and on the branches sticking out of the water the turtles were sunbathing.
Each moment we saw some colorful birds flying around, cormorants and herons hunting fish, and in the bushes on the banks we could occasionally hear hoatzines. This bird of quite colorful appearance is often called the “stinking bird.” It owes its repelling nickname to a very unique way of digesting the food – it takes place in the craw in the process of bacterial fermentation. Very intense smell produced during digestion is the reason why adult hoatzin has only very few natural enemies.
The jungle at night
The jungle viewed by day has something magic – but viewed at night can be a bit scary. Narrow paths hidden among the bush tend to be even narrower and more hidden after dark. Branches and lianas make an impression as if they were trying to reach for us. We must truly admit that we were slightly scared during our night walk through the jungle. Especially when completely unexpectedly something brushed against our leg. It turned out to be the peccari we named “Pumba”, which decided to accompany us in the expedition.
At night the jungle lives a little different life. Nocturnal animals start to come out of their spots, where they were hiding from the heat of the day. You can notice spiders on every tree – large and furry or smooth and shiny. There are bats flying over your head, and you can hear chirping of cicadas in the bushes. You can see various insects everywhere around, including ants, whose sting can be compared to being shot with a gun.
Bullet ant is often called a 24-hour ant, because the pain after being sting can last for a day. These ants are used by some of the Indian tribes in the Amazon during the initiation of young men to be warriors. During the ritual aspirant puts his hand in a special glove, which contains dozens of bullet ant and must withstand the stings for 10 minutes, and not faint during that time. The whole painful process must be repeated 20 times for the man to be considered a warrior. You can see the ritual in this short National Geographic documentary.
The next evening together with a small group of Spanish-speaking tourists, we got into a motor boat and we set off for the night “hunting” for caimans. Unfortunately, this time Mirko was not our guide. Instead, an expedition was led by two other guides who definitely wanted to show off in front of their group. As soon as they saw a caiman on the banks of the river, they tried to get really close to it.
The aim, however, was not showing us the predator from a safe distance, but the wish to catch him. They failed at their attempts and in most cases we could only see the tail of a startled animal seeking a hideout in the depths of the river. Fortunately, on the way back we were able to see a capybara in the grass just off shore.
Time to relax and have fun
Although we still felt some of the effects of poisoning until the end of our stay in the jungle the rest of the days passed while resting, relaxation and fun. We spent a lot of time in a hammock or on a deck chair, reading books or just contemplating nature. One day Mirko took us fishing. Although fishing equipment consisted only of a stick, fishing line and hook, yet we managed to catch a few fish 😉
We were quite lucky that day. On the way to the fishing spot we passed next to a snake warming in the sun. Mirko said it was venomous, but we didn’t remember its name. And on the way back Mirko spotted a sloth on a fallen tree. Completely wet, probably out of the water just a moment ago, it climbed the branches to dry in the sun. Our first sloth seen in the nature! It looked amazing!
Another relaxing activity was lazy but very enjoyable kayaking along the river. The day was hot, and each random splash of water gave a nice, cool sensation. In such circumstances, Dawid didn’t even get angry that much because of Patricia’s lousy kayaking skills 😉
Once we reached the Monkey Islands Mirko asked us if we want to swim in the river. We immediately started laughing and asked – is there something in the river that might want to bite or eat us? He replied – “Well, just caimans, anacondas, maybe some water snake… But don’t worry about piranhas ;)”. With such recommendation anyone would probably just jumped into the kayak and returned to the safe place. But the water was pleasantly cold and the sun was heating so much… So we decided to try a short swim near the shore. Fortunately, nothing tried to eat or even nibble us!
But we had the most fun ziplining and walking on bamboo footbridges suspended high among the treetops. Great experience, pleasant adrenaline rush and a fantastic feeling. “WOW, how beautiful!” – when we stood at the highest observation deck. Below us stretched a dense jungle, reaching far beyond the horizon. Madre de Dios river, flowing slowly around the Monkey Island. In the distance we saw the colorful parrots flying around. We just couldn’t get enough of the views so we stayed until the sunset. It was the perfect ending to all the amazing experience that we had during the several days of our jungle expedition.
- What’s the best time to go to the jungle? In the dry season (May to November) or in the rainy one (December to April)? It’s hard to clearly answer this question. During the dry season it’s definitely much hotter. At the same time it doesn’t rain that often, though there are some rainfalls. Besides, in the dry season the water level in rivers is lower, the plants don’t bloom so intensely and animals hide from high temperatures throughout the day.During the rainy season air temperature gets pleasantly bearable, but it can rain heavily for couple of days without a break. The ground gets muddy and hard to walk. During that time, however, there’s much more blooming plants and animals often go out of their hide spots. We visited jungle in November, and we think that was a very good time.
- When planning jungle expedition better take care of proper equipment. On an organized tour you don’t have to worry about mosquito nets or drinking water, but there are few things to keep in mind. First of all, the right clothes for walking in the jungle. These will certainly be high boots, long and light trousers, cotton T-shirts with long sleeves, a light raincoat and a hat. Also a sunscreen and a repellent with a high DEET will prove useful.
- There are different opinions about taking anti-malaria pills. Whether take them or not depends on you and your doctor. We didn’t take them for two reasons. First, we initially didn’t plan to do jungle expedition. Second, if we wanted to take the right number of pills for malaria to visit the jungle, and later for the whole of Asia, we would have to have an extra backpack just for these drugs.
- All travel agencies organizing jungle trips have very similar offers. We chose the Carlos Expeditions but there are others, e.g. Puerto Maldonado Tours or Tambopata Jungle Tours. Expeditions have different prices, depending on the length of trips, what you want to see and in what accommodation conditions you choose. From a hundred dollars for two or three days in spartan conditions to a few hundred dollars for a room with internet, shower, swimming pool and other facilities.
- Standard multi-day expedition packages with meals, accommodation and transport to and from the city include: a walk through the jungle during the day and night, one or two trips to other places, eg. to macaws clay lick, watching caimans at night, visiting the island of monkeys or fishing for piranhas. Also there are usually some activities once you’re on site, such as zipline or kayaking.
- And just for the record – never organize trips to the jungle on your own! There are travel agencies organizing jungle trips for many years and you can easily find their reviews on the web. Quite likely, once you arrive to Puerto Maldonado, Iquitos or other such place, there will also be people who will approach you with offers. They will tell you can have a tour cheaper without agency. They may even offer you to rent a lodge in the jungle if you get there on your own. But we advise you never to move without a local guide into the jungle.