A Father-Son Adventure in Peru's Amazon
You can join boatloads of tourists on the Tambopata River. Or you can take an eight-hour boat ride deeper into the jungle to a unique ecolodge, where you'll be dazzled by a chorus of howler monkeys and waves of brilliant red-and-green macaws--and by the man striving to protect their homes.
From the plane we catch glimpses of the Urubamba River, below Machu Picchu, plunging thousands of feet, then snaking through an ocean of trees that spreads east until it is lost in haze--the Amazon, the world's largest and most diverse rainforest. We land in the humid furnace of Puerto Maldonado, the fourth-largest city in the wooded eastern half of Peru, known as the selva (the jungle). The airport is full of foreign tourists, mostly European and American, in jungle safari garb, and the parking lot is packed with kitschy jungle safari buses with thatched roofs, waiting tochauffeur them to boats on the Tambopata River, 15 minutes from here. One or two planeloads of tourists a day are shuffled in and out of 15ecolodges with capacities of 16 to 60, or more.
My 11-year-old son, Zachary, and I are embarking on a more unusual adventure. We're on our way to the Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center (ARCC), an ecolodge and research center located eight hours up the Rio de las Piedras, a left-bank tributary of the Madre de Dios that has almost no other ecotourism. Within a half-hour of landing, we are speeding down the Madre de Dios in a roofed-over, 50-foot boat with a 60-horsepower outboard engine. It's a strong, brown river, but only one of the Amazon's thousands of sub-tributaries.
The Amazon Rainforest Conservation Center was built, with financing from the U.S. conservation group Tropical Nature, by Pepe Moscoso Garces, a strapping 41-year-old local Peruvian of European descent. Pepe is accompanying us with his 12-year-old son, Frank, a playmate for Zach. Also on board are Juan de Dios, the head of the guild of Puerto Maldonado ecotourist guides; an Ese'eja native woman named Daisy, who will be our cook; a Machiguena Indian named Narciso; nature photographer Mattias Klum; and his assistant, Lars-Magnus Edjeholm. There are 52 forest tribes in the selva speaking 25 different languages. The native people on the Rio de las Piedras are called the Yine or Piro. The rest of the boat is crammed with boxes full of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and drink that will enable us to live in style for the next five days.
We pass a small floating gold-mining operation that is sucking up the river bottom with a thick hose. Inside, in a room full of diesel smoke, shirtless men, glistening with sweat, are picking the mud over for nuggets or gold dust. Then we enter the mouth of the Rio de las Piedras, which is 100 yards wide after its 200-mile journey. The river is way down because the Amazon is experiencing the worst drought in its recorded history, and the rainy season is overdue. Tree trunks, snags, and the occasional sandbar that Narciso pries us off with his pole slow our progress. Narciso is a smallish, lean, muscular man who never speaks but is always there when you want him, and he wears a perpetual mischievous smirk.
For the first four hours few native trees are visible except on the inner banks of bends, where solid stands of cecropia and another pioneer species called pajaro bobo have sprouted in the mud precipitated from the slower water. The forest has been converted to plantations by homesteaders from the Andean highlands. In the early 1990s the government of Alberto Fujimori gave 74 acres, with 984 feet of river frontage and 3,280 feet back into the forest, to any family willing to make a go of it in the selva.
We pass through blizzards of lemon-lime and orange sulphur butterflies and small, striped brown swallow-tailed nymphalids known as many-banded daggerwings. Thousands upon thousands are puddling on exposed sandbars and on the lowered banks. "I have never seen so many butterflies," says Pepe.
Two russet-backed oropendolas are flying around in panic as five black caracaras raid their sock nests. None of our field guides do justice to the extraordinary vocalizations of the oropendola; they sound like watery gurgles fired from a creaky slingshot.