SEPTEMBER 11-14, 2014
Reunited with my mom, the three of us flew from Lima to the Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado. With an area roughly the size of California, the Amazon Basin consumes over half of Peru and shares an edge with Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. As the capital city of the Madre de Dios region, Puerto Maldonado serves as a great base city in order to reach the nearby reserves such as Reserva Nacional Tambopata-Candamo and Parque Nacional Bahuaja-Sonene. With an enormous area of undisturbed rainforest, many naturalists believe that this region is the most biodiverse in the world. To my mom’s eagerness, it was the best place for spotting wildlife and experiencing the most pristine rainforests Peru has to offer.
When we landed in Puerto Maldonado, we needed a hostel for one night before our excursion, but had nowhere planned to stay. Maybe the taxi driver sensed our uneasiness since he overcharged us from 10/soles to 13/soles. I protested, but we ultimately gave in. Basic, inexpensive hotels lined the roads sporadically and we tried our best to compare the rates. Our first hotel choice was cheap but a little sketchy and didn’t have air-conditioning, which is crucial in this climate. The tropical Amazon Basin is hot and humid at all times and is hottest months in August and September to our misfortune. We decided to pay a little more to live comfortably for the night. We ate at a vegetarian restaurant for supper and witnessed what it was like when the city experiences a blackout. Just outside the restaurant was a giant glass tower that looks over the city and surrounding jungle. From there, one could experience panoramic views of colorful houses topped with rusted, iron roofs from over 30m (98ft) high.
Since our excursion would last a few days, we needed to purchase plane tickets to Cusco while in Puerto Maldonado or have to spend another night. We sprinted through mud soaked roads from days of rain prior while desperately asking the locals for the LAN Airlines office. With only 15 minutes to spare before closing time, we booked a flight to Cusco at more than the average ticket. This is a prime example of how important it is to plan ahead from the start.
The next morning we had breakfast at a local diner. In an area where fish are fresh and plentiful, our Amazonian breakfast had generous portions of fried fish and eggs, costing us a whopping $4 for our entire meal. The city burst into life as well as the fresh fruit venders outside the restaurant. Since the cost of gasoline continues to be very high in Puerto Maldonado, the main mode of transportation is motorcycles which bustled throughout the streets. We waited in the lobby of our hotel for our tour guide. A shuttle bus picked us up there along with an Australian couple and took the five of us to the docks. As I peered out of our bus window, an enormous black cloud consumed the sky. Sure enough, as we left the bus, it completely downpoured. I remember looking at my mom with an expression indicating “we’re going to have quite the adventure”. We were all nervous that the whole weekend would be rainy and miserable.
Our tour guide took us to the port where a long boat took us down the river and left us to walk 2km in our rubber boots to a remote lake. From there, a rowboat took us to the lodge and by then, the weather died down and the sun peaked through the clouds. The lodge was quite beautiful and spacious with a great view of the lake.
Over the next few days, our small group encountered many species of monkeys and birds. We spent the evenings on a large canoe getting close to black caiman (alligator) which can grow up to 20 feet long as well as the strange peasant-sized Hoatzin bird. Even though we only saw baby caiman, it was an uneasy feeling staring squarely at one and wondering where the mother was. Unfortunately, we could not spot any 3-toed sloths among the Amazonian treetops, but the variety of flora and fauna did not disappoint us. At night, our guide advised us to bring flashlights. We walked on a trail near our lodge and he told us to cut the lights. It was pitch black and I could not see my hand in front of me. As we walked along, we saw tarantulas and scorpions as well as this click beetle that looks so out of this world. With illuminating green eyes like a firefly, the click beetle is about an inch long and even Jesse was impressed with certain choice words. Spiders the size of my palm lurked around us and seemed to follow us on the jungle floor. The Brazilian wandering spider was among them, one of the most venomous spiders in the world. We drifted to sleep in our netted bed despite the loud chirping of cicadas and our newly found uneasiness of the deadly animals outside.
I have been carrying enough malaria pills for 5 people ever since the beginning of my travels, but I never ended up taking a single pill while I was in the jungle regions. When it was time to return to Puerto Maldonado, it began to rain again. There was a stray dog that was dropped off at the banks when we departed a few days prior. He was skittish yet cuddly, but ultimately we could not leave him alone in the jungle. The guide allowed him to come back on the boat with us, for fear he would starve or become food for other animals. We said goodbye to our guide and went straight to the airport.
Puerto Maldonado sits at 180m (590ft) above sea level while Cusco is 3,400m (11,152ft). We boarded our flight and were welcomed by a good old fashion punch of altitude sickness in Cusco.
The Peruvian jungle defied numerous attempts at colonization for many centuries. Incursions by both internal and external threats venturing into the dense Amazon rainforest ended in catastrophic failures as disease, wildlife, climate, and dangerous rivers overtook armies. The mighty Incan Empire could not achieve domination in this region and resorted to exchanging feathers, precious metals (gold), medicinal plants, and the sacred coca leaf. European epidemic diseases were the closest external threat that ever got close to the indigenous populations. The remnants of their diseases spread further than their armies ever could and although there were high fatalities among the native populations, their environment and culture were preserved.
It was not until the early 19th century when major rivers became more accessible that the livelihoods of the indigenous changed drastically. As the demand for rubber exploded during the 1830s, many European explorers were motivated by the prospects of wealth and in turn, began a century of exploitation of the rainforest and indigenous populations. The extraction techniques were quite damaging during the rubber boom and brought one of the biggest changes to not just Peru, but the entire Amazonian region. Networks were established throughout Brazil and Bolivia to provide better connection to the Atlantic and ultimately to Europe. This method served to be a quicker route than going from Lima to the Pacific. The highest peak of the boom lasted roughly 30 years from the 1880s until the beginning of World War I, which had the most detrimental effect on the indigenous populations and the environment. As working slaves, the indigenous suffered at the cost of fortunes for the Europeans.
Another event that plagued the region of hardships was the collapse of the Peruvian economy which occurred in the mid-1980s. Peru’s foreign debt skyrocketed and consequently, so did the rise of insurgent terrorist groups. Foreign aid was put to a halt and the government responded by abandoning Amazonian regions of economic support. As a result, the illicit coca production ran rampant and was a contributor to 10 percent of the deforestation in Peruvian Amazon.
Today, after centuries of exploitation and assimilation from external influence, most indigenous people in this region speak Spanish and have a very ordinary, modern lifestyle. I remember encountering a large warehouse in Puerto Maldonado full of computers occupied by dozens of children and thinking how technology has evolved to the very corners of the world. Puerto Maldonado has grown tremendously from the pitfalls of its past and is now a very busy market town in the heart of the Peruvian jungle.
- Blore, Shawn. Frommer's South America. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Print.
- Moker, Molly, Kelly Kealy, and David Dudenhoefer. Fodor's Peru. New York: Fodor's Travel Publications, 2011. Print.
- Schlecht, Neil, and Jennifer Reilly. Frommer's Peru. Hoboken, NJ: Frommer's, 2008. Print.