Visiting the Jungle in Madre de Dios

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Sunset, and the Madre de Dios River.

Most jungle trips in the Madre de Dios region begin in the city of Puerto Maldonado, which is a ten-hour bus ride from Cuzco, or a one-and-half hour flight from Lima. Known as “Puerto” by the locals, Puerto Maldonado is a quiet, mid-sized city, with wide streets, low brick buildings, noisy moto-taxis, and a crisscross of drains to handle heavy rains in the wet season.

Once you leave the airport or bus terminal, your journey gets underway when you hop a van or moto taxi down to the dock where you´ll risk a few careful steps across a narrow gangplank onto a motorized launch ready to taxi you downriver.  

Many lodges are close to town, and in our case, we motored for less than an hour. The water is smooth and the view is 360. Staring across the murky water, I was impressed to consider that this wide river was but a tributary to a tributary of the massive Amazon River. The boat ride is smooth and seemingly safe, but they say that bobbing semi-sunk tree trunks have capsized boats, so thin lifejackets are kept close at hand.  

If your guide keeps you busy, you’ll see a lot of the jungle over the next few days. There are walking excursions that set out before dawn. One is to observe a flock of macaws that slowly work their way down from the treetops to feed on clay — rich in the minerals they don’t get from fruit.  The macaws are skittish, wary of birds-of-prey, snakes, and anything else out of the ordinary. To stay out of sight, visitors shelter behind green camouflaged blinds and stay as silent as possible, while they peer out through narrow slats.   

Another early morning excursion is a visit to one of the oxbow lakes in the Tambopata nature reserve. Oxbow lakes were once the curving meanders of rivers that were cut off and isolated when the river found a shorter route. These new shallow lakes offer a spectacular opportunity to see birds, monkeys, caymans, fish, and insects in their natural habitat.

The oxbow lakes are circled by palm trees that are slowly invading the water. They grow just slightly offshore where their aggressive roots begin to form small islands, and these give purchase to other plants that quickly displace the water, eventually creating soil.  

Night in the jungle is an orchestra of animal sounds, with the occasional “woosh” of a bat. If you look closely on the tree trunks, you might catch sight of giant spiders on the hunt. One of the most accessible excursions is to hop into a launch and slowly drift along the river bank to spot animals. You’ll keep your eyes peeled for caymans in the shallow water close to the shore. These small alligators feed on fish –– and anything else they can sink their teeth into.  We were lucky to spot a family of six capibara feeding on the shore. The capibara is an unusually large rodent and the mother we spotted –– sporting large hog-like jowls –– was as big as a mid-sized dog.

The lodges and travel agencies offer different lengths of stay and a mix of excursions, so you can tailor a visit that’s just right for you. Most visitors come for 3 or 4 days only, which is just barely enough time to scratch the surface and awaken the desire to return.