By Harold Armitage.
National anthem, Peru.
The Tambopata research Centre was featured in the B.B.C. documentary "Look who's talking". It was too much for my wife. Twelve months later we set off on an expedition to the Tambopata Research Centre and the adjacent "clay lick" where hundreds of parrots come daily in order to eat clay. It is assumed this protects them from the poisonous seeds which is a major part of their diet in the dry season and possibly provides trace minerals.
The TRC is located in the vast Madre De Dios province of South Eastern Peru in the Amazonian rain forest. There is only one major town in this department, Puerto Maldonado. This stands on the confluence of the rivers Madre de Dios and Tambopata and is linked to Cuzco by the only major road. This road is unmetalled, four hundred kilometers long and takes two to four days travel in good weather. In the rainy season it is impassable. In short it's easiest to fly in.
The climate in Puerto Maldonado uncomfortably hot and humid for Northern Europeans even in the "dry" season. The town is not exactly geared up for tourism there being only two decent hotels, the better of the two being the "Hostel Cabañaquinta" (Country Cabin) which is also the best place to eat. The streets of Puerto Maldonado are ninety per cent dirt with a large central channel to conduct away the heavy rains that occur here. By European standards the population has a very low standard of living, however there are far worse off elsewhere in Peru. The main industries were logging and rubber collection, the latter is completely extinct whilst the former is nearly so (there being few logs left). All that remains is agriculture, gold washing and service industries.
The white hope for the future is eco-tourism. In the recent past, political troubles have kept foreign tourists away. Now that these problems have been resolved it is hoped that the tourists will return. The rain forests in the nearby Eastern foothills of the Andes are one of the last untouched rain forests on earth and have the highest bio-diversity to be found anywhere. This includes six species of macaw and ten other parrots. There are no roads, the only access is by river transport.
The Tambopata Research Centre is located on theTambopata river, twelve hours journey by canoe from Puerto Maldonado. It was constructed by Eduardo Nycander, architect by profession and macaw fanatic by choice. Various research projects are on-going here including studies of the abundant large macaws to establish the reasons for their decline elsewhere and possible remedies for this. Surplus nestling macaws are hand reared for release to the wild. Nest boxes have been installed at suitable locations as it has been discovered that a shortage of suitable holes is a major reason for population decline.
This then is story of the Puerto Maldonado/Tambopata part of the holiday. I use the term "holiday" in the sense that we were not at work. It was not restful, but then neither was it boring!
On the third day of the holiday we arrived in Puerto Maldonado. We were to remain there for a few days in order to acclimatise. As the doors on the plane were opened the heat and humidity swept in. The cold air vents blasted out a fog of water vapour as the two met. The sun blazed down as we walked across the tarmac. It was hot even for Puerto Maldonado.
Our trusty guide for the next few days, Armando, was there to meet us with the truck from the Cabañaquinta. I had met him on our previous visit he was overjoyed that we had returned. We checked in at the hotel and flopped. Several members of the party had never experienced the rain forest climate previously, it was especially hard for them.
During the next few days we took it easy with walks around the town to see what few sights there were. Chief of these was the Madre de Dios river, sub tributary of the Amazon, at that point almost quarter of a mile wide although hundreds of miles from the sea.
The local market was desperately poor. An air of hopelessness pervaded the area. Mostly fruit was on sale. Open gullies were half filled with refuse and dead rats. The weather was exceptionally hot even for Puerto Maldonado so the smell was not good.
However there are plenty of nice walks around P.M. especially down by the river. It was necessary to rise at five in order to avoid the heat of the day, this was no problem in our jetlagged state!
On the sixth day of the holiday we set off for theTambopata Research Centre. (TRC) The Tambopata river trip(picture, 19K) is very pleasant on the thirty foot motorised canoes used for this. The lower reaches of the river are wide, muddy, slow and meandering. The pleasant breeze of our progress kept us the coolest we had been for days! There are pebbly beaches on the inner side of the bends whilst the outer sides are cliffs in perpetual state of attack with huge trees falling into the river. Ox-bow lakes are frequent and can be interesting reservoirs of wild life as they are not much visited.
The first part of the trip is through secondary forest, this being regrowth where the timber has been logged out. There are few macaws here as the large trees necessary for their nest holes have been removed. Further up the river In the Tambopata Reserve Zone is the untouched rain forest where there is an abundance of the large trees necessary for macaw nest holes.
There is gold (picture,14k)in the river and we passed several groups of washers and stopped to see the operation at one beach site. They lived in the most desperately poor conditions and working conditions were even worse. To obtain a few grams of gold they had to wash tons of silt all transported by barrow. The searing heat and humidity together with the millions of biting insects conspired to make it hell. Barefoot and muddy as they were, they seemed happy to see us and willingly showed us their work. They had a sluice rigged up. The silt was washed over a piece of domestic carpet, the denser gold sinking into the pile. At the end of the day they washed the carpet out on the sluice. A few streaks of gold could be seen amongst the silt, (picture, 37K)poor reward for a days work I thought.
Near the river banks clouds of multi-coloured butterflies hovered over damp patches and alit to syphon water through their bodies in order to extract minerals vital to them. Anyone who sat near and very still (picture, 10K) would soon be covered in them as they greedily sucked up sweat with their probing tongues. I could identify none of them.
Higher up the river it was necessary to pull the canoe over shallow spots in the river which now ran fast and clear. Later we saw our first macaws, flying in pairs, with languid wing beat and calling raucously to one another. As the swift tropical darkness fell, we arrived, stumbling up the river bank and through the forest alive with fireflies and the rustling of unseen night life. The glimmer of light from the T.R.C. was welcome, it had been a long day. As we lay in our beds under the mosquito nets warm rain drummed down on the thatch, bad news, macaws don't like rain. The T.R.C. (picture,15K) can best be described as the perfect escapist's paradise, almost as remote as a desert island. There are no facilities apart from flush toilets. All water is from the river (boiled for drinking). The accommodation is constructed mainly of bamboo and thatch but the outer walls extend only to waist height, (an advantage in this climate).There is a very pleasant dining area, open to the outside.
It has been discovered that wild macaws normally lay two eggs but the second hatchling rarely survives. At the T.R.C. these surplus chicks are hand reared and released. However they hang around the T.R.C. in gangs (picture, 16K) waiting for a free meal. They are hand tame and can be called from the treetops. The dawn chorus can be quite raucous! Eduardo calls them his "chicos", Spanish for boys. A fair proportion have found wild mates which sometimes call at the T.R.C. for a meal.
The seventh day. We arose at four thirty to thick fog. Parrots don't like fog. We boarded our trusty cruiser and went to the beach opposite the lick. The macaws skulked in the trees above the lick, very few flew down, so we walked around the top of the lick and saw several dozen pairs disporting themselves in the trees, drying their feathers as the sun gradually dispersed the mist. We were able to approach quite closely as they scrambled noisily about in the tree tops. During a long walk afterwards through the forest we spotted many birds and also a troup of howler monkeys which regarded us stonily from the treetops. The heat and humidity were intense by then, we retreated to hammocks at the TRC for a midday siesta.
Late in the afternoon we set off for a night walk when a whole new set of wildlife can be discovered. Our trusty guide went first with a stick and his snake proof boots. His party trick was to poke a twig down the burrow of a tarantula until the infuriated arachnid seized hold of it and could then be pulled out for our entertainment. There is often mother and children down the hole. The intense heat of the forest is ideal operating temperature for them, they can run unbelievably fast. He found one larger than the palm of my hand. It grabbed his twig and when out of the hole was able to hold it upright although it was about two feet long! Apparently they are almost harmless to humans. We still gave it wide berth. The dampness brought out huge multicoloured cockroaches which glistened in the bushes everywhere. Everyone tucked their mosquito nets in very carefully that night!
Day eight and back to the lick early in the morning but there were not many parrots again due to the weather. Today we were off to the maurita palm swamp, favourite nesting places of the blue and gold macaw. A sixty foot scaffolding tower has been erected here in order to view the nest holes. The tops of several maurita palms have been lopped off. The macaws and natural rotting processes have hollowed these trees into fine homes for the macaws. This turned out to be quite some trek through the forest, the latter part through a fine old swamp of black mud. As we arrived we could see at least half a dozen B&Gs sat in their nest holes, eighty feet above, inspecting us minutely, shrieking noisily to one another.
The climb(picture,26K) to the top of the scaffolding is by means of a vertical ladder, the tower is guyed but still sways alarmingly. First up, as I neared the top the macaws exited their holes and retreated to the nearby treetops and hurled parroty abuse whilst lurking unphotogenically behind the palm fronds. Eventually the whole group got to the top (there was ample room) and both parties settled down to eye one another from our respective perches.
There exists in the rain forest a small black stingless bee known as the "sweet bee" as it is attracted by the salts in human perspiration. Pepe our guide had the ability to ignore them, we had not. It wasn't long before they found us, thousands upon thousands crawling all over our bodies. At the end of two hours the macaws still refused to come to their nests to be photographed and the bees were driving us mad with their attentions. We climbed back down to floor enveloped in a huge cloud of bees. The macaws promptly flew to their nests and posed prettily, out of reach of our cameras, cawing in triumph. We ran into the forest pursued by the bees and the raucous shrieks of the B&Gs. I'm fairly sure that this was the site where the shot of the B&G on the cover of the National Geographic magazine was taken.
We tramped back in the darkness, once again the forest was full of the yellow streaks of fireflies and the double flashing green beacons of gigantic "click beetles". The damp and composty aroma of the forest assailed our nostrils. We saw several tarantulas prowling the night, the place was alive with movement as the nightly struggle to survive want on. Alicia (the student of mammals) had set mist nets that night to catch bats in which she succeeded. She had several vampire bats which she hadn't seen before. However in the excitement they escaped. Another reason to carefully tuck the mosquito net in at night!
Day nine and violent thunderstorms in the morning. It brightened later and we had a walk through an eerily silent and dripping forest. But the trees couldn't hide, we saw some interesting giants, some with macaw nest holes. As the sun strengthened wraiths of vapour drifted through the trees. The heat and humidity were incredible, snakes slithered through the undergrowth, we saw several poison dart frogs. Green lizards ran about the forest floor. Bird life began to surface, we heard more than we saw in the thick canopy. On the way back to base we saw a large deer/antelope? seemingly quite unafraid of us browsing on the undergrowth.
After the noon siesta we had a boat ride to a nearby pond. A raft (picture, 17K) had been rigged in the middle of the pond. We sat on the raft observing the teeming bird life keeping digits from the water as there were apparently crocodiles. After a few hours we walked to a nearby boggy clearing where there was a whole different set of bird life, numerous woodpeckers (we saw four species simultaneously at one point).
There were flocks of hoatzin flopping clumsily through the trees and long grass. Our trusty guide was able to identify at least twenty different birds in an hour without us moving from the spot. We all peered at them through the high powered telescope brought with us, but everyone was really only parrot nuts. (Picture,24K) The only real excitement was when a flock of macaws flew over and several Amazons were spotted prowling in the bushes.
We all felt sorry for poor old Alicia, what with losing her vampire bats, so we manufactured a bat from an old sock and rigged it in the roof of the TRC with a long thread to make it wriggle a bit! She was quite taken in for a few minutes, we all had a good laugh at her expense, poor girl, but she took it in good part. We were all falling about with it.
Day Ten. First thing there arose a cold and violent wind. The roof shook and large trees and branches could be heard falling in the forest. The sky became black as night and there commenced the most incredibly violent thunderstorm yet. The rain was incessant and torrential, thunder rolled continuously lightning flashed every few seconds. There were several strikes within yards of the building. This continued for the whole day. Missiles in the shape of huge fruits and branches falling from a height of a hundred feet and more made travel in the forest far too dangerous to contemplate. Several large trees were dashed to the ground by the weight of water and wind in front of our eyes. We sat in the dry and contemplated nature at it's most violent.
Day eleven. Today we were due to go on a boat ride up the Tambopata river towards the foothills of the Andes. The air was distinctly cool as we set off to the river through the dripping forest. The chicos skulked silently (for once) in the treetops. The river (picure, 23K) had risen at least fifteen feet due to the heavy rain and menacingly slipped past, brown and turbid. It did mean however that we did not have to scramble down the bank to get on the boat.
As we moved upriver we managed no more than ten miles an hour though we were tearing through the water at a tremendous pace. Floating trees came tearing round the river bends at a great rate, whilst we crept up only slowly on trees snagged on the river bed. The water was brushing the treetops on the river bank which gave great opportunities for fruit picking(in competition with troups of monkeys on the same errand). I can't say that I could identify what we ate, nor was it particularly palatable.
Four hours later, as we neared the mountains the character of the forest subtly changed as the ground was better drained and the air was cooler. There appeared the most tremendous cloudscapes among the distant peaks, rotor, orographic and lee wave being the most spectacular.
The current was by now so fast that we were barely making headway and then only by picking our route along the slowest flowing parts of the river. The river was icy cold and had the blue brown colour of water from the permanent ice of the mountain tops. We picked our way between great standing waves thrown up by underwater obstructions until the gathering dusk made a return seem prudent.
It was soon apparent, needless to say, that what had taken us five hours to cover upstream was going to take less than an hour downstream. Our pilot was content to maintain only sufficient steerage way to keep us clear of obstructions and in the fastest part of the current. There were constant problems with the engine cooling water blocking due to the amount of debris in the river however we made good progress even without the motor. The water had by now taken a black and sinister look in the yellow half light of evening. The forest seemed to hold it's breath, the mutter of the outboard motor was loud in the heavy silence. The sunset (picture, 18K) was swift and spectacular, plunging into the cloud wracked Andes.
It was amazing to me how our pilot made the last few miles to the T.R.C. in the pitch dark. The river had fallen by five or six feet in our absence and we groped our way up the muddy bank and back to camp in total darkness. The air was alive with fireflies, I had the startling experience of fireflies hitting me in the face as I tramped back. In the torchlight the forest floor was crawling with huge iridescent cockroaches and other insect life brought to activity by the recent rain. Click beetles sent their double green flash. Scuttlings and rustlings of the abundant night life in every direction. The suffocatingly heavy "composty" smell of the forest floor bore down overwhelmingly. I tucked my mosquito net in carefully that night.
Day 12. The return journey to Puerto Maldonado. This would be our last chance to see the lick. Once more we arose in the faint dawn light and crossed the river to view the lick. A fair number of macaws were about, mainly blue and golds, wet and bedraggled from the recent rain. When the show was over we returned for breakfast collected our gear and setoff back to Puerto Maldonado.
On the way back we called in at the hovel where the gold diggers lived. This was constructed from materials to hand, all sorts of old plastic sheets, bamboo, grass and odd bits of timber. Gold digging was halted due to the high water levels. After a prolonged haggle I purchased a small blob of gold, apparently this represented two days work for four people. I had heard that the gold diggers were all macho types, armed to the teeth and unfriendly to strangers. However the chief gold digger here was a small fellow, extremely polite and affable. I suppose this all arises from watching too much T.V.
We stopped off next at another lake, a two hour jaunt through the forest, alive with chattering bird song. Interesting for me (one time aero-modeller) was a stand of balsa wood we walked through. The lake (picture, 24K) was incredibly beautiful, still and clear, brilliant blue against the verdant forest. It was utterly silent, almost like being in some deserted cathedral. The heavy humid air seemed to deaden sound. There was a catamaran, we poled about for an hour amid clouds of butterflies and huge dragon flies. The bolder splashed about in the lake until it seemed prudent to return due to the gathering thunderstorms (picture, 13K) nearby. As we neared our cruiser once again warm rain pelted down. It was after all a rain forest.
Dinner(picture, 24K) on the cruiser was a jolly affair, boiled rice, egg and chicken wrapped in a banana leaf. We seemed to have collected a fair few extra passengers for Puerto Maldonado. There was the chief gold digger, two men who's boat had broken down, a Danish teacher of English to village children, three ecology students and a little girl (mission unknown).We rolled the plastic rain covers down and had a fine old feast as the rain hammered down.
We arrived at Puerto Maldonado and warm and steamy sunshine. A large crowd of people were on the dockside. There seemed to be a lot of river traffic, perhaps due to the recent rain. Our trusty truck was waiting for us on the riverside. So back to the "Cabañaquinta".
We hadn't seen as many macaws as on our previous visit due to the exceptional rainfall. The rainy season does not usually start until the end of November. Apparently "greenhouse effect" is effecting the climate of the worlds rainforests as well as the temperate zones. However it was generally agreed that the trip was well worth while and the adventure was not yet complete. We still had another fortnight to go.
This must be one of the best places in the world to see massed macaws! This was our second visit to the Tambopata Research Centre and was a little spoilt by unseasonal weather. (We were there towards the end of the dry season). However on our previous visit we had seen literally hundreds of macaws (five species) whirling over our heads at the clay lick. An unforgettable sight and sound.
Rainforest Expeditions, Galeón 120, Lima 41, Peru. Tel/Fax(51-14)389325
Baby Macaws No1, (31K)*** No2, (31K)
Nesthole. No1, (36K)
The demolition gang! No1, (25K)
(Nothing about parrots!) Not a great deal about the usual tourist spots, although we did visit them. I find meeting the locals to be a fascinating experience!
Peruvian Human Rights Commission.
TReeS Peru. (Tambopata Reserve Society, Peru branch, in Spanish.)
Picaflor Research Society.
The Giant River Otters of the Madre de Dios River.
PeruHQ, Probably the most comprehensive website about all aspects of Peru.