|Posted on August 4, 2012 at 8:10 AM|
By Rebecca Ford
In my dreams I’d been to the Amazon. It was a steamy world of luxuriant foliage, beady-eyed monkeys, jewel-bright birds and improbably large insects: a place where anything could happen – and frequently did. I had such high expectations that I wondered whether the reality would disappoint. I needn’t have worried. Within minutes of arriving in the Peruvian rainforest, I saw a crimson hummingbird dart from a flower, had to duck as a flock of parakeets swooped over my head, and watched as an agouti – a sort of giant guinea pig - cracked a Brazil nut between its teeth.
I was staying at the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica; a tropical lodge on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, a tributary of the mighty Amazon. It’s a 40 minute boat ride from the busy town of Puerto Maldonado and a great place for watching wildlife. Even on the way there we saw a caiman (a type of crocodile) basking near the shore and an emerald cloud of parakeets clinging to a muddy salt-lick beside the water. There are 35 comfortable wooden cabins (cabañas) with palm roofs and tiled showers, set in a clearing beside a central lodge/restaurant. It’s the jungle without discomfort.
For many people, Peru is solely characterised by Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, but it’s also a superb destination for nature lovers, as the people at Inkaterra realised back in the 1970s when they pioneered eco-aware holidays here. The dense rainforest that etches the north and east of the country is home to an immense variety of plants and animals, ranging from the elusive jaguar to the malevolent sounding strangler fig. The bird life is extraordinary – around 18.5% of all the world’s bird species occur in Peru.
Almost 400 of those species have been found in the pristine expanse of rainforest that Inkaterra lease from the Peruvian government – and consequently protect from major development. They regularly invite biologists to stay, in order to identify and monitor the wildlife (many entirely new species have been discovered here).
Swinging Through the Trees
Soon after I arrived, I joined a nature walk led by Elias, one of the guides. I was amazed at just how many creatures we saw on a gentle stroll. Not that this is some tamed environment - guests must walk with a guide on the forest trails, not least because it is astonishingly easy to get lost. “One guest went off by himself,” I was told. “We finally found him 2 days later – utterly terrified.”
Before we’d even left the grounds, Elias had spotted a troop of squirrel monkeys, swinging through the trees with easy grace. “Humans can eat what monkeys eat,” he said, as we watched them nibble fruit. “If you don’t know what foods in the forest are safe, watch the monkeys.” I stored away that tip – in case I inadvertently strayed and ended up doing survival self-catering.
Elias showed us how adding water to the crushed leaves of the sanipanga plant creates a red dye, used by tribes people as a temporary tattoo. He pointed out the garlic tree, the bark of which is a natural mosquito repellent, and the para para plant – the leaves of which are macerated, then blended with rum and honey to make a version of Viagra. “Do you rub it on?” asked an interested guest, slightly disappointed when Elias says they simply drink it.
Later, on a twilight walk, we saw the rainforest in a different guise. As darkness fell, our torches revealed the gleaming eyes of caimans lurking menacingly in the river; there was a furry tarantula with pink feet, sitting on the trunk of a tree, and a chicken spider the size of my hand, emerging from its den to take the evening air. Every so often the golden flash of a firefly pierced the enveloping blackness, which reverberated with eerie whistles, shrieks and strange percussive beats.
Much of the action in the Amazon takes place in the trees, so Inkaterra have created a walkway 30m (nearly 100ft) up in the canopy to give you a monkey’s eye view of the rainforest. Six alarmingly springy bridges take you through the trees, with a final bridge leading to the reserve’s latest addition; a canopy tree house. This comes complete with two comfy single beds, a washbasin and a chemical loo for guests wanting to spend the night closer to nature.
Peru’s varied terrain means that you can see a stunning range of wildlife in a short time. I reluctantly left the Amazon to fly to Cusco, former capital of the Incas, where colonial Christianity mingles with more ancient ways. The painting of the Last Supper in the cathedral, with roast guinea-pig and beer in place of bread and wine, is a sight to behold.
Sacred Valley of The Incas
The following day, I took a bus that wound through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Ollantaytambo, where I boarded the train for the 90 minute journey to Aguas Calientes – the rail terminus for Machu Picchu. Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu hotel is conveniently set beside the station and just a 30 minute bus ride from the iconic citadel itself.
Set in the Andean cloud forest, Machu Picchu was probably abandoned before the Spanish conquest and so was the only major Inca site to escape destruction. It wasn’t until 1911 that explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it, buried deep in jungle. I visited the next day and strolled around its steep terraces, temples and ceremonial baths. Mysterious and almost inaccessible, it seems to sit amongst the mountains like some enigmatic sage.
But this misty cloud forest has other beauties too - creatures like the endangered Spectacled Bear, woolly monkeys and rare orchids. Back at my hotel the grounds felt like a lush nature reserve - filled with butterflies and birds in brilliant shades of sapphire, scarlet and saffron. Most exciting for me were the hummingbirds, which looked like animated gems. One flew so close that I even heard the beat of its tiny wings. Peru may boast archaeological wonders and rich reserves of gold, but its real treasure is its wildlife which is richer than I’d dared to imagine.
Rebecca Ford writes regularly for the travel pages of UK publications such as the Daily and Sunday Express, and also contributes to the London Evening Standard, Independent on Sunday and Scotland's Sunday Herald. She has won several awards for her writing. Her guidebooks include Siena and the Heart of Tuscany, which is published by Footprint, and she has also contributed to guides published by the AA, Dorling Kindersley, Insight and Thomas Cook.
She writes audio guides for attractions such as Hampton Court and Kenilworth Castle, and podcast tours for American Express. She writes about anywhere that offers a good story, but specialises in Britain, Italy, rail journeys, spas, eco holidays and wildlife.
Categories: South America