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.
The camp has screen walls, a thatched roof, and two rows of alcoves with beds canopied with mosquito netting. Pepe was clever to make use of one of these oxbows that the river abandoned for a new, faster route on its seaward descent. The lake is like a lost world, a teeming microcosm of one of the planet's most intricate and complex ecosystems. Even in its present drought-stressed state, the biodiversity here is mind-boggling. Zach and I paddle a dugout in the failing light, looking for caimans and anacondas in the marsh grass that is closing in on the open water, but we see only a pair of sungrebes paddling around. Distant relatives of rails and coots, they are small and boldly patterned. After dark Zach shines his light on the blazing orange eyes of a yard-long caiman on the lake's edge and catches an enormous canetoad.We put in at dusk at Tipishca Camp, a small overnight lodge Pepe built a few hundred yards in from the river on one of its cast-off loops that is now a small eyebrow-shaped lake. Something is missing: the searing pungency of leaves decomposing on the forest floor that is so characteristic of rainforests. In fact, there is no smell at all, only the crackle of shriveled leaves underfoot, and the usual birdsong that I'd expect after spending years traveling in the Amazon is much muted. Juan identifies the catcalls of a screaming piha; the low, minor-key melancholy whistles of a tinamou; the doglike yelps of a white-throated toucan; and the vocalizations of jacamars, trogons, wrens, antbirds, and nunbirds. But compared with the usual din, it's eerily quiet. "The silence is because of the secas, the drought," Pepe explains. "The last rain was two weeks ago, and before that there wasn't a drop for two months straight. It is mid-September. The rainy season should have started by now."
At 4:00 a.m. we are awakened by a chorus of red howler monkeys from the other side of the lake. It sounds like wind rushing through the portals of Hades. We continue upriver, passing an intently motionless white-necked heron standing knee-deep in water, then 20 jabiru storks having a confab on a sandbar. One of them seems to be their cacique and is strutting around like a dictator. Thirty red-and-green macaws, headed for their clay lick, overtake us. Every mile or two there is another flock of these glorious, large vermilion parrots, which Juan calls guacamayos rojos. This river should be called the Rio de los Guacamayos.
The last finca, or plantation, of the Andean homesteaders ends, and the river becomes pristine, a corridor winding between two walls of densely packed trees, some 130 feet tall. Juan points out a king vulture--huge, with a bare, highly colored blue and orange neck and face--a kestrellike plumbeous kite, a sunbittern, and a yellow-headed vulture. Rounding one bend, we find 30 swallow-tailed kites, more than I have ever seen in my whole life, circling gracefully over the water. White heads and underbellies sharply contrast with their black forked tails and outer wing feathers.
Pepe tells me he grew up on the edge of what is now Manu National Park, upriver from Maldonado. "My father was a logger. I studied electric engineering in Cuzco, but there were no jobs, so I set myself up as a river merchant, running food and beer to gold miners up tributaries of the Madre de Dios. They paid me in gold, and by the time I was 24, I had a small fortune: $45,000." But Pepe went through it all mounting expeditions during the next two years to look for the lost city of Paititi, the legendary Inca city in the jungle. All he found was a couple of stone towers.
Ecotourism was beginning to boom in the selva, and for eight years he worked on the Tambopata for Rainforest Expeditions, "until I becameaburrido--sickof it," he continues. "Moving all those bodies in and out becomes like a human zoo. But I loved meeting people from all over the world and showing them the beauty and the richness of the forest. So I decided to start my own company with funding from Tropical Nature and a 40-year concession from the government for 15,000 acres on the Rio de las Piedras." The land includes a large eyebrow lake, Lago Soledad ("solitude"), named for a little settlement of which there is no longer a trace. "We are taking a big risk, because the Las Piedras is in a free zone," Pepe says. "There are no restrictions. The river turtles are not protected, and the loggers and Brazil-nut gatherers live off peccaries, tapirs, and macaws, whose flesh is unfortunately delicious."
A small sign on a tree marks the ARCC's boundary, and 10 minutes later we dock at an inconspicuous set of wooden stairs coming down to the water from a dark path that leads into an emerald-forest Eden. There are six bungalows set back from the lake and a large lodge with a kitchen, dining room, bar, and lounge. The facility has a capacity of 16, and after two years of business, it is hosting 200 guests a year. "I want to keep it a low-volume, high-quality experience--no more than 600 a year," Pepe says.