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.
A whole set of different life-forms inhabits the canopy. Pepe has built a platform 130 feet up in the crown of a massive ironwood tree that we reach by being hauled up one at a time in a canvas chair by everyone below. As I rise above the lake I can see an unbroken sea of green spreading 100 miles north to the Acre River, the border with Brazil. I have an urge to just take off into it with Zach, Narciso, and Juan. We could probably reach the river in four days.
When I first set foot in the Amazon 25 years ago to write about this incomparable, incomprehensible wilderness, a fire bigger than Belgium was raging out of control. The forest was being cleared, and its flora and fauna, much of which is still uncatalogued, was going up in smoke in order to produce a few years' worth of beef. The land would then be abandoned, to bake into brick-hard laterite.
The assault has continued unabated, and 18 percent of the forest has disappeared in 50 years. A sophisticated satellite system monitors the clear-cutting and the fires, and laws restricting deforestation are in place, but stopping it is another matter.
Still, the Amazon rainforest is so enormous that 82 percent of it is estimated to be, more or less, intact. Now there is another threat, more remote but no less devastating, as became evident when we flew over the Andes. The mountains looked like melting ice cream cones, their snow and ice reduced to small patches. The Peruvian National Council for the Environment has predicted that there will be no glaciers in Peru by 2020. All the world's snow and ice is melting, but none so fast as tropical glaciers and ice fields. What will become of the Amazon with no snowmelt to feed its headwaters, and ever decreasing rainfall? Will it be a savanna again as it was 100,000 years ago?
In fact, the dehydration of the Amazon rainforest is already under way. While we were able to reach the ARCC, 40,000 ccaboclos, the mestizo backwoods people of the Brazilian Amazon, were stranded up rivers that had gone dry. The waterways are still the only roads in most of the Amazon valley. The world's land surface is progressively dessicating as a result of global warming--even here, one of the wettest places of all.
And in a few years theInteroceanica highway will be completed, providing long-sought (and long-fought by conservationists) access to the Pacific and Asian markets for the Amazon's wood and minerals. Puerto Maldonado will be overrun with marginal Brazilians, Pepe predicts--the homeless from cities who are already pouring into the Madre de Dios region. "Maybe I will move out to the ARCC and live there full-time," he says. Every day trucks and boats bring more people with visions of El Dorado, carrying all they own in a tote bag to this fast-growing city of 50,000. Most of them will start out trying their luck at gold mining and end up cutting trees down for one of the lumber companies or collecting Brazil nuts. So if you want to experience the Amazon, you'd better get there fast, and I can't think of anywhere better than Pepe's five-star gem.
|PERU: Making the Trip|
|The Amazon Resources Conservation Center (ARCC) is remote but relatively easy to reach through a series of air, land, and river connections. Frequent and direct international air service is available from several major U.S. gateways, including New York, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Los Angeles, to Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima, Peru. Daily flights from Lima over the Andes Mountains connect through Cuzco to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado. From there it's a comfortable seven- to eight-hour ride in a motorized dugout up the wildlife-rich Las Piedras River. Before embarking on the river journey to the ARCC, you could plan to spend a night in the colonial Hotel Antigua in the Lima suburb of Miraflores or in the luxury Monasterio Hotel in Cuzco. Leave time in your Peru itinerary to visit Inca ruins and native Quechua Indian villages in Cuzco, the Urubamba Valley, and the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. Birders and botanists will appreciate staying overnight at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, located in a subtropical cloudforest of bromeliads, ferns, flowers, and orchids that's filled with butterflies and birds. Seattle-based Wildland Adventures is an award-winning ecotourism company that has been working for 20 years with conservation organizations and naturalist guides throughout the rainforests of Tambopata and Manu. It offers guided excursions for individuals, families, and small groups throughout the Andes, the Amazon, and the Galapagos Islands.|
This story originally ran in the July-August 2006 issue as "Last Resort."