South America Diary: Day 10

Sunday, 24 April, 2011. 09:15. In a hammock.

Into the jungleThe lights go off at 22:30 so I have to finish off yesterday’s events now, during a rest break in today’s activities.

After our walk yesterday afternoon, we gathered after dark at 19:00 for a ride in the covered boat a little upriver to see if we could spot any caimans. Their eyes glow red when illuminated in the dark. The boat began by going straight across the river to the far bank, where Saay picked out a caiman pretty quickly. It was tricky to see in the spotlit darkness, but we got a decent close look at its head for a minute or so before it dived under the water. It was small compared to a crocodile, and Saay said they fled from humans rather than attacked. We then combed the bank towards Puerto Maldonado for about half an hour, spotting nothing but native fishermen – out hunting giant catfish according to Saay. There was wood smoke drifting over the river from the cooking fires of the villagers. The moon was in the last quarter, so didn’t rise until later, and the sky was a huge velvet curtain over the jungle, spangled with stars. We could see the Big Dipper low on the northern horizon, Orion over Puerto Maldonado to the west, and the Southern Cross, Centuarus, and the swathe of the Milky Way to the south. It was gorgeous.

We crossed to the southern bank of the river to head back to the lodge, but still had no luck spotting any more caimans. Apparently they are flighty creatures, difficult to spot sometimes. We didn’t see a single other one and Saay even directed the boat operator to take us a bit past the pier in an attempt to spot one at the last minute, but no luck.

Clay eating parrotsBack in the lodge we had dinner, which began with a pumpkin soup, followed by a tandoori beef skewer with green beans and fried potato cubes. Then dessert of pears in a chocolate sauce with flaked brazil nuts. All yummy. Saay then told us about the next day’s activities, after which we went to bed early because we were to be woken at 05:00 for an early morning walk in the jungle.

Saay knocked on our cabin at the designated time and we rose, dressed in clothes and rubber boots, and assembled with the rest of our group for the 05:30 departure. The sky was starting to get light as we tromped through the cool dawn jungle. Our target was a clay lick where a small cliff of clay had been exposed by a bend in a stream. A bird hide had been built on the point of land in the stream loop facing the clay. There was a party of about 20 Europeans there already, and we sat to join them.

Tiny frogThe thing about a bird hide is you have it to hide from the birds so as not to scare them away. Saay had instructed us to be very quiet there, but apparently nobody had informed the Europeans, because they kept breaking into small conversations, loudly clearing their throats, and so on. I felt like telling them to shut up – a sentiment later echoed by Lyn over breakfast. Ale taught us what to say in Spanish to politely ask someone to be quiet, but we said we didn’t want the polite version. She said, “Ah! Then: silencio!“.

Eventually though, a group of parrots settled noisily into the trees above us, and slowly, branch by branch, they crept down towards the ground. One parrot landed on the clay and started nibbling, then several more followed, until 30 or 40 green parrots were there eating, watched over by more parrots waiting above. Saay later identified them as dusky parakeets, green with grey heads and blue edges on the wing feathers. He showed us a laminated field guide sheet and said sometimes a few other species used the clay lick too. Once the birds had gone he talked about them and why they ate the clay. While sitting there, Laura bent down to the gorund and came up with something on her hand. It was a tiny frog, no more than a centimetre long! Amazing.

Turkey VultureSaay then led us back to the lodge. On the way, he stopped to show us more plants and animals of the jungle. One stop was at a nest of so-called social spiders, a large mass of webs populated by hundreds of small red spiders. This is unusual for spiders, which are usually solitary animals. We saw a brazil nut tree, enormous and very tall, which had dropped dozens of large pods the size of a small coconut. All of them had the tops cut off and were empty of nuts. Saay explained the agouti could chew into the pods and eat the 25 to 28 brazil nuts nestled inside. Though they would only eat about ten at once, then hide the rest for later. The brazil nut is an important crop for this part of Peru. Some bark had been taken off the tree and Saay said it was probably taken by a native to use as medicine. A tea made from the bark would be good for treating diarrhoea.

On the animal side, we saw a large troupe of capuchin monkeys high in the tree tops. They were tricky to see amongst the leaves. And as we reached the lodge we passed through a clearing and I saw a large bird flying overhead. I asked Saay what it was, and he nonchalantly said, “A vulture.” Andrew joked that it must have smelt someone who hadn’t had a shower. Checking afterwards revealed it to be a turkey vulture, specifically.

Climbing onto Monkey IslandBreakfast followed: a plate of fruit followed by eggs with giant melba toasts. Then we had some free time until today’s major expedition at 10:30.

Unfortunately, Zeeshan had become a little ill, probably just through over-tiredness, and Ale took her back to the lodge early from the clay lick and she skipped breakfast to sleep. Hopefully she’ll be okay.


Zeeshan recovered enough thanks to a bit of a lie-in over breakfast to rejoin us at 10:30. A motor boat took us downstream a couple of kilometres or so to Monkey Island, an island in the middle of the Madre de Dios River. The island is 1000 metres long and 600 metres wide, and is populated by a troupe of monkeys who can’t cross the river to get off it. The lodge staff are allowed to take them bananas to eat and it is a good chance to see monkeys in the wild. We landed on the island in our rubber boots on a muddy and steep bit of shore. A path led inland through the thick growth. The noisy Europeans from the morning were there ahead of us, crashing through the jungle.

Caterpillar nestSaay pointed out more interesting things, including a large nest of small hairy caterpillars, a big ball of silk about the size of a basketball at the base of a tree. We discovered yesterday that Laura is afraid of caterpillars, so we warned her not to look. Fortunately she was at the back of the line. After the rest of us oohed and aahed, Kim escorted Laura past, with he eyes averted so she didn’t have to look at it.

Eventually, after about ten minutes of walking, we reached a clearing where the Europeans were. Saay spoke to their guide and told us there were no monkeys to be seen today. The Europeans left, but Saay took us on another path to try to find the monkeys. About five minutes along he decided that we weren’t going to find them, and turned us around. At the clearing again, we saw a table where a row of about 40 bananas had been laid out, but no monkeys. So we trudged back through the thick foliage to the boat, chalking up a blank for Monkey Island.

Green-Banded UraniaOn the boat, Saay handed out snacks for us to eat on the 50-minute boat ride to a landing spot near the oxbow lake Lago Sandoval. The snacks included packets of crackers, chocolate biscuits, a mandarin, a small banana, and a bottle of water. Along the way, Ale spotted a large turtle sunning itself on a semi-submerged branch near the shore. The boat slowed to let us look at it. It was brown like the river water, and about 50 centimetres across. Saay said they are rare, because they’ve previously been heavily hunted for meat and eggs. They can’t retract their neck into their shell like some turtles.

The weather today was mostly cloudy, which was a relief as it meant there was almost no direct sunlight burning our skin. It was also noticeably cooler and less humid than yesterday, which was also very welcome. Still, we covered up with sunscreen and hats, and added insect repellent later and throughout the day as needed. Still, I got bitten a couple of times, so it’s good to know we’re on anti-malarial tablets, even though the guide said there’s no malaria around Puerto Maldonado. Better to play safe than take risks with something like that.

Many-Banded DaggerwingAt Lago Sandoval, we walked a hundred metres or so to the sign-in point, where we had to enter our names and signatures and passport numbers (though we didn’t have ours on us) in a ledger. We thought this might be a problem, but the guy there looked bored and didn’t even care when I filled out and signed for M. as well as me. He was across the room entering souvenir stamps into people’s passports. The lake is part of a national reserve area, and so protected.

The walk to the lake was five kilometres, along a path that began on a nice boardwalk over a swampy area flooded with tea-coloured water. This lasted a hundred metres or so, then gave way to a dirt path that was very muddy and wet in spots, with deep pools of thick, sticky, clay-laden mud that sucked at our boots. The going was tough, but thankfully the path was wide and not overgrown, yet the tall forest on either side kept it in deep shade so it never got really hot. Along the way we saw lots of interesting ants, and a huge variety of colourful butterflies and moths, some with amazing iridescent wings. These were easy to approach, as Saay said they came down to get the salt off the mud on the ground, and they stayed there no matter how close you got to them.

Giant River OtterAfter this seemingly endless walk, we ended up at a small jetty where some open boats were tied up. We climbed in one and Saay paddled it out along a narrow water channel through the thick jungle growth on either side, which emerged from a flooded floor. This narrow channel went about a hundred metres and then emerged into a stunningly beautiful lake maybe a kilometre across, surrounded by the dense rainforest on all side. The water was only ever so slightly rippled by the faint breeze.

We paddled through a small gap in some trees near the shore and emerged into another side of the lake, larger than the first. We were making for our lunch spot a bit further along the shore, but in a stand of reeds someone spotted something in the water, so we back-paddled to get a closer look. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, thinking it might be a caiman. But then I saw a furry face and a couple of big white teeth, and thought it was capybaras. But then I realised they were otters! The giant river otter! Kim, a marine biologist, had told us all that they grow to two metres and she had been hoping to see some. Saay asked us if we know how big the otters grew, and Jian immediately yelled, “Two metres!” Saay confirmed this and said we were lucky to see them, because they are rare and difficult to find. We saw a total of four or five of them in a group, paddling around a bit, diving, and making barking noises to one another. They kept an eye on us and fled after a while. Very cool!

HoatzinWe made it to our lunch spot to find the Europeans there. Lyn expressed her obvious disappointment at them having taken all of the sitting space and yakking loudly. But they soon left and we could take seats to eat our lunch. This was hot parcels of rice, wrapped in large leaves a bit like banana leaves but from a different plant that Saay said gave the rice a nice flavour. Mine had a chicken leg, a boiled egg, and olives in it. M.’s had the egg, broccoli, and haloumi in it. They were absolutely delicious after the hard slog of the morning.

We rested for ten minutes after lunch before returning to the boat for the return journey. But we first went a bit further along the shore because one of the other guides had told Saay that there was a troupe of monkeys near there. We paddled quietly, me taking the extra paddle that was in the bat. As we moved along the shore we could hear animal calls getting louder. I assumed it was the monkeys, but then spotted two large, colourful, chicken-like birds in a tree, low down near the water. Saay said they were hoatzins, the primitive bird with claws on its wings. As we watched, maybe a dozen or so flapped around clumsily, making hooting sort of calls. They were amazing.

Spectacled CaimanBut then as we left the hoatzin, we heard crashing in the trees behind them. Saay said it was a troupe of monkeys, so we watched silently and patiently for them. This was rewarded by the appearance of several small golden monkeys high in the trees above us. There was also a larger brown monkey moving with them that was more elusive to spot. Saay said the different species of monkeys often travel together. We stayed drifting silently watching the monkeys for several minutes, then started paddling back.

On the way, we spotted a spectacled caimanin the lake, peering at us with its eyes above the water. We paddled very close and got a good look at the top of its head before it dive out of sight. Andrew helped Saay with the paddling, but it took quite a while to return to the jetty. As we glided across the lake, the sky grew dark as a mass of grey cloud rolled across. On the horizon, we could see the towering shape of a huge cumulonimbus cloud. Thunder rumbled across the water and the wind picked up strongly, causing the ripples to grow into a swell maybe 30 to 40 centimetres high. The boat began rocking and then the rain poured down out of the violent sky. We donned our rain gear and huddled into the boat as Andrew and Saay paddled as fast as they could. Andrew tired and I took the paddle. The paddling was tough work in the rain, which was pelting down at 45 degrees.

Rain on Lago SandovalThe rain eased up after 15 to 20 minutes, and then stopped completely as the storm moved on. We approached the swampy area and drifted in through the enclosing trees. As we did so, another troupe of monkeys appeared, moving from branch to branch across the waterway. They were the golden ones again (later I identified them from my photos as black-capped squirrel monkeys), and again we saw one of the larger brown ones with them. This time they were much closer and easier to see. So this was the best monkey experience of the trip, as opposed to No-Monkey Island.

Black-capped squrrel monkeysBack on dry, well, wet really, land, we began the long trek through the mud to the Lago Sandoval admin centre. This trek took a long time as we had to be careful not to fall in the sticky mud. The sun was going down and it slowly grew dark. Fortunately, we’d brought a torch, so used that to navigate through the pitch black Amazon night. Near the end, Saay appeared with a more powerful torch to help us along. The walk was both long and arduous, but we eventually made it back on to the boat and our ride back to Corto Maltes lodge.

We had twenty minutes before dinner at 19:00, which was just enough time for me to have a quick shower and change into fresh clothes. The dinner was a spicy lentil soup with cumin in it, followed by beef and rice cooked with red capsicum and cumin. They must have got a great deal on a job lot of cumin, given it featured heavily last night too. M. had rice with leeks. Dessert was pear in a chocolate cream sauce, with toffee strands dribbled over it.

After dinner, it was an early night for us, but we could hear Andrew, Kim, Laura, Zaina, Zeeshan, and Jian having fun in the bar until lights out at 22:30.

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