Rafting the Rio Tambopata, Peru, June, 2000

Calm Stretch on the Rio Tambopata, Peru
Calm Stretch on the Rio Tambopata, Peru

RAFTING THE TAMBOPATA by Helen Findley

It seemed as if all the children of Putino Punco had gathered to watch us set up camp in the tangerine grove.  Some must have belonged to Felix and Rosita, the farmers whose land we were on, but we never identified which they were, except for one girl who made a broom of twigs and set to sweeping the ground under the trees as a pretense to get close.  Keith became very popular when he got out his stash of balloons and started making balloon animals and soon every child had one.  While we were enjoying the children, Greg, Raul, and Willie started getting our rafting gear set up, which included putting together the raft frames and inflating the tubes.   We rafting novices were amazed at how much work it all was.

Curious as to how a Peruvian farmer lives, we began to explore our campsite on Felix’s property.  His diversified operation appeared to be one of the more prosperous of the little village.  He had guinea fowl as well as chickens wandering around in the grove where we were camped.  We could smell the coffee beans he had stored in a shed-like warehouse and there were signs that indicated that he sometimes ran a store.  His two story house would qualify more as a shanty here in the US, but it probably was better than most.  There even was an outdoor latrine which he made available for our use.

Rosita and her mother, dressed in traditional garb of bowler hat, full skirt, and no shoes, prepared our evening meal consisting of soup, another “athletic chicken,” rice and manioc.  Soon it was dark and we gratefully crawled into our tents and sleeping bags for a much needed night’s sleep.

The next morning we donned our river gear—swim suits, over which we put long sleeved shirts and long pants, hats, and socks worn with our river  sandals.  We even were prepared to use netting over our hats, and gloves, if necessary.  Greg had warned us that the biggest hazard along the river would be gnats, and we needed to be completely covered to avoid the miseries of their bites.

Felix and Rosita served us breakfast of fried eggs, rice, and manioc, which seemed to be considered a staple, along with sweetened coffee.  We ate sitting under the overhanging roof of the storeroom and talked about the challenges of the river ahead of us.  I decided to visit the kitchen, which was the palm thatched lean-to attached to the side of their house.  It was windowless and very dark, with only the doorway and the fire burning in the clay stove providing illumination.  A table was the only furniture in that small room.  How amazing that our hearty breakfast could be produced in such a simple kitchen!

That first morning we were unfamiliar with our camping gear and rafting routine and took a long time taking down our tents and stowing everything on the rafts.  Willie was in charge of the cataraft, which held most of the equipment, but each of the other two rafts also carried their share of gear.  As they packed the equipment that had been left on the riverbank all night, Raul and Willie discovered the machetes were missing.  The expensive gadgets we Americans thought we couldn’t do without were of no use to the locals and had been ignored, but machetes were something everyone there needed.  “Don’t worry,” Raul said.  “We will come to a village where they can easily be replaced.”

Loaded up at last, our little flotilla started out—Greg rowing one raft with Keith, David, and Brian aboard, Raul rowing the other with Charlie and me, and Willie manning the cataraft.  We floated past several clusters of houses and soon came to one cluster that had a store.  Willie went ashore and soon came back with two machetes that cost 11 soles (#3.50 US) each. A sobering reminder of the dangers of our drive to the river was the sight of an overturned van halfway down the side of a cliff.  We couldn’t imagine how anyone could have survived that fall.

Soon all signs of civilization were behind us, and we were alone on the river in the Tambopata Candamo Nature Reserve.  At lunchtime we pulled over to a sandbank and out from the cataraft came a table which was quickly set up.  Coolers on the rafts divulged sandwich materials, veggies, fresh fruit (including some of Felix’s tangerines).  We weren’t giving up on good food during this trip.

Along with the food we could enjoy the butterflies that were out in the warm sun.  There were little ones with iridescent blue patches on their wings, black ones with orange spots, yellow ones, other yellow ones with black stripes, and the spectacular bright blue morphos.  Overhead we could see black birds which flashed gold wings as they flew.  Raul told us they were called oro pendulas for their golden wings and their pendulous nests which we saw hanging from tree branches.

The first day the rapids were mellow—fun and splashy, but not scary.  Charlie, who had never rafted before, let out a “yippee!” on the first rapid, and I told him this was nothing compared to what was coming later.

That night we set up camp on a big sandbank inhabited by two donkeys which brayed their displeasure at being disturbed.  A ten-foot long balsa log was discovered on the beach, and David and Keith had fun playing “strong man,” posing with and tossing about the incredibly light log.  Just before sunset a flock of parrots flashed across the sky, and as night fell we watched the amazing display of the stars and constellations of the Southern Hemisphere night sky.  Delicious smells began emanating from the cook tent where Raul, Willie and Greg were preparing our evening meal.  The table in the screened dining tent was soon set, complete with table cloth and candles.  Soon, however, we were ready to turn in for the night, two to a tent—Willie and Raul, Brian and Charlie, Keith and David, and Greg and I.  It had been a good day.

We were much more efficient at packing up the second morning, and, after a great breakfast, were soon waving goodbye to our donkeys. The morning had dawned gray but turned to sunny skies a little later.  This was good, because it meant the butterflies would be out in full force, but it also was bad as the gnats would be out, too.  We learned how important it was to be covered up one day when David chose to wear shorts and also made a pit stop without spraying his bottom with bug repellant.

David managed to have fun and keep busy the whole trip.  At one place Raul told us that here the river was serving as the border between Peru and Bolivia.  David wanted to say he had been in Bolivia so we nosed our rafts over so he could touch the cliff on the Bolivian side.  When the river was calm and the two rafts floated side by side, he amused himself by crawling over to visit the one I was riding in.  When he finally decided to move back with his dad, the rafts were 4 or 5 feet apart.  “Jump,” Raul teased.  To our astonishment David did jump but missed his goal, landing in the river, losing a sandal in the process.  We were ready to think he would make the rest of the trip in his sock feet when up it popped to the surface.  It must have been stuck under the raft all the while we were searching!

After lunch we hit the big rapids—Class IV, with Class V being the most difficult you can raft.  Our clue that we were coming to a big one was Greg and Raul instructing us to put on our helmets and to take up our paddles as we approached the rapid.  We had to paddle hard to help the oarsman keep control of the raft. Even so, one big wave flung me against the seat—big bruise!  Another time Charlie’s feet flew into the air and it looked like he was going overboard.  Raul managed to grab him and push him down before he could go out.   We had passed through the worst of the rapids and begun to relax when I noticed us headed for a big hole with water rushing into it.  “Uh oh,” Raul muttered to himself, and I knew we were in trouble.  As we dropped into the hole I leaned hard into the raft’s high side as Greg had taught me and we didn’t flip.

That night we were cold and wet as we made camp.  Dry clothes and hot food soon revived us, though it wasn’t long before we all tumbled into our sleeping bags for the night.

As we gathered for coffee the next morning we learned that Keith had suffered from diarrhea all night and wasn’t feeling at all well.  Some aspirin and a little breakfast revived him enough for him to join us on an exploratory hike up a side stream.  We climbed over boulders and waded through the stream to a spot where natural pools formed a bathtub.  Out came the camp suds and we bathed as efficiently as one can while wearing a swimsuit for modesty.

This day was a series of big rapids, but without the strong winds of the day before which had kept all of us feeling cold.  Keith, being ill, was freezing, however, and put on a wet suit, rain gear and a splash jacket on top of everything else and still shivered uncontrollably.  Despite being worried about Keith we still had fun, making it safely through the rapid Raul had dubbed “the washing machine.”  On another rapid only hanging on for dear life kept Charlie and me from washing overboard.  Greg, who had been watching us from the other raft, told us later he had been sure we were going to flip in that rapid.

A big event of the day was spotting a four-foot long caiman on the riverbank.  We were able to come close to him before Brian’s camera flash scared him off and he slipped into the water and swam away.

Late that afternoon, by now thoroughly drenched and cold, we were eager to make camp and get into dry clothes, but on this stretch of the river good sites were few and far between.  As we scouted several possibilities, Greg kept reminding us that we had to be far enough from the water to be safe should it rain in the mountains and the river rise in the night.  At last we found a spot Greg deemed suitable.  Quickly Keith’s tent was set up and he was put to bed.  David became Greg’s helper in making a great burrito dinner, while Raul baked a chocolate cake.  I helped by chopping peppers for the salsa and made the mistake of licking my fingers afterwards–ouch!  Before getting to bed we spread out wet clothes out on a log, hoping against hope that they would dry overnight.

We woke to an eerily beautiful morning as dense fog filled the river valley. As we breakfasted on pancakes and bacon we watched the fog roll through the river channel while the sun burned off the mist on the mountains behind us. Again, before leaving this spot, we made an exploratory hike up the side creek.  David tried to hack our way through the jungle but soon gave up.  Even the new machete was no match for the dense foliage.  David skipped through the stream while I waded laboriously.  I heard him ask his dad, “Why is Grandma so slow?”  Keith replied, “Maybe when you are as old as Grandma you won’t go so fast, either.”

As we returned to camp  a howler monkey’s cry could be heard faintly in the distance.  Our tents were still very wet, so we moved them into the sun to dry before packing up and passed the time looking at butterflies and insects while David had fun playing with the GPS.  Willie showed us a “bullet ant” whose bite, he said, will give extreme pain and cause a 24-hour fever.

This day’s rafting was easier as the river was widening, giving us no big rapids.  David took a turn rowing, then Keith, then I tried.  David showed himself to be a natural at rafting, learning a difficult turn and beginning to read the river, a skill important for a rafter.  We found many tapir tracks and droppings on the sandbank where we stopped for lunch, and later we found tracks of a large cat on another sandbank.  We thought those must be of a jaguar.   How we hoped we would spot that very elusive cat sometime.

That evening brought actual animal sightings.  We had spread out our tents on a large sandbank separated from the water by a huge rocky beach.  While the rest of the group sat in camp having a relaxing drink I went down to the water to wash the sand from my socks.  As I turned back I spotted two tapir wandering into the camp behind the others who were totally unaware of our visitors.  As I tried to get their attention my involuntary “Look!” scared the tapir away, and my companions saw only their backs as they meandered off.

About 5:30 pm we went to collect the clothing we had spread out on rocks to dry, but we were too late.  The heavy dew had them wetter than when we had put them out!  They didn’t dry overnight, either, because the next morning the fog was so thick we could barely see across the river.  Waiting for our tents to dry before we packed them up gave us an excuse for another leisurely breakfast and enjoying the campsite before setting off for the day’s adventures.

Lunch was at a magically lovely spot where a little stream rushed into the main river, As Greg, Willie and Raul set up the food, David had a blast going upstream and floating down while I washed my hair in the pool formed by a little waterfall.  Charlie and Brian scouted around and soon came back to report they had found really fresh jaguar tracks nearby! That added some excitement–We were getting so close; maybe we would actually see one.

With all those tracks we kept hoping to see animals, but with the dense foliage lining the river banks, all we saw were birds–macaws, parrots, king fishers and cormorants.  Finally Greg spotted a caiman, but it quickly slithered into the river before we could shoot him with our cameras.  Then jiggling branches indicated the presence of monkeys.  A big black spider monkey swung through the trees, the movement of the branches making it possible for us to follow his route even when he himself was obscured by foliage.  Late in the afternoon Greg’s raft came very close to a tapir swimming in the river.  The animal’s poor eyesight kept him totally oblivious to our presence.  That night’s camp site provided a wealth of animal tracks—capybara, ocelot, and tapir, Raul told us.

The next day, our last full day of rafting, found the river wide and with a slow current, giving our oarsmen a workout, but also giving us a chance to play in the warm water.  David and Raul had a jumping-off-the-raft contest to see who could make the most spectacular flip and biggest splash.  Soon we all were enjoying the water. We did have a dilemma, however.  The plan was for us to be picked up by a motorized launch the next morning at the junction of the Tambopata and Tavera Rivers.  Greg and Raul had quite a discussion as to which side stream was the Tavera, as they all looked alike.  Raul thought we had gone too far, and Greg, using his GPS, said that we actually hadn’t gone quite far enough and would miss our ride if we didn’t go on.  At last we came to a spot they could agree on and pulled the rafts out of the water.

We celebrated our last night on the river with a sumptuous meal, complete with Pisco sours, a traditional Peruvian drink  I thought of Cecil who had unselfishly urged me to take this trip with my sons even though  his inability to tolerate high altitudes kept him from coming along.  We all hoped he would know we were toasting him on this, our forty-fifth wedding anniversary.

That night it rained again, giving us our usual wet gear the next morning.  To give things a chance to dry out, we ate a leisurely breakfast and lounged around before starting to pack up.  Our launch wasn’t due until 10 am, and we had plenty of time.  But at 7 am a long, narrow boat carrying the first people we had seen in six days motored up.  Raul shouted, “the boat!”  while Charlie, who was beginning to think that civilization might be nice after all, shouted, “We’re rescued!”

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