THE TAMBOPATA RESEARCH CENTER, PERU, JUNE, 2000

Boat at the Tambopata Research Center
Boat at the Tambopata Research Center

The long, motorized launch pulled up to the beach and Ebetta, Nilton, and Cesar, naturalists from the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) jumped out, leaving the boatman and their guide to tend to the boat.  “We know we are early”, they responded to our apologies for not being ready to leave, “but we have never explored the Rio Tavera, and coming to pick your party up gives us the chance.  We’ll go up river, fish, and be back to load your gear up at 10.  Since we have plenty of room, anyone who wants to come along is welcome.”

Raul, Greg, and Willie needed to pack up camp, and Brian and Charlie offered to stay and help them, giving Keith, David and me the opportunity to go exploring.  Soon we were aboard the launch, buzzing upstream at what seemed to us rafters as incredible speed.  The launch traveled up rapids with ease while our three naturalists  pointed out the sights. The river itself looked like a smaller version of the Tambopata, but with fewer sandbanks along the sides. We did see kingfishers and hawks, a red brocket deer, and, most exciting of all, two sightings of giant river otters!    These are animals similar to otters we have here, but which can grow up to six feet long!  The ones we saw only showed us their heads, as they curiously popped us to see what was going by, so we couldn’t tell how big they were.  The heads appeared to me to be the size of that of a big dog’s.

Ebetta told us that our days of rafting had brought us through a totally uninhabited area.  Five or six parties at the most, would travel through it each year.  David was most certainly the youngest person to ever have rafted the Tambopata River.  As we chatted, our boat slowed as the guides looked for a place to anchor and fish.  Suddenly there was a thumping and banging in the back of the boat, and the motor stopped.  “We must have broken the propeller on a rock,” was my first thought as we all craned to look at the rear of the boat to see just what had happened.  The naturalists started to laugh.  A three to four foot long fish, trying desperately to get away, lay flopping and banging its tail on the bottom of the boat.  It must have hit the propeller and jumped into the boat.  Soon subdued it was safely stored under the floorboards to be taken back to the lodge.  As it turned out, our self-caught fish was the only one taken that day!

Our campsite was barely recognizable when we returned to it.  The only sign that we had camped there was our gear, neatly packed up and waiting at the water’s edge.  All we could see of our camp mates was their heads in the middle of the river.  The tropical heat and the gnats, which had come out in the bright sunshine, had driven them to wait for our return in the coolest place possible.

In no time at all everything was loaded and we were rushing down stream, headed for the Tambopata Research Center.  As we told the others about the adventures of the morning, Nilton was continually scanning the riverbanks with his binoculars.  Suddenly he asked the boatman to cut the motor and pointed to a sandbank in the river.  “There’s a jaguar sleeping on that sandbank,”  he whispered excitedly. “We are so lucky to see one!”

I grabbed my binoculars for a better look at that distant creature, but before I could get them focused, he had heard us, slipped into the water, and swum to shore where he disappeared into the jungle.  It was only a glimpse, but at least I can say I actually saw a jaguar in the wild.

We continued down river, with dense jungle on the riverbanks.  Finally the launch slowed and we approached steep steps cut in the cliff side.  “Here we are,” Nilton  called out.  Carefully we clambered out of the boat and up the steps.  A path led to the main lodge which was built up on stilts to raise it above the damp jungle floor.  We shed our muddy sandals before entering the building and padded down the polished wood floored hallway in our sock feet. After six nights of sleeping in tents on sandbars, our rooms seemed positively palatial.  For ventilation, the walls extended only partway to the ceiling, and the doors of the rooms consisted only of a curtain.  The back wall consisted of a railing separating us from the jungle.  Each room was furnished with two cots complete with mosquito netting, a small stand and a chair, and a candle for our light at night.  At the end of the hall was a communal washstand with a jug of water beside it, and pit toilets were near by.  The best treat of all was a shower!  It was a gravity system consisting of a large container on the roof which was filled with water each day and warmed by the sun.  The bamboo slat flooring of the shower allowed the water to drain out on the grass below.  What a luxury to have a warm shower as this!

The Tambopata Research Center
The Tambopata Research Center

It was past lunch time when we arrived and the lodge was no longer serving, so we got out the remaining food from our coolers for our lunch.  The dining hall where we ate was really a covered veranda, with only a railing on three sides.  Colorful macaws flew in from the jungle and perched on the rafters above us, eying our food.  One of the waiters came and flapped his apron at them trying to shoo them away, but they soon came back.  All of a sudden one of them flew down, landed on Charlie’s shoulder, then grabbed a piece of sandwich and flew away.  We all dissolved in laughter at the startled look on Charlie’s face.  It was then explained to us that these were “chicos” that had been raised at the center, which explained why they were so tame.  As macaws lay several eggs but only raise one chick, the researchers collected the eggs that would have been discarded by the parents and hatched them at the Center to increase the declining population of macaws.  Now these adult birds had gone off into the jungle and mated, bringing their mates back to the Center.

After a brief rest we gathered at the front steps and donned rubber boots for a naturalist-led hike in the jungle.  We were divided into two groups and set off down a narrow path.  Keith, David, Greg and I were in one group with Nilton who pointed out various bird and butterflies.  A big black bulge around a tree trunk was pointed out as a termite nest.  “Termites are edible,” Nilton said, and proceeded to demonstrate.  “Does anyone want to try?” he asked.  David was game, and I couldn’t let my grandson show me up, so I popped on into my mouth, too.  We all agreed they tasted pretty much like wood.

Looking down on the jungle floor we saw a waving line of green leaves.  They were leaf cutter ants, carrying food to the aphids that the ants kept in their nests.  The aphids produce a milk-like substance which the ants eat.  When we got down close to the ants, we could see each was carrying a leaf portion like a waving sail above its head. The line of ants continued a long way on the ground, then up a tree and disappeared into a hole in the trunk.

Next we went to a murky pond and Nilton produced a line with a hook.  After several throws Keith pulled out a small fish which Nilton told us was a pirhana.  He didn’t look nearly as dangerous as I thought a pirhana would, but I took Nilton’s word for it.  We threw the fish back and went on.

It was dark by now, so we turned on our headlamps to light our way to a tarantula in its den.  Nilton shined his light on a little nest and we caught a glimpse of a black shape scurrying away.  Just then something tickled my neck and I turned to see what it might be.  It probably was just a leaf, but in the darkness I stubbed my toe and fell flat on my camera.  I was fine, but my camera wasn’t.

Back at the lodge we shed our muddy boots and walked in our socks to the dining room for dinner.  Lamps on the tables and in strategic places in the dark hallways provided a lovely glow for the evening.  As Greg and David were walking back to their rooms after dinner, Greg felt something soft and squishy underfoot.  When he shone a light on it he discovered he had squished a big tarantula.

That night we set our alarms for 4:30 am so we could be up and ready to motor down river to catch the sunrise at the clay lick.  There we were joined by tourists from lodges further down river who had also come to see the sight of the parrots and macaws at the clay lick.  In hushed silence we watched the rays of the sun begin to touch the sheer walls of the cliff that rose from the river.  Soon there was a twittering  and chattering as the first group of green parrots flew in and settled on the cliff walls.  More parrots came, then a pair of blue macaws flew majestically toward the cliff, soaring and dipping in the sky.  We were told they were lookouts, ready to warn the other birds of hawks or other predators.  The cliff soon became a moving mass of color as birds perched on it, pecking at the clay for the minerals in it.  For an hour we sat entranced as the birds put on their show.  Then small groups started to leave, and at last the cliff was empty and silent.  All we heard was our own whispers of the wonder of it all.

Back at the Research Center we had another chance to enjoy macaws.  The staff were feeding the tame ones bananas, and invited us to join in.  We would take a banana in our hand and coax a bird onto our shoulders, where it would sit eating out of our hand.  I was amazed at how light the big birds are as one perched on my shoulder and dribbled banana down my neck.  I was also amazed at how such beautiful creatures could have such ugly voices.  “Braack!” was what they would say in response to my attempts at conversation.

Feeding the chicos at the TRC
Feeding the "chicos" at the TRC

All too soon it was time to load up on our launch again.  We were to start our journey back to civilization by spending the night at Posadas Amazonas, another lodge farther downstream, and then head to Puerto Maldonaldo to fly to Cusco.  It was with real sadness that we left this jungle paradise, and each one of us made the vow we would be back again some day.