A lush jungle experience in the Amazon lives up to the hype.
PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru - Amazon inspiration has always been all around me — from the pages of National Geographic to my favorite movie, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which traces the journey of Spanish explorers in search of the lost city of gold, El Dorado. Last spring, while on an assignment for Fathom, I finally found my way to Peru. I started in the Sacred Valley, checked off one of my bucket-list destinations, Machu Picchu, and strolled the beautiful mountainous city of Cusco. The last stop on my itinerary was Puerto Maldonado, the southern gateway to the Amazon rainforest.
I boarded a short flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. The last minutes of the flight brought me directly over dense rainforest, with the Madre de Dios River and its tributaries carving through the dark green landmass. As the plane started to descend, I could make out tiny boats in the chocolate-colored water, and even saw hanging vines in the dense forest of trees. I pictured monkeys swinging from the vines and anacondas sliding into the river.
Angelo from Inkaterra Hotels gathered all the Inkaterra guests at the airport. Inkaterra operates three hotels in the Madre de Dios area: Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, a longstanding eco-luxury lodge on the banks of the Madre de Dios River, Inkaterra Guides Field Station, a training and research center and Inkaterra’s newest property; and Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción, a more remote jungle lodge.
We took a short shuttle bus ride through town and arrived at a river port where a boat taxi was waiting. I put on my life jacket as the motor started roaring. I inched closer to the front of the boat so I would have an unobstructed view — only the nose of the canoe and on either side the Amazon rainforest, brilliant green in the sun. The wind was blowing and I could feel the spray of the river on my face. I was actually entering the Amazon — and I felt like a modern day Indiana Jones.
Inkaterra Hacienda Concepción is just the right amount of luxury while still maintaining a jungle vibe. The main house, Casa Grande, contains a reception area, restaurant, and a relaxation lounge, all with large windows that frame the dense forest, so that was always top of mind. But first, a buffet lunch with chicken, vegetables, rice, and a dozen other items. Inkaterra sources most of their ingredients locally and even operates a vegetable farm on the premises.
After lunch, I received the key to my private cabana, one of nineteen, and met the on-site naturalist and guide, Reuben Leon. Mr. Leon, or “The Lion,” as we started calling him since, well, he deserved the name, grew up in these parts of the Amazon and seemed hardened and strong. He looked like someone who can build anything with his hands or figure his way out of a perilous situation. We discussed the activities I’d be participating in during my two-night stay. I signed up for nearly everything that was available, including a night trek through the jungle in search of boa constrictors and jaguars, a stroll through Inkaterra’s “Canopy Walkway” — a series of seven hanging bridges set 30 meters above ground — plus one of the main highlights of the area — the trek to Lake Sandoval — which I would start the next morning.
I had no idea how much the trek to Lake Sandoval would kick my ass. It didn’t help that I was visiting during the end of the rainy reason, and that the night before, it had rained constantly. The previous night, I’d completed a rainy night trek while Mr. Lion chanted, “Boa. Boa. Boa. Come out, Mr. Boa,” pretty much the entire time. Much to my relief (and Mr. Lion’s devastation), we did not see any boas or any other venomous snakes. There was hardly a “trail” and during parts of the trek, Mr. Lion was literally cutting his own path through the dense forest … and I kept imagining that any snake we’d encounter would probably announce itself by falling on my head. (Every few minutes, I did a back check to see if any deadly scorpions or leeches had landed). But the trek did get my blood pumping, so I was ready for the next day.
In the morning, I went to the naturalist center to pick out some knee-length rubber boots I’d need for the trek. I found a pair in my size and as I was about to place my foot inside, Mr. Lion put his hand on my shoulder. “Eh. Eh. Eh,” he said, “Where are you?”
“Where are you right now?”
“Oh,” I said, realizing what he was referring to. I flipped the boot upside down banged it hard against the floor. No creepy crawlers seemed to come out, so I placed it back on my foot.
“Never forget where you are at all times,” Mr. Lion said. “In the jungle!”
After a short boat ride to the trailhead, we began our walk. The next couple of hours went like this: As I took a step, my leg would plunge deep into mud all the way to my knee, sometime overflowing into my boots. Then I would use all my might to pull my foot out of the mud and take another step. Repeat at a slow (emphasis on s-l-o-w) pace for the next two hours. It was exhausting.
Early on in the trek, I managed to get both my feet caught in the mud and Mr. Lion had to come back to physically lift my foot out of the mud with his bare hands. I eventually learned to lift my foot up with my toes (and not my entire foot otherwise the boot would come off) and not to linger in one place too long so as not to sink. Adding insult to injury, Mr. Lion ignored any semblance of a trail and effortlessly bulldozed his way through the muddy pathway. So much for my outdoorsman fantasy.
At long last, we made our way to the end of the trail and boarded a small wooden canoe to paddle the lake for the next couple of hours.
Mr. Lion, having just completed the same exhausting trek as I, had barely broken a sweat. He simply grabbed the oars of the canoe and paddled onward. He was the Terminator. I didn’t have much of a breakfast due to the early start so was thankful when he pulled out some granola bars and fruit from his backpack. He also handed me a cold wet towel that magically appeared from his pack. It immediately turned brown as I wiped my hands and face.
One benefit to visiting the Amazon during the rainy season — and just the one — is that it’s not excruciatingly hot and humid as it is during the summer. We lucked out with an overcast day, so we cruised the open lake in relaxed comfort. There were only a few boats on the lake, with barely a sloshing of oak cutting through mirrored waters. I stretched my legs in the empty slot in front me and peeled an orange. As I ate the refreshing citrus, I started to come alive again. I closed my eyes and let my hand dangle into the water. “Please don’t do that,” Mr. Lion said immediately. Moments later, we spotted a large caiman (a type of crocodile) surfacing just a few feet from the boat. Piranhas, I was told, also patrol these waters.
We paddled along the forest edge and spotted howler monkeys causing scenes, a row of bats sleeping under a tree branch, and all sorts of colorful birds and flowers. Those pages of Nat Geo were coming to life right in front of my eyes.
The thing to see on Lake Sandoval are endangered river otters. Every time we passed another boat, Mr. Lion would talk to the boatmen and ask if they had seen the otters. Then suddenly, as I was snapping some photos of vultures circling above, our slow-paced cruise turned into a quick paddle toward the horizon. “Do you see them?” I asked. He nodded yes. Normally when I go on these types of cruises and safaris I never end up seeing the thing you’re supposed to see, so my expectations were low. But sure enough, we paddled up to a group of otters in the process of fishing. Some were floating on their backs while paddling with their tiny feet. “Do you want me to get closer?” Mr. Lion asked. “No,” I said. “It’s fine.” Sometimes, you just have to put the camera away and appreciate where you are. We sat in silence and watched the otters splashing away.
And that’s really what I liked the most about being in this part of the Amazon: the feeling of truly being there. No villagers appeared to put on a song and dance, there were no caged jaguars, and I wasn’t viewing wildlife behind a fence. Instead, I was the outsider trying to get a peek into the flora and fauna of the rainforest, to get a glimpse of the plants and animals living their fascinating everyday lives — hunting, fishing, or doing whatever they can to survive. Even though my accommodations were upscale and the food was plentiful and delicious, it still felt like I was roughing it. After all, I had to earn those joyful moments by sloshing through all that mud.
Later that night, I had a nice dinner with the Inkaterra staffers that live year-round at the lodge. They shared some amazing stories: There was the time they found a boa constrictor caught in a net and had to carefully revive it and set it free in the jungle; rumblings of the whereabouts of the “uncontacted tribes” that still live in the Amazon; how to spot the ten-foot long paiche fish we were consuming for dinner (one of the largest freshwater fish in the world). I felt far removed from my normal life, exactly where I wanted to be.