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Exploring The Tambopata National Reserve in Peru

Welcome to the Jungle

While Peru may be more famous for the remarkable Machu Picchu, cosmopolitan Lima, the enigmatic Nazca lines and the serenely beautiful Lake Titicaca, a significant part of the country lies within the Amazon basin and hence it is possible to visit the rainforest. The Rio Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios which flows into the Mamore River, becomes the Madeira River and eventually meets the Amazon. You can fly into Puerto Maldonado, catch a boat upriver and visit a number of lodges, all located within the Tambopata National Reserve. There are loads of excursions available – all in pristine rainforest and the wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful. The jungle is hot, sticky, humid and full of mosquitoes and other creatures that can give you a really nasty bite. But it is also wild, exciting, loud, beautiful and utterly fascinating.

The trip also triggered an interest in plants as food and medicine that continues to this day. We stayed at a lodge located in primary forest, a three hour journey up the Tambopata river.

Tambopata National Reserve

At the lodge, our room had 3 internal walls and no external wall, so it looked out at the rainforest. It was amazing to be able to lie in bed listening to the incessant cacophony of sounds, primarily from the birds and insects.

Jungle lodge bedroom

When you gaze out at the jungle, the jungle gazes back at you. It can also invade your room and cause jolly mayhem when you find frogs in the shower, possums on the bed and giant insects that fly in while you’re sitting on the loo. There was no electricity in the rooms so we relied on candles and kerosene lamps and the showers were cold water only (not a problem when it’s hot and humid). The guides and staff were excellent, the food was great and there were cocktails in the evening – which was most refined.

GUIDED EXCURSIONS IN THE TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE

There are lots of guided excursions on offer, walking in wellies along muddy trails or canoeing across an oxbow lake (which was apparently full of piranha and anaconda – eep!).

The birds and animals were fascinating and indeed we saw capybara, peccary (wild pigs), caiman (alligators), beautiful macaw, piranha, giant guinea pigs, taira, stinky birds and caught just a glimpse of a shy tarantula that wouldn’t come out to play. We avoided fire ants and hairy caterpillars. And fell over in the mud.

One of the foods eaten by locals is termites. You can find their nests in trees. They’ll come out quickly enough if you disturb the nest. You can let them run onto your finger and just eat them. They taste minty. Obviously make sure you know what a termite looks like; the ants in the jungle bite and their bite is painful.

The plants in the Tambopata National Reserve were particularly fascinating. The trees were amazing – so huge that their roots alone were taller than we were, a strangler fig that we could walk inside.

Our guide showed us how the plants are used by the local people. There were leaves that produced a purple dye when you squeezed them, leaves with an underside so rough it could be used as sandpaper, vines that can be woven, vines that are strong enough to swing on (Tarzan style) and quinine bark.

This is a walking tree. It grows straight up but in a jungle where the canopy is so dense that the forest floor is very dark, it needs to ‘move’ to find the light. It does this by growing roots from the stem in a particular direction. Old roots on the other side just die off. In this way the tree can slowly shift across the jungle and grow towards the light. You can see the new root here is a light brown colour – the tree is ‘moving’ to the right.

MEDICINAL USES FOR THE RAINFOREST PLANTS IN THE TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE

We were also given a tour of the medicinal uses for the plants by a shaman. He talked about our perception of plants as ‘alternative medicine’ commenting that these are really natural remedies that have been used for centuries. We ate leaves that made our tongues numb – a natural anaesthetic. He used a variety of plants to cure various ailments, from a natural viagra to a concoction that will dissolve rotting teeth painlessly. There are trees that exude a resin which hardens and can be used as a natural plaster cast to set bones. And the sap from a blood tree will cure simple cuts, bruises and mosquito bites.

The symbiosis in the jungle was amazing: the bullet ant has venom similar to that of a cobra and they say that if you get bitten by one, it feels like being shot. Apparently the pain is excruciating for 24 hours. The best relief for the pain can be found in the shape of a vine that grows on the tree under which the bullet ants nest. This particular vine is pollenated only by bullet ants – the cure located right next to the source.

Tambopata National Reserve

The plants of the rainforest have, unsurprisingly, been used by pharmaceutical companies, many of which extract the active ingredient from the plants, patent them and sell them back to the Peruvians at hyper-inflated prices. Sigh.

The lodge is run in a sustainable way that benefits the local people and environment. 60% of the profits from tourism go back to the local community. These have helped build a secondary school and some of the pupils have been educated there, studied English in Lima and have returned to the jungle to become guides. Local farmers can’t get enough money at the market for their fruit to cover transportation costs, so the lodge buys fruit directly from the farm across the river. We visited the farm and tasted fresh bananas, star fruit (much more tangy than the ones that have travelled halfway across the world), sugar cane, lemongrass, pineapple and more.

We also followed a brazil nut trail and had a bash at opening the hard pods (which contain about 18 nuts) with a machete. We still have all our fingers.

Brazil nut in the Tambopata

Exploring the jungle was exhausting and elating – a truly fascinating place. And at the end of each day we could relax, watching the sun set over the Tampobata before going to bed. And then we would see whether the possum had beaten us to it.

Tambopata National Reserve sunset

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18 Comments

  1. FASCINATING!! What an incredible trip! The plant remedies are amazing. I’m not sure I could stay in a 3-sided “open” room in the jungle but I am so glad that you did so that you could share this experience.

    • Thank you! It was absolutely amazing, something we were a little apprehensive about initially, but actually it was fine staying in the open room – you really felt as though you were part of the rainforest. It was lovely listening to the creatures throughout the day and night.

  2. What an adventure. Did you get a lot of bites or were the bug nets good enough? So many amazing facts in the post. Sounds like a great trip.

    • Thank you! The nets were absolutely fine during the night but, despite our best efforts with repellent during the day (mosquitoes find us to be incredibly tasty), we did get a couple of mosquito bites. Nothing else – they weren’t serious and they faded quickly. We learned so much about the jungle and the plants on our excursions, it really was fascinating.

  3. Absolutely love this post what a experience you had I’m so jealous. Do you find the natural cures interesting?

    Would love to learn a lot more about natural medicines, we have our own herbalist we use in Ireland and try and stay away from pharmaceutical medicines as much as we can. I have recently been using a product called Boswellia which is a natural medicine for inflammation which comes from the Indian Boswellia tree and it has worked wonders.

    • Thank you so much. Yes, we learned a huge amount about the plants and found the natural cures to be absolutely fascinating- a lot of medicines are derived from plants. The trip triggered an interest in growing and foraging for plants and mushrooms, so we’ve continued the learning back home (albeit in a very different environment)!

  4. What a captivation adventure, something I want to do so will keep this post to factor in all in when I eventually get to that part of the world. The thought of crossing a lake full of piranha and anaconda, makes me shudder – I would freak out if I saw an anaconda as I have a snake-phobia.
    I’ve never heard of the walking tree and it sounds fascinating- I’d love to see one of those.
    The info on the bullet an is amazing, as you say – the cure located right next to the source. The amount if info and insight you recived on this trip about the flora and fauna kept me glued and I’d love to lrean more as I believe in natural remedies rather than constant pill popping. I would so much want to vist that farm where you got to try starfruit etc. Do you have any info on how you did this ie through a travelagent/gude as I’d love to see if I can add this in to my travels.

    • Thank you! It was a fantastic adventure, challenging at times, but we are so glad that we visited. We didn’t actually see any anaconda (or indeed any snakes) but our guide did put some breadcrumbs into the lake so that we could see the piranha come up to eat them. It was much less scary than the film! The plants were completely fascinating, particularly the natural remedies. I’ll send you a message with details about who we travelled with.

  5. Wow. This was a very interesting read. The walking tree sounds fascinating. Could you see any kind of disturbance frkm it “walking?” Like, was there a path or anything? Also, I don’t usually do this but I thought for sure stinky bird was a typo so I looked it up haha nope, definitely a bird! Thanks for sharing because this is not something I think I could do. Giant insects and the shower and me don’t really get along!

    • Thank you! Yes, we had to do a double take on the stinky birds. The walking tree ‘walks’ quite slowly so other vegetation has time to grow across its path. We were a bit apprehensive about the insects but actually everything was fine and it was a fantastic experience being so close to the jungle. There was just one giant insect flying into the bathroom at an inopportune moment!

    • Thank you so much. The termites were an interesting experience. Insects are apparently quite nutritious.

  6. Oh, how badly we want to visit Peru, and the Amazon. All of these photos really make me feel like I’m there! Haven’t stayed in a 3-sided room before, but would definitely love to try – especially in a place like this! The remedies are really interesting, and I can’t speak for Andie, but I’d give some insects a try! Wonderful post!!!

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