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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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  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!!!

    • Thank you! We really hope you get to visit one day – you will absolutely love it. Definitely worth giving the insects a try… but avoid the ants!!

  7. What a fascinating and lovely adventure (minus the insects and frogs in the shower lol). The Tambopata national reserve sounds like somewhere I would enjoy very much. The jungle sounds amazing and I am fascinated by the walking tree and how it moves towards the light. I would be particularly interested in the tour with a shaman to listen to their wisdom and learn about medicinal plants.

    • Thank you so much. It was a brilliant adventure. Even the insects and frogs weren’t off-putting! We learned so much about life in the jungle and it triggered a fascination of plants as food and medicine that continues to this day. The walking tree was amazing – such a great means to reach the light. And the shaman was so willing to share his knowledge.

  8. Peru is on my dream list, and I want to visit it because of its extraordinary nature, history heritage. I would love to explore the Tambopata National Reserve. And with your tips, it could be a great trip. I love wildlife photography and watching wild animals in their natural habitat, so it seems a perfect trip for me. I would love to take pictures of capybara, peccary, caiman, beautiful macaw, piranha, giant guinea pigs, taira, and stinky birds. However, I’m unsure if I would like to spot a tarantula, even shy ones.

    • Thank you. We absolutely loved Peru and were surprised at how much we enjoyed the jungle. It was absolutely fascinating. Like you, we love seeing wild animals and this jungle trip gave us the perfect opportunity to see some amazing creatures. We were a bit disappointed that the tarantula wouldn’t come out to play – he was only the size of a dinner plate!!

  9. No external wall on the hotel would be an interesting experience. The frogs and possums wouldn’t bother me but the giant insects would. However, that’s what you get when you stay in the rainforest and see a totally different side of Peru than most visitors. Must have been magical!

    • We loved the hotel with the external wall. The giant insect was kinda funny and we didn’t feel too scared by it – it was more of a surprise! The jungle was absolutely magical and was an unexpected highlight of our trip to wonderful Peru!

  10. Welcome to the jungle indeed! The Amazon fascinates me and I would love to visit the rainforest someday. not sure how I would cope with all the wildlife, however. Hard to imagine that locals eat termites but that’s just my ignorance. I imagine they have done this since the beginning of time. Great post.

    • Thank you! We would definitely recommend visiting the rainforest if you get a chance, it was a really fascinating experience. The wildlife was really interesting and even the frogs and insects in the room weren’t too traumatic! It was really interesting to learn how local people live in the jungle and how they use it as a resource – whilst still respecting it.

  11. This post is so funny! The lodge room with no exterior walls sounds like an adventure itself. I would find the sound of the forest to be so relaxing, even if it was so loud at night, but I’m less sure how comfortable I’d be with the critters. The rainforest trek sounds really fascinating; it’s so impressive how many cool animals you can see.

    • Thank you! The lodge with the exterior wall looking out to the jungle was brilliant. It was wonderful to listen to the sounds of the rainforest. The insects in the room weren’t actually a big problem – the giant insect was more of a surprise! And you sleep under mosquito nets so you’re safe in bed… unless the possum joins you! Trekking in the jungle was great – we loved seeing so many creatures.

  12. No walls in a rainforest… now that’s something to keep me awake at night! Just the chance of having less friendly animals going in there would freeze my blood ahah
    I found the possibility of taking a tour about the medicinal plants extremely interesting. It’s an absolutely fascinating world!

    • We thought having no walls would be a challenge, but we loved it. We did sleep under mosquito nets which provided some reassurance that the insects could attack us during the night! The medicinal plants are absolutely fascinating and this was such an educational trip.

  13. Fascinating how you can literally survive in the jungle and live of its resources. Not entirely sure if I would fancy eating termites or appreciate an opossum in my bed, but I can imagine this has been a unique experience. How did you find out about this? Did you find a local guide once you got there or did you all plan and set this up beforehand?

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    • Thank you. Yes, we found the jungle to be absolutely fascinating, particularly how the plants can be used as a resource. We loved seeing the creatures and it was always funny going to bed to discover which were going to join us! We prearranged this trip with a company who know Peru well. It was all really well organised and we had a fantastic time.

  14. I’m so jealous. What an experience this would be! The Amazon is on my bucketlist but not a chance would I chance sleeping with a possum lol. Definitely need the 4th wall. I would find the medicinal uses of the plants interesting.

    • Thank you! It was a remarkable experience. The fourth wall looking out to the jungle was absolutely fine – we were a bit nervous at first but it all worked out. We were really intrigued by the use of plants as medicine and our visit triggered an interest in plants as food and healing.

  15. While I’m not a fan of bugs so the idea of fire ants and tarantulas terrifies me, the idea that you can find so many natural medicines here is really interesting. I’m sure the walk with a local guide was really informative, and so cool to think that there really is that balance in nature: the things that can heal and sooth pain so close to the things that can also cause it. I’m intrigued about Peru but I might have to work up to a rainforest trip

    • We were really disappointed that the tarantula wouldn’t come out to play! We were surprised that we weren’t too bothered by the bugs – they are part of the ecosystem – and we did sleep under mosquito nets, which meant that the chances of bug attack during the night was minimised! Learning about the uses of the plants was absolutely fascinating and triggered a real interest in plants as food and medicine. We do hope you get to visit Peru – it’s a wonderful country with so much history and nature to explore.

  16. Ohh, I love jungles & today I learnt that termites taste like mint!

    Great post and lovely experience, guys. Really jealous because I would love to do the Amazon.

    You guys enjoyed the Brazil nuts, I take it? Ha!

    • Thank you! Really hope you get to visit the Amazon, our time in the jungle was truly amazing. We loved the Brazil nuts. Somewhere there is a video of Mitch trying to crack the outer shell with a machete. I managed on the third attempt!

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