Amazonia - Rio Tambopata, Peru

June 8-12, 2007






We fly from Cusco over the Andes into a world of endless green expanse. The copper-colored Madre de Dios river snakes its way towards the Amazon.





Climbing out of the plane just a half hour after take-off, we are hit by the heat and humidity of the tropics. It is 87° and the humidity is pushing 100%. The center of this part of the Peruvian Amazon is Puerto Maldonado, a simmering frontier town of dirt streets and ramshackle buildings close to the border with Bolivia and Brazil. We drive down Calle Fitzcarrald, and in our imaginations, hear Caruso singing Puccini, as Werner Herzog directs half-crazed Klaus Kinski hauling a 360-ton boat through the steaming jungle. (The real Fitzcarrald, a Peruvian, was a brutal rubber baron who moved a disassembled steamship between two nearby rivers, discovering an overland passage that allowed rubber to be exported from the Madre de Dios region.)

This is the jumping off point for boat trips up the Madre de Dios. Rivers are the highways of the jungle, and within an hour we are motoring our way towards the Wasai Lodge, five hours upriver on a tributary called the Rio Tambopata.






Wasai Lodge on the banks of the Rio Tambopata.





Early each morning, as the fog and mist swirls around the tree tops, we walk on trails through the Amazon rainforest in search of birds and monkeys. The forest has enormous trees, larger than we've ever seen before, many with huge flattened buttresses around their base, others supported by strange roots that form a cone of stilts at the base. The birds seem to delight in singing at the very tippy top of this forest, always just out of our view. A band of twenty saddleback tamarin monkeys leaps from branch to branch, a hundred feet overhead. Masses of butterflies are everywhere and are every color: red, fluorescent blue and orange, blue streaked, white with delicate yellow markings. It's the low-season for butterflies, but we are amazed at the variety and more amazed to learn that over 1300 species have been recorded here. By mid-morning, oropendulas and caciques serenade us in the orchard near the cabins, by night-fall, the drone of singing insects and croaking frogs reigns supreme.

Sound Recording: Day and night on the Tambopata (4:16).










We met a great father-daughter team from Ireland, volunteering at the lodge on a sustainable farm project, who taught us the card game forty-five. It's a crazy game of skill, daring, and a sprinkle of misdirection (cheating), that kept us laughing and chatting for hours on end during the hottest hours of the day. And while we played, quiet little black gnats had a field day on any exposed skin, leaving each of us with hundreds of bites that still itch like crazy.


But something kept troubling me. I kept wondering why, well into the dry season, the rivers were rusty brown, filled with suspended sediments. We had noticed one dredging operation after another -- gold miners seeking their fortunes on the Rio Tambopata. We motored past dozen or more of these simple rigs -- two canoes lashed together with a blue tarp enclosed platform, a couple of bare-chested men working a noisy generator and wielding a twelve-inch diameter suction hose.

After returning to Lima, I learned these miners were working illegally, unregulated, and ignored in the buffer zone of the 675,000 acre Tambopata National Reserve, just established in 2000. They pump silt and gravel from the river bottom or, using monster front loading rigs, dredge up the forest floor in their quest for gold deposited in former river flood plains that stretch for miles inland. They dredge to a depth of 30 meters, causing massive destruction zones in and along the river. Huge quantities of sediment become suspended the rivers and tributaries, which suffocate the fish. Worst of all, the miners use a toxic mercury soup to extract the gold (it sticks to the mercury) as they sluice the silt. They then heat the mixture water, vaporizing the deadly mercury into the air and water. In a sad, sad cycle, the miners and local community members breathe toxic fumes, their families eat fish with levels of mercury unacceptable in developed countries, and now, their children suffer high rates of birth defects.

Reflecting back on our stay, I remember hearing the almost constant drone of generators, wondering about the scarce and skittish wildlife, and meeting a bright, friendly guide, whose arms were short and twisted. I still don't know the meaning of all of this, but I worry about the future of the Amazonia's rainforests and wildlife.


Aerial view of the muddy scars left by gold miners, along the main channel of the Rio Madre de Dios.


Cusco (plane) ► Puerto Maldonado (boat) ► Wasai