The Star Peru jet descends quickly over the white glaciered Andean slopes and down into the steam of the jungle. We are heading toward the two-bit, funky town of Puerto Maldonado known for corrupt politicians, eco-unfriendly gold mining, prostitutes and dirty shanties. Humphrey Bogart would feel at home here with fedora and a white linen suit. This frontier outpost lives up to all of that.
Greeting us at the airport gates is Joelson ‘Fino’ Toledo, a lean, tall Brazilian who would guide us for the next five days through Peru’s Amazon basin. Before I take two steps, Fino asks enthusiastically, “Do you want to see your first bird?”
Sure. We grab our binoculars, leave our bags with the driver and follow Fino across the blazing hot, asphalt parking lot. Fino stops at an 80-foot tree and points, “Look! Look! Look!” About two-thirds up, flattened against the trunk is a Great Potoo—a buff colored, orange-eyed, two-foot long bird that ranges from Mexico to South America. We had landed only five minutes ago and Fino already got us to our first sighting. I am duly impressed.
After an hour drive through spotty, slashed-and-burned jungle, we are delivered at our boat waiting on the banks of the Rio Tambopata. This mud-brown river winds north through southern Peru, changing its name to the Madre de Dios at Puerto Maldonado, and then snakes east 20 miles to Bolivia. There it becomes the Rio Madeira, the biggest tributary of the Amazon River. The Madeira runs for 2000 miles. It dumps into the largest river in the world near Manaus, Brazil, the former rubber capital of the 19thcentury.
But today, we head against the stream south and get into the rhythm of the Rio Tambopata. The first dance step is boat balance. The craft are narrow and long. Before we start our boatman, Enrique, places people and cargo that bests suits horizontal. If I reach from starboard to port in order to reach my pack, the boat leans quickly. Sloooow is the operative word. We are starting to learn the Tambopata tango.
The next step learned is the rhythm of the trip. The overhead sun shimmers mirages off the water. The heat overwhelms when we have to slow down. The sights of scarlet macaws, zone-tailed hawks and yellow-billed terns simply mesmerize. Traveling by river through the jungle is everything that I had ever imagined. A banana boat passes by. A red howler monkey screeches at us from a 70-foot umbrella tree. I watch naked local kids frolic in the river searching for relief from the heat. I know that the Tambopata is home for deadly piranha and hungry caimans.
“Is this safe for those kids?” I ask my trusted guide.
Fino looks in the direction of the children and simply shrugs his shoulders. “They swim like that all the time. Probably not a good idea.”
An hour later we reach the jungle lodge appropriately named Posada Amazonas, the Amazon Inn. This is home for the next two days. Soon we will be sipping pisco sours at the bamboo bar. But I don’t need the elixir to enhance the day. I am already heavily hooked on the rhythms of the Tambopata Tango.