On our last morning in Cusco, the group formally split and after a tearful farewell, four of us - Bedfords, Mike and yours truly - found ourselves heading towards Puerto Maldonado to spend a few days in the Amazon jungle. Puerto was built during the heights of gold rush and thanks to the mining, this place has the highest mercury poisoning in the world. A three hour boat ride from the airport took us to our destination, Explorers Inn, situated in the middle of the Tambopata Wildlife Reserve. We were welcomed by hot sticky weather, a battalion of butterflies and an army of mosquitoes. Explorers Inn is a fantastic place for naturalists who stay here collecting vast quantities of data for their research. Our guide was one such naturalist, Nicole, who had an excellent knowledge of the jungle.
We spent rest of the morning visiting the local village, popularly knows as the infernos. These infernos were created when the Andean people, attracted by its greenery, came down to the jungle to pursue agriculture. What they did not realise is that, for all its greenery, the jungle has one of the poorest soils in the world. It is the constant decaying top layer which provides the much needed nutrients to sustain the jungle. Clearing the jungle for cultivation stops this process and thereby makes the land useless for the future. In fact a piece of land takes about 20 years to recover from a year of cultivation! The disappointment of the initial settlers when they learnt this fact is reflected in the name : the infernos. Despite this fact, there are a few papaya and banana plantations which support the people in these villages. Among the things we ate, my favourites were the cocona, a tomato like fruit, and the chocolate - for the first time in my life, I was seeing chocolates grow on trees! The wild cats in the jungle are always in grave danger from these village people. If any of the cats poses any threat to the livestock, its days are numbered. One of the locals working in the village hospital showed us a freshly killed ocelot's skin. It was a sad sight especially when we know that the naturalists on the other side of the river are spending months following their footsteps trying their best to study these nocturnal creatures.
The poor quality by of the soil combined with the struggle for the sunlight have created some unique adaptations amongst the plants/trees in the jungle, the best example of which is the tree known as the Walking Palm. The tree is capable of sending new roots towards regions rich in nutrients and severing the old ones, thereby actually "walking" to the food rich locations. A typical walking palm walks upto 40cms in its life time. The strangler fig, in order to maximise the sunlight it receives, starts its growth top down from the top branches of a host tree. When the fig becomes self supporting, it kills the host tree by cutting off its sunlight. The trees such as the capirone sheds its bark continuously to get rid of the climbers so that they can photosynthesise through their trunk. There are also trees like the tangorona tree which achieves their goal by hosting a certain species of ants called the fire ants. These ants feed on the nearby vegetation and ensure that no other tree can grow in the vicinity of their host!
Although I spent lesser days in the jungle compared to the desert and the mountains, I enjoyed the stay here as much, if not better, than the other two regions. After a few more flight journeys, few more farewell hugs and a few more last suppers, I was back in reality... back in LA. Only the photographs and the occasional email from the east are stopping me from concluding that those 25 days, when the time stood still, was not a dream.
Click here for more photos from the Peruvian rain forests.