| travel TAMBOPATA |
The farther up the Tambopata River you go, the wilder it gets, with huge uprooted trees strewn across gravel banks, and dangerous rapids slowing your progress. After 12 hours in the fast river canoes (and an overnight break in a sister lodge), we reach the Tambopata Research Center, a tiny 18-bed lodge in the uninhabited frontier of the Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park. This remote jungle was chosen as the base for the Macaw Project because it’s as far from human habitation as staff and visitors could practically reach in a small boat. Sadly, it’s also the nearest point the new highway gets to the nature reserve, and the project is now contemplating relocating after 20 years of research into the natural history, conservation and management of large macaws and parrots. The project was started by Dr Donald Brightsmith of Texas A&M University in 1989. It wasn’t only the location’s isolation that appealed to him: here, the river’s banks also boast a high concentration of clay licks, where large numbers of birds gather to ingest salts and minerals. Hundreds of scarlet macaws can descend at the same time – one of the ornithological world’s most impressive aggregations. ‘They are a flagship species,’ says Eduardo Nycander, one of the research scientists based at the centre. ‘If we can protect them, we can protect all of the forest. But the road poses big problems for us – we cannot imagine the impact of a major highway just 15 kilometres from a place such as this.’ This feels about as far as you can get from the modern world. There’s virtually no sign of human life – hundreds of kilometres of pristine jungle stretch before you, with the Andes dimly visible far, far in the distance.
You’re escorted on jungle hikes and can marvel at the vast kapok trees, which rise high enough to break through the canopy, discover fist-sized tarantulas defending their tiny young, and gawp as hundreds of noisy squirrel monkeys go about their business.
The wooden lodge is simple but comfortable; the forest is vast and humbling. It’s the natural world at its most grand and it feels like a privilege to have experienced it before traffic starts rumbling down the highway.
PERU CO - ORD I NAT E S
When to go The weather in Tambopata is warm and humid all year round, with temperatures averaging 24–31°C. The rainy season is November to April, so be prepared for lengthy downpours during this time.
Getting there LAN (www.lan.com) flies daily from Lima and
Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, from where there are boat journeys of several hours to the various rainforest lodges.
Further information To find out more about Rainforest Expeditions’ lodges or the Baltimore homestays, visit www.perunature.com or www.baltimoreperu.org.pe. Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk) oﬀers nine nights in Peru (with two nights in the Amazon), including flights from Heathrow and transfers, from £2,239 per person based on two sharing.
we start a 12-hour motorised boat trip upstream from Puerto Maldonado. At first, the 100-metre-wide river is staid, a chocolate-brown sludge slowly moving between high jungle-fringed mud banks. Occasionally, the monotony is broken by the sight of a sleeping caiman or a capybara, the world’s largest rodent, foraging for roots.
‘The park is crucial, and we must make every effort to keep it as pristine as possible,’ explains César. ‘The biggest challenge is to create sustainable alternatives that can provide jobs and income for the people living in the areas near the park. We know the road is going to put tremendous pressure on these areas, and we’re working on schemes to have low-impact businesses and activities in the zone. By far the most important of those is ecotourism, but at the moment, the biggest activity in these areas is illegal gold mining.’
GOLD DUST As we progress upriver, the truth of what César is saying becomes increasingly apparent. The only other craft we see are the rafts of the gold miners, and as we get further upstream, further from prying eyes, they become more and more frequent.
The small boats are equipped with pumps that suck up sediment from the riverbed, which is then captured on mats that are dried in the sun. At the end of the day, the mats are beaten and the collected dust mixed with mercury to separate out the specks of gold.
On a good day, the teams of five or six young men, nearly all recruited hundreds of miles away in the Andes, could make a few hundred Peruvian soles. Most goes to the raft owners, but what’s left over could still be about 50 times what they would earn back on a highland farm. They take their precious bags of dust into Maldonado each week, where small traders exchange some for cash that other traders quickly convert into alcohol. Prostitution is rife, and armed, violent robbery is common.
The miners refuse to believe that mercury is toxic, believing this to be a story put about by the government to discourage them. They also pay no attention to the damage they’re doing to the river banks.
A recent report for the World Bank carried out by Austria’s Johannes Kepler University of Linz ranked Peru’s shadow economy as the fourth-largest in the world (Georgia is believed to have the largest), and the uncontrolled gold mining of the rivers is one of the country’s fastest-growing shadow sectors. The Instituto de Libertad y Democracia, a Lima-based think tank, estimates that the country’s shadow economy is worth US$90billion. None of the gold mined from the rivers flowing into the Peruvian Amazon appears in official records.
But what is growing in the official economy is tourism in the Amazon Basin and, as César insists, it’s the best hope of preserving the pristine forest.
G SHUT TERSTOCK
62 www.geographical.co.uk DECEMBER 2010