Week 24 – Inca Trail and Amazon, Peru
Hi everybody! We’ve had an incredible and very busy week. We’ve just returned from the Amazon and we’re sitting in a cafe in Cusco while we wait for our second night bus in a row. This week we’ve hiked the Inca Trail, seen Machu Picchu and ventured into the Amazon Jungle for some wildlife spotting!
Today we had a very early start to meet the rest of our group for the Inca Trail. After piling onto the bus at 4:30am, we managed to get a bit more sleep while we made our way to Ollantaytambo. This is one of the towns we’d visited as part of the Sacred Valley tour, and it’s very close to kilometre 82, where we’d be joining the Inca Trail. We had breakfast in the town before taking the bus for a further 20 minutes to the entry point. We had to show our tickets and passports twice as part of the check-in process. The Inca Trail only allows 500 people to begin the trek every day, and this includes all of the porters and tour guides, meaning that the actual number of tourist passes is closer to 200. That means that the trail is in high demand and sells out way in advance.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is just part of an extensive network of trails and roads that used to connect the vast Incan Empire. Our guide explained that the part of the trail that we would be walking on was used as a sort of Pilgrimage to the city of Machu Picchu, built by the 9th Emperor of Cusco, Pachacutec. The ruins that we would be seeing along the way were towns that were built to provide supplies and house travellers along the way.
We passed over the Urabamba river (also known as Willkamayu, ‘sacred river’ in Quechua, the language of the Incas and still used by the indigenous people today) to start our trek at kilometre 82. The trail started off quite easy. We were walking along a fairly level trail which followed the river valley, although part way up one side. We passed a number of small houses which had one room shops in them, selling food and bandanas to tourists. Our guides Alex and René split up, with one leading us on and the other bringing up the rear to make sure nobody fell behind. We stopped a couple of times in the shade for a break, especially when the path started to get a little steeper. Every so often there would be a cry of ‘porter to the left/right’, and we’d all move to one side while these amazing men walked past. Each one was carrying a huge backpack weighing up to 20kg. Our group of 14 tourists had 20 porters. They were carrying our tents, sleeping mats, the dining tent, and all of our food and equipment. One of them was carrying a gas canister for the cooking. We had been planning to carry everything including our sleeping bags, but the sleeping bags we hired were really bulky, so we’d caved in and paid for a porter to carry them for us. Other people in our group had also hired the porters to carry their personal belongings. We were quite pleased we’d managed to fit everything else we needed in our backpacks! Some of the porters’ bags were larger than they were, but they powered down the trail like machines while we toiled slowly behind.
The trail wound uphill to a beautiful viewpoint over the river valley. After stopping for photos we carried on a bit further to the ruins of an Incan town called Llactapata. Alex explained that this would have been an important town for travellers on the Inca Trail. It had lots of farming terraces, houses and a temple. He explained that it is likely that the Emperor himself would have stayed here when travelling along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It was really cool to imagine. Llactapata was also an important town for the control of the Sacred Valley, just like Ollantaytambo and Pisac that we’d visited earlier in the week. The valley was a very valuable piece of territory, with incredibly fertile farming ground, and a warmer temperature than Cusco for growing crops such as maize. It had taken the Incas a while to conquer the valley, and they wanted to keep it under their control. The towns helped with this.
We turned away from the river after visiting Llactapata, and started to head further into the Andes. We stopped for lunch at a small village called Wayllabamba. Our porters had gone before us and had set up the dining tent, complete with table and chairs. I couldn’t believe how much they had carried! We had a short break while lunch was prepared, and then sat down to a three course meal of homemade nachos and guacamole, soup and then meat and rice. It was delicious.
In the afternoon we had a slightly gruelling couple of uphill hours to reach our campsite for Day 1. Having stayed behind to pack up the lunch stuff, the porters soon overtook us again. We eventually made it to our campsite (at 3300m above sea level!) to find our tents already pitched and popcorn and hot drinks waiting for us. This is definitely luxury camping, apart from the toilets – the campsite did have its own toilets but they were ‘squatting ones’, consisting of a hole in the ground, a flush and not much else. I didn’t realise that toilet basins were something that I took for granted until they weren’t there.
Before dinner, we all got together with the porters to properly introduce ourselves. Our guide Alex explained to us that most of them were farmers from the highland villages around Pisac, in the Sacred Valley. Their farming provided them with only the most basic standard of living, and so they became part time porters to earn a better income. Some of the younger porters in the group (the youngest was 19) were doing this to pay for college. The oldest porter was 61. Alex explained that they spent their whole lives climbing up and down the mountains where their farms were, so the altitude didn’t affect them. I was still so impressed by how they managed to do this trek multiple times a month with the heavy bags. We took it in turns to introduce ourselves and then shook hands and had a group photo. Because they were all from the Sacred Valley and their primary language was Quechua, we learnt the Quechua word for thank you – ‘solpayki’ – and said it over and over!
Dinner was delicious, and then we all retired to our tents, even though it was still pretty early. We were going to have to get up at 4:30am again in the morning to tackle the toughest day of the trek.
Day two dawned horrendously early, but we were enticed from our tents by tea and pancakes. The Peruvians use coca leaves a lot; they form an integral part of their culture. The leaves contain the cocaine alkaloid (0.8%) and so receive a lot of negative press and are outlawed in many countries. However a lengthy process is needed to extract this alkaloid – in their natural form the leaves aren’t psychoactive or addictive. They apparently have a slight stimulant effect like caffeine, acting to provide additional energy and suppress the appetite, and so were used a lot by workers in the Incan Empire to increase productivity. They also are effective against altitude sickness, and are used in a number of traditional medical treatments, as an analgesic, anaesthetic and to help slow blood loss. Interestingly they are used to flavour Coca-Cola; now after extracting the cocaine (but not originally!). Today, people chew them, flavour sweets with them, and use them in tea. Because we were going to be climbing to 4200m today I tried a cup of coca tea. It’s a bit bitter, like green tea. I didn’t notice any of its effects, although I coped with the altitude quite well, so maybe it did help.
We were climbing up (and then down) two passes today. The first pass is known as Dead Woman’s Pass, although Alex assured us that this was because of the appearance of the top of the mountain, which looks a bit like a woman lying down, rather than because of any particular misfortune concerning females! It was a tough 900m ascent from our campsite to the top. We went slowly, taking breaks as needed, and stopping often to admire the view down the valley. We could see a glacier on the top of the mountain opposite us which was just gorgeous.
I’m not sure exactly how long it took us to reach the top (I was too exhausted to remember to check), but I think it was around 2-3 hours. Just before the top I stopped for a break and the porters who were walking past were really encouraging (‘¡Falta poco!’ ‘Almost there!’) The views from the pass were amazing! It definitely made it worth it.
We stopped to admire the view, and Alex taught us about how the indigenous people and the Incas used to leave offerings here for Mother Earth and the Gods of the Sun, Moon, and other natural forces. He gave us each three coca leaves and we had to blow on them and repeat some Quechua words that gave thanks to Nature, before leaving them under a rock or throwing them to the wind. It was quite fun to feel we were taking part in an old tradition like that.
The descent from Dead Woman’s Pass was pretty steep and fairly unrelenting. A lot of it was steep steps, although it occasionally levelled out into a slope. Some people found going downhill a lot tougher than the climb up, but I much preferred it. Ben and I powered ahead and made it to our lunch stop in good time. The porters welcomed us and then got out our sleeping mattresses so we could sunbathe in comfort while we waited for everybody to arrive!
Our amazing lunch today came complete with an ornamental owl, made out of a pineapple with a carrot for a beak. It was so impressive, particularly considering that the cook was working out of a tiny tent! We are being so spoilt, it’s amazing.
It was good that we had such a long break for lunch, because afterwards we had to tackle the second pass. It wasn’t as high as the first but we’d climbed down a fair way, meaning that it was another couple of uphill hours. It wasn’t as tough as Dead Woman’s Pass, and there were some ruins on the way that we stopped at for another brief history lesson. Alex taught us about how the Inca Trail was used as a communication highway, with messengers who would run from one city to the next bearing news. We learnt that the world record for completing the Inca Trail was around 3 and a half hours, and was set by a local porter (whose name I can’t find out online, annoyingly). 3.5 hours! We were walking it over 4 days! Alex invited us to think how fast the messengers back in the day might have been, and how effective they would have been as a messenger system. I found it amazing to imagine. Apparently the Incas didn’t have an official written form of their language, but they did used to send secret coded messages by knotting different coloured string. The amount of knots and the colour of the string each held specific significance. Unfortunately, today we aren’t able to interpret it! When the Spanish conquered the Incas they wanted to be sure that they couldn’t communicate in this way, and so made sure to kill everybody who had the knowledge to interpret the codes. What a shame – and how enticing a mystery, to have these unreadable messages left behind today!
Having made it up the second pass (with lots of encouragement from René), we descended down to the ruins of another Incan city, Sayacmarca (‘inaccessible town’, named for its remote location and steep access steps). Alex let us explore these at our leisure, which was really cool. On this side of the second pass we’d entered into the high cloud forest, and it felt very jungle-like. Below us we could see a multitude of trees and a fast flowing river. The ruins were perched on the side of a hillside and were quite extensive, with lots of different rooms to explore. It was fun to imagine how it looked when it was lived in.
From here it was only another 20 minutes to make it to our campsite for the night. The cloud forest lived up to its name, and it grew quite foggy once we’d arrived, before deciding to rain on us. We had another great dinner before retreating to our tents to sleep and hope it would rain itself out before morning.
Today we woke up at around 6am (a comparative lie in!), to drizzly rain. Such are the hazards of camping in a cloud forest, I guess. We had a fairly easy start to the day, with a short uphill climb followed by a gently undulating path that took us to the third pass, where we stopped for a break and an uninspiring view of the clouds. Apparently from the point you can normally look down to the town of Agua Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. We just had to imagine it, but it was nice to think that we were that close.
We stopped briefly at some ruins called Phuyupatamarca, before starting the 1000m descent to our next campsite. Infamously known as the ‘Gringo Killer’, it comprises of around 3000 steep stone stairs. Like yesterday, Ben and I found the downhill easier than the up, and so made fairly good progress down. It did start to make my calves ache though.
We stopped just before our campsite at an absolutely gorgeous Incan ruin called Intipata (‘the town of the sun’). It’s a struggle to describe just how gorgeous this place was. It was helped by the fact that the clouds had cleared and we had an incredible view down into the river valley below, with tall mountains rising up on either side. The city had a number of steep terraced farming fields stretching out below us. While we were waiting for the rest of our group, I walked along one of the terraces and found a group of llamas around the corner, making for some very iconic photographs!
The rest of our group arrived, and we made ourselves comfortable on one of the terraces while Alex taught us a bit about the site. He explained that this city, like many others along the Inca Trail, was built by the 9th Emperor, Pachacutec (or Pachacuti, as some sources call him). It seems that he was the Incas’ greatest Emperor. He defended Cusco against the invading Chankas, he was responsible for a lot of the expansion of the Empire, he directed the building of a number of the roads and cities, and he commissioned Machu Picchu. Alex also taught us a bit about the farming terraces that we could see. He explained that the Incas were very clever farmers and architects. The terraces were built with layers of permeable stone covered in topsoil. Water was diverted from the top of the mountain to irrigate each terrace, and then drained efficiently away, preventing waterlogging. This made the terraces more stable and better for crop cultivation.
After taking some photos with the llamas, we descended down to the campsite. It was weird to have arrived and finished our day’s walking by lunchtime! We were treated to another artistic creation, this time an aubergine penguin.
We got a couple of hours to rest after lunch, and then had the option of walking to another Incan site only 15 minutes from our campsite. Wiñay Wayna (‘forever young’, named after an orchid found at the site that blooms all year round) was another gorgeous ruin overlooking the river valley. It had similar farming terraces, and at the bottom of the site it had a number of preserved houses which were fun to look around.
We had another history lesson here, about the downfall of the Incan Empire. Alex was a brilliant storyteller, and very engaging. He explained how even before the Spanish arrived in South America, the Empire was weakening. Firstly, the Spanish invasions of Central America had introduced a number of different diseases to the indigenous populations, including smallpox and the flu. These were brought down to South America and spread rapidly through the Empire, probably because they had such a good system of roads connecting it. Secondly, just prior to the Spanish invasion, the Incas had begun an internal civil war. When the 11th Incan Empire had died suddenly, he left behind two sons who both felt they had a claim to the throne. Initially the Empire was divided between them into a Northern and Southern territory, and then one of the brothers grew discontented with this arrangement, and war broke out. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Incan population had been decimated by disease and war.
During the Spanish conquest, Alex explained that the Emperor at the time, Manco Inca, tried to protect Machu Picchu and the other cities along the Inca Trail from being found. He ordered that the Inca Trail be partially destroyed, to prevent it from being discovered, and then led some of his important followers away from Machu Picchu and deeper into the jungle, where he established a new city, Vilcabamba. The abandoned cities like Machu Picchu and Wiñay Wayna were eventually covered over by the jungle, and were never found by the Spanish, which is why they are so well preserved today.
We enjoyed walking around the ruins and then returned to the camp for our last night. Somehow the cook had baked us a cake, and even iced it! I don’t know how he managed it – I don’t think he had an oven! It was incredible. We were also given t-shirts to commemorate our time on the Inca Trail. We had to say our formal goodbyes to the porters and cooks tonight, as in the morning we had another super early start. We had another round of ‘solpaykis’ before heading to bed.
We had a horrendously early start this morning at 2:45am. We couldn’t actually start the hike to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu until 5:30am, but the porters had to leave early in order to catch their train back home. We got dressed and ate as quickly as we could so that they wouldn’t have to run down the mountain in the dark, and then ended up waiting at the checkpoint for almost two hours with all of the other tour groups, who had done the same thing.
As it got lighter, it became clear that we weren’t going to see a beautiful sunrise at the Sun Gate. It was drizzly and cloudy again. The trail was fairly narrow and for the most part fairly flat, although towards the end it got steeper. After around an hour and a half we reached some incredibly steep stairs that needed hands as well as feet to climb. At the top it was a short walk to the Sun Gate. As we’d expected, rather than being greeted by a tantalising view of Machu Picchu, we saw a solid wall of cloud. Never mind, it was still exciting!
From the Sun Gate it was around 40 minutes downhill to the rest of the Machu Picchu site. We arrived slightly bedraggled and with sore legs, just as a number of day tours arrived from the town of Agua Calientes. Those tourists looked a lot more clean and fresh than us! It felt good to have completed the Inca Trail though, even if I was exhausted and unshowered.
Alex took us on a tour around the site of Machu Picchu, which was a lot bigger than I had realised. The clouds would occasionally clear to give us brief glimpses of the surrounding mountains, but it remained mostly obscured. We were able to see the buildings close to us though, and these were really interesting. We saw the farming terraces, houses, and some of the temples. The temple of the sun was the most impressive. It had been built around some of the natural protruding rocks of the site, with each stone block carved precisely to fit against this craggy boulder. We learnt how they carved their rocks. Firstly they would chisel holes along fault lines in the rocks at even intervals. Then they would use one of two main methods to break the rock apart. The first was to pack the gaps with a type of dried wood that expanded significantly when water was added to it. The expanding wood would force the rock apart, and then more wood would be added until the rock broke in two. The second method was to heat the rocks with fire, and then douse them in freezing water. The sudden change in temperature would cause them to crack along the fault lines. Then they would chisel them painstakingly into the right shapes. It must have taken so much work – and the blocks fit together with no need for mortar. They’ve also survived dozens of earthquakes. The Incas were amazing.
After finishing the tour, we were given some time to explore on our own. Part of our group was going to climb the second mountain behind Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu, where there were some more ruins. We had decided not to do this, partly because it came with an additional cost and partly because we’d read that the steps were incredibly steep and a bit scary! Instead, we climbed back up to the end of the Inca Trail, where we’d entered Machu Picchu. The clouds had cleared and we were rewarded with an absolutely stunning view over the city – the classical postcard shot. It was only now that we could appreciate just how incredible the city was. It is perched on a precarious mountain top, surrounded by steep peaks and plunging valleys on all sides. It’s not a site that I’d have ever looked at and thought possible to build a city on. It’s no wonder that it was never found by the Spanish!
We spent as long as we could marvelling at the view before reluctantly heading out of Machu Picchu to catch the bus down to the town of Agua Calientes, where we had lunch before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo. Agua Calientes is a very pretty town right at the bottom of the valley. The train was very luxurious. It had large windows and also big skylights. As we headed back along the valley we spotted the Incan sites of Intipata and Wiñay Wayna that we’d visited the day before. I couldn’t believe how high we’d been! After an hour or so, we started to recognise the river valley that we’d been walking alongside on our first day, and we spotted the trail high up above us. It made me feel very proud of us, that we’d walked so far.
We disembarked in Ollantaytambo and got onto a bus to take us back to Cusco. It was quite sad when we finally arrived and had to say goodbye to the rest of our group. We’d had a great couple of days with them, and felt like we’d made some good friends. It was nice to get back to civilisation and have a shower though!
We had a full day in Cusco today while waiting for a night bus to take us up to Puerto Maldonado and the Amazon. We filled it with a lot of necessary tasks, like the laundry and finding a cobbler to fix my walking boots (two rivets had broken and the sole was starting to peel off). We also took the opportunity to do a final bit of souvenir shopping. I bought some amazing converse style trainers that are made with the colourful fabrics that they make here. I love them, they’re so unique.
Our hostel kindly let us hang around until it was time to catch the night bus, so we spent the afternoon blog-writing and reading. The bus was at 9pm, and we’d booked the downstairs seats that recline further back and in theory give you a better night’s sleep. They probably would have done if it hadn’t been so hot on the bus! We did manage to get a couple of hours though, although my ears kept popping. We were going down from Cusco’s altitude of 3,400m to just 183m!
We arrived in Puerto Maldonado at about 7am this morning, and were met by Jorge, our guide for the next few days in the Amazon. We’d booked onto a multi-day tour with a company called Chuncho Lodge. After meeting the third member of our group, a girl named Dorota, we all got into a 4×4 for the two hour drive to the lodge. On the way, Jorge stopped to pick up a strange fruit for us to try. It was long and thin, and when he broke it open there were 9 big brown seeds, covered in furry white flesh. It tasted quite sweet; apparently it’s supposed to taste a bit like vanilla. Jorge told us that it was called guaba, or the ice cream bean fruit. I love trying exotic new fruits!
The first hour of the drive was on a main road, but then we turned off onto a bumpy dirt track with some precarious log bridges. It ended at a river, where a boat was waiting for us. Chunco Lodge was on the opposite bank, with no access other than over Tambopata river. This made it feel really exciting and remote.
The lodge was really beautiful, with wooden cabins in a large clearing. There was a large building that served as the dining room, then each of our room’s was in its own mini cabin. I was glad to see the mosquito net over the bed and also to hear that the shower had hot and cold water 24/7. We’d only just arrived and I was already boiling and sticky; it was really humid. As we were being shown around, Jorge stopped us to point out brown capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys playing in the trees around the lodge. They were so fun to watch and it gave me a really positive feeling about our wildlife spotting chances for the rest of our stay.
We had lunch and then were given a couple of hours to rest while the sun was high in the sky and it was super hot. We were also waiting for two more members of our group to join us. We were really glad of the rest because the night bus hadn’t provided us with the best night’s sleep.
At 3:30pm we went outside to meet Jorge and the other two members of our group, Emily and Immy. We borrowed wellies and went for a walk into the jungle. Along the trail, Jorge pointed out a number of things to us, including interesting fungi, medicinal plants, a tarantula (aaah!), and a colony of fire ants living inside a tree. We even saw an armadillo – although all I saw was it’s tail as it ran away, so I’m not sure that counts.
The trail ended at the canopy tower, a 40m high tower with 152 steps leading to amazing views over the treetops. It was a bit exhausting to climb but it was worth it for the views at the top. We arrived just before sunset and it was lovely to watch the colours change and hear the bird chorus. Jorge had his binoculars and pointed out different birds to us while we waited for the sun to set.
Walking back through the jungle was slightly creepy. Our flashlights caught the reflection of all of the eyes in the jungle – and there were hundreds of them! Most of them belonged to tiny spiders called wandering spiders, which are poisonous. It was a bit disconcerting to see so many of them, having walked through without spotting any of them earlier in the day! I spotted another tarantula too, and called the group back – partly so that everybody could see, and partly so that Jorge could be there while I walked past it in case it jumped on me and attacked me! Have I mentioned I have arachnophobia?
The stars were absolutely gorgeous once we got back to the Lodge, as there was little to no light pollution. I kept going on about how amazing they were and Jorge suggested that tomorrow we could stay up the canopy tower for a while longer to do some stargazing. Everybody agreed that this sounded like an awesome plan!
This morning we woke up early in order to get to the Chuncho Macaw Clay Lick to catch the birds at their most active time of the day. Some of the foods that Macaws, Parrots and other birds in this region eat can contain toxic substances, and the birds eat the clay to neutralise the toxins. It also provides them with sodium, which can often be lacking in their diet. I find it amazing that these birds have evolved to learn to do this, just through natural selection and learning from their parents. The journey along the river as the sun was rising was just beautiful.
The clay lick had two sites; one a stretch of riverbank, and the second a clay bank in the jungle. As we approached on the boat we saw some blue-headed parrots and a macaw eating the clay, which was really exciting. Something spooked them soon after and they all flew back up to the treetops.
Through Jorge’s binoculars and telescopes, we saw a number of different parrots and macaws perched in the trees. We saw scarlet, green and red, blue and yellow, and chestnut-fronted macaws, as well as blue-headed parrots and even a white-throated toucan. However none of them seemed to want to come down to the clay to eat, even though we were standing well away from them. Jorge said this was quite unusual, and suggested that maybe there were monkeys or something nearby that had put them on edge. We did hear some howler monkeys, so he might have been right.
We walked through the jungle to the second site and did some more birdwatching, but had the same luck; plenty of birds in the trees around but none on the clay wall. Still, it was really exciting to see the different types of macaws through the telescope. They were all so beautiful but I think my favourites were the scarlet macaws and the blue and yellow macaws. Their colourings were so gorgeous. All of the macaws also tended to stay in pairs, and Jorge told us that they mate for life. How romantic!
After birdwatching for a couple of hours, we returned to the lodge for lunch and a rest. We saw a tiny black tamarin monkey playing in the branches of the trees, it was really cute.
In the afternoon we went for another walk through the jungle. This one was a bit longer, and Jorge pointed out more plants and insects as we went past. We saw leaf-cutter ants, and a type of tree called a walking palm tree, that can move to an area with better light by growing new roots on one side and letting its old ones die and rot away. Jorge told us that they can move by around 30cm per year, although sources online differ between saying that they can’t move at all, and that they can move up to 20m in a year. Whatever the answer, they were really interesting.
We climbed up the canopy tower again, this time just as the sun was about to set. We stayed for about an hour as the stars came out. Unfortunately it was quite a cloudy evening, so we didn’t get as good a view as the previous night. It was still beautiful though, and really peaceful up there.
On the way back to the lodge we spotted a number of different spiders, and then I spotted a snake! I can’t remember what name Jorge gave it, but apparently it wasn’t venomous. What a relief!
We had another early start this morning, this time to climb the canopy tower again to watch the sunrise. We’re getting quite the workout this week! It was totally worth it though to be at the top while the sun crept over the top of the trees. The colours were really beautiful, and it was a great opportunity to do a bit more birdwatching. We saw a number of macaws and parrots, some woodpeckers, toucans and a number of other species that I’ve forgotten the names of. It was really cool.
After breakfast we had to bid goodbye to Chuncho Lodge, cross the river and get back in the 4×4 to head back to the office. Because there were now 5 of us, Ben and I sat in the back, which had sideways seats and no seatbelts. It was quite bumpy over the dirt track, so we were quite relieved when we made it safely back to the main road.
At the office, Immy and Emily said goodbye, as they were only with us for a shorter experience. We had a quick break, and then headed off to our second destination, Sandoval Lake. This time it was a short car journey and a rather longer boat journey down the Madre de Dios river. Once we arrived downstream and on the opposite bank, we had a 3km walk to the lake. As we were walking along the trail I heard a rustling in the trees. We looked up expecting to see monkeys, but instead saw a mammal called a tayra. It looked a bit like a weasel. Jorge told us that spotting one was quite rare, so we were really excited to see it. Unfortunately it disappeared too quickly to catch a photo. We also saw some gorgeous butterflies and moths along the way.
At the end of the trail, we were surprised to discover that we had to canoe across the lake to reach our lodge. They have no vehicular access, and everything comes to the lodge in this way. Jorge and I each took an oar (although I think that he did most of the work, to be honest). The first part of the journey was on small waterways between tall trees, and then it opened up onto the lake. The view was pretty amazing – the lake was beautifully still with trees lining its banks. It wasn’t a particularly inviting colour, although that was a good thing because Jorge told us that there were piranhas in the water. Safe to say that put me off swimming pretty quickly!
The most exciting wildlife to see at Sandoval Lake are the family of giant otters that live there. Native to South America, giant otters can be up to 1.7m long. We were lucky enough to spot them as we were heading over to our lodge (the crowd of other canoes gave us a clue), and diverted over to have a look. They were so cool! There were about 5 of them, and they kept diving underwater and then surfacing with fish. It was really awesome to watch them up close, and to see just how much larger they were to the otters I’ve seen before in wildlife centres in the UK.
We were welcomed into the lodge and given lunch with delicious maracuya fruit juice (my favourite). The other juice we’ve been drinking in the Amazon which is unexpectedly yummy is white tomato juice. I’d never heard of a white tomato, but they grow here and are really sweet and not very tomato flavoured. We’ve also tried chicha morada, a juice made from a purple variety of corn that is grown here in Peru. That one I’m not such a fan of, although it’s also quite sweet.
After our afternoon nap (becoming something of a habit, but much needed after all the early starts we’ve been having), we met to go down to the lake for some more wildlife spotting. As we were walking down to the lakeside, we were lucky enough to find ourselves surrounded by monkeys in the treetops. There were brown capuchin monkeys, squirrel monkeys and red howler monkeys, who were making quite a racket. It was amazing. I love the tiny squirrel monkeys who make impossible leaps from branch to branch, and Ben loves the noisy howler monkeys.
We got into the canoe and started paddling around the lake, staying close to the banks to spot wildlife. We spotted a black caiman hiding under the low hanging branches. Jorge said that these crocodile-like creatures aren’t very aggressive, but it reinforced my decision to refrain from swimming. We saw a number of different birds, including a kingfisher and a hilarious bird with a funky hairdo known as a hoatzin, but nicknamed the stinkbird (I’ll leave you to guess why).
As evening fell, we started to see a number of bats who swooped low over the water catching up insects. I love bats, so I found it really interesting to watch them. We also used our torches to hunt for the reflections of eyes around the lake, indicating caimans, who stay underwater apart from the tops of their heads peeking out. I was surprised to realise just how many there were. We brought the canoe closer to one, and it was really awesome to get so close. I’m glad we had Jorge’s assurances that they wouldn’t bother us though. It was definitely a great way to end the evening.
I’ve ended up making this a 9 day blog, just because it rounds off our trip to the Amazon and brings us back to Cusco for the next part of our adventure. After breakfast this morning we boarded the canoe once more to head slowly back across the lake. We took our time, spotting more squirrel monkeys, caimans and stinkbirds. We were also lucky enough to spot the giant otters again. My favourite moment was when one of them caught a fish, and all of the others began chasing him through the water while he swam away, protesting noisily. They were so cute.
The rest of our day was fairly uneventful. We walked, boated and then drove back to the office where our tour formally finished. The staff were kind enough to let us use their shower before the office closed. We had to hang around Puerto Maldonado (on a Sunday!) for around 11 hours until our night bus, with nowhere to base ourselves. We ended up moving from one restaurant to another, dragging out lunch, ice cream, a drink and then dinner as slowly as we could. We both got a lot of reading done! In the evening we caught a tuk-tuk to the bus terminal – a new experience for Ben, and something I haven’t done in ages, so that was quite fun. We settled into our seats and tried to get some sleep on the long journey back to Cusco.
Next week will probably be a lot shorter to compensate for this mammoth post. What a week though! We’ve now officially got less than 4 weeks until we’re flying back home – it’s strange, a little bit sad but also quite exciting to see the end in sight. We’re having an awesome time but we miss you guys!