The Amazon Rainforest has been a fascination of mine ever since I did a project on it at school. Our three-week trip to South America presented the opportunity to finally step foot in it myself, and see the animals I’d painstakingly drawn and coloured in for real. After much research I decided to book a four-day, three-night tour in Peru with a company specialising in finding wildlife, to give ourselves the best chance of seeing animals.
We flew into tiny Puerto Maldonado airport from Lima, having arrived in Peru only the day before. Annabelle from JunglePro was waiting just outside, and once we’d all arrived she took us to the company office in town. Here we were given fresh passionfruit juice and duffle bags, in which to pack everything we’d need for the next few days: extra clothes, waterproof jacket, toiletries, sun cream, insect repellent, sunglasses, hat, torch, snacks and water bottle. A porter carried these bags, allowing us to carry only what we’d need for the journey to our accommodation. We paid the remainder of our bill (USD500 each in total) then left on our adventure.
Lunch on the river
We arrived at the wide, brown, Madre de Dias river and piled into a motorised long boat. Having strapped on lifejackets we each received a bottle of water and a wicker lunch box, containing a banana and a banana leaf-wrapped package. Inside was a mass of savoury-flavoured rice, mixed with vegetables and soya beef. It tasted like the special egg fried rice you’d get from a Chinese takeaway, and was very tasty and filling.
We rode in the boat for about 40 mins, the wind keeping us nice and cool as the motor sped us forward. Shoring up, we spotted the first wildlife of our trip: a large flurry of colourful butterflies, feasting on clay from the ground. It felt unusual to see so much beauty and colour thriving in the mud.
(Photo by Steve McCaul)
Journey to Lake Sandoval
We walked through the forest for around half an hour, occasionally stopping so that Annabelle could point out something interesting. She showed us a walking tree, termite nests, and tiny red spiders on a cotton-wool web. It wasn’t a great distance, but the walk took longer on account of all the wet mud we had to skirt around.
At the end we reached a shaded clearing with a pool, where paddleboats floated still between tall palms. Our small party climbed into one and the porter gently rowed us out of the enclosure through a narrow, densely forested waterway.
When we emerged into the sunlight, Lake Sandoval stretched out before us like a deep blue mirror. Everyone was stunned into silence as we glided across its placid surface. We continued to another earth bank, where we were led up a rough set of stairs.
The moment I saw Casa Sandoval, my heart fluttered. Its jungle huts are simple structures of unvarnished wood, dry grass, and mesh walls propped up on stilts; but they were just what I’d always imagined as an idyllic jungle hideout.
The ‘common room’, containing the bar, dining room and lounge, had a constant supply of drinking water with which to top up your bottle, and posters to help with identifying the local wildlife. The best part of all was the hammocks, from which you could watch for wildlife outside through the room’s mesh walls.
Our bedroom was rough and ready: tying in with the aesthetic, but certainly lacking the comforts of a hotel room. Our room’s thin walls finished far below the high ceiling it shared with the next room and the common area, and there was nothing to separate our beds from our ‘en suite’ bathroom. The bathroom offered only cold water and was roofed with corrugated plastic. But for one night in such a magical place, we didn’t need anything else.
We had some time to relax before heading back out, and used this time to read in the hammocks and explore Casa Sandoval’s garden. We met the resident chicken, followed a trail of leafcutter ants, and admired the banana trees. Hearing some commotion in the trees, we looked up and saw a throng of tiny squirrel monkeys and larger capuchin monkeys racing between the trees. This was just a taster of what was still to come!
Sunset on the lake
At around 4pm we returned to the lake to search for animals as the sun set. The first creatures we saw were Hoatzins, which Anna explained to us are nicknamed ‘stinky birds’ due to the smell of the leaves that ferment in their stomachs. I loved their colourful plumage and punky head feathers! We also saw tiger herons, and other colourful birds.
(Photo by Steve McCaul)
After a while we spotted a monkey, which soon multiplied into more and more of them. We watched entranced as they raucously played in the trees, leaping from branch to branch like tiny acrobats. Both their lustrous fur and the trees’ shiny leaves were suffused with the most gorgeous warm glow from the setting sun. Tears welled up in my eyes at the magic of it all!
As the sky darkened and we turned back, we spotted a few black caymans lurking stealthily at the lake’s surface. We were all shining our torches at one to see it better when the boat got stuck on a felled tree trunk – right beside a cayman! We had to rock the boat to get free. Fortunately, we managed to get away without being eaten!
Dinner at the lodge
We returned to Casa Sandoval in darkness, using our torches to find our way up the stairs. At dinner we were sat in our new tour group from tomorrow onwards: Danny and Jenny, a couple from England; Lily, Heather and David, a family from Canada; and Juri, our guide. We all got to know each other a little better as we ate.
Dinner was rice and chicken soup followed by an overly meaty plate of chicken breast, sausage and rice. We were so exhausted that we retired to our rooms straight after. Going to bed in the jungle was a new and daunting experience – and finding a millipede inside my mosquito net certainly didn’t make it easier! But I managed to remove the invader, and after that I slept like a log.
Chasing the giant otters
My alarm went off at 5am, as we were to meet in the dining room at 5.30. Casa Sandoval only has electricity from 5pm to 8pm at night, so our torches were our only source of light for getting ready. I nervously watched various bugs crawl around the sink and mirror as I brushed my teeth.
The seven of us got into the paddle boat with Juri to search the Sandoval Lake for giant otters. On the way to their nest we saw lots more birds and stopped to see some adorable long-nose bats. They were flying around and collecting in big group on a tree, where they were all doing a very cute wiggle dance!
Further along the lake’s banks we spotted more caymans and birds, as well as a family of howler monkeys in a tree. We all had a look through Juri’s binoculars to see them closer, and I was especially struck by their lustrous, shiny orange coats. They had a very deep and throaty call, which sounded like scary atmospheric sound effects as it echoed around the lake.
We reached the giant otter’s nesting area and waited. It took patience, but finally we heard their noisy, squeaking calls getting louder and saw five of them swimming and diving in the water. We were too far away to get decent photos, but managed to see their slick heads and flicking tails through Juri’s binoculars.
Breakfast and brazil nuts
Back at Casa Sandoval we had a decent breakfast of fried eggs, toast, and deliciously thick, fluffy pancakes with jam. While eating we spotted an Agouti in garden, and had to rush outside for a look!
Before leaving Casa Sandoval for our next accommodation, the Sachavacayoc Centre, Juri took us into the garden to show us how to crack Brazil nuts. He split open one of the large outer husks with a machete, then gave us each a nut from inside and showed us how to crack them open with a nutcracker tool. We ate the fresh nuts as we released them – except those that fell on the ground, which the chicken quickly gobbled up! We got back into the paddleboat, to continue our adventure upstream.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2018, unless indicated. All rights reserved.