Post 2 of a series detailing our trip around South America. View the series so far here.
Our second and third days in the rainforest took us deeper into its depths, where we saw possums, frogs, capybaras, and hundreds of macaws at the world’s largest clay lick. We fished for piranhas, tempted out tarantulas, and had a narrow escape on the Madre de Dios river…
It was a long journey upriver of around two hours from Sandoval Lake to the Sachavacayoc Centre, where we’d be staying for the next two nights. We received another delicious lunch on the boat: a banana-leaf package of yellow rice with chicken and vegetables, and a small pack of Oreos.
As an educational centre, Sachavacayoc is slightly more substantial and comfortable than Casa Sandoval; although electricity is still limited to three hours each evening, and the water is still cold. Our wood-panelled room was nice and big with a proper ceiling, meshed windows, a double bed, and a curtained-off shower and toilet. This felt like luxury after the previous night!
Trek through the trees
That afternoon we walked through dense rainforest for around 45 minutes to reach Lake Condenado. We didn’t see any animals on the way, but we did see some interesting trees including giant Kapoks up to 200 metres high from which hung gravity-defying hanging vines, and Huacrapona palms with their bizarre prop roots. We crossed a few precarious bridges suspended over muddy rivers and mangrove roots.
Our boat of eight was completely alone on Condenado Lake. The lake is very narrow and full of pond weeds, and because Steve was at the front of the rowboat it was his job to judge whether we could fit through the gaps! We didn’t see many creatures, but once we reached a clearing our guide Juri pulled out a fishing rod and said we’d be piranha fishing.
It was a funny moment when Juri eventually caught a piranha – the fish fell and began flapping all about the boat, causing everyone to squeal and move out of the way. When he managed to get hold of it again, he put leaves and twigs between its jaws for it to bite, to show us how sharp its teeth were. We were all going to have a go, but the experience was cut short after someone got pricked on a hook, and the presence of blood made it too dangerous.
Bats flew over our boat as we paddled back, helpfully eating the mosquitoes before they reached us. It was now completely dark, and we had to use our torches to walk back through the forest. Juri speared the piranha he caught with a stick and gave it to Steve to carry back!
Tempting out a tarantula
During the walk back through the forest in the dark, we stopped at two points. The first time, Juri told us to stop walking, turn off our torches and be silent, without giving us a reason why. After several tense minutes of listening to what sounded like pumas circling, Juri said he’d just wanted us to listen to the forest!
The second time, Juri tempted a tarantula out of its nest by wiggling a twig at the entrance. When its large furry body emerged, we gasped as Juri quickly pinned it down with a finger and picked it up. He turned it over to show us its belly, and put a twig between its fangs to demonstrate the strength of its grip. Considering how much I dislike spiders, I was surprised by how unscared I was. In fact, it even seemed quite cute!
After putting the tarantula back down, Juri used the twig to guide it back to its nest.
When we returned to the Sachavacayoc Centre we had a lovely dinner of soup, followed by chicken in a tomato sauce with vegetables and rice. Dessert was a mysterious pink jelly-like substance that reminded us of Angel Delight. We remained at the table to chat for a while before going to bed – conscious of the need to get enough sleep before meeting Juri at 4am the following day.
Sunrise on the river
As Juri had told us to meet him at 4am this morning, we had to wake up (and struggle to get ready in the dark) at 3.30! Having met at the hammocks, we groggily climbed into the motorised boat and sailed up the river for around two hours. Most of us fell asleep under the furry blankets we were given. As the sky lightened and we began to wake up, Juri directed our attention to the spectacular sunrise happening behind us.
As it gradually grew light enough to see, Juri pointed out an adorable family of capybaras on the riverbank and, further on, a family of turtles.
Chuncho clay lick
Eventually we stopped at an island of pebbles in the middle of the river and were handed plastic stools to sit on. We sat watching the long bank of clay in front of us, waiting for the macaws to descend, for quite a while without much success. Juri suggested that we return to the boat and try another spot – and it was at this next spot that we hit the jackpot.
The cacophony of parrot calls grew louder and louder as we approached through the trees, and when we emerged the sight before our eyes was incredible. In front of us were hundreds of macaws and parrots, eating the clay, sitting in trees and flying about. There were flashes of their bright plumage everywhere we looked.
We watched the birds for a long time and managed to get an excellent close-up view through Juri’s telescope (through which we also saw a vulture). Afterwards we sat down on our stools for a basic breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, pancakes, oranges, and tea and coffee – although the many swarming bees made it difficult to relax!
We had another two-hour journey back in the boat to return to Sachavacayoc Centre, but it wasn’t smooth-sailing. We hadn’t gone far when all of a sudden we hit something with a loud bang, and were almost tipped right out of the boat as it tipped to the side. A wave of water crashed over the side and we all instinctively leaned the opposite way to try to rebalance the boat.
Once we’d gathered our breath, and lifted our things out of the water pooling below, we looked around. All our group was ok besides being a bit wet, but it turned out that Juri had dived into the water for reasons no one understood! He swam over to the boat and climbed back on board, and we all had a great laugh about it – induced mostly by our feelings of shock and relief!
Down time at Sachavacayoc
Back at the Sachavacayoc Centre we showered to cool down, then spent some time wandering around the area, admiring all the tropical plants.
At 1pm we gathered to eat my favourite meal of the trip so far: a tender pork steak with really tasty beans and rice. We even had chocolate cake for dessert, which I took back to our room to enjoy with a cup of tea. Over lunch we were still laughing about Juri jumping out of the boat, and would be for the rest of the trip.
A sad discovery
At 2pm we met again for a long two-hour walk through jungle to Sachavacayoc Lake. Juri showed us wild boar prints in the mud, and various types of ants trooping across our path. Around one and a half hours in, he spotted a trail of fur tufts on the ground, and followed it to a three-toed sloth – a dead one. It was such a beautiful creature and still looked almost alive, which made it all the more sad to see. Juri said it must have died only recently, and he couldn’t be sure how – he guessed that it was probably killed by an eagle, which had flown off at our approach.
Reaching the lake, we piled into a waiting rowboat and Juri rowed us downriver for a while as we looked out for animals.
We stopped in a quiet spot, and now we all got to try our hands at piranha fishing! It was fun but really difficult because the piranhas somehow kept eating the food off the hook but managing to swim away scot-free. After many attempts I did manage to hook one, only for it to fall off the hook and back into the water! Steve eventually managed to catch one properly, and was exceedingly pleased with himself.
We ran out of bait just as the sun had almost set, at which point we rowed back to where we’d started to start the journey back to the Sachavacayoc Centre.
Our last night walk
It was completely dark by the time we began the long walk back to camp. However, we went at such a fast pace that we cut down the time from two hours to one and a half. Along the way, Juri stopped to show us a sleeping bird, an awake bird, an adorable wide-eyed possum, a small crab, and a tiny horned frog.
Back at the Sachavacayoc Centre, we had a nice dinner of lomo saltado (stir fried beef and vegetables with rice and chips) then a delicious dessert I’d describe as a runny, passion fruit-flavour custard. We chatted a while then went to bed.
The next day we had a surprisingly brilliant breakfast of scrambled egg, sweet potato shoestring fries, and pineapple pancakes with jam. Afterwards there was nothing left to do but take the motorboat back along the river to the JunglePro office, where we returned the duffel bags and repacked our own before being given a lift to the airport. We felt very fortunate to have enjoyed such an amazing adventure, with a great group of people – it was an experience we’ll never forget.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton 2018. All rights reserved.