There are few places on this planet where you can truly get close to mother nature, one of those places however is Sandoval Lake in the Tambopata National Reserve in the Amazon Basin, in Peru.
Tambopata National Reserve is part of a massive National Park located along the border between Peru and Bolivia. This area is home to over 20.000 plant species, 900 species of birds (actually more species of birds then in all of the USA and Canada), 91 different types of mammals, 1,230 different types of butterflies, and 127 different kinds of snakes and reptiles, some of which we came far too close to on this trip.
Of all the various types of animals that call the Amazon home, the number one animal that Bob and I went there to see, and to photograph, was The Giant Otter. These over-sized otters, which make our Canadian otters look pint-sized, are now one of the most endangered species in the whole of the Amazon basin. The main reason is because, over the last hundred years, they were hunted into near extinction for their beautiful velvety pelts.
Our trek which was organized for us by Tropical Nature Travel began at the city of Puerto Maldonado at the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios Rivers. When we arrived at the dock, two pairs of rubber boots were waiting for us by our river boat. “Why boots?”, we wondered. Well, our trip from riverside into the wet Amazon jungle would soon answer that question.
The river near Puerto Maldonado was very busy with various boats coming and going, all laden with assorted types of cargo such as fruits and vegetables.
Our own boat was also transporting supplies to Sandoval Lake Lodge. Beneath threatening skies, everything was quickly loaded onto the boat, and a prompt departure was made from Puerto Maldonado. The helmsman guided the boat along the Tambopata River for quite some distance before turning the craft onto the Madre de Dios River, heading towards the jump-off point for our hike through the Amazon jungle. It was a surprise later in the day when yet another canoe trip was required to achieve the base camp in the jungle on the far shore of Lake Sandoval.
Our 40-foot long wooden riverboat made very good headway with just myself and Bob, our couple of backpacks, food stocks for the lodge, and the crew of three on board.
The Lodge provided a delicious lunch of Chinese fried rice beautifully presented in little parcels made from banana palm leaves and tied neatly with some sort of plant fiber. As we glided by palm-lined riverbanks, Bob and I took pleasure in, not only the delicious food and lush surroundings, but also the clever environmental solution for a take-out meal in the Amazon jungle.
The Madre de Dios River appeared deceptively calm, even when meeting an oncoming riverboat, but its’ underlying swift current became evident when we later passed some floating debris.
After traveling on the two different rivers, we finally pulled up to a dock situated below two thatch-roofed structures at the edge of a clearing. It was on that riverbank that our hike began, and we soon learned why the rubber boots were a necessity!
An elevated, wooden boardwalk led us to an interpretation center very near the beginning of the trail, and it was there that a park employee provided an overview of the nature reserve. The pathways and yard about this center were covered with Brazil nut shells, much as we would use wood chips. It was harvest time for Brazil nuts and aguaje, a fruit from local trees, the pulp of which is like jello. Parrots, fish and other animals eat this fruit.
Just beyond the interpretation center, the true nature of the trail became evident. Tambopata National Reserve gets a lot of rain with upwards of 3500 millimeters per year, a reality we would soon come to experience. At first, before commencing the hike, I had been reluctant to wear the rubber boots, thinking that I might get blisters in unfamiliar footwear, but my first glimpse of the 3-kilometer long muddy trail soon had me casting that concern aside. With the added possibility of snakes lurking in the mud, I thanked Sonja, our guide, profusely for her insistence on donning the knee-high boots.
The rainy season had been underway for several months, and with all the resulting water, the rust-colored soil of the trail had turned into a river of mud…well not quite, but we were, at points, standing in mud up to one foot deep, and we had to watch out for some holes which were a lot deeper.
Between the water and mud, squishing, squeaking, squelching and splashing were the sounds that accompanied our progress through the jungle. And we worked hard at keeping up to the porters and their muddy cart.
Infinite varieties of plants and trees lined the trail, but so intent were we on the placement of each and every footstep, that little time was taken to study the myriad vegetation.
Sonja told us not to grab onto anything without looking first because snakes often twine themselves amongst the branches.
We did photograph a number of different flowers, took note of a wide array of colorful butterflies, especially the blue morph, which is an iridescent sapphire blue with an 8-inch wingspan, and enjoyed observing industrious leaf cutter ants. Numerous other types of butterflies flitted about the vegetation, and one snake slithered out of sight when we disturbed his sojourn at the edge of the path.
As we steadily made our way, the porters overtook us even though they were weighed down with all the supplies and our luggage. A two-wheeled cart was employed, with one porter pulling and the other pushing it to maintain momentum. It was a mammoth undertaking considering the suction of the mud.
I had one mishap whereby I went down on one knee and touched one hand to the ground, but otherwise, we completed the hike unscathed. This was quite an accomplishment because the squishy mud was very viscous and slippery, and created much suction around our footwear, continually causing us to lose our balance.
When next we met up with the porters, they were at the launching-off point of the next leg of our journey. Our rubber boots were given a rest when we once again tied on our hiking boots then hopped aboard a large canoe for a ride, this time, through the thick jungle to Lake Sandoval.
Although the narrow channel was used regularly, gliding along in the dense shade-darkened jungle made me feel like an intrepid, adventurous explorer.
No fishing or use of motorboats is allowed inside the Tambopata National Reserve. In fact, we were instructed to neither imitate the sounds of the birds, nor call out to them or the animals in the trees.
Late afternoon sunshine bathed us in light as we emerged onto Lake Sandoval; we welcomed the cooling breeze after the intense humidity of the jungle. For some reason, the porters had failed to bring two paddles with them on that day, which wasn’t a problem because one paddler sitting in the stern of the vessel could propel the canoe along nicely. When, by luck, Bob spotted some of the giant otters on the far shore, Sonja removed one of the plank seats from the boat for the second porter to use as a makeshift paddle in order to speed up our progress across the water.
The porters found it interesting to witness Bob’s style of paddling the canoe. Propelling and steering the vessel with the J-stroke really impressed them! Because the lake is home to piranha and Black Caiman, Bob made a very conscious effort to keep his hands above the surface of the water. Black Caiman are related to crocodiles, and although usually wary of humans, we were told they can be very dangerous at times.
Palm trees with white trunks rimmed the lake, but in actual fact, they are encroaching on the actual lake. Long ago, Lake Sandoval was created in an oxbow shape by the shifting waters of the Madre de Dios River. At one point, this lake was part of that river; today, it is landlocked and now a lake.
Thus, the lake is crescent shaped, and at various points on the lake, canoes and people are forbidden. This is a world of many restrictions, like no smoking, no radios, and no flashes when taking pictures. Rightly enough, it’s all about leaving the world of the Otters untouched…remote and pristine.
Lake Sandoval, with its clear, calm waters, has evolved into a mature lake environment attracting myriad species of flora and fauna.
When finally we pulled up to the dock of Sandoval Lake Lodge, we saw that 50 or so steps stood between us and the humongous, thatch-roofed main pavilion.
That pavilion encompasses a totally screened-in meeting place, gift shop, dining room, library and kitchen. Raised decks extended on either side of the main pavilion, and it was from those that access was made to our “bungalow” and those of the other guests.
With darkness quickly settling over the landscape, Bob and I were anxious to check out our accommodation. We also learned, because of the remote location of the Sandoval Lake Lodge, that we would only have hydro for four hours a day.
I must say that that was the most uncommon lodging that I have ever stayed in when traveling abroad. The front and back walls were totally screened, except for the louvered wooden door and tiled bathroom walls. Curtains extended across the lower halves of the screened windows to provide the necessary privacy.
Twin beds, totally encased in mosquito netting, dominated the room, but what I found quite neat was the bathroom door, which was half screen and half louvered, all in the effort to promote airflow. After a cursory search in our “bungalow” for unwanted guests, such as snakes, scorpions and spiders, we indulged in a hot shower then returned to the dining room for the 8 o’clock dinner call.
A brilliant sunset painted the sky with splashes of gold and orange as we reflected on our day’s adventure. Even as we prepared to retire, we took satisfaction in knowing that we were in the midst of one of the world’s most virgin natural environments. It felt like we were in paradise.
Checkout our next post when we go on a hunt for Giant Otters:
Frame To Frame – Bob & Jean