From Amazonia to the Pacific

Hi there and welcome to this conclusion to our Peruvian saga!

Last time we left off as we recuperated in Cusco again after the trek to the Macchu Pichu ruins (fun little side fact here is that I instantly ordered a poke bowl with tuna upon our return, getting paranoid about the raw fish about five minutes after binging it leading to me deftly ejaculating the whole bowl into the toilet shortly after).

Two days later we felt up for a new challenge (apart from the good food Cusco really isn’t that interesting a city) so we decided to head deep into the amazon rainforest with our destination being the town of Puerto Maldonado. Maria managed to get in touch with an NGO concerned with vegetation regrowth in polluted former gold mining areas. As we flew into the area it was easy to see the reason for their concern: vast tracks of land eyed sickly and yellow from the air, completely devoid of trees or other vegetation. Gold is often mined illegally in Peru, using vast amounts of mercury in the process of separating the gold, a large amount of which ends up contaminating the rainforest.

Our appointment with the NGO was still a couple of days off when we arrived at the airport but we were reminded immediately of the impact of human presence on the local wildlife. A large two-toed sloth clung to the fences surrounding the airport, his face battered and dazed: evidently he had received a shock from the electrical security fence. An image that was hard to shake from our minds as we made the journey to the town square.

We had found a resort in the middle of the jungle with a pool where we planned to relax for a couple of days and enjoy the weather. Just 800km onwards life was very different. Perpetually hot and humid, the steaming low-altitude rainforest thrives on the scorching tropical sun, interspersed with the torrential downpour typical of the rain season. Amazing to realize we are already down to some 80 meters above sea level: all the water landing on this vast forested plain will never see the Pacific a few hundred kilometres to the west, rather it is already in the huge Amazon drainage system and will one day flow into the Atlantic thousands of kilometres away.

The resort itself was completely deserted apart from one supremely disinterested caretaker who allowed us to pitch our tent next to the beautiful jungle huts that stood vacant in the summer sun. Tourism here has, as elsewhere, taken a beating due to the pandemic and most of the foreign tourists are still absent. This meant we had the resort to ourselves to enjoy the weather, the cacophony of animal sounds and of course the swimming pool.

Next day we visited the local animal shelter a sweltering thirty-minute walk away. We were shown around by the lovely owner who has been trying to nurture as many wounded and stranded animals as possible who were dislodged by the relentless deforestation and gold mining. A painful sight but essential in order to grasp the flip side of the charm offensive of the eco jungle lodges industry thriving in the region. She showed us numerous animals from all over the amazon who were patiently being nurtured and prepared for a return to life in the wild, as well as some less fortunate creatures: we were told the sloth we had seen at the airport had been taken here before he succumbed to his injuries.

The next day (which happened to be my 33rd birthday) we got up at five to meet up with the nature conservation NGO. Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn during the night and our tent was battered by intense rain all night long. This meant getting dressed in the tent and scrambling out brandishing a flashlight in one hand and an umbrella in the other in a futile attempt at parrying the combined assault of the insects, the rain, and the local overly friendly guard dog. After a 30-minute soggy jungle taxi ride we got in a car with a local coordinator of the Centre of Scientific Innovation in the Amazon called Martin and a huge, taciturn man casually cleaning his machete who I presumed to be his bodyguard. Him and Maria started off in rapid fire Spanish straight away, leaving me exchanging awkward glances with mister bodyguard next to me while I tried to cobble together breakfast from some broken crackers and a pack of second-rate mortadella while the rain still poured down around us.

An hour later we continued onto a motorized canoe, which taught me a valuable lesson about the use of ponchos versus my umbrella in the pouring rain. Short version: umbrellas don’t have shit on ponchos. After half an hour of pummeling rain we got off at a muddy river bank and prepared to hike for a further twenty minutes, which took us to a legal gold mining operation. The owner, a friendly man in his fifties, showed us some gold they had extracted from the ground. Afterwards he started his interview with Maria, rendered unintelligible to me by the roar of the rain pounding on the corrugated roof. I was happy enough just to be out of the rain, so I proceeded to make more soggy crackers while the gentle giant stoically continued cleaning his machete. Some birthday this turned out to be!

By noon the rains had abated and we were finally back in the city center of Puerto Maldonado. Fortunately we found an amazing restaurant with lots of fresh vegetables, Italian coffee, good music and a very relaxed vibe which really turned our day around. Later in the day we relocated to a city center hostel as the deserted resort was a long ride away from everything and we were getting pretty fed up with the single culinary answer he had to anything you picked from the ‘menu’, which was invariably meat with rice. The road was also getting worse every day and the taxi driver increased his fee correspondingly.

We spent another day relaxing in the city before going to a place I had had on my list for a long time. Two years ago, when I was planning my first trip to South America, I stumbled across a remote lake called Sandoval. This place is a rare example of a jungle lake unconnected to the river system, and a habitat for the giant otter and the black cayman, among others. Now, two years later, after stumbling upon a tiny lake on google maps, we were finally visiting. After a half hour boat ride we had to hike through the jungle for another 45 minutes to reach the edge of the mangrove forest. Rainforests like these are often hard to traverse on foot due to the marshes and soggy ground, and this was no exception: the last few kilometres to the lake shore consist of submerged forest to be navigated by canoe. Our guide pointed out multiple cayman watching us with ancient eyes, just metres from the boat.

All of a sudden the sky opened up and we emerged out onto the lake, gleaming bright blue in stark contrast with the thousand shades of green representing the encroaching forest. The lake itself is just a few hundred years old. It was actually a bend in the grand Madre de Dios river which was cut off as the river changed course, becoming a lake in the process. Estimates are it will be reconquered by the tireless trees within a hundred years. An amazing place, so secluded from civilization it feels like going back in time. Coming back into town, we had a bite and prepared to return to Cusco by night bus to retrieve our car and drive back to Lima.

Things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Our favourite restaurant turned out to be closed for the night, so we had a rather disappointing dinner at a restaurant nearby. We booked a night bus to Cusco, which was an executive class bus (for those who have never seen one, you get a chair that rather resembles a small bed, framed by curtains and with you own entertainment console. It’s as good as it sounds). We got on the bus, watched a movie and closed our eyes, ready to wake up at altitude again.

And when I next opened my eyes, at altitude we were. Just not in Cusco. It was 7 in the morning, the bus was not moving and I heard voices outside. Curious, I climbed out of my chair and got out of the bus to find out we were standing in what looked like a traffic jam, somewhere in the mountains. The bus driver, seemingly unconcerned, informed me the farmers had revolted in response to low food staple prices. They had blocked major roads in the region and they demanded the minister come down there to negotiate the problem. This appeared to be a pretty common situation as few people looked perturbed around me. Upon my question as to how long this might last, he told me the road might be blocked until Thursday afternoon, but a couple of cars might rush through when the farmers go out for lunch. As it was Monday morning, I did not find this prospect very consoling, so I woke Maria and we decided to hike in order to get past the roadblocks and find some kind of transportation to Cusco.

After a kilometre or two of crudely built road blocks we found a taxi van willing to take us to the next town. A couple of sympathetic people hurriedly removed logs and rocks from the roads, while others were on the lookout for any strikers. As the van started moving, we saw farmers coming up the road, shouting. We quickly wheeled past, and twice we really had to speed it and hold on tight as farmers were haphazardly throwing objects on our path, ranging from small rocks to branches and old tires. After our escape from this madness, we managed to drive quietly to the next village, where it immediately became clear the party was over. Here over fifty farmers were loitering next to a roadblock so high and broad not even a bicycle would be able to pass. Defeated, we paid our courageous driver and started the long march to the last roadblock.

We were far from alone on this road. Housewives, students, migrant workers, businessmen: everyone who happened to be on the road between the jungle and Cusco had been ensnared by the strikers’ blockades. And everyone was walking, some laughing and with good pace, others dragged down by children, luggage or old age. We made good progress as well although Maria became increasingly grumpy with the lack of food and heavy packs. I tried to keep up the mood with jokes and banter, but to no avail. Around 13:00 we finally reached the final roadblock, where the police was keeping the peace between the farmers and those duped by the protest. Once we were passed, I passed a Toyota Hilux some cash and he gave us a ride to Cusco in the back of his pickup.

An hour later, pelted by hail, we arrived in Cusco, where we proceeded to the ‘parking’ where we left our car ten days earlier. The attendant overseeing this muddy patch of parked cars led us to our car, where it stood waiting for us. The grill wore a lopsided grin, which turned out to be due to the front right tire being completely flat. When I inquired what had happened, he shrugged and told me this is pretty normal after leaving a car for ten days. I begged to differ, but all he did was bring me a bicycle pump. Which worked, to my surprise. Enough to get the car to a garage anyway. We got in the car, exhausted and frustrated by the delays of the day, when I discovered the car wouldn’t even start. Cursing, we started calling garages to see if they could send a mechanic.

Some hours later, it turned out the battery in the security sensor had died and the tire needed air but would hold long enough for the road back. Maria didn’t want to spend another second in the city so late in the afternoon we finally drove off, heading for the mountain pass as the sun started to wane. We made it to a bed and breakfast we had spotted on the map on the way there: a lovely place hosted by a Belgian woman and her Peruvian husband. We didn’t manage to appreciate the various amenities unfortunately, as we immediately fell into a deep sleep upon hitting the pillows.

We got up early the following day, and made amazing progress: we managed to reach Nazca before nightfall. This felt very disorienting, for we went to sleep on Sunday evening in the low Amazon jungle, spent all Monday in the Andes above 3000 meters and, after crossing the last 4500 passes, reached the western desert late Tuesday afternoon, which is situated at a mere 500 meters above sea level. We booked a hostel in the dry desert town and had some beers with fellow travelers. Later that night I couldn’t help myself when I heard people singing and playing in a garden downtown: I had to knock on the garden fence hoping the revellers would let me in. They must have been amused by my terrible Spanish but we were admitted to what turned out to be a family party, where I spent a long time drinking wine and playing Peruvian classics with the head of the family.

The rest of the road to Lima was fairly quiet. The desert that stretches along the coast is not the most beautiful place, and often quite polluted. The first leg was the most interesting, as it is the dry expanse that features the Nazca lines, huge shapes drawn in the sand more than a thousand years ago by an unknown people that can only be fully appreciated from the sky. We reached the beach late on Wednesday and nervously handed in the rather battered car on Thursday. It had started leaking oil, the fender was held in place with duct tape and the frame had taken a beating from all the speed bumps. Fortunately he wasn’t around to inspect it, so we left the keys in a deposit box and hurried out of there. This meant we had another day and a half before flying out, so we took our time and enjoyed the creature comforts Lima can offer like no other.

Misfortune struck again, however, when Maria’s Covid-test turned out positive, on the morning of her departure. In shock we had to completely alter our plans, trying to switch flights, booking an Airbnb and informing her work. In the end we found a beautiful modern Airbnb close to the sea where we spent a relatively carefree week enjoying the soft climate and the local cuisine, as her symptoms never manifested and I kept testing negative. We waved goodbye to this country of opposites as our respective aircraft took to the sky, onwards and upwards!

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