Join in the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, a jungle frontier town east of Cusco. Our staff welcome you at Puerto Maldonado airport and we drive through this bustling Upper Amazon Basin city to the Tambopata River boat dock. Here we board a powerful motorized dugout can and set off to the nearby confluence of the mighty Madre de Dios River, where we head downstream for approximately three hours to the Peru-Bolivia border at the mouth of the remote Heath River. Even beneath the vast sky of this major Amazon tributary we glimpse the diversity of the riverine environment, with its forest-capped red-earth cliffs, alternating with low banks thick with Cecropia trees and giant grasses. Now, after brief frontier-crossing formalities, we motor for about two more hours up narrower and wilder waters, suddenly enjoying the intimacy of mysterious forest looming close on either side. Occasional views of native villages and children splashing by the banks, are interspersed with long, quiet stretches where we may spot herons, hawks, cormorants, Orinoco Geese, and perhaps a family of Capybaras -- the world¹s largest rodent, weighing up to 55kg./120lb, and looking like an enormous Guinea Pig. We reach our simple, charming and comfortable quarters at the Heath River Wildlife Center in time for dinner. (Please note that the lodge is located on the Bolivian shore of the Heath River, so passports are required to clear Bolivian passport control.)
Today we make an early start to visit the lodge's most spectacular feature: the Heath River parrot and macaw lick. Here these colorful birds gather to eat a type of clay from the cliff-like river banks that neutralizes certain toxins in their diet. They congregate early each morning, sometimes by the hundreds, jostling and squabbling over the best eating spots on the clay lick. This noisy and unforgettable show can go on for two or three hours, and may begin with up to five species of parrot and two varieties of parakeet, followed by Chestnut-fronted Macaws and their larger, more boisterous cousins, the Red-and-green Macaws. This extraordinary wildlife display occurs at only a handful of sites in the Upper Amazon Basin, and nowhere else on the planet. Our floating hide platform provides comfort and complete concealment, so that we can eat a full breakfast here during pauses in the bankside spectacle. On our return we can land partway downriver and walk back along a section of the lodge's extensive network of forest trails. We encounter numerous gigantic Brazil-nut, kapok and fig trees, along with the scary strangler fig, whose life strategy is as sinister as its name suggests. Our guide will point out and explain the medicinal and commercial uses of dozens of plants and trees, while we keep our eyes and ears open for birds, or one of the eight species of monkeys found in this region. We might come upon a small herd of White-lipped or Collared peccary two kinds of wild pig that are quite common in this area. For purposes of territorial marking they deploy a "stink gland" so potent that they are often smelled long before they are seen. After lunch we typically hike along a major trail to a point where the forest abruptly gives way to the spacious plains of the Pampas del Heath, part of Bolivia's Madidi National Park. This unique environment -- the result of very poor soils, plus an extreme seasonal cycle of dryness and flooding -- is the largest remaining undisturbed tropical savannah in the Amazon, and is home to rare endemic birds and mammals, such as the Swallow-tailed Hummingbird and the highly endangered Maned Wolf. Shortly beyond the edge of the forest we can climb a raised platform that allows us a grand view of this vast expanse of grassland and shrub, studded with palm trees. We can continue another hour or so to a swampy area thick with Mauritia flexuosa palm trees, whose oil-rich palm nuts and hollowed-out dead palms provide vitally important food and shelter for nesting pairs of Red-bellied and increasingly rare Blue-and-yellow macaws. We aim to arrive toward dusk, when the macaws are returning from their day's foraging to congregate in this very special breeding site. We return to the lodge by night, using our flashlights, and perhaps pausing here and there in total darkness, to listen to the ever-changing orchestra of animals, frogs and insects, and to experience the magic of the night-time rainforest. We may come upon such bizarre nocturnal creatures as camouflaged frogs disguised as dead leaves, toads the size of rabbits, hairy tarantulas peering out of their dirt holes, night monkeys lurking among the tree branches, and an unpredictable array of other nightlife. After dinner some guests may choose to visit one of our mammal lick hides, in hopes of seeing a Lowland Tapir, the rainforest's largest mammal. Hardy adventurers can choose to camp here with their guide, in order to experience a full night in the heart of the rainforest and increase their chances of a major wildlife sighting.
Our second full day at the lodge allows us to choose from a wide range of activities available in this exceptionally diverse tropical environment. Many people choose to make a second visit to the macaw clay lick. Later we can take a can tour around Cocha Moa, an oxbow lake that lies a short way downstream from the lodge. The reeds, fallen trees and forested shoreline of this lake teem with birds and other wildlife. Red Howler Monkeys may peer at us through the branches of the giant trees above us, while herons lie in wait among the fallen trees, cormorant-like Anhingas watch from the forest branches, and an Osprey may circle overhead. Flocks of brilliant Red-capped Cardinals gather on dead branches, and a colorful, primitive bird, the Hoatzin, hops its ungainly way along the swampy water's edge. After dinner we can board our can once more, for an evening of spotting for caiman, the Amazonian cousin of the alligator. This region is home to the endangered black caiman, and we nearly always pick out a few with our powerful spotlight as we patrol the river.
We leave at dawn for the return trip downstream. This is peak hour for wildlife so we keep a sharp eye on the riverbanks, often spotting families of Capybara, and perhaps being rewarded with a rare jaguar sighting, or a tapir swimming across the current. We reach the Madre de Dios River, re-enter Peru, and set off upstream for the boat landing near Lake Sandoval Lake Lodge. We walk the 3km/2 mile trail to the narrow boat channel through flooded palm forest that leads to the open waters of this peaceful lake, stopping as we go to spot birds and butterflies. As our crew paddle us across to the lodge (motors are prohibited here), we may see the lake's surface broken by a massive Paiche an Amazon fish that can reach 100kg/220lbs. Or perhaps we will hear the strange and haunting calls, and see the heads bobbing above the lake's surface, that will signal our first acquaintance with Pteronura brasiliensis, the Amazonian Giant Otter. After lunch at the lodge and a brief rest to avoid the early afternoon heat, we once again set off by boat or catamaran to explore the entire west end of the lake. Here, in the flooded palm forest we drift to the sounds of hundreds of Red-Bellied and Blue-and-yellow Macaws as they return to the palm forest for the night. Our viewpoint from the can often allows closer and more extended encounters with birds and mammals than on a typical forest trail hike, and we may witness intimate feeding and mating behavior. On Lake Sandoval monkeys, in particular, have almost lost their fear of humans. We return to the lodge around nightfall for dinner. After dinner we take to the boats once more, in search of black caimans, which today are extremely rare in the Amazon, but still common in this protected lake. They grow up to 4m in length, and compete with the Giant Otters for their share of the fishing. On clear nights we take our boat further out into the lake to get an unimpeded view of the vast southern sky, with its unfamiliar constellations and superb vistas of the Milky Way.
After a dawn breakfast we take a final, short paddle along the palm swamps of the west end of the lake in search of the resident Giant Otter family. From here, on clear mornings, we will see a glorious sunrise and its reflection in the open waters of the lake. Returning once more down the trail to the Madre de Dios River, we return to Puerto Maldonado to catch the flight to Cusco or Lima. Please don't book flights out of Puerto Maldonado before 10.30am.