Friday, 20 August 2010

Monkeys, mozzies and grubs

After my slight disappointment with the trip to floating villages on Lake Titicaca, the time spent in the jungle was the complete opposite – it exceeded my expectations and then some! We began with a short flight over to the town of Puerto Maldonaldo bordering on the Amazon, and had time to adjust to dropping to just over 400m, and no longer wheezing after a short walk, before we hopped onto a small boat for a two hour boat ride down the river. The humidity hit almost immediately, and although it was warm (finally!), the heat wasn’t too overpowering and the breeze on the water made the journey very pleasant, watching the gold miners on their makeshift rafts and admiring the vivid vegetation.

We arrived at our eco-lodge, a huge area of jungle which has been rented out by the Peruvian government to the owner for tourism, with the agreement that he look after the land and wildlife within in return. It’s a great deal – the huts and main buildings are built with respect to the surrounding landscape, blending seamlessly, and the wildlife can roam freely with no division from the rest of the jungle. They maintain the area, including a small island near the centre which has developed as a wild sanctuary for monkeys abandoned as pets from across Peru.

Monkey island was our first stop after settling in, with the hope of seeing a few of the four types of monkey present. Almost as soon as we ventured into the trees the first made an appearance – a spider monkey with its long limbs and wide eyes. The monkeys live off of the local fruits and plants and are encouraged to learn to feed themselves, but with eager groups of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the inhabitants, extra incentives are brought along in the form of bananas. Our guide began peeling, and within minutes our new friend was eyeing up his treat from an overhanging branch.

From there they came in hoards – white and black capuchins to add to the spider monkeys, howling in the trees and tentatively making their way down before realising that there was food on offer, after which time they were leaping around and showing off. One little monkey landed in front of me, and as I leaned down to take a picture, she jumped on my head and decided to take a rest there, leaning one arm on my head and wrapping her tail around my shoulder. It was sweet – she was warm and soft, and could only be coaxed off by F after a good five minutes.

The occasional feeding of the monkeys is, as ever, a controversial issue. I can sympathise with those who argue against it - the monkeys were a little too fearless in the face of complete strangers. On the other hand, the island relies on tourism to keep afloat, and the monkeys encouraged over time to forage for the bulk of their diet within the trees. It's all about balance, one which the centre seems committed to strike.

As we walked further, discussing the foliage, a tiny monkey appeared next to our guide on a branch – the final of the four, a tamarind. It was gorgeous – a little fluff ball eagerly looking for it's piece of banana. We were thrilled to have seen all four types, and returned to our huts excited about what the jungle might offer next.

After dinner, we went out caiman spotting on the river. Our guide used a low light to illuminate the banks, and we saw multiple baby caimans resting on the shores. Aside from the people using their flashes to try to capture pictures (unsuccessfully of course!), the trip was peaceful and calm.

The following morning was an early start (5.30am) for a 5km trek through the jungle behind the lodge. Our guide was fantastic, explaining the uses and properties of various plants, and spotting wildlife that I would never even have noticed – a whole range of brightly coloured birds, wild pigs, a tarantula and turtles.

We took a boat trip down a long swamp in a small canoe, then onto a lake with a viewing platform for watching the birds. The humidity was oppressive by the end, but our guide kept us alert and involved. We stopped by a tree littered at its base with nuts with a hard, hairy shell. Taking his machete, he lopped the top off, and explained how a certain type of beetle lays its eggs inside the nut, and when the egg hatches, the grub can eat its way out. Tapping the nut against a tree, the grub started to wriggle up a bit, forced by the violent movement, until we could see its fat white body. Our guide grabbed it, yanked it out, and held it up, gently squirming. ‘A great snack’ he explained. We thought he was joking – but apparently not, as he offered it out to F, who eagerly gave it a taste. It was my turn next, and I was given a broken nut, and had to first pull the grub out, then put it quickly in my mouth before I had time to think about what I was doing. It popped in my mouth as I chewed, and although the texture was awful, the taste wasn’t too bad – coconut with extra nuttiness. Not necessarily something I’d like to have again, but worth a try once!

After a quick break for lunch we were out again, this time to spot caimans in the daylight at another lake. We arrived in silence and were instructed to stay the same way, so we settled down on the platform and watched as the food was laid out and the caimans started to pay attention. Slowly and cautiously they approached, timidly at first, looking around, and only approaching the food one at a time, nudging the next forward if they weren’t being quick enough. Observing their behaviour was fascinating, as was seeing them chomp down the meat.

The jungle was a wonderful experience and one I hope I can repeat in the future, leaving me with many great memories (and a number of mozzie bites…)

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