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Traveling upriver

Elizabeth Hobson | Dec 14, 2009


To get to the Tambopata Research Center, my destination for the summer, I needed to travel by boat up the Tambopata River. We were ferried upriver in large canoe-like boats, wide enough to seat two people abreast with a walkway down the center. One person mans the outboard motor on the back and the other boatman stays in the bow, alert for obstacles or shallow water, and ready to pole the boat around submerged rocks or branches. The Tambopata River was quite a bit wider than I had imagined, and very silty, carrying large amounts of reddish clay which made the entire surface resemble slightly-off, boiling chocolate milk. Along the way we saw some wildlife such as turtles, vultures, a woodstork, and a few far-off Capybara.  We saw quite a few Caiman sunning themselves on the banks of the river, most of which had swarms of orange and yellow butterflies perched or circling about their heads like multicolored confetti. They look a lot less menacing with the delicate insects perched on their snouts.  I also got my first few glimpses of the birds I had come to study as the distinctive shapes of parrots, parakeets, and macaws flew overhead, their raucous screeches sometimes audible even over the sound of the outboard motor. 

We finally reached the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) in the afternoon of the second day of travel. TRC is located within the Tambopata Candamo Reserve, and is a remote part of the upper Amazon basin.  Depending on the season and variations in travel time, It is about eight hours upstream from the nearest town, and about 10 hours upstream from Puerto Maldonado. 

My first impression of TRC was that of a tree house.  All buildings are roofed with leaves of the Fishtail Palm and new roofs are completely waterproof, even in the strongest storms.  Older roofs tend to leak a bit, but roofs are replaced on a regular basis.  The buildings are all connected by roofed walkways which are lit at night with kerosene lanterns.  The entire lodge, all rooms and walkways, is elevated above ground level on stilts, adding to the treehouse-like atmosphere. The dining room is a good vantage point to see wildlife in the small clearing around the lodge.  Since all walls in TRC are open, wildlife tends to fly in and out of the buildings and crawl freely on the floor.

19. June 2003 - Letter Home
TRC is really incredible.  I don’t even have to leave the lodge to see some amazing wildlife.  There are no solid walls on the outside, just hip-high bamboo canes spaces about a half an inch apart so I find I’m really in tune with what's going on in the forest, which is only about 20 feet away.  I've seen Squirrel Monkeys and Brown Cappuchin Monkeys feeding on the forest's edge pretty often.  The Tyra (like a weasel the size of a large otter) usually puts in an appearance and frolics about, playfully stealing scraps from the kitchen.  Deer browse in the clearing around the lodge, sometimes ducking under the elevated walkways to reach the grass on the other side.  Agouti run around in the clearing like rabbits, sitting back on their haunches and using their front legs to bring food up to their mouths to be nibbled - kind of like chipmunks.  When one of the local Black Vultures flies too near, the Agouti get scared and the hair on their back quarters – which is darker and slicker and about 6 inches long - sticks straight out and makes them look like giant pincushions, or like they're wearing spiky black tutus.  There are also bamboo rats and mouse opossums which run all over the lodge at night and cast weird huge shadows on my mosquito netting.

2. June 2003 - Field Notes
Tonight at dinner I saw a treefrog as big as my hand jumping around in the rafters of the kitchen, making its way towards the bare hanging light bulb and its swarming disoriented dinner. 

A few days later I was on my way to dinner when I spotted something perched on the edge of a railing.  In the dim light of my dinky flashlight, I could see moist skin and bulging eyes, so I carefully caught it by sneaking around in back of it.  I carried the kicking frog into the Macaw Project office so that I could see it in good light.  The generator is started during meal preparation and is left on throughout the meal so that the kitchen can be lit and appliances used, the office can run its computers and use the radio which is the only form of communication with the other lodge and the town, and so that the Macaw Project can charge their batteries.  The frog I had caught was an enormous treefrog as big as a bullfrog, and one of the guides told me that it's related to the Gladiator Frog.  I brought it into the dining room to show the tourists, some of whom were completely disgusted by having the frog around with dinner, while others were enthralled.  This was a common trend with tourists: some are amazed by every little thing, and some are really pushing their limits on what they can handle in terms of animal life.  I especially liked it when the Pink-Toed Tarantulas put in a visit.  They had a habit of showing up around the bar in the dining room every two weeks or so and startling the tourists.  Big and black and hairy, and definitely high on the scale of things that would make arachnophobes blanch, I especially liked the contrast with their petite pastel-pink toes. I quickly learned to invert my boots in the morning before putting them on in order to dump out any creatures that had taken up residence over night.