Adventures in the Amazon

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on February 21, 2020

Heaven on Earth: An aerial view of River Tambopata snaking across the Amazon rainforest   -  IMAGES: DEBASHREE MAJUMDAR

The Amazon rainforests of Peru present a picture of beauty and diversity that is fast disappearing

We stand in a cluster of nine — somewhere in the middle of the fast-depleting Amazonian rainforest — staring at the electrifying dash of leafcutter ants. The insects, in thousands, are busy doing what they do for survival each day: Carrying bits of leaves on their backs to store them in underground nests. Following the complex rhythm of speeding green leaves at my feet, I almost relive my adolescent fantasy of being part of David Attenborough’s film crew. Around us, tall, ancient trees reach up into the clouds allowing only streaks of hot sun to illuminate the dense forest floor. Birds dart through the trees. The tranquil, clay-hued Tambopata River flows along quietly.

It’s been a day since we left the edges of modern civilisation to explore the remains of the connectivity-free wilderness. We’d been guided on to river boats on the mighty Tambopata from the outskirts of Puerto Maldonado in Madre de Dios, at the base of the Andes in south-eastern Peru. As our boat, powered by its diesel generator, made its way through the snaking ribbon of mud-brown, I felt conflicted with guilt (at my rising carbon footprint) and excitement (at the sight of a family of capybaras frolicking on the sludgy banks of the river). Eventually I let the incredible moment of spotting a pair of blue macaws flying into a sunset take over the sense of sin.

Our stop for three nights in the Amazon is the Tambopata Ecolodge. The palm-thatched cabanas have no electricity. Candles have been restored to their rudimentary use of being a source of light instead of banal urban home décor. When our guide Joseph had announced our trek at dinner the previous evening, I had neither imagined walking throughforests smelling of garlic, nor anticipated a scramble in trying to escape colonies of bullet ants that can semi-paralyse human beings for over 24 hours with their deadly stings.

As Joseph keeps ahead of us hacking occasional branches out of the way with his machete, he points to the various species of flora and fauna that crowd the green, roadless universe we are invading. He stops under an ayahuasca vine, a ropey indigenous plant widely known for its psychoactive properties and its use by shamans in traditional ceremonies for emotional cleansing. Joseph tells us that one has to prepare for days and abstain from alcohol and different kinds of food in order to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. Judging from the list of rigours that he rattles off, I decide I am not ready for transcendence yet. While many from the group bombard Joseph with questions about ayahuasca’s efficacy and its power to even kill, our thoroughly entertained guide bends low over a shrub of Sanipanga, bleeds the deep purple colour from the leaves into his open palm and paints lines on each of our faces as protection from insect bites. “Now you look like you belong here,” he says as he leads us down a fragile boardwalk opening into an oxbow lake.

Creature of the deep: A piranha, a predatorial species that lives in South American rivers


At the lake, we sit in a slim boat under a midday sun waiting for piranhas. We had teased multiple shy tarantulas out of their nesting holes in the woods earlier in the day, and meeting ferocious piranhas would only add more charm to our dinner-time chatter and our travel albums. While busting all the ‘predatory’ myths about piranhas, Joseph encourages us to throw crackers into the still waters. No sooner do a few specks land in the lake than a shoal of yellow-bellied piranhas grabs at them, their spiky teeth bared. Their scales shine like gold under the bright sun as they attack the crackers with the ferocity of a jaguar.

But Joseph isn’t yet done with his jungle tour. He stands waiting after dinner, his headlamp on, and leads us back into the inky dark of the jungle. “What’s the most dangerous thing out here, Joseph?” a fellow traveller asks. “Mosquitoes,” shoots back Joseph in a beat. I run my hand over the slight bump that still feels tender from the yellow fever vaccine I had taken a few days ago.

The post-dinner jungle sounds like a jangly orchestra. Bats screech, owls hoot, crickets chirp in tandem as we focus on the living, fearsome creature that is the forest at night. A few minutes in, my mind is so saturated with all the unfamiliar noises and smells that I decide to fix my gaze on a clutch of circling fireflies. As I switch off the lamp, an immediate and impassable blackness engulfs the surroundings. I look up to the sky for relief and find a sea of moving, sparkling stars. The ground shifts beneath my feet. It feels like a privilege to have no generators around.

Debashree Majumdar is an independent writer-editor based in Geneva

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Fly to Lima via major cities in the US and then take a 90-minute flight to Puerto Maldonado, which is at the base of the Andes in Peru.
  • Stay
  • There is a clutch of ecolodges in the Peruvian Amazon’s protected zone. Book in advance.
  • BLink Tip
  • Take yellow fever vaccine shots, carry insect repellents, and be prepared to sweat buckets.

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Published on February 20, 2020
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