Transferring through Cusco for one more night, Jenna and I decided to treat our aching bodies to a relaxing full-body massage (heaven for just 25 soles!) followed by a slap-up meal at one of the city’s best restaurants. It was time to sample the infamously classic Peruvian dish, Guinea pig. Luckily, we had chosen our restaurant well and were served with what looked like extremely miniature steaks rather than the traditional whole-fried rodent, legs-up-in-the-air look. Less fun for photos but definitely a bonus overall. Once we’d picked through the fat and skin, the little meat that was there was actually rather tasty – sort of like a red-meat version of chicken. That said, realising such a tiny animal was never going to fill the both of us up, we decided to order gnocchi in alpaca ragu as well which, I have to say, was far more appetising!
The next morning, we packed our bags once more and headed to the airport, Amazon-bound. From freezing Cusco to the hot and humid jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, I was in heaven. For this leg of our trip, we had decided to splash-out on an all-inclusive, 4-day luxury stay in the rainforest with Hacienda Concepción, a by-company of Inkaterra. We were not disappointed. Collected by the hugely-enthusiastic Roger, we were greeted with fresh, chilled starfruit juice and a cool, wet towel before being delivered to the marina for the 30-minute scenic journey into the wilderness by motorised canoe. Welcome to our new jungle home!
Introduction out the way, we were free to indulge in a sumptuous hot and cold buffet lunch of traditional Peruvian cuisine before being shown to our cabaña. For me, a normally cheap-as-chips backpacker, the opulence of our private, wooden bungalow set in the middle of exotic, monkey-bearing trees and beautifully landscaped gardens was almost overwhelming. And I hadn’t even seen inside! Two tastefully decorated beds – each one already allocated to its owner by the prior placement of our luggage in the adjoining wardrobes – a huge bed-like sofa and hammock overlooking the rainforest canopy, his and hers (or hers and hers in our case) vanity sinks, towels and toiletries and, of course, our own en-suite. We even had matching umbrellas and bags, just in case the need arose. Truly, I don’t think my words are capable of justifying the sheer luxury of the place. It was like being in a dream!
Over the next three days we gorged ourselves on mouth-watering three-course meals and all-you-can-eat buffets, day and night walking tours into the encroaching rainforest, a traditional fishing trip (I caught a sardine and Jenna, a piranha – not jealous at all…), a night-time river tour and even a visit to a natural clay-lick, the congregation point for hundreds, if not thousands of blue-headed parrots and majestic macaus. During that time we had some amazing sightings of noisy red howler monkeys, tiny tamarins, brown capuchins, capybara, caiman, turtles, bats, crazy insects and some terrifying spiders, including the world’s most poisonous – the wandering spider – and a gigantic tarantula that made our guide nearly jump out of her skin! I was in nature heaven.
However, the big one for me was the chance to see Giant River Otters on the half-day excursion to Lake Sandoval. Formed by the natural rerouting of the river over time, the Lake has become an oasis to rare species of birds and animals alike. With just a single family of otters in the expansive body of water, our chances didn’t look good. An hour’s hike into the Tambopata National Reserve we came across a semi-withered ex-tributary that would lead us by traditional canoe through the thick trees and onto the lake. As we quietly slunk along the shallow waterway, the trees above us suddenly came alive with the rustling and jumping of a troop of howler monkeys. Sitting there on the boat in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and surrounded by monkeys, I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. An incredible moment that I could hardly have imagined experiencing, sitting at my teacher’s desk some 20 months ago. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe how much my life has changed in that time and, every now and then, I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real.
Eventually, though, the monkeys moved on and we continued paddling into the trees until, all of a sudden, sunlight burst into our eyes as we left the protection of the forest and arrived onto the enormous and staggeringly beautiful Lake Sandoval. Encapsulated by a wall of towering palm trees, the mirror-like lake was bursting with wonderful bird-life; foraging, swimming, fishing, darting about and all the time singing their songs for all to hear. Coupled with the spectacular variety of plants flourishing and twirling their way through the canopy, it’s no wonder that James Cameron drew a lot of his inspiration for the movie Avatar from this wildest of places.
With no other disturbances for miles around, there was a tremendous feeling of peace here as our guide gently paddled us around the circumference, the water lapping at the bow as we hopefully searched for the elusive otters. However, an hour later and with the sun beating down hard on our heads, we were forced to admit defeat. Much like my never-ending quest to see wild dog in Africa, it seems that this was one more sought-after creature that would remain a perpetual mystery to me. Despite this slight setback, I have had the most fantastic time getting back to nature in the world’s greatest rainforest. Having been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, I think it’s fair to say this one gets a big, fat tick!