For most people seeking a secluded part of the Amazon to spend their time, there are few places better than the Tambopata Research Center. And our team did stop at the TRC, but only to briefly charge up our electrical equipment before heading out…further and further on the rivers until we found ourselves deep in the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, which is one of the most remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, and therefore one of the most remote places on Earth.
But there’s a reason why not many people go to this place, and a reason it is called ‘The Last Rainforest Without Men’. The area is incredibly remote and there have been no known settlers, even by indigenous tribes. And this time of year the rivers are low, which puts the river rocks closer to our boat and closer to our boat propeller…
A map showing our starting point, the Tambopata Research Center labeled as 'TRC' and the route we took deeper into the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park
“Al agua al agua!” Don Pedro, an old but spry native to the Amazon, would shout. Our conversations would come to an abrupt stop upon hearing these words, and in seconds we would be leaping out of the boat into the waist-high rapids. I quickly lost count of the number of times we had to jump out into murky fast-moving water, find footing on slippery riverbed rocks, and push. The thought of having dry clothing or shoes quickly faded for anyone in the group. But the rapids didn’t just pose a challenge to our navigation or comfort, the rapids almost took away the most important item we possessed: our boat. One particularly challenging rapid caught our boat in the current and our eyes grew wide as dinner plates as we saw our vessel start to turn sideways. We pulled and pushed with all our might and managed to save the boat from flipping, something that would have very quickly put a damper on our trip.
Without such a cohesive and experienced crew, we probably would have never landed on our destination: The Candamo River. It was beautiful. The forest mist had burned off by the time we pulled up to the rocky beach. The lush forest was pressed up on both sides against the Candamo Valley, one of the few remaining pristine rainforests on the planet. We were not the first group to explore this region, but there certainly weren’t many before us. This is not a tourist destination, it is not a site for field researchers, and it is not even a place where people who have lived their entire lives in the Amazon venture.
The crew swiftly set out to clear small sections of a bamboo forest nearby so we could set up camp. Geoff, Jeff, Mike, and I set out into the jungle to scope out a good tree to climb and check out the wildlife. We were not disappointed; Geoff found a tree with perfect conditions for setting up a climbing rig and we stumbled upon something even more unexpected: a lek of neotropical butterflies! To non-entomologists this may not seem like something worth celebrating, but to us this was one of the primary reasons for this expedition. Geoff has spent many many years researching neotropical butterflies, and we now had the opportunity to sample for species belonging to the family Nymphalidae and contribute to science in an area where no one had investigated this amazing family of insects until now.
For the next couple of days this was our home. We woke early, hiked, explored butterfly and other animal biodiversity, climbed trees, and investigated a 100+ year old bridge constructed for rubber trade that had been abandoned long ago swallowed by the forest. The biting black flies were in full force in this region, and were slowly turning our hands other extremities into pulp. A night of rain caused the river to quickly swell and consume our camp site along the riverbank, forcing us to retreat deeper into the bamboo forest. But we pressed on and made full use of our time in the incredible region.
The view from our 30 meter tree climb. We can see what used to be our camp site on the rocky beach, which quickly got swallowed up by the rising water after some rain.
We shared cerveza with the crew as we gathered in a circle in the evenings and exchanged stories with one another. “Cerveza en Candamo…” one of the crew members mused with a smirk. We made cheers in several different languages and soaked up the moment as we realized what a special opportunity it was to be here right now.
Time seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, it was time to pack up and depart. After the boat was loaded we snapped a few group pictures and set off. This time it wasn’t pushing against the rapids we were concerned about, but riding with the rapids, now unable to stop and slow down even if we wanted to. Once more, if not for the amazing skills of our boat driver and navigators, we probably would have found ourselves quickly stranded in the middle of the Amazon Basin.
Our return was quick as we rode with the rapids and before we knew it we were back at the Tambopata Research Center. Seeing other boats and people felt strange, as the last few days made us used to being the only human beings around in an incredibly remote rainforest. We were fortunately able to stay in some vacant rooms at the TRC and caught up on some much needed sleep sans black flies, mosquitoes, and rocks for pillows.
The experience has left me humbled and appreciative of the region we were so lucky to spend just a few days in. The wildlife and biodiversity certainly lived up to the reputation. The remoteness and difficulty of entering the region itself makes me thankful that we had such an amazing team that worked so well together. If not for our skilled Peruvian navigators and crew members, we would probably still be trying to get past the first rapid near TRC.
We painstakingly photographed and filmed as much of the trip as we possibly could and we are working now to edit and share this material with you! I hope that you enjoyed reading about this adventure, because to us it certainly was a real adventure in every sense of the word. Challenges, danger, discovery, beauty and excitement come to mind when I think back to the Candamo expedition of October 2014. It may have only been a once in lifetime opportunity to visit this place, but I hope I’m wrong about that. Perhaps there will one day be a Candamo round two…