Nicole Lizares works for conservation organizations in the Philippines and recently joined us for an expedition to the Tambopata Research Center. Below is an article published by Nicole in the February/March 2015 issue of 'Explore Philippines'. Enjoy!
'Stumbled' is perhaps not the most impressive word to describe how I managed to find myself in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, given that I was a grad student who had supposedly done her research well and had prepared meticulously for this trip, but it is the most appropriate.
After more than 29 hours hopping on and off airplanes, riding in cabs, a bus, and finally, on a boat upstream for what felt like an eternity (it was really just around four hours), I found myself dusty, sweaty, and stumbling along a trail in the middle of the Tambopata National Reserve, one of the largest protected areas (covering more than 271,000 hectares of land) on the Peruvian side of the Amazon. Our final destination: The Tambopata Research Center, a.k.a TRC, an eco-lodge owned and operated by Rainforest Expeditions. I thanked the heavens that I was in their good hands.
Reputed to be one of the most remote eco-lodges in South America and the only one to be situated inside a national reserve, the TRC is in a very unique position. One of the world's largest clay licks (mounds of mud and salt deposits where thousands of birds flock every morning to get their dose of the mineral) is a mere 500 meters from the lodge. The TRC's remote location also means that the forest ecosystems around it remain pristine and largely untouched, offering researchers and scientists a rare opportunity to study wildlife in their most undisturbed state.
In fact, the lodge's name harkens back to a time when it was purely that: a research center, housing scientists who were studying the macaw population and working to protect the wild birds from illegal hunters.
"That was back in 1989," shares our local forest guide, Frank Pichardo. "Eduardo Nycander, he was a wildlife photographer who started The Macaw Project in this area to gather information about the macaws that could help in protecting them, and he founded what is today known as Rainforest Expeditions with two other partners."
TRC's first clients were heavy-duty photographers and bird watchers who slept on a platform with makeshift mats (called "lengua de gato" or cat's tongue because of their thinness" under mosquito nets. There was no latrine so the guests would take baths and do their business in the flowing river.
Today TRC boasts an 18-room lodge, eight shared bathrooms, and surrounding forest trails encompassing a combined web measuring about 20 kilometers and offering access to a range of wildlife habitats from bamboo forests to terra-firma forests, and riverine beds to palm swamps.
Frank, who has been with Rainforest Expeditions for almost six years, agrees that the company has come a long way from its humble beginnings, and that the most significant progress has been on the forefront of conservation and social enterprise.
"I am really proud to be able to say that Rainforest Expeditions started ecotourism in this area of Peru," he beams. "One of the reasons that I really like working here is that, besides being involved in research, the company also has several projects and a cooperation with the local community in this area."
Frank is referring to the indigenous Esa-Eja tribe in the nearby community of Infierno, two hours upriver from Puerto Maldonado, in Southeastern Peru, who also happens to be Rainforest Expeditions' business partner.
"Rainforest Expeditions also runs another lodge called Posada Amazonas, which is closer to Puerto Maldonado and is partly run by the community. They have an agreement with the company wherein 60% of the profits stay within the community, and the rest goes to Rainforest Expeditions for profit and maintenance of the facilities," Frank explains.
Besides TRC and Posada Amazonas, Rainforest Expeditions also runs Refugio Amazonas, the "luxury" lodge option to TRC's more adventurous and Spartan vibe, and the company is currently undergoing research to build a fourth lodge. Whatever the theme, though, the team behind Rainforest Expeditions seems to have their formula down pat.
In all of the lodges, the rooms and structures are built to blend in with the environment, using traditional materials. A unique aspect of all of the rooms is that they have left the fourth wall vacant, opting instead for a waist- high balcony that opens out into the rainforest. This design is a singular feature for all Rainforest Expeditions lodges and gives guests the distinct feeling of being in closer contact with the forest but with the comforts of a hotel room.
Needless to say, we never had to look very far for wildlife. We would barely be ten steps from the entrance to the lodge before a strange new insect, a well-camouflaged snake, or a majestic bird would hold up our group. Boat rides were punctuated by sightings of capybaras or tapirs. Our well-versed and knowledgeable guides seemed to know the jungle like the backs of their hands, and could expertly field our queries and feed us tidbits of useful trivia.
I woke up every morning to the majestic sounds of the orchestra that was the Amazon rainforest just behind my bedpost: birds screeching intermittently, giant crickets chirping in a rising and falling crescendo, and the strange gurgling sounds of howler monkeys screaming at each other from the treetops.
Some days I would wake to find a rogue macaw poking around in my clothesline, probably hunting for some of the nuts and dried mangoes I would stuff into my pockets and take on hikes. And even though we had been warned to keep food locked up or stored safely in plastic bins or run the risk of getting our rooms invaded, one particular day we awoke to a mighty ruckus coming from a neighboring room: a stubborn guest had found some curious possums snooping (successfully) in his backpack for some chocolate bars.
A few days before the end of our trip, the host and humid skies finally broke and poured cool, wet rain on the TRC grounds. It didn't last very long, but while it poured, I got the sense that the entire forest had gone quite still. I stood for a long time watching the rain from the shelter of TRC's entrance hall, admiring the way the sun caught on the lodge's thatch roofs and appreciating the cold, damp breeze the rain blew in, and not for the last time, I marveled at this little piece of paradise right smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle that Rainforest Expeditions had somehow nurtured, protected, and turned into a home. For information on Rainforest Expeditions and its various tours and projects, visit www.perunature.com