Hands-on Amazon adventure

It is just a few minutes past 6 a.m., and the shiny black waters of the Pacaya River mirror the bright sun and a few white clouds passing slowly across the sky. By noon the air will be stifling, the humidity inching toward 100%.

Juan Tejada, a 37-year-old native of the Peruvian Amazon, sits in the front section of our open motorboat. His eyes scour the tops of trees along the river and penetrate deep into the dense rain forest. His Cal Berkeley baseball cap is turned around so he can retrieve in an instant the powerful binoculars he wears constantly around his neck, although they seem redundant to his sharp eyesight.

Tejada suddenly tells the motorman piloting the boat to stop and turn off the engine.

"Look, look," Tejada whispers to Embry, my 12-year-old daughter, and to me. "Up there near the top of that dead tree on the left at about 1 o'clock. Two hoatzins. Oh my gosh."

About 30 yards away, two prehistoric-looking birds, one of the strangest of the more than 300 species of birds in the Amazon, are perched just a few inches apart on a crooked branch. The birds' red-orange plumes stand almost straight up from their heads. They remain for about five minutes, long enough for me to take a few photographs, then fly awkwardly to another tree just a few yards away.

Tejada offers enthusiastic high-fives. "Look at that…. What a find!" he says. "And only 10 minutes into our day."

This is Day 2 of a three-day excursion into what many claim is one of the few areas of pristine tropical rain forest left in the Amazon. The reserve (pronounced "Pic-KAYA-Sum-EAR-ee-ahh") totals more than 11,000 square miles, nearly three times the size of Los Angeles County. Guests pay about $34 each for permission to enter the reserve for up to seven days. Tejada and three other staff members from Amazon Yarapa River Lodge, a local rain forest hotel, have traveled with us six hours by boat to enhance the "Amazon experience" for Embry and me.

Locals tout the reserve as one of only a handful of places left where visitors staying a few days can see dozens of breeds of birds, along with numerous monkeys, pink dolphins, sloths, alligator-like caimans and other animals identified with the Amazon. Other more exotic animals, such as tapirs and jaguars, are more difficult to view in the wild, says Tejada, who, in 18 years as a naturalist and tour guide, has observed jaguars only three times and has never spotted a tapir.

Wildlife reserve

The reserve is bordered by two large rivers, the Marañón ("mar-a-NYON") and the Ucayali ("OO-kay-alley"), whose confluence marks the beginning of what is considered the Amazon River. Park officials estimate that 70,000 people live in the reserve, mostly in villages along the banks of the two main rivers. Within the reserve, there are a reported 132 species of reptiles, 13 species of primates and more than 250 types of birds, including the rare harpy eagle, a large, fast and powerful bird of prey.

The protection of the reserve is the responsibility of about 20 salaried park rangers and 300 to 500 volunteers. Despite government protection, the reserve is threatened by a host of human predators, including wildlife poachers, illegal fishers and timber and oil speculators. Park officials attribute these threats to the reserve's remote location, the inadequate number of rangers and the economic pressures typical of a developing country. The reserve operates on funds from the state of Loreto, and its annual budget has been cut 80% the last three years to $10,000, said Javier del Aguila Chavez, the reserve's director. Each of the 20 or so rangers is responsible for his own equipment, such as machetes, mud boots and flashlights. As a result, park officials encourage donations of funds or equipment and have initiated partnerships with environmental groups and operators of private lodges to help protect the reserve's ecosystem.

It was Embry's longtime fascination with toucans that led to our seeing the Imax movie "Amazon" on her 11th birthday in January 2002. As we left the theater, her plea, "I want to go to the Amazon," prompted me to challenge her: "You raise $500 toward the costs, and I'll pay the rest." One year later, after untold hours of baby-sitting, pet-sitting and house-sitting, along with a few birthday checks, she had the money. I began three months of research into the best and safest way to see toucans and other animals in the Amazon wild.

My research led me to a Peru expert in Virginia with the Nature Conservancy who suggested I consider exploring the reserve and use the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge as the base. The reserve is remote, but the staff at the lodge, where he had hosted conferences, would ensure Embry and I would be comfortable and safe.

Anyone considering such a trip should investigate the options carefully. Tour brokers offer four-star accommodations on posh riverboats, or "tree house" lodges only a few miles downstream from Iquitos, the bustling northern Peruvian city of about half a million residents that serves as the starting point for most Amazon adventurers.

But the proximity to Iquitos is, in fact, a problem. Ask anyone who knows the area and you will hear a familiar refrain: Don't expect to see much — if any — wildlife unless you travel at least 50 miles up or down the river from Iquitos.

Here's something equally important: Do not simply ply the river in a tour boat; hike into the rain forest with an experienced guide (and a lot of mosquito repellent).

Several Americans lounging at the Iquitos airport after three days at a popular lodge several miles downriver from the city were grousing about seeing only a few birds and a tarantula. No monkeys. No sloths. No caimans.

A passion for preservation

The northernmost edge of the Payaca-Samiria National Reserve is 93 miles south of Iquitos, about 2 1/2 hours by motorboat.

We spotted those hoatzins near the ranger's house, which doubled as an informal lodge for two nights about 150 more miles into the park.

"Those large tour boats are often isolated in the middle of the river; they have to be because of the depth of the water," says Charles Mango, an ophthalmologist from Syracuse, N.Y., who 10 years ago visited the Amazon for the first time on one of those large tour boats.

He saw little wildlife on that first venture, but the experience sparked a passion for helping to preserve the Amazon's flora and fauna. Nine years and thousands of dollars later, he is owner of the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge, an exquisite (by local standards) facility with spacious rooms (some with private baths with tiled showers), flush toilets and mosquito nets.

The accommodations are the closest to a five-star hotel you will find in the Amazon — large rooms (ours had two double beds, with space for two or three more) and a private bath with a gallon of bottled drinking water next to the sink. The lodge has two chefs who cook three full meals each day, including fish, steak and chicken, along with marinated cucumber salad and fresh mango juice.

The lodge also serves soft drinks, as well as beer, wine and some types of liquor.

Several unique animals, including a trio of macaws, a pair of red howler monkeys named Rosa and Lucho, and a warthog-like peccary, are regular hangers-on at the lodge despite frequent retreats into the surrounding forest.

Mango calls the lodge one of the best-kept secrets of the Amazon. Indeed, it is not referenced in the latest published versions of Frommer's, Lonely Planet or other tourist guidebooks that are updated every few years.

Besides accommodating 30 to 40 guests, the lodge serves as a research facility for college students, including an expansive room with four tiled or stainless steel examination stations and a small lecture hall. The lodge has had an affiliation with Cornell University, and recently the University of Miami made a commitment to send students this summer. Alumni from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania are planning a trip. Mango is hoping to entice other schools to become involved.

Moreover, Mango and his local representative (and on-site manager) Victor Serrubio recently brokered a deal with a local village and regional government officials to lease about 40,000 acres adjacent to the lodge for use as a wildlife preserve. Such efforts, he says, are necessary to ensure that the area bordering the Yarapa River, a tributary of the Amazon just north of the confluence of the Marañón and Ucayali rivers, is protected. He also hopes this preserve will be an added attraction for eco-tourists.

Nature and money

Motioning toward the slow-moving Yarapa River and the expansive Lake Ubos ("OOO-bose") about 75 yards away teeming with caimans and piranhas, from the dining room at the river lodge, Mango remarks that "some excursion operators are interested solely in a profit, but they are not interested in seeing people become interested in the environment." With tourism ranking third behind logging and oil drilling as an engine of the regional economy, Mango is concerned that in a generation or two little Amazonian flora and fauna will be left for visitors to see.

Seated a few feet away at an adjacent table in the lodge's dining room, Tejada, the naturalist, is listing the number of species of birds we observed. By the time our seven-day stay in the Amazon is over, the total will have reached 105, exceeding by five his previous record. We also will have seen seven species of monkeys, four types of snakes, sloths, pink and gray dolphins, an iguana and three kinds of caimans, including a 3-foot dwarf specimen Tejada grabs out of the water one night for Embry to touch.

"Americans should get involved with helping protect the Amazon," Tejada says. "They should do what you did — come down and see the Amazon firsthand. After you've seen it, you'll say, 'Hey, this is not just Juan's home, it's everybody's home.' "



Peruvian Amazon


From LAX, Lan Chile or COPA connects to Aero Continente to Iquitos. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $719.


Amazon Yarapa River Lodge, (800) 771-3100, . Wonderful accommodations, top-notch guides and excellent food. Transportation to and from Iquitos included. Prices for three nights begin at $525 per person, three or more people, and $900 per person, based on double occupancy, for six nights. Overnight excursions into Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve available for a modest fee; custom tours also available.

Pro Naturaleza, Fundación Peruana Para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, 417 Avenida Alberto del Campo, Magdalena del Mar, Lima 17, Peru; 011-51-1-264-2759, . Nonprofit conservation organization funded in 1984, one of the Peruvian partners of the Nature Conservancy, has been working in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve since 1992. Offers community-based ecotourism tours of up to six nights; prices begin at $300 per person. Custom tours also available.

Muyuna Lodge, 163 Putamayo, Ground Floor, Iquitos, Peru; 011-51-65-242-858, . Three hours south of Iquitos off the Ucayali River. Various packages or custom tours, from two nights to an extensive trip including other Peruvian communities.


Questions to ask before traveling to a rain-forest lodge:

How long has the lodge (or your service) been in business? Please describe the guesthouse or lodge. Are there beds? Running water? Toilets? Are there mosquito nets on the windows or nets above the beds?

What transportation services are included in the tour? How many guides will we have? What is the extent of their experience? How fluent are the guides in English? What kind of "community boats" or transportation does your service offer? How large are the boats and are they equipped with life jackets and/or preservers?

What is the likelihood of rabid animals, such as bats? Will we meet residents of the local area? If so, will the guide(s) be able to interpret for us? What kinds of wildlife are we likely to see? Please provide as references the names and contact information of people who have taken similar trips.

What to take to the Amazon: toiletries, sunscreen (SPF 50-plus) and lip balm, insect repellent (100% Deet suggested), sunglasses, binoculars for each person, camera and extra batteries with lots of film, lightweight rain suit or poncho, hat or cap with a brim, bright flashlight with extra batteries and bulb, plastic bags.


Consulate General of Peru, (213) 252-5910, .

— Dean Owen