Within a day of our return from Machu Pichu, we went on a second tour - one to the Peruvian Amazon. The Amazon in Peru is classified in a number of ways; you have the 'secondary' rainforest where people can live, hunt, fish and burn foliage to their heart's content. The 'virgin' or 'primary' forest is the goal though, this area can't be defiled by permanent human habitation, it can't be littered or chopped away, you can't log or fish or hunt, or really do very much at all that might impact the natural environment. Of course, any human presence does have an impact but it's kept to a minimum. There is also the bulk of the reserved primary rainforest for scientists and reserve wardens only.
There are communities living along the riverbank in the secondary rainforest accompanied by hostels, shops, churches and basic houses but these aren't regular and even though these are permanent residences it doesn't detract from what are really quite isolated communities. The largest we visited was a community of 150 people which appeared to be a sprawling metropolis compared to the one house families we met.
The first day of coach travel was, in itself, an adventure; the coach climbed up mountain passes, wheels gliding over rocks and cliff edges to provide 'unique' views of the tropical valley. After day one we rafted down a river accompanied by an otter and absorbed the unique surroundings which the Amazon offered. We transferred to a traditional river motor boat and after two more days of travelling with stops downstream, entered into primary forest.
The difference in secondary and primary forest is quite apparent. The animals increase in frequency and diversity, and the vegetation grows at every angle. 'Logs' scatter the river and flash their multiple incisors at anyone unfortunate enough to get too close, and parakeets, macaws and toucans soar overhead searching for nuts and berries. The animals are the stars of the show and we managed to see hundreds of birds, caimans, capybaras (world's largest rodents), monkeys and giant otters. Although the giant otters were the least exotic of our spots, they were in many ways, the most impressive. From our Catamaran (more on this later...), we watched a family of seven as they hunted, played on the banks and ducked and dived through an Amazonian lake. It was just like a nature programme as we were given a unique viewing platform as the parents taught the juveniles how to hunt. Growing to over two metres long, giant otters are formidable hunters, able to take on caiman (and win) when they need to. Sadly, they are also increasingly endangered.
Another treasured experience was spotting a Taipir, the largest mammal in the Peruvian Amazon, and a black pig-like creature with a trunk of sorts, swim across a river. The sighting alone was rare enough, but at the point that it had crossed half the river a large caiman submerged and started to give chase. At the point David Attenborough's calming voice is needed to utter an insightful line, in reality we had Alex, the bloodthirsty and suicidal Australian demanding that the caiman take down the Tapir in an orgy of blood and gore. Fortunately for the Taipir, and the more delicate of tourists on board, it crossed to the other riverbank untouched.
Caimans were regular spots, none more so than on the lake where we saw the otters. The 'Catamaran' we launched onto the lake on was essentially a glorified raft with two logs carved into boat shapes and some decking and seats nailed in. As noted before, we spent a large proportion of our time on the lake watching the otters play but when darkness fell the jungle really came alive with chirps, cries and hoots. Bats flew out from the trees where thy had enjoyed their slumber and skimmed above the water (and our heads) scooping up the mosquitos and saving our blood. As darkness enveloped the lake, the guide shone his torch out in every direction, only to have the light reflected back from beady red eyes as the caiman surrounded our vessel.
The Amazon trip was a real highlight and we even managed to come out of it with life and limb intact. The diversity of the animals and fauna was Incredible and we enjoyed the sights and the sounds of the forest just as much as the animal spotting. The group was small (6 gringos in all) and accompanied by the staff (boat drivers, guide and cook) and we saw and did a lot. In the primary forest we met locals (and beat them 3-1 at a spontaneous football match!); pushed, waist deep, our boat in water we had previously been informed contained piranhas and caiman; and relaxed in natural hot spas with multi-coloured butterflies the size of your hand flying around your head.
The guide was knowledgeable and in addition to the animals, told us about the communities that populated the area. Whilst no permanent communities can be established in the primary forest there are some nomadic tribes. These are, as you would expect, entirely self-sufficient, hostile to outsiders and completely stark naked. They roam the forest at will and it is forbidden to interact with them. Interestingly, whilst they usually live in the deepest parts of the forest, they had been seen in the secondary forest prior to our departure and had deftly sent an arrow through a farmer's neck as he tried to stop them stealing some bananas from his land.