Category Archives: Ecotourism

Mud-Walking in Peru’s Amazon Basin

karen Amazon compreseed
The author in the mud.

I’d been trudging through the Amazonian mud for hours. What had been described as a three or four-mile round-trip clocked in at more than six miles according to an iPhone app that by some miracle operated in a place where there were no power lines, no roads, no engines, no homes.

And we weren’t going fast. When I say mud, I don’t mean some gentle little suburban puddle you can daintily step around; I mean sticking, clinging, jungle mud; the kind of mud that pulls gum boots off of feet and leaves skid marks in your slurping, sucking, sliding wake.

I should interrupt myself here to note that this is the sort of thing I think of as “fun.”

I was hiking with a group of a dozen travel writers, aged mid-30s to 70-plus, and not everyone had their mud-stomping muscles in good working order. According to our guide, one of us moved as “slow as a sloth,” a comparison that seemed a little unkind, as the only sloth we’d thus far seen appeared to have no intention of moving at all, ever. But no matter: Everyone was in good spirits, and it wasn’t as if we had a business meeting to get back in time for.

Amazon luxury in the jungle
The Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica offers peace and respite and an abundance of nature.

I was staying at Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazonica, an ecolodge situated about a half an hour’s boat ride from the bridge at Puerto Maldonado. Outfitted with a provincial airport, Puerto Maldonado is the embarkation point for trips into Peru’s southern Amazon basin along the Madre de Dios River, one of the richest and most diverse ecological zones in South America. One of the key biodiversity areas is the Reserva Nacional de Tambopata, which boasts 1,234 species of butterflies, 592 of birds, 127 of amphibians, 103 of mammals, and 74 of reptiles. Inkaterra, an ecotourism operator that offers eco-luxury with a zero-carbon footprint,  has been operating in the Amazon for 40 years, making it one of the region’s pioneers in sustainable tourism.

Amazon tiver travel
Guests arrive by boat, tour by boat, and are transported to the start of the hike by boat.

Our mud-walk was to take us from the dock on the river, about a half an hour from the lodge. It began with a scramble up a short embankment that immediately got my attention. Fortunately previous walkers had left some discarded hiking sticks in the mud, and I grabbed one, which immediately improved my balance, my outlook, and my odds of staying upright.

The other indispensable piece of gear was footwear: knee-high rubber gum boots provided by the lodge. In the 90-degree heat, I’d opted for the slightly larger of the two pairs I’d tried on. This was a good decision: They were surprisingly comfortable, and, in the foot-swelling heat, I was thrilled to feel no pressure spots that might turn into blisters farther down the line. Even if I’d brought blister stuff with me — my usual first aid kid contains Second Skin, adhesive tape, and scissors — I’d have had a hard time finding a place to sit down and apply it.

Amazon 300 year old ficus tree
A 300-year old ficus tree.

The trek took us through primary rainforest: Some of the trees along the trail were more than 1000 years old according to Carlos, our guide. But the most impressive was a 300-year old “young” one — a ficus with the girth of a western redcedar.  It barely fit into the frame of my camera.

Stinging nettles
What Carlos referred to as “poison ivy” looks more like North American stinging nettles: Either way, don’t touch!

Carlos stopped occasionally to point out shrubs and trees that provide fruits and leaves that are traditionally used for food and medicine, as well as a plant he referred to as “poison ivy,” but which, with its broad flat leaves and tiny hairs, looks like our North American stinging nettles. I didn’t touch it to find out. We paused to catch glimpses of a few birds — macaws, mostly — but to be honest, our eyes were mostly on our feet, which is why most of us took note of the rows of leaf-cutter and army ants that were busy going about their jobs for the day. Only when the howler and squirrel monkeys flew past, crashing through the canopy with reckless abandon, did we look up: That got out attention away from our feet and onto our cameras.

Amazon trail
One of the rare spots where there was a boardwalk leading over the mud but only to more mud.

I won’t lie: This hike isn’t for everyone, at least not in the rainy season. There are no dry spots, and most of us ended up with our butts in the mud at least once. This is a land that floods easily and often: At an elevation of only about 600 feet above sea level, we were far inland from the river’s eventual drainage into the Atlantic Ocean, still thousands of river miles away. So the water, having nowhere to go, creates a flooded-forest habitat that is the most extensive example of this type of habitat in the world. Along the banks of the Madre de Dios River, you can see where floods have torn away at the banks.

Amazon canoes
Simple wooden canoes are used to transport visitors around Lake Sandoval

Two or three miles in, depending on whether you trust the guide or the GPS, we came to a marsh where painted wooden boats were tied to a dock. The man handling the boats, we were told, once fought his way out of the unhinged jaws of a 7-meter long anaconda. The boatman, small and tough-looking, stood knee-deep in the swamp. I didn’t know know if this was a tall tale, and if so, how tall a tale it might have been. Alert to the possibility of reptilian company, my eyes scanned the jungle, but it  was hard to see what might have been lying just in back of that shrub, or beneath that vine. Even at a distance of a few meters, the bright orange howler monkeys and the extravagantly plumed macaws, parrots, and herons. faded into the brush, invisible in plain sight.

We climbed into the dugout canoe. Its tippiness might have been normal for a canoe , but when a canoe is tippy in a swamp said to house caimans and giant anacondas, it seems somehow more precarious. We stayed still as the guide silently floated us on the watery path among the vegetation. A few minutes later, we left the swamp for the lake, which opened wide in front of us,  fringed by its halo of jungle.

We paddled along the shore looking for the residents: endangered giant river otters (Pteronura brasiliensis), blue and yellow macaws (Ara ararauna), red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus), black caimans (Melanosuchus niger), and a host of bird-life, especially herons and egrets.  More howler monkeys crashed through the canopy. A heron stood motionless, cooperatively posing.  We didn’t see river otters or caimans. There’s another ecolodge on the lake, hidden in the vegetation somewhere, and we didn’t see that, either. The jungle, hides, camouflages, obliterates.

Amazon Heron
A heron obligingly poses.

After an hour or so, Carlos miraculously guided our boat back into the same clump of vegetation from which we had entered the lake, and we glided over the still, brown water to the dock. The walk back was the same as the walk forward, but shorter somehow, as it always seems to be.

If we’d known what was in our immediate future, we’d have walked even faster: The cold Cusqueno cervezas waiting for us in the boat back at the river were perhaps the best any of us had ever tasted.

Nebraska’s Crane Migration: A Wildlife Wonder of the World

It’s February and the snow is almost spilling over the deck railing outside my window. My Florida friends are posting pictures of palm trees with snotty remarks about how they don’t need no stinking groundhogs, while my northern friends are unleashing a torrent of complaints as unrelenting and bitter as the cold.

So I’m going to tell you to go where in March? Florida? Hawaii? The Caribbean? All good choices, but how about Nebraska?

Yes, south-central Nebraska in March, where the temperatures may be in teens (or lower). Even more, I’m going to tell you to bring your warmest clothes, because you’ll be standing outside for a few hours — oh, at 5:30 in the morning.

crane migration 2
More than 500,000 migrating sandhill cranes — 80 percent of the world’s population of this species — migrate through south-central Nebraska.

Here’s what caught my attention last year: I read an article that said  that none other than Jane Goodall considered the annual Nebraska sandhill crane migration to be one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles. I figured Jane Goodall knows a thing or two about wildlife. So I went.

According to the Rowe Sanctuary, an Audubon facility in Gibbon, Nebraska, more than 10 million migrating birds fly north over south-central Nebraska’s Platte River every spring. The migration, which centers around the cities of Kearney and Grand Island, includes 400  species, including snow geese, hooded mergansers , the (occasional) rare and endangered whooping crane — and more than  half a million sandhill cranes. The cranes winter in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and summer in  Canada’s Hudson Bay and central Alaska. A few adventurous souls even cross the Bearing Straight into Russia. And in the fall they turn around and do it all backwards. Each time, they stop here feed and rest up for the remainder of their journey.

The Platte River: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

Settlers heading west on the Oregon Trail described the Platte River as a mile wide and an inch deep. That makes it hell to navigate in a wagon, but it’s ideal for sandhill cranes, who like to sleep standing up in water so they can hear the splashing and dripping of any predators. Indeed, the region is so vital to birds that it has been designated an Important Bird Area of global significance.

crane migration 1
The Platte River is braided — settlers called is a mile wide and an inch deep,

Today’s Platte is not nearly as wide as the Platte that frustrated the settlers, although organizations such as the Audubon Society are working to preserve as much of it in as natural a state as possible. But in central Nebraska, it is still braided and shallow enough to provide the cranes with their preferred nocturnal habitat. The surrounding dormant corn fields, filled with last year’s dropped kernels, make it the avian equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Prime time for seeing the migration is dawn and dusk, as the cranes depart from and return to their sleeping quarters in the Platte River. So by 5:30 I’m on my way to see the sunrise at the Rowe Center, an Audubon facility that operates a series of bird-watching blinds and offers guided tours with naturalists during the migration.

It’s in the low teens when I arrive. We get a brief orientation. First rule: Silence is golden. We don’t want to startle the birds into rising in a panicked flock and possibly decapitating themselves on the electric lines that run near and across the river. Cells phones are muted, camera flashes are turned off, and, armed with flashlights pointed at the ground, we quietly walk to the blinds, which provide breaks from the wind, if not the temperature.

crane pair2The dawn air is taut and crackling sharp. It’s not exactly quiet – – there’s an ongoing murmuring, a companionable sort of conversation of squawks and hoots. Cranes are verbal birds with strong family bonds; they recognize each other by their calls, and they seem to have a lot to say. Mom, pop, and kids sleep in nuclear family groups. As the night slowly lifts, shapes emerge from the gloom, and the squawking gets louder. First one family, and then another, takes to the skies. The commotion wakes others, and bigger and bigger groups leave, noisily now, heading out for a day of binging on corn.

In the evening, the process reverses. This time, I’m at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Alda. Like the Rowe Sanctuary, the Crane Trust offers educational programs and blinds in which to hide.

Getting to the blind just before sunset, I stare at a deserted stretch of river. A few small groups of cranes swoop in, and land in the ice-cold water, choosing a spot to call home for the night. A few more groups, bigger now, arrive. And then, with the force of a locomotive, a thundering cacophony shatters the stillness of the evening. Thousands, tens of thousands, of birds arrive in a chorus  of urgent calls to mates, friends, families. They darken the sky, they swarm in to land, they fuss and bustle and jostle, and the river fills up, and the light fades, and still more and more and more birds keep coming. For almost two hours, stragglers continue to arrive.

But finally, with the light gone, the birds seem to be all in for the night. The squawks are muted now, and the black shapes of the birds all but dissolve into the black ink of the river.

I turn to leave, quietly, like leaving a sleeping child. As I walk back to the center, it occurs to me that people on the coasts call the Midwest, the fly-over states. They have no idea how right they are.