Category Archives: Day Hiking and Short Trails

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.

Major Grand Canyon Corridor Trails for Day-Hikers

Grand Canyon Views
There’s no such thing as a bad view in the Grand Canyon

There is, quite simply, nothing else like it on earth. And even though we think we know the canyon — from television specials, calendars, and movies like Thelma and Louise — hiking into it is a whole different level of experience. Astonishingly, most visitors say on the Rim, content to take photos without venturing more than a few minutes from their cars. But a whole new world awaits those who step off the edge, and start going downhill.

But first, a warning: Grand Canyon National Park’s glorious desert landscape can also be deadly. In the summer, the heat increases as you descend, with temperatures sometimes reaching well over 100 degrees. There is very little water and almost no shade. So rangers recommend the major “corridor” trails to beginning canyon and desert hikers.

The Grand Canyon National Park’s “corridor trails” are so named because they act as the major north-south corridors across the canyon. They are also the trails tourists are most familiar with. The South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails both depart from the South Rim and descend all the way to the Grand Canyon’s floor. The North Kaibab Trail descends to the floor from the North Rim. The trails merge at the bottom near Bright Angel Campground and Phantom Ranch.

Tight switchbacks on the South Kaibab Tral
Tight switchbacks on the South Kaibab Tral

Rangers recommend the corridor trails to first time Grand Canyon visitors because these paths are wide, with relatively gentle switchbacks. (In fact, the corridor trails are used by mule trips into the Grand Canyon.) They are well-maintained and are the ones most patrolled by rangers. None-the-less, these trails can still pose a danger for inexperienced or ill-equipped visitors. Some desert hiking strategies can help keep beginning (and experienced) hikers safe.

 Grand Canyon Safety Tips for First-Time Hikers

  • Day hikers should not try to go all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up in one day. People have (literally) died trying to do this.
  • When starting the hike down, notice that the National Park Service has placed signs telling hikers to turn back if they are out of water. Heed them!
  • Hiking the canyon is like climbing a mountain in reverse — and it is much easier to walk downhill than back up,  What seemed like a quick and easy hike when descending can turn into an arduous grind coming back.  Figure at least twice as much time (and at least twice as much water) to hike up as it took going down.
  • Wear reasonable footwear: Athletic shoes are fine. Flip flops are not.
  • Bring a blister kit. Blisters can turn a pleasant walk into sheer misery. The heat of the Grand Canyon means people sweat more than normal, which leads to blisters.
  • Bring clothing that provides protection against the sun, as well as plenty of sunscreen.
  • Bring lots of water — at least one quart for every hour of planned hiking time. (Some people may need more.)
  • Bring some easy-to eat snacks like GORP (a mixture of nuts, raisins, seeds, and sweets).
  • Mule trains have the right of way. Move off the trail as directed by the pack-train leader.
For a longer hike, a sunrise start is a good idea in the warmer months.
For a longer hike, a sunrise start is a good idea in the warmer months.

Stats and Facts About Grand Canyon Corridor Trails

  • The South Kaibab Trail is seven miles long and descends about 5,000 feet. Most hikers who are going to the Canyon floor, camping, then returning to the South Rim, use the Kaibab Trail for the descent. This trail has terrific views, but it’s a bit steeper than the Bright Angel.
  • The Bright Angel Trail descends 5,000 feet in 8 miles (and then continues another 2 miles to Phantom Ranch). It is most commonly used by hikers ascending from the Canyon Floor because it’s a little gentler and has a bit more shade. Hikers who have a permit can break the ascent into two days, and stop to camp at Indian Gardens Campsite, about half way up. There is water at Indian Gardens.
  • The North Kaibab Trail is 14 miles long and descends 6,0000 feet from the North Rim to the Canyon Floor. (The North Rim is about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim). Most hikers can descend in one day, but break the return trip into two days by camping at Cottonwood Creek at about the halfway point. Water is available at several places along the route.

Hikers should be sure that no matter whether they take the North Kaibab, South Kaibab, or Bright Angel Trail (or any others), they have enough water, and that someone knows where they plan to go – and when they plan to be back. Grand Canyon National Park is Arizona’s most popular tourist attraction, and an iconic America landscape, but it can also be dangerous. Some caution and common sense will ensure a safe and enjoyable visit.