5-DAY/4-NIGHT & 6-DAY/5-NIGHT ITINERARIES
Day 1: Puerto Maldonado to Heath River Wildlife Center
Staff welcome you at Puerto Maldonado airport and we drive through this bustling Upper Amazon Basin city to the Tambopata River boat dock. Here we board a powerful motorized dugout canoe and set off to the nearby confluence of the mighty Madre de Dios River, where we head downstream for approximately three hours to the Peru-Bolivia border at the mouth of the remote Heath River. Even beneath the vast sky of this major Amazon tributary we glimpse the diversity of the riverine environment, with its forest-capped red-earth cliffs, alternating with low banks thick with Cecropia trees and giant grasses.
Now, after brief frontier-crossing formalities, we motor for about two more hours up narrower and wilder waters, suddenly enjoying the intimacy of mysterious forest looming close on either side. Occasional views of native villages and children splashing by the banks, are interspersed with long quiet stretches where we may spot herons, hawks, cormorants, Orinoco Geese, and perhaps a family of Capybaras -- the world's largest rodent, weighing up to 120 lbs, and looking like an enormous guinea pig. We reach our simple, charming and comfortable quarters at the Heath River Wildlife Center in time for dinner. (Please note that the lodge is located on the Bolivian shore of the Heath River, so passports are required to clear Bolivian passport control.)
Day 2: Heath River Wildlife Center
Today we make an early start to visit the lodge’s most spectacular feature: the Heath River parrot and macaw lick. Here these colorful birds gather to eat a type of clay from the cliff-like river banks that neutralizes certain toxins in their diet. They congregate early each morning, sometimes by the hundreds, jostling and squabbling over the best eating spots on the clay lick. This extraordinary wildlife display occurs at only a handful of sites in the Upper Amazon Basin, and nowhere else on the planet.
Our floating hide platform provides comfort and complete concealment, so that we can eat a full breakfast here during pauses in the bankside spectacle. For ultra-close-up viewing, our guides carry a tripod-mounted spotting scope, which can also be used to get telephoto pictures with even the simplest camera.
On our return we can land partway downriver and walk back along a section of the lodge’s extensive network of forest trails. We encounter numerous gigantic Brazil-nut, kapok and fig trees, along with the scary strangler fig, whose life strategy is as sinister as its name suggests. After lunch we typically hike or bicycle along a major trail to a point where the forest abruptly gives way to the spacious plains of the Pampas del Heath, part of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. This unique environment -- the result of very poor soils, plus an extreme seasonal cycle of dryness and flooding -- is the largest remaining undisturbed tropical savannah in the Amazon, and is home to rare endemic birds and mammals, such as the Swallow-tailed Hummingbird and the highly endangered Maned Wolf. Shortly beyond the edge of the forest we can climb a raised platform that allows us a grand view of this vast expanse of grassland and shrub, studded with palm trees.
We return to the lodge by night, using our flashlights, and perhaps pausing here and there in total darkness, to listen to the ever-changing orchestra of animals, frogs and insects, and to experience the magic of the night-time rainforest. After dinner some guests may choose to visit one of our mammal lick hides, in hopes of seeing a Lowland Tapir, the rainforest’s largest mammal.
Day 3: Heath River Wildlife Center
Our second full day at the lodge allows us to choose from a wide range of activities available in this exceptionally diverse tropical environment. Many people choose to make a second visit to the macaw clay lick. Later we can take a canoe tour around Cocha Moa, an oxbow lake that lays a short way downstream from the lodge.
The reeds, fallen trees and forested shoreline of this lake teem with birds and other wildlife. Red Howler Monkeys may peer at us through the branches of the giant trees above us, while herons lie in wait among the fallen trees, cormorant-like Anhingas watch from the forest branches, and an Osprey may circle overhead. In the afternoon we may travel an hour or so downriver to visit the Ese’Eja native community of Sonene, where we can meet these descendants of nomadic forest tribes, and catch a glimpse of those traditional lifeways that they manage to maintain in the modern world. We can also purchase their handcrafts, made from a wide range of seeds collected from the forest.
After dinner we can board our canoe once more, for an evening of spotting for caiman, the Amazonian cousin of the alligator. This region is home to the endangered black caiman, and we nearly always pick out a few with our powerful spotlight as we patrol the river.
Day 4: Heath River Wildlife Center to Sandoval Lake Lodge
We leave at dawn for the return trip downstream. This is peak hour for wildlife so we keep a sharp eye on the riverbanks, often spotting families of Capybara, and perhaps being rewarded with a rare jaguar sighting, or a tapir swimming across the current. We reach the Madre de Dios River, re-enter Peru, and set off upstream for the boat landing near Lake Sandoval Lake Lodge.
We walk the 2 mile trail to the narrow boat channel through flooded palm forest that leads to the open waters of this peaceful lake, stopping as we go to spot birds and butterflies. As our crew paddles us across to the lodge (motors are prohibited here,) we may see the lake's surface broken by a massive Paiche -- an Amazon fish that can reach 220 lbs! Or perhaps we will hear the strange and haunting calls, and see the heads bobbing above the lake's surface, that will signal our first acquaintance with Pteronura brasiliensis, the Amazonian Giant Otter.
After lunch at the lodge and a brief rest to avoid the early afternoon heat, we once again set off by boat or catamaran to explore the entire west end of the lake. Here, in the flooded palm forest we drift to the sounds of hundreds of Red-Bellied and Blue-and-yellow Macaws as they return to the palm forest for the night. Our viewpoint from the canoes often allows closer and more extended encounters with birds and mammals than on a typical forest trail hike, and we may witness intimate feeding and mating behavior. On Lake Sandoval, monkeys in particular have almost lost their fear of humans.
We return to the lodge around nightfall for dinner. Afterwards we board the boats once more, in search of black caimans, which now are extremely rare in the Amazon, but still common in this protected lake. They grow up to 4 meters in length, and compete with the Giant Otters for their share of the fishing. On clear nights we take our boat further out into the lake to get an unimpeded view of the vast southern sky with its unfamiliar constellations and superb vistas of the Milky Way.
Day 5: Lake Sandoval to Puerto Maldonado
After a dawn breakfast we take a final, short paddle along the palm swamps of the wets end of the lake in search of the resident Giant Otter family. From here, on clear mornings, we will see a glorious sunrise and its reflection in the open waters of the lake. Returning down the trail to the Madre de Dios river, we return to Puerto Maldonado to catch teh flight to Cuzco or Lima.
FOR THE 6-DAY/5-NIGHT PROGRAM: Days 5-6 are as follows:
Day 5: Sandoval Lake Lodge
We rise early to tour the lake shore by canoe once more for yet new wildlife sightings. We return to the lodge for breakfast and rest for a while, perhaps enjoying the panoramic view from our high point on the lake shore, before setting out to walk a special circuit where we investigate and learn the uses of dozens of Amazonian medicinal plants. We will see palmicho, the plant that supplies the roof-thatch material for our lodges, Candlestick Ginger for anti-inflammatory medicine, the historically important Chinchona, or Quinine tree, whose bark has saved countless thousands from the throes of malaria, and numerous other vital plants. This route includes both wild forest and a small botanical garden dedicated to cultivation of some of these species.
After the mid-day heat subsides we canoe our way around the shore to the western end of the lake, and encounter the flooded palm swamps where macaws make their home and monkeys abound. As we make our way back to the lodge later, it is getting dark and we can use our flashlights to spot the brilliant red eyes of caimans and get close to them as they lurk along the bushy shoreline with their snouts just above water.
Day 6: Sandoval to Cuzco or Lima
After a dawn breakfast, we cross the lake, perhaps encountering a family of macaws leaving their roost to forage or a troupe of monkeys greeting the day. We hike back out to the river, where our motorized dug-out canoe takes us swiftly upriver to the boat dock at Puerto Maldonado, and thence to the airport.
Included: transportation from Puerto Maldonado airport to Heath River Wildlife Center & Sandoval Lodge to Puerto Maldonado; private bungalows with private bathrooms at Heath River Lodge and Sandoval Lake Lodge; all meals and snacks; purified drinking water and juices; bilingual naturalist guide; all rainforest and lake excursions; Tambopata National Reserve entrance fee;
Excluded: domestic flights within Peru, alcoholic beverages, tips to guide and staff and international flights.
Important note : please note that all macaw and parrot licks in southern Peru are less active in May, June and early July than in other months.