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Rumbles in the Jungle: Exploring the Treetops in Peru’s Rainforest

Treetop living in Peru’s rainforest is more than just monkey business.

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Rumbles in the Jungle: Exploring the Treetops in Peru's RainforestPhoto: Thinkstock

Never mind that I’ve always dreamt of sleeping in a tree house. Or that the one I’m in right now is perched in the canopy of Tambopata, one of the most biodiverse corners of the Amazon Basin. All I can think of, as the wind nudges the treetops into a Peruvian waltz, is that my lofty cabin is swaying, too. Vinyl bug screens Velcroed to wooden frames are all that separate me from the 22-metre drop to the forest floor. It doesn’t help that earlier in the evening, I’d found out that the pinktoe tarantula lives in trees and thatched roofs like the one above my head. (My guide promised that the spider won’t climb this high, but I’m not so sure.) An Amazon pygmy owl starts hooting in the distance, sending out a jungle tweet that says the party’s on. Soon a gang of night monkeys swoops in, landing with loud thuds on top of my chalet-I can’t see them, but by the sound of it, they must be breakdancing.

Night or day, life in Tambopata, the tropical lowland region in southeastern Peru, plays out high above the forest floor. Some 60 per cent of the creatures in Amazonia live in the canopy; sleeping in, I soon discover, is impossible. At 5 a.m., red howler monkeys are barking instructions to stay away to bands of brethren in neighbouring trees. Like the nine other monkey species in Tambopata, they hang out in the light-filled treetops, chomping on fruits, nuts, seeds and flowers. I leave my cabin and start bouncing across the seven suspension bridges that make up the canopy walk at the eco-resort Inkaterra Reserva Amazónica. Hundreds of birds are already busy creating invisible highways between trees. The noisiest are the blue-and-yellow macaws; two of them, playing tag, come to a screeching halt above my head, then dangle by their beaks from the branches like Christmas-tree ornaments. With luck, you could spot another 600-plus bird species here-no wonder birdwatchers descend in flocks. And the Tambopata airspace flutters with more than 1,000 kinds of butterflies-reason enough to keep your feet off the dark recesses of the forest floor

At some point, though, all creatures touch ground. I descend to start the eight-hour journey up the Tambopata River to the Tambopata Research Center, the most far-flung lodge in Amazonia. I hop on a long and narrow boat with space for 18 passengers. As we snake deeper into the jungle, we pass spider monkeys moving silently from tree to tree with babies clinging to their backs. Snowy egrets strut along the shoreline wearing lemon-yellow wat­er shoes, and next to them, extended families of fuzzy capybaras laze in the sun. The heftiest rodent in the world, weighing up to 65 kilos, it’s also the cutest-a sort of muscular beaver with a large, square snout. I lose track of all the bird species I see, but it’s easy to remember the hoatzin, whose spiky headdress makes it the jungle’s punk rocker, and the scarlet macaw, the emblematic parrot of the fragile rainforest.

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At the Tambopata Research Center, it’s BYOF-bring your own flashlight. The lodge, ensconced in the Tambopata National Reserve and close to Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, is literally in the middle of nowhere. If you want to check your email or broadcast the fact you just placed your hand in the paw print of a jaguar, you do so during set hours when a generator is humming. As I drop off my bag, I get the feeling I’m in a large tent, three thin bamboo walls separating my room from the corridor and the rooms on either side; the fourth “wall” is full exposure to the jungle. With field guides strewn about the lounge area, and snakes and amphibians preserved in formaldehyde in jars on bookshelves, it’s a bit like science camp-but with access to a bar.

For an aperitif, I order the chuchuhuasi sour. The cocktail’s liquor has been infused with the root of the local chuchuhuasi tree, which tastes faintly of allspice and is supposed to keep my stomach in tip-top health. (Who wouldn’t drink to that?) At 7 p.m. sharp, the lodge’s cook emerges from the kitchen, wheeling out a cart laden with rice, stir-fried vegetables, beef stew and sautéed mushrooms, along with cream of celery soup and bread. He arranges the dishes on a buffet table at one end of the open-to-nature-concept dining room before dinging a bell. (The no-walls design comes with consequences: don’t be surprised if a macaw swoops down to snatch your bun or dessert-the bird likes carbs just as much as anyone else.)

For my own study of the macaw, I set out at 4:30 the following mor­ning. There are six macaw species in the region, and after sunrise they congregate, with dozens of other parrots and parakeets, at a clay lick half a kilometre from the lodge. The Collpa Colorado, a 500-metre-long red bluff that dips into the Tambopata River, is one of the largest parrot clay licks in the world. While my guide is setting up his telescope, the only winged creatures in view are mosquitoes. But when the sun comes up and illuminates the collpa, parakeets and smaller parrots start arriving, landing in the surrounding treetops and squabbling over who goes down first. One macaw after another plunges to the bluff to bite off chunks of the salt-laced clay, which is thought to be an important source of sodium that may also help eliminate toxins ingested in unripe fruit. As hundreds of birds pick out a breakfast spot, the cliffside turns into a dazzling, undulating rainbow.

When I find out that the Refugio Amazonas lodge down the Tambopata River offers tree climbing as part of its more adventurous excursions, I decide that I’m ready to rise to the treetops again. I walk over to the designated climbing tree, where I’m kitted out with a helmet and a harness. I start pushing my way up a rope toward a wooden platform splayed across the crown of a Brazil nut tree. It’s a 30-metre ascent, the equivalent of a nine-storey building, a feat my guide completes in one minute flat. After seven minutes, or halfway up, my arms are trembling-I can barely press the shutter release on my camera-and my legs have turned to pulp. But moving at the speed of a sloth rather than a capuchin monkey allows me to take in upwardly mobile orchids, ferns and bromeliads I might not otherwise notice. When I finally reach the platform, I pull up to the edge and take a seat overlooking the Tambopata River. Basking in the sunlit canopy, I feel like I could stay here forever-or at least overnight, long enough to recover from the effort. Especially now that I know the pinktoe tarantula doesn’t venture all that far from the dark recesses of the forest floor.

© 2013 By Spafax, From En Route (October 2013).