A lot of people travel with the principle that they’ll never visit the same place twice; and I get it, the world is huge with a lot of places to explore. But for us, if given the opportunity to explore a place for a second time that we loved from our first visit, we always jump at it. This is how we feel about Puerto Maldonado, Peru and this time were headed for the Tambopata Research Center.
Our first visit was more like a whetting of the appetite. We had planned a 12 day whirlwind trip around Peru, way back in 2012 that gave us 4 days to journey to Puerto Maldonado and dip our toes into the Amazon Rainforest. Without getting into too many details, it was an experience that would change our lives.
While researching places to stay we came across the celebrated Tambopata Research Center and longed over the opportunity it gave people to get deep into the jungle. Unfortunately, due to the logistics involved in getting that deep in the Amazon, we just didn’t have the time during that visit.
We left Puerto Maldonado vowing to ourselves that we would be back and we would make the journey to the Tambopata Research Center. Fast forward 6 years and we found ourselves finally planning a visit. A 7 day sojourn into the Amazon Rainforest staying at all three of the properties on offer with Rainforest Expeditions.
The Remote Tambopata National Reserve
Located in the Madre de Dios region in southeastern Peru, near the border of Bolivia is the Tambopata National Reserve. Also known as the Tambopata – Candamo National Reserved Zone, this reserve covers an area of 1061 square miles (274,690 hectares) from the Andes Mountains to Bolivia and borders the Bahuaja National Park.
Being part of the greater Amazon Rainforest, the reserve is recognized by the Peruvian government as the Biodiversity Capital of the country. Studies by conservationists tell us that the Tambopata National Reserve contains 160 species of mammals, 650 species of birds, 1200 species of butterflies, 150 species of amphibians & reptiles, 11 species of fish and over 10,000 species of plants.
This gives the region an above average level of biodiversity. Many scientists believe that a number of geographical factors are to thank for this, including unique situations.
Some examples of this are that the Tambopata National Reserve is in a transitional area between subtropical and humid tropical rainforest. There are altitude ranges from 200m-2,000m and the area experiences cold fronts that result in rapid weather changes.
The reserve also has two islands of grassland savannah, referred to as Pampas del Heath, that are among the last well-conserved areas like this in the Amazon. All this together makes this area extremely unique and a playground to those that love nature and wildlife.
The Best Place in the World to View Macaws
While you have the chance to view macaws in other parts of the Amazon and Central America, the Tambopata National Reserve is literally the best place in the world to view macaws.
This is due largely in part that it is home to the world’s largest known macaw and parrot clay licks. Colpa Colorado, the largest, and the equally accessible Colpa Chuncho, provide opportunities for you to witness one of the most amazing and colorful spectacles of nature.
I’m sure you’re wondering, what is a clay lick? Rivers are the lifeblood of the Amazon and they weave through the forest cutting back the shore and exposing wide areas of bank and in some places, steep cliffs. Clay licks are exposed areas on the riverbanks that are mineral rich, attracting hundreds of parrots to feed on the clay.
It is not uncommon for up to 17 species of parrots, including 6 species of macaw, to visit these clay licks daily. This means you have a chance for one of the most intimate and spectacular wildlife experiences possible in the world.
This is exactly why taking an expedition deep into the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru is one of the Top 100 Travel Adventures in the world.
Tambopata Macaw Research Program
Started in 1989 under the field direction of Eduardo Nycander, the Tambopata Macaw Project was established to learn more about the ecology of large macaws and the collected data was intended to help with their conservation. It was a loose plan and not something that was currently being done.
Being founded at the same time as Rainforest Expeditions, both were managed by the same directors until the macaw project was adopted by Texas A&M’s Dr. Donald Brightsmith in 1998. Since then, the Tambopata Macaw Project has become one of the world’s foremost studies on wild macaws.
The projects main areas of study include monitoring and observation of macaw nests, increased survival rates of Scarlet Macaw chicks, patterns of clay lick use by large macaws and other parrot and understanding the impact of tourism on the natural clay licks. More than 1,000 morning clay lick observations have been logged becoming part of the largest set of parrot data ever assembled to date.
This information is being shared worldwide to native communities, the Peruvian government and to classrooms and conservation projects to raise awareness of the fragile state of the macaw populations in the Amazon Rainforest. Of course it doesn’t stop at the macaws, as a blanket species the focal points of study on them can be applied to the conservation needs of the ecosystems that they reside in as well.
The Tambopata Research Center has been the base for the entire program since its inception and Rainforest Expeditions provides complimentary food, lodging, logistical support and salary funds for the participating researchers in the program.
As a company, they are quick to react to recommendations on tourism management at the closely located Colpa Colorado, ensuring they do their part for conservation and proper eco-management in the area.
The program is extremely interesting to learn about, especially when you are onsite and can interact with the researchers that are currently working on the project during your stay. The lodge also arranges project lectures by the resident scientists a couple days per week.
Staying at the Tambopata Research Center
One of the things I’ve learned about traveling to remote places is that it is worth the time, effort and money to get there. A stay at the Tambopata Research Center is no exception to this rule and the lodge is one of the most remote lodges in South America.
In addition to being remote, it is one of only two lodges that reside within the National Reserve itself. All other jungle lodges accessible from Puerto Maldonado along the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers are located in the buffer zone outside the reserve.
Not to mention that the lodge resides closely to the largest known macaw clay lick in the world, Colpa Colorado. This access alone has earned the lodge cover features in National Geographic as the best place to see macaws in the world. Visits to Colpa Colorado are included during a stay.
Macaws aside, the location is isolated and raw, providing unreal wildlife viewing opportunities right outside the room. The day we arrived we had just checked into our room and were regrouping on the balcony when we looked up to see two red howler monkeys just a few feet from our room, going about their business in the trees.
One of the most notable features of the Tambopata Research Center, and actually all of the lodges you can visit with Rainforest Expeditions, is the 3-wall concept. No, that is not a type-o.In an attempt to help the guests relate to life in the Amazon and really give in to the experience, the rooms are all constructed with an open concept, meaning you have only 3 walls and the only thing separating you from the wilds of the Amazon is a mosquito net around the bed.
While this might be a terrifying thing to think about, it actually made the experience insanely intimate. The Amazon Rainforest is not a place to fear, it’s a place to let go and allow yourself to see, hear and feel all that surrounds you during your visit.
While this is by far my favorite feature of the lodge, I’d be remiss to not point out more things that really set this property apart from a typical jungle lodge in the Amazon.The recently redesigned and rebuilt guest facilities offer a touch of luxury with updated amenities. The star of the redesign is the new elevated walkways that connect the entire property. Even walking from the room to the lobby area is an opportunity for viewing wildlife.
One several occasions we observed Scarlet Macaws, Saddleback Tamarins, Urubamba Titi Monkeys and Howler Monkeys while enroute to our room. It’s pretty amazing how wild the surrounding area is to the lodge. The magic of this property really comes in the ability to be part of the Amazon in a natural way. Wildlife comes and goes as they would elsewhere in the forest.
The guest rooms are located away from the public dining, bar and lounge areas, making for a quiet retreat when you’re ready to settle in for the night. Don’t let that stop you from hanging at the bar or rocking in the hammocks at the lobby entrance though.
No detail is spared in the rooms with logo-embroidered towels, biodegradable toiletries, in room clean water dispensers, ground and ceiling fans, comfy mattresses and crisp clean linens. The mosquito nets they use for the beds are real champions, featuring no-see-um mesh quality and in the 3 nights we spent there, I didn’t so much as receive one insect bite while sleeping. That’s a real testament because most insects see me as a walking buffet.
Like many of the other lodges in the region, the Tambopata Research Center offers 3 inclusive meals per day, included excursions and massage services. We found the entire lodge to be a very comfortable base for adventuring in the Amazon.
The Tambopata Research Center is owned and operated by Rainforest Expeditions, a Peruvian ecotourism company that was established in 1992. The company combines macaw research, conservation and local sustainability development with tourism to offer unforgettable experiences in the Amazon Rainforest. In addition to the Tambopata Research Center, they offer two other lodges along the Tambopata River: Refugio Amazonas and Posada Amazonas.
Guided by a Legend
The skill of any Amazon guide is impressive, yet some of them stand out among the crowds. This can be said about the amazing Silverio Duri, wildlife spotter and bird seeker extraordinaire. Seriously though, this guy is an absolute legend in the Amazon guiding scene in South America.
We were lucky enough to spend 7 days exploring the Amazon with him and it was an experience that will stand out to us for the rest of our lives.
Silverio is an important leader among the Ese-Eja indigenous community and was born in the rainforests of Peru. Being alongside him in the rainforest is like becoming one with the forest because he misses nothing. He’s been a rainforest natural history guide for many years in the Tambopata National Reserve and is extremely knowledgeable about the ecology, wildlife and flora that surround you during your visit.
He made us feel completely at home in the rainforest, giving us an experience that was unforgettable. He went out of his way to ensure we found the wildlife we wanted to photograph and then made sure we were able to get fantastic photos without disturbing the animals. His instincts and ability to read the wildlife are unmatched.
Honestly, I cannot say enough good things about him and we had so many fun days out exploring in his company. We became true friends and will definitely make sure he’s available the next time we are in the area.
Hiking in the Amazon
Besides our main mission of spending time at the Macaw Clay Licks, we wanted as many opportunities as possible to explore and immerse ourselves into the Amazon Rainforest. We wanted to photograph the forest and wildlife around us, meaning we wanted to spend more time in the forest than at the lodge.
The best way to do this is on foot.
You might think us crazy but we spent upwards of 7-8 hours hiking in the Amazon Rainforest every day of our 3 night stay at the Tambopata Research Center. Due to the remote location and easy access to pristine forest, the center has numerous trails that run through a large variety of topography.
This includes 3 types of forests and palm swamps. We explored it all at various times of the day and night, uncovering some pretty interesting creepy crawlies along the way. The day we did our night walk ended up in a 4 hour expedition in search of poison dart frogs and tarantulas. The reward to our effort included successful sighting of 3 species of poison dart frog and 2 species of tarantula.
There were times we would find a nice place and just sit for a while. Taking a time out to just listen to the forest is such a release and it’s amazing what you become in tune to by doing this. We encountered otherworldly Ceiba trees, some so large the panoramic feature on the phone could hardly capture it in one shot. We learned about medicinal uses for the plants and identified flowers.
Above all, we saw so many species of rainforest animals that by the third day I had a cramp in my shutter finger! I can’t say that has ever happened to me before, but it happened on this trip and I depressed that shutter at least 10,000 times in the span of a week.
Amazon Animal Encounters During Our Visit
It would be nearly impossible for me to list out every single animal encounter that we had during our stay. We saw hundreds of animals including birds, mammals, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles. That said, we wanted to share a few of our highlights, because the encounters are simply too incredible to not.
Jaguar – the elusive ‘moose’ of any Amazon visit is to actually see a Jaguar. The day we arrived in Puerto Maldonado we were riding along the Tambopata River in a long boat, enroute to the Refugio Amazonas lodge when our guide told me to put on my zoom lens. Laughing, I asked why. He looked at me and simply stated, because there is a jaguar up here.
We both laughed, clearly thinking he was joking but I swapped out my lens to humor him. Suddenly the boat began to slow and make its way from the center of the river to the bank. Asking why, he told us again that we were going to see a jaguar.
As much as I wanted to believe him, I knew how remote the chances were of actually seeing a jaguar. We have spent 12 days in the Amazon over our past 2 visits and never saw one. Then he pointed in the grass. I raised my camera in that direction and instantly saw the sleeping cat. Joke was on us as we logged our first jaguar sighting.
Macaws – our main reason for visiting this region was to see Scarlet Macaws at the clay licks, and see them we did. We also saw several other species including Blue & Yellow, Red & Green, Chestnut Fronted and Blue Headed. During our 7 day trip visiting the 3 lodges of Rainforest Expeditions, we made 3 attempts at the Colpa Chuncho and 1 attempt at the Colpa Colorado. All 4 times we saw decent numbers of macaws. As an animal lover, witnessing the spectacle of large macaw groups descend on a clay lick in Peru is something you shouldn’t miss.
Monkeys – Of the 8 different species of primates that inhabit the area surrounding the Tambopata Research Center, we saw 7 of them. Which is a pretty amazing feat if you think about it. How often do you go in search of wildlife and see nothing? Happens all the time around the world.
The most ironic thing about our primate tally is that all of these species were observed in very close proximity to the lodge. We didn’t have to spend hours slogging around in the jungle to see monkeys. This alone should be a testament to how natural the lodge is with it’s surrounding.
Species we had the privilege of viewing included: Spider Monkey, Urubamba Titi, Squirrel Monkey, Red Howler, White Fronted Capuchin, Saddleback Tamarin and Owl Monkey.
Tarantulas – no visit to the Amazon Rainforest is complete without a tarantula encounter. Some people shy away from them but I think they are a gorgeous species. Granted, I am not a fan of finding them in my room but I do absolutely love seeing them when we’re out walking in the forest.
Poison Dart Frogs – this is the first time we’ve gotten a close up look at these colorful little guys and it was surprising to me just how vibrant their colors are and just how small they really are. They love the areas around the Tambopata Research Center, especially when we headed out to the Palm swamp trails. We heard many more than we were able to locate but we sure had fun searching for them with Silverio.
How to Get There
If you haven’t already guessed, this is not an experience that comes without a little commitment to time and travel. You are, after all, embarking on a trip deep into the Amazon Rainforest and the primary mode of transport is boat.
The Tambopata National Reserve is accessible from the small jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, which can be reached by flying from either Cusco or Lima. Most flights from the states arrive into Lima late, so you’ll find that you have to spend at least one night there before catching a flight to Puerto Maldonado the next day.
Most of the flights from Lima will stopover in Cusco enroute to Puerto Maldonado, lasting around 2 ½ hours with the stopover – you do not get off the plane. If you’re already in Cusco it is a direct 55 minute flight.
After arriving in Puerto Maldonado you will be greeted at the airport by the Rainforest Expedition staff and taken by van to their headquarters just outside of town. You’ll be briefed and then asked to pack only your necessities into smaller bags – storing your large bags at the main office.
From there, it is a 40 minute drive by bus to the Infierno Community Port where you will board a long boat, motorized canoe and start your journey up the Tambopata River towards Refugio Amazonas.
The Tambopata Research Center is 62 miles (100km) from Puerto Maldonado and the total journey takes 7-8 hours. Local laws do not allow boats to travel on the river at night; so all journeys to the Research Center are broken up with a mandatory 2 night stay at Refugio Amazonas. The total travel time from the port to this lodge is 2.5-3 hours.
Once you leave Refugio Amazonas, you’re looking at another 3.5 hours of travel up the Tambopata River before you actually reach the Tambopata Research Center. It’s a long journey but is well worth it when you leave the canoe and begin your walk through the forest, ultimately arriving on the steps of one of the most remote lodges in the Amazon Rainforest.
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Disclosure: This post was made possible in collaboration with Rainforest Expeditions. However, all opinions, crazy stories, experiences, raves and insave love for the Amazon Rainforest are 100% mine. As always.