A once in a lifetime Amazon jungle tour with Rainforest Expeditions
Twilight is a magical time in the Amazon rainforest. It doesn’t last for long, but these few mystical moments belong to the fireflies, dancing around the darkening glade leaving mesmerizing trails of golden light in their wake. The forest never sleeps, but despite the constant drone of cicadas, it feels as if peace has descended along with the night. That is until the howler monkeys decide to join the sleepy jungle symphony. They are several miles away, but their unearthly roars shatter the tranquility and make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The jungle is full of nature’s surprises, and more than anywhere else on earth, it really makes you feel alive.
I’d wanted to go on an Amazon jungle tour ever since I was 13, all thanks to a National Geographic poster on my bedroom wall, and a 3 year bet with my dad. 23 years later and I’ve finally made it. Hubbie and I chose Tambopata in Peru for our first taste of the Amazon, because we wanted to visit the famous macaw clay lick, and also because we fancied returning to Cusco where we’d spent our honeymoon 10 years before. There were two jungle lodges in Tambopata that really stood out – the Amazon Villa with Rainforest Expeditions, and Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica. Being indecisive, we ended up staying at both and thus spent a whole week in the jungle. We’re really glad we did because they’re two very different experiences, and both have their merits.
However, nothing quite beats having your own luxury bungalow in a remote rainforest clearing, complete with a private guide, chef and butler. Gushing isn’t usually my thing, but boy did we love this place!
Getting to the Amazon Villa with Rainforest Expeditions
One of the attractions of the Amazon Villa is that it’s not easy to reach. For our Amazon jungle tour we flew from Lima to Puerto Maldonado before a 45 minute bus journey, a 3 hour boat trip up the Tambopata River, and then a 20 minute hike to reach the villa.
Rainforest Expeditions have several jungle lodges in Tambopata, and the Amazon Villa was a 20 minute walk from Refugio Amazonas. Yet since the Amazon Villa experience is totally private we didn’t actually see the lodge guests at all during our stay in the jungle.
Rainforest Expeditions picked us up at our guest house in Puerto Maldonado at 10 am and whisked us off upriver on our own private boat, complete with captain, all our gear, and a delicious lunch wrapped up in banana leaves. Our Amazon adventure had already begun. As we munched our way through vegetable couscous and sipped tree tomato juice, our fabulous guide Jair (also known as ‘Eddie’) gave us our first glimpses into the world of the Amazon.
Clouds of brightly coloured butterflies flitted about on the riverbanks, their wings sparkling in the sun as they supped on patches of salty earth. Some of the braver ones even perched on the heads of turtles, drinking the sodium from the reptiles tear ducts. I’m not quite sure what the turtles get out of this relationship, but they didn’t seem to mind. Apparently rainforest soil is really poor (quite surprising considering it is so lush) and lacks a lot of nutrients, including sodium, which is why the creatures of the Amazon have to seek it elsewhere.
Jair also spotted a capybara having a snooze in a dry creek. It was so well camouflaged lying there in the mud that it’s a wonder we saw it at all.
The walk in to the Amazon Villa was fairly easy. After the initial steep climb up the riverbank, there were flat jungle trails leading all the way, which during September were dry and pleasant to walk on.
And there it was, the Amazon Villa. Our home for the next few nights.
The Amazon Villa
I still can’t quite believe that we were able to live in the height of luxury in the middle of the rainforest on our Amazon jungle tour, hours away from the nearest settlement. Yet there we were, staying in a vast wooden eco- villa, with our own jacuzzi bath, his and hers sinks, a sumptuous bed and even a TV and sound system should the rainforest not be entertainment enough.
We loved that the toiletries were all organic and produced from the abundant nature around us, and there were even slippers and fluffy robes to snuggle up in after a decadent bath.
Our favourite feature was the ‘missing’ 4th wall, which instead was open to the rainforest and a great place to watch the fireflies from at night.
As well as being an amazing place to stay, the Amazon Villa also came with a private chef and butler, who were there to look after us at meal times, and were at the end of a radio should we have needed anything. I don’t think we’ll ever get used to this level of personal luxury, and will always feel a little awkward being waited on hand and foot, but it was a real treat having such an exclusive service, and both of them were professional yet friendly. My school girl Spanish came in handy as they didn’t really speak any English, but why should they! As Brits we have it so easy when it comes to language and travelling since so many people speak English, which means it’s really refreshing to have to make a bit of an effort, and add to my eclectic range of vocab.
The food was quite surprising in taste and variety, and we were able to choose from an extensive menu each day. We fell in love with the Amazon salad on day one, and probably bewildered the chef a little by ordering it every day! The trouble was, despite the roasted yucca, salted beef brochettes, pumpkin soup, and chocolate and banana tarts all being delicious, we found it simply too hot and humid to really work up much of an appetite, despite our adventurous days out. We’re never going to be foodies, but if you are, you’ll absolutely love it here!
It gets dark early and quickly in the Amazon rainforest, which meant relatively early nights after a few tipples whilst watching the firefly show. It turns out this wasn’t a bad thing as we were up early every morning for excursions to try and avoid being out during the hottest part of the day. Although to be honest it was absolutely sweltering the entire time so we didn’t mind too much walking around at midday.
Exploring the Rainforest
Chuncho Clay Lick
The Chuncho Clay Lick was the reason we were here on our Amazon jungle tour in Tambopata. It’s the largest macaw clay lick in the world, with towering cliffs of mineral rich soil attracting macaws, parrots and parakeets from across the forest.
Just like the butterflies who feed on salt from riverbanks and turtle tears, the macaws gather here to feed on sodium to supplement their diets. It’s one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, and despite having to get up at 4.15 am to walk down to the river and take a 2 hour boat trip further upstream, and then a 10 minute hike through a cane forest, it was worth every bleary-eyed minute.
We spent a couple of hours at the clay lick, watching the antics of the birds from the viewing point across the valley whilst tucking into a picnic breakfast with Jair and the boat captain. The macaws would tentatively approach the cliffs, hopping from tree to tree, all the time checking for danger until they felt safe enough to descend and eat. Yet if one bird gave so much as a squawk, they’d all be off again, flying in mass formation back up the valley in a haze of red, blue and gold flapping wings. We just had to sit tight and wait for them to return and settle.
There are no settlements, lodges or cultivation here in the national reserve where the clay lick is located, so the primary rainforest is protected from development. In the area of Tambopata where we’re staying at the Amazon Villa there are a few farms, lodges and even illegal gold mining. To our untrained eyes it had all looked like pristine rainforest, but Jair pointed out several areas of non-native crops along the riverbank to further our jungle education.
We were a little bit jealous of the views the macaws would have had whilst flying over the rainforest, so we decided to do the next best thing by climbing up the 80 metre tall canopy tower to watch the sunset over the forest. It was just a 15 minute walk from the Amazon Villa, and took nearly as long to puff all the way up to the top! It was such a treat to be given a glimpse into this secret rainforest world that few people get to see on an Amazon jungle tour.
We were joined by Dani, one of the research scientists from the Wired Amazon team, who had brought his drone to introduce us to aerobotany – monitoring the health of rainforest trees from above. There are lots of scientific research projects that Rainforest Expeditions guests can get involved in, from discovering and naming new species to monitoring camera traps. We spent a fun half hour flying the drone on routes over the canopy, trying to grasp how small and insignificant we were compared to the enormity of the sea of endless green.
I don’t do mud, which is why we were visiting Tambopata well in to the dry season. Yet we weren’t expecting it to be as dry as it was – it didn’t actually rain a drop all week, and I was almost disappointed I didn’t get to wear my wellies. Was the rainforest broken? As a result all the forest trails were rather like a leafy Autumnal walk through an English wood. Albeit with more deadly spiders.
The hike to Lake Condenado takes about an hour from the Amazon Villa, or longer if you stop to look at stuff all the time like we did. As well as capuchin monkeys, poison dart frogs and the biggest stick insect Jair had ever seen, we also came across this strange looking critter.
The hairier the caterpillar, the more deadly it is. Which is perhaps why it’s so apt that this one, named by a US scientist, is called the ‘Donald Trump Caterpillar’. Had it been discovered by a British researcher, it would no doubt be known as the ‘Boris Johnson Caterpillar’. There, that’s all the Politics you’ll ever come across on the blog.
Eventually we made it to the lake, where Jair expertly paddled us around in a large wooden canoe, watching hoatzin birds (or ‘stinky birds as they’re known locally) squabbling in the bushes, and piranha snapping from the depths. Piranhas are always an essential element of any Amazon jungle tour!
We also saw a juvenile black caiman enjoying a bit of shade in the shallows. He was THIS big…
At the opposite side of the lake we jumped out and went to gawp at some truly strange trees. There was a huge fig tree that we could both climb inside, which was home to some sleeping bats and a few creepy crawlies. Then there was the ‘belly palm’ which oddly has its roots on top of the earth rather than beneath it, because there is more moisture and nutrients above ground. I thought it looked like an upside down tree.
Finally, the most bizarre of all was the ‘walking palm’. That’s right, a tree that can walk! Apparently as the upper reaches of the tree strain towards available space and light in the canopy, the roots gradually move in the same direction, with old ones behind dying off, and new ones in front growing where support is required. Just bonkers.
Here’s another rainforest tree fact – the only way to tell the age of a tree here is by carbon dating. There are no rings to count, because there are no seasons in the Amazon. Just wet, and slightly less wet.
It was quite a relief to get back on the river where the cool breeze was balm to the intense heat of the forest. One of our favourite boat excursions on our Amazon jungle tour was a twilight cruise upstream to have sundowners on a secluded rocky island right in the middle of the river.
Sitting alone drinking Cusquena beer and nibbling on plantain chips (very yummy jungle crisps) whilst watching the sun gradually sink below the rainforest horizon was definitely one of life’s moments. Howler monkeys called goodnight from across the jungle, and a few macaw families flapped silently by, heading home after a busy day.
We really appreciated that Jair and the captain left us to ourselves for our sundowners. They weren’t far away in the boat, but it felt like it was just the two of us and the Amazon Rainforest. And it was perfect.
Night is the realm of tarantulas and scorpions, but strangely I wasn’t scared. Probably because I had total confidence in Jair, and also because I was walking in the middle between him and Hubbie, so I’d be the last one to come under attack. This girl isn’t stupid! It was quite surreal walking along the jungle trails, now totally unfamiliar in the dark. Shining our torches so we could watch where we were putting our feet meant we didn’t have much opportunity to look around, but luckily Jair had that covered.
A family of owl monkeys rustled around above our heads, whilst the cicadas sang and a lone armadillo scuttled furtively through the leaf litter right across our path. But it was the little things we were on the hunt for tonight. We saw countless chicken tarantulas lurking in the opening of their holes, waiting for supper to come trundling innocently by. Again, I surprised myself by not being afraid (I normally run a mile at home if I see a miniscule money spider in the house). I think it was because I’d come into their territory, rather than the other way around. They weren’t out to get me.
Or so I kept reminding myself.
Before the night was out, we’d also seen wolf spiders, an incredible net casting spider and even the deadly purple wandering spider (possibly the scariest creature in the jungle because once bitten, there’s no hope!). Jair used his UV light to go scorpion hunting, and we spotted a whipping scorpion as well as the black scorpion (also very deadly). Worryingly the latter was in the leaf litter in the middle of the path. I was glad I had my sturdy hiking boots on.
My favourite night sighting however was the click beetle. They occupy little burrows in termite mounds and glow with bioluminescent light to lure their prey. Quite a spectacle on a dark Amazon night.
Night walks are offered on many an Amazon jungle tour, and even if you don’t initially fancy it I urge you to give it a go. You might just surprise yourself.
What we loved
As I always say, it’s the little things that really make a difference. Like the way the Amazon Villa staff kept our stash of chilled water and juice constantly topped up in the fridge, which was the one thing we craved when returning from our hot excursions. Plus they were often waiting for us with cold flannels to mop our sweaty brows after a day out trekking in the forest. These things are just as magical as the fireflies, the macaws and the milky way!
Our guide Jair was superb too. It’s quite daunting for both guide and guest to be thrust into the constant company of strangers for several quite intense days, so it’s really important that the relationship is a positive one from the start. Thankfully, Jair had a fabulous sense of humour as well as knowing the jungle like the back of his hand, so we all got along just fine. It really was a pleasure to spend time with him in the Amazon.
It goes without saying that the exclusive feeling of our Amazon jungle tour was the reason why we enjoyed it so much. Most jungle lodges operate excursions in groups, so to have the forest and the facilities all to ourselves was a real treat. If you like your privacy, then try the Amazon Villa. It doesn’t get much better than this!
What wasn’t so great
A lot of Amazon rainforest lodges have a guest baggage weight limit of 10 kg per person, since it all has to be transported by boat, then carried up to the rooms. This is also the case with the lodges at Rainforest Expeditions. So we spent ages packing and unpacking on the morning of our departure, deciding what we could do without, and worrying we didn’t have room for enough fresh t-shirts. Yet when we were picked up it was revealed that since we were on a private tour, we could take as much luggage as we liked. As in all of it. Which was great, but we could have done with knowing that before we arrived to save wasting all that time repacking in Puerto Maldonado.
There’s no doubt an Amazon jungle tour is a hot experience. The only respite is a quick cold shower, or sitting under the ceiling fan in the bedroom at the Amazon Villa. As there wasn’t a fan in the living area we often found it too hot to sit there in the evenings, and spent most of the time in the bedroom instead, which was a shame because the lounge was so lovely. I know, it’s a wonder that we had power and fans at all this deep in the jungle, and we should be thankful for what was there (and we were!), but perhaps a living room fan would have been an added bonus.
Magic does exist, we know because we’ve seen it!
Tips for staying at the Amazon Villa
- We stayed at the Amazon Villa for 3 nights and think it was just the right amount of time. We love the jungle, so would have been happy to have another night, but if it’s your first time, then 3 nights is plenty. The heat and the bugs do take a lot of getting used to.
- Water bottles are available for guests to use so you don’t need to bring your own, and filtered water is provided.
- We weren’t really troubled by mosquitoes during our excursions, but they do come out at dusk, so make sure you take plenty of bug spray, which is especially useful if you’re having sundowners on the river.
- As this Amazon jungle tour is private, you don’t have to wait until the standard afternoon boat departure which takes guests to Refugio Amazonas. Which means if you get your timings right, you can actually depart Puerto Maldonado in the morning and have an extra half day for no extra cost! We opted for a night in Puerto Maldonado to give us a bit of leeway in case of delayed or cancelled flights from Lima, so we were able to leave at 10 am the next morning.
- There isn’t much to do or see in Puerto Maldonado, but if you stay the night before your expedition like we did, you could do worse than stop at Wasai Eco Lodge. Accommodation options in town are pretty basic, but the Wasai was right on the riverbank and is known for the wild 3-toed sloths that can often be seen in the grounds. We opened our curtains in the morning and found one outside in the tree, staring at us!