In deepest, darkest Peru
In deepest, darkest Peru
Civilisation is disappearing. It's slipping around a bend in the river, being lost in the dense jungle that hugs the banks. A minute more and it will be gone completely, just a memory, and we'll be left with nothing but the chug of an outboard engine and the enormity of the Amazon jungle.
That last brush with humanity was nothing more than a wooden staircase leading to the river. It was the end of the road, literally and figuratively, as the minibus from Puerto Maldonado - the tiny Peruvian jungle town - pulled up to deposit its load of adventurers into the long, narrow boat that is now making its way up the Tambopata River, further and further still into the Amazon; further and further still from the modern world.
We're travelling three hours upriver today, three hours during which the last vestiges of human influence will gradually fade away. There will be people on the riverbanks for the first hour, the brief glimpse of other boats for the second, and then nothing.
Our dinghy sluices through the thick Amazonian air like it's molasses, providing brief respite from the cloying humidity. We see herons stalking the riverbanks; groups of capybaras, rodents that look like giant guinea pigs, feed near the river.
Our destination this morning is Refugio Amazonas, a sort of halfway house in our journey away from civilisation. Tomorrow we'll continue upriver towards the Tambopata Research Centre, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. For now, however, it's time to check in.
The boat pulls over to the side of the river, near another set of wooden stairs, and we throw our daypacks on and start trekking through the dense jungle. There are two groups of travellers visiting Refugio Amazonas today - those who will stay a few nights before heading back to civilisation, and those like us who are using this as a stop-off point on the way to the real deal.
There's a certain amount of respect for the latter group. "Man," says an American tourist, taking in the wooden Refugio lodge plonked deep in the forest, "this is about as wild as I need to get."
The Refugio has far more comfort than you would expect from such a remote location, with en suite bathrooms and even Wi-Fi. What the rooms don't have, however, are four walls. Mine possesses three, with one side purposely open to the jungle, to the rustles and squawks and scratches and howls of one of the world's most incredible ecosystems.
As darkness closes in, the jungle comes alive and you can lie under your mosquito net treated to a symphony of Amazonian sound.
It's actually amazing the amount of trust that you put into that humble piece of netting above the bed - there are jaguars out there, and anacondas, presumably, and all sorts of creepy crawlies and bitey nasties that could just come wandering in at any time ... But it's OK, I've got a mosquito net.
The next morning we're back in the narrow boat, cruising up the Tambopata River once again. We've got another 4½ hours of travel today, deeper into the jungle. The land is all protected up here - the last vestiges of humanity have long since disappeared.
It's just us and the birds, and the trees, and the capybaras.
Today's destination is the Tambopata Research Centre, a scientific base that's also used as a tourist lodge. It's a far more stripped-back version of the Refugio, with smaller rooms and shared bathrooms. Hammocks swing from the wooden roof; a large dining area provides space for socialising, comparing notes and eating.
There are four scientists based permanently here, monitoring the comings and goings of the area's biggest attraction: the macaws. These richly plumed parrots can be found in ridiculous abundance, and are what draws most of the visitors, who arrive clutching telephoto lenses and binoculars.
You don't have to go far to find the macaws. Some of the more celebrated residents of the centre are the "chicos" - 32 scarlet macaws that were hand-raised years ago and then set free. They come back to the lodge most days in search of food scraps.
On my first afternoon I'm lying in bed reading when two little faces peek around the wall, and then two macaws make a sedate passage through my room, training beady eyes on everything around.
Up close, these birds seem almost too extravagantly plumed. The reds are vivid; the splashes of yellow and blue almost unbelievable. As exciting as a brush with the chicos is, however, it has nothing on the sight that will greet us the next morning.
We're woken before dawn, trekking through the dark jungle at 4.30am, back to the river and into the boats. A few minutes upstream we disembark and walk to a clearing, which, as the light gently strengthens, presents us with the view most people here have paid their money to see: the "clay lick", a patch of mineral-rich soil that draws the macaws and parrots of all colours and sizes for their morning meal.
First we can just hear the beat of wings in the dark, and the squawk of birds. But then the sky begins to lighten, and the clay lick gradually comes into view, revealing hundreds of parrots, some gnawing on the clay itself, others perched in the trees or swooping through the air.
There's a collective gasp from our group as two pairs of scarlet macaws flap past, almost within arm's length. Cameras click while scientists scribble in their books.
This is what draws travellers to Tambopata, and what keeps the scientists here as well - the chance to see macaws and toucans and every variety of parrot you can imagine in their natural habitat.
It's not, however, the area's only attraction. Over the next few days we'll follow Jose Antonio on an exploration of the dense jungle around us, hiking night and day, feeling sweaty and adventurous as we tackle this untamed land. We'll see monkeys in the trees - five different species of monkeys. We'll see butterflies that seem prehistoric in their enormity. We'll hear the songs of a thousand birds.