By Simeon Tegel
Luxury in the Amazon is certainly not new. Peru has two high–end companies offering world class river cruises through the rainforest. There are also some, although not many, lodges deeper in the jungle, including Rainforest Expedition's rudimentary Tambopata Research Center, which, as the name suggests also hosts scientists from around the world coming to study the Amazonian ecosystem.
But few, possibly none, can quite offer the Villa's combination of silver service this far into the rainforest, and with this much wildlife. To be clear, logistics and the challenges of the location, including the humid climate, mean that five stars here may not equate to five stars in downtown Buenos Aires or Cusco. But if you are looking for luxury married to an authentic, up–close wilderness experience, then the Villa is hard to beat.
© Jeff Cremer
Joining the Jungle Wildlife
In our four–day, three–night stay, Joaquin and I saw four different species of monkey, deer, iguanas, and, during one short evening excursion by boat, several white caiman, the largest perhaps measuring up to six feet. We also couldn't miss the capybara (the world's largest rodent, in case you didn't know, the size of a largish dog).
We also heard, but did not see, the imposing distant roars of red howler monkeys early in the morning. Despite typically weighing no more than 20 pounds, and being relatively lethargic primates at that, howlers are actually the loudest land species on planet Earth. The males' booming growls, made with a hollow bone in the throat, travel well over a mile.
But the highlight, at least according to Joaquin, was our early morning expedition to the macaws. No one quite knows why for sure, but many jungle animals, including some birds, love to eat the red clay sometimes exposed on riverbanks here. Theories say that it's for the salt or other minerals it contains, or that the clay absorbs the toxins from some seed covers. Restless and ever on the lookout for harpy eagles, the macaws provided us with a dazzling show of flashing red, green, yellow and blue plumage and a cacophony of squawking that almost did as much to wake me up, at 7am after a two hour boat ride from the Villa, as the excellent coffee that came with our breakfast picnic.
It's probably worth emphasizing that, given that we are talking about wild animals, Rainforest Expeditions are careful never to guarantee sightings. It partly depends on the weather too; like humans, animals tend to come out when it is sunny and stay under cover when it rains. Plus some species, especially the jungle's apex predator, the jaguar, are extremely elusive. Most guides have only ever spotted one, usually on a river bank, from a distance, as the big cat steps out of the shadows to drink water. It is almost unheard of for a visitor to glimpse a jaguar. Of course your chances of sightings of any species do also correlate to the hours you spend pottering about in the rainforest, so take your waterproof walking boots.
Young Explorers in the Amazon
The Villa and Refugio are, by rainforest lodge standards, unusually welcoming of young children. Peru's fanciest Amazon cruises have a minimum age requirement of seven. But not here. The main lodge actually has a playground and there is even a special children's trail in the jungle, set up by an award–winning Lima–based nonprofit ANIA. Based on the tale of a six–year–old girl called "Ania", who lives in the jungle, it features brightly colored signs explaining the natural wonders of the rainforest, such as ants' nests and kapok trees. It captivated Joaquin.
If you are feeling restless, or want to burn off some calories, there are also plenty of other options beyond spotting the animals or walking along the many jungle trails. Kayaking and mountain–biking are two popular options, and if you are feeling really vigorous, you can have a go at climbing a 30–meter tree using a personal–pulley system, via a rope dangling from one of its upper branches. If you want an easier bird's eye viewpoint of the canopy, there is a 40–meter scaffolding tower, with stairs, to allow you to get a spectacular vantage point into the leaves, and, on a sunny day, see Bolivia on the horizon, over 40 miles of treetops.
Most of the packages offered by Rainforest Expeditions are for either three days and two nights or four days and three nights. If you're able, it is worth going for the longer stay, given that guests typically arrive at the lodge at dusk on their first day and leave well before noon on their last.
Also, since many animals are nocturnal, or at their most active at dawn or dusk, many of the wildlife activities start early or end late, which can also leave you tired, and sometimes even wishing for downtime to just simply enjoy the Villa or hang in the hammock. If possible, I would recommend you consider adding an extra day, without a guide or scheduled activities, at the end of the trip, to really get the most from the Villa and its stunning natural setting.
If You Go:
Visit the Rainforest Expeditions site to see their Amazon jungle tour options. For more information on Tambopata Villas, including package rates, click here. To begin the journey, book a flight to Maldonado Airport via Lima or Cusco.
Story and photos by Simeon Tegel except where indicated.