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Family Adventure: the Amazon Jungle Peru

I'm often asked what one adventure trip would I recommend with children. My suggestion is the Amazon Jungle in Peru. Our trip to the Amazon a few years ago was one of our all-time favorite trips in South America. And, given the state of our world, you worry if it will remain as untouched as it is for much longer.

Travelers have a few different options for the Amazon. If you want an authentic experience, I love the company Rainforest Expeditions. The cost is VERY reasonable and the company has been guideding tourists through this part of the world for a long time. Their lodges are rustic and require some travel but they offer really unique experiences. There are also companies that offer more luxury or easier access, in case you would prefer more of an "Amazon-lite" adventure. It really just depends on the type of experience you are looking for.

Whether you decide to go rustic or luxury, you will start your journey in Lima. There is nothing beautiful physically about the city of Lima - unlike Santiago with the backdrop of the Andes - it may be one of the best food cities on the planet. Because of the numbers of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in late 19th century, there is a heavy Asian influence on the cuisine. Everything from a simple sandwich to a multi-course menu are beautifully done in Peru. The climate is perfectly temperate for growing fruits and vegetables, and thanks to the Humboldt Current, the waters off Peru are some of the most bountiful in the world.

Unfortunately, there is not much beyond the food in Lima. When your flight begins its decent into the city, you will see the blue sky vanish, only to be surrounded by a brown haze. The chaos of traffic is notable: cars hurl down the road with no regard for any traffic laws (or other drivers), followed quickly by abrupt stops and creeping at a snails pace through incredible congestion. Plan to pre-arrange a transfer from the airport and stay in the Miaflores district with its coastal cliffs.

Typically you will only stay one night in Lima with your smaller flight out to the Amazon leaving first thing in the morning. So take advantage of a night in Lima for one fantastic dinner. If you want ceviche, the Peruvian classic dish, Pescados Capitales is phenomenal. Many restaurants don't serve ceviche at night because they consider it too late for the freshest fish. We can also help you with a multi-course foodie adventure at the famous Central Restaurant, as well as introducing an unmarked speak-easy that only serves a few dishes.

I thought I'd share the story of our experience to give you a sense of the remarkable adventure we had. I'm also happy to talk about options and how to combine 3- 4- days in the rainforest with tours to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

Amazon Rainforest - November 2015

After spending the night in Lima, we departed early in the morning for our flight to the town of Puerto Maldonado. The flight makes a stop in Cusco, but continues on to the small town in the heart of the Amazon River Basin.

After landing in Puerto Maldonado, we got on a bus and headed to the Rainforest Expeditions main office in town. Since we would be traveling down the river in boats resembling large canoes, we could only bring one small bag per person. We stored our larger bags at the office and took our smaller bags, rain gear, flashlights, etc. and got back on the bus to head to the river bank.

We took a 4.5 hour boat ride to the lodge. According to our guide, they typically cut the trip time down by taking the first part of the journey by road, but the road had washed out so we would do all 4 hours by boat – the last hour in total darkness because we had landed late and night was drawing near.

We finally made it safely to the lodge. We took out our flashlights and hiked about half of a mile through complete darkness to reach the main lodge. Walking through the Amazon Jungle was surreal and the sounds in the jungle were almost overwhelming. It seemed as loud as New York City but with each sound being some animal marking its territory, calling its friends or courting a significant other.

Refugios Amazones Lodge Peru

There was some electricity in the main lodge for a few hours each evening but none in the rooms. Instead, they had candles and gas lamps for the main part of the evening. Rooms are completely open – each bed has a mosquito net they put down in the evenings, but you are totally open to the jungle. We were completely off the grid.

Rainforest Expeditions runs three lodges in the Amazon Basin. We were staying in Refugio Amazonas, the more family-oriented lodge option that was mid-range distance from the main town of Puerto Maldonado. They also have a lodge much closer to town as well as another lodge four hours from ours more than 8 hours up the river which is noted as one of the most remote lodges in South America.

The Refugio Amazonas lodge was very basic – there was a main area where they hosted lectures each night, group tables where we ate all of our meals and a simple bar where people gathered for cocktails and drinks. This was also the place they turned power on for a few hours each day in order to charge cameras, etc.

Our guide Carlos was amazing and he led just our family the whole trip. He spoke English and Spanish but we tried to stick to Spanish. The first morning, our plan was to climb up the canopy, a platform at the top of a giant staircase that took you above the tree canopy. From the top, Carlos used his iPhone to make bird and monkey calls. We could see toucans, macaws, and parrots. It was really amazing.

We then hiked a few miles to an oxbow lake, and on the way came across so many amazing things. What at first appeared to be a thin feather boa on the ground turned out to be a group of caterpillars. The caterpillars produced a pheromone that attracted others and they all traveled together in this long line, one right after another.

We found a family of tamarin monkeys who came to see what we were up to.

Carlos showed us a tarantula nest on the side of a tree. He took a small branch to touch the outside to see if the spider was home, but it was not.

We also learned about a few of the more than 20,000 plant species in the rainforests of southeastern Peru. Many are used by locals for medicinal purposes, art, ceremonies or food. We found these great leaves that when crushed, gave off a beautiful red coloring used by many for decorative purposes.

We saw many termite mounds including those built on tree trunks. Carlos explained that locals like to eat termites so John, Madie and Jack were brave enough to try them.

There were so many interesting animals. Nowhere else on the planet exists a forest that has more than 600 species of birds, well over 100 species of mammals and more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians.

When we reached the oxbow lake we boarded a small kayak to explore. This oxbow lake formed when a bend in the river got cut off from its main channel. The lake is quiet and tranquil, creating a habitat for marsh grasses and many interesting animals that live in these backwater lagoons.

First off was the hoatzin, a bird that is a cross between a pheasant and a feathered dinosaur. They live right around the edge of the water and make odd grunting noises. The locals call it a "stink bird" because of the bad odor it gives off.

We were on the lookout for black caimans and giant anacondas. Thankfully we didn't come across either that day. We did, however, find some bats hanging on the underside of a log.

Most of our activities began very early in the morning, so we would arrive back at the main lodge an hour or two before lunch and have the chance to relax.

Each night we would gather in the main lodge and eat dinner with our guide. This was not your typical hotel buffet. The food was very simple Peruvian food as if you were a guest in someone’s home. Since I don’t eat meat, I had a very strange version of tofu patty dressed in a different sauce each night. The kids didn’t see anything they recognized at any meal, but we all loved the food.

The second day we woke up early and headed to the macaw clay lick. We took a short boat ride followed by an hour-long hike through the rainforest to a clay lick for macaws.

When we got to the area of the river bank where we would start our hour-long hike through the jungle, we were greeted by a capybara, the world's largest rodent, weighing as much as 100 pounds.

After just a few minutes of walking our guide spotted a red howler monkey sleeping in a tree. We watched him for a while until he moved on in the tree canopy.

Here was a red-necked woodpecker.

When we finally made it to the macaw clay lick, we were asked to stay behind a covered grass hut that had small holes poked out where you could view the clay lick. We were so fortunate because our guide said it is was very difficult to know if the macaws would visit one day or not, but we saw more that we could count. It was amazing. We sat and watched them for an hour until they slowly started to fly away in pairs (macaws mate for life) or small groups until all the birds had left the clay lick.

As we made our way back to the boat we came across many smaller creatures like this crying beetle, which gets its name because it makes a high-pitched whiny cry when it is disturbed.

We ended the day with a canoe trip to spot caymans in the pitch darkness of night. We saw a white caiman and spectacled caiman on the river banks that quickly found the water as we approached. Our photos don't do it justice. It was amazing being on the water at night.

We also took a night hike to discover the nocturnal animals. We saw two snakes: a whip snake and a blunt-headed tree snake, the amazon pigmy owl, white-throated ant bird, tailless scorpion, sheep frog, cane toad and glow worms. And, after the kids went to bed, John and I headed to the main lodge to have a beer and the generator went out so we sat in the dark with candles while the bats flew around us. It is not for the faint of heart.

I have to say this was one of the most extraordinary adventures we have had. It was incredible to be totally off the grid for 4 days exploring such a remote part of the world.


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