Travel and Tourism

Amazing Amazon Rainforest

When Paddington first went to live with the Brown family at 32 Windsor Gardens, they didn’t really know much about him at all, apart from the fact that he originally came from Darkest Peru.

So begins the story of Paddington Bear. But Peru has much more to offer than a marmalade eating bear or the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu – easily Peru’s most famous landmark. The country’s extremely diverse topography includes the Andes – the world’s second greatest mountain range next to the Himalayas – which divides the Amazon Rainforest in the east from the deserts and beaches on the west. These, along with a huge variety of flora and fauna, ensure any visit to this unique South American country will most certainly be a memorable vacation not soon to be forgotten.

Depending on your tastes and sense for adventure, there are a number of itineraries to choose from when visiting Peru. Indispensable for any visit is a trip to Machu Picchu and the nearby city of Cuzco together which will probably take four to five days. If you have another three days and a robust adventure spirit, a trip to the Amazon Rainforest should be considered. Other options include the Nazca Lines (huge figures of animals up to one hundred meters long drawn in the coastal desert of Southern Peru) or Lake Titicaca (the world’s highest navigable lake at 3,856 meters) – neither of which I unfortunately had time to see. And if you are up for a real adventure, four and two day hikes through the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu gives you access to ruins that one would not otherwise be able to see. Save a couple of days upon arrival or on the way home to tour and go shopping in Lima.
Peru’s capital city is congested with traffic, overpopulated and polluted. Honestly, it is actually reminded me of Manila. The main differences are that the streets are filled with relatively older Japanese cars, many without airconditioning and the ubiquitous presence of casinos – both free standing and in all the major hotels. In spite of the apparent unpleasantries, Lima is still the cultural, social and economic center of Peruvian society and most of one’s flights will inevitably go through its Jorge Chavez International Airport.

Going through the United States is necessary to go to Lima with probable gateways being Los Angeles or Houston. Although most procedures at the airport are straightforward and visas are unnecessary, they have a somewhat unique method of screening at customs. Every person is required to push a button upon arriving at customs. A green light means you go through without inspection and a red light means your baggage needs to be inspected. I fortunately got a green light so I'm not really sure to what extent bags are inspected.

Like any big city, Lima offers a myriad of accommodations for all price ranges from the expensive five-star hotels to small backpacker havens. We stayed at the Marriott Hotel in the upscale Miraflores district and it was clean, efficient and full service – pretty much what one would expect from a Marriott. Although I never had the opportunity to see them, two other hotels in the area which are often recommended are the Hotel Antigua Miraflores and La Castellana.

With respect to what part of the city to stay, my recommendation would be Miraflores. There is plenty to do within a short walking distance including the Larcomar shopping mall, the Stellaris Casino next door to the Marriott (among numerous others nearby), art galleries, antique stores along Av. La Paz and the markets on Av. Petit Thouars including Artesanias Miraflores, Mercado Indios and La Portada del Sol where they sell everything from paintings and baskets to clothing and every tourist tchotchke imaginable.

By far the best restaurant we ate in – and one that I don’t think should be missed – is "Huaca Pucllana." Also located in Miraflores, this restaurant is decorated by artworks made of parrot feathers and overlooks a 1,500-year-old pyramid ruins where archaeologists continue to excavate. They serve what they refer to as "New Andean Cuisine" which, typical of fusion cuisine, injects new flavors into traditional Peruvian food. We had a lunch buffet and it was excellent. Just thank goodness I didn’t eat the appetizer which looked like some kind of barbecue because it turned out to be "corazon de la something." I don’t speak Spanish but I know enough to know that I am not adventurous enough to eat "corazon." Also in Miraflores and beside the Marriott is a small gelato shop rather strangely named "4d." It is a pretty good place for light snacks and desserts and we found ourselves there almost on a daily basis. One final note on dining in Peru – cuy or "guinea pig" is a local delicacy. Served roasted, it looks like a small lechon on your plate. Needless to say I am just taking my friend’s word for it that it tastes like chicken.

If you want to go shopping, there are only two main malls – the older but bigger Jockey Plaza which is a standard big box shopping mall and the newer, trendier Larcomar which is built on a bluff overlooking the ocean right across the street from the Marriott. Peru is also known for the wool from its native Andean camelids – the vicuna, guanaco, alpaca and llama. By far the most common type of shawls and scarves you will find are the alpaca – whether standard or from baby alpaca – which is much softer than the llama but more affordable than the guanaco or vicuna. These are sold everywhere from the street markets to high end stores. The locals advised us to avoid buying supposed baby alpaca products from the markets or street vendors as these are likely synthetic. This is even more true for the more expensive – and softer – guanaco wool. Vicuna products are only available through Alpaca 111 (pronounced "Alpaca Tres") which is a chain with many stores throughout Peru including the airports, Larcomar and both the Monasterio and Libertador Hotels in Cuzco. They are supposedly the only ones licensed by the Peruvian government to sell vicuna products which are reputedly the world’s finest wool. But hold your breath as scarves go for $450 and prices for shawls and larger items go up from there.

Due to lack of time we were only able to visit two museums – the Museo de Oro del Peru and the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera. In both cases, make sure you get an English speaking tour guide, otherwise things aren’t going to make much sense and you will not be able to appreciate the significance of the items on display. The Museo de Oro has two parts: The Arms Museum on the ground floor of the building houses one of the world’s best collection of weapons from medieval armors and samurai swords to modern firearms. The Gold Museum, which is in an underground vault, has thousands of gold items and artifacts from the various Peruvian civilizations. The Museo Rafael Larco Herrera boasts among other things a collection of over 50,000 pieces of pottery. Many ancient Peruvian civilizations did not have a system of writing and they used pottery as their means of recording history. The private museum’s collection therefore includes pottery reflecting all aspects of societal life – from the different celebrations to representations of different kinds of illnesses people suffer from. There is also an entire room devoted exclusively to the sexual and fertility practices of the different Peruvian civilizations.
Iquitos And The Amazon Basin
About an hour and a half’s flight from the Lima airport is the city of Iquitos – your gateway into the Amazon Rainforest. If you are in search of an adventure, the rainforest will provide plenty of it and more.

Although Iquitos is a city in itself with its own attractions – like the Distrito de Belen (basically a floating market and shanty town), the Complejo Turistico Quistococha (a small zoo featuring some animals from the Amazon) and the Iron House designed by Eiffel of Parisian fame – we chose to skip Iquitos and spend our time in the jungle instead.

Consider these facts that make the Amazon a truly spectacular place to visit: About half of the world’s 1.5 million known species of life can be found there. About one-fourth of all modern medicines are extracted from the flora found in the Amazon Rainforest. There are over 2,000 species of fish in the Amazon – more than the Atlantic Ocean.

Although there are several operators in the area, quite possibly the most recognized is the Explorama Group which operates four lodges in the Amazon area. Ceiba Tops, their newest lodge is the height of Amazon luxury. It boasts a swimming pool and airconditioned rooms which you will truly appreciate after a long day in the jungle. Forget about room service or laundry though as the spartan rooms have neither phones nor televisions. There is a bar and common dining area which serve meals at predetermined times along with a small gift shop. As you go deeper into the forest, Explorama’s accommodations grow ever more rustic. The Explorama Lodge was their first lodge built back in 1964. Rooms are not airconditioned, mosquito nets are standard and only cold water showers are available. Even deeper into the forest is Explornapo which only has shared bathrooms which I am told consist of essentially very deep holes in the ground. It is however the closest lodge to what will likely be the highlight of your trip to the Amazon – the Canopy Walkway. ExplorTambos is the most remote lodge in the area where one shouldn’t even think about electricity or any other creature comfort. There are no rooms as a maximum of 16 guests sleep on mattresses in a common area covered with mosquito nets. This however, is by far the best place for spotting wildlife.

There are many activities in the Amazon – including dolphin watching, hiking through the forest, seeing the giant two-meter Amazon Water Lilies, the shaman curated ethnobotanical gardens at Explornapo and Piranha fishing – but the most interesting stop for most people will be the Canopy Walkway.

The Canopy Walkways are hanging bridges and platforms that are built at the top of the trees towering over the jungle some 125 feet in the air. They provide breathtaking sceneries and unrivaled opportunities to observe birds in their natural habitat. Just don’t expect the animals to be coming out of the woodwork as any ornithologist will tell you observation of birds requires patience…lots of patience. Some real devotees spend hours if not the whole day in the Canopy Walkway.

The Canopy Walkways are located about a 30 to 50 minute hike – depending on how quickly you walk – through the jungle from Explornapo. In our trek through the forest, we ran into a variety of animals. Among them were a Parrot Snake (poisonous), a small red and green frog no more than half an inch long which was poisonous as well, monkeys jumping from tree to tree some thirty feet or so in the air, leaf cutter ants which look like a long column of small leaves moving in one direction not to mention a multitude of bugs that make those on Fear Factor look like garden variety insects.

If however you don’t feel like trekking through the forest, here is a tip which I only found out after we did the hike to and from the Canopy Walk…you can take a boat!!! Although the jungle trek was a real experience, I am not sure I would do it again and it certainly is not for everyone.

If you do choose to go to the Amazon, it would be preferable to wear waterproof hiking boots. Tennis shoes or sneaker with a hard sole will be preferable to a softer sole like that of a running shoe as it will offer firmer support. This preference will also be true when you walk up to Machu Picchu. Regardless, make sure it is a pair of shoes you are willing to get dirty as the rainforest is very muddy at best.

Also bring several long-sleeved shirts, a wide- brimmed hat, sunglasses and possibly the single most important thing to bring — insect repellent!!! As you might imagine, the rainforest is infested with mosquitoes. Very big mosquitoes. The insect repellent you will need is one that has a chemical known as DEET. Bring a repellent with at least 20percent DEET although I found one which was 100percent DEET in REI, an outdoor equipment store in San Francisco with branches in most states. Forget citronella, anything "natural" or any of these commercial insect repellents. When you see the mosquitoes in the jungle you are going to beg for the strongest chemicals you can find!!! The DEET was so effective that none of us had a single bite throughout our three-day stay in the jungle. Put the insect repellent on everything – clothes, socks, hat and any exposed skin – and don’t forget to tuck in your shirt lest bugs find their way inside your clothes.
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Next week: Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.

For comments, email me at [email protected].











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