- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

PUERTO MALDONADO, Peru — Long, narrow and partly covered outboard boats bring visitors, baggage and supplies from this river city and regional capital to the jungle cabins and suites of Reserva Amazonica. The river — the Madre de Dios, or Mother of God — is the road.

For 45 minutes on a brilliant day, we putter about nine miles down the fast-moving, at times churning, brown river. This is excitement, the thrill of being in an unfamiliar place far from home and urban spaces — of being on a big river far away from anywhere.

There is wonder in being here under a big blue sky with a sea of jolly clouds floating overhead. The bottoms of the clouds are flat, like giant puffs of meringue placed over a jungle pie to float, perhaps, over the Andes and other nations and over oceans.

Puerto Maldonado is the drop-off point for exploring the Amazonian area of Peru along the mighty Madre de Dios. Here, the Tambopata river flows into the Madre de Dios on its power roll through southeastern Peru and northwestern Bolivia to become the Madeira river in Brazil and enter the Amazon east of Manaus.

Puerto Maldonado’s population is said to be about 67,000, but it does not seem that large. Perhaps the wide streets and low buildings of the frontier city contribute to the deception. The city, though, accounts for more than two-thirds of the population of the 85,000-square-mile Madre de Dios department, one of 25 such administrative divisions in Peru.

By land, Puerto Maldonado is a five-day drive in a very sturdy vehicle — like a truck — from Lima, Peru’s capital. By air, it is a two-hour flight from Lima, or 45 minutes from Cuzco, the longest continuously inhabited city in South America.

Downstream, the days and nights at Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazonica are filled with strange noises that seem quite gentle compared to the violence of an Amazonian thunderstorm one evening. The sounds may come from five species of monkeys, a Brazilian tapir, jaguar or capybara or, from the bird world, four species of macaws, two kinds of parrots, a cobalt-winged parakeet or Cuvier’s toucan. Hyla koechlini, a frog named for Jose Koechlin, founder of the Inkaterra nature travel business, may join in the serenade.

There is an occasional buzz from mosquitoes, but they don’t penetrate the net around my bed. Screen wire adds protection from other critters. Mr. Koechlin has assured us there are no mosquitoes here carrying yellow fever, but my shots are still valid for that disease and typhus.

The Madre de Dios is more than 20 feet below its last flood stage, I am told, when its waters spilled onto the ground beneath the cabins of Reserva Amazonica; the buildings rest on stilts about four feet from the ground.

The flood plain is vast for such a mighty river in the rainy season. The dry season, May to October, is an ideal time to visit and also is the only time that night excursions on the Madre de Dios are available at Inkaterra.

On these excursions, guests can watch two types of caimans and may see an elusive capybara, considered the world’s largest living rodent — large enough for its skin to be turned into soft leather gloves, jackets, wallets and belts. In parts of South America, it is known as “carpincho,” and it also makes a tasty stew.

Powerful lamps are used to spot the wildlife. One night, our guide, Cesar Laso, catches a small caiman, a crocodilian reptile. Caimans also can be seen spotted during daytime trips along the river as they lie in the sun on the muddy riverbanks.

The jungle nights get chilly enough that a heavy blanket is necessary — one woman recalls getting out of bed during the night and putting on a sweater and socks. Moving smartly is the order of the morning while the floors are still cold at sunrise. Soon, though, it becomes hot and humid — an average of a sticky 84 to 100 degrees, with the hottest temperatures coming from December to March. A “friaje,” a sudden drop in the temperature to about 50 degrees, means unusually cool days.

Reserva Amazonica is operated by Inkaterra, a nature travel company founded 30 years ago and based in Lima, with an office in Cuzco. The company also owns and operates Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, offering spacious accommodations and delicious food for those traveling up the nearby mountain to the ruins of the Incas’ Machu Picchu.

On the north bank of the Madre de Dios, Reserva Amazonica Inkaterra has 494 acres; the adjacent Reserva Ecologica Inkaterra has 24,710 acres. Both are in the Tambopata National Reserve.

An orientation for visitors to the nature reserve is presented in the Eco Center near the bank of the Madre de Dios. Meals are served buffet-style in the Pavilion, a round building whose cathedral ceiling rises from a treelike center support with wood beams extending from the center to the walls like limbs or spokes of a giant wheel.

The food is good and varied, with plenty available to please a vegetarian: hearty, flavorful soups; fresh fruits and vegetables; generous salad ingredients; grilled meats and fish. The power comes from a generator, which on one evening was not in sync with the dinner hour, but the food was cooked and the meal was served. Wines and cocktails are available, as are canned sodas.

Lanterns provide light in the cabins; the water is heated by solar panels, but sometimes in the morning, there must have been a shortage of sunshine the previous day and cool showers are taken briskly, a feat accomplished as quickly as scampering over the chilled morning floor.

One night, I am going from my cabin to the Pavilion for dinner, and I hear a strange noise, like nuts and shells being crunched. I don’t see anything in the dark and walk on, but slowly.

I see a strange-looking gray animal headed my way. I stop; the animal approaches, sniffs my trousers and moves on. It must be a tapir, not that I remember ever seeing one, but I remember hearing about the pair of tapirs that were fairly tame and would visit the camp. One of the tapirs was attacked by a jaguar in the wilds and managed to get back to camp but did not survive. So, I meet the survivor on a dark and cloudy night.

One of the latest projects at Reserva Amazonica is the Canopy Inkaterra, a series of hanging bridges, towers and platforms from which visitors can get unique views of the flora and fauna at the top of the rain forest, views impossible from the ground. The canopy uses specially treated steel cables and hardwood from indigenous trees. A 5-foot metal mesh on the sides of the walks was designed to add another safety element to the structure. Two towers were built to be large enough for overnight stays.

Many other nature activities are available to Inkaterra guests:

• Lake Sandoval. A half-day trip — full-day excursions also are available — visits the oxbow lake on the other bank of the Madre de Dios. Lake wildlife includes birds, turtles, the Amazon’s giant otter and piranhas. Visitors glide over the lake in paddle boats and return to Reserva Amazonica after sunset, which can be spectacular on lake and river. It is said, though, that a full moon rising on the river is best of all.

• Monkey Island. In the middle of the Madre de Dios, Monkey — or Rolin — Island is home to a conservation project of Inkaterra and Peru’s National Natural Resources Institute to rescue primates in their natural environment. The wildlife, seen during walks on the island, includes birds, monkeys, tamarins and squirrels.

• Amazon farm. A 31/2-hour excursion visits a typical local farm where crops include rice, chili peppers, sugar cane, manioc, banana, papaya, cacao, avocado and chirimoya.

• Fitzcarrald boat. The steamboat Fitzcarrald, grounded many years ago, is reached after a five-minute walk through the rain forest. Filmmaker Werner Herzog won a best-director award at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival for “Fitzcarraldo,” which was inspired by the boat.

• Indigenous community. An all-day excursion visits the Ese-Eja, a once-nomadic tribe now leading a life of fishing, hunting and farming.

• Amazon Center for Environmental and Educational Research. The center is sponsored by the National Geographic Society on Inkaterra property.

• Gamitana river. A half-day trip to the river in the Inkaterra Ecological Reserve offers possible sightings of birds, monkeys, alligators, nests of turtle eggs and small caimans.

Inkaterra also offers eco-tourism activities near the compound that do not require boat transportation and vary from one to four hours. There are four Amazon trail walks:

• Oje Trail. A one-hour walk covering riverside and seasonally flooded forests.

• Lupuna Trail. A 11/3 mile, three-hour walk that includes a lupuna tree (also known as the kapok tree) about 200 years old; some walking through muddy terrain and, maybe, animal sightings.

• Swamps Trail. A look at different rain-forest habitats.

• Aguaje Palm Trail. A mile trek to a rare flooded palm forest, with possible sightings of deer, tapir, monkeys and birds.

With so many activities available, most of them accompanied by resident guides when is there time to relax and read? Take excursions in the morning and at night and enjoy leisurely afternoons with Inkaterra on the banks of the Madre de Dios.

Rest in a hammock within the screened cabins, watch the great clouds pass over the rain forest, far away from television and the Internet. Savor this place; it is special.

Mysteries of Machu Picchu

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The pre-Columbian Machu Picchu citadel is the best-known Inca site, although, according to the Lonely Planet Peru guide, its history is one of the least known:

“It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors, and archaeologists today are forced to rely heavily on speculation and educated guesswork as to its function.”

It may have been abandoned after the Spanish forces conquered Cuzco, the Incan capital, in the 1530s. Or, Incas may have established Machu Picchu after fleeing from Cuzco.

Whatever its origin and dates, Machu Picchu is awesome. Without the ruins, the mountaintop would be worth a visit for the view of the neighboring peaks. It is a stunning marriage of history and nature.

American Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu early in the 20th century by accident — he was searching for another lost city of the Incas.

Machu Picchu was becoming overvisited, so the Peruvian government controls access to the site. Admission is about $20, with another $10 for a night visit during a full moon. A proposal to build a cable-car system to take visitors to and from the site was dropped after widespread criticism, so it is reached only by bus from Aguas Calientes — Machu Picchu Pueblo — or on foot.

Food is not allowed into the site, and backpacks are searched. Llamas, however, seem to like grazing on the terraces and may keep the grass trimmed there.

Those coming by foot also face restricted access to the Inca Trail, which was becoming crowded enough that it was being damaged and trash was not being disposed of with regard to the environment.

Machu Picchu, like many other sites in Peru created by nature or humans, brings a sense of wonder.

Each passenger on flights over the Andes from the coast to the Amazonian rain forest should be so lucky to sit by a window. Up close, the sights are even more amazing.

Train, plane to new heights

AGUAS CALIENTES, Peru — Inkaterra recommends a gradual climb for travelers to deal with altitude adjustment in Peru.

The nature-travel company, based in Lima, suggests that guests fly from Lima to Puerto Maldonado for a trip downstream on the Madre de Dios river to Inkaterra’s Reserva Amazonica on the river in the rain forest of southeastern Peru.

They return by boat to Puerto Maldonado, elevation 820 feet, for a flight to Cuzco, where they catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the hot-springs town sometimes known as the Machu Picchu Pueblo.

After a night at Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Aguas Calientes, at 6,561 feet, a bus takes visitors over a road of seriously sharp curves up to the awesome Machu Picchu ruins at 7,870 feet.

Aguas Calientes is reached either by train or foot — such as hiking the Inca Trail. The bus route from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu site is the only road from town.

After Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, travelers have become more accustomed to higher elevations and can head for the next destination and big-time altitude adjustment: Cuzco, just shy of 11,000 feet. Inkaterra does not have accommodations in Cuzco yet but is negotiating to turn a dilapidated centuries-old building into an inn. Judging from the company’s other properties, it will be the place to stay in Cuzco.

At least one hotel in Cuzco advertises that it pumps oxygen into guests’ rooms to aid their breathing at such a high altitude. Some people claim it helps; others say it makes no difference because when someone walks out of the hotel, all of that additional oxygen in the past is of no use in the present, not even in walking. Cuzco is breathtaking.

An option to taking the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes is to drive up a mountain from Cuzco and over a fertile plateau and then descend into the Sacred Valley, with memorable views of mountainsides long ago terraced for agriculture, and spectacular peaks. The train can be caught in Ollantaytambo, a village of 2,000 people at about 9,000 feet.

The Inca fortress-temple complex at Ollantaytambo is also terraced and was defended successfully by the Incas when the Spanish and native forces led by Hernando Pizarro launched their first attack to capture the elusive leader Manco Inca. After the second, successful attack, Manco Inca fled into the jungle.

Besides the fortress, Ollantaytambo has a market square that is popular with visitors seeking souvenirs and hoping to take photographs of the colorfully dressed residents.

The train, which has two classes, offers a look at the past as well as the countryside; its tracks run along the Urubamba river as it tumbles over boulders along its 2,500-foot descent to Aguas Calientes, the end of the rail line. Landslides in Aguas Calientes in recent years have caused fatalities as well as interrupting train service and destroying several buildings.

Inkaterra can arrange the tickets and other transportation and have staff from its Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel meet guests at the train and take their luggage to the hotel. Local craftsmen have chiseled the stones used in the walkways, stairs and foundations of the hotel buildings. The guest rooms are large, with white walls and the exposed timbers in the ceiling painted black. The decor is brightened with Peruvian textiles — and there are fireplaces to enjoy from sofas and chairs.

Dining options at the hotel include a fine restaurant with large windows and views of the nearby mountains. The food is quite good. A small bar nearby is a pleasant setting for pisco sours, Peru’s national drink, before dinner.

The hotel has another restauran nearby. It formerly served buffet food and attracted tour groups, but it has been redone. As Cafe Inkaterra, it is upscale, the place to dine in Aguas Calientes for “new Andean cuisine.”

A compact disc of Peruvian music titled “Cafe Inkaterra” has been a best-seller in Peru. Under the direction of arranger-producer Miki Gonzales, the music is a matter of native Andean melodies and instruments meeting electronic music. It is produced by ATU Records and Inkaterra. The style is called “Andean chill.”

Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel also has an excellent spa. Besides the usual treatments, the spa is pleasing to the eyes: Long white panels of cotton fabric cover the walls and make the guest sense being in a tented world — but the world of the hotel is pleasant enough.

Next door, Inkaterra has an orchid garden touted as containing “the world’s largest diversity of native species in their natural environment.”

The garden has 372 species of orchids, including Kefersteinia koechlinorum, an epiphyte orchid discovered at the hotel and named for Inkaterra’s Koechlin family. The 108 species of butterflies at the hotel include Greta hermana koechlini, another tribute to the ecological endeavors of the Koechlins. More than 16 species of hummingbirds whirl and dart about the bird feeders in a corner of the orchid garden. Inkaterra is active in numerous other projects for the environment.

Aguas Calientes has a market that offers more than enough native crafts and souvenirs. Optional accommodations in Aguas Calientes tend to be more for budget travelers, excepting the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, operated by Orient Express at the top of the mountain near the entrance to the World Heritage Site.

The rooms are unusually small — but with a bit more space than is found in a compartment on an Orient Express train. Guests at the Sanctuary Lodge looked bored; at that elevation, there is nowhere to go except the ruins.

The Hotel Monasterio in Cuzco, also operated by Orient Express, is much larger, more attractive and a more agreeable place to stay. More in the grand tradition is the Hotel Libertador Cusco, a comfortable hotel with a shop selling quality garments made from alpaca and vicuna.

Tthe Country Club Lima Hotel has large, pleasantly furnished rooms. The Spanish-colonial lobby is decorated with old paintings and old silver and, on each of my visits, two very large silver pots, each filled with dozens of calla lilies, the flower of choice throughout the hotel.

The Lan Airline Alliance, including Lan Airlines — formerly Lan Chile — and Lan Peru, offers flights from Miami and New York to Lima. Lan Peru also operates numerous domestic flights throughout Peru. Both airlines are members of the OneWorld alliance and have code-share flights with American Airlines.

Lan Airlines has received numerous awards for comfort and service and has been called “the lone star in the South American skies” — its logo is a single star. Lan Airlines’ most recent expansion is Lan Argentina, which next month begins interior flights from Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, the convenient airport by downtown Buenos Aires.

Traffic congestion is unpleasant in Lima, a city of 8 million or more, so patience is advised while getting from the airport into the city. For much of the year, Lima’s coastal weather can be depressing — clouds and rain or at least drizzle.

After Lima, great adventures await the traveler at a range of altitudes.

The Inkaterra nature-travel firm can customize visits to its properties, Reserva Amazonica and Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, as well as to other destinations in Peru, including guided tours of the Machu Picchu site. For more information about Inkaterra, its programs, accommodations, travel services and reservations, visit www.inkaterra.com or call 800/442-5042; fax 51-1-422-4701 (51 is the international dialing code for Peru). The address is Inkaterra Lima, Andalucia 1740 Miraflores, Lima, Peru.

The main obstacle for the handicapped in a visit to Reserva Amazonica, Machu Picchu — site and hotel — is steps, sometimes steep, and stone walkways.

For Lan Airlines and Lan Peru reservations, call 866/435-9526.

Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Km. 110 Linea Ferrea, Aguas Calientes, Cuzco, Peru; phone 84/211-122; fax, 84/211-124.

Country Club Lima Hotel, Los Eucaliptos 590, San Isidro, Lima, Peru; phone 1/611-9000; fax, 1/611-9002.

Hotel Libertador Cusco, Plazoleta Santo Domingo 259, Cuzco, Peru; 84/23-1961; fax, 84/23-3152.

Restaurant La Huaca Pucllana in Lima is adjacent to the pre-Inca AD 200 to 700 ruins of the same name and offers dramatic views of the excavations, which are illuminated at night.

The upscale restaurant serves contemporary takes on traditional Peruvian dishes such as causa rellena, a cold mashed-potato dish; aji de gallina, shredded chicken in a sauce of yellow chilies; and papa a la Huancaina, halved boiled potatoes covered by a creamy sauce. The restaurant is in Quadra (Block) 8 of General Borgono in the Miraflores section; phone 1/445-8695.

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