Far & Away, from National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal.
We left Cusco at dawn, heading southeast toward Bolivia. Breakfast was at a roadside cafe an hour into the drive, black coffee and a large bowl of chicken stew—a thigh and a drumstick in a tangy broth of ginger and lime, with chunks of potatoes and corn kernels the size of my thumbnail. My glasses fogged as I ate. Then we bundled back up and drove a few minutes more to the village of Checacupe, turned off the asphalt and onto a dirt track, and began to climb into the Andes.
I had come to Peru for the Amazon, having ditched my initial plan of traveling its broad waterways in Brazil because I was drawn to the geographical contrasts on the Peruvian side of the border. I wanted to see how the great river came together. Trekking to the source wasn’t feasible—the location is still somewhat under dispute and isn’t easy to reach—but I could approximate the general trajectory of the water, follow the flow of tributaries from the high Andes down into the rain forest in an attempt to understand the ecosystem of the largest river in the world.
The Amazon hasn’t always dumped its muddy waters into the Atlantic. It was a network of rivers that flowed west until roughly 15 million years ago, when the uplift of the Andes along the Pacific coast formed a barricade, creating an inland sea that slowly became a massive freshwater lake. Other geologic shifts about 11 million years ago began to push the water eastward, eventually draining the lake and forming the river we know today. The expanse of that ancient freshwater lake is now an ecological palimpsest, a zone dominated by the world’s largest tropical rain forest, home to the richest diversity of plants and animals on earth.
By nearly any metric, the size of the Amazon is difficult to fathom. Incredibly, there is still debate over the length of the river, and over which river is longer, the Amazon or the Nile. Conservative estimates put the Amazon at 4,000 miles in length, and some experts think it is closer to 4,300 miles, which would surpass the Nile. The river’s rain forested drainage basin sprawls across nearly 2.7 million square miles, an area that is almost as big as Australia and twice the size of the planet’s next-largest drainage basin—that of the Congo, in central Africa. During the rainy season, the Amazon and its tributaries swell, solid ground vanishing in the lowlands as the river floods and nourishes the forest floor. The weight of the flooding river at low altitudes compresses the earth’s crust by about 3 inches. Measuring the river’s flow is notoriously difficult—some estimate that at its peak, the Amazon carries 11 million cubic feet of water per second. Others joke that they can calculate the Amazon’s discharge “give or take the Mississippi.”
The Amazon rain forest—accounting for more than 60% of the world’s remaining rain forests—functions as the lungs of the planet, absorbing some 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually and producing 20% of the planet’s oxygen. The drainage basin is thought to be home to half of the world’s species of plants and animals. It is the most important ecosystem on the planet. It is also the least understood. Scientists believe they are aware of only a fraction of the species that live in the Amazon, and have only a rudimentary understanding of many of the ones they have documented. Locals, meanwhile, are frequently forced to abuse the ecosystem, resorting to illegal hunting, mining, and deforestation in countries that all too often do little to encourage alternative and sustainable ways of life. And far away, the industrialized world churns on, choking the atmosphere with carbon at such a rate the rain forest can’t keep up.
The Amazon isn’t a top travel destination. Generations of explorers promoting heroic tales of often fatal expeditions, helped along by photographers reveling in the exotic, depicted an inhospitable landscape filled with savages. It is an image that persists today. This perception, combined with unsteady (but improving) infrastructure in the rain forest and travelers’ preference for nearby attractions like Machu Picchu, have kept the Amazon from attaining the same kind of rugged high-end status enjoyed by other far-flung destinations that offer similar wilderness-based adventures.
It was just this vexing blend of misperception and ecological import, there in a place of such hidden splendor, that made me want to see it. There was something mystical about the possibility that I could, over the course of only a few days, stand on glacial ice in the peaks of the Andes and then descend into the wet heat of the jungle—moving through a vast range of environments that all lay within the confines of a single ecosystem, bound together by the world’s greatest river.
But first we had some climbing to do. The road from Checacupe rises high above the Ocefina valley, following a narrow cut of silty water that tumbles over rocks and twists through farmland and grazing pastures. The road is a rough dirt path dug into the valley’s northern wall, a steep treeless face that is rutted from the gushing snowmelt waterways of early summer. Most of the peaks and hillsides were barren by the time we were there, and the drive was like an Andean single-track version of Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, but with alpaca instead of mountain goats, more than twice the elevation, and no guard rails. Considering the numerous blind turns and rock slides, and the sheer drop-offs just a few inches from the truck’s downslope wheels, Leoncio, our driver, was forever blaring his horn, a warning to whoever might be barreling toward us around the next bend. Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic. Some animals and a few people on foot or motorcycles, along with a couple of cargo trucks laden with sacks of alpaca fleece.
By midmorning we had leveled out with the stream and had come to a clearing, where the glacially carved valley broadened into a boggy flat-bottomed wetland, opening onto our first view of Ausangate, one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes at nearly 21,000 feet. Scattered about were the homes of Quechua-speaking farmers, who live much the same way their Inca ancestors did for centuries.
Changes, though, have been coming rather quickly of late to the Andes. Warmer temperatures have allowed farmers to cultivate corn and potatoes at higher elevations than ever before, even as the rainy seasons have become less predictable and the glacial runoff more volatile. The boost in agriculture has been welcomed by locals, who have also used the expanding high wetlands to water their herds of llama and alpaca.
But the growth of the wetlands and farming land is temporary, bound to the fate of the glaciers that still dominate the surrounding peaks, even as they shrink at an alarming rate. “Ausangate is getting black,” said Efraín Samochuallpa Solis, a biologist and director of ACCA, a Peruvian environmental group that is dedicated to the conservation of the Amazon ecosystem. “It’s melting. Some parts are melting so fast you can see the mountain, the rock.”
Up and down the Andes, glaciers are vanishing at a pace that threatens the livelihood of local villagers, larger cities, and the Amazon basin itself. North of Lima, the people of Huaraz live in fear that the glacier above them will soon give way, releasing an avalanche into Lake Palcacocha and sending a torrent of mud and water that would wipe out anything in its path. In Cusco, the water supply relies heavily on glacial runoff. If the ice on Ausangate and other peaks is gone in 50 years, as some predict, the heart of Peru’s tourism industry will be in a very difficult spot.
At a rocky switchback, we were flagged down by Santos Cabrera, a stooped 49-year-old alpaca herder who had scrambled up a path to ask for help transporting his burlap sacks of fiber to the other side of the next ridge. We loaded a dozen or so of the sacks into the truck as he complained about how much more difficult his work had become in recent years. “The rains are supposed to begin in November, but now it’s starting in August,” Cabrera said. “Many of my animals died because of the heavy storms. The grass was washed away. They couldn’t tolerate it.”
Cabrera lifted his arm to the peaks looming over us. “All of these mountains were covered,” he said. “All the way to where we are standing now. In 12 years, the glaciers have shrunk so much. I’m scared we won’t have water in the future.” I trudged through the mud to a tongue of snow and ice that was spilling down from a high pass—a vestige of the glacier Cabrera had just described. The ice crunched under my boots and the glacier let off the sound of muffled rain as the meltwater fell away from the mountain in a buried stream.
We rumbled over the ridge and began our descent. Cargo trucks came out of nowhere at hairpin turns, and an hour or so before dusk a thick fog moved in, turning everything into an opaque mass of gray. Still, Leoncio hurtled on. I’d developed a profound respect for what Leoncio was able to do with that truck. I had spent years on rough dirt roads in various parts of Africa, but I had never seen driving as sure as this. Soon some small shrubs began to appear. And, not long after, trees. We emerged from the fog just as the sun slipped out of reach beyond the Andes.
A few days later and several valleys to the north, I was in a canoe downstream of Shintuya, on the Madre de Dios River. We had left the cloud forest behind and were dropping down into the rain forest of the Amazon basin. The Madre de Dios was a broad river by now, a few hundred yards across. On its left bank was the thick of jungle of Manú National Park, a protected Unesco World Heritage site and the largest tropical wilderness left on the planet. A large tapir fed on plants at the water’s edge, and macaws flew in pairs high above us.
Suddenly, my guide sat bolt upright and pointed downstream. There on the river bank stood nine people from an isolated tribe, watching as we floated toward them. They clearly weren’t cut off from civilization entirely, as most of them were wearing clothing given to them, probably, by missionaries or other travelers. Five were young children, two were teenagers, and two were adults in their 40s or 50s. World Wildlife Fund has been working with the Peruvian government to create a protected reserve for isolated people, Alonso Cordova, a biologist with the organization, told me. These kinds of collaborations have also worked with local entrepreneurs interested in offering eco-friendly adventures to travelers in conservation zones, providing stable jobs and slowing deforestation and illegal gold mining, and making it increasingly easy to visit fragile and stunning landscapes throughout the Amazon basin in Peru.
The people on the river bank seemed to want us to stop, though it was difficult to tell from their gestures. We floated past them, waved a final time, and continued downstream. A short while later a boat full of plastic jugs sped past. “Illegal gasoline,” Cordova said, indicating the apparent fuel traffickers on the boat. “For the gold miners.”
A hundred miles or so to the east lies the Tambopata, a protected river that flows into Puerto Maldonado, connecting with the Madre de Dios before entering Bolivia and going on to become the Madeira River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. In Brazil, the Madeira runs through parts of the Amazon basin that have been hit hard by deforestation. But in Puerto Maldonado, the waterways have become known as the heart of Peru’s gold-mining industry. “It used to be quaint,” said Kurt Holle, co-owner and former director of Rainforest Expeditions, which runs three lodges and a private villa on the Tambopata. “We’d stop by a dredge with some of our guests, say hi and take some photos, and the miners would explain the process.”
That all changed when the price of gold began to jump in the early 2000s. Within a few years, the price soared to $1,600 an ounce. “It became big industry quickly,” Holle said. “When the price goes up, it’s a massive driver of people relocating to the rain forest.” By 2009, there was a huge amount of money invested in gold mining, and the government began cracking down, sinking barges and chasing out miners. “It was a war zone,” Holle said.
Through it all, Rainforest Expeditions’ lodges have acted as a local “antibody,” keeping mining and logging out of the government-protected Tambopata area by offering viable jobs to area residents. “With so many areas protected, we need to figure out how to help people make a life,” said Holle, who recently became the director of WWF Peru. “Cutting trees, making farms, mining gold,” he said. “Most people here are just honestly trying to make a living.”
Holle was born in Lima and studied forestry in college before Amazon conservation and ecotourism captured his attention. One trick he had to figure out is how to make the rich Amazon ecosystem accessible to travelers. “In Africa you get in a truck, drive around, and see elephants, giraffes, hippos,” Holle said. “We can’t compete with those kinds of wildlife sightings. We have to get people interested in insects and birds.”
To make that easier — and to contribute to the never-ending work of learning about the world’s largest rain forest — Holle and his team established the Tambopata Research Center, several hours up river by boat from Puerto Maldonado. The lodge boasts the kind of high-end accommodations you would expect on a luxury safari in Africa, but also includes a laboratory for a dozen scientists who perform front-line research while assisting expeditions to see animal and plant life up close.
Outings start early—4:30 in the morning, just as the howler monkeys are starting their racket, like a chorus of blowtorches from on high. Parrots and macaws flash green, red, blue, and yellow at the world’s largest clay lick, a short trip from the lodge. There are jaguars, too, but they are difficult to see. We spotted two hidden in the grass along the river, the foothills of the Andes just visible in the distance.
The Amazon River doesn’t officially acquire its name until the Ucayali river joins the Marañón near Iquitos, more than 700 miles northwest of the Tambopata. I found a room built in the crook of an ironwood tree, 50 feet off the forest floor at the Treehouse Lodge, on the banks of the Yarapa, a tiny blackwater tributary of the Ucayali that is a couple miles upstream of the Amazon confluence. With my guide, Alex, I visited Porto Miguel, a nearby village that had been ravaged in recent years by flooding, even as rains had decreased in these lowland areas. Most families had relocated to higher ground, but we found Raquel Inuma, a 44-year-old mother of five, in one of the last homes still standing. “There’s less rain than there used to be. We feel it,” Inuma said. “It’s sunnier now, and more sun is good.”
Inuma said most locals thought things were better now than they ever had been, with more powerful motors on their boats, and the completion a decade ago of the paved road from Nauta, the closest port town, to Iquitos, reducing that trip from 12 hours by boat to one hour by car.
Mostly, though, she seemed happiest about the weather. “Life is much easier,” she said. “The rainy season is very difficult.”
At sunset, we took the boat into the Ucayali, and watched pink dolphins swim by as the sun went down beyond the rain forest and the sky turned a fiery orange. The broad river grew calmer now, and as locals pointed their boats toward home, I looked around at the emptiness and felt lost in a kind of nowhere zone, 1,000 miles from the glaciers of Ausangate, and 3,000 miles from the Atlantic. The river would enter Brazil in about 300 miles, multiplying in volume several times over on its way to the ocean and becoming something unrecognizable from the waterways I traveled over the course of two weeks in Peru. It felt too big to comprehend.
Alex had tried to sum it up earlier, when we had stopped at the massive and churning confluence of the Ucayali and Marañón. He stood up in the boat as it pitched back and forth, and spread his arms wide. “This is it,” he shouted. “This is the Amazon. The king of all rivers.”
The Amazon Made Easy
Peru has much more to offer than Machu Picchu. To experience the cloud forest, consider a visit to Soqtapata, a few hours north east of Ausangate, hidden just off the Interoceanic Highway. A 23,722-acre conservation area, Soqtapata contains six micro climates (“soqta” means six in Quechua) and is thickly forested and steeply sloped, spanning 3,200 to 15,000 feet above sea level. You can trek through the forest looking for wildlife and orchids and then cool off in a mountain stream. Pitch your tent in their open-air lodge and relax with other travelers or the conservationists frequently doing research there. (www.soqtapata.com)
For an unmatched experience in the Amazon basin—where you can see monkeys, macaws, and leopards, geek out with scientists at the harpy eagle nest or over variations of moths and spiders, and listen to the rainforest while relaxing in high-end rustic accommodations — set aside three or four days for the lodges of Rainforest Expeditions on the Tambopata River. They’ll pick you up in Puerto Maldonado and get you to your boat to start your journey—the several-hour ride upstream is half the fun. (www.perunature.com)
The Amazon River doesn’t acquire its name until the confluence of the Marañón and Ucayali Rivers, near Iquitos. But here the river is already gargantuan, making it hard to visit without feeling overwhelmed by its sheer size. A great way to carve out an intimate visit is to stay at the Treehouse Lodge, on the Yarapa River, a small tributary of the Ucayali, just upstream from the confluence with the Marañón. Go on a night excursion by foot or canoe, fish for piranha, and stay in one of eleven tree houses, built into Ironwood trees dozens of feet off the forest floor. (treehouselodge.com)