The airport was also very basic. All airports in Peru charge an airport tax when flying out of the airport. At Puerto Maldonado, it was about $3.50. In Cuzco, it was about $4.50. In Lima it was $6 for domestic flights. But for international flights from Lima, the charge is $30! We felt robbed in broad daylight!
We had booked our stay for 3 days and 2 nights, at the Sandoval Lake Lodge. They took care of us from the time we landed, till the time we took off from Puerto Maldonado airport. We were assigned one ‘transfer guy’ named Jose who was responsible for picking us up from the airport and getting us to the lodge. Jose met us at the airport and then drove us to a Snake Farm near the airport. The farm housed different varieties of Boa, Whip Snakes, Anacondas, Caiman, Tortoise, Frogs etc. Jose also let us play with an Anaconda Boa that was a year and a half old. Anacondas don’t bite (that is why I decided to hold it in the first place). They crush and strangle their prey and then swallow. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience to feel the powerful muscles of the snake twitching in my hands!
The roads in Puerto Maldonado were untarred and simply paved with huge concrete slabs and 2-wheeler taxis were the most common of the few vehicles on the road. From the Snake Farm, Jose took us to the their head office in Puerto Maldonado itself.
Getting to Sandoval Lake Lodge, is an adventure in itself! First, at the office we were given 2 bags to pack for our stay in Sandoval Lake Lodge. We transferred some of our stuff we needed, to these bags. These bags are then bundled up in waterproof sacks and are carried and transported for us, all the way to the Lodge. The rest of the luggage could be left in lockers at the office. We were also given long boots according to our shoe sizes and driven to the bank of the river Tambopata, which is a tributary of the Amazon.
At the river bank, a motor boat waited for us. The boat ride lasted about 20min down the river, during which we were given delicious local food packed for lunch. After we got off, we put on our newly borrowed boots and set out on a 1 hour walk through the jungle. The entire trail was clayey mud and we plodded our way through it with our boots. Without the boots, our shoes would have been totally destroyed as the swampy mud was more than ankle deep! I felt like a kid who is given the permission to play in the muck as long as she wants! Despite it being the rainy season in Peru, we hadn’t yet encountered any rain. But during the walk back along this trail at the end of our stay, it poured heavily and we plodded through the rain in our rain ponchos. But the rain was God sent. The rain made it easier to walk as the trail was less clayey, though more watery, and we finished in about 40 min. I am told that in dry season, the earth is hard and the walk takes only about 30 min.
Sandoval is an ox-bow lake (a part of a meandering river) of the Madre de Dios river, another tributary of the Amazon. Sandoval Lake has an abundance of wildlife. Unlike most other lodges, Sandoval Lake Lodge is not along the more commercialized Tambopata river. So the sighting of different species of wildlife is more or less guaranteed around this lake, because of its remoteness (afterall, we took about 2 hours to get to the Lodge by motor boat, walking and canoe). So in our opinion, any amount of trouble is worth getting to Sandoval Lodge!
The canoe took about 30 min to get to the Lodge. Our final challenge was to ascend the 50+ steps from the edge of the water, up to the Lodge. Again, our luggage was carried up for us. Finally we entered the Lodge hot and tired and were immediately served a glass of refreshing Passion Fruit juice. I have to mention that the food during our stay here, was just amazing! Most of it was made from local produce. I loved looking forward to the large pitchers of different juices with every meal- Star Fruit, Passion Fruit, a local fruit called Arrasa etc. Each tasted like nectar! The dishes were both native and international cuisine. We had a lovely time tasting a host of creative dishes for every meal.
After a nice hot shower and settling into our room, we spent the evening watching the darkness fall, from the hammocks. Sandoval Lake Lodge is entirely made of wood with a thatched roof and has electricity, unlike most other lodges. It is rum by ‘Peru Verde’, a private organization for conservation. The lodge stands on stilts, to keep away ‘unwanted visitors’. The main area of the lodge and each room is securely fitted with netting, to keep the insects out. The hammocks were inside the netting too and it overlooked the garden and the lake beyond. A lovely evening spent liesurely and peacefully!
The guide assigned to both of us, was Javier. He was a native of Puerto Maldonado. He was a very interesting guy who took good care of us and introduced us to the flora and fauna of the Amazon Rainforest, during our stay there. Shortly before dinner, Javier took us on a night walk to see the nocturnal creatures. Armed with flashlights, we set out into the darkness. Javier had a knack for spotting various creatures, in a single swing of his flashlight! Tarantula spiders were abundant. We saw many other night beauties, including a firefly that lay in Javier’s palm, proudly showing off its glow! Finally we walked down to the water’s edge and Javier shone his light around the lake. A few big red dots appeared in the water. “Caimans!”, said Javier. The light was being reflected off their eyes, making it look like glowing red embers! Caimans are nocturnal animals that feed on fish and other small creatures. They are cannibals, sometimes even eating their own young ones. Black Caimans are more aggressive and territorial than White Caimans. Sandoval Lake has only Black Caimans.
At 5:30am the next day, Javier and a boatman took Dilip and me around the lake for about two hours. Birds and animals are most active early in the morning and late in the evening as the heat is less. I love listening to the sounds of the jungle. Though varied and without pattern, it seems to be following some ambiguous rhythm. We spotted many different species of birds like Hoatzins, Anhingas, Herons and colorful Macaws! Caimans lurked beneath the water surface. One even let out a deep Caiman-growl, clearly telling us to keep out of its territory. As we neared the lodge, Dilip spotted a whole family of his favourite animal- Otters. They are social animals that live and fish together as a family. Caimans and Otters avoid clashes as Caimans are nocturnal and Otters aren’t. Otters are cute with their smooth round heads bobbing in the water as they fish. Otter is the mascot of the Sandoval Lake Lodge.
We saw a native rowing towards us in his boat. Javier warned us that the natives do not like to be photographed and should be respected. The native brought his boat alongside ours and showed us 2 huge fish he had in his boat. Javier translated for us. One of them was a big fish, an Arapaima, which had got entangled in his hook. But before he could get to the catch, a Caiman was already gnawing on it. Finally, he won ownership of the fish. He gave me big scale from the fish as a souvenir. The Arapaima ended up as dinner at the lodge that day.
Later in the day, we set out for a nature walk through the forest and Javier pointed out and talked about various medicinal plants and interesting species like ‘Walking Palms’ (most of its roots are above the ground), ‘Garlic Tree’ (its bark smells of garlic), a tree that sheds its bark 4 times a year to get rid of parasites, another tree that gets killed by parasitic creepers etc. We also spotted interesting creatures like the ‘Witch Moth’ and ‘Communal-Social’ spiders that make one single huge web for themselves. Javier also broke open a Brazil nut for us. The shell of the Brazil nut is hard like that of a coconut. Each shell has many individual nuts in it. These fresh Brazil nuts taste like coconut as well.
We spent mid-day playing Scrabble and relaxing in the lodge. It was too hot to roam outside. But early evening, Javier and we went out on the lake again. Each time, the scene on the lake changes. It was hot and sunny. In summer, I would suggest light clothes in the forests. A good insect repellent from REI is sufficient to keep away bites. So you don’t need thick clothes that will made you sweat buckets. Later, when the sun went down, it was very cool and pleasant to float around the lake. Apart from birds, we saw a big group of Squirrel monkeys jumping from tree to tree, very close to the water’s edge. At another spot, I saw a Hoatzin sitting in its nest. Suddenly, as we watched, a Cappuchin monkey swung up to the nest, drove the Hoatzin away and made off with both the eggs in the nest. Safe on another tree branch, we watched the monkey effortlessly knock open the eggs and swallowing its contents! It was heart-breaking to hear the Hoatzin’s cries and helplessness. But I guess thats nature!
From the lodge’s dock we watched the last rays of the sun. Sandoval was indeed a magical place, leaving us with a great memories and an unforgettable experience that we wouldn’t trade for anything in this world!