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Peru : Tambopata rainforest

Tambopata river, Tres Chimbades lake

Wednesday 29th August – Rainforest

Ines knocked on our “door” at 4.30ish and we both got up (as I knew Steve would when he thought about it), got dressed, grabbed a coffee and some fruit, before heading down with the others to the river. The boat took up further up the river for about half an hour (still in the dark) to a sandy beach and some rickety steps to walk up. Once there paddle around the lake in a catamaran, searching for the resident family of nine giant river otters and lakeside wildlife such as caiman, hoatzin and horned screamers. The lake provides wonderful opportunities to photograph majestic trees, water reflections and animal life.

The path led almost at once into the forest and our guide and another guide pointed out things on the way. It was just beginning to light up as we arrived at the Tres Chimbades oxbow lake and boarded our catamaran. We sat down on benches and were punted off through the reeds and into the main lake. As the dawn light grew we could see the mist rising on the warmer water and the Red-bellied Macaws and Cocoi herons sitting high up in the trees on the lake side.
Cocoi Heron / White-Necked Heron
The Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) is a large 4ft wading bird. It spends much of the day wading in shallow water at the edges of rivers and oxbow lakes. Patiently waiting for fish, frogs, and small animals, the Cocoi Heron catches them with a swift strike of its heavy, dagger-like bill. It is easily recognised with its white body and black cap. Only Black Caimans, Anacondas, and cat species will eat them. Its name comes from the Tupi language, meaning “hopping bird”. It used to be a White-necked until an African species was given the same name.
The Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) is visible at most oxbow lakes and rivers. This large, long- tailed bird needs open areas of water to fish in. The Anhinga is easily recognised by its thin neck, sharp, needle-like bill, and long tail. It shares the same habitats as the similarly shaped Neotropic Cormorant but has a longer tail and pointed bill. Anhingas are excellent swimmers and paddle the water surface with webbed feet searching for fish. After seeing a meal, they catch their prey with a stab of their sharp beak. They spend the rest of their time with wings partly open as they perch on branches or snags that stick out of the water. Like the Cocoi its name is a Tupi one, meaning Snake Bird. Surprisingly Anhinga do not have waterproof feathers, though this may help them swim below water. They fly frequently and are very visible in flight.

I saw a faint movement in the water and yes, it was a Black Caiman sliding in. As we punted further through the reeds I saw a pretty yellow Great Kiskadee flitting in front of us, then we spotted a colourful Amazon Kingfisher just above our heads, getting ready to dive.
Amazon Kingfisher
This Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona) often perches over the river or lake keeping its eyes open for fish or crustaceans. When it spots one it dives in to pierce it with its dagger-like beak. Its shape is so beautifully aerodynamic that it was used as the model for Japan’s high speed trains!

By now the mist had almost evaporated, leaving a crystal clear air. At the lake side, not 1, not 2 or 3 but dozens of red-eyed, crested Hoatzin birds. I’d been really hoping to see these odd, unique birds.
The Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) is the weirdest bird in the world. Quite a large bird it lives in groups around the edge of Amazonian lakes, nibbling the vegetation. We didn’t bother them, but a caiman did finally cause them to flap off. They do not like to fly because they have small, weak breast muscles (unlike normal birds). It has no close relative and no-one really knows their heritage, although fossils suggest an African origin, so maybe it floated across the Atlantic. Certainly it is an ancient bird. Uniquely they are born with claws at the end of their wings. This may be an adaptation to prevent them falling into the water when they leave their clayside nests. It is the only herbivorous bird in the world. It eats young leaves and has crop bacteria to help digest the leaves (like cows). This is the reason for its other name, Stink bird, which comes from the fermenting taking place in their crop. Their name means “pheasant” and they make grunting noises as they sit and eat.

Caimans are crocodilians related to alligators. There are four species in the area, but we saw the largest, the 15ft Black Caiman. An ancient species, their name comes from the extinct Carib language word for crocodile. They eat whatever is easy to catch, generally fish and large insects, though the largest will attack birds and otters. An ancient Peruvian caiman (extinct) grew to 40ft. After hatching the young are carried by the mother’s mouth to the water.
As we quietly punted round we saw first the snout, then the studded back of a large Black Caiman. Then, look, I spotted colourful Yellow-ridged and White-throated Toucans in a tree overlooking the lake end. One of the guides was very taken with my telephoto and took quite a few photos with it!

Toucans are medium sized birds with huge bills (giving them the nickname ‘flying banana’). They glide between the crowns of rainforest trees and add colour to the canopy with striking plumage black, white, red, blue and yellow. Quite a number live in the Peruvian rainforest, including Channel-billed, Yellow-Ridged and White-throated Toucans, Chestnut-eared, Curl-crested and Lettered Aracari, and smaller Emerald and Golden- collared Toucanets. Toucans eat fruit, insects and eggs. They are quite clever and can learn tricks and mimic other animals. Like many other animals of the rainforest their name is Tupi. They don’t often fly and have quite small wings. Of course their distinguishing feature is their huge bills, sometimes accounting for over half their length. Despite this their beaks are light as they are made of bone struts filled with spongy keratin. This probably helps keep them cool. Their beaks have forward serrations, which suggests they evolved originally to catch fish, though their diet now is main fruit (which they can get with little effort due to the beak length). Their grey tongues are frayed to improve their taste sense. Another unique aspect of toucans is their tail- the 3 rear vertebrae are fused and attached to the spine with a ball and socket joint, allowing them to move their tails forward to touch their heads.

Ines thought it was a bit early for the otters to show, although she thought she’d spotted a den, so we went piranha fishing (Golden Piranha). Steve didn’t catch anything, but several people did- goodness, those teeth up close. We threw them back, of course.
Piranha (piraña)
This is a South American omnivorous fish, famous for its sharp teeth and voracious appetite. It is related to the omnivorous Pacu (family Serrasalminae). Piranha have super-sharp triangular teeth in both jaws which interlock so it can puncture and tear flesh. They both predate and scavenge and are important to the ecology of the Amazon. As it is the Amazon the number of species is still unknown; maybe up to 60. Research suggests that the school hunting technique of piranha may have evolved from co-operative schooling as a defence from predators (especially dolphin). Piranha will eat almost anything; some species are more carnivorous, others tend towards herbivorous meals.
Other Amazon Fish
Although we did not see these in the Amazon the huge Pirarucu (aka Paiche or Arapaima) was undoubtedly below us at some stage. It is the world’s largest freshwater fish, growing up to 10feet. An air breather (it needs to surface every 15 mins to gulp air) it is a carnivorous catfish. It maybe the world’s most ancient fish, dating to at least 200 million years (Jurassic). Its Tupi name means red fish.
Another fish we must have passed over is the Tambaqui. This large fish eats only fruit and seeds, despite being a close relative to the pirana. They play an important role in spreading seeds through the forest as they only digest the fruit.
A well-known fish is a catfish, the Candiru (Pencil catfish). Supposedly it swims up your urine stream, thinking it is a fish gills and lodges itself in your genitals using head spines, In reality it finds its victims using sight and the physics of fluid dynamics makes it impossible to swim up a stream of urine. It will feed off the host’s blood, mucus or scale mites for a few minutes before dropping off, leaving the host unharmed. It is a Tupi name meaning transparent.
Lastly the Electric Eel, which is a fish, not an eel. It can grow 8ft long and deliver a charge of 600 volts to stun its prey. The male makes a saliva nest for the eggs.

Interestingly the lake has two sides- it (as does most of the land here) belongs to the local tribe- one side has been licensed for agriculture (if they want), but the other side must be left to the jungle. As it happened the “agriculture” side mainly consisted of palms and banana trees, so it was not cropped like we understand although they did collect and sell the palm nuts and bananas. The sunrise red had turned to golden dawn light and
suddenly we heard screeches and calls- it was the very rare Giant River Otters.
Giant River Otter
The giant otter is the largest of the Mustelidae family (which include weasels, otters and ferrets). It reaches a length of 5 foot by eating 3kg of catfish and pirana every day. There are only 5,000 left in the wild- this covers the whole of the Amazon, making us very lucky indeed. The giant otter lives in extended family groups of 3-20 and each is uniquely identifiable by its throat patch. Their various calls all have meaning, whether to warn or alarm.
We were really lucky as it was a family group with the parents teaching the three cubs to swim and fish (apparently otter cubs are not especially keen on swimming and need a lot of instruction), so they were out and about a lot. We got really close and could see and hear them for quite a long time. Our guide said it was unusual to get so close and many sites I’ve read agree. After 20/30 minutes looking at the otters they all vanished, and we saw why- a large Caiman was stalking in the rushes. It was about 7- 8 am (we hadn’t put watches on) and the sun was definitely up, so we punted back to shore and began a slower walk through the forest, looking at detail in forest fauna and flora. Among other things we saw

  • a strangler fig
  • coca trees
  • a variety of palms
  • some unusual nests/cocoons on the forest floor
  • long lines of green leaf-cutter ants
  • a palm tree with a bulge.

I was interested in the symbiosis between a nest of red ants and certain trees- a tree would harbour a red ant nest and in return the red ants would kill any sapling that grew too close. When we were nearly back to the river a guide pointed out a furry mass that turned out to be a hundred furry caterpillars all joined in a huge ball on a tree. Some cats came to say goodbye as we got back on board to return for breakfast at the lodge. On our way we came across more monkeys.
from left- mass of caterpillars, arboreal termite nest, capirona tree, brazil nut tree

The Brazil-nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) is common in the Amazon. It rises high above the canopy, reaching up to 40m. Yellow flowers grow on it, which eventually turn into large fruits, containing between 1 and 2 dozen seeds. Nuts are contained in large woody rounded pods that break open when they fall on the forest floor. Unusually for the forest it does not have buttress roots, relying instead on surface and underground roots. The Capirona is a hardwood tree that grows over 100ft high, well above the canopy. Its rough bark peels easily leaving a smooth surface that epiphytes cannot colonise, leaving the tree free.
from left latex tree, cercropia, ficus on a palm, army ants

The Latex or Para Rubber Tree is common in the Amazon and grows up to 150 feet high. It can be harvested by scoring it and allowing the rubber latex to drip out and be collected. The Cercropia is the most abundant Amazon tree. It is quick to exploit any gap in the forest cover and is a common sloth tree as the leaves are very tender. To protect itself it hosts Stinging Ants (Azteca) in its hollow trunk, rather than using phytotoxins (hence the sloths preference). The Ficus, one of many species of fig has a smooth mottled trunk with lichens. The bark can be soaked to produce a worm killing tea. This is why many rainforest animals scratch and eat the bark.

Brown and White Capuchin Monkeys
These smallish monkeys live close to each other and often forage alongside Squirrel Monkeys (which is why we saw them both). They eat anything, fruit, nuts, lizards, insects, eggs, etc. Their name is due to their resemblance to the robes worn by capuchin monks. They are tool users- to break palm nuts they put them in the sun to dry for 2 days, then crack them open using a hammer and anvil stone.
Squirrel Monkey
These smallish monkeys have distinctive faces (Totenkopfaffen or deaths-head in German). They live in very large groups with a hierarchy- some females have a pseudo-penis to display dominance over smaller monkeys. Unlike other New World monkeys they do not have a prehensile tail. Their society gives them the ability to post sentries and they are rarely caught by predators. The females typically have colour vision, but males do not.
We went back to our rooms to have brief rest (well, sleep in Steve’s case and probably others) before a second mid-morning rainforest walk. Almost as soon as we left the lodge clearing, a large troop of Dusky Titi monkeys came to say hello, including one with a small baby attached. Ines took the camera from me to take a better picture! The monkeys hung around for quite a while before leaving.
Dusky Titi Monkey
These cute monkeys rarely go to the ground, spending most of their life in the trees and vines. Unlike most primates, they mate for life and form strong attachments to their family. They eat less meat than most monkeys. They rarely stay close to other monkeys, as they tend to be attacked- Capuchins have been seen killing them. Ines pointed out various things on our way to the canopy tower, including a Wandering Fig (look at the pictures for a clue to its name) and a Potoo bird.
Potoo Bird
A difficult bird to see as it sleeps in the day and eats at night. During daylight it sits totally still against tree trunks, virtually invisible to the eye. It has a small beak but a huge mouth for catching night time insects. It does not make a nest but lays a single egg in a tree nook. The story is that it’s sad call is because its spirit has been separated from its lover, the moon.

We saw a gecko, some unusual insects and various nests and cocoons before we arrived at the canopy tower. It was a long way up and quite wobbly, which I don’t like, but I’m glad I got to the top because the view over the rainforest and river was spectacular. We saw a variety of birds flying, mainly over the river- apparently one was a Bat Falcon, but too far for us to see properly.
Gecko, fungi, beetle nests
Bat Falcon
The Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis) is a small, colourful falcon found along tropical rivers at the edge of rainforests. It hunts across rivers and small birds adapted to the forest understory therefore rarely fly across the Tambopata and tend to become isolated the same species that reside in the forests on the opposite bank. The Bat Falcon is named after its favourite prey. Like other raptors it has a notch on its beak, designed to sever its prey’s verterbrae. Then back down and along towards a clay lick. We saw several different trees and plants, all of interest to the locals, such as the brazil-nut tree, cocoa palm, cohune palm, ceibo tree. Then, just as we headed towards the clay lick Ines told us to stop and be quiet as there was a mass of macaws in the trees ahead. We saw Blue and Yellow Macaws, Scarlet Macaws and the less common Chestnut-fronted Macaws.

Macaws, like most Psittacidae, nest only in dead palm trees. They are clever, about the level of a 3/4 year old human and live to about 70. Blue and Yellow and Scarlet Macaws are named for their predominant colours. Oddly the Chestnut-fronted was named in the lab for an obvious colour, which is not at all obvious in the field! It’s smaller and less intelligent than the Scarlet and Blue and Yellow. All the Macaws come to clay licks to supplement their diet. If lucky, the less common Red and Green Macaws visit too.
In the hide at the clay lick the macaws resolutely stayed away- using the binoculars I’m fairly sure we spotted why. A yellow hide with brown-black rosettes... a jaguar! A long way away, but definitely there. No wonder the birds were in the trees! Ines said the jaguar would probably stay there until it caught something so it was unlikely we’d see any wildlife as it would be in hiding (very sensible!).
Big Cats
The Jaguar (Panthera onca) is quite widespread in the Amazon. It is closely related to the Snow Leopard. It does not mind water and will happily jump in to take its prey, mainly capybara, tapir and peccaries. It has 3/4 rosettes arranged around a smaller central spot. Its Tupi name, yaguara, means beast. Other big cats we could have spotted were the Ocelot, so called for the ocelli (white spots) on its ears and the Jaguarundi, the smallest of the three and a puma’s relative.
Accordingly, we headed back to the lodge for lunch and a rest. Steve had a good sleep after lunch and I lay in the hammock watching the birds in the trees.
Heliconia flowers
By mid afternoon everyone was up again and rested, so we took the boat further upstream again to the local medicine man’s forest area. Now, TBH, I hadn’t been sold on this visit to begin with, but it was much more interesting than I had thought. The medicine man was very clear and explained his craft and the local fauna so well.
Some interesting things were:
1. a bitter, fizzy twig (I had to spit)
2. quite a few impotence cures
3. local Viagra (maca root)
4. a stop by the medicine huts to “try” some medicine, most of which seem to heave been preserved in amazingly strong alcohol
from top left clockwise: oje tree, sanipanga,cat’s claw, kapok tree
Some medicinal plants we saw-
Oje: the bark produces a milky white latex that fights rheumatism, toothache, snakebite, anaemia and fever.
Cat’s Claw (Una de Gato): a sharp vines with spikes like a cat’s claw. The bark is used for ulcers, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, tumours, AIDS.
Kapok: this grows to 200 feet. Its also called Sumaumeria or telephone tree (it used to be used as a drum). The fruit capsules contain over 100 seeds surrounded by kapok, a fluffy waterproof fibre that we use as a stuffing. It can treat conjunctivitis.
Cordoncillo: anaesthetic (we chewed this leaf and ended up with a numb tongue) Shapumvilla: stops bleeding
Wasai/ Huasai: kidneys, malaria, jaundice, diabetes
Pusangade venado: luck
Tawari tree: the bark cures infections and inflammation and may help cancer.
Sodo plant: addiction cure
Pusangade Motelo: anxiety
Cola de Raton: digestif
Canelilla: fertility treatment
Sangre de Grado: antiseptic, contraceptive
Copaiba: the resin is anti fungal and used for acne
Cedar: fever, cough, gangrene
Lipstick Tree: OK not a medicine, but still used!
Then, as it was dusk, we cruised back to the lodge. Due to the time we began to see a variety of animals along the bank, including an agouti and (noise only) some peccaries. Dinner, our favourite, quinoa led to an interesting cross-continent discussion as it turned out we all had a different name for this legume! Our American acquaintances were very keen to develop a holistic practise and had been fascinated by the medicines we saw and planned a further visit. Ines suggested a night walk, and a few of us went back to fetch our head- torches. And... ANOTHER poison dart frog was hopping around our room!
The walk was OK, but so many other people had the same idea as us that most interesting fauna had long gone due to the noise. However, we did see a HUGE black spider (I had no idea what it was and had no intention of getting close- Steve swears it was a Wandering Spider and I said it better not
wander anywhere near me).
Wandering Spiders
This spider species (Phoneutria) looks large and intimidating. A Wandering Spider will actively search for prey (wandering) rather than lying in wait at a web. The infamous Brazilian Wandering Spider (notorious for having the most toxic spider venom in world- even more than the Black Widow) does not live in Peru, but two closely related species do. They are aggressive predators that feed on small mammals, lizards, frogs and large insects- they are all poisonous!
We also saw quite a few evening/ night insects including stick insects. We came across some leaf cutter ants being very busy with their leaves, and some HUGE black ants that S was very interested in, until Ines suggested he move back a bit. It turned out that they were bullet ants- they give the most painful bite it is possible to have (on a scale of 1-10, they would be 12). They are one of the largest ants in the world and use powerful jaws to dismember prey to feed their larva (the adults eat nectar).
To say the least we were exhausted, so a quick fruit (and alcohol) cocktail and an early night all round.
A few Amazonian foods we tried
- quinoa (we know this well)
- camu camu (a bit sour, like a lime and with 40% more vitamin C)
- tumbo (banaa passion fruit) looks like a fat banana, but its tart. You don’t eat it raw so we had it in ice cream.
- aguaje (moriche palm fruit) firm yellow pulp, very nice.
- cocona (amazon tomato) but actually citrus. Yellowy, like a pepper. Used for salads.

leafcutter ants
The next morning, up early, we were lucky to see a Spix Guan and some large Morphos.
Spix Guan
Spix’s Guan (Penelope jacquacu) is an arboreal bird, turkey size and shape. Like most of the Cracidae family Spix’s Guan makes a rattling noise with its wings (which we heard). It’s named for Johan Baptist Ritter von Spix who discovered it.
Morpho Butterfly
This butterfly, which has over 400 varieties in Peru, is named after Aphrodite (Venus), although its name means change. The shiny blue wings are caused by iridescence, the scales deflect rather than absorb light. Their properties are being studied as an anti- counterfeit device. Underneath their brownish colour is a camouflage. They feed on rotting fruit and prefer to stay near water. They have the larges wing to body ratio of any butterfly.

Posted by PetersF 19:48 Archived in Peru Tagged animals birds rainforest peru monkey amazon tambopata tres_chimbades

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