It’s taken longer to get around to writing this post than I’d planned, but I still remember the key bits of my trip! Part 1 here. The second half of our time in Peru began with a flight to Puerto Maldonado, a city in the south-east of the country in the Amazon rainforest. We were staying at the Tambopata Ecolodge in the nature reserve of the same name. After about an hour on the bus from the airport, we switched to a boat for a 2.5 hour trip down the Tambopata river to the lodge. This was an amazing experience: we saw caimans (which are part of the alligator family), macaws, and capybaras. When we arrived at the lodge, the sun was going down – all very picturesque, but it meant that a) we had to do the scramble up the riverbank in the semi-dark (more stairs, even at low altitude!), and b) because there was no electricity in our huts, we had to try and put the mosquito nets around our beds in candlelight. I think we all felt a bit disconcerted by this experience. Still, after assembling our beds and vigorously reapplying our insect repellent, we regrouped for dinner and to go on a short night walk – there is a specific trail around the lodge for this purpose. Among other things, we saw a sloth! This is so unusual that our guide excitedly disappeared for a few minutes, reappearing with his telescope and the two other groups staying at the lodge with us – the rest of the night hike was fun as well, but watching the sloth through the telescope was the real highlight.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so hot and uncomfortable as I was during the first night in the rainforest. Going from one extreme (the high-altitude, thin, extremely dry atmosphere of Cusco) to the other (the oxygen-rich but hot and intensely humid atmosphere of the rainforest) was jarring. I think I could adjust to living at high altitude if I had to, but I don’t think I could ever get used to that level of heat and humidity. Still, we woke up early the next day for a quick breakfast and to take advantage of the fact that it was fractionally cooler in the morning. Our guide took us on a slow nature walk through the jungle to a local lake, which we (well, he) paddled across. We walked through one of the trails looking for wildlife and learning about the plants – among other things, we saw two tarantulas and learnt how to bang the roots of a particular tree to communicate with the local villages if we got lost. I also enjoyed learning about the different medical uses for the various plants – although it wasn’t presented to us in this way, it’s clear that there are barks used as anti-inflammatories, because everything he told us they could treat has a strong inflammatory component to the disease process. (The person from the first week who complained that the hot springs were inferior to the ones in Costa Rica also complained that we didn’t see a tiger on this hike. There aren’t any tigers in the wild in South America. Also, would you really want to come face to face with one during a hike? The mind boggles).
On the way back, when we were crossing the lake again, he pulled us over into the reeds for a bit and handed round fresh passionfruit. That moment, eating fresh passionfruit in a lake in the middle of the rainforest, seems like something that would only happen in a film. It was so serene. As we were finishing our passionfruit, our guide handed us all crackers, which he instructed us to throw into the lake so that we could watch the piranhas. Despite his best attempts, he wasn’t able to catch a large piranha to show us, but watching the smaller piranhas devour the crackers in seconds was still fascinating. I am now equipped to find all “piranhas quickly destroy the evidence” scenes in crime dramas and action films significantly more believable. They could definitely do it. We also saw a whole variety of birds – my favourite were the hoatzins. I don’t have a picture (or, rather, I took many pictures, all of which are blurry and incompetent), but I found one on Wikipedia.
After spending the middle part of the day trying (and failing) to avoid the heat, we visited a local plantation in the late afternoon. In addition to eating fruit cut directly from the trees – oranges, lemons, starfruit, and something that wasn’t a mango but was vaguely similar – our guide told us a lot about local farming practices. The highlight, though, was that we had a chance to see squirrel monkeys and emperor tamarins playing in the trees – I’ve never seen monkeys in the wild at all before, and it was delightful. Our last scheduled activity in the rainforest was a night cruise along the river to spot caimans. We did see a few caimans, all dwarf or juvenile, but the best part was the two minutes on the way back to the lodge where they cut the motor and lights, and we just floated up the Tambopata listening to the sounds of the river and surrounding jungle. Our guides lamented that it was cloudy, so we couldn’t see any stars, but for city-dwellers there was another remarkable experience instead: a thunderstorm was on its way, and we could see actually see it coming over the tops of the trees.
Back at the lodge, we waited out the storm. Our huts didn’t have glass in the windows, only mesh to keep the insects out. The wind was absolutely howling – within about 30 minutes of us getting into our room, the (full) water jug had been blown onto the floor, the candlesticks were halfway across the room, and one of the curtains had managed to wrap itself entirely around my friend’s mosquito net. (It is a source of deep regret to me that the picture I took of this didn’t come out, because it was very, very funny – especially because she’d already fallen asleep somehow and woke up with a cartoonish shriek). We found our the next day that it was considered a very big storm even by the standards of the area, and our guides had been kept up late so that they could go and check that all the big trees were still stable once it finally ended. A bit like eating the passionfruit on the lake, sitting in a hut listening to, watching, and even feeling a thunderstorm break over the rainforest is something I will never forget.
We flew back to Lima in the morning for the final few days of our trip, which were spent just the three of us rather than with our whole group. This was a relief, honestly: they were mostly nice people, but ten days with twelve strangers is a lot of small talk. We checked into the fancy hotel we’d splashed out on for the last couple of nights, and promptly mystified the staff by swimming in the unheated rooftop pool in winter. (We’d paid to stay in a place with a rooftop pool and we were not going to be put off by a little thing like the fact that it was the middle of winter). It had a sauna too, so it’s not quite as mad as it sounds. We went on an extremely long day trip to the Paracas Islands and the Huacachina Oasis – run by a company I would not recommend, though the islands themselves were beautiful. We saw sea lions, penguins, and many types of birds, so I don’t regret the day itself, but it was still the worst experience we had in Peru by some margin. (Among other things, they nearly left us behind in the desert, which would have been an unpleasant end to our holiday). We ate ceviche, wandered around some very touristy markets, and otherwise had some general R&R after a long and tiring trip.
I know this is a very long post, so I am just going to end by talking about the incredible restaurant we went to on our last afternoon in Peru, Central Restaurante. This was one of the things we were most excited about before going, and that excitement was completely justified. Central is meant to be one of the best restaurants in the world – ranked 2nd in 2022, though presumably once you are in about the top twenty there isn’t much between them. Unlike the rest of the restaurants on that list, their tasting menu is somewhat affordable (er, if you go at lunchtime, don’t have the matching wines, and save up carefully in advance). The three of us agreed that we would gladly spend all our discretionary budget on one very good restaurant rather than ten souvenirs, so that is what we did. I’ve never eaten at a place with that kind of reputation before, and was a little nervous that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations – but the lunch was absolutely incredible. The conceit behind the menu is that the diner will travel through all the different elevations of Peru. Peru has many microclimates, lending itself to a lot of different foods, and so there was a course to represent every region – seafood from the coast, potatoes from the Andes etc – but of course designed by people who are at the top of their field. Each course was brought to us by our very knowledgeable waiter, who explained the history of the dish or talked about its key ingredients. We were right by the kitchen, which has floor to ceiling windows, so we could even watch food being prepared.
I’m really grateful we left this until the last day, because by this point we had been to a lot of these places and learnt about their local food from our guides, and it was lovely to have that extra knowledge to help us understand each course a bit better. I had worried that we would be somehow “found out” as not belonging, and treated differently as a result: for some of the other diners, this was clearly a regular experience rather than a long-anticipated extravagance. On the contrary – our waiter was clearly pleased to have three newcomers to fine dining who were enthusiastic about everything and asked a lot of questions, and he didn’t seem to mind at all that we wanted photos of every course before we ate it. He even took some pictures of us in the garden outside, and he made sure we had all our questions answered before we left. I very highly recommend Central to anyone visiting Peru – make sure you book well in advance, as we booked in March for August and places were already on the thin side. (Also, without wishing to be indelicate, I’d caution against doing a 12-course tasting menu of unfamiliar food right before 24 hours of international travel. Ahem). This meal was a fantastic way to finish the trip.
As you can tell by my gushing posts, I had an incredible time in Peru and would love to go back – beautiful scenery, incredible food, and lots to learn about all kinds of topics. What more could you ask for? I doubt I’ll be able to do a trip like this again any time soon, and it has been a lot of fun sharing it with you all 🙂