Perú’s Amazon:
  home of the world’s most painful insect sting

We were sad to leave lovely Cusco, but very much looking forward to experiencing the Amazon. We hopped on a short flight to Puerto Maldonado and were met by Maricarmen who would would be our knowledgable and mischievous guide in the Tambopata Reserve.

Tambopata means ‘house on sticks’ in Ese Ejja, the language spoken around the Tambopata River in southeastern Perú. The Tambopata Reserve was created in 1990, after 13 years of effort by conservationists, and covers about 3.5 million acres (~2% of Peru’s rainforest).

We rode three hours upstream from Puerto Maldonado to the lodge. We knew right away it would be good trip when we spotted one of Sarah’s favorite animals – capybaras – soon after we launched the boat. Sarah is totally enamored with these cartoon character-like giant rodents. They live in groups of 10-20 and are excellent swimmers. They can stay underwater for up to five minutes and because of their high-positioned facial features, they even sleep in the water. Here they are swimming with cowbirds, who ride on and eat the insects off the capybaras.

When we arrived at the lodge, we were pleasantly surprised to find we had been upgraded to a much fancier room than we paid for!

We were part of a fun group of eight, including two Brits, two Aussies, and two other Americans.
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As with our time in Costa Rica, we were astounded by the richness and – to us – newness of wildlife in the Tambopata. The Tambopata National Reserve is home to 165 species of tree, 103 mammal species, 1300 butterfly species and 90 species of amphibians!

The first night we went on a boat ride to search for caymans, of which we spotted several thanks to the eagle eye of Diego, one of the guides. The view of the stars and the sounds of the jungle during the ride were absolutely breathtaking.

The next day, we went on a hike where we:
Encountered a very poisonous Amazonian palm viper.

Climbed a 30 meter canopy tower to get a view of the Brazil nut, acacia and other trees.

Were mesmerized by the leaf cutter ants. The ants on this trail will lead you to their nest, which is ~8 meters deep and 50 meters in diameter! The queen leaf cutter ant will never leave her nest once she breeds and will live to be 10-20 years old.

We were amused by these – ahem – erotic palms (Iriartea deltoidea).

Dwarfed by giant ficus trees.

Charmed by these long-nosed bats.

And amazed by this horned spider.

Then we visited a nearby farm, and ate from the starfruit trees.

Played around with the heliconias.


Chewed on some sugarcane. Here’s Maricarmen preparing some for us.

And we learned about so many other foods and medicinal plants. Jason loved chewing on the cordoncillo plant, which contains a compound that they use in novocaine. Sarah loved tasting the fresh herbs like lemongrass and wild coriander.

After dinner, we went on a night hike. Maricarmen, our guide, loved pranking guests with jungle surprises. The first few days (until we all caught on), she would find a large insect (like this one on Jason’s back) and then ask someone to close their eyes and hold out their hands. Then, she’d laugh with delight when the person freaked out about the 8-inch long bug in their hands.

About an hour into our hike, Sarah felt a sudden and intense pain like nothing she had ever felt before. Maricarmen’s jovial mood changed to a serious one and she immediately started pulling up Sarah’s shirt where she felt the pain to see what had happened. Sarah had been bit by a bullet ant!

The bullet ant, known locally as the isula ant, is named for its extremely painful sting. Some scientists claim the bullet ant produces the most painful sting in the world.

The sting was definitely one of the most painful things Sarah had experienced – orders of magnitude more painful than a wasp sting. But, thankfully, she didn’t have the reaction that many others have described – shaking, fever, fainting, and pain lasting for >24 hours. So we think she may have only received minor bites. The scariest part was actually after she felt the second bite and then didn’t know how many more ants were hiding under her clothes. Luckily, we think there were only one or two, but she will never look at ants the same way.

The next day, we visited both a macaw and mammal clay lick – areas of exposed soil where animals eat the soil to get extra nutrients, especially when they are pregnant or rearing young. The nearby Tambopata Research Center has the largest clay lick in the world.

At the bird clay lick, the scarlet macaws have a daily ritual. They all slowly gather in the trees near the lick (usually in pairs – they are lifetime monogamous). And then when some critical number of birds have arrived, they all fly to the lick together, making it harder for predators to single them out. It was really magnificent to see the pairs of birds fly together – their wings nearly in unison. It was also funny that for as elegant and beautiful as the macaws look – their vocalization is completely the opposite – a kind of ugly squawking. Jason got some video of the birds through Maricarmen’s scope.

While we were waiting for the macaws, one of our group spotted a tocón (the local name for brown titi monkey) watching us watching the birds. When they came closer, we realized that there were four monkeys and one of them was a baby! There is not much cuter than a tiny (no bigger than a papaya) infant monkey crawling over its mom, curious to get a closer glimpse of the crowd of gawking humans. We unfortunately didn’t get a very good picture, but you can sort of the see the baby tocón’s face behind the mom’s in the picture below.

After several days of muddy hikes, delicious Peruvian food, and visits to a lake filled with piranhas, electric eels and anacondas, we said goodbye to Maricarmen and flew to Buenos Aires – home of the tango!

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