Won­ders in the jun­gle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Ad­ven­ture Hol­i­days -

choir of bleeps, chirrups, jin­gles, crick­et­ing, whis­tles, saws and whoops, all thanks to myr­iad birds, bugs, creepy-crawlies and mon­keys. One bird­song con­sists of a three-note arpeg­gio with what sounds like some­one jump­ing off a div­ing board. The wit­ti­est bird is the yel­low-rumped cacique, a bril­liant mimic of birds far big­ger than it­self as well as eaves­dropped sounds such as mo­bile phone ring tones and even hu­man snor­ing.

Per­haps the strangest noise in the jun­gle is a low, con­tin­u­ous roar like a jet en­gine. I ask Ce­sar if it em­anates from the lo­cal air­port. No, it’s a red howler mon­key,’’ he says. The loud­est an­i­mal in the jun­gle.’’

The closer you ex­am­ine the for­est, the more se­crets it throws up, yet the stranger it be­comes. The weird­est tree I see stands up on its roots like a stilt walker. By dis­card­ing old roots and putting out new ones, the tree walks’’ a me­tre ev­ery 20 years. The Ama­zon doesn’t do big an­i­mals. In­stead, you get bats, birds, but­ter­flies and bee­tles. The Ama­zon is be­lieved to host 2.5 mil­lion species of in­sects. Am I look­ing at na­ture’s lab­o­ra­tory of pro­to­types that will go on gen­eral re­lease in a for­est near you or is this na­ture’s death row of doomed species?

Near the Reserva Ama­zon­ica is San­doval, the most beau­ti­ful lake in Peru, an oxbow that once formed part of the Madre de Dios River. In and around its sus­pi­ciously calm waters lurk black caimans (a smaller ver­sion of a croc­o­dile), ana­con­das, bush­mas­ters, pi­ra­nhas and gi­ant ot­ters.

In a ca­noe nailed to­gether from bits of drift­wood, my guide Erik and I set off down a creek that leads to San­doval Lake. When a baby black caiman eases it­self into the wa­ter and swims off, Erik makes the soft, swal­low­ing noise that mother black caimans make to their ba­bies. This one isn’t fooled.

The early evening still­ing of the lake is punc­tu­ated by hoatzin birds thrash­ing about in the un­der­growth. The hoatzin is a miss­ing link be­tween birds and di­nosaurs: its face has blue scales and chicks have claws on each wing.

Would you like a swim?’’ I think I hear Erik say. What? In this wa­ter, in­fested with ana­con­das, caimans and pi­ra­nhas? You must be . . .’’

Caimans never at­tack peo­ple ex­cept when pro­tect­ing eggs. Pi­ra­nhas only at­tack if they smell blood, but they have ter­ri­ble eye­sight. Ana­con­das might at­tack if hun­gry. I am31 and I have never heard of a swim­mer be­ing at­tacked.’’

The In­cas’ veg­etable gar­den is the Sa­cred Valley, a 40km cor­ri­dor just across the moun­tains to the north of Cusco, carved out by the Urubamba river. It grows every­thing from onions to the finest maize in the world. Be­sides be­ing the In­cas’ back gar­den, the Sa­cred Valley was their route in to the jun­gle and the low­land ar­eas. The two main towns in the valley are Pisac, fa­mous for its tex­tile mar­ket, and Ol­lan­tay­tambo, a for­mi­da­ble Inca fortress that caused the Span­ish no end of headaches.

The Inkaterra ho­tel here com­prises five Urubamba vil­las in folk­loric style’’ with pitched roofs, wood beams, rough plas­ter walls, wooden lin­tels and dressers, red-tiled floors, open hearths and open-plan kitchens. The gar­dens are ablaze with fuch­sia, bougainvil­lea, jas­mine and be­go­nias. It’s like stay­ing in a pri­vate home.

This part of Peru is fa­mous for its colour­ful knitwear. If there is one item to buy, it is the chullo: the al­paca In­can hat with ear-flaps. In pro­duc­tion here for thou­sands of years, the chullo has fi­nally made it on to the cat­walks thanks to John Gal­liano and Benet­ton. The best place for chul­los and An­dean tex­tiles is Pisac mar­ket. The pon­chos, rugs, jer­seys and hats hit you with ex­plo­sions of colour.

A two-hour train ride from Ol­lan­tay­tambo, down the Sa­cred Valley away from Cusco, brings you to Aguas Calientes, the station for Machu Pic­chu, at the western ex­trem­ity of the valley. In 1980, Joey bought a nar­row strip of land and de­vel­oped Inkaterra Machu Pic­chu, a group of vil­las hid­den among av­o­cado trees, bread­fruit trees and palms, in the big­gest orchid gar­den in the world, with 372 recorded species. Joey’s tim­ing proved ill-starred: 1980 saw the birth of the Shin­ing Path, a Maoist ter­ror­ist move­ment whose 12-year cam­paign against the ru­ral ar­eas of Peru all but wiped out tourism too, un­til its leader Abi­mael Guz­man was cap­tured in 1992, where­upon Joey’s in­vest­ment be­gan to look a lot smarter. To­day, the place is boom­ing.

Although celebri­ties such as Cameron Diaz, David Blaine, Demi Moore and Heidi Klum have all checked in en route to Machu Pic­chu, the real celebri­ties at Inkaterra Machu Pic­chu are the birds. The Cloud For­est Gar­den is home to 33 types of hum­ming­bird, as well as rare species such as the green-and-blue mot­mot with its dis­tinc­tive pen­du­lum tail-wag and the cock-of-the-rock, the Peru­vian na­tional bird.

Trea­sures are be­ing un­earthed in Peru all the time. In the An­des, peo­ple are stum­bling over Inca finds ev­ery month. Five years ago, arche­ol­o­gists at Machu Pic­chu found three mum­mi­fied bod­ies and Inca arte­facts. Maybe the Inca still lives. Leave it to Joey to find him. The In­de­pen­dent Rory Ross was a guest of Aber­crom­bie & Kent.


Aber­crom­bie & Kent’s seven-day Glimpse of Peru pack­age is from $3450, land only, in­clud­ing break­fasts, two lunches, one din­ner, rail travel and tour­ing. More: www.aber­crom­biekent.com.au. www.peru.info www.hotel­coun­try.com www.inkaterra.com www.lib­er­ta­dor.com.pe

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