Wonders in the jungle
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