Heath River Wildlife Center
Two Ecosystems: Rainforest and Savannah
5 days/4 nights
On this trip to Heath River we will find some of the most impressive, varied and pristine rainforest the Upper Amazon Basin has to offer. The small and cozy Heath River Wildlife Center is the only eco-lodge in the remote Rio Heath area; on the wild frontier of Bolivia and Peru. Few locations can offer such remoteness and yet retain easy access from an airport by river travel.
Our lodge lies within the Tambopata-Madidi reserve areas of Peru and Bolivia. Bolivia’s Madidi National Park totals 18,900 sq. km./7,297 sq. miles, while the adjacent reserves of Tambopata-Candamo and Bahuaja-Sonene across the border in Peru add up to more than 13,700 sq. km./5,290 sq. miles. Taken together, they form the second largest, and by far the most biologically diverse nature conservation area in all of South America.
This is an active rainforest visit, with some trail walking and/or bicycling required to get the most from the experience. At the Heath River Wildlife Center we witness one of nature’s most spectacular displays -- a tumultuous gathering of brightly-colored macaws and parrots at the nearby Heath River macaw claylick.
The lodge offers an array of options almost too numerous and varied to be taken on one visit. We may spot wildlife along the lightly-used trails of this remote forest, and perhaps stake out one of the lodge’s mammal clay licks, in hopes of sighting an elusive Lowland Tapir, the Amazon’s largest mammal. We can visit the abundant birds and monkeys of a secluded oxbow lake, travel upriver and float stealthily downstream with the engine off, and walk or bicycle through the astonishing change of environments to be experienced on the short journey from the river to the Pampas del Heath – an excursion that also takes in a rare nesting site of the Red-bellied and Blue-and-yellow Macaws.
Day 1: Puerto Maldonado to Heath River Wildlife Center
Fly to Puerto Maldonado on morning flight. We meet you at the Puerto Maldonado airport and drive through this bustling Upper Amazon Basin city to the Tambopata River boat dock. Here we board a powerful motorized dugout canoe and set off to the nearby confluence of the mighty Madre de Dios River, where we head downstream for approximately three hours to the Peru-Bolivia border at the mouth of the remote Heath River. Even beneath the vast sky of this major Amazon tributary we glimpse the diversity of the riverine environment, with its forest-capped red-earth cliffs, alternating with low banks thick with Cecropia trees and giant grasses. After brief formalities at the Peru-Bolivia border crossing, we motor for about two more hours up narrower and wilder waters, suddenly enjoying the intimacy of mysterious forest looming close on either side. Occasional views of native villages and children splashing by the banks, are interspersed with long, quiet stretches where we may spot herons, hawks, cormorants, Orinoco Geese, and perhaps a family of Capybaras -- the world’s largest rodent, weighing up to 55kg./120lb, and looking like an enormous Guinea Pig.
We reach our simple, charming and comfortable quarters at the Heath River Wildlife Center in time for dinner. (Please note that the lodge is located on the Bolivian shore of the Heath River, so passports are required to clear Bolivian passport control.) (L,D)
Day 2: Heath River Wildlife Center
Today we make an early start to visit the the lodge’s most spectacular feature: the parrot and macaw lick. Here these colorful birds gather to eat a type of clay from the cliff-like river banks that neutralizes certain toxins in their diet. They congregate early each morning, sometimes by the hundreds, jostling and squabbling over the best eating spots on the clay lick. This noisy and unforgettable show can go on for two or three hours, and may begin with up to five species of parrot and two varieties of parakeet, followed by Chestnut-fronted Macaws and their larger, more boisterous cousins, the Red-and-green Macaws. This extraordinary wildlife display occurs at only a handful of sites in the Upper Amazon Basin, and nowhere else on the planet.
Our floating-platform blind provides comfort and complete concealment, so that we can eat a full breakfast here during pauses in the bankside spectacle. For ultra-close-up viewing, our guides carry a tripod-mounted spotting scope, which can also be used to get telephoto pictures with even the simplest camera.
On our return we can land partway downriver and walk back along a section of the lodge’s extensive network of forest trails. We encounter numerous gigantic Brazil-nut, kapok and fig trees, along with the strangler fig, whose life strategy is as sinister as its name suggests. Our guide will point out and explain the medicinal and commercial uses of dozens of plants and trees, while we keep our eyes and ears open for birds or one of the eight species of monkeys found in this region. We might come upon a small herd of White-lipped or Collared peccary – two kinds of wild pig that are quite common in this area. For purposes of territorial marking they deploy a “stink gland” so potent that they are often smelled long before they are seen.
After lunch we hike along a major trail to a point where the forest abruptly gives way to the spacious plains of the Pampas del Heath, part of Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. This unique environment - the result of very poor soils, plus an extreme seasonal cycle of dryness and flooding - is the largest remaining undisturbed tropical savannah in the Amazon basis, and is home to rare endemic birds and mammals, such as the Swallow-tailed Hummingbird and the highly endangered Maned Wolf. Shortly beyond the edge of the forest we can climb a raised platform that allows us a grand view of this vast expanse of grassland and shrub, studded with palm trees.
We can continue another hour or so to a swampy area thick with Mauritia flexuosa palm trees, whose oil-rich palm nuts and hollowed-out dead palms provide vitally important food and shelter for nesting pairs of Red-bellied and increasingly rare Blue-and-yellow macaws. We aim to arrive toward dusk, when the macaws are returning from their day’s foraging to congregate in this very special breeding site.
We return to the lodge by night, using our flashlights, and perhaps pausing here and there in total darkness, to listen to the ever-changing orchestra of animals, frogs and insects, and to experience the magic of the night-time rainforest. We may come upon such bizarre nocturnal creatures as camouflaged frogs disguised as dead leaves, toads the size of rabbits, hairy tarantulas peering out of their dirt holes, night monkeys lurking among the tree branches, and a teemingly unpredictable array of other nightlife.
After dinner some guests may choose to visit one of our mammal lick hides, in hopes of seeing a Lowland Tapir, the rainforest’s largest mammal. (B,L,D)
Day 3: Heath River Wildlife Center
Our second full day at the lodge allows us to choose from a wide range of activities available in this exceptionally diverse tropical environment. Many people choose to make a second visit to the macaw clay lick. Later we can take a canoe tour around Cocha Platanillal, an oxbow lake that lies a short way downstream from the lodge.
The reeds, fallen trees and forested shoreline of this lake teem with birds and other wildlife. Red Howler Monkeys may peer at us through the branches of the giant trees above us, while herons lie in wait among the fallen trees, cormorant-like Anhingas watch from the forest branches, and an Osprey may circle overhead. Flocks of brilliant Red-capped Cardinals gather on dead branches, and a colorful, primitive bird, the Hoatzin, hops its ungainly way along the swampy water’s edge.
After dinner we can board our canoe once more, for an evening of spotting for caiman, the Amazonian cousin of the alligator. This region is home to the endangered black caiman, and we nearly always pick out a few with our powerful spotlight as we patrol the river. (B,L,D)
Day 4: Heath River Wildlife Center
Today we will explore the extensive network of forest trails in the area to deepen our understanding of the jungle and its ways; and to search for birds or other creatures that we have not seen yet. Perhaps we will encounter the peccary or add two or three species of monkeys to our have seen lists. Our guides will point out various species of trees and plants, explaining their medicinal, commercial, or ritual use. Towards the end of our trek we will pass by the mammal lick, which could give us a sighting of a Tapir or a Red Deer. (B)
Day 5: Heath River Wildlife Center to Puerto Maldonado and Cusco or Lima
We leave at dawn for the return trip downstream. This is peak hour for wildlife so we keep a sharp eye on the riverbanks, often spotting families of Capybara, and perhaps being rewarded with a rare jaguar sighting, or a tapir swimming across the current. We reach the Madre de Dios River, re-enter Peru, and set off upstream for Puerto Maldonado, where we are transferred to the airport for our flight to Cusco or Lima. (B).
Please note all itineraries may vary slightly to maximize wildlife viewing.