On this journey to the Heath River and then Lake Sandoval we encounter the best pristine rainforest and the most comfortable wilderness lodges that the Upper Amazon Basin has to offer – an unbeatable combination of remoteness, and yet reachable distance by river from an airport with daily scheduled passenger-jet flights.
Our two lodges lie 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.
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 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 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.
At Lake Sandoval we enjoy a more relaxing experience, with some light trail walking a lot of easy boating around the forested fringes of this extraordinarily beautiful and wildlife-rich lake. Sandoval is a large body of water that is home to a family of Giant Otters, and we should spot them during our stay, along with numerous troupes of monkeys and a huge variety of colorful birds.
Day 1: Puerto Maldonado to Heath River Wildlife Center
Fly to Puerto Maldonado on morning flight. Our staff will welcome you at the airport in Puerto Maldonado and drive you through the city to the boat dock on the Tambopata River. Here we board a motorized canoe and head towards the nearby confluence of the mighty Madre de Dios River to the mouth of the Heath River which is the natural border of Peru and Bolivia. On this important Amazonian tributary we have a view of the diversity of the riverside environment; cliffs of red earth are interspersed with thick banks of Cercopia trees and couch grass.
After brief formalities at border crossings, we take the boat through the narrow waters for a couple of hours, enjoying the intimacy of the mysterious forest on both sides. Occasional sightings of native children splashing along the banks are interspersed with long, silent stretches where we can see herons, hawks, cormorants, geese, and perhaps a family of Capybaras, which is the world's largest rodent and can weigh up to 55 Kg.
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 your passport and a Bolivian Tourist Visa are required to clear Bolivian passport control.) (Lunch, Dinner)
Day 2: Heath River Wildlife Center
Today we start very early to visit the most spectacular attraction of this area; the parrot and macaw clay lick along the river. Here these colorful birds gather to eat the clay in the cliffs on the river banks to neutralize certain toxins in their daily diet (poisonous berries and hallucinogenic plants). Sometimes they congregate in the hundreds, pushing and squabbling over the best place to eat. This noisy and unforgettable show can go on for two or three hours, and can bring together many varieties of parrots, parakeets, Chestnut-Fronted Macaws and their larger cousins, the Red-and-Green Macaw. This extraordinary display occurs in only a handful of places in the Upper Amazon Basin. Our floating platform provides us with comfort and is completely hidden. We will enjoy a full breakfast during the show.
Heading back down the river we will walk along a section of the extensive jungle trails. Here we will find huge Chestnut, Kapok and Fig trees; along with the dark strangler fig whose strategy of life is as sinister as its name implies. Our guide will point out and explain the medicinal use of dozens of plants and trees, while keeping eyes and ears open for birds or one of the eight species of monkeys found in this region. We could run into a small herd of the two species of wild pigs that are common in this area. In order to mark their territory they use scent glands so powerful that they can be smelt long before being seen.
After lunch we hike along the trail leading to the point where the forest abruptly gives way to the vast plains of the Pampas of Heath. This unique land is a result of poor soil and extreme climatic cycles of droughts and floods. It is the largest intact tropical savanna in the Amazon and is the habitat of endemic birds and mammals, such as the Fork-Tailed Hummingbird and the Maned Wolf. Just beyond the edge of the forest you can climb to an elevated platform that allows for a great view of this vast expanse of grasslands and shrubs and palm trees.
The palm tree Mauritia flexuosa produces nuts rich in palm oil and dry hollow stems that provide vital food and shelter for nesting pairs of Red Bellied Macaws and the rarer Blue and Yellow Macaws. We aim to arrive around sunset, when the parrots are returning from their daily search for food to gather in this place.
We return to the lodge at night using headlamps and flashlights, and perhaps stopping here and there in total darkness to listen to the ever-changing sounds of frogs, insects, and other animals; the magic of the jungle at night. We may run into frogs the size of small rabbits, homes of hairy tarantulas or night monkeys hanging from the trees; there is a huge and unpredictable collection of nocturnal creatures in the night. After dinner some guests may choose to visit the lick of mammals, with the hope of seeing the Lowland Tapir, the largest mammal in the jungle. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 3: Heath River Wildlife Center
On our second full day in at the lodge we can choose from a wide range of activities available in this diverse and unique tropical environment. Many people choose to make a second visit to the macaw clay lick or spend more time on the trails. Later we can take a canoe tour around the Cocha Platanillal, an oxbow lake which is located a short distance downriver from the lodge.
We return by boat after dusk, most likely spotting caimans; a crocodile cousin that lives in the Amazon. This region is home to the Black Caiman which is endangered, and almost always distinguishable along the river's edge with its glowing orange eyes. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 4: Heath River Wildlife Center to Sandoval Lake Lodge
We leave at dawn for the return journey downstream. The mornings are the peak of wildlife activity, so keep a sharp eye on the banks of the river where we may see families of Capybaras and maybe be rewarded with a rare glimpse of a Jaguar or Tapir swimming through the stream.
We arrive at Port Sandoval where we will walk to Sandoval Lake, which is protected by Tambopata Reserve. Along the trail there are birds and butterflies and after 2 miles the trail leads to a narrow canal lined with boats. This flooded forest leads to the open waters of Sandoval Lake. In the golden light of afternoon our crew will row the boats across to the lodge (motors are banned here). We can see the appearance of churning water when a huge Paiche breaks the surface (an Amazonian fish that can weigh up to 220 lbs). Or you may hear strange and unsettling screams and see heads peering from the surface of the lake, which will mark our first encounter with Pteronura brasiliensis, the Giant Otter of the Amazon. After dinner we can finish the day with a short night walk for spotting some nocturnal creatures along one of the trails near the lodge. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 5: Sandoval Lake Lodge
Just before dawn we will be on the lake for what is often a spectacular sunrise; and hope for an encounter with the Giant Otters that roam the lake in a close-knit family, very active at this time of day. At this time most of the birds that inhabit the lake are also very active. There will be time and to observe the birds fishing as they stalk and capture prey. We will also have close-up views of the primitive-appearing Hoatzin bird (Ophistocomus hoazin) eating leaves.
After enjoying a late breakfast, we'll walk the trail through the cool understory of the powerful primary rainforest that surrounds the lake. We will see the great Chestnut trees that abound here.
After lunch we rest for an hour and then explore the west side of the lake where we will have chances to observe one or more species of monkey; including the most common Capuchin Monkey.
Before dinner there is a video presentation on the Peruvian Jungle and after dinner we will have an opportunity to spot caimans in the lake. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 6: Lake Sandoval to Puerto Maldonado to Cusco or Lima
After a dawn breakfast, we cross the lake, perhaps encountering a family of macaws leaving their roost to forage or a troupe of monkeys greeting the day. We hike back out to the river, where our motorized dug-out canoe takes us swiftly upriver to the boat dock at Puerto Maldonado, and thence to the airport for your flight to Cuzco or Lima. (Breakfast)
Itineraries may vary slightly to maximize wildlife viewing.