A week in the heart of a Peruvian jungle

I've decided I'll call it Mothy McMothface. Apparently, if I find a new species of moth at this light trap deep in the Peruvian jungle, I can name it. I approach the illuminated white sheet with my jam jar feeling quietly confident. Since Rainforest Expeditions started this program two years ago, they've discovered 29 new species, including 12 species of moth. I later find out that all new names have to be sanctioned by the project's scientists so I suspect I'll have to settle for something more venerable – Sir David McAttenmoth perhaps?

This "citizen science" program is available at Refugio Amazonas, one of three lodges Rainforest Expeditions operates on the Tambopata River in southeast Peru. All are buried in thick jungle with no road access, which means everything (including guests) has to be ferried in and out by boat.

Our journey starts with a 30-minute transfer from Puerto Maldonado airport to the river, where we board a long, thin speedboat and settle back for the 3½-hour transfer to the lodge. After two days in traffic-clogged Lima, it's a welcome respite – the air is warm and humid as we charge upriver, past banks choked with dark green jungle, occasionally slowing for a crew member to check the depth of the channel using a stick.

Along the way, my guide, 37-year-old Juan Carlos, points out dozens of animals, including capybaras (the world's largest rodent), caimans and a dizzying list of herons, egrets and geese. At one point we stop to take a closer look at a group of river turtles basking on the bank. They're surrounded by clouds of bright yellow butterflies and JC explains that the butterflies drink the salty secretions from around the turtles' eyes, which in turn helps to keep them clean.

The next day Refugio's resident biologist Ciara provides more examples of these symbiotic relationships during one of the lodge's nightly lectures. Apparently, there are species of treehopper (a cicada-like insect) that allow ants to eat the excess sap they extract from plants. In return, the ants babysit the treehoppers' eggs to ensure they're not eaten by predators. When the ants fancy a change of scene, they simply move the eggs and the treehoppers follow.

Of course, not all these relationships are so mutually beneficial. Scorpion wasps (of which there are a staggering 60,000 species) paralyse other insects' pupae, then lay their eggs on them so the young have something to eat when they hatch.

And these are just the interactions we know about. Ciara says we've discovered just over a million species of insect but scientists estimate the planet is home to 8-10 million.

If there's one lasting impression from the week I spend in the jungle, it's this prolific sense of vitality. Everywhere you step, turn, look and listen, there is life. And, surprisingly, it's often the most insignificant creatures that are the most fascinating.

Countless times during our sweat-soaked hikes through the undergrowth, we step over a procession of leafcutter ants. These industrious insects cut pieces of leaf many times their own bodyweight, then manhandle them over an assault course of jungle obstacles to a vast underground colony where they're used to grow fungus for food. One day JC shows me a nest that's at least 20 metres in diameter, contains thousands of chambers and accommodates several million ants. The whole system is so bafflingly complex and well-organised, it makes your brain ache.

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I experience the same wondrous astonishment when he points out the protective tunnels termites build so they can move around the jungle without being eaten. And again when he explains that woodpeckers strike trees with such colossal force (more than 1000 Gs) they've developed tongues that loop around their brains to cushion them. I genuinely can't remember another trip where I've spent so much time in a state of mystified bewilderment.

Thankfully, between excursions there's time to relax and recharge. Days at all three lodges follow a similar schedule: an early start (think 5 or 6am as this is when wildlife is most active), breakfast, another activity, lunch, nap, then an excursion before or after dinner.

While many of the activities are common across all the lodges (such as hiking, birdwatching, night walks and sunset cruises), there are several that are unique to each property. For example, at Posada Amazonas, the lodge closest to Puerto Maldonado, you can spend a day with the indigenous Ese Eja people, who own and co-manage the property. Refugio Amazonas' standout feature is the Wired Amazon citizen science program while the Tambopata Research Centre (TRC) is the only lodge inside the Tambopata National Reserve so offers the widest variety of wildlife and the best chance of seeing jaguar, peccaries and monkeys.

Of course, this is the jungle, so as JC puts it, "Everything is unpredictable." Consequently, many of our most memorable encounters feel like serendipitous gifts. Such as when a jaguar swims across the river just as we're passing. Or the time a juvenile harpy eagle returns to its nest while we're nearby.

Throughout the week, we see six varieties of monkey (squirrel, capuchin, dusky titi, spider, tamarin and howler), spot too many birds to list (the reserve is home to more than 650 species, including six types of colourful macaw) and get worryingly close to tarantulas, snakes and poisonous frogs. If I was forced to pick one especially mesmerising spectacle, it would be watching a trio of muscular 1.5-metre-long giant river otters haul themselves out of a lake to munch noisily on the fish they'd just caught.

If you can only spare a couple of days, just visit Posada Amazonas. If you have more time, it's worth the extra effort to get to Refugio Amazonas and TRC. TRC is the most remote and hardest to reach (7½ hours in total by boat) but thanks to a refurbishment in 2017, it's also the most luxurious.

The accommodation in all three lodges is similar – rooms are housed in vaulted wooden wings with comfortable mosquito net-swathed beds, ensuite bathrooms and one side that's open to the jungle. This alfresco arrangement means you're constantly serenaded by a captivating jungle soundtrack of whoops, beeps, shrieks and howls. It also means you'll sometimes return to find you've got uninvited guests (insects, beetles, frogs etc).

All meals are served buffet-style and are impressively tasty, varied and plentiful. Breakfasts are lavish spreads of fruit, cereals, pastries and eggs, while a typical dinner might feature homemade leek soup, steamed catfish, potatoes, salads and homemade apple pie.

Inevitably, what makes or breaks a trip like this is the guide and JC's knowledge of the jungle and its inhabitants is encyclopaedic. But more than that, he has an intimate connection and relationship with the forest. He shows me plants that can treat malaria, fevers and diarrhoea; rubber-like saps that can be used to make slingshots and a hallucinogenic vine still used by local shamans to communicate with the spirits. This isn't just his office, it's a living, breathing being. "The spirits in the forest are very strong," he tells me earnestly one day over breakfast. "Before entering, I always ask permission."

FIVE MORE WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES IN PERU

COLCA CANYON

Located 160 kilometres northwest of Arequipa, this epic 3300-metre-deep canyon is one of the best places to see the magnificent Andean condor, one of the world's largest flying birds.

MANU NATIONAL PARK

This vast reserve north of Cusco harbours an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, including Peru's national bird, the flamboyant Andean cock-of-the-rock, and the adorably photogenic woolly monkey.

BALLESTAS ISLANDS

One of the few places you can see Humboldt penguins outside of Antarctica, this group of islands near Paracas is also a magnet for sea lions, pelicans and terns.

PACAYA-SAMIRIA NATIONAL RESERVE

Accessible via Iquitos, this protected reserve offers one of the best opportunities to spot the blush pink Amazon river dolphin.

CORDILLERA AZUL NATIONAL PARK

Protecting a vast mountainous area near the Andes, this park has more than 500 bird species and 80 mammals including the rare spectacled bear.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

LATAM flies to Puerto Maldonado from Melbourne via Santiago and Lima, and from Sydney via Auckland, Santiago and Lima. See latam.com

STAY

Rooms at Posada Amazonas start from $US589 per night (min two-night stay) and include all meals, most activities and transfers to and from Puerto Maldonado. See perunature.com

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Rob McFarland was a guest of Peru Tourism, Rainforest Expeditions and the Adventure Travel Trade Association (adventuretravel.biz).

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