The southern Selva Madre de Dios and rio Urubamba: A large, forested region, with a manic climate (usually searingly hot and humid, but with sudden cold spells – friajes – between June and August, due to icy winds coming down from the Andean glaciers), the southern selva regions of Peru have only been systematically explored since the 1950s and were largely unknown until the twentieth century, when rubber began to leave Peru through Bolivia and Brazil, eastwards along the rivers.
Name after the broad river that flows through the heart of the southern jungle, the still relatively wild departamento of Madre de Dios, like so many remote areas of Peru, is changing rapidly. Living in one of the last places affected by the rubber boom at the turn of the twentieth century, the natives here – many of whom struggle to maintain their traditional ways of life, despite the continuing efforts of colonos and some of the less enlightened Christian missionaries – were left pretty much alone until the push for oil in the 1960s and 1970s brought roads and planes, making this now the most accessible part of the Peruvian rainforest. As the oil companies moved our, so prospectors took their place, panning for gold dust along the river banks, while agribusiness moved in to clear mahogany trees or harvest the bountiful Brazil nuts. Today the main problems facing the Indians, here as elsewhere, are loss of territory, the merciless pollution of their rivers, devastating environmental destruction (caused mainly by large – scale gold – mining) and new waves of oil exploration by multinationals.
Madre de Dios is centred on the fast – growing river town of Puerto Maldonado, near the Bolivian border and just 180m above sea level, supposedly founded by legendary explorer and rubber baron Fitzcarrald. The town, which extends a tenuous political and economic hold over the vast departamento, has a fast growing population of over 40,000 (100,000 total in the region of Madre de Dios). Yet, while the departamento´s scattered towns and villages are interesting for their Wild West energy and spirit, most visitors come for the wildlife, especially in the strictly protected Manu Biosphere Reserve – still essentially an expedition zone – and the cheaper, less well – known Tours Tambopata Candamo Reserved Zone, chiefly visited by groups staying at lodges; between them these areas encompass some of the most exciting jungle and richest flora and fauna in the world.
The newest protected area is Bahuaja – Sonene National Park; created in 2000 and surrounded largely by a massive rainforest area formed by the Tours Tambopata River, it is intended to show the Peruvian government´s support for this region as an ecological treasure. Taken together, these two zones comprise some 1,5 million hectares, much the same size as Manu National Park.
As in all jungle regions, human activity here is closely linked to the river system, and Manu and Tours Tambopata Reserve are actually among the most easily reached parts of the amazon: from Cusco, Manu is either a day’s journey by bus then a couple days more by canoe, or a thirty minute flight in a light aircraft; Tours Tambopata Reserve, is reached by a forty – minute scheduled flight to Puerto Maldonado, plus a few hours in a motorized canoe to get to lodges upriver.
Slightly less accessible than the protected zones, but nevertheless offering travel – lers staying in Puerto Maldonado a taste of the rainforest, are Sandoval Lake Reserve and the huge expanse of Lago Valencia, both great wildlife locales aest along the Rio Madre de Dios and close to the Bolivian border. At the least, you’re likely to spot a few caimans and the strange hoatzin birds, and if you’re luckly, larger mammals such as capybara, tapir, or, less, likely, a jaguar – and at Valencia, you can fish for piranha. A little further southeast of here, less than a couple of hours in a decent motorized launch, lies Las Pampas del Heath, the only tropical grassland within Peru. It now lies within the Bahuaja – Sonene National Park, so special permission is needed from the INRENA office to visit it. The grasslands extend eastward across northern Bolivia to the Pantanal region of Brazil, one of the wildlife gems of the Americas.
The Rio Madre de Dios itself is fed by two main tributaries, the Rio Manu and the Rio Alto Madre de Dios, which roll off the Paucartambo Ridge (just north of Tours Cusco), which divides the tributaries from the Rio Urubamba watershed and delineates Manu Biosphere Reserve. At Puerto Maldonado, the Madre de Dios meets with the Rio Tours Tambopata and the Rio de las Piedras, then flows on to Puerto Heath, a day’s boat ride away on the Bolivian frontier. From here it continues through the Bolivian forest into Brazil to join the great Rio Madeira, which eventually meets the amazon near Manaus.
West of Puerto Maldonado, on the other side of Cusco Tours from the Rio Madre de Dios, the Rio Urubamba flows on past Machu Picchu and down to the jungle area around the town of Quillabamba, before gushing beyond the end of the road at the frontier settlement of Kiteni and then falling through the rapids at the Pongo de Mainique and into the lowland rainforest, where it continues north to Iquitos, then east to the atlantic ocean many thousands of kilometres away.