Night is my favorite time in the Amazon because that's when things get really loud. Some of the players in this orchestra can be identified: castanet frogs, for example, clickety-clacking rhythmically. Or the monkey frog, which makes an unpretty bonk, like an ambulance coming up on traffic. Occasionally, something crashes down through the brush, sounding awfully large—a big bat?A turkey vulture?An ocelot?
But the very coolest noise, as far as I'm concerned, is the call of the red howler monkey. This sounds nothing like the chimpanzee hoot of television and movies; in fact, I don't know how it comes from an animal at all. An extended, whooshy roar—something between the wind blowing through trees and a blast furnace—it makes you think a twister is about to hit; it rises and falls like the sound track to a thriller.
My son, Asa, 11, and I were deciphering the cacophony from a lodge room on our first night in the Peruvian jungle when a striking multitonal plink! got added to the mix. It seemed almost electronic.
"Dad, did you hear that?" Asa blurted. It was so dark I couldn't make out his shape in the next bed, behind the mosquito netting.
"Yeah. What do you think it is?"
His frame of reference came from lands far away.
"It sounds like Mario getting upgraded."
The Amazon rain forest isn't for everybody, I'll readily concede. It's steamy and buggy, and where it's not wild, it can look a little squalid. But I'd spent extended periods here twice in recent years, researching Peru's new Inter-oceanica highway for a book I'm writing about roads around the world. Of all the places I've been to for work, this was the one I most wanted to return to for pleasure—and with my wife, Margot, and our children, Asa, and Nell, nine.
One reason is that our kids love exotic animals and insects, which, of course, the rain forest delivers in seemingly limitless variety. Another is that the Amazon is a true frontier, untamed and incompletely understood, yet not too hard to get to. The tropical rain forest that fills most of the Amazon basin—an area, incidentally, larger than Western Europe—has been called "the lungs of the planet." I wanted my family to see it as it is today: large tracts remain pristine, but by the time my children have children, most will have been ceded to cattle pasture and cassava fields. That's already the case in Brazil, the country most identified with the Amazon, but Peru's piece of it is said to contain the greatest biodiversity of any place on earth.
We arrived in Lima during Thanksgiving week and from there, caught an 80-minute flight to the river town of Puerto Maldonado. Halfway, our plane stopped in the colonial capital of Cuzco, gateway to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru's best-known attraction. Many travelers combine a trip to the jungle with a visit to Machu Picchu (for details, see page 74). As we continued, we could see the snowcapped Andes quickly dropping off into the vast hazy sea of green that is the beginning of the rain forest. The giant brown rivers below, tributaries of the Amazon, are the traditional roads in this part of the world. One of them, the Tambopata, would be our link to the wilderness.
Most tour companies have their clients land in Puerto Maldonado and immediately spirit them away to a lodge in one of the protected zones that surrounds the town. But Puerto, with its dirt streets and one-story buildings, has an outpost appeal, making it the perfect midway point between civilization and the wild. Two of our gang's favorite nights were spent here, at either end of our six-day journey: getting around by quaint three-wheeled motocar taxis, eating corn-topped pizza, drinking Inca Kola in the covered market, and thrilling to our first tropical downpours (winter is the rainy season— and in these parts, that means up to 79 inches of rainfall a year; Seattle, by comparison, gets 36 inches).
Our hotel—the thatched, slowly dilapidating Wasai Lodge—was replete with puffbirds, plica plica lizards, and even a sloth in a tree. Our real jungle adventure, however, began the next day. At the open-air headquarters of our outfitter, Rainforest Expeditions, Nell spied a tarantula on the underside of the roof. We were immediately assured by our Peruvian guide, Geraldine Coll, that it would keep its distance. Quiet and supremely attentive, with a dark braid, Geraldine, who would accompany us to the two lodges ahead, was an energetic recent college grad with impressive credentials in biology. Her specialty is medicinal plants, but she seemed to know something about everything around us, including the tree in front of the office—a marañón, or cashew, she explained, pointing out unripe nuts and picking two round fruits, which she cut up into sweet, liquidy pieces for us to eat as we boarded a bus to the Tambopata River.