An afternoon boat ride of five hours—with a stop at a checkpoint to get papers stamped and kick around a soccer ball—brought us to Rainforest Expedition's Tambopata Research Center (TRC). A scaled-down version of Posada Amazonas, TRC has hammocks in the common area, 13 dorm-size bedrooms, and a row of spacious individual showers/bathrooms down the hall. Started in 1989, the research station began hosting a small number of tourists in 1992. The two purposes continue, with tourism helping to fund the fieldwork, most of which involves something that interests visitors a lot: macaws.
These huge, garish parrots, though protected in this preserve, are shrinking dramatically in number, partly due to the pet trade—in which they're highly valued (though exportation is illegal)—but also because their jungle habitat is being replaced by farmland and because they're hunted for food. TRC's scientists are researching ways to re-establish macaw populations. In one early experiment, scientists rescued baby macaws that would have died in the wild and raised them at the station; these chicos, as they're now known, eventually flew off, but many still return.
Soon after our arrival, the kids and I were amazed to see a scarlet macaw crash loudly onto a snack table, grab a cellophane-wrapped pack of crackers in his beak, and fly off in a flash of color. The next day at lunch, another chico swooped in, tipped over candlesticks, and swiped some papaya off Margot's plate. "Don't let them do that!" research chief Don Bridesmith scolded, offended by the bird's bears-in-Yellowstone behavior. But we couldn't help but be thrilled. The chicos> were impossible to resist—even for the staff. When Asa and an assistant scientist heard a chico calling noisily from a tree, the assistant grabbed a banana and suggested Asa place a piece of it on his shoulder. Seconds later, Asa's head was enveloped by flapping red and yellow feathers, as the macaw gripped the back of his T-shirt and reached for bite after bite.
TRC is intentionally located near what is said to be the world's largest macaw clay lick—a cliffside at which the birds engage in the geophagy (dirt-eating) they apparently need to stay healthy: many of the tropical tree seeds that make up their diet contain toxins, which the clay, a parrot Pepto-Bismol, is thought to neutralize. The lick is TRC's biggest draw, and we learned all about it during a slide show by Bridesmith. But to witness the action without causing any disturbance, guests have to get there earlier than the birds, which means waking up at around 3:45 a.m. Nell and Margot passed on the outing; Asa, who had chosen the blue-and-gold macaw to study for a school report, insisted on going with me.
At first I wasn't sure if he should have. With a contingent of EarthWatch volunteers, who were at TRC to help with a bird census, we stood in a clearing about a football field away from the lick and couldn't see much of the mass visitation—up to 1,500 individual birds on a good day—without binoculars. Asa resorted to looking for feathers. But then, scarlet macaws and red-bellied macaws started flying over us, and a luminous blue-and-gold macaw—a sad, dusty version of which has been a fixture at our local pet store for years—landed right above our heads. Rush hour at the parrot airport had begun.
After breakfast back at the lodge (banana pancakes spread with dulce de leche), as we headed to a fishing pond, Geraldine spotted jaguar tracks in the muddy path. Satisfied that the cat wasn't nearby, she taught us how to make a cast by dripping hot wax from candles into the paw print. The mold, framed in a shadow box, now hangs in our living room.
But the trip's highlight—at least in Nell and Asa's eyes—came at the end of a long day, when we should have been heading to bed. Instead, Geraldine took us on a night outing. It began in a boat from which she shined a spotlight into the water as the boatman trolled the shore, revealing dozens of pairs of caiman eyes. Returning to land, we walked along an embankment and, on Geraldine's signal, turned off our headlamps; in the darkness, the ground glowed, a galaxy of bioluminescent firefly larvae embedded in it. Next, we slogged around in a swamp, lights out, waiting for the inhabitants to reveal themselves with their barks and peeps. Lights on, we spied them astride twigs and leaves: rain frogs, hyla frogs, monkey frogs. An owl hooted. A bat brushed my leg. As we turned back to the lodge, Geraldine focused a beam on a tiny tree in our path: coiled on a branch was a young parrot viper, one of the deadliest snakes around. The kids were ecstatic—indisputable danger! When the Amazon is right for you, it's very, very right.
Ted Conover is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. His book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.