56. Corto Maltes (Sept. 24-28)
There are two boats out to Corto Maltes. I take the early one, and ride out toward Corto Maltes with a group of Peruvians. Ragna and Selma must be taking the later boat. I’m the only foreigner on this one.
It feels good to be on the water. It feels good to be riding up the Madre de Dios River, a wide brown river with plenty of vegetation on each bank. There isn’t really much to see, but I keep watching with great interest.
After perhaps twenty minutes we reach a landing with a small dock and a couple of other boats tied up. I think we’re going to let someone off or deliver something, but this is it. We’ve arrived. I’d known the lodge was close, but not this close.
In fact, we’ve arrived so early that I get a bit of breakfast.
The dining room is a large, screened room flanked by a small shop and a large bar with a pool table. After breakfast I talk to one of the waiters. Ragna’s birthday is Friday. Even though we are no longer a couple, I want her to have a cake. We arrange that his wife will have one decorated with Ragna’s name and a little Icelandic flag, and he will bring it out after supper Friday evening.
I meet Luci, a knowledgeable young woman from the area who will be our guide during our stay. (She does not always look quite as she does in the photo at right.) She says we can go to Monkey Island with another group in twenty minutes or so. I agree.
As I walk toward my cabin I shoot a picture of a green parrot in the branch of a small tree, then put out my finger for the parrot to step onto it.
It’s not as if it’s the first time I’ve had a parrot perched on my hand; but I stare at his green and yellow feathers, and at the rich browns and other colors the sunlight finds in his eyes. He makes a small noise that sounds like “uh, oh,” and when I answer it we repeat the meaningless sounds over and over in turn, as I used to do with Ragna’s grandson Elia, who was then 4 or 5 years old, when I was first traveling to Iceland. I am growing quite attached to the bird, but as we move onto the main path, and I say “Buenos Dias” to a cleaning woman, she says something about the bird, then deftly removes him from my shoulder by placing the end of the broom handle near his claws. As he steps onto it, I ask her his name, and she tells me “Panchito.” She pinches her left forearm with the fingers of her right hand to warn me that he might claw or nip. I’m thinking he must do that only when frightened, but I’m not inclined to argue.
My cabin is a spare but delightful wooden structure. The front porch has two hammocks. I quickly fall into one.
Aimlessly I push my hand against the cabin so that the hammock swings back and forth, at first fairly violently and then, like a pendulum, smaller and smaller distances. The rope groans regularly, like the heartbeat of the Great Mother, lulling me to sleep in safety. Hearing it not through the air but through the material of the hammock against my ear is perhaps like hearing from the womb, and the two-beat is regular: one beat as the hammock approaches the apex of its swing to the left, then a beat of silence as it reaches that apex and begins to drop back toward the center, then the second heartbeat as it approaches its high-point on the right.
Within moments I’m asleep. But soon I drift back to consciousness, and we leave for Monkey Island.
Isla de Monos
Luci and I arrive with Carlos and the French, or French Swiss, to whom he explains everything in French. We cross a stretch of sand, then follow a path through the vegetation. It is the dry season. If it were not, Luci tells me, this path would be an inlet we would enter in a boat, or perhaps by wading. (It’s a fact of rainforest life I’ve read about: as here, a river’s height can vary ten feet or more with the seasons. In some places, a boat landing is on the edge of town in the wet months, but a mile or two away from town in the dry season.)
Luci and Carlos leave us behind near a huge tree and a feeding platform that can be lowered and raised with ropes, so that the platform, laden with inviting bananas, can be raised to a level where the monkeys feel safe but can be seen and photographed. They go on, hoping to attract the monkeys toward the feeding platform. She invites me to go with them, but I’m doubting the French or French-Swiss will appreciate that, so I pass. We stand around for a long time, occasionally hearing monkey calls almost certainly made by our guides. Eventually they return, and a monkey also appears, high in a distant tree, and begins swinging and jumping his way from there to the feeding platform, always high above the ground.
Isla de Monos is not terribly interesting. It is not an island the monkeys chose to populate, but rather a project to return monkeys, which had been pets in Puerto Maldonado, to their native environment. It started about eight years ago. The varieties of monkeys have dwindled a bit because the brown Capuchin monkeys killed most everyone else.
We also see capybaras, comically awkward creatures who look at us in surprise. They look like refugees from Winnie-the-Pooh’s world.
Later, I drink a couple of pisco sours and shoot some pool in the bar with one of the guides. At 11, when the generator goes off for the night and there’s no electricity, I wend my way back to my cabin, feeling good.
Our group also includes a couple from South Africa and a retired schoolteacher from Toronto, accompanied by his two daughters. The Canadians, having just finished the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, are particularly delighted by the pool. There are also other groups, keeping different schedules and often speaking different languages, and we usually see them only at meals.
The cabins are well-appointed and simple. Dominated by wood and nature, it’s a place one might easily wish to enjoy with a lover. Oddly, that thought comes to me not as a sour-grapes lament that Ragna and I didn’t make it so far, but as it might if I’d come alone, seen the obvious romantic nature of the place, and pictured no particular woman joining me.
We all like the hammocks very much. One morning I pass the Canadian school-teacher lying in his, with one daughter in the other, and the green parrot sleeping with him in his. Or, in the Rilke-Wright formulation, “guarding his solitude.”
Ragna and Selma lie often in their hammock, chatting and laughing. Dozing in mine, I hear them and smile. It is wonderful to hear their laughter. Ragna has been so much in Iceland, and with me in San Francisco or Mexico or Peru, and Selma so much in Sweden then Milan, that they have not spent much time together. Now they lie for hours in the hammocks laughing. I do not hear what they are talking about, or care; but their laughter rings like two clear bells, or two more creatures from the forest: whatever it is or means, it sounds good; and I am happy for Ragna, at the same time wondering why we so seldom made each other laugh like that, when each of us loves to laugh and makes others around us laugh.
Luci is always asking me whether things are better. At one point she and the other female guide enthusiastically insist that things between me and Ragna seem to be going better. “You’re such romantics,” I tell them. I can tell that they, as well as Ricardo and perhaps others, like both of us and would like to see what they figure would be a happy ending. I can feel them rooting for it, and feel sorry to disappoint them, but Ragna and I know that we are not getting back together.
Most afternoons, just before supper, I’m in the pool. The Canadians are always there too, and often the South Africans. Colorful birds often visit us at pool-side. One bird even discovers the loose toenail on my big toe and kindly pulls it off for me with his beak.
After supper I’m often in the bar. The pool table is often in use, sometimes by me. There’s also chess, backgammon, and the like, although I don’t mangage to find a chess game. The bar’s not crowded, and Jean-Paul’s pisco sours are effective. It’s fun.
Night falls early in the jungle.
The security whistles that all through Peru have sounded a little like they might be birds are finally birds, some sounding as if they might be security whistles.
It’s a fair hike into the jungle to where we will take a couple of canoes. I walk briskly ahead of everyone in hopes of shooting photographs of small animals, or macro shots of butterflies, before everything is stampeded by the general herd, which includes our group and a larger group of French folks. In fact, there ain’t much wildlife to photograph anyway.
One stretch of the path is dominated by processions of leaf-cutting ants. It’s not clear to me where they begin and where they end, but I’m flopped down on my belly a while trying to photograph them.
We eat packed lunches at picnic tables near the lake. A couple of the French people and I lose our clothes long enough for a short swim in the lake.
Then we canoe around for awhile. It’s a pleasant day, but most of what we see in the way of wild-life is too far away to enjoy very much. For example, we see a sudden disturbance of water and Luci points out the otters one often sees at Lago Sandoval — but at the distance they could be Olympic swimmers in training.
By the time we’ve hiked back to the river, it’s become a long day. It’s been good exercise.
Soon after we leave, two birds start following closely behind us, barking at us as if they were dogs. They follow us a long way.
The canopy is impressive. It is said to be 45 meters high, and 90 long. When we arrive, the first step is to climb several stories of a green wooden structure, from the top of which a long suspension bridge extends upward across the valley toward a spot high in the arms of a huge ______ tree.
The bridge is safe enough, but it sways over open air and the tops of much smaller trees, and where lengths of its flooring meet each other they make a cracking sort of sound unnervingly like the sound of something cracking and breaking under sustained weight. Travelers who are convinced that nothing in Peru is built right must feel their complaints turning into nightmares here.
Even I felt a bit disquieted at times walking up the suspension bridge to the treehouse. (Although I’m far from impervious to fears, including physical fears, I have since childhood tended to respond by confronting them, and when younger I did a fair amount of wandering around at great heights under questionable circumstances. Still, the canopy is imposing.) Ragna, who is normally quite frightened of heights, courageously walks on up without hesitation.
Walking up, I get a bit impatient with the woman in front of me. She stops to shoot what seem to me pointless photographs, then I have to stop too, then Ragna gets impatient because she is behind me and wants to keep moving, presumably to get up the thing all the sooner; and I begin to share that urge. I know the bridge is quite secure; but it’s a bit of a rush.
We stay up there awhile, marveling at the view. Like being a kid in a treenhouse. A very high treehouse.
I start back first, hoping the others will stay a while longer. I want to stay on the middle. Having felt a touch nervous on the way up, I want to hang out and eradicate that feeling.
Starting down early allows me to take my time, shoot photographs of the bridge and the sights and the folks still up above, and in the process to feel more and more completely comfortable on the bridge itself. I keep stopping, turning, taking photographs from awkward positions, etc., feeling not the least urgency to move along. (A fantasy pops into my head: wouldn’t it be superb to make love with a woman on this bridge, swaying 45 meters above the earth?! This is my new secret ambition.)
I feel so comfortable that I don’t want to go back down to the ground, but eventually the others start down, and I must.
Then some of the guys are in the dining room, telling us there is some sort of fire on the river, and that we should all come out and have a look. We sit on the wooden steps leading to the dock and watch a bunch of colored lights – red, blue, green, and yellow – float gently across the blackness out there, from left to right. Although I jokingly ask whether this too is for Ragna’s birthday, and the guys from the hotel play along, the truth is that they have no idea what the occasion is. Someone in Puerto Maldonado has released these to celebrate the anniversary of something, but they have no idea what.
So we sit above the river, watching the lights. About a dozen of them float by in a group, and as they pass toward our right, still in view, a lone red one appears from the left, a straggler. We imagine him chirping “Hey, wait for me, guys!” In the profusion of sound and color that is a city, we’d never have noticed them. In the darkness of the wide Mother-of-God River and the uninhabited and unelectrified jungle beyond, they are like silent fireworks. But mostly they are just one more small mystery we will never solve.
Afterward I have a drink in the bar with Selma, shoot one game of pool with Jean-Paul the bartender, and gab for quite awhile with Marco, the new manager, who had been talking with Selma while Jean-Paul and I shot pool. A rambling, interesting, late-night conversation that touches on deaths of parents, birthdays, Noam Chomsky, and my opinion of Peruvian girls. (As to the latter, I tell him I have none, pointing out that I’ve had no chance to experiment.) He’s from Lima, just recently assigned here as manager, and still getting used to being so far from the city.
I sit in the near darkness of my front porch, not quite ready to sleep. It is quiet and fairly cool. The horse is grazing around somewhere. I learn that the watch Ragna gave me has a luminous dial: it is 10:40. After I sit for five minutes or so, thinking of nothing in particular, the small lights that line the paths go out, and whatever lights were on in the main building. I sit awhile in darkness, then retire.
Too soon, the bird whose call sounds like water dropping in a gigantic barrel awakens me, as always, well before dawn.
We see our South African friends again at breakfast. They’ve been up all night. Ayahuasca. They are still sitting with Antonio, and he is still talking earnestly. They look fine. David stops by our table, and gives a one- or two-word report on the evening: “All great” or “Marvelous!” Then they are gone, taking an early boat to Puerto Maldonado to catch a plane.
Antonio is still sitting there, so I take my coffee and join him. He is a strong, solid man. He confirms that he built the canopy, and apparently worked studying eagles for awhile. He asks what sort of camera I use and says he used to use a good camera, a Nikon, until it and a 400 mm. lens came undone and fell to the ground as he was starting to climb down from a high eagle-watching platform. He works in conservation and in cultural regeneration, and with healing. In the former capacity, he saw that people from elsewhere “would come in saying what we need, without understanding how things are here,” and so he started a foundation that relies on “people from here.” He speaks slowly, deliberately, but is not a slow man. His dark brown eyes stay on you while he speaks. He is a serious man.
I found the cabins delightful: well-appointed but simple and tasteful. They sit on stilts and are basically wood and screens, with reeds or leaves in the roofs. A sizeable front porch accommodates a small table with a couple of chairs, perfect for an evening glass of wine or for writing or playing cards, as well as two hammocks. There’s electricity — sometimes. We were told we’d have electricity for only an hour or two a day, but in fact it seemed to be on much of the day.
There are also dorm rooms, I believe.
There’s pretty much nothing else around but jungle and river.
The only restaurant is the dining hall, and the menu is what it is at any given meal. The food is reasonably good, although Ragna and Selma noted that every evening it was some form of chicken and rice. (I eat no meat, and the kitchen workers cheerfully produced a variety of non-meat dishes for me each lunch and supper.) It’s a simple, pleasant place to be. Staff are cordial and considerate.
Guides distributed water bottles whenever we went anywhere, and brought along fruit or lunches when we would be away from camp during a meal.
The key question is, would Corto Maltes be the right jungle experience for you?
That depends on what you’re looking for; and you should take my comments with a couple of grains of salt. First of all, I’m one who, as you know if you’ve read earlier posts, is accustomed to independence and solitude, which won’t be part of most jungle experiences here and certainly weren’t in Corto Maltes. Secondly, I was there in the drier season, when water and mosquito populations are both down, but the place is probably also not so teeming with visible wildlife as in the rainy season. And of course jungle tours come in all shapes, sizes, and budgets, depending on your age, condition, tastes, and mood.
I’d have rather gone to Manú. Ragna’s preference for comfort and Selma’s schedule made Corto Maltes the best available option under all the circumstances. When Ragna and I broke up, I tried to change my plans, but it wasn’t workable. However, I enjoyed Corto Maltes. I liked the place and the people; and if it’s the type of experience you are looking for, it’s a good (and economical) option. Personally, I’d likely prefer something a little rougher and exciting; but I liked Corto Maltes.
Corto Maltes is a very pleasant experience. Though there are others there, you don’t feel crowded, and it’s small enough to enable you to get to know most staff-members and some of your fellow guests, but sufficiently well-appointed to be quite comfortable.
The activities were a mixed bag. Monkey Island seemed a waste of time, and seemed as if it would be pretty much a waste of time even if more monkeys had shown up more often on cue. No variety, distance, artificiality, former pets.The canopy was a delight, although not what I’d expected. I’d expected a structure on which one would walk some distance at roughly eye-level with the forest canopy, so as to get a look at life at that level. Instead it climbed into the arms of one very splendid tree, with a fine but distant view of the forest below. It would not be for everyone, because not everyone’s gut will permit him or her to climb a swaying (and flimsy-looking, at first) bridge that high above the ground and so apparently flimsy. In fact, it seems to have been well-constructed and maintained, and appears not to be dangerous; but for some, the visceral fear would trump that knowledge. Other than the canopy, the walk itself was somewhat dull; but in a different season it might be quite a bit more interesting.
Luci’s introductory nature walk was more interesting than it sounds. She knows a lot, from having grown up here but obviously also from studying the subject, and presented what she told and showed us in a reasonably interesting way. Luci, as well as the other guides I got to know, could not have been more pleasant, knowledgeable, real, and competent.
Our encounter with the representatives of the T – T (los indios – I forget the actual name of the tribe) was more interesting than it sounds as if it might be, but limited.
The visit to the farm didn’t do much for me, except that I liked trying to play Tarzan on the vines, and the star-fruit tasted delightful fresh from the tree. Again, a different season might have made that a more interesting experience.
The Sandoval Lake outing was worth doing, but: reading and common sense both suggest that if you want really to see animals in a place like that, camp there or stay in a nearby lodge and get up in the early morning, or perhaps get settled in a blind or observation tower before sunset. Mid-day is warm and pleasant for swimming, but nap-time for a lot of animals. Too, two big canoes full of people cruising the same landscape at the same time means that one will scare away most everything worthwhile that it sees close-up.
On balance: Corto Maltes is an extremely tasteful, pleasant, and comfortable place to be. The simple lodgings are enjoyable without being opulent. The guides are knowledgeable and personable, and the kitchen and bar staff are pleasant and helpful. However, I think my own preference would be a slightly more rigorous experience. Alone, I’d have been inclined to arrange for a slightly more adventurous program that involved camping out but carried the promise of more beautiful and unusual sights. I regret that Selma’s schedule didn’t permit us to go to Manú. An acquaintance, a U.S. citizen living in Arequipa, has called it the single most wonderful experience in his several years in Perú. I strongly recommend Corto Maltes, though, in the sense that what it does, it does well.
Meaningfully assessing Corto Maltes is also difficult because I didn’t experience its competitors and alternatives, and because readers will have such varied desires, tastes, and explanations; and at least part of my assessment might be very different if we’d gone during a different season.