At 4:30 in the morning I was awakened by the sounds of knocking on the exterior wall of my doorless room at Posada Amazonas Lodge. While I would normally be annoyed to be summoned at this early hour, today I was excited. The lodge’s Ese’eja guides were taking our group to visit an oxbow lake within the Tambopata National Reserve in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru. I had read about the rich biodiversity in these formations and was hopeful to spot the rare and endangered family of giant river otters that inhabit this particular lake.
After a hike to the water, a colorful sunrise boat ride down the Tambopata River, and then another hike, we arrived to Lago Tres Chimbadas. This U-shaped lake is approximately two kilometers long and 800 meters in width at its widest point. Our oarsman for the lake trip was waiting at a pontoon-esque raft created by building a wooden platform across two common, cigar-shaped boats, which are the main mode of transportation across the vast network of rivers in the Amazon region. It had a paddle like no other I have ever seen. The handmade paddle was flat on one side, convex on the other, and had a two-foot wooded rod sticking out perpendicularly on the top of the convex side of the paddle. There was a socket-like opening on the flat side of the paddle which hooked into a round knob on the back of the boat platform. The oarsman was able to paddle a stroke one direction, rotate the paddle in the ball and socket joint, and complete a stroke back in the other direction. It required a tremendous amount of upper body strength and coordination, both of which I lack. My attempts to propel the boat with the paddle were comical, at best, and left us dead in the water.
Oxbow lakes are common in this area of the Amazon. They are formed when bends in the river get cut off from the main river through a natural process combining erosion, deposition, and flooding. The Peruvian Amazon has a plethora of these lakes and they provide habitats for a wide variety of different wildlife species. These lakes also provide local communities with a ready source of fish, which is an important part of regional diets.
Lago Tres Chimbadas is teeming with animals and they are far easier to spot than in the dense rainforest jungle. At the very start of the boat trip, we came upon a black caiman, the largest predator in the Amazon rainforest. We saw a wealth of birds including anis, yellow-rumped caciques, and oropendolas. However, my favorite bird was the prehistoric-looking hoatzin, often said to show the evolutionary transition from reptiles to birds. At the midway point, we anchored the boat, put some raw beef onto handmade fishing poles, and tried our luck at catching piranhas. The yellow-bellied fish were aggressive and eager to eat anything we put into the water but were fast and difficult to hook.
In many ways, the Amazon feels both very old and very new. As one walks through the jungle, there are constant reminders of both death and rebirth. However, I did not expect to experience this same cycle in the waters of the Amazon. As we floated by the grassy edges of the lake, we learned from our knowledgeable guide, Oscar, that these oxbow lakes also have a life cycle. They typically will last from 400 – 500 years before they become filled with silt, transform to marshland, and create a new ecosystem.
After a few hours on the water, the wind began to pick up. This made it difficult for the oarsman to control the boat so we started back towards the launch area. Although we did not spot the elusive giant river otters on this trip, I arrived back to the dock with a big smile. I really enjoyed learning about this unique habitat and experiencing the diversity of fauna that live in and around oxbow lakes. In my opinion, a trip to this region of the Amazon would be incomplete without a visit to one of these unusual formations.
– Tai Lung