We opted for a tour after finding it complicated to arrange an independent trip, choosing Birding Ecotours, a US based company that runs birding tours all over the world. An important starting point is to realize there are several clay licks. Make sure you know where you are going and what you may see. It’s also important to find a tour company that you believe will give you a good tour. I found Birding Ecotours through the website: Fatbirder.com that I’ve used to find birding spots on several occasions at places around the US and Europe.
Visiting the clay licks involves a flight to Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Our group of six and a guide stayed overnight at the inexpensive Cabana Quinta. Our room was small but the AC and hot water worked. Dinner in the restaurant was fine. In the morning, we drove for about 40 minutes on a paved road and another 40 on a very rutted unpaved road that can be impassable in rain. We visited the area in August, the dry season (Wet season is approx. Nov.-May). A short boat ride took us from the end of the road to the lodge. We left Puerto Maldonado at 8:30 am, did some birdwatching and arrived at the lodge by about 2 pm.
We stayed at Chuncho Lodge, slightly closer to the clay licks than other lodges. They have five cabins that sleep 1-3 persons each, and a cabin with two adjacent rooms of similar size. Beds have mosquito netting. Two more cabins were under construction during our visit, and construction noise began at breakfast and continued until late afternoon.
There is no wifi.
Phone service is limited to customers of Claro, and that can only be obtained at the top of the canopy observation tower that is 129 ft high and a 15 minute walk away from the lodge. A maximum of six persons can be at the top of the tower at one time. Despite this, guides and guests seemed to walk to the tower in the evenings (in the dark!) to make calls and admire the Milky Way.
Hot water and sometimes all water is only available when the power is on, 6 am-1 pm and 3:30-9 pm.
During the day the weather was very hot and very sticky with lots of insects. Bug spray was necessary and the day I forgot to shake all my clothes out in the morning before I got dressed I got a bunch of bites from a spider that seems to have climbed my pant leg. Consider tucking your pantlegs in your socks. The guides do.
Despite the lack of air conditioning and the fact that fans stop runnning at 9 pm when the power goes off, we had no trouble sleeping because of an unusual weather phenomenon, a “friaje.” In the past this occurred about twice a year at predictable times, this year it has occurred more than six times. Currents of cold air from further south toward the Antarctic are channeled up the river and chill the area at night resulting in temperatures much lower than normal. It can get to 10 degrees C. (50 F). Rather than tossing and turning in the sticky heat, we slept under all the available blankets. It was coldest on our first night at Chuncho Lodge but it was cool all three nights we were there, and it was easy to sleep.
All meals were provided. The food was very abundant but utterly uninspired. One birder who had been on the tour for three weeks before we arrived said he’d never look at another plantain after the tour ended. I was happy to have brought a few packets of starbucks instant coffee, cookies, peanuts and dried fruit. We ate it all.
Our tour included everything but alcoholic beverages and tips. It was expensive for us, just over $1600 pp for four days but there were no hidden costs. Our guide, Eduardo Ormaeche, was excellent. He worked hard to make sure everyone saw what they wanted to see and more. There are both cheaper and more expensive ways to see the phenomenon of the macaw clay licks and we were content with this version. Our tour included lots of birding time in addition to the visit to the clay licks. We spent at least six hours a day birding in total. We went on a walk at night to see owls, and on a sunset boat ride to see owls, nighthawks, nightjars and a potoo. The trails near the lodge always yielded new birds. The morning we spent on the canopy tower was full of interesting birds seen from a new angle above the canopy of trees. We saw 106 different species of birds during our four-day visit.
Positives and Negatives
1) Experience of a lifetime.
2) It’s all organized. People met us at every stop or change of transport. Eduardo was on hand from Lima to Chuncho Lodge and back to Puerto Maldonado. There were no surprise expenses.
1) The region is hot and humid, there’s lots of walking, mosquitos, spiders.
2) The lodgings are rustic.
3) Seeing birds involves early mornings. We left at 5 am for the clay lick and almost as early on the other mornings. There is time for napping at midday but it can be too hot to sleep.
4) On a tour, you take your traveling companion as they come. You may or may not make new friends.
Would I do it again? Heck, yes.
FYI: We were in the Amazon rainforest, where the humidity was usually at least 80% and the temperature over 80°F. Giant trees like the one we posed by are rare, most were logged over the past 20 years as the population of the region expanded and foreign desires for mahogany furniture overcame the scruples of people who had been farmers. One of the lodge staff members told us that his mother trained to be a nurse, but took a loan from an uncle and made a handsome living heading into the forest to commission (illegal) tree-cutting, until there were almost no large, desirable trees left. At that point, nature reserves and national parks were established. Everyone shrugged and became tour reps. There is still a lot to see and lots of birds in the forest even if it is recent regrowth. The occasional giant tree is a reminder of what is gone now.