Nowhere has captured my imagination in 2019 quite as much as Lago Sandoval just outside of Puerto Maldonado. I’ve been many times this year — so much that even the guides are getting to know me and trust me to lead groups.
This incredibly beautiful lake located in the Tambopata Reserve was once part of the Madre de Dios river, but the river shifted course (as they constantly do in the jungle) leaving this section orphaned about 3 km from the current river channel.
It is one of those places that I can’t recommend enough to visit. In fact, it should be a must-see trip for anyone in Cusco wishing to taste a bit of the jungle with a guarantee of seeing some spectacular animal and plant life.
Getting there is easy. From Cusco, it’s a short 35-minute flight. I strongly recommend this over the 10-hour bus trip which is probably going to be during the night anyway denying you the chance to view the scenic transition from the mountains to the jungle. If you sit on the left side of the plane, look down at the massive devastation caused by illegal mining in the jungle.
Once in Puerto Maldonado, there are tons of agencies offering tours. You’ll find that it’s really busy during the winter months of April to around November, but it’s also the dry season offering spectacular weather most days.
I prefer Tambopata Expeditions on the corner across from the Plaza de Armas, but La Loutre is also a reputable agency that I’ve used a couple of times. Most of the agencies combine with other agencies when the tour numbers are smaller. Costs run about 100 ($30 USD) soles per person which includes entrance to the reserve.
For a person going off into the jungle for the first time, the 30-40 minute ride down the Madre de Dios is pretty cool, but the banks are loaded with private lodges so it’s not very exciting for me. Don’t expect to see jaguars lounging on the banks or anacondas slipping into the water as you pass by.
Once you are there, the boat will pull up the bank and you’ll climb to the top depending on the season and the depth of the river. (It varies quite a bit depending on the season because of snow melt from high in the mountains.)
Note: Be sure to click on the individual thumbnails to see the full size photos!
Keep your eye out and try to walk as slowly and quietly as possible. I’ve seen monkeys near the river before and this week, while walking ahead of the others, I froze when I saw a small animal slowly walk out of the jungle and onto the trail.
About 20 meters ahead of me was a rarely seen jaguarundi who spent about 20-30 seconds just looking around before turning around and disappearing back into the jungle. This wild jungle cat was such a beautiful sight even though it was a couple of days later before I was able to identify what I saw.
After a short walk to the control station, your guide will check you in while you have a few minutes to use the restroom and buy something to drink. Lastly one of the reserve Rangers will give a talk about the importance of protecting the reserve and especially emphasize bringing out everything that you take in like plastic water bottles, paper trash, etc.
This will be the last real toilet you’ll see for several hours, so unless you’re comfortable with the “baño verde”, or green bathroom as I call it, you’d better use the station’s bathrooms (After this you walk off into the jungle to relieve yourself.)
To get to the lake, you must travel down a 3 km boardwalk through the jungle. Trust me, this is a HUGE improvement over the the trail just a few months ago. Now the boardwalk is finished, but during the rainy season, it was necessary to put on rubber boots and slog through deep mud — sometimes nearly knee high! — for more than half the trail.
Along the trail, there’s a lot to see before you get to the lake. All the guides will point out the large Strangler Fig which has slowly surrounded and killed another tree inside. There are several large lapuna trees with huge buttress roots spreading out along the jungle floor. Large termite nests in the trees are common as are huge ant beds on the jungle floor.
With a little luck, you’ll see red howler monkeys, cappuchin monkeys, or perhaps even spider monkeys. Macaws will likely screech as they fly overhead and squirrels are common along the trail. Spiders (including tarantulas) and leaf-cutter ants are common.
On this particular trip I was able to find a really unusual and colorful spider while everyone else was checking out a large tree. A little later I spotted a rare bullet ant. You do NOT want to be bitten by one of these as they may have the most painful bite in the rainforest. (Unfortunately, I didn’t have the lens to get pictures of these.)
Keep your eyes open for unique and beautiful sights. The reason why I keep coming back to Lago Sandoval is because each time is different and this trip was already turning out to be special. Even before we climbed into the canoe, I spotted the incredible rainbow sight of this majestic male bird trying to impress a couple of ladies dancing nearby. I don’t know what kind of bird it is, but I’ll never forget it.
Once you get to the lake, there’s one last chance to get a drink or snack at the little building before you head off on a canoe down the 150 meter channel that leads out into Lago Sandoval as shown in the video above. It’s a slow trip through this primordial swamp where you’ll likely see one of several small black caiman that call this section home.
Once you’re on the lake, you’ll see all kinds of animals. Many unique species of birds reside on the water and along the shore. Cormorants are everywhere as are various varieties of herons and kingfishers.
My favorite is the prehistoric hoatzin, known as the shansho in the jungle. There are several groups living in the trees along the shore and can be found by their distinctive loud grunt/huffing sound. With multiple stomachs, they give also give off a strong odor and are known for their horrible smell.
The highlight of everyone’s trip is usually the giant river otters, but because they are well protected in the reserve, getting close is not allowed. If you have binoculars, you’ll have a much better chance of watching them as they go about their lives seemingly oblivious to the tourists gazing at them in the distance. Don’t count on getting many good photos because they are usually far away and spend a lot of their time popping under the water searching for food, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying watching these playful creatures.
You might want to keep your feet and hands out of the water while paddling around the lake. While there is an abundance of piranhas, they have no desire to nibble on you despite the mythology promoted by scary tales and horror movies.
What is a concern, however, are the large — and I mean really large — black caiman who inhabit the lake. You wouldn’t want one of them to decide your feet splashing over the edge of the canoe is a potential snack. I have seen a couple of them and one easily approached 20 feet (6 meters) in length. They are the top predators in the lake and your are in their territory.
One of my favorite animals is actually fairly common on trees that angle out over the water. On whitish palm trunks, you are likely to see rows of bats sleeping in a line. They slumber during the day, but fly off at dusk to devour as many mosquitoes as they can at night.
Without a doubt, Lago Sandoval is one of my favorite places. While I’m usually frustrated because a guide is required, the guides frequently allow me to explore up and down the trail away from the group because of my ability to spot plants and animals that even they frequently miss. He even asked me to sit in the front of the canoe to spot animals.
I was especially pleased when my guide this week asked me to go ahead with part of the group while he went back to a family that had fallen considerably behind. The group with me commented that they were enjoying all that I was sharing about the rainforest along the way. Two Dutch ladies even commented later after they hurried back to the start that they wished they’d stayed with me after I spotted a group of monkeys they and the other guides had missed.
The trip back up the river takes a little longer because the boats are going against the current, but the timing might be right to get some fantastic photos on the way back to Puerto Maldonado as you head towards the setting sun.
A day trip to Lago Sandoval is easily the most popular trip in the Puerto Maldonado area. There is so much to see and you likely won’t see everything, but accept that you’ll likely see more in a day in the rainforest than most people will see in their lifetime.
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