Maura Hart traveled to Peru last month to visit indigenous communities whose lands and livelihoods are affected by the Camisea natural gas pipeline project.
Traveling in a small motorboat along the Lower Urubamba River in central Peru, I felt like guest in a mythical land, though my sneakers soaked in river water reminded me that I was in fact on Earth. Surrounded by the dense forest, exotic birds flying overhead, I could glimpse small huts, and children running through the trees in the eerie quiet. There was something about this river and the land floating by that made me feel like I should have been asking some higher power for permission to visit.
Thankfully, permission was granted by the Sabeti Lodge in a riverside community known as Timpia. Sabeti Lodge is an eco-lodge tucked away near the intersection of the Timpia and Urubamba Rivers. Built in 2001 with support from Oxfam America and others, it’s grown into a welcome haven in an area of unique, protected biodiversity.
Getting to Sabeti Lodge means first crossing the Pongo de Maenique, a section of the Urubamba known for whirlpools of turbulent water during the rainy season. I sat white-knuckled though the Pongo as gorgeous waterfalls cascaded on either side of our boat.
Approaching the lodge from the river bank felt like climbing the stairs to a tree house. It’s hidden from view until you reach the top of a hill, where the thatched-roof structure fits perfectly in the forest. as if it grew there. Inside the lodge is a long row of cozy twin-bedded rooms beneath the traditional palm-thatched ceiling, each with solar-powered reading lamps and mosquito net canopies.
The staff here are Machiguenga, the native people of the Urubamba River basin, and their traditions were woven throughout our visit. According to Machiguenga mythology, Pachamue and Pareni (twin children of Yavireni, the creator god) came out of the Pongo waters bringing animals and plants to the valley, and taught the Machiguenga people to seed their fields, use medicinal plants, cook, and make masato (a celebratory drink of yucca fermented with sweet potato and sugar).
You get a little piece of all of these gifts during your stay. Guests can visit the Timpia community to learn traditional fishing methods, visit communal farms, and even taste masato. You can also visit two nearby clay licks, protected areas where brightly-colored macaws and parrots get together daily in order to literally lick detoxifying clay along the river. This adventure involves dressing in camouflage and arriving before the birds, so as not to disturb their daily ritual.
The evening at the Sabeti ended with the very mythology that first captivated me. Gathered in the Maloca del Hablador, a small open air hut, a storyteller recounts the mythic tales of the Machiguenga people. You fall asleep listening to the macaws, the parrots, the critters, and the gods chattering away.