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Nuts about Peru's Tambopata National Reserve

Nuts--if you think about these things, which evidently I do--evoke blustery fall afternoons, or wintery evenings before a roaring fire. You bust out the nutcracker, and get to work. At least, that's what my family did when I was a kid, even though I grew up in Southern California where, let's face it, the weather is seldom blustery. Anyways, we always had a lot of Brazil nuts in the communal bowl, and consequently, they're one of my favorites. They're big and easy to crack, with rich, oily meat.

Nuts have been associated with the winter solstice since Medieval times (they provided much-needed fat and nutrients). What most of us don't associate nuts with are steaming jungles, machetes, or endangered wildlife. I certainly didn't, until I visited the Brazil nut camp in Tambopata National Reserve (TNR), in Peru's Amazon Basin.

The Tambopata is a tributary of the Amazon, and the 275,000-hectare Reserve is home to some of the world's most diverse and pristine rainforest. This conservation area, and the adjacent Bahuaja-Sonene National Park were designated by the Peruvian government to protect the watersheds of the Tambopata and Candamo Rivers. Rainforest Expeditions operates three Puerto Maldonado region eco-lodges within the confines of the Reserve: the Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas eco-lodges, and the Tambopata Research Center. It's at Refugio that one can visit the Brazil nut camp, and harvest the nuts (April through July).

Even if nuts aren't your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to visit. The area is noted for its wildlife, especially birds. If there's an active nest, there are tours to check out endangered harpy eagles (they live in Brazil nut trees), or hike to clay licks teeming with macaws or parakeets. That may not sound thrilling, but it's an amazing sight to see (and hear) that many explosively colorful birds in one spot.

Rainforest Expeditions integrates its jungle properties with educational/voluntourism experiences for adults and families. Besides the clay licks, activities include forest walks, wildlife viewing, philanthropic visits to local communities, seminars on the ecology and biology of the region, kayaking, catch-and-release piranha fishing, or cooking with the indigenous staff (an activity reserved for rainy weather, and something I really enjoyed, from a cultural standpoint).

Refugio is located in a 200-hectare private reserve (which is adjacent to the greater Reserve, you see). To get there, one must fly into the tiny jungle port of Puerto Maldonado from Lima. From there, it's an hour drive to the boat launch in the indigenous community of Infierno, which works in partnership with the Posada Amazonas Lodge. The Refugio property is a two-and-a half-hour trip upriver, through a park ranger checkpoint.

The gorgeous, four-year-old, open-air lodge is built from traditional native materials such as wood, palm fronds, wild cane, and clay. It has a communal dining room with a bar (yes!), and clean, breezy rooms with gauzy, mosquito-netted beds. There are also luxe touches, like the pretty little guest soaps made of--wait for it--Brazil nuts. The food--a daily buffet of international and Peruvian dishes, and loads of fresh fruit, far surpasses what you might expect. Some of the produce comes from organic farmer Don Manuel, across the river. He grows tropical and citrus fruits, yucca, and chiles; on his farm tours, (if you love food, definitely go for it), you can sample Amazonian fruits such as cupuaçu and pacay.

Getting back to nuts, the brazil nut camp is a concession owned by the Peruvian government, although a local indigenous family has rights to the nut harvest. There are thousands of Brazil nut concessions in this region. They're an important cash crop that provides the local families with income, which also helps to protect the Reserve from slash-and burn-agriculture.
The local Ese'eja, as well as other indigenous peoples of mestizo and Andean descent, live within four communities in the buffer zone of the Reserve. Many are employed by Rainforest Expeditions (the company tries to hire as many local people as possible), or harvest Brazil nuts during the wet season.

The nuts are technically an edible seed, clusters of which are found within thick seed pods. The trees don't make good timber, although they are tapped for rubber in the dry season. They're considered one of the most sustainable crops because their harvest and tapping have little ecological impact, especially in areas where hunting is prohibited or restricted during harvest season.

Brazil nut trees are an interdependent species, because they rely upon several animals to perpetuate their life cycle. Agoutis and other rodent species eat the nuts, spreading seeds in their droppings. A species of rainforest-dwelling bee is necessary to pollinate the trees, which is why they aren't cultivated.

It turned out I'd just missed the harvest, but I walked the short trail to the deserted camp to check it out--basically, some leftover seed pods in a small clearing. Back at the lodge, however, Brazil seed pod cracking is like an Olympic sport, in part because it brings out the competitive spirit. They're exceedingly difficult to open, necessitating a scimitar-like machete and serious hand-eye coordination- something I am seriously lacking. I finally managed to whack one apart without losing any digits, and made use of the lodge's industrial-strength, communal nutcracker. You see a lot of people walking around, picking Brazil nuts or bits of shell out of their teeth.

The handsome, coconut-like pods turn up all over the lodge in the form of napkin holders, and votive-receptacles on recycled wood chandeliers. At the Puerto Maldonado airport, you can find Brazil nut candy, and oil, which is intoxicating, with a smooth, clean, complex flavor. Unfortunately, it has such a short shelf life that it isn't suitable for the export market, but it's worth bringing a bottle home with you (I honestly have no idea if Customs permits this, but that's never stopped me before). Use it to dress salads, or drizzle on roasted potatoes or root vegetables.

Refugio and its sister properties may take some getting to, but if you're looking for responsible, soft rainforest adventure, it's well worth the trek.
All the more reason to load up that bowl with Brazil nuts.

Filed under: History, Learning, Food and Drink, South America, Peru, Ecotourism, Budget Travel, Women's Travel

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