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Madre de Dios, Peru

Madre de Dios, Peru is a large department (or state) in the wild, southeastern part of the country. Its name means “Mother of God” and is a common Spanish synonym for “the Virgin Mary”. The rather generic name given to the Madre de Dios department in Peru is a reflection of how little was known about the region during the Spanish colonial era. Whereas some departments were assigned the same name used by the Incans, neither Incan people nor Spanish colonists settled in the southeastern Amazonian lowlands so the department was simply named in honor of one of the most revered figures in Roman Catholicism (the principle religion of the Spanish colonists).

In a sense, this name befit a wild, untamed wilderness of dense rainforests, trackless swamps, and meandering rivers flanked by unforgiving jungle as it was believed that outsiders only survived in such a place by the grace of God. In modern times, the Madre de Dios department has become much more accessible while still retaining its wild character.

Huge tracts of unbroken rainforest are protected in national parks, reserves, and by several Peruvian rainforest lodges. The lack of roads and low population also keeps many parts of Madre de Dios intact and devoid of development. Nevertheless, a recently constructed road that connects routes to the Pacific with routes to the Atlantic Ocean has brought more colonists to the region along with associated deforestation, hunting, and mining activities that could pose a threat to the rainforests of Madre de Dios, Peru.

The Three provinces of Madre de Dios

There are three main provinces within the department of Madre de Dios, Peru. They are:
  • Tambopata: Bordering Bolivia to the east, this is the most populated of the three Madre de Dios provinces. Its capital, Puerto Maldonado, is also the capital city of Madre de Dios. It is the largest city in the department and in the Amazonian lowlands of southeastern Peru. The population of Puerto Maldonado has increased to nearly 100,00o as thousands of people from highland regions have moved to the city. Most are drawn to Puerto Maldonado in search of jobs and a better life.

  • Tambopata is also home to extensive areas of lowland rainforests that host some of the highest biodiversity indices in the world. The three lodges of Rainforest Expeditions are found in Tambopata, along the river of the same name.

  • Tahuamanu: Located in the northern reaches of Madre de Dios, this province borders Brazil to the north and Bolivia to the east. It’s a wild, frontier zone of rainforests, thick bamboo groves, and has just 7,000 inhabitants.

  • Manu: The name of this westernmost Madre de Dios province is associated much more with the national park of the same name rather than the province itself. This is due to Manu National Park’s fame as being one of the top biodiversity hotspots on Earth. A massive biosphere reserve that protects habitats ranging from treeline vegetation to lush cloud forests and dense, lowland jungles, the wildlife of Manu has been featured in many documentaries and magazines.

  • Despite the wild, untamed nature of Manu province, around 17,000 people make their home there. These include a number of indigenous people (some of whom make very little contact with western peoples), farmers, miners, and ecotourism operators.
Indigenous cultures in Madre de Dios

People have been living in the Amazon rainforests of Madre de Dios for thousands of years. Due to the remote nature of southeastern Peru, most of these peoples lived in isolation from Spanish colonists until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Some indigenous cultures of Madre de Dios had occasional contact with the Incan empire but even that was very limited as the Incans primarily kept to higher elevations in the Andean mountains.

The Ese-Eja is the main indigenous group in Tambopata province. Living in a few communities along the Tambopata River and its tributaries, most Ese-Eja have farms near the river although there is at least one, rather isolated community in Tambopata that lives in a more traditional manner. Many Ese-Eja people also work with Rainforest Expeditions as guides, boat drivers, and cooks. Those from the community of Infierno also own Posada Amazonas lodge.

Seventeen other groups of indigenous peoples live in the rainforests of Madre de Dios. Many of these people have little or no contact with non-Amazonian peoples and continue to live in the rainforest just as their ancestors did for thousands of years. There are believed to be several hundred “uncontacted persons” in Madre de Dios that belong to tribes such as the Machiguenga and Mashco Piro.

The Incredible Biodiversity in Madre de Dios, Peru

This department is renowned for being one of the top, biodiversity hotspots on Earth. The huge tracts of lowland rainforest and high-elevation cloud forests harbor more than 1,000 bird species, several thousand plant species, untold numbers of insects (more than 1,230 species of butterflies have been found in Tambopata!), and more than 100 mammal species.

The incredible variety of life that occurs in southeastern Peru is explained by:
  • Tropical rainforests: These complex habitats harbor the highest levels of terrestrial biodiversity on the planet and are the prominent habitat in Madre de Dios.
  • The forests of Madre de Dios have acted as natural refuges: In the past, the Amazon rainforest has gone through dry periods where the forest was separated into “islands”of humid forest surrounded by drier grasslands. The province of Madre de Dios (and much of eastern Peru) is believed to have been one of these islands of rainforest habitat and thus acted as a natural refuge for rainforest animals and plants. Since the forests of Tambopata, Manu, and Tahuamanu remained intact for millions of years, there was more time for wildlife in Tambopata to evolve into a greater variety of species.
Ecotourism in the Peruvian jungle of Madre de Dios

The biodiversity of Madre de Dios has become a huge draw for tourists and people come from all over the world to experience the beautiful rainforests of Tambopata and Manu. The high number of visitors that include Peruvian jungle excursions into their itineraries has spawned a thriving ecotourism industry in Madre de Dios. Eco-lodges in Manu and Tambopata are the two main destinations. Thousands of solo travelers, tour groups, and families visit Tambopata in particular due to its accessibility.

Puerto Maldonado can be reached by a quick flight from Lima or Cuzco and most of the lodges are just as quickly reached by an exciting boat trip on the Tambopata River. The award winning Posada Amazonas lodge is a frequent destination as is Refugio Amazonas. The Tambopata Research Center is also a highlight for parrot lovers and ecotourists hoping to experience wild, Amazonian wilderness.

To experience the amazing biodiversity of Madre de Dios, take a family-friendly Amazon adventure to Tambopata, Peru with Rainforest Expeditions. See perunature.com for more information about Tambopata and galleries of Tambopata wildlife regularly encountered by guests.

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