Reserva Santa Elena, and some…
After the hammock boat & Iquitos trip, I really only had one thing remaining on my “Weekend To-Do List”. Several people had mentioned the Tingana Reserve as a great place to explore the jungle and, with a little luck, spot some animals. Together with 2 fellow volunteers we programmed a visit for the upcoming weekend and throughout the course of the week found a 4th gal who wanted to join us. I had the details, and knew we needed to travel to Moyobamba the night prior and then continue on 2 hours more at dawn to reach the entrance to the reserve by 7 or 7:30 am. As I was packing my knapsack for the overnight trip my neighbors came home and once I shared my plans they offered their point of view. They had been to Tingana and agreed it was lovely but recently they had been to another reserve (Santa Elena) that they highly recommended. They quickly shared a rough sketch of how they visited this alternate reserve and I took note as I rushed off to pick up the other girls and start our trip.
Immediately my two friends were interested, for varying reasons. We tried quickly to google this other reserve before heading out but didn’t find much information. The main differences between Tingana and Santa Elena were:
-To reach Tingana you had to stay the night in Moyobamba. To reach Santa Elena we had to stay the night in Rioja.
-Rioja is 30 minutes further from Tarapoto than Moyobamba.
-Given the information from my neighbors, going to Santa Elena was going to be significantly less expensive than to Tingana.
-Santa Elena is less known and less established whereas Tingana has a full day’s offering including food.
-To reach Tingana from Moyobamba the following morning would take 2 hours, 1 by car and the other by boat. To reach Santa Elena from Rioja in the morning would only take 20-25 minutes by motorcar.
-Tingana has had recent support to build its tourism in a sustainable way, which we were interested in supporting, and we didn’t know about Santa Elena.
The 3 of us were settled on making the quick change of plans and giving a go at visiting Santa Elena despite not having very clear details but when we met up with the 4th person in our party she was very reluctant and had her heart set on our original plan of seeing Tingana. For the first 30 minutes of the ride we debated the pros and cons and I was starting to regret having even brought up an alternate plan because it didn’t seem we could reach an agreement, but the other gal gave in and we asked our driver to continue on to the town of Rioja.
Once in Rioja we went with the first hotel we came across because it was right on the plaza and was about USD $12 per person for the night and we didn’t feel like walking around to find something else. After throwing our bags in the room we set off to tackle the blurry part of the plan which was to make our arrangements for the following morning.
“Go to the Museum in Rioja, ask for Raul, and he’ll set up you.” This was the extent of instruction I’d been given. Immediately we had our doubts.
“It’s 7pm on a Saturday. Will the museum even be open?”
“Is it really as simple as just walking in and asking for Raul?”
“Should I have asked for a phone number for this Raul guy?”
“Is there only one museum?”
We soon found out: Rioja is small. There is only 1 museum, which we were able to find in about 5 minutes. The museum opens whenever someone rings the bill, within reason. It really is as simple as just asking for Raul.
Within a few minutes we had our arrangements made for the following morning including a motorcar to pick us up at 5:30am. With that behind us, we took advantage of finding ourselves inside a beautiful regional museum on a Saturday evening and Raul gave us the tour. Rioja, and all of the jungle region, is known for its exotic and interesting liquors. The Toe Museum makes its own version of the liquors and we had some tastes and made some purchases. It really is a beautiful museum and Raul has made it his passion to collect and exhibit anything that showcases the Rioja region and its inhabitants, both past and present. There was a great mix of archaeological pieces and cultural relics as well as photos and interesting tidbits scattered throughout all 3 levels of the building.
It turned out that having a hotel right on the plaza might have been great for location but the bright lights of the plaza shone directly into our room and the church, right across the street, rang its bells every half hour all through the night. Without much sleep we were soon meeting our motorcar driver at 5:30 to head out to Santa Elena. We were immediately pleased with our decision as we were met by two jolly gentlemen who received us warmly and quickly led us down to the dock to start our visit of the reserve. We learned that they too were working their passion as they had spent the last several years cleaning up the reserve and making it fit for small groups of visitors. They had an obvious love for the reserve and the jungle and were thrilled to share all the details. For about 2.5 hours they rowed the boat into the reserve with wooden oars so as not to make any noise that would scare off the animals. We saw many monkeys of all sizes and some birds. Equally interesting was observing all of the thick trees and tangled masses of roots and vines that flanked the small river. Just when we were starting to wonder when we’d reach the turnaround point we saw a dog-like shape jump into the water with a big splash. The guys perked up and said it was a sacha-something. “Sacha” means from the mountain and is often used as a term to indicate something that is sort of like something else. We have the “sacha-tomate” which is a fruit that grows in the mountain and is similar to the tomato. There is a “sacha-vaca” which is a really ugly animal that is sort of similar to a cow, and the famous “sacha-incha” which is a mountain-peanut. So this animal we were rowing hard to catch up to was a sacha-something, but we didn’t really know what kind of animal it was. As we followed its head it kind of looked like an otter so maybe something similar to that, but fatter. Anyway, the sacha-something spotting livened us up a bit and we enjoyed the remaining 20 minutes or so before reaching a small hut that they had constructed for a resting point.
After being cramped in the boat for a few hours we were happy to get out and stretch our legs and do a little tree-hugging. It was a quick stop and soon we headed back, this time using the motor to make a speedy return. I had expected not to see any animals on the way back but we saw many more birds and a lot of colorful butterflies. The most impressive was the Santa Elena Butterfly, a huge butterfly nearly the size of hand that has brilliantly blue wings. We were able to spot probably a dozen or so on the way back and our guides explained that often times the birds and butterflies come out after the sun has warmed things up a bit.
We left happy to have supported this community group and even though we didn’t visit Tingana to make a comparison, we all felt it was great that we’d make a last minute change of plans. I wish them the best of luck as they grow and hope they receive more and more visitors who want to explore a little bit of virgin forest!
Given we’d started our day at dawn, we returned to Rioja before noon and decided we had time to do something else before heading back to Tarapoto. I’d heard of a place called Tio Yacu that was also supposed to be beautiful and after asking around we learned it was close to town and would only cost a couple of bucks each to visit. So off we went. Tio Yacu is a collection of pools that mark where a river starts, but I forget which river. The waters are crystal clear and beautiful hues of turquoise and blues. Since it was a hot Sunday afternoon, it was packed with families cooling off and enjoying themselves. We found a shady spot to throw down a blanket and our things and took turns heading into the water. I went first and quickly found out that the water was FREEZING!!! I mean really, really, cold. It was a test of strength to get all the way in and I only made it to about chest level before I had to get out. We all took our turn taking the plunge but I quickly decided it was much more fun to sit at the edge and watch as everyone else got in for the first time, complete with shrills, screams and funny faces. After a bit we set off for our return trip to Tarapoto.
As we made our way back I reflected on everything I’ve seen and done in the 10+ weeks in the San Martin area and tried to come to terms with the fact that I only had about 2 weeks remaining!! With all of my weekend to-dos out of the way, I decided I wanted to spend as much of my remaining time as possible in Chazuta! Time is a tickin’….