Years ago, I read a National Geographic feature about clay cliffs in the Amazon with minerals ideal for the diet of macaws. Thousands of the massive parrots gather at these cliffs and stuff themselves silly on the clay. So while in Cusco, I was stoked to see a tour company advertising trips to the “Parrot Cliffs.” A quick Internet search revealed the Cusco region indeed had a few macaw cliffs.
I wanted to go, but not with a tour. Most inclusive tours have jacked-up prices for all the elements — transportation, lodging, food — that I can arrange myself at a fraction of the cost. When using a tour company, what one pays for is a guide and the convenience of having someone else plan everything. Which is great if you want it, unnecessary if you don’t. I figured, if clay macaw cliffs were around, I could get there on my own. Easy-peasy!
The closest ones to Cusco were in a place called Timpia, near a village of the same name that didn’t appear on any maps, deep in the jungle on the Urubamba River. The scant information on the Internet pronounced Timpia the most beautiful of Peru’s clay cliffs. Sold!
The first leg involved a lovely, scenic six-hour trip through the mountains and cloud forest to the city of Quillabamba.
I suppose the drive wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable to people afraid of heights, or who get carsick on mountain switchbacks, or freak out on roads with no guardrails and sheer drops mere inches from the vehicle (I will admit that some of those razor’s-edge plunges did make me nervous).
But, for the most part, I liked the drive. A cloud forest is different than simply fog; the clouds snake through the trees in heavy languid puffs, creating an alien, otherworldly effect. You really feel as though you are in sky-realm, not of the earth anymore.
Upon arrival in Quillabamba, I went to one of its larger hotels for information about Timpia’s clay cliffs. I watched the staff’s expressions change from blank to confused as I realized they had no idea what I was talking about. Wasn’t this stuff famous? It turned out the clay cliffs were not nearly as well-known as I’d thought. With no outside information, I decided to get as close as I could to Timpia and then wing it. This was an ambitious (read: very dumb) plan, but the only way I could think of.
A town upriver from Timpia, called Ivochote, was the largest in the region. A night in Ivochote, some information from the locals about the bird cliffs of Timpia, a nice hired guide for the day, and I’d be all set.
That leg of the trip involved a bouncy local bus for many hours along a mud road. Somehow, in this land of anything goes on a bus, I wound up riding with a little brown mutt named Candy on my lap. She belonged to a family on the bus, whose adult laps were all occupied by kids.
The dog turned out to be good snuggly company on a long, uncertain, and uncomfortable ride, marked by bus speakers blasting tinny mournful Spanish love songs on an endless loop, and a series of traveling salesmen standing in the bus aisle, pitching their products. I felt bad for those guys — it couldn’t be an easy gig — but tuned them out as best as I could.
We left at 5 p.m. Sometime around 1 a.m. the bus stopped in Ivochote. At the time, I was either sleeping, or they were vague in announcing the stop (likely a combination of the two) because by the time I learned we passed it, we’d passed it hours ago. But the bus was traveling on the only road in the area, still toward Timpia. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but not a disaster either.
We got stuck in the mud a few times and needed a tire change, and around 9 a.m. arrived at literally the end of the road: Puerto Mainiqui, a tiny riverside village. The other villages upriver, including Timpia, were only accessible by boat. I met three local women and asked if I could take a boat to Timpia. They said yes and seemed amused at my interest in the birds — loros, they called them.
Once I got into the village and started asking around, though, I discovered that: a) no one seemed to know exactly where or what these clay cliffs were, and b) hardly anyone owned a boat. I’d been counting on a situation where a fisherman or some other guy with a boat would be willing to ferry a tourist for some extra money — I’d run into that scenario before, and thought it universal. So it was a bit shocking for me to learn that in a river town like this, no one had private boats for hire. I would have to hop on a cargo boat.
I was now on their timetable, not mine. The boat wouldn’t leave for hours, and so I spent them in a little cafe, eating a frankly delicious meal of roasted lamb and rice with peppers and onions, drinking coffee, and chatting with the cafe owner and a steady stream of customers. Most were riverboat workers, the others lured by gossip about a foreigner in town (!) a woman traveling by herself (!!). By 3 p.m. — just when the rain that had been falling steadily all day turned into a downpour — it was time to go.
The boat workers wrapped my backpack in a tarp and gave me a plastic poncho to wear over my rain jacket and jeans. I used it to wrap my daypack, which held all my electronics and was therefore more important to keep dry than I was. We passed magnificent cliffs and waterfalls along the river, but the rain kept me from taking too many photos. By the time a giant wave crested the boat’s side and saturated me, the camera was, luckily, tucked in the plastic-wrapped daypack. One of my few good decisions on this trip.
About two hours in, we pulled up to a steep bank. The boat driver said this was my stop.
“Wait, what? This?” Aside from a tiny cabana — just a booth with a clock and shelf and log book — I saw nothing but trees and mud. “But what I want is on the river, not the village.” I explained the thing about the macaws again, in case the boat driver hadn’t understood me the first million times, and he patiently waited until I was done and said, “Yes, but you need permission to go there. You have to ask permission from the jefe of Timpia.”
Well, this was unexpected. I clambered out and grabbed my backpack. “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning, we pick you up here,” the driver shouted.
“Wait, what? Tomorrow?” I had a sleeping bag but no tent; in my rush out of Cusco, I’d overlooked the now-obvious detail that I might need to spend the night somewhere that didn’t have bed-and-breakfasts. The boat driver assured me there was a hospedaje downriver, in the next village called Sabadi. “After you see the loros, you stay there,” he told me, waving as the boat pulled away.
I felt genuinely nervous, now that I was pretty well stuck here. I needed permission from the jefe, the village leader; how did he decide yes or no? Would I need scientific credentials, or ability to speak the local dialect? What if the jefe said no? What if this was some weird tribe that offered rejected bird-watchers as a sacrifice to the gods? Who was this jefe, anyway? Did he have a bone in his nose? had he overthrown the last jefe in a battle royal to the finish? I walked down the muddy path that led away from the river, with that familiar refrain in my head: how did I get myself into this?