BY JIM HOWE
What started with a vacation trip in the 1990s has blossomed into something of a second career in Amazon ecology and tourism for an Upstate ophthalmologist.
Charles A. Mango, MD, 72, of Solvay, who has a private practice in Syracuse and has been on the Upstate faculty for decades, said it was his son’s idea to see tropical wildlife that kicked off their family trips into the Latin American jungles.
His son, Charles W. Mango, 42, had studied birds and tropical lowland ecology, and a college field trip to Costa Rica inspired him to get his family to visit there, and later to cruise near the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru.
“We loved Peru – the people, the environment, the birds and animals,” says the younger Mango, who graduated from Upstate Medical School in 2000 and today is a clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at the Weill Cornell College of Medicine in New York City.
Return trips included a visit to a pristine branch of the Amazon, the Yarapa River, where the Mango family decided to create a preservation-minded project.
They befriended Victor Serrubio, a Peruvian guide the same age as the younger Mango, whom the elder Mango later brought to Syracuse to fix an eye problem and to see snow and who eventually became like a member of the family.
I asked him what his plans were,” the elder Mango said, “and he said he’d love in the future to own a small lodge, and that’s how the whole idea formulated, to start building this lodge. I said, ‘OK, let’s build something for you and your family to run, and it’ll be a fun project. Well, it turned into a huge project.”
Serrubio oversaw the building project for the Amazon Yarapa River Lodge, which had to be constructed faster and larger than originally planned to accommodate a Cornell University botanical research program. The Cornell program lasted several years and resulted in a large body of research being published about medicinal plants and the animals that ate them. Now the facility is used by a variety of schools from around the world.
The lodge has a full-time staff of about eight and can accommodate about 40 guests, with dormitory-type rooms for about 28, and the remaining rooms larger, with private baths. Food and drinking water are brought in, and meals are cooked by chefs from a restaurant that Mango owns downriver in Iquitos, a city about 3½ hours away by car and boat. Serrubio and his wife manage both the lodge and the restaurant. (Learn more about the lodge here.)
“At this point, the lodge is a sustainable ecology facility,” Mango says, noting that water for showers is unheated and guests are asked to limit electronic device use and spend time exploring the jungle.
If you catch a piranha while fishing, a chef will cook it for you. As for unhooking a piranha, “We let the guides do that because they’re very vicious,” Mango notes.
The lodge recently installed a 5-acre botanical garden, and a Peruvian professor oversaw the labeling of all the trees using GPS devices.
Mango would like to attract more research programs, but at the moment the lodge is mostly used by tourists, who can stay for either four or seven days at a time.
When speaking about the lodge and area, Mango enriches the story with background on everything from the local flora and fauna to his encounters with Amazon natives and government health care and public works officials.
“My main focus is on preserving the area around the facility. We have about 200,000 acres of land now in different trusts as well as owned, and seven lakes.” He has conservation agreements that limit commercial tree cutting and fishing but allow small-scale and traditional tree cutting, fishing and hunting that benefit the local communities.
“Everything I’ve done there, I’ve done because I love it. It’s not a moneymaker for me. I enjoy it because I think I’ve helped a lot of local people, so it’s been fun for me,” he said, noting, “My family thinks I’m crazy.”
Mango currently enjoys overseeing all of the main tasks associated with running an ecolodge. He answers guest emails, confirms bookings and works with the locals on expanding the reserve. His son is content with continuing his role as adviser and promoter.
Both men agree that this project has enriched them with an understanding of how precious the people and natural environment of the Amazon truly are. “It won’t be around forever” says the younger Mango, “so experience it while you still can.”
What is an ecolodge?
An ecolodge is a place for ecologically minded tourists to stay that is designed to have a minimal impact on the environment and is usually small and remote, to offer closeness to nature. It often resembles indigenous dwellings and is staffed and/or owned by local residents to help support the local economy.
This article appears in the winter 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.