The oldest inhabitants of the Madre de Dios region of Peru are the indigenous Amazonian Indians belonging to the Harakambut, Arawak, Tacana and Pano linguistic families. Limited archaeological evidence points to an occupation of this vast territory by these people of several thousand years. It is estimated that approximately 4000 indigenous people survive today.
Most of these forest-dwelling people have been "contacted" by the outside world and now live in permanently settled indigenous communities near major river systems. However, a number of groups still live a traditional nomadic life deep within the forests, in areas such as Manu, Piedras and Tahuamanu, as far removed as possible from the influence of the modern world and incursions into the Amazon basin by loggers, gold miners, farmers and other settlers. Choosing to live in isolation, these non-contacted groups roam the forests of Peru and Brazil. For them, national borders do not exist; they seek only to continue their ancient ways, living in harmony with the forest and respecting the cycles of nature.
Attempts to colonize this part of the Amazon basin from the Andes began in 1473, when the Inca ruler Tupac Yupanqui sent an expedition into the region, only to be repelled by the fierce Tacana people, the ancestors of today's Ese-Eja (a group of which now live at the Infierno settlement, just two hours downstream from Tambopata Ecolodge). Following this episode, the Incas continued to trade peacefully with a number of the more friendly tribal groups, and they viewed the forest as a place of great spiritual significance.
With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century several expeditions were sent into the forests, more often than not in search of Paititi, the mythical lost city of gold reputed to be hidden somewhere in the vast jungles of the Amazon.
Between 1567 and 1569, Juan Alvarez Maldonado explored the Madre de Dios River as far as the waterway known today as the Heath River, on the frontier with Bolivia. Repeatedly thwarted by the difficult terrain and the dangers posed by disease and the hostile Tacana people, he eventually gave up his efforts to explore the region whose provincial capital is named after him.