IQUITOS | PERU
THE AMAZON RAINFOREST IS A REGION OF THE WORLD THAT NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION. THE RIVER’S BASIN ITSELF IS LARGER THAN THE CONTINENTAL UNITED STATES AND CONTAINS MORE PLANTS, INSECTS AND FAUNA THEN ANY OTHER PART OF THE PLANET, EXCEPT MAYBE THE BACK OF MY COUCH. SO REMOTE IS THE AMAZONIAN CITY OF IQUITOS THAT NO ROADS LEAD THERE. YOU EITHER FLY, OR TRAVERSE THE MIGHTY RIVER ITSELF TO REACH IT. WHEN YOU ARRIVE THERE YOU UNDERSTAND. THE TOWN IS LITTLE MORE THAN AN ISLAND STRANDED AT THE CONFLUENCE OF THE RIO AMAZONAS, NANAY AND ITAYA RIVERS. NO WHERE TO RUN.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE INDEED.
As an adventurous kid there were a few buzz words and descriptions that would instantly encapsulate the spirit of adventure for me. Words like “Himalayas”, “Congo”, and “Egypt” would send a shiver down my spine, but I think above all the most exotic and enrapturing had to be “Amazon”. I spent most of my youth exploring every inch of my local forest, using fallen logs to cross rivers and climbing trees to look out over an imagined tropical canopy. As I stared out of the airplane window as the engines hummed gently I took in a vast verdant blanket stretching towards the horizon. It was broken only by wide muddy rivers twisting through the trees like dirty brown veins. That familiar shiver returned. I can’t believe I’m finally here!
WARNING: This may be a picture heavy blog post. I regret nothing.
The day before I set foot in South America for the first time, touching down in the Peruvian capital Lima. I stayed in a pretty ramshackle place right beside the airport, maybe it was an unconscious desire not to stray too far from the plane that would carry me into Peru’s tropical north. Don’t ask me anything about Lima. I don’t know. From other travelers I’ve heard very mixed reports, most say it’s not a place you’ll want to stay for very long while others enjoyed it. This blog was never a fountain of information anyway, but I have pics of trees coming up so you might wanna stick around for that.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world that you can’t drive to. Like most visitors I arrived at the small airport, the dense wall of humidity hitting me as soon as the plane’s doors opened. I booked a three day expedition from Iquitos into the jungle with a local tour company. Handily, I was picked up at the airport in a car that looked like it had been made out of tin cans and tied together with jungle vines. We stopped off at the office where we made pick up arrangements for the next day. There were actually more cars and buses here than I thought there would be – especially for a town with no roads in or out. It turns out that all vehicles here are taken in by river, so the most common forms here are mopeds and tuk tuks.I retired to my hostel for a few cold Amazonia beers. That evening was spent half reading a book I had about the disappearance of Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett, and half watching Peru vs Chile on the telly. That night I dreamed of football players getting lost in the jungle.
The next morning I met up with the rest of the gang. Joining me would be an American couple and their dad along with our guide Jorge. Despite sounding like it should be pronounced “George” it’s actually “Hor-hay”. Spanish can be deceptively tricky. So the American couple’s dad (who I’ll call American Dad from now on for convenience, plus I’m an asshole who is terrible with remembering names) was one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. This guy’s life story is off the wall crazy. Seriously now here is a guy who needs to write a blog. My favourite story was how he left his house to go to a garage sale nearby to buy a carpet, met his friend, decided to take his van down to Mexico, bought some guns and drugs and probably sandwiches and kept on trucking down to Central and South America landing in various prisons and bribing their way across borders by selling guns, drugs and sandwiches (including a rocket launcher?!) – all the while his wife and kid are back home waiting for him to come back with the carpet. Nine months later he arrives back. No carpet. And that’s why you can’t trust men to go shopping.
Our eco-lodge was situated in the jungle a few hours boat ride downstream from Iquitos. Soon we left the port behind and entered the infamous Rio Amazonas itself. It’s huge, at times it was hard to make out the banks either side. Jorge smiled before informing me this was actually dry season. The river can rise an extra fourty feet in some cases during the rains, the banks disappear and the forests flood. Meanwhile American Dad was like a radio in the background, telling stories and making noise without anyone paying much attention. Every now and again he’d boast about how he can “never get sick” and scooped up the river water to drink. I’d be amazed if he lasts the night at this rate.
The lodge was awesome. After a short trek through the trees along the gang plank we arrived in the small little village. Each of the small wooden buildings were perched on stilts with short walkways between each one. There was a large circular dining area with hammocks in the centre, and it’s here we would have our dinner each night surrounded by the buzzing of the amazonian wildlife. They had parrots too including a particularly nasty one that enjoyed biting the hands off you if you got too close. It’s wings were clipped which made me feel sorry for it. The lodge claimed it was a rescue parrot, and that the previous owners were responsible. I hoped that was true. I called him “Bitey” because I have no imagination. Bitey had a little green friend who woke everybody up each morning cawing at four a.m. without fail. I couldn’t decide whether to call him “Asshole” or “WishWasDead”. Bitey and WishWasDead embodied the Amazon’s hatred for humans.
Our first port of call was a place called Monkey Island. Despite being an island this wildlife refuge only exists during dry season. Evidence of this is abundant once you get there. There are flood markings on the trees nine feet up the trunk. Apparently the animals – which include spider monkeys, birds and sloths are evacuated elsewhere during the rains, kinda like a jungle Noah’s Ark only this one really happened. It was a lot of fun playing with the spider monkeys and the birds, even if all amazonian birds seems to have an innate distaste for human beings, not that I blame them. They also had a baby anaconda and python. This “baby” anaconda must have been at least 10-12 feet long. I definitely wouldn’t trust it. An adult you could maybe reason with, but there is no talking to the young ones. One of the guide’s invited me over to help hold it before I got told to promptly f**k off by one of the girls in the tour group. “This snake is for our group only” she said. I don’t like photobombing anyone’s picture – unless it’s hilarious – but the attitude and sense of entitlement I see from fellow travelers sometimes is annoying. Unfortunately there are assholes out there giving all backpackers a bad name. I skulked away hoping the snake would eat her. Then I’d take a picture.
Having been rejected by my fellow humans I was hoping the birds had warmed up to me. Not a chance. I was lucky to come away with my testicles intact.Being Irish I believed I’d have a natural rapport with the toucan. After all it is the bird on the Guinness bottles. We were the same, him and I. He didn’t see it that way at all. Stupid uppity bird forgetting where it came from. Monkey Island was turning out to have wildlife as welcoming as King Kong’s Skull Island so we retreated back to the boat.
American Dad regaled us that night with more stories about his iron stomach. He has been living in Peru for years now and has taken part in many ayahuasca ceremonies. Offers of ayahuasca is something you will see plastered all over Iquitos, it’s a hallucinogenic brew made from a local vine. Shamans use it to reach higher states of consciousness, but many people believed that brujos (witches) lure unwary tourists into ayahuasca ceremonies as a way to steal their life force. I was tempted to try it before I left for the jungle but I’d heard that for a first time practicioner it can make you extremely sick – at both ends. Medicine men believe this is a purge ridding your body of toxins and unhealthy emotions that have built up over your life. Later that night another group came into the village after taking part in a ceremony. These guys must have had a lot of unhealthy emotions built up, they seemed to be struggling to keep their internal organs on the inside.
In the morning after the head count was thankfully complete we set off down the river to meet the Yagua tribe. Jungle tribes don’t have a great sense of punctuality so we waited around for a while until word filtered through they had visitors. Sleepy headed and still pulling on their grass skirts they began filing out from the trees, and began setting up their stalls. I don’t think this would be normal behavior for a jungle tribe – having to wake up and put the kettle on for the neighbours. We got our faces painted with orange pigment. Two stripes on the cheek means you’re married, one means you’re single. Makes sense I guess, it’s the closest thing to Tinder they probably have out here. Then again after the show they probably retire back to their huts and enjoy a faster internet connection than I do at home. They demonstrated their blow pipe, a famous hunting instrument using poison tipped darts made from the venomous skin of frogs. We even had a go at it. After being reassured the darts hadn’t been dipped in poison I got quite good at it. My only worry was accidentally hitting and killing the chief and sparking an international incident. I asked if this tribe had ever practiced head shrinking. For those of you who haven’t read Goosebumps certain amazonian tribes in Peru and Ecuador (mostly the Shuar) practiced ritualistic head shrinking as a normal aspect of jungle warfare. After a successful raid the enemy would be decapitated and the head boiled and moulded until it was small enough to be used as ornamentation. These tribes believed that by procuring the head of their enemies they could trap their spirits and bend them to their will. Happily the Yagua had no part in such things, and so even if I had poisoned the chief at least my head would be relatively safe, even if the rest of me wasn’t.
On the way back we spotted some of the Amazon’s famous river dolphins. They come in two varieties. The first looks like your bog standard grey dolphin. It tries it’s best but really the people are here to see something else. It’s like going to a metal concert and getting Nickelback instead. We did however catch glimpses of a real rarity – the pink river dolphin, or Boto as it’s known here. These guys may look like the My Little Pony of the dolphin world but they eat piranha so they have bigger balls than you do. The problem with trying to photograph the pink dolphins is that they are very quick and quite shy. My camera takes about two weeks to switch on so I had to take comfort in the boring experience of looking at them with my eyes instead. If only we had some bait. We were due to go piranha fishing the next day, it would have been cool to try and find some pink dolphins afterwards but the Amazon can be a very “one and done” kinda place.
The next day was pretty packed. That morning we sailed down the river to arrive at a small village. From here the plan was to switch to smaller boats and traverse some of the smaller tributaries in search of piranha. However our “boat guy” wasn’t there. So we haggled with a confused looking dude before finally making off with the least leakiest looking boat he had. We paddled downstream about an hour before pulling up and setting up our fishing rods. Piranha fishing is pretty basic. They like meat, so you hook some meat onto your string and throw it in. When you feel a bite you flick your wrist up, hopefully landing the toothy little fish into your boat. The only rule: don’t fall in.
And don’t push anyone else in either.
Two rules. There are two rules.
After another fruitless hour I was getting a bit self conscious as the piranha pile climbed steadily higher for everyone else. It was just like that Wii game and – just like that Wii game – I sucked hard. At least with the Wii game the looser doesn’t run the risk of being fed to carnivorous fish when their flimsy boat capsizes. It was a real danger here. For every toss of the rod we would also bail out a bucket of dirty river water. I’m hoping Nintendo implement that in the sequel.
We powered back towards the village with our haul, ready to be prepared for dinner that evening. After I got hustled for a few dollars by a five year old girl with a baby alligator we followed Jorge on a jungle walk. Cutting our way through the foliage we encountered some of the Amazon rainforest’s most famous plants. Remember that cool scene in Predator where Billy cuts the vine and drinks it? Well it’s real, and if you’re ever lost in the jungle and looking for potable water to keep you alive then you need to keep an eye out for the Cat’s Claw vine. A few minutes more and we came into a small clearing dominated by some of the giant amazonian Kapok trees. These gnarled behemoths have a base which fans out into separate “wings”. I’d seen pictures of these guys online and some of the sizes they can grow to is unreal, but I guess that’s what happens when you reach over 500 years old.
As we trekked through the jungle we crept past some nocturnal wasps and around strangler ficus trees, the vines clawing their way through the forest, enveloping everything in their web like tentacles. We also unfortunately encountered quite a bit of damage caused by logging. Every so often we would stumble through some thick underbrush into a small clearing choked with sawdust and felled branches. Even near this small community it was symptomatic of the larger problems facing earth’s largest remaining ecosystem.
Aside some freaky plants we regularly spotted another of the amazon’s most famous denizens – the incredible looking Blue Morpho butterfly. These guys were amazing, their huge electric blue wings would randomly flutter past you as you hacked your way through vines and pushed on through the foliage. I always enjoy jungle walks but I think next time I’d like to head deeper into the rainforest. Jorge said that the virgin forest lay another few hours downstream. Oh well, plans for another time I guess. Along with ayahuasca. Nothing better then being stranded hours from civilisation while feeling like you’re gonna die.
Later we fried up our piranha. Ironically despite the fact these things eat lots of meat there is virtually none on them. They do make a tasty and crunchy treat as a side dish though. Consider this revenge for that awful Kelly Brook film.
The americans left that evening so Jorge and I headed into the wetlands on our boat. It was a beautiful, clear evening and we chugged lazily along watching the magnificent Great Egrets take flight along the river’s edge. Jorge is quite the bird spotter and along with the evidently abundant egret we saw many other species of flycatchers and kingfishers. At least that’s what I think they were, I’m not much of a bird guy. I find it hard to identify anything that isn’t an ostrich, but still even though it’s not something I saw myself jumping at it was quite fun and very relaxing. Due to the fact it was dry season and the river level was low, many of the channels and waterways were impassable and choked with vegetation and water lilies. It wasn’t advisible to jump in the water either. Here in south america they have a particularly evil looking cousin of the alligator called the caiman. It doesn’t discriminate between local wildlife and pale foreigners.
I was worried my three day trek into the Amazon could drag along. I left feeling the opposite. There is so much to see and do here I could easily have spent a full week heading deeper into the jungle. Or maybe that’s just because I was so excited to be ticking off a huge glaring entry on my travel bucket list. “Amazon” lay there like a huge pulsing sore waiting to be squeezed.
Back in Iquitos there is a marketplace with a enormously seedy reputation. It’s called the Belén floating market and it’s best described as the Mos Eisley of the Amazon, filled as it is with low down thieves, black marketeers, smugglers and poachers. Voted number 3 on Lonely Planet’s Honeymoon Destinations 2015 (if you want a divorce). Having listened to the stories of the shrunken heads I was determined to find a replica for myself. I’d heard they are easy to find in this part of the amazon, they’re made with wood or putty and can be richly decorated. Bingo! I found a suitably creepy one and having bargained with a particularly obstinate woman I headed back feeling like Hannibal Lector with a tiny human head poking out of my backpack. When I was inspecting my haul later on I made the stomach churning discovery that it looked like a genuine monkey skull that had been shaped and decorated like a tribesman’s head. Pulling back the long black hair revealed an actual animal skull in the back. I didn’t really know what to do, I was pretty sure it would be confiscated by the authorities at the airport. Turns out they didn’t give a damn. I still have it at home. It dangles from a book case where I’ve dumped a bunch of my travel stuff I’ve collected over the years. It’s right beside a samurai sword I got in Japan. People think I’m a serial killer. I’m beginning to see why.
I tuk tuked my ass off back towards the airport for my flight back to Lima. Once again the Amazon spread out below me like a tropical spider infested carpet. The scope of this place is crazy. It spreads out towards Colombia and Ecuador, down to Bolivia and across most of Brazil. By volume of water it’s the largest river in the world. I thought back to when I was a boy. I believed the forest park beside my house was an entirely different universe, one so big I could stay lost in forever. How wrong I was. Maybe I’ll feel that way someday about the Amazon too. Unless I get eaten by a pink dolphin. Could happen. I saw it’s face briefly a few days ago. It looked pissed off.
I miss American Dad. I don’t wish he was my dad – that would be terrible. But it would be cool to have him as a crazy uncle that no one goes to family reunions to avoid.
Next time: From Lima, to Cusco, to the lost city of the Inca Machu Picchu. It doesn’t get any better than that. Then it got better because I found a really good beer.