When I was a kid, I can remember always being fascinated by the Amazon jungle; so the opportunity to go there as part of my 6 month trip around South America was an absolute dream come true for me. Following a nightmare 15 hour trip down river from Colombia -in what can only be described as a massive speedboat (more on that another time) – we arrived in Iquitos and were greeted by some very serious looking local Police, keen to know more about the earlier ‘incident’ (again, another time)
Once we finally left our speedy water based coffin we were accosted almost instantly by a rather large local Moto driver, who wasted no time in giving us the normal sales pitch, peppered with lots of England related compliments and showing off his knowledge about our home country. He actually turned out to be a pretty decent guy, but I made no apologies for being a bit dubious and stand-offish after recent sour encounters with Taxi drivers. Our hostel, one of the dubiously named ‘Flying Dog’ chain, was about 5 minutes from the port, near the river front and a short walk away from the notoriously rough neighbourhood of Belen. Very soon after checking in, one of the staff at the hostel asked us what sort of jungle tour we were going to do, and at that point we’d decided pretty much on heading for a small village called ‘Libertad’ which had a well reviewed lodge adjacent to it. He offered to call his good friend Gerson Pizango around to talk us through some other options, as this was a name I’d heard a few times during my painstaking and borderline OCD research previously, we thought we’d hear him out. Gerson arrived literally no more than 4 minutes after he was called, a short and robust looking man with one thing on his mind – business. It became apparent very quickly that he certainly knew his stuff, and was the recipient of more than a few glowing Tripadvisor reviews, something he took great pleasure in showing us on his tablet alongside a Lonely Planet feature on him. A bit of Only Fools and Horses style back and forth later, plus the inclusion of a couple of airport taxis and even a night in a hostel, we agreed a daily rate for our 4 day excursion which actually came in less than we were already going to pay with the other lodge. This negotiation was made even sweeter given his starting point was well over $25 per day above where we eventually finished. We promptly shook hands, paid our deposits, and the deal was done, pickup at 6am on Saturday morning from our hostel reception for 4 days of exploring the biggest rainforest on the planet.
A few uneventful days passed in the bustling Amazon metropolis of Iquitos, with very little of note happening. We did pay a quick visit to a place a short boat ride from the city, where apparently we could see lots of monkeys and other animals. In reality, what we found at the cruelly ironic ‘El Paraiso de Amazonas’ was a bit of shock. As we walked in, we were mobbed by a troupe of excitable monkeys on the hunt for food, which was fine, and they all seemed completely happy. Almost as happy as me fulfilling a childhood dream of having my first ever up close experience with one of my favourite animals. But as we moved through what I can describe as a depressing tropical wildlife prison things became pretty sad. Tiny cages across a plain wooden boardwalk which made up the ‘rescue centre’, with very little in the way of stimulation for the animals inside their cells. Sloths (who, to be fair, would be happy on a lamppost covered in green leaves), Toucans, Spider Monkeys, an Anaconda, the saddest looking Turtles I’ve ever seen (in fact, I’m not totally convinced they were even alive), plus a few incredibly distressed looking Birds made up the selection of wildlife on show. By the time we reached the final few cages, we’d just stopped even going in with the animals. Yep, you could just walk in and be in these small box rooms with them too, sharing in their misery but with the added bonus of being able to get right in their face to take a photo. Katie in particular was quite upset by it, and I think we were all just just about ready to get out and away, with an added hint of regret that we’d had to pay entry and therefore somehow helped fund this hideous place. The cherry on top? The shot of local alcohol we were given at the end, which so we were told was totally ok for the monkeys to drink – that or whisky, apparently.
Saturday arrived, and we were promptly collected from our hostel by one of Gerson’s tour guide cousins – Ronald – who was going to be leading us around the jungle for the next few days. He explained very quickly how his English wasn’t great, as he’d never had an actual lesson, but it didn’t seem to make much difference as we could all understand him pretty well. In the car we met the other two people who were going to be in our group for the next 4 days, Lucie and Dan, a really nice down to earth couple from Shrewsbury. It was about 1 hour through to the port of Nauta, and the journey was lifted with a selection of 80’s synth-pop classics blaring through the speakers, almost as if to keep us from falling asleep en-route. There was a long wooden boat waiting for us when we arrived at the hectic little riverside town. It just so happened to be regional election day too, and the docks were a sea of flags and colours representing all of the relevant local parties, and the streets lined with local Peruvians who had travelled to and from all around the Amazon to cast their vote in Nauta. Another two hours on the boat later, having luckily already spotted some grey dolphins, we moored up at our lodge just off a small Amazon tributary. Our welcoming party was a huge red Macau who was kept there as a pet, and a big male Sloth who had just wandered in for a nap at some point that morning. Promptly after dropping off our bags, we were back out on a different boat, to go and explore the river for a couple of hours and try to spot some wildlife.
Whilst out on the boat we saw a multitude of different birds and animals, including a huge bright red coloured Macau within the first 30 minutes or so – which was apparently going to be good luck for us. Lunch was served back at the lodge, family style around a big table, with all of the individual groups coming back from their own tours that morning to eat together. After food, and a quick siesta, we went out pink dolphin spotting back on the main part of the Amazon River. I had started feeling quite ill with a mild fever throughout the course of the day, and wasn’t much company. Once we found the pink dolphins, we were told we could jump in and join them for a swim, which I did eventually despite feeling particularly lifeless at this point. As soon as we entered the brown muddy waters of this most famous of rivers, the dolphins duly disappeared elsewhere away from us. That evening I decided not to go Caiman spotting with the rest of our group, instead opting for a lay down to try and ease my slowly deteriorating state.
The next morning came and I was definitely much worse than the night before, now almost completely out of energy and losing my voice. I had decided to stay at the lodge as the guys were heading out all day, about 3 hours down river to find a spot to camp overnight in the jungle. An Australian girl called Kim who I’d had a good chat with the day before came to my room, armed me with all sorts of American over the counter pills, and gave me a pep talk – saying “just suck it up, when will you ever get the chance to camp in the Amazon again?” – she had a point. So, I dosed up on about 3 different medicines and got my gear together. There was a 3 hour boat journey to kick off, which I spent most of sleeping at the back on a pile of life jackets and camping equipment. We reached our home for the evening and set up camp, although I was about as useful as a chocolate tea pot during the process of getting everything ready. Piranha fishing came next, with the added importance and pressure of having to physically go out and catch our dinner for that evening. Luckily, we all did pretty well, the girls in particular catching a few, but the guides were the real bread winners and the only ones who caught any piranhas big enough to actually make up a meal. Seeing the razor sharp teeth on the black piranha and the big red bellied piranha certainly made me think twice about swimming in the river again. Ronald cooked us a kind of stew that evening with our catches, alongside some boiled banana and some rubbery rice. I skipped dinner, but did at least manage to try some piranha, which was surprisingly meaty. Caiman hunting in the stormy black night that was slightly more successful on this occasion despot the fact it seemed to last forever, having seen a couple of eyes in amongst the reeds. Upon returning to our clearing, we went on a quick night hike in surrounds of our camp, then went to bed. My abode for the evening was a mosquito net surrounding a blanket, rested on some bamboo canes on the ground. It wasn’t the most comfortable nights sleep I’ve ever head, but at least I was tired after having to kill about 6 or 7 pesky mosquitoes which had somehow made in to within the confines of my anti-bug fortress.
Over the remaining two days we saw more birds, including an incredibly rare baby harpy eagle, and more monkeys of all different shapes and sizes. We also got taken into the jungle one morning to learn about different types of plants and the medicines they were used for by indigenous people. Ronald’s father was actually a ‘medicine man’ or ‘witch doctor’ – so his knowledge of the local flora and fauna was pretty impressive. We sampled water from inside a tree, natural iodine from the bark of another, and even had our arms pretty much set on fire by a wood scraping. Although it was great, as the temperature picked up and we heard more stories of Jaguars (or ‘Tigers’ as they kept being referred) we were happy to leave and head back to the lodge. On the final morning we set off for a place called Monkey Island, which was unsurprisingly full of monkeys. It was a sort of orphanage for monkeys who had been kept as pets and then disguarded, where they could and did now live in the wild and be occasionally fed by tourists. One of the capuchin monkeys managed to climb out on to a fallen tree and jump on to one of the other boats that was alongside us, and with them he sat happily for a good 20 minutes eating his giant stack of bread, before coming to pay us a visit for a while too.
That aside, the highlight was a surreal moment where Johnny had been sent to try and catch a sloth for us to see up close, that had somehow been spotted in the trees what seemed like around three hundred metres away. As he came back, all the food for the monkeys was gone, so a rather aggressive spider monkey who we’d already been told was a bit of a biter, was roaming around the shore line almost like he was a 90’s football hooligan looking for some ‘action’ at the local pub. Johnny came back, machete in hand, and had an impromptu cowboy style face off with the monkey, as they both stood there eyeballing each other, with Johnny trying to find a sensible route back to the boat. The monkey then proceeded to chase him, almost biting at his heels, whilst Johnny waved his machete around to try and fend off the clearly disgruntled primate. The monkey chased him so far back that he ended up almost completely submerged in the river, apart from his head and machete, before swimming back to the boat and climbing on board soaking wet. Nothing like a bit of drama with the local wildlife. That afternoon we said our goodbyes and set off back towards Nauta, where I was dropped off and put up in a hotel for the night, ready to catch my boat to Yurimaguas in the morning.