The Amazon, part 1

I might not have been impressed with Iquitos, but our journey out into the Amazon jungle – the whole reason we were in Iquitos in the first place – was definitely one of the most notable experiences of our trip.

The basics of the expedition were this:  from Iquitos, we would head up the Amazon River, turning off into one of its tributaries (the Marañón River) to head into the Pacaya Samiria National Park, where we would stay for four nights.  (More precisely, assuming I’ve transcribed our guide’s descriptions correctly, we followed the Marañón River up to the Pucate River, and then up to the Yanayacu River, which was our destination.  But basically, we’re talking the Amazon Basin here.)  The first night would be in a remote village – Buenos Aires (no, not that one, obviously), the farthest village into the national park.  Then we continue up the river, to spend the middle two nights at a campsite in the jungle, before returning to Buenos Aires for another night on the way back home.

To take care of us, we had:  Marden, our main guide;  Herman, from Buenos Aires village, who was our local jungle guide, wildlife specialist and professional machete-wielder;  Herman’s wife Wilma, in charge of the meals;  and Rusber, our boat driver (we had our own boat for the five days).  We felt a little spoilt:  “us” was just the two of us (Chris and me), and we had four great people looking after us for the whole trip.

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

(For those interested in the logistics, we were doing this trip with an Iquitos-based company called Amazon Explorer, and we were doing their Pacaya Samiria Adventure expedition.  We paid $US504 each – $560 with an unexplained 10% discount, presumably for being a bit out-of-season – inclusive of everything from when we were picked up from our hostel in Iquitos to when we got dropped back there at the end of the five days.  If you’re thinking about doing it yourself, I guess getting to Iquitos itself is a factor in considering prices:  we flew return from Lima on Peruvian Airlines for $US280 for the two of us.  The total expenditure for the trip was definitely well worth it, in case you didn’t figure that out from the very first sentence of this post.)

The beginning of our excursion, then, was getting to Buenos Aires (yeah, no, really, not that one).  Mostly, that involved a leisurely three-hour or so boat ride upriver.  Not very eventful, but a good opportunity for a mid-morning nap.  The only real happening on the journey was brunch:  Marden carefully cutting up fine pieces of deliciously fresh fruit, just like your mum used to, into a tasty fruit salad and yoghurt concoction.  Clearly Marden had dealt with finicky Western tourists before:  we were impressed and amused to see that he was very careful with hygiene – plenty of hand sanitiser first, ditching overboard any bits of fruit that rolled away off the chopping board even for a second.  But I had to laugh a bit on the inside when he promptly washed the chopping board and bowls in the river over the side.  (I’m sure it’s actually quite reasonable, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest.  But I had to giggle as I automatically pictured the horror this would surely put on the faces of many of the more “ewww, germs!” sanitation-conscious travellers we’d met.)  Anyway, breakfast was tasty, and we proceeded upriver, now enjoying a late-morning post-prandial nap.

As we arrived into the national park, we had our first glimpse of the level of voraciousness we could expect from the local mosquitoes.  It turned out that by a slim margin, this was actually the worst mozzie spot we found.  There’s something not quite right about having to interrupt your use of the bathroom facilities mid-stream in order to wave the mosquitoes away from some areas of temporarily exposed skin that insects really have no right to be interested in.  But it was enough of a warning for us to break out the DEET immediately, and to keep it regularly topped-up from then on in.

The enemy:  mosquitoes

The enemy: mosquitoes

Perhaps this guy can help?  A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Perhaps this guy can help? A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Between sunscreen and mozzie repellent, our days became a ritual of which a professional house-painter would be proud:  first the undercoat, then the topcoat, both rigorously applied for an even cover all over.  (For reference, you want the sunscreen on first, because it needs to absorb into the skin somewhat to be effective, and then the DEET on top, where the mosquitoes can smell it most offensively.)  By the time I sat down on that first evening to write a few notes in a journal, I was scrawling that we’d “been killing mosquitoes pretty constantly since arriving”.  Then I had to put the pen down for a bit for a DEET break.

Before that, though, what I’d been writing about was our afternoon canoe trip wildlife-spotting.  At 4pm we’d set off (well, roughly 4.15 or 4.30 or so – no doubt bang on Peruvian 4pm, in any case), paddling around (well, Marden and Herman paddling, Chris and me sitting watching them paddle) awhile before some menacing thunder encouraged our return.

In our waterborne couple of hours, though, we saw and heard plenty.  In the air there were eagles, camungo (which I gather are properly called ‘horned screamers’ and which Marden referred to as ‘jungle turkeys’ as well), kingfishers and herons.  In the water, there were dolphins – grey and the rarer pink – who were obviously enjoying perpetually evading our attempts to take photos of them.

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

On a tree trunk poking out of the river there was a tarantula nest which Herman picked open to find the unimpressed homeowner inside.  Above us in the branches we gawked at a sloth and observed many a shaking branch that provided further evidence of the monkeys we could hear causing a cacophony all around us, unseen.  And there were bats dozing on a tree trunk to boot – not a sight I’d really expected to see in the jungle, I’ll admit.  There were no caiman to be found, although not for want of trying – Herman is an impressive mimic, and I have no reason to think that his call for the caiman would be any less effective, assuming one’s around, than the abilities he proved in attracting a variety of birds and monkeys.

At any rate, the ominous thunder drove us back to our home for the night – and with the sun setting shortly after our return, I doubt we missed much other than getting wet in the downpour that started soon after darkness fell.  We were left gazing at the thatched roof of our pole house accommodation for the night, wondering – stupidly, given that, y’know, people live here and probably know how to build themselves houses that function as intended – how it would hold up to the rain that looked to be settling in for the evening.

Huge ants on a tree root

Huge ants on a tree root

Speaking of which, the pole house we were staying in was somehow elegant, in a simple, functional kind of way.  And it had convincing-looking mozzie nets, which was a boon.  But we spent most of our time marvelling at two things:  the trail of enormous ants leading up the nearest tree, and the incessant and refreshingly natural sounds of the jungle.  Well, natural right up until interrupted by the distinctive mating call of the Airbus A319, as a regular flight back to Lima made its way overhead.

After we were done amusing ourselves for a couple of minutes with the cleverness of that particular joke, we turned around to wonder where the light had all gone.  One of those little things:  it’s astounding just how fast the darkness sets in near the equator when you’re away from the ubiquity of artificial lighting.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner of catfish fillet with tomato, all wrapped up and baked in a leaf.  And I relished the chance to try ají, the local pepper.  (For the benefit of those with no real exposure to Spanish, it’s pronounced ‘a-hee’.)  Little yellow or green seeded balls of hotness, straight from the plant.  They were delicious and added fantastic flavour to the food – and our local friends seemed impressed with how much I took to them (remember that South America is not exactly known for its appreciation of spicy foods).  Although I will admit that having squished them by hand to get the flavour out and into the rest of my food, I may have coated my fingers such that subsequently rubbing my nose gave me an invisible moustache of fire for a good few hours.  Still, tasty.

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Birdwatching in the early morning

Birdwatching in the early morning. Yes, there is a bird in there in the branches, thanks very much, if you look closely just right of centre.

Day two had an early start:  a Peruvian 6am (so roughly 6.15-6.30) get-go to spend some more time birdwatching in the canoe.  It was another couple of hours of keeping the eyes peeled, spotting a few more species than we’d seen the previous afternoon:  this time we added ‘old mama’ (‘mamavieja’ in Spanish) eagles, a handful of other birds whose names I already couldn’t remember by the time it came to write them down later, an ant nest on a tree trunk above the water line, and a bee hive in a knotted hole in another tree trunk, looking for all the world like the tree had evolved a convenient jungle defence mechanism of ejecting bees from a specially-developed trunk anus.

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree. (It’s like an A-hole, but further along in the alphabet… Thank you very much, I’ll be here all week.) Watching bees stream out of here when disturbed was, well, odd.

We returned feeling that our hard work of sitting and watching Marden and Herman paddle (as well as some pretty energetic looking at the birds they pointed out, obviously) entitled us to a hearty feast.  We enjoyed a delicious meal of French toast for breakfast.  The mosquitoes enjoyed a delicious meal of me for breakfast, apparently:  evidently I missed a few spots with the DEET.  After that, it was time to sit around and relax for a bit:  this was a big theme of the trip – lots of free time, since after all, there’s actually not a tonne to be doing out in the jungle constantly, to be honest.  Especially when you’re being waited on hand and foot.

Then again, let it not be said that the relaxation time was not entertaining.  I’ve probably mentioned a couple of times prior to now on this blog that I speak a bit of Spanish, but I’m not fluent.  Definitely trying to improve (that was, after all, a lot of the point of much of the time we spent in Lima), but at this stage I was at the point where I could hold conversations, but only fairly stilted and necessarily straightforward ones.  This trip to the Amazon was definitely giving me some Spanish practice:  Marden spoke English, at a level somewhat above my Spanish, but Herman, Wilma and Rusber didn’t speak any, so any interaction with them was either through Marden, or via my broken Spanish.  Even speaking with Marden, there were quite a few conversations where we found I understood him better in Spanish than in English.  (Yes, this made me proud that I was making headway on my Spanish.  One of those little but concrete achievements that progress is all about!)

In fact, the situation was made somewhat more complicated by the style of Spanish spoken locally, too.  I’m not sure it’s a separate dialect they employ – the words and grammar all seem the same.  But they most certainly speak Spanish very differently than anywhere else I’ve heard, with a very different rhythm to sentences, and with emphasis on what the rest of the Spanish-speaking world would consider completely the wrong parts of the word:  demasiado instead of demasiado, cerveza instead of cerveza.  (And no, there’s no particular reason I’ve remembered those two words as the examples!)  Also, they lengthen emphasised syllables a lot – in a way that regular Spanish pronunciation (whether in Spain or in Latin America) just doesn’t do, which really breaks your expectations about how the syllables in a sentence should flow together, making things much much more difficult for the beginner to keep up with.  Truthfully, I’m not too ashamed to admit that it actually took me literally hours to work out that what they were speaking amongst themselves was in fact Spanish, and even then I was unsure enough that I had to bite the bullet and just ask Marden.  Not that I’m any expert, but their speech had a very Brazilian Portuguese lilt to it and I wondered whether on this side of Peru, closer to the Brazilian border, perhaps the locals didn’t speak the Peruvian national language after all.  And obviously it’s a big enough difference to be an issue for more than just me:  when Marden spoke Spanish to me, he’d always switch to standard Latin-American Spanish pronunciation, emphasis and rhythm, switching back to localese when he then turned back to Herman to resume their conversation, or to ask Herman a question on my behalf.

Anyway, the other inhabitants of Buenos Aires village also had no English.  Where I’m going with all this is a hilarious quasi-conversation we had with a local villager who happened to wander by as Chris and I stood around looking out aimlessly but admiringly across the river.  Many of the details of said quasi-conversation, I must admit, escaped me.  And even for the bits I understood, that understanding came only after multiple repetitions of the sentence in question.  But basically this congenial gentleman was offering us a local concoction made from the sap collected from cuts inflicted on a particular type of local tree.  I’m still not sure whether it was then fermented and thus an alcoholic drink, or perhaps some sort of hallucinogenic.  We declined it, so I’m just going on what I understood from the conversation.  But one thing we most certainly did understand:  one of the effects is very much like Viagra.  As he made exceptionally clear with a series of highly entertaining gestures and knowing winks.  Apparently ‘wink, wink, chuckle, chuckle’ is about the same in any language.

After that entertainment, it was time for another tough three hours of sitting around in a boat as we headed upstream to our campsite for the next two nights.

An anaconda

An anaconda

There were two options for the campsite, near one another.  We explored the first for about ten minutes, only for Marden to reject it on the basis of an over-active airborne insect population.  But before proceeding to the second site, we took a bit of time to head off in search of anacondas.  After only five or ten minutes of walking off amongst the trees, Herman’s jungle expertise had him bounding off into the bush towards some evidence that none of the rest of us had either seen or heard, and we followed to find him pointing out a smallish anaconda.  Smallish by anaconda standards, anyway:  it was still a good metre and a half at least.

It smelt bad – kind of rotten.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that it pissed and shat itself in pretty short order:  apparently that was some sort of self-defence mechanism.  But the smell was there even before that.  Marden told us that this was because it was about ready to shed its skin.  Evidently they stink around that time.

Anyway, we took turns holding the anaconda and posing for photos.  When it came my turn, I was amused to feel its ribcage moving in my hands as it presumably tried to piss and shit itself some more.  To no avail:  that particular defence mechanism was already exhausted.  Holding it directly behind its head with my other hand, I could clearly feel the detail of the bones in its spine – an odd sensation, to say the least.

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

After letting the anaconda slither away, we moved off to the next campsite and, well, stood around as Marden and Herman made camp:  one large tarpaulin on the ground, with mattresses to sleep on, another tarpaulin strung overhead for shelter from the rain, and a thorough-looking set of mosquito nets around the mattresses.  The campsite came pre-prepared with a bamboo picnic-style table (complete with rudimentary bamboo benches) and a couple of trees conveniently located hammock-stringing distance apart, so after some early standing about, much of our watching was subsequently done while comfortably suspended roughly a metre off the ground, swinging gently back and forth.

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table. (Actual sleeping happens off to the left, under tarpaulins and mosquito nets.)

Lunch preparations were afoot as we were lulling ourselves off.  Our Peruvian-time flexible schedule had us eventually chowing down on that at around 4pm, and then we were off on another canoe adventure.  We didn’t see as much this time:  more dolphins, some toucans, and another Airbus.  We were hoping for caiman, but no luck.

Dusk on the river

Dusk on the river

Still, dusk on the river was incredibly beautiful.

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

Our evening adventure was a return to the earlier rejected campsite, to see what we could find in the deepening dark.  Herman located and temporarily purloined a particularly large bullfrog for us to gawk at – a ‘smoky jungle frog’, apparently.  We tripped and stumbled our way around a little further in the dark, finding – or more often hearing and not finding – more frogs as well as other mysterious jungle noises, and seeing a few miscellaneous other night creatures.  The scorpion we nearly brushed past on a nearby tree trunk was a particularly entertaining surprise.

A scorpion on a tree trunk

A scorpion on a tree trunk

And then it was back to camp for bed at around 9.30pm.  To sleep on a thin mat on the ground, in a mosquito net that I didn’t quite fit in.  I got a surprisingly good sleep, though – my earplugs meant that I didn’t hear the monkey party that apparently took place in the trees above us between 3 and 4am.  And they also blocked out the gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle respiration of a few of those lying around me.  So I was well-rested for the next day’s explorations…

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