Jungle Fever in Iquitos

Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
Trip End Aug 30, 2011

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Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Iquitos, on the Amazon River in Peruīs jungle region, is the largest city in the world not accessible by road. Oh, sure, there are roads there, but they only lead to other places in Iquitos and a few surrounding jungle towns, not to the rest of Peru or the sea. Everything there - people, food, cars, etc. - that wasnīt grown there came in on a boat on the river or on a plane (like us). The first and most obvious manifestation of this is that the roads are absolutely filled with motorcycles and scooters. And many of these motorcycles have seats that can (uncomfortably) fit three people attached to the back of them and they act as mototaxis. Iīd estimate the breakdown of vehicles on the road as 40% mototaxis, 40% regular motorcycles or scooters, 10% trucks or buses, and 10% regular cars.

We took a mototaxi from the airport. The ride was exciting to say the least. Much like NYC, the mototaxis do not respect any lane markings - there could be three travelling abreast in a lane at one time. You are out in the air and the wind and road debris gets thrown up at you. It was crazy.

The mototaxi felt good, though, because of the wind in your face. Iquitos is hot. Not to turn this blog into the South America Weather Report 2011, (or to overstate the obvious), but the jungle is hot and humid. It hit you as soon as you walked out of the plane like a big wet hug. Our first day there it reached 35 degrees (95 degrees fahrenheit), with about 99% humidity. It was not what we were used to after a month in the Andes in winter. It felt pretty good for about 5 minutes, then we were both soaked in sweat and searching for a/c.

We found a hostel to stay in and began exploring the town and trying out different jungle tour operators. There are a lot of different operators that offer a couple different basic trips into the jungle. There are a few, like Explorama, that offer luxury resorts set in the jungle, with pools and waterslides and bars. These are usually only about 40-50kms from Iquitos, and donīt offer much in the way of wildlife other than a few birds that may or may not be kept in cages. Also, they are expensive, more than $100/person/day. So, although the pool sounded inviting, we passed on that. Then there are long (5-8 day) treks that go deep into the protected jungle. These are the ones where you have some (small) chance of seeing a puma, an anaconda, or more exotic forms of wildlife. We would have loved to do one of those, but we didnīt have time. Then there were the tours like the one we picked - in a rustic jungle lodge on an Amazon tributary about 100kms from Iquitos, lots of protected forest around, treks into the jungle 3 or 4 times a day, led by a guide in a group of 2-4 tourists. We ended up chosing the Chullachaqui lodge on the Tapira river, and we loved it.

We met up with our fellow traveler, Stephan, from Germany, and the owner of the lodge, Walter at 9am to ride the hour and a half boat ride up the Amazon to the lodge. After loading our bags on the boat, the workers were still loading food and other provisions and Walter says, "Do you like beer?"

I assumed he meant in general - it was 9am after all - but after we all three nodded assent he said, "Letīs go have a quick one" and so we went up to a bar overlooking the "harbor" (a ramshackle collection of boats and a tied-together bundle of logs that acted as a floating pier) and got a beer. As I noted before, they have big beers here - these were 650ml, about 1.25 pints. Walter got us one to split among four of us (Walterīs eight year old son, Kennedy, had a Coke.), so this seems reasonable for a 9am beer - just a little nip to start the day off right.

But no. Walter is not done. He says, ĻMy dad always said you canīt have just one -  you need to have three!Ļ" So he orders us another one, we drink it, and he orders us a third. We drink that, too, and we head off to go up the Amazon.

The ride was fun. The boat was long and narrow and had a huge 125hp engine on it. It could really move. We sped past larger boats and got our first good look at the might Amazon. First impression: it is huge! Itīs hard to estimate the width of it, but it could have been a mile wide where we were. Immediately around Iquitos there was a lot of river traffic - boats of all sizes and shapes going every direction. It was impressive.

After about an hour we stopped at a riverside store to get some more supplies. Walter immediately bought us three more beers and we passed those around, too. While we stood there drinking on the deck overlooking the river, river dolphins started jumping out of the water right by us. There are gray and pink dolphins in the river, but only gray came up to us that morning. It was cool, and we had our first frustrating attempt to photograph them as they jumped out of the water - holding the camera at the ready, trying to predict where one would surface next, zooming in and hoping that the next one would jump right at the little patch of water you are aiming at. Even though it was hard to photograph, it was really cool to see. This was one of those moments on the trip, and there have been a lot of them, where I looked around at what was happening - I was standing on a deck over the Amazon, drinking my third beer of the morning and watching dolphins jump out of the river all around me - and thought how lucky I was to be there and how this was never anything I expected to experience in my life. (It may have been partly the early morning beers that caused me to have thoughts like this, but nonetheless, It was great.) Walter got us all cans of beers for the rest of the ride to the camp.

We arrived at the camp and moved into our room. The camp was really cool. It was a collection of huts connected by elevated, covered walkways. There were three buildings that had rooms, a large dining room hut, a kitchen, and a hammock room. The hammock room was awesome. It was a large circular room with a high cathedral ceiling made out of weaved dried palm leaves. The walls were just mosquito netting, and there seven hammocks coming out of the center pole around the room. This is where we spent most of our (limited) free time. The camp only had electricity about two hours per day, when they turned on the generator to power the pump that filled the water tank. The whole thing was lit by kerosene lamps at night.

During our four days at the camp, we were generally either a) stumbling half-terrified through the jungle, slathering ourselves with DEET and swatting away mosquitoes, moths, and other mysterious bugs, peering into the wilderness for wild animals (of which we saw a lot) or b) napping in a hammock. Both were highly enjoyable!

Our typical day was to get up around 5:45 for a morning ride on the boat to see birds on the shores of the lake, then we came back to camp, had breakfast, and then took a nap. After our nap we had a morning jungle walk, during which we looked for sloths, monkeys, snakes, etc. Then lunch and nap. After our afternoon nap, we would head out onto the main river to see the dolphins. We saw both pink and gray dolphins and jumped in the river and swam with them. After that, we headed back to camp, napped, and then had dinner. Finally, we would head out after it was good and dark for a night jungle walk to look for spiders, frogs, and caimans (alligators).

We saw so much wildlife - huge 10lbs bull frogs, three kinds of monkeys (tamerin, red howler, and one I can't remember the name of), tarantulas, a huge big snake up in a tree, three-toed sloths, tons of birds, dolphins, and about a million types of bugs and ants.

Our guide was awesome. His name was Raul and his nickname was "Lobo". He knew an amazing amount about the jungle. He was from a village very near the camp, and he spoke a local language, Spanish, and English. He was still learning English and he would ask questions like, "I was reading a book about termites and it had this word I didn't know." He asked me to explain some English words for him, one of which was "extrafloral nectaries". I had to tell him that I had no idea what that meant. He led us on all of our treks, and he knew so many cool things about the jungle. For example, we saw some trees with spikes growing out around their base. He told us that this is to defend against eels, which during the wet season, when the whole place is flooded, come up and encircle the tree and release an electric shock. This causes a bunch of coconuts to fall off the tree. The snake doesn't want the coconuts, though. The splashing attracts fish, which the eel also electrifies and then eats while they are stunned from his charge. I thought that was fascinating. As other people came and went to the camp, they had various other guides. 
On our first trek, Raul picked up a small coconut-looking thing and chopped it open with his machete. (He always carried a machete on our hikes and it really made a satisfying twang sound when he cut through a vine with it.) Inside was a small "fruit" of whatever kind of nut this was and a big white larvae. He explained how some kind of beetle bored into the nut and laid its egg inside so that the larvae had something to eat before its metamorphosis into a beetle. He said the larvae was a good source of protein and jungle people ate them all the time and asked us if we wanted to eat it. Figuring that I would never have this chance again (unless my letters to Joe Rogan are finally answered and I end up on Fear Factor), I ate the thing. The taste was not bad. It tasted like a combination of almond and coconut. However, the overall experience was horrible. The feeling of having a living thing in your mouth and then biting down on it was gross. As I bit it, it felt like a small balloon filled with disgusting puss exploded inside my mouth. I managed to get it all down, but it was a near thing. Glad I had that experience, but I will not be repeating it.
One of our treks was to a small lake where we went piranha fishing. I caught five piranhas. It was easy because they are voracious and would go after the bait (chicken at first and then other non-piranha fish that we caught) with abandon. K-money caught two piranhas and two other fish. The four french guys who went with us caught four piranhas total between them. The French are apparently poor fisherman, despite these particular guys' choice of dress (mid-colonial). The piranhas were just as I would picture them, with huge sharp teeth. Back at camp, they cooked those up as an addition to lunch and I ate one. It tasted fine - not too fishy at all - but because the fish were so small, was quite bony.

When we got there, the area under the camp was knee-high grass. (The dry season was beginning and the river was drying up. In the wet season (Feb-April) the whole jungle, including under the lodge,is flooded, and you have to use canoes to do everything we did.) There were three guys using machetes to cut the grass. This looked quite hard, and it took them the better part of two full days to finish. After they had the grass cut, they dug lines for a soccer field and built two goals. We played a few spirited games of staff vs. guest soccer in the oppressive jungle humidity. When the ball was kicked out of bounds, it went into a dense jungle and chasing after it you had to be on the lookout for snakes or spiders. That was pretty surreal. It was also pretty hard, as it was 90 degrees and stifflingly humid, and I hadn't done any physical activity other than hiking for almost two months. It was really fun.

The last day we took a tour through Raul's village, which was really interesting. A few years ago the government built a sidewalk through the center of it, which looked a little incongruous among the wood huts and chicken houses (not to mention the chickens and ducks wandering everywhere). The villagers farm for some of their own food, but they fish for their income. They fish and salt it to preserve until they have about 100lbs, then they drive it into Iquitos on a boat and sell it. Most of the houses have small solar panels out back that give them about two hours of electricity each night. They rent these from a company for about $6/month.

There was a big soccer field in the center of the village. Once a month, the whole village is required to come out and help cut the grass on the soccer field. Everyone is assigned about a 5 foot wide section of grass, and they cut it with a machete all the way across the width of the field. Anyone who doesn't show up for cutting duties was saved a section four times as wide that they had to cut whenever they showed up, they had to pay a fine of 10 Soles (about $3), and they had to spend five days in jail!

That last one probably sounds pretty harsh, especially compared to the first two penalties, but in fact it is much, much worse than you are picturing. The jail (see picture) is about 3 feet tall by 7 feet long by 3 feet wide - like the size of two coffins. Also, a few years ago people went to jail and said that they enjoyed the rest, so now there is no food or water provided and if you need to use the restroom, you do it inside. I don't think people miss lawn cutting day very often.

As we walked through the village, we came across a sloth that was crawling across the sidewalk in search of a new tree and some more food. We were able to pick him up, take some cool pictures, and then help him over to a new tree on the other side. The way they move is really cool to see. It's sooooo slow and deliberate. It almost looks robotic. It was great to get to touch her and to help her get where she was going a little faster.

Overall, the jungle was definitely one of the highlights of the trip and we had a great time.
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Sarah on

Sounds like they need a public defender in that village!

Olivia on

i take back what I said about sloths. that one is about the schmooshiest ever!

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