Jungle Fever in Iquitos
Trip Start Jun 23, 2011
27Trip End Aug 30, 2011
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We took a mototaxi from the airport. The ride was exciting to say the least.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.