We’ve made it to the amazon, a destination we hope will be a highlight of our trip, maybe even all our travels. It’s a trophy destination among globe-trekkers because of it’s unique and unusual characteristics.
It is both densely packed with flora and fauna, but so vast that huge parts of it have never been explored and charted.
The oldest home on earth
Rainforests are the oldest (land) ecosystems on the planet. The various ice ages of the past 100-million years destroyed a lot of life in their path, but did not reach all the way to the equator. So jungles have been intact for at least 10,000 years since the last ice age, which has permitted so many species to evolve unfettered.
Scientists estimate that there are some 50,000,000 species on the Earth’s jungle rainforests, most of which are here in the Amazon, and a lot of which are not discovered. A scientist found 50 ant species on one tree in Peru.
And there is the danger! The Amazon is host to the worlds most venomous spider, the most dangerous fresh-water fish (the piranha), the highly unusual and very common electric eel, the vampire bat and thousands of toxic frogs, ants, plants and trees.
Of course, I can’t not mention that humans are incredibly dangerous to the Amazon. Of those 50 million species, an estimated hundred or so become extinct each day, in part, because of deforestation and pollution.
The flooded market of Iquitos
It rains on and off as our bags are piled into the car that takes us to the Iquitos boat dock. The city streets are jammed with motorcycles, which are the favored transportation.
Iquitos is the largest city in the world that can not be accessed by road. Everything comes by boat from upstream over the Andes or downstream from Brazil. We get off at the dock.
Well, it’s not really a dock. It’s the edge of the road. We have come at the end of the rainy season, and what is normally a mile long walk down to the river edge, has become a short stride over the edge of the street. The amazon has risen to city level. Some homes are abandoned from the flooding.
The boat launch area is a beautiful market. Tropical markets in the developing world are always so exciting, with fresh produce and fish being cooked or sold live. We get our first glimpse of (dead) Piranha, which is so bony that they slice cross-wise to break up the bones, which are eaten along with the flesh.
Bean fruit, bread fruit, camu camu, star fruit, Aguaje, Cocona, Cherimoya, and dozens of other fruits we can’t easily get, line the stalls. There are a few grills where plantain, toxic in it’s raw form, are being mashed and cooked on the spot.
Our task here is to buy kids rubber boots. You don’t do any ground walking in the amazon without boots. The lodge supplies them, but our girls are the first young kids to go there (ever?) and they need to buy some boots, which only come in pink. Cute!
And we pile into the narrow, bright yellow, boat of the Otoronga lodge, which will be our home in the amazon for the next several days. They balance the bags in the back and ask us to shift so the weight is evenly distributed. That improves the boats streamlining and improves fuel efficiency.
The rainy season
As we pull out into the amazon, the river is much wider than expected, probably the better part of a mile across but very shallow. Ivy tells us that it’s the end of the rainy season, and the river is already at last years total depth with a month or rains still to go. In other words, the Amazon is flooded.
The land is so flat that one can see the sky and clouds for miles in any direction. Up ahead we see a localized rain cloud pouring on the river, and if a few minutes we are in a deluge. The boat has a roof but the captain motions us to roll down the plastic tarp that shields us from the storm which we pass through quickly.
Heading to Brazil
Settlements on the side of the river get fewer and fewer as we hit the 90 minute mark of our ride. It’s about 2 hours total downstream to the lodge and 3 hours upstream on the way back in a current this strong. If we kept going another few days, we would hit Brazil, and a week after that the Atlantic Ocean.
We stop in a little sugarcane rum operation and try some local ‘firewater’ – well, Trish does. It’s pretty ghastly, but authentic. We can see the vats of fermenting sugar cane pulp and a small field of sugarcane. They mix it with ginger, honey and one called -7-bark that is, presumably, woody.
We chose Otorongo for our stay. It’s a lodge owned and run by an enterprising young couple Ivy and Anthony. Ivy is a savvy Iquitos native who speaks great English. She manages the front-office while her husband, Anthony, from upstate New York, takes care of the jungle lodge. Anthony is a wild-eyed jungle man. He spends most of his nights prowling the jungle solo to find snakes and crocodiles, many of which he brings back for the guests to see.
To get this deep into the Amazon, you have to abandon all hope of a hot shower, electricity and connectivity. The closest village has a single phone line and a generator or two, but that’s it. They can charge your photo battery overnight by taking it to the village, where a local man will recharge it while he watches evening TV with a generator. This is not the place to be blogging. I’ll have to take notes on paper.
But what you lose in comfort and connectivity, you gain many times over in sounds and sights. The lodge grounds have been cleared of jungle overgrowth and replanted with dozens of flowering and fruiting bushes and trees. As soon as we enter, Herman cuts a Camu Camu fruit from the tree and splits it open for us to eat. The hard outer shell reveals two giant pits swimming in white goo. Yuk. But it tastes pretty good – like a plum – although they are difficult to eat with those pits.
Accommodations in the worlds largest rainforest
Lunch includes a beef stir-fry-like dish with rice, a vegetable salad, beans and fruit juice. A group departing the lodge today takes off in the boat we just arrived on. They seem happy enough. No one is missing any limbs or digits, which I take as a good sign.
The lodge is pretty busy over Easter Weekend, as full as it’s ever been, Anthony tells us. I think it sleeps around 20. Our guide Herman is an experienced guide from Iquitos that came in with us just for the few days we will be here. The other guides are busy with their own groups that include a family with 2 adult sons from Pittsburgh, a couple from Ottowa, a pair of friends from Hungary, and husband and wife from West Virginia.
The rooms are pretty basic – we have a twin bed and a bunk bed all with mosquito netting. The rooms are not particularly private because they have no ceiling except the pitched palm thatch one high above the whole lodge. And the beds are pretty stiff.
But it doesn’t matter. You don’t come to the Amazon to be in your room. They do have a toilet and shower with cold water, which feels pretty good in the sticky heat.
Welcome to the Jungle
After lunch we retreat to the hammock room, where 6 hammocks are tied in a semi-circle. I shut my eyes and take in the sounds of the jungle. Squwaks, tweets, croaks, chirps and hums combine in a unified drone, but you can also pick out each element like listening to an instrument in the symphony. The noises of the birds and frogs get louder as more rain approaches, and I drift off into a wonderful sleep.
It’s a tradition on this blog to post a Guns and Roses video whenever we enter the jungle: RAWK ON! You can pretend this is my dream while I sleep.
The kids get me up around 3:30 by swinging the hammock until I fall out. Thanks, girls. They are very amused with themselves. We grab our boots and take a walk around the grounds, into the wet for a look at some of the flora.
Herman tells us about so many plants that I couldn’t keep it all in my head. I vividly remember a tree that runs milky white sap, and a tree that runs blood red sap, which were pretty neat. And he identifies all sorts of medicinal and quasi-medicinal plants like the Ayahuasca vine, which when combined with a particular root, becomes an ingestible form of the psychedelic drug DMT. (On our last day, we met a group of ‘drug tourists’ that came to Peru to do a spiritual retreat with Ayahuasca and a Shaman.)
Just fall down, it’s safer.
The walk isn’t easy. The forest is flooded in parts and I have to pick up Lily in places where the ground water would go over her boot. The mosquitos aren’t swarming, but they are definitely there. We started our malarone anti-malaria pills yesterday, blech.
Herman gives us a short lesson in Amazon safety: don’t touch anything. Even if you fall, don’t grab a branch because it’s probably toxic or an irritant or has spikes or a snake or a poison frog. Just fall down because it’s safer that way. Lily has a huge fear of bugs so she is nervous, but does pretty well.
He shows us the Achiote bush which was fruiting. The dust that coats seeds inside the prickly pod is used as a pigment all over south america in food (achiote paste) and also for other items. It was once used as war paint by the locals, which I put on Emma.
After Dinner Herman offers a night walk, which we decline, partly because Emma and Lily are a little scared. But also because we’re tired. We rest in hammocks and share some travel stories with other guests and crawl under the mosquito netting for some sleep. The rain starts to pour again.