Travelblog SA#15: Amazon Rainforest – Peru

6th-10th September 2018

 

Day 1

Leaving early, myself and a group of girls I was sharing this Amazon experience with left Iquitos for the jungle.

It took the entire morning to get there. First, we had to be driven to Nauta – a small port town on the bank of the Marañón river – where Vily, who would be our guide for the next five days, showed us around the market while he purchased some last-needed supplies. And then we boarded a boat.

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It wasn’t long into the journey that I began to see herons, cormorants, and other kinds of birds. When we reached the channel where the Marañón, Amazon and Ucayali rivers met, schools of dolphins appeared. Most of them were the grey kind – which are plentiful throughout the Amazon – but we also saw some of the rarer pinks ones too. I caught a video of one of the grey ones breaking the surface of the water in front of the boat.

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Arriving at the lodge, we were given a lunch of fried catfish and shown to the rooms which would be our homes during our stay. Jungle Wolf Lodge is located within a privately-owned reserve of primary rainforest. I took some time to wander around the grounds whilst waiting for the afternoon activities to begin and spotted lots of tropical birds. I also saw stirring in the branches of one of the trees which I suspected to be a monkey but it was too high up for me to see.

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We were taken on our first boat safari, where we spotted three kinds of kingfisher, a yellow-headed vulture, buzzards, blue macaws, and other birds.

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We also encountered a sloth and our first species of monkey; a group of pygmy marmosets which were busily drinking sap from a tree.

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Day 2

I had been coughing and sneezing the previous day and didn’t think much of it at first but overnight it escalated and by the morning I had accepted I had a cold. I didn’t have a temperature though so it was more annoying than debilitating. I slept quite well throughout the night, as the air seemed a little cooler here in the forest than in Iquitos with its concrete buildings.

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Just after breakfast, I spotted a group of squirrel monkeys in the canopy near the lodge and ran to alert the girls. I caught some videos, including this one. Later on, Vily along with Norbi (who was our secondary guide and boat-driver) took us for a hike in the jungle and showed us lots of interesting things. A tree whose sap can be used to treat stomach complaints. Another whose sap can be used to form a cast to set broken bones. We were shown an Acai tree, whose berries have become fashionable among health gurus in the west but here they use the roots to prevent malaria and the sprouting leaves at the top are an ingredient used in salads. Termite nests, which can be broken open and smeared across your body to ward away mosquitoes (the termites can’t bite you and they eat so many leaves they have a woody aroma).

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Vily also spotted a green-backed trogon, some big spiders, a frog, and the infamous bullet ant, whose sting is the most painful in the world. We also came across the nest and a ‘highway’ for a huge community of leaf-cutter ants, whom Vily explained do not actually eat the leaves but use them to help encourage mushrooms to grow (which they eat).

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In the afternoon we were taken on another boat safari but this time down the other side of the river, where we saw woolly monkeys, a monk saki (which are exclusive to this area and north-western Brazil), and a green iguana resting on the branch of a tree. We also saw a Chestnut-eared aracari.

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And then, just before sunset, we moored up on a beach by a small lake, where we swam, took mudbaths, and saw more dolphins.

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That night, we were taken into the jungle again to see nocturnal life and found lots of spiders, scorpions and tarantulas.

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I walked on ahead for a while at one point and saw a small mammal scurrying across the ground. At the time I believed it to be a rat, but when the others caught up and I told Vily about it he said it was more likely a possum.

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The highlight of the night for me was a huge toad we saw towards the end.

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I didn’t sleep well that night. My cold was getting worse. I had a temperature and I didn’t get much sleep.

 

Day 3

In the morning I was still feeling unwell but I was determined to power on through and experience all I could during my limited time here. I took a paracetamol and got onto the boat. That day we were going fishing, and our main objective was to catch a piranha. We weren’t very lucky in that regard but we did come back to the lodge that afternoon with several catfish which we gutted ourselves and ate for lunch. We didn’t see much in the way of new wildlife, but there was a large group of macaws in the trees above us and it was interesting to see them interact with each other. On our way back, Vily spotted a tiger heron on the bank (video here).

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After lunch, we packed our things and got onto the boat. We were camping in the jungle that night.

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The boat took us down a river we had not explored yet. One which doesn’t have an official name on the maps but runs all the way to Brazil. On the journey, I fleetingly saw a small monkey – the size of a tamarind, but a different colour – leap between the trees, which was likely a coppery titi. An hour later, Vily chose the place we would stay for the night and we began to set up shelters using a series of tarps and sticks we gathered from the forest floor as frames.

Vily and Norbi took us on an evening safari further up the river to try to spot caiman but we were unlucky and only saw a group of electric eels jumping the water. The ride was pleasant though and it was interesting to float through the Amazon at night. There was a storm going on in the distance which occasionally lit up the sky.

When we returned to camp, we lit a fire and were just discussing what to have for dinner that night, when we were suddenly hit by a series of gales followed by heavy rain.

It seemed the storm had caught up with us.

Our shelters had no walls, just a roof and groundsheet, so the winds blew everything around. Myself, Vily, and Norbi ran around the camp, taking down the mosquito nets and storing all the blankets, food and bags in places safe from the rain. As I was adjusting one of the ropes, a gust knocked a dead branch from the tree above me, missing my head by inches and breaking the frame of our main shelter. We made a quick fix to ensure our possessions were safe from getting too wet and then huddled together in the second shelter while we waited for the rain to end.

Eventually, the thunder stopped and the rain weakened to just a light downpour. Vily and Norbi began to rebuild the shelter in a place with better wind cover and further from the possibility of falling branches. Mosquitos, less shy now the winds had gone, came out in swarms. I covered myself from head to toe – and the few parts of me which weren’t covered, I kept spraying with repellent – but it seemed that nothing could completely stop them. They bit my fingers, my face, and even my legs and knees through my trousers.

By the time Vily and Norby managed to get the shelter ready again, I scrambled under the mosquito net but some of the mosquitoes followed me inside so I caught them all in my hands and crushed them.

Just as I was drifting to sleep, I heard a voice outside. It was Vily, saying that he and Norbi had managed to get a fire going again and were making food. I thanked them but declined. It was late, and I finally had a haven safe from the mosquitoes. It would take much more than a fried egg to give up my sanctuary.

 

Day 4

I slept surprisingly well and it seemed my cold had lifted. I was the first up and I went for a little walk around the forest and then sat by the river to watch birds. I saw a yellow-headed caracara.

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Once we packed up camp, we went fishing again and this time were luckier. One of the girls finally caught a piranha.

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We then returned to the lodge, where we showered and had a lunch of rice, vegetables and the fish we caught. We went for a trip to San Pedro village in the afternoon, which was a little bit touristy, but not untastefully so. It had a pond full of Victoria amazonica lilies, the biggest in the world.

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There was also a place where, for a small fee, you could pet a sloth but it wasn’t a form of tourism I wanted to encourage so I politely declined. When I first saw the sloth, I asked how it had come to live with them and they claimed it was an orphan they found and rescued, but that story didn’t quite add up considering that (I found out later) they had a total of four of the creatures. I also happen to know (from my time volunteering at Merazonia) that sloths are one of the easier species to rehabilitate and adapt very quickly once set free. They belong in the wild, and I was pretty sure the only reason the family was keeping them was to make money from tourists (many of whom are naïve and experience warm, fuzzy feelings when they get the chance to pet fluffy creatures, but don’t properly consider their wellbeing).

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I enjoyed wandering around the village and soaking up the atmosphere as adults sat on their porches listening to music and kids played football on the street. One of the houses had a display of some rather interesting ayahuasca-inspired art too.

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Day 5

The final morning we were taken out on the boat one last time and for a short walk. Our guide happened to know where a pair of night monkeys were nesting so he took us to see them.

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Their tree nest was also home to a pair of bats (which the monkeys do not mind sharing with because they eat bugs, including mosquitoes). Night monkeys are nocturnal and always live in pairs.  During the day at least one of them is always keeping watch for intruders and predators, but we were lucky and got to see both of them. I have a video which you can see here.

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At the end of the tour, we were taken to see the ‘Avatar Tree’ (which is actually a group of parasitic figus trees strangling other trees). Apart from being stung by a wasp and seeing a woodpecker, the rest of my last day in the Amazon was uneventful.

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Overall I had a great time with Jungle Wolf Expeditions. I got to see lots of wildlife, the food was great, the lodge was a comfortable base to explore the jungle and, most of all, Vily and Norbi were very dedicated guides who have a genuine passion for nature. I highly recommend them.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

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Travelblog SA#14: Iquitos – Peru

30th August – 5th September 2018

Sometimes when travelling you have rather romanticised expectations which do not deliver and such was the case when I embarked upon my journey to the Amazon.

The idea was that I wanted to reach Iquitos – the Amazon’s biggest city, an urban pocket deep within the jungle – by cargo boat. It is a famous journey, said to be one of the highlights of Peru. When I arrived into Yurimaguas, I set out to do just that. I caught a tuk-tuk to the port, bought a hammock, and set it up on the upper deck of a ferry which was being loaded with cargo. I had enough food and water to last me for several days, and the plan was to – like many a traveller and local before me – lay back, and watch the Amazon slowly roll by as the boat snaked deeper into the jungle, calling at villages along the way to deliver supplies.

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That was my intention, but it didn’t go to plan.

The tuk-tuk driver who escorted me to the boat and helped set up my hammock told me it was due to leave the next morning but, after he left, I chatted to some of the other people there and began to hear a different story. Eventually, I heard it from the mouth of one of the boatmen themselves. The boat wasn’t due to leave for another two days.

And I also happened to know, from reading about other peoples’ experiences online, that if they were saying two days, that likely meant another three or four. That, plus the four days of cruising up the Amazon after it actually did leave, meant I was facing being on that boat for more than a week.

It was a tough decision, but eventually, I decided to abort and catch the ‘rapido’ service – which leaves several times a day and only takes fourteen hours – which was a great shame. I was gutted I would be missing out on something I had been looking forward to, but being stuck on a boat (which for most of the time wouldn’t actually be moving) just because of an idealised novelty just wasn’t sensible.

I bought a ticket for a rápido leaving that night and, while at the office, I tried to sell my hammock to another tuk-tuk driver for less than half of what I had just bought it. I thought it was a very good deal for him but, after taking it from me, he refused to complete the transaction and started claiming he had already paid me for it. There were lots of other people there but they turned a blind eye and none of them stuck up for me. This was a small town, and he was a local. I was just a gringo speaking broken Spanish. Eventually, he drove away while I was distracted.

I felt quite low that evening as I waited for the boat. Not only was I missing out on something I had been looking forward to, but I was feeling isolated. It wasn’t just the guy who stole my hammock. The man who coaxed me to buy the hammock in the first place had misled me too (by lying about when the boat was leaving) and every other tuk-tuk driver I had encountered that day had tried to greatly overcharge me. I don’t want people to read this and be put off going to Yurimaguas or trying to catch the slow boat – as I do believe that everywhere has good and bad people and I just happened to turn up at the wrong time and have bad luck with my encounters – but my overall experience there was a negative one, and I didn’t feel welcome. I was glad to be leaving.

I was tired that night so, even though the boat wasn’t very comfortable, I managed to sleep. I woke up in the morning, opened up the shutter, and stared out at the river. I was feeling better. I realised that my ‘problems’ the previous day were very first-world and that, if it really was my worst experience so far – over a period of three months – then I am doing quite well.

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When I arrived in Iquitos I realised that I was there five days earlier than I had expected and had plenty of time on my hands, so I relaxed for a while. The place I was staying – Hospedaje Golondrinas – was owned by a lovely family and it had a pool. Most of the other gringos I met there were on their way to ayahuasca retreats, and I heard some of their horror stories about experiences with greedy ‘shamans’. It reinforced my conviction to not be a part of it.

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Iquitos is a little rough around the edges, but it does have a certain charm about it. The bank along the Amazon river has a promenade and it is lined with old abandoned boats which have been left to rust. Belén – a shanty town, further upstream – is rather grim in places but is host to the cities’ biggest market. Iquitos also has some attractions just a stone’s throw away, and I visited many of them at a leisurely pace during the days which followed. The Museum of Indigenous Amazonian Cultures had a collection of tribal regalia along with a great wealth of information. I chose to miss the infamous zoo at Quistococha, as I had heard bad things about the conditions its animals are kept in, but I did go the Manatee Orphanage, which was also home to otters, caimans, capuchins, turtles and lots of birds.

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Pilpintuwasi Butterfly farm was just a short boat ride away and I got to see some Amazonian villages on my journey there. Run by an Austrian woman who started out small but expanded it over the years, it is now a refuge of many acres and to dozens of animals such as red uakari monkeys,  ocelots, macaws, and even a jaguar.

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My real reason for coming to Iquitos though was to venture into the jungle, so I signed up for a tour with Jungle Wolf Expeditions, which are owned by the same family I was staying with.

 

For more photos from Iquitos, click here.

Travelblog SA#13: Chachapoyas – Peru

25th-28th August 2018

‘Chachapoyas’ means ‘people of the clouds’ in Quechua,  and there is no mystery as to why this region was named such way as you are driven there through a series of winding roads cutting through the mountains. I arrived there at night, after a long day crossing the border from Ecuador where I made a new friend, Henri, and together we gritted our teeth through a series of colectivos (Peruvian shared taxis, often with more passengers than seats). I was already noticing that the rules of the road were different in Peru, and my heart was in my throat during the final stretch where we experienced a particularly precarious driver who liked to overtake at corners and accelerate to over 110 kilometres per hour.

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Chachapoyas, the town, was prettier than I expected. Its streets were lined with old colonial buildings with balconies. Our first day, we wandered around, getting a feel for the place. We went shopping in the market, which was the centre of life and had a great variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, bread, and grains from all regions of the country.

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In the afternoon, we caught a bus to Huanca – a village a few kilometres away with wonderful views of Soncha canyon – and it was there we finally got to see the terrain in the daylight.

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Soncha Canyon beautifully demonstrates the extremes of this region and was a great introduction to understanding it. The Chachapoya people who dwelt here hundreds of years ago are mysterious. Not much is known about them because they fell into obscurity shortly after being conquered by the Incas who implemented a system of known as ‘mitimaes’ (forcibly relocating subjugated peoples to spread them out and better control them). What we do know, is that they somehow managed to thrive for hundreds of years in a difficult landscape and, one of the ways they did this, was turning its extremes to their advantage and acting as traders between those who lived in the highlands of the Andes and the people of the Amazon.

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You cannot easily judge journey times around Chachapoyas. Distances as little as thirty kilometres can take over an hour because of the difficult terrain. The destination is always worth the time. On our second day, we went to see Gocta Waterfall which involved an hour and a half down bumpy roads followed by sweaty two-hour walk.

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At 771 meters, people can’t seem to decide if it is the third tallest cascade in the world or the sixteenth. At the bottom, the water has fallen for so long it fumes into clouds. I have taken a video which can be seen here.

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It was our final day that we went to see the crowning jewel of this area. Kuelap, an ancient city estimated to have been home to over three thousand people.

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Perched upon the top of a mountain, Kuelap can now be accessed by Peru’s first ever cable car system and, while making this twenty-minute journey up the mountain, you can only begin to appreciate how impressive it is that they built it in such steep inclines. At the top, you can see for miles in every direction. The site has an ethereal quality which makes the Chachapoya people deserving of being ‘of the clouds’.

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Our guide told us some facts (and speculations) about the place. It hasn’t received too much archaeological attention compared to other areas, but the excavations which have been done uncovered curious things such as human bones ritually placed within bottle-shaped recesses built into some of the walls. There is also a large platform on the south side they believe to have been a ceremonial space. It has the iconic face of a deity imprinted onto some of its stones, and the small opening at the top is perfectly aligned to where the sun shines on one of the equinoxes.

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It took a full two hours to make our way through the entire complex, which is overgrown with trees but fairly well maintained. I didn’t realise that it would be so extensive. Kuelap exceeded my expectations in many ways and I do honestly believe that if it was in a country other than Peru – where it is somewhat over-shadowed by Machu Picchu – and wasn’t so hard to get to, it would be a world-renown attraction of much higher regard.

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I guess that it is a good thing in a way that it gets such little attention because sometimes the magic of places can be lost when they become too popular.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

Also, here is a link to a very interesting BBC documentary about the Chachapoya people.