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.

Travelblog SA#5: Galapagos Part 2 (Isabela Island) – Ecuador

20th-22nd June 2018

As we got onto the boat we were handed two things; a life jacket and sickbag. It was an indication of what was to come, for it was a rather rocky journey. The sea was rough and the people at the back of the boat kept getting splashed, but mostly they just laughed about it.

At one point a man went to use the toilet, and they had to slow the vessel down. Perhaps it was just sheer luck, but it was at that exact moment we ran into a school of dolphins and everyone got up to watch as clusters of them broke from the surface and did flips, almost as if it was their way of saying ‘hello’.

It was ironic because I have, in the past, gone out on boat expeditions with the specific intension of seeing dolphins and been unsuccessful, and here it suddenly happened by accident.

As the boat pulled into Isabela Island, we were greeted by a group of sea lions who swam around us, coming up for air a mere few feet away. I got off, found a place to stay, and then wandered around the town for a bit. I was offered a last minute deal for a tour to a place called ‘Los Túneles’ so, only a few minutes later, I was back on another boat.

On this journey we encountered even more creatures. This time; manta rays. And the boatmen slowed the vessel down each time we passed one so we could watch their dark fins creeping over the surface of the water. On a couple of occasions they swam face up and I could see the outline of their white bellies.

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Los Tunels is a series of strange rock formations by the coast of the island and, as one of the many protected zones of the Galapagos, it can only be reached by sea. As well as being an interesting landscape in itself, it is also home to an abundance of wildlife. The first stand-out species we spotted were a group of Galapagos penguins.

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And we were also taken on a walk, where we came across some blue-footed boobies. We got to watch the male make his mating display to the female. A video of which can be seen here.

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Later on, we also came across a blue-footed booby with a recently hatched chick.

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And then we were taken snorkelling, where we spotted sea horses, turtles, sharks, rays, and lots of tropical fish.

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Getting back onto the boat later that afternoon, I realised this was probably going to be one of the highlights of my time on the Galapagos.

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The following day, I went to explore more of the island by myself, and I saw lots of species of birds. The first were a group of flamingos in the lagoons just outside of the village.

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And I believe this is a young egret.

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I do not know what this bird is, so if anyone can tell me please let me know.

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A Lava heron.

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Towards the end of the trail I reached the Wall of Tears, a historic monument to abuse of power. It was constructed in 1946 by prisoners who were forced to build it under cruel conditions for no reason but the amusement of the men in charge, as it never served any function. The Ecuadorian Government felt it wrong to wipe out this shameful moment of their history, so they have kept it to serve as a reminder.

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On my final morning on Isabela Island, I went (for the second time) to Concha de Perla, a small bay near the port which is known for its snorkelling. Lots of tropical fish and the odd turtle can be found there, but on this second visit something special happened. A family of sea lions were there, and the father and child both got into the water and swam with me for a while. They were very playful and kept swimming right up close to my face and then twisting away to dive down to the ocean floor. I copied their movements as best as I could (by dunking downwards and spinning around in circles as I swam back up to the surface), and I also followed the young one for a while as he darted between schools of fish and caught the odd one in his mouth. I eventually lost them though because I spotted a huge sting ray sleeping in the shallows.

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As the boat sailed away from Isabela, later that afternoon, sea lions were swimming around us, blue-footed boobies were circling the air above, and pelicans were diving into the water to catch fish. It was almost like music, and it was quite the send off.

 

For more photos from the Galapagos, click here.

To read Part 1 of my time in the Galapagos, click here.

Travelblog SA#4: Galapagos Part 1 (Santa Cruz Island) – Ecuador

18th-19th June 2018

You don’t have to try very hard to encounter wildlife on the Galapagos, it finds you. That was something I learned very early during my time here. Even as I strolled out of the airport and onto the shuttle boat – towards the main island, Santa Cruz – I saw my first pelicans. Most of them were resting on the rocks, but I witnessed a couple of them circle the air above and then dive, head-first, into the water, and rise again with fish wriggling in their beaks.

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And then I got onto a bus which trawled across a strange, dry, and yet beautiful land of volcanic rocks, small trees and cactuses.

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The Galapagos Islands are unique in a number of ways. They were largely cut off from the rest of the world from the day they rose up from the oceans and the species which did manage to make it here found their selves in a dry and barren place. But, even though the landscape was harsh, they didn’t have much competition, so they diversified – often in very strange ways – to survive.

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And there are no predators. Which is why the wildlife here are so tame and even playful. Over thousands of years, fear of other creatures has been bred out of them.

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You soon get desensitised to the sight of sea lions and iguanas. They are everywhere, lazing on the beaches and piers, indifferent to the humans wandering around them.

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On my first day, I only had enough time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. It was a good place to begin, for it had lots of information about the island’s history and the numerous projects of its volunteers to help maintain and restore the archipelago’s huge diversity. Much of their efforts are spent raising the number of land tortoises. When I said the island lacks predators that were true until the invasion of humans who – until recent decades – used to eat them. The sea-farers and pirates, who were among the first humans to visit these lands, learned that the hardy creatures could be stored on their backs and live for up to a year without any food or water, making them an irresistible food source while out at sea.

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The Charles Darwin Research Station was also a great place to spot finches, and I spent much of my afternoon there wandering around with my camera, trying to get good snaps of them as they flew between the trees.

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I also got to see ‘Lonesome George’, the sole survivor of a subspecies which were wiped out when feral goats were introduced to the island of Pinta. In 1971, he was taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station and given a comfortable life for his remaining years. A few attempts were made to try and breed him with females of a similar species, but none of the eggs were viable. He died in 2012 and was estimated to be over 100 years old.

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Visitors are only allowed to see him in small groups at a time and are also made to acclimatise in cold rooms when they enter and exit so as to not let too much heat in to stop body decomposing.

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During my second day on Santa Cruz, I went to see the rest of the sights around Puerto Ayora. Beginning with the walk to Tortuga Beach, I got to see more of the Galapagos’ strange vegetation.

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I was one of the first to arrive at the shore and there were lots of iguanas. I also got to see a great heron up close.

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I then walked to the far side and reached a mangrove forest which was full of crabs, more iguanas and pelicans and, possibly the highlight of the day, a blue-footed booby. I think I was very lucky, as most people have to go out on tours to see these creatures.

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I also went snorkelling in the lagoon, which turned out to be a nursery for lots of young black-tip and white-tip sharks.

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Las Grietas was another highlight of Puerto Ayora. It is a small canyon formed by tunnels of lava and its brackish waters are fed from both underground rivers and the sea. There are lots of tropical fish.

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Tomorrow I am sailing to Isabela Island, where I am hoping to encounter even more wildlife from the Galapagos.

 

To read Part 2 of my time in the Galapagos, click here.click here.

For more photos, click here!