Forgive me if I start this article with Inca Cola. Sure, you are expecting to read about the majestic Amazon jungle but first you must learn about Inca Cola. It’s everywhere in Peru. I had some yesterday. It tastes a bit like Irn-Bru, that Scottish based energy soft drink. It must be the Peruvian national drink. Marketing genius to mix the culturally significant Incas with a modern marvel Cola flavouring. Equalling a patriotic drink for the masses. Coca-Cola and Pepsi seem noticeably absent in Peru although it turns out Coca-Cola in fact own Inca Cola. Like I said, marketing genius. Now, onto the Amazon…
A terrible night’s sleep in our hotel Casa Morey in Iquitos, situated on the upper Amazon river. Usual jetlag having us both up at 1am. When morning arrives we are met in the lobby by our guide, his name is Oscar. Oscar is a very energetic guy and keen to get on our way. Our first stop is a manatee nursery.
The nursery was set up to care for baby manatees that are often separated from their mothers and taken up by locals as pets. The nursery intends to bring them back into the wild however you can see the temptation to have them as pets as they are a little bit cute. Being basically blind, the murky Amazon waters has not much use for sight. They tend to see using their snouts and spiky whiskers which slurp around until it finds the grass or cabbage we held out for some. Allison turned out to be their number one fan. I’m certain I could have left her there all day, all week in fact.
The Amazon river awaits however and we grab lunch back in Iquitos hitching a ride on a tuk tuk all the way and then on to the makeshift port where dozens of long river boats are moored. We hop onto one marked ‘Otorongo Lodge’, our residence for the next few days. Soon we are zooming along the Amazon to our lodge about 100km down river and despite our speed it is a three hour journey. Quite a bit of debris in the river keeping the driver alert and the odd bump as an unavoidable log hits the underside of the boat.
One thing about the Amazon is it’s wide. Seems understandable I suppose but so wide that you can sometimes only just make out the shore on both sides. The river is about 10m below the usual height so large mud and dirt banks have been along the entire route. We are now scaling one of these steep banks and walk about 10mins into the jungle to our lodge through a thin film of mud in our thongs (before you picture something different, also known as flip, flops)
The lodge was, you’d say modest, being two simple buildings connected by an elevated walkway, the mosquito screens however looked particularly robust which was a good thing as it felt particularly buggy around here not to mention everything else crawling around the jungle floor. It felt pretty remote having not seen much on the bank for the past 100km from Iquitos and with Iquitos being quite remote in itself. It was a further 3 day boat ride down river to the Brazilian border and surrounding us on all sides a never ending jungle, the biggest jungle on earth in fact, the lungs of the world as they say, it would take your breath away, if not for the fact there were not so many plants photosynthesising.
Oscar has plenty of activities in store for us during our stay and he is our private guide for the duration. There is only one other traveller we’ve seen at the lodge so far. Oscar sticks to the clock too, so at precisely 4pm we are getting equipped for our first jungle walk. Slightly nervous as to what we’ll see or what will see us more accurately. It starts a bit nervously as we are issued industrial style gum boots to keep the mud and more appropriately nasties out of our shoes and prevent the strike of the many poisonous snakes native to the area. Allison sliding on her gumboot lets out a shriek and whips off her boot to see a small green frog hop out, yeah, great start!
We see a Pygmy monkey early on just past the lodge. Then Oscar hacks into a tree with his machete to see white sap oozing out. Scooping this up and hands it to us to feel. Instantly to the touch the oozy sap turns solid into rubber, essentially a rubber band which is quite peculiar. Oscar proceeds to give us a chemistry lesson with all the plants and all the medicinal purposes they have. Picking up a termites nest and rubbing it on his face to protect from mosquitos Bear Grylls style. Luckily not mistaking them from the fire ants at the next stop which can be lethal at high doses.
Not much in the way of large wildlife, but Oscar grabs a toad to show us at least. As it is getting dark and Oscar tells a story of how he actually got quite lost in this part of the jungle once when guiding some English tourists in pursuit of some monkeys. We are glad when he heads for home, and manages to find it more importantly. Persuading him to stop calling for monkeys for which he seems obsessed by.
Dinner is great and we get chatting to the only other guest for the evening who is from Taiwan. Although she seems focused on showing us lots of photos of butterflies she saw at the farm the day before.
Off to bed earlish with only a mosquito net and a flimsy plywood wall separating us from whatever may be lurking out in the infinite space of the Amazon jungle.
Good sleep for me, bad one for Allison, jungle noises keeping her awake. Seems she didn’t have much faith in our flimsy lodge to hold back the jungle.
Desayuno (breakfast) was great, it is surprising how they cook up such great meals this far out. Definitely organic! Most food growing on farm off the back of the small cluster of huts nearer the river.
Oscar is on the clock and at a prompt 8am we are kitted up for our jungle walk, this time a bit further and deeper in the jungle, gulp! Oscar explained we would go up river a way and then get out and walk the scenic route back to the village. After half an hour in a pretty quick speedboat it would take us all day to walk back directly, let alone by any scenic bits!
A little apprehensive of what the jungle would reveal we step off the boat and are instantly enveloped in the thickness of the undergrowth. Along with us on this walk is Hernando, our tracker and trail finder. He has taken ownership of the machete, the amazon equivalent of the umbrella when it comes to leading tour groups.
Hernando immediately needing to hack a path through the bushes and grasses with gigantic Ceiba trees towering above us covered in vines, all of it covered in a variety of mosses. The ground to walk on feels spongy like a century of leaves are beneath our feet. Soon into the jungle Oscar stops to show a signal Hernando has left in the broken bushes to show we had been here and which direction we had gone. To be honest it looked no different to the hundreds of other branches and twigs Hernando had hacked through. Needless to say this is one trip you don’t want to lag behind unless you feel like spending the rest of your days in the jungle.
A bit daunting to say the least and as I trail Allison wondering what she is making of it all, as we pass through our first of many spider webs a simple glance from Allison as she turns around was all I needed to know exactly what she was thinking, ‘Get me the hell out of here!’. We soldier on, literally feels like we are in the army and as time goes on we became accustomed to the jungle, a bit. The odd extra friendly vine making us jump on occasion but it began to thin out and was flat at least. The heat and bugs not great but not too bad, I mean it is the Amazon.
Oscar wanting to always impress mentions monkeys and soon he is trying to call them. Knowing his monkey obsession, and the likely results, we mention again we are fine if we don’t see monkeys. Most of the sights in the jungle are actually the flora and not the fauna with just about every tree, shrub or vine having some healing properties. So while we are just seeing tree after tree Hernando and Oscar are actually browsing the shelves of their local chemist. Hernando picks up some bark to take to his mother who has arthritis, apparently this will help ease the pain.
We did see one bit of wildlife, a sloth. Perched high in the tree and as they are want to do, not moving at all. Even if it was we’d probably not notice as it moves so slow, and was a fair distance away. After an hour of jungle walking the inevitable, ‘Quanto tiempo finale’ (When will we finish?) hoping against hope we were taking a shortcut back to the lodge. Thankfully we misunderstood earlier and we only had a short way to go to meet up with our boat back at the river, Phew!
With clothes sticking to us soaked through with sweat and jungle grime, the breeze off the river when we arrive is welcome relief. Back at the lodge a few refreshing Cokes, yes Cokes, seems they wheel out the Cokes for the tourists instead of the Inca Cola. At the rear of the lodge is an enclosed hammock room protected from bugs and a great place to chillax. Siesta is tradition here so who are we to break with tradition?
We wake around 4pm, actually set an alarm given Oscars punctuality as it’s time to check out the unique pink river dolphins. Only a short way from the lodge we stop, Oscar makes one of his many animal noises and soon enough a pod of river dolphins begin surfacing around the boat. Quite deformed looking they have longer noses than regular dolphins, flatter heads, are virtually blind and are a creamy pink colour. Attempts to catch them on film end the same way they always do for dolphins and whales, you think you have them in shot only to see the photo has just a ripple in the water or a few centimetres of fin at best.
Moving on we pull into a sand bank for a swim. Yes, swim. In the Amazon. Piranha territory right? Well that is why we got Oscar and Hernando to go first. When they don’t shudder in a bubbling mess of foam and blood we decide it’s OK and hop in also. That doesn’t mean we weren’t getting nipped still! A lot of little nips here and there made it very uneasy swimming. Oscar assures us it is just sardines but the murky water is impossible to see beneath the surface so who knows what was chomping at us.
After a particularly bitey nip I decide that’s enough before a school of Piranhas catch a whiff of us. Back in the boat and along the now familiar trail to the lodge waving to the kids in the small village each time and shooing the chickens out the way.
Oscar is hanging around as he is keen to take us on a jungle walk tonight to see Caimans, the Amazon crocodile. Alas it was raining and while I’m sure the Caiman would still be there, we wouldn’t so we have a few beers and a game of scrabble with bonus points if any word had any connection with the jungle around us.
This morning’s activity is to head out to see some ‘Hoatzin’ a prehistoric bird native to these parts. Fair enough, but we’re just glad to be getting out on the boat again! En route Oscar mentions it will require a bit of a jungle walk.
However it is a short walk, first over some mini sand dunes and then through a banana plantation. Hernando has been switched for the lodge owners father in-law ‘El-Sabien’. El-Sabien is pushing 70 and trying his hand at English for our benefit. We are known as ‘Mr Warren’ and ‘Mrs Allison’ and as we pass through a small rice field El Sabien’s new favourite English word is ‘Rice’. His t-shirt tends to inform us he is our security guard but knowing his English skills I doubt El-Sabien is aware of this. He is carrying two oars which I offered to carry but was rebuffed.
The use of the oars soon revealed as we arrive at a small creek. A wooden boat half submerged soon becomes un-submerged as Oscar bails out the boat with an empty can no doubt in place precisely for this purpose. Before reluctantly hopping in the boat we spy across the creek the point of our trip. Some large birds are flapping about not really flying anywhere, just hopping between branches, and making quite a bit of noise no doubt due to our presence. Zooming in on the camera they are quite gangly with an unfortunate head and generally ugly. Not being able to fly so well makes you wonder how they have survived from prehistoric times. Apparently they are poor eating, very acidic, being the key to their survival.
Oscar determined to get as close as possible so we are in the boat and paddling out into the the creek towards the birds which seems to make them more agitated. If they were ugly from far away, up close they are horrendous! Oscar now turns his attention to his beloved monkeys. Allison and I more concerned what may be lurking beneath the boat given the water is just about up to the edge of the boat and the creek is covered in a a mass of reeds which we believe makes for perfect anaconda territory! Then out of the blue Oscar makes his most memorable quote ‘I assure you there are Caimen and Anacondas in this water’ said as though he was looking for them.
Knowing that apart from acidic prehistoric birds not much else comes out this way of any size to satisfy a crocodile or Anaconda so we are looking like the best thing on the menu right now. We suggest heading back, to which Oscar agrees surprisingly, yet he paddles further and further into the reeds which get thicker and now surround the boat so much you can’t see much else. Before I take his oar and spin us around El-Sabien mentions something and we slowly turn and make our way back. On return we noticed the water in the bottom of the boat had returned so it seems we were also sinking!
Really hot day today so we spend the heat of the day in our hammock room for siesta. We agree we will build a hammock room when we return home. Afternoon swim and another boat ride and we come clean with Oscar that we don’t really want to do the night walk. Seems like we have let him down but I think it was inevitable, I think unless we actually wanted to go in and wrestle a crocodile whilst toying with piranhas that we would not meet his expectations. Oscar is a great guide though, very knowledgeable of the area and the plants and animals and we are happy learning what he knows than getting hands on with stuff that knows how to handle itself in the jungle and rivers a lot better than us!
Up at 6:30am for a spot of fishing. Nothing strange about that. Except if the fish in question is a Piranha and you are in another leaky boat and the bait you are using are hunks of meat which could easily just be your own live flesh. In fairness the lake we were on was quite nice, no reeds to hide the large beasts likely lurking beneath.
We have travelled up a small tributary of the Amazon and walked into a lake sitting alongside the river. This I’m assured will contain the fish we are seeking. This lake is quite long and thin like a creek and is actually what I imagined the Amazon river to be like, sure I get that the Amazon is big but this you can see dense jungle on both sides and it is overhanging with the trees on each bank, their canopy’s just about touching each other.
Allison deciding to have a sleep in rather than be on edge like yesterday’s trip. I don’t blame her and I was a bit reluctant but I just had to go piranha fishing leaky boat or not. Oscar tosses in his line, a simple stick with a string attached with hook containing a centimeter square of beef. A little trick being to splash the water with the end of the rod. Almost immediatley Oscar lands a sizeable fish and flicks it up into the boat. It is indeed a piranha! Oscar holds it up for a closer inspection and it has like two razor blades protruding from its mouth, occasionally chomping down on thin air. It certainly seems that anything that comes between those teeth will become detached from whatever it was attached to previously.
Now my turn, bait up, throw the line in, rustle the water and then immediately there are a lot of small bites, eventually one catches on the hook and I too have a fish landed, a little smaller but teeth equally menacing. I leave the unhooking duties to Oscar and he shows me a chuck out of his finger where a Piranha got him once doing the very thing he is doing now. Simply a neatly carved section out of the tip of his finger.
Oscar throws the fish on the floor of the boat and the two fish are now flapping their way towards me. Thankful for my gum boots I am careful where I place my hands, particularly as we continue to land fish, Oscar getting a barracuda which has equally menacing teeth. There are 8 or 9 now jumping around and you can eat them but as we depart today I am happy to throw them back to live to bite another day, like what I did there? I decide not to do a Rex Hunt imitation for fear of losing my top lip.
Take an early lunch then back on the boat up river to Iquitos. We say farewell to Oscar en route as he gets on a boat going the other way back to Otorongo lodge to guide another group, hopefully they will like monkeys more than us. We give him a modest tip which is always awkward but he seems happy.
Back at port we meet Lela, the wife of the lodge owner, therefore daughter of El Sabien. She is whom we dealt with to book the lodge and is very nice in showing us more sights around Iquitos and helping us on our way to the airport. We are early and arrive well before the check in desk opens. Looking disheveled and dirty we certainly had our fill of Amazon which was worth the effort most definitely but one of those occasions when you are unlikely to return.
Plane arrives just as a torrential downpour comes through, no sense in waiting for it to pass it seems as baggage handlers, engineers and passengers alike step out on the tarmac into the rain. Chaos. Needed a shower anyway so onto Lima, again.
Arrive in the night into Lima and our driver yet again, Carlos with sign in hand takes us through the streets of a gridlocked Lima to our Peru Star hotel. Hotel is quaint and quite nice, a bit tricky to navigate the tight stairwell with the bags but we are soon seated downstairs for dinner and try Lomo Saltando a traditional Peruvian dish made up of beef tenderloins over rice and topped with fried onions and soy sauce, delicious!