Peru Part 3: Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon

Of all the amazing adventures I’ve undertaken, spending time in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest is surely one of top three most memorable experiences of my life. From fishing for Piranhas in a dugout canoe and camping on the rainforest floor, to watching pink river dolphins and viewing incredible flora and fauna, to meeting the Yagua Indian tribe and being taught to use a blowgun, and watching one of the most naturally diverse places on the planet come alive after dark… it is difficult to find the right words to express how majestic and awe inspiring of a place the Amazon rainforest is….

THE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Iquitos, Peru
  • Camping, Fishing and Bushwhacking in the Amazon

My trip started with a flight from Cusco to Iquitos via Lima. When I arrived at the smaller sized airport, I was immediately greeted by multiple mototaxi drivers offering a ride into the city. At this point in my 7.5 month long trip, my negotiating skills in Spanish were well developed, and I skillfully bargained a decent fare to Hotel Camu Camu (I think I actually began walking to town after being offered several outrageous fares…but for most people this tactic probably wouldn’t work as the city was quite far away from the airport 😉 

Seeing as I arrived late in the day and the sun had set for the evening, the taxi ride to the hotel didn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing, however the conversation with the very friendly driver, Demetrio, was very informative. I had read and heard that Iquitos was a gathering point for individuals who wished to embark on a spiritual experience facilitated by the psychedelic Ayahuasca vine. After some brief introductions, the driver was quick to mention that he knew of a couple of local shamans that performed the ritual and asked me if it was something I would be interested in. I smiled and briefly entertained the idea… however if I was ever curious about such an activity, I certainly would thoroughly plan ahead to ensure my own personal safety, and I respectfully declined his offer. 

The remainder of the taxi ride was full of non-stop conversation as I inquired in my broken Spanish about the city and its various activities to which Demetrio happily answered. I don’t recall how long the taxi ride was, but soon we were in the heart of the city, approaching Hotel Camu Camu. Upon arrival, I was greeted by the kind staff at the hotel and quickly shown to my room where I relaxed and researched various activities in the area for the rest of the evening. 

After a good night of sleep, I awoke refreshed the next day, ready to explore. I walked outside and immediately noticed the difference in humidity when compared to Lima. It certainly felt like I was now in the Amazon river basin! I casually walked the few blocks over to the Plaza de Armas and took in the scenery.

iquitos-plaza-de-armas

The Plaza itself was a beautiful and well maintained but what surprised me was the traffic around the Plaza. Iquitos was the first location I had been to where all of the vehicle traffic was made up of Moto taxi’s and motorcycles. And there were quite a few of them zipping by with their blue, yellow and red canvas roofs. 

plaza-de-armas-mototaxis

After dodging a few Mototaxi’s while crossing the streets, I made my way down to see the Amazon River tributary, the Rio Itaya, as it fans out before joining up with the great river to the north of the city. I immediately noticed how brown the water was from the silt and suspended organic matter and how vividly green the plant life in this flood zone appeared as both made their way to the cloud spotted horizon. 

rio-itaya-iquitos

rio-itaya-iquitos-2

After walking along the riverfront I began to feel a bit hungry and started seeking out some local fare. For lunch I grabbed a cheap meal of rice and beans at Restaurant Al Vuelo II then shortly after walking around town a bit more, headed for the Wimba Tours office to book a trip into the jungle. 

Knowing that I wanted to spend a bit of time in the Amazon and that I was also desperately low on funds, I searched for a local, small scale tourism group that offered multi-day trips to lodges up the Amazon river at budget prices. Wimba Tours (http://wimbaconection.com) turned out to be the perfect choice. Although no one spoke English, both in the office and on the excursions, my Spanish was far enough along at that point to reasonably get by. I booked a four day, three night trip for a great price that included two nights at a jungle lodge and one night camping in the rainforest that would depart the next day. Excited, I casually returned to the hotel to get my belongings organized and ready for the trip while taking in a few more sites, then went to dinner at one of the many restaurants in the area. 

Early the next morning, I began my much anticipated excursion along the Rio Itaya into the deep waters of the Amazon River. I remembered the books I had read both in and out of school as a child, along with countless movies depicting life in the Amazon and was very excited to have the opportunity to immerse myself on the river and in the jungle to see firsthand if everything I knew was true, if the Amazon was really as beautiful and teeming with life as they say. 

Setting out onto the river on a small wooden boat with an outboard motor, there was a little cloud cover, but nothing to get worried about (I hoped) and one of the first things I noticed was how brown and murky the river water seemed. This was quite different than the grayish blue waters of New England in the states, and I attributed it to the organic matter that is washed into the water as it rises and falls over its massive floodplain during rainy season. Soon, about 20 minutes later we were on the Amazon River. I was awestruck by the great expanse of the body of water, along with how flat all the land around seemed to be, while medium sized wooden boats in questionably seaworthy condition, along with small dugout fishing canoes, were passing us by as they traveled to and from Iquitos. 

The cloud cover began to clear as we slowly made our way upriver to the dark brown waters of one of the tributaries, the River Yanayacu, and soon we arrived at our destination, Wimba Lodge and I settled into my room.  

After a filling lunch of rice, vegetables and fish, I met two fellow travelers, a Chilean about the same age as myself, and a middle aged Spaniard. Unfortunately, neither of them spoke much English, but there’s no better way to learn a foreign language than immersion! Soon, we were then introduced to the guide who would be taking us into the jungle to camp for the evening. After gathering my machete, camera, and a few other necessities, we were given some rubber Wellington rain boots and soon were off into the dense greenery of the Amazon river basin towards our campsite. Now, I had no idea what to expect, including what the accommodations or location of the campsite would be but always up for an adventure, I followed the guide into the unknown!

Immediately, I noticed the stifling humidity of the place and I just wanted to start removing my clothing and don shorts and a tank top, but the mosquitoes and flies were pretty aggressive, thus I was glad I brought pants, a long sleeve shirt with a collar and a baseball cap. With the humidity however, I began to sweat, and soon felt like every ounce of my skin was saturated. Thankfully, I don’t mind a free sauna experience 😉 and soon found myself reliving a childhood dream of swinging like Tarzan from some tree vines and enjoying the beauty of the jungle. 

After a quick boat trip down the river we continued our hike to a beautiful pond and set up camp.

Now, I guess I had assumed ‘camping’ meant tents, however it was a little more rugged, with our sleeping accommodations being a tarp tied over a few ropes, a tarp on the ground, a thin sleeping pad and mosquito nets. Unfortunately the photo I have of the site is a little blurred, but this was the general idea. 

After the main guide and a second one completed setting up the sleeping arrangements, we set out on a dugout canoe for some fishing. Our fishing poles were sticks, some fishing line, a hook and some leftover meat. After about an hour no one had caught anything, then I felt a few tugs on my line. I hooked a small piranha! The teeth on the fish were like a saw! Any ideas about cooling off in the water and going for a swim were quickly eliminated after seeing the teeth on it!

No one caught any more fish and soon dusk was settling in. The guide started talking about caymans (another reason not to swim!) and we paddled to a few spots on the pond with our flashlights. He told us to look for the reflecting red eyes… Then all of a sudden, the guide almost jumped out of the boat and caught a baby cayman! He passed it around and I remember the skin felt like some type of scaly armor. 

I was having a great time. On the water, the humidity was slightly less than in the jungle and between the cayman and piranha I couldn’t wait to see more. After this, we paddled back to the campsite and had a quick dinner of bananas, fruit and hydrated. After the light meal, it was now completely dark. I wasn’t expecting this, but our guides decided to bring us on a night hike.

I’ll never forget the experience. There really haven’t been any situations on an adventure where I found conditions intolerable, except for this one. Bushwhacking in the Amazon jungle…. at night. The place came alive, it was teeming with insects, everywhere. On each leaf your body touched, on each branch, and on the ground were multitudes of insects, namely ants. And when you grazed these branches and leaves they would pour onto your body. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad, but they bite. They were biting me through my sweat soaked clothing, crawling all over me and even crawling up from the ground, into my boots. As I walked, the ground was pretty saturated and I found myself stepping into a few spots where my boots would slide down into a foot or two of organic matter. With my machete, I found myself chopping away and moving leaf covered branches and tall grasses out of the way while at the same time trying to help the Spaniard who was in front of me by flipping the machete around and wiping groups of ants off his back. The guides must’ve thought we were funny, as every few seconds you could hear a muffled swear or exclamation of pain from one of us. Despite the torture however, I did get the opportunity to see some frogs and pretty neat insects on the hike. Thankfully though, after about 45 minutes traipsing around in the dark, we returned to our campsite and I was more than happy to climb into my mosquito net, exhausted from the day. Right before falling asleep, I did have a few passing thoughts about getting bitten by a deadly spider, eaten by a cayman or jungle cat, or becoming a delicious treat for a large anaconda, however at that point, I was too tired from the days’ activities to care. 

The next day we woke up and had some more fruit, the guides gathered the tarps and nets from camp, and we returned to the lodge. After cleaning up a bit and having lunch, we then set out again, this time to explore some places in the local area. We had the opportunity to hand mash sugarcane to make sugarcane juice using an interesting wooden piece of equipment, the guide educated us about the properties of many different kinds of plants, we caught a wild sloth high up in the trees, then we spent the remainder of the afternoon taking a boat ride to and visiting an animal sanctuary on the amazon river. 

Ater the sanctuary, we headed back for the lodge. I noticed the guide was traveling to the deepest part of the river and then he told us to look for pink river dolphins. It was great when we received a visit from a couple as they swam by. The guide mentioned it was pretty safe to swim if anyone wanted to and the Chilean jumped in the river. The sun sets fast towards the end of the day there, and as we headed back we had gorgeous views of a sunset on the Amazon. 

After some dinner for the evening we retired and I was excited to see what the next adventure would be. The next day we met with the Yagua indian tribe, and enjoyed some face painting followed by dancing and they taught us how to use a blowgun. A real blowgun was almost as tall as I was, and after a few tries I was able to hit the target. Then we purchased some homemade crafts from them before spending the rest of the morning relaxing, walking around and learning more about the plant and animal life in the jungle. 

In the afternoon we made our way back to Iquitos, and I was sad that my time in the Amazon was so short, however we did have amazing views as we returned. 

Overall, taking the time to visit Iquitos and the Amazon was an absolutely amazing experience that I would highly recommend to any adventurous traveler. Just remember though, if you go camping… bring a machete and bug spray! 

 

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