The journey is often just as impressive as the destination. That’s how it feels lounging in my colourful hammock drifting along Rio Hullaga in the Northern Peruvian Amazon. It’s not actually a picture of tranquility; yes I have slept through most of the journey, but my hammock it tied to a big, old, rusty cargo boat belching out fumes as we chug along up stream. The deck is being shared by a small hoard of Peruvians that inhabit communities along the banks of the river. Most are returning from a journey to the ‘big smoke’, likely to stock up on essentials (I presume predominantly beer and chickens after scouring the cargo deck). Like us they spend most of their time sleeping, eating and playing garbage man throwing all sorts of rubbish overboard. I would prefer their garbage disposal practices be more in line with the western worlds’, however this lifestyle doesn’t come without its benefits; I can slag overboard without feeling the eyes of judgement at my back; the effect is a sense of freedom. This experience paired with the endless, untamed jungle feels truly authentic. The journey has just begun and I know it’s far from over.
Twelve hours after leaving Yurimaguas we arrived in Lagunas, the base for our visit to La Selva, the wild jungle. Our guide, Anderson, jumped onto the boat and swiftly ushered us out of the chaotic port, which was nothing more than a network of wooden planks above the muddy river. We were given the option of staying in paid accommodation, or we could stay at Anderson’s place. Option two sounded like a good opportunity to get to know our guide, as well as providing more of an insight into life in a remote jungle town. It was quite the unique experience. Anderson’s house was far more rustic than I had expected, resembling a wooden shed with a compacted earth floor. We were shown to the smaller of two bedrooms, later learning that the second slept 5 that night.
For dinner and breakfast we were served juanes (typical jungle fare of spiced rice stuffed with a small piece of chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled). We were all in bed early, partly because we were excited about the imminent adventure and partly because of the lack of electricity, Internet, television and other utilities we’ve become accustomed to. The ‘shower’ was a bucket of rainwater in the backyard so we didn’t take up that offer either.
The next morning, after a few hours of packing and collecting bits and pieces, Anderson loaded us, and everything we needed for the next 5 days onto a moto-taxi and we headed to his long wooden canoe. After cooking in the brutal sun for what felt like an eternity we finally took off along the Rio Hullaga, motoring past grey river dolphins until reaching a tiny tributary leading us into the Pacaya Samiria Reserve.
The real adventure began all too soon. Before I knew it I found myself wedged under a tree and it didn’t take long to realise why Anderson was freaking out about it. Severe stabbing pains absorbed my arm, then my head, and then it travelled quickly down my shirt, covering my chest and back. I broke free from the tree’s spell and then it was Anderson’s turn, I could hear him begin to scream. I ripped off my shirt whilst flailing to reveal what was causing the intense pain. Among Anderson’s cries I heard, ‘Vispas! Vispas!’ They were wasps! Better than my first thought – paralysing Amazonian ants. Mysteriously, Jana was lucky enough to escape without any stings, which was probably a good thing otherwise we may have had to turn back then and there.
The half an hour that followed was magical, slowly paddling down the stream towards camp one. We spotted caiman lizards, birds and insects at every turn, all of which resembled something close to the Amazonian stereotypes. I thought nothing of the thick patch of ‘river lettuce’ entangled in vines spanning the width of the stream initially. However, this proved to be a difficult stretch to pass; it took a good hour, a reasonably functioning motor, 2 paddles and a machete to get through the 200m-river block. I was up the front playing Indie (wielding a machete), while Anderson was driving and having to untangle the propeller every 10m or so. This was hard work, sweating up a storm and slowly losing hope with the end still out of sight. A crack of thunder marked the point where things got much worse. Within seconds, the sound of rain belting along the canopy reached us; initially offering much needed relief from the heat. We made it out of the entanglement covered in sweat, rain and bits of river lettuce and when I looked up, the sky was a thousand shades of grey and the trees were swaying in the wind shedding their leaves across the stream – what an adventure and what a beautiful sight.
The two hours that followed were much more mundane. We were forced to lie flat in the canoe covered by a huge plastic sheet to prevent the boat from filling with water. Unfortunately it offered no protection to our foam mattress, sheets and the rest of our belongings, which were already soaked. I fell asleep at some point during the relentless storm, being awoken by the sound of the canoe’s motor following an obvious breakdown in patience. Anderson was fed up and just wanted to get us to camp.
The rain finally stopped revealing a huge tree with a platform that had been built around it. There was one man cooking over a fire and another building a second platform out of foraged wood and strips of bark. This eventually became our bed. I felt so privileged to be experiencing this way of life and being able to live a few days above the saturated jungle floor.
The second day certainly wasn’t as adventurous but I was grateful for some tranquil time absorbing the incredible environment. Breakfast of fried plantains, 3 fried eggs and a fruit salad of orange, banana and papaya was served in bed. This was the start of my love for crispy plantains.
The days to follow were all quite incredible in their own unique way. We saw hoards of monkeys swinging overhead, heard the roar of giant crocodiles, found fist-sized tarantulas by torchlight, and witnessed a sea of glowing crickets at night. A few unexpected things did happen however that started to make the jungle a little unbearable, to say the least.
The first was the rain. We did visit during the wet season so I did assume we’d encounter a little rain. The days leading up to our trip saw some showers in the afternoon every second day but now we were experiencing several downpours on a daily basis. Other than not being able to do anything this also meant our things were constantly wet, including our foam mattress, which soaked up water from everything. Everything was wet… This was bad, but I could deal with it and not let it ruin the experience, but when combined with hundreds of mosquito bites and days of intense heat and humidity, I couldn’t help but count down the days until we would be freed from the depths of the jungle. I must have been so naïve to think I’d only sustain a handful of mosquito bites in the jungle. Long sleeves, a mosquito net and hardcore repellent with poisonous levels of DEET obviously weren’t enough. I’d hate to think how many bites I’d have right now if I hadn’t taken those precautionary measures. Unfortunately the net we were given did have more than a few holes and each morning more and more mosquitos seemed to have made their way in. This mixed with a thick layer of sweat and constant dampness got a little too much. And it was only day two…
We spent two nights at the secluded tree house and for the last two nights Anderson was going to take us to a cabaña on the Rio Negro. That sounded great, something with a little more room and privacy to take a shit. I’m not sure what the plan was for that day, but en route the little motor finally gave up. Anderson took bush mechanic to a whole new level. After disassembling almost the entire motor a small bolt rolled off the edge of the canoe into the water… I thought we were doomed. Luckily there was a small community nearby that would be able to help us out. This was also where Jana’s bowels would decide to deal with an impending bout of food poisoning. While Anderson and his buddy worked on the motor, we tried to find a toilet in the house of some locals that were cooking us lunch. We were casually told that the toilet was ‘over there’, off the edge of the pontoon ‘house’, in plain sight, right next to the boiling pot of rice we would be eating for lunch. This was too much for Jana and she basically lost it. Anderson quickly realised something closer to an actual bathroom was needed and eventually we were told there was a private pontoon outhouse a short canoe ride away. Needless to say there was a bit of toing and froing to this little outhouse for the rest of the afternoon.
This ordeal obviously put a big dent in our schedule, because we didn’t arrive at the cabaña until after dark, during yet another downpour. This downpour wasn’t too much of a blow, because on the way to the cabaña our bag (containing all of our belongings) ended up in the river after being caught on a tree and of course was soaked… Unfortunately when we arrived a group of local men had set up their own camp so Anderson had to quickly make a little shelter for us slightly elevated above the jungle floor. I really felt terrible for Anderson having to work alone in the rain whilst we were grounded in the boat, not having boots to handle the mud-fest. After a long day I was grateful for being close to horizontal. Finally lying down in that makeshift ‘bed’ I was taken to another place. I found myself lying on a plank of wood no wider than my thigh with a second elevated plank in the middle and Jana on the other side with a plank of her own. There was a gap between the planks creating a sort of arrangement I can only imagine being used in a third world prison. This mixed with my bites, my immense stench, wet sheets and the reggaeton blaring from one of the locals phones made for a rough night’s sleep. At some point during the night I found myself stuck under a tree once again with a tarantula the size of my face lowering itself towards me. I jumped, being awoken by Jana’s screams after literally jumping on top of her while she was sleeping. I think it was my subconscious telling me to get the hell out of the Amazon, but we were a very long way from civilization.
I eagerly packed up that morning, fighting the urge to itch. To my disappointment I found out we’d be spending a second night here… it could be worse… wait, could it? Yes actually, I also learnt we wouldn’t be doing any fishing despite my request when negotiating the details of the tour as well as asking Anderson about it everyday. Oh well, I didn’t want that to ruin our last day.
We went for a canoe through dense jungle in search of toucans, the other thing I was desperate to see. I don’t know why, I think my desire stems from a lack of Froot Loops when I was a kid. We heard lots of them, but saw none. I must admit I was a little disappointed, that’s nature though, I guess. On the upside we were lucky to get back to camp just in time for the biggest shower yet. Our shelter was in tatters and the rain was coming in sideways, not a common occurrence in the jungle. Once again, everything got soaked. After it cleared we were able to get a lot of it dry thankfully but we spent the rest of the day as prisoners to our mosquito net due to painfully persistent mosquitos. It’s as if they knew we were fresh meat.
The next morning, after somehow managing to get a decent sleep, we were on our way back to Anderson’s place in Lagunas. We motored back most of the way and I helped Anderson paddle for an hour or so through a thick section of jungle. He said within three more days I’d be a paddling maestro. At one point Anderson suddenly stopped. After a pause he turned and whispered ‘tucane’ – we finally spotted one! It was beautiful and had no issue with us staring. To top it off, we had lunch under a tree that was the home to a family of sloths – super cool seeing them lazing around high above us in the trees on our way out.
Lagunas is a small town by appearance, but it actually has 8 000 inhabitants. Realistically it is small, that’s what’s reflected in the infrastructure anyway. Whether this applies to all of the residents I don’t know, but Anderson, his family and neighbours don’t have access to running water or any form of sewerage system. All water is collected from the sky in a large chest freezer and old buckets. The toilet was a hole in the ground. The floor of the house was earth with some patches of concrete. The walls were upright wooden planks and the roof was made from layered palm fronds. All the food was cooked over a fire in an outside ‘kitchen’. There was no shower, no fridge, no couch, really nothing that I was accustomed to.
With this way of life taking effect on me, I didn’t even complain about sleeping on a hard wooden platform that night. After all, Anderson was housing us for free out of the goodness of his heart, as well as feeding us some pretty amazing jungle treats. I will admit I did want to leave the jungle as quickly as I wanted to start exploring it. However, this experience was much more eye opening than I expected. Not only did I get to explore the jungle, I learnt about life in the jungle and how difficult it was. There are a few big advantages to this life of course; the big one is living in the Amazon jungle, the largest in the world. The diversity here has to be seen to be believed, from the animals and trees to the exotic fruits, fish and of course the warm people. The other big draw for travellers is the lack of Western corporations. You wont find Starbucks or McDonalds here, or anything remotely like it. I also enjoy being disconnected from technology from time to time. A week without Internet and my laptop is beneficial on so many levels.
We decided to take the fast boat back to Yurimaguas so we had time to get to Tarapoto and leave for Ecuador the next day. Anderson walked us to the port early that morning. We hugged, said our farewells and boarded the boat. He waited waving until we were off, something my mum would do. He seemed so appreciative for our visit and I hope he knew how appreciative we were for all he’d done for us. My only regret was my basic Spanish and not being able to learn more about Anderson and his family. In saying that we still had a great bonding experience, one that I’ll never forget.