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A Week in the Amazon Jungle

The following is an excerpt from my stay in the Amazon Jungle (Peruvian region).

Please see the Amazon River Photo Gallery page for more of this trip.

As I stand atop the thirty-foot muddy bank of the Amazon River, I look across the tall grass towards a Bora tribal village. I am about to spend a life-changing week free from the complexity of city life. Down the narrow dirt path wanders a young girl, no more than ten years old, stopping long enough to give me a look that beamed with innocent curiosity. Following her lead, an elderly lady leisurely walks by and greets me with a smile – her face caked in bright white powder from a recent healing ceremony.

Girl comes to
greet us

Heaving the two large drums of water onto my shoulders, I hike towards the small wooden shelter that would be my home for the coming week. The rusty brown path radiated with intense heat, and the sweltering humidity made every shift of my clothing against the skin a reminder of how grubby I felt. The eleven-hour overnight riverboat ordeal, which had only ended hours earlier, had left a mark on me, both physically and emotionally. Seeing the lush, peaceful surroundings before me, the fears of not reaching our destination gradually fades from my immediate thoughts.

I am three hundred kilometers from civilization. “No money in the world will ever get you out quickly,” the tourism officer in Iquitos had cautioned me earlier that week. From here to the sandbar near Pevas is 140 kilometers of winding tributaries. Hiring a motor-canoe to travel this distance is not easy. From the sandbar, a grueling twenty-hour upstream journey by overcrowded barge awaits you, eventually ending at Iquitos.

The modest hut where I slept

The wooden-slat hut rested upon stilts nearly four feet high, allowing the roosters, pigs and a lonely toucan to freely scour the earth beneath for scraps dropped from above. It also provided a much-needed, although ineffective, barrier against the countless bugs and insects who would also call these tropical grounds their home.
The young family welcomed me in to their home, standing together quietly, watching. Sharing no common language, I smiled and waited as Orlando stepped forward speaking their native tongue.

Orlando, my guide, was an ex-commando who seemed to be comfortable in any unpleasant situation. A rugged but slim forty-something with dark tanned skin and a deep monotone voice, his serious tone would be shattered by a flash of his gold-toothed smile. With a machete always at his side, he was ready for anything, and was instrumental in escorting me well past my usual comfort zone.

Two days earlier, as I sat uncomfortably in Orlando’s pale green office, I was suddenly struck by his tough demeanor when he asked,

For the next week, would you like me to bring my shotgun and we only eat what we hunt — maybe caimans and monkeys?

The hut consisted of three open areas – a main room that was large enough for several hammocks and an eating table, a smaller room for a teenage girl with her daughters, and a rickety walkway that connected to a cooking area that teemed with activity. The roof was layered with tightly woven palm leaves, allowing small hints of skylight (or rain) to stream down upon me. Large square window openings accented the sparsely planked walls, giving my room a very airy feel, complete with every imaginable irritating flying insect.

The air was fresh with the scent of wet grass, still lingering after the daily thunder and torrential downpour. A pair of blue iridescent Morpho butterflies chased each other erratically past my window into the field. With more than ten feet of rainfall a year, the lush surroundings come as no surprise.

My hammock attached to a sturdy beam, I fell into the handmade webbing and searched for some essence of relaxation. Unfortunately, the salty sweat beading down my face and the constant swarm of tiny flesh-seeking flies negated any of the relaxation that a hammock in the shade might have offered.

Life within the Bora Indian settlement was refreshingly simple. Two large hollow logs, tethered from hanging ropes, resonated with deep booming tones, when struck with a stick. The echoing melody carried messages over great distances without the need for a messenger.

When somebody dies or gets snakebite, we can call people from other villages,” Orlando explained.

The coca ceremony

I walked over to a group of men dressed in ragged T-shirts and sat as they took turns stabbing at a bowl with a pestle, crushing coca leaves into a fine green powder. A choking dark green cloud rose above the mortar. Occasionally, another sack of coca leaves would arrive atop a hunched worker, fresh from the jungle. Following the daily custom of preparing the powder with the ashes of a fire, the ritual could begin. One by one, a man would reach forward, take a heaping scoop of the potent mix, drop it into one side of his mouth and allow his saliva to absorb the powder. Ten minutes later, the drug-induced high would take over.

Maybe you could try a little bit?” Orlando asks. Amidst the sounds of heavy coughing and the feeling of being already overwhelmed by the jungle, I politely declined.

After ten minutes, you feel nothing, you don’t feel scared, you don’t feel thirty.

The cocaine-like drug brought visions, and often made them sick. Coca is pervasive throughout Peru, and it is no surprise that the region provides the raw material for two-thirds of the world’s supply of cocaine.

As daylight fell, I climbed back down to our dugout canoe to join Orlando, and searched for dinner. Paddling along the Yaguasyacu River, we paused occasionally to watch the silent arching of pink dolphins above the mocha-brown water and listened for the raspy screech of the beautiful parrots racing each other overhead. Finding a tiny inlet that cut into the thick jungle, we paddled under the thick canopy of vines and palms. As I sat still for a minute, an increasing noise not unlike rain began to surround me, accompanied by little splashes from all directions. With no rain overhead, I realized that this creek was swarming with small piranhas. Dangling nothing more than a bent stick, line and a bait-less hook over the side, it was only a matter of seconds before I had yanked my first white-bellied piranha into our canoe. After we had caught our share of the small beasts, we returned to the settlement for a bony, unsatisfying meal.

Days passed, each bringing a new experience and insight into the mechanism of a slowly fading indigenous culture. Their clothing was simple but civilized, and the shift of labor from farming to handicrafts meant more interaction with the populated markets of Pevas upstream. Walter, my translator, was frank in describing how life had changed in the region. There were no old-growth jungles near the river anymore. Vast expanses of the jungle had been slashed and burned for farming. Spotting monkeys swinging high across the jungle canopy was no longer the easy mission it once used to be.

The heat and humidity was no less unpleasant than on the first days, but I found icy comfort in a creek a couple minutes walk behind our hut. Climbing down to the rather stagnant water, I would quickly strip down and jump in – just long enough to rinse off the sweat and mud. At the same time, I washed my clothes and hastily wrung them before hopping out. Within seconds, the mosquitoes and other unnamed bugs started nipping at my exposed flesh, and I had to pull the soaked clothing back on to protect myself.

Crushed termites is
Nature's bug repellant

Accustomed to the continuous sensation of sticky clothing and unending sunshine, I began an overnight hike deep into the jungle. My bug repellent was next to ineffective in those regions, so I was shown Nature’s unique solution. With machete in hand, Walter slices through a huge termite nest on the side of a tree. Before the thousands of termites have had the chance to relocate, Walter simply placed his hand inside the nest and pulled it out seconds later as the pulsing mass of termites began to ascend his arm. Rubbing both hands together, the crawling army was reduced to a pungent brown liquid, which he then smeared all over his arms and face.

Taking a moment’s rest on a fallen tree, I sat, drinking my water sparingly. Orlando walked over to a nearby bush and stabbed his hand at the ground. Upon returning, he showed me the fangs of a large furry tarantula, while squeezing the abdomen to keep the spider at bay. With a poorly hidden smile, he placed the tarantula beside me on the log as it scurried in my direction. Taking the cue to go, I pressed on, deeper into the jungle as the daylight waned above.

Eventually I arrive at a clearing, tied my hammock to a pair of trees and lit a small fire. Orlando, sitting close to the flames, opened a small vial he had in his hand and began to murmur a chant to the busy woods. Asking for protection from the animals of the night, his chant was drowned out by the deafening hiss and hum of the insects from all directions. I watched him as he poured the yellow fluid into his mouth, sprayed it out into the air around him, and resumed his chant. Darkness everywhere. The flickering walls of the forest around me became alive with sound. Watching the last embers of light dissolve into nothing, the eerie night had only just begun.

Orlando
beside the fire


Hear the sounds of the Amazon jungle at night

Check out the Video page for a short clip from a midnight walk through the jungle.

 


Reader's Comments:

Please leave your comments or suggestions below!
2016-01-03Taylor
 I will try to reside in Amazon. Who has interest in participating with me?
2010-01-12Chris
 A friend and I are planning on making a one week expedition into the Amazon this summer. We both want to experience the real amazon, not some contrived and commercial version of it. We are planning on flying into Iquitos and find a local guide once we're there. A couple of questions if you don't mind;

What advice would you have in choosing a guide to take us out?

Would you happen to have the contact info of the guide that you used?

Approximately what type of costs would we be looking at?

Thanks a lot for all your help,

Chris Stewart
 Sounds like a great plan, so long as you don't mind taking a chance that things might not work out perfectly (eg. you have trouble finding someone, or that they take you to a jungle lodge, etc.). There was a list of registered guides in the tourist office within Iquitos (should be safest bet), but I sensed that these were all associated with particular jungle lodges, so take advantage of that if you want more accountability on the part of the guide.

My suggestions: make sure you're comfortable with the guide, and consider bringing along a separate translator (for indigenous languages), if needed. For your own safety, it may be worth negotiating a 50% payment up-front, with 50% upon return. I don't have Orlando's contact info (this was some time ago), but I am sure there are many others who ask around for similar trips, so it's likely that a number of guides are available without much searching.... but please report back what you found!

As for costs, I don't actually recall what we spent, but it was only a small fraction of what a 3-day jungle lodge excursion was quoted to be. I have no idea how costs may have changed over time, but it's a pretty reasonable assumption that the more established and experienced a guide his, the more he'll charge (especially if many tourists are looking for similar arrangements).

Have a fantastic trip if you go ahead! Please report back on your experience!
2010-01-10Angela moretti
 I am fascinated and hoping to go one day. When you go do you see like tigers and lions and big animals like that? I seen a video where a man got eaten by a lizard in the Australian jungle. Does this happen there too?
 We didn't see any of those! It seems that most animals generally try to stay as far away from human contact as possible; otherwise they would likely be hunted.
2009-10-24Benudhar
 Beautiful writing
2009-07-30Paul
 Wow, this is exactly the type of experience my wife and I are looking for. We are headed to Peru this fall (probably October) and had been looking at the jungle lodges. They all seem so contrived and "fake". I read through all the other comments and saw that finding a guide willing to take us deep into the Amazon may be difficult, but how did you choose WHERE the guide would take you? Was there something special about that particular village? Or did Orlando just happen to know someone/have a deal with the villagers?

Also, one of our biggest hopes is to really see a lot of birds. it looks like you brought a small point-and-shoot camera, but I would be interested in bringing my larger SLR with several lenses. We'd also want to bring some binoculars. Is this a wise idea? Or would you recommend against that?

Is what you did something that happens quite a bit with the more adventurous travellers? I mean, there's a fair bit of risk inherent in doing something like that, obviously, but was this something that seemed unusual to the folks you were talking to before you found Orlando?

Finally, my wife is a vegetarian. How difficult might this make such an experience?

Sorry for all the questions, but I'm totally fascinated by what you experienced!
Cheers,
Paul
 Hi there Paul -- You sound like you have a similar viewpoint on what you'd like to get out of your experience. It is certainly becoming harder to find less-contrived "lodges", and much of this is due to the fact that travelers often try to arrange for their experience before departing. Performing this type of research over the web generally leads you to websites associated with established operations that will naturally become well-traveled over time.

The advantage with arranging overseas is that a) there's a good chance that your arrangements will go ahead when you arrive and b) that your safety/comfort/experience is protected by an ongoing reputation of the company you're dealing with. On the downside, there is a greater chance that you may come away feeling that the experience wasn't unique or truly natural.

In our case we lucked out because our guide already had a relationship with a family in a smaller community quite some distance away from the populated centers. If you don't mind taking some chances with your plans and wouldn't be upset if things didn't work out, I'd be inclined to ask around in Iquitos to meet local guides. Ask each person what they can offer you, where they'll take you (on a map), how much experience they've had and what they'll do for your food, transportation, etc. Given the importance of trust with anyone in this position, you'll probably find that well-respected guides will have some sort of guestbook to capture previous travelers' experiences. This is probably a good way to get started. Given the relatively large compensation for jungle guides, I don't think you'd have that many troubles finding a few guides in a single day of asking around town.

I did see a number of birds and butterflies, and would have spent more time trying to photograph them if I wasn't as absorbed by everything else to experience. I had brought my Canon SLR (film) and a single ultrawide zoom to keep the gear weight down. With your interest in bringing a moderate amount of gear, I think you're going to have some great opportunities, but I'd caution about bringing too much. Reasons: a) in some populated areas I felt that I had to watch my gear, so it may be worth bringing a PacSafe b) with the heat and humidity it can be a challenge to lug around a lot of gear c) traveling between dugout canoes with a lot of gear can be a challenge if you need to keep it dry!

Regarding risk, it's a little hard to judge. I tend to take more chances than others might, but I would presume that most people are far more worried than they need to be. While there are a few bad apples out there, there are many more who are actually very friendly but language and poverty barriers may lead one to assume otherwise.

I can't really comment on the food choices as I think it's highly dependent upon who you're with. Even though we had quite a bit of meat and fish, there are many fruits in these regions so I'm pretty sure that you'd be able to find some alternatives.

Have a great journey and please report back with how things went!
2009-02-04Derek
 What's the hunting like in Peru? Can a foreigner own a shotgun or rifle or both and do some hunting ?
 I honestly can't say... perhaps others may be able to offer their input.
2008-10-11Sonja
 i think you should make a research page for people that have projects and they want to talk about peru ..... and i think that you should have a few videos for people to no what peru would be like :)
2008-04-13Matt
 Great story, I have been searching the net for exactly this kind of information you have provided.

I am going to be in Mexico for the summer and will have about a week afterward, mid August, to travel around a bit as I want. Naturally the Amazon is of great interest. I have a few questions, since I would be leaving from Mexico City, what would you recommend as the best way to get there? Also which is the preferred place to go Peru or Brasil? Iquitos is where you basically started right? And where did you end? Lastly what is the best way to get to Iquitos?

Thanks in advance.
-Matt
 Thanks... Since I haven't been to Brazil, I can't comment on what I'd recommend. However, I certainly really enjoyed Peru -- especially the experience in the Amazon. If you only have a week, then I would recommend flying into Lima, Peru and then finding a connecting internal flight to Iquitos. The other popular jungle region in Peru is Manu, but I opted for the Amazon instead.

For my trip in Peru, here is roughly where I went: Lima, Cusco + Machu Picchu (4 days), Lake Titicaca (Isla Amantani), Iquitos + Amazon (1 week). For the amazon portion, we arrived in Iquitos, found someone on the street to take us on a boat, took the long boat trip a ways up the amazon, spent a week in the jungle village, and then returned to Iquitos. I am so glad that we didn't decide to book into one of the Amazon Jungle Lodges -- I'm sure we would have been very disappointed. Have a great trip, you'll love it!
2008-04-13Matt
 Great story, I have been searching the net for exactly this kind of information you have provided.

I am going to be in Mexico for the summer and will have about a week afterward, mid August, to travel around a bit as I want. Naturally the Amazon is of great interest. I have a few questions, since I would be leaving from Mexico City, what would you recommend as the best way to get there? Also which is the preferred place to go Peru or Brasil? Iquitos is where you basically started right? And where did you end? Lastly what is the best way to get to Iquitos?

Thanks in advance.
-Matt
 
2007-08-06Tonya
 I am a 32 year old female and an attractive, fit one at that. I was in the Marine Corps. But, I would like to go into the jungle and not into a jungle lodge but deep into the jungle... as you said, so deep that no amount of money could get me out quickly. I desire the authentic experience. I want the rough time of things. I will have two weeks minus flight time from the states. But I will be going alone. My question is this, do you think I am crazy to do this alone as a female? Is it too unsafe? I'm guessing the guides are all males... I can hold my own but I am not so naive as to not know that an average man can overpower me.

Your thoughts since you have been there...

Kind regards,
Tonya
 Given how one's experiences are largely based around a limited number of people you meet on such a journey, it would be hard to guarantee anything. Traveling with my wife, this issue was certainly on our minds too. To be honest, she did encounter some unpleasantness from a drunk man on the overnight river boat, other locals were quick to help us out.

I think the key will be finding a guide who you can trust and who is equipped to protect you. Over time one becomes better at reading people. There are a large number of "licensed" guides in Iquitos, but most of them apparently take you to the same jungle lodges and cost a fortune. I wasn't interested in this, and it sounds like you wouldn't be either. The advantage these licensed guides provide is that they would lose their listing (and hence business) if something were to happen. The local tourist office did try to scare us away from using the person we did (i.e. unlicensed), but I couldn't help but think that some of this talk was partly commission-driven advice.

For the most part, the people we met were incredibly friendly, especially once we left the densely populated areas. I doubt that you would run into troubles while you are out, especially if you carry yourself with confidence -- and a guide should be there for you anyways if you had some difficulties. The experience will be incredible, so I would tend to overlook the relatively small likelihood of trouble.
2007-04-19Janie
 Will visit the headwaters of the Amazon via large boat (13 cabins) ... with day hikes. Are snakes very prevalent? Please recommend what sort of shoes and clothing for this experience in September. Thanks in advance. I certainly enjoyed your story. Can't wait to go myself!
Janie
 While I didn't see any, our guide did alert us to the sounds of a Bushmaster snake during our walk at night. Ideally, one would probably consider wearing rubber boots for shorter hikes, but solid hiking boots seemed adequate for us a lot of the time. For clothing, I would recommend getting some high-quality synthetics that dry quickly. You don't want to bring cotton jeans / shirts as they will never dry. Downpours happen frequently (but are short-lived), so you have to expect to get a little wet sometimes! Having these materials also makes your clothing much lighter and easier to pack. When we were there (same time of year), we wished that we had brought with us a face net (for sweat-flies, mosquitos, etc.) as they can be a little irritating when you start to sweat in the heat. There were a lot of little bugs flying around, and they seemed to like being in your face. A little head-net (designed for mosquitors) might be useful if you need a break from them. We found that our mosquito-net wrapped hammocks were a great way to relax, despite the bugs around us. If you're doing an overnight, this is a necessity. Bring lots of DEET mosquito repellant, too, as you'll need to re-apply it more frequently because of the sweat.

Have an amazing trip!
2007-03-10Chad
 Thanks for the quick response I did have one additional question in light of my willingness to take risk and go far into the jungle...my girlfriend who isn't going insist on buying me a GPS unit...how nessecarry do you think it is that I have a device like that. Do you think it would be a benefit...would I ever use it.....?
 Even one of the cheapest models can be extremely useful for a trip like this. I decided to buy one for my trip to Cambodia and it turned out to be great for the piece of mind and knowledge of how to get back to certain places. It is probably one of the best items to bring along. Get one that can take batteries, not one that needs to be recharged.
2007-03-09Chad
 You mention that you want to get off the main trek...I definitely hear you that is what I'm looking for I'm going to Peru and the Amazon in july august and can go for 5-6weeks..my trip intenerary is a blank canvas at this point..I want to go as far away from the tourist as possible and stay in the jungle as long as possible...How far would you go...Any suggestions sounds very difficult to get a guide to go real far? is that correct?
 You will definitely have a unique experience with that sort of approach. What I found is that the jungle lodges were very expensive and nearly all of them were not that far from the city (30 to 160km downstream from Iquitos). I'm can bet that most of them would feel very contrived. We paid many times less for a much more authentic experience.

Instead, I strongly recommend working on your spanish so that you can talk around to find and arrange an individual trip with a local guide who is not associated with a particular lodge. There is certainly some risk in this, so you'll need to rely on your ability to judge someone's character (and paying for the remainder of their time after the trip). This is one risk that can really turn into an amazing experience.

We went about 300km downstream, and we passed countless small villages along the way past Pevas. You'll need to find someone who is familiar and accepted in one of these places. Ask around - It shouldn't take long before you find someone who can recommend such a person to you. I found our guy within an hour or two of arriving in Iquitos. If you don't feel comfortable with your spanish, then hire a well-speaking english guide in town and bring him along in your search and trip as well.
2006-05-04CJ
 Beatiful writing! A friend of mine and I are planning on doing a week long trip into the Amazon sometime after June 2006. Couple of questions:
1. When is the best time to go?
2. What route did you take to get to Peru? (I live in Kansas City, MO)
3. How expensive is the stay in Peru (guide included)

Thanks again for sharing this info....
CJ.
 Thanks!!! I am sure that you will have an incredible time, especially if you can stay for an entire week within the Amazon. I would suggest that you try to get as far away from Iquitos as possible, as it's important to get away from the big tourism centre -- much of the wildlife has fled from nearby areas. Spending the time and money to make your way further down the Amazon is worthwhile.

I think that you will probably want to avoid the rainy season, as it can be pretty difficult if you are not prepared for it. The dry season tends to be around May to October -- we went during September, and had the occasional torrential downpour for variety :)

As for our route, I can't recall the path we took, but it was probably the cheapest connections, which also meant the most inconvenient :)

One of the things that made Peru a great place to travel is how affordable it was. We started off our trip with the most expensive accommodation at ~U$15/night and worked our way down to U$5/night (and free in the jungle!). Hostels are a great way to get a genuine feel for the place, but one has to have an open mind to new experiences! I can't remember the guide costs, but they were relatively cheap and certainly worth it, when it seemed appropriate.

It's easy to find decent guides in the more touristy locales. We had an excellent one for several days around Cuzco (and the Sacred Valley) that really made all the difference for the start of our trip. Finding one in the Amazon was much harder, as we didn't want one that was tied specifically to a commercial jungle lodge like most of them were. So, we had to take some risks, but the reward was incredible. Have a great time and feel free to ask any other questions.
2006-04-22Melany
 Hi,

question: how plentiful are the tarantulas? Did you see lots? I'll be in the Amazon in a couple of weeks (only for about 3 days) but am terrified of large spiders....
 I wouldn't worry about them at all. We had to look really hard to find any at all. Don't be worried -- it will be an incredible experience in so many ways. Enjoy!
2006-04-02Doug
 I am heading to Peru in August and am interested in exploring as you have done. Are there many people in Iquitos who will guide such adventures? How much money did you spend? Any advice is appreciated.
 You'll love it! As for finding someone suitable, I must say it's not easy. My travel style is typically: book the flight with nothing else planned, then walk around and meet people, trying to find an interesting way to get off the main path. Trust is a huge element, though. The safe route is probably to go to the Tourism office in Iquitos, where you can find a list of licensed guides (ours wasn't). Many of these seem to stay close (within 150km) of Iquitos in their own jungle lodges -- something that I didn't care for. Talking to local drivers you might find by way of word of mouth about others who are known / respected (that's how I found Orlando). As for cost, I can't remember, but it wasn't much. There are expensive speed boats for more comfortable transport, but then you'd miss out on a big part of the experience. If there's one thing I wished that I brought, it would have been a $5 face-net for mosquitos. Have a fantastic time!
2006-02-14Greg
 Awesome writing! Normally when Internet surfing for whatever reason (in my case - did a search for a push-up routine and found this site....), you skip over most things you come across....

In your case, I was drawn in by your writing and read the whole thing.

Felt like I was there.

I'll never look termites the same again.

Nice.

Aloha,
Greg.
 Thank-you Greg... Glad you enjoyed it. However, I think I'll stick to the drugstore insect repellant in the future!
2006-01-19Lisa
 On Jan. 31 I am off to the Amazon. Can you tell me if it is worth investing in quick dry clothing vs. taking ratty old cotton t shirts and khakis?
 Lisa -- I'm sure that you're going to have an incredible trip!! I actually found having the quick dry clothing to be a life-saver for me, and I believe it to be well worth the money. The humidity, heat and changing environments meant that packing light and quickly drying off was key to keeping comfortable. Enjoy!!
2005-11-25Linda Steele
 We shall be visiting Perua 3 weeks end Feb 06. Bill has only ever stayed in a 5* hotel. Your description sounds 100% better. I'm going to print and read your story to him later - hope I clinch the deal and we find another Orlando to help us with our journey. Thanks - facinating reading.x
2005-01-02chelsea
 

INCREDIBLE PICTURES! Also your writings got me hooked. You have some amazing desciptive stories that really take you there and i love how you have the pictures to go with it all!

 


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