Amazon. Before the word became synonymous with the online shopping site, we learned in school that it is the world's largest rainforest, with an enormous river and an ecosystem of its own. However, nothing we have read or seen about the Amazon truly captures the majesty of the place as seeing in person. This is a glimpse into one of the most unique experiences in the world.
Peru's most famous claim to fame is Machu Picchu, but equally fascinating is the vast Amazon rainforest covering the upper third of the country. Having just completed hiking the Inca Trail, we fly out from Cusco via Lima to Iquitos- an isolated city in the middle of Peruvian Amazon that has no road access to the rest of the world. The only way in and out of Iquitos is by air, or by boat on the Amazon river. Our plane lands at the small airport and stepping out onto the tarmac we are caught completely unaware of how hot and humid it is. We are drenched in sweat, even at 10pm in what is supposed to be winter in the southern hemisphere but doesn't really matter as we are practically on the Equator in the middle of tropical rainforest. At the baggage claim we are the only tourists, and nobody seems to know English. Thankfully our hotel has sent out a driver to pick us and I see him shouting my name from one corner. A quick car ride gets us to our civilized overnight stay before we go into the jungle.
There are several forest camps for tourists inside the Amazon forests. We booked our trip with Mainiti Expeditions. They have sent a guide to pick us from our hotel and take us to their office in the city in a car that must be atleast 20 years old. Due to lack of road access, all vehicles in Iquitos are shipped in and they seem to stay there forever. A quick debrief and we are on our way to the port of Nanay to board our personal boat for the journey on the Rio Amazonas. The jungle camp is about two hours by boat, but along the way first we stop at a conservation center that houses the river caimans and preserves giant Arapaima fish which were once aplenty in the Amazon river but now facing extinction. It is the biggest fish I have ever seen in person, growing to over ten feet long. The center also has a bright blue parakeet that speaks Spanish and is happy to pose for pictures. Leaving them behind, we continue down the Amazon, turn off into smaller tributaries and reach our camp site.
The jungle lodge is very primitive. There are cottages made of metal sheets with beds and showers (only cold water, you will never need hot water in the tropical weather) but there is no electricity, no cell phone network, and obviously no internet. For the next two days, we are completely isolated from rest of the world. The lodge has only a couple of other guests so we get personalized attention and since we are three vegetarians in the group, the staff cooks fresh vegetarian meals for us. The meals themselves are very simple but fresh straight from the farms right behind the lodge and delicious. The best part about the lodge are a dozen hammocks, our go-to respite in the sweltering heat. The constant sweating takes a while getting used to, even after taking a cold shower. Post lunch, it is time to go meet the wildlife.
We hop on our private boat with our guide to visit what they call "Monkey Island". The guide warned us that the many species of monkeys there are very friendly with humans and will come jump on us, and he was not kidding! The moment the boat docks on the island, a couple of baby brown monkeys come running and cling on to us. On the island are also various colorful birds who are also friendly enough to come sit on your hands, if you so desire. There are monkeys of all kinds- small, big, brown, black, golden but the highlight of the island is a sloth, who is, well, being a sloth and has decided he will hide on the top of a very tall palm tree and not show his face to any of us. Oh well, thanks sloth! No trip to Amazons is complete without seeing an Anaconda, and the island has that covered. There is a small-ish Anaconda slithering around, and if you are the kind of person who wants to hold a slimy reptile around your neck, you can fulfil that desire under the watching eyes of the guide.
Off the Monkey Island, we sail further along the river in search of the elusive pink dolphins, native to a very specific part of the Amazon river. It is a test of patience as we have to wait quietly with the boat engine turned off. A long time of waiting and a couple of them do give us a glimpse of their pink fins, but none too close or clear to get photos. Instead we head further up to fish piranhas. Yes, those scary big teeth fish made famous by movies and documentaries. The guide gives everyone makeshift fishing lines with bait, but it is not easy to catch those sneaky silver predators. After considerable number of attempts, our guide and a couple of tourists end up catching some small piranhas, which are taken back to the lodge to be cooked and eaten for dinner by those who'd like to try it. We head back to the lodge before it gets dark, enjoying a beautiful sunset over the river.
While waiting for dinner to be ready, our guide offers to take us on a night walk into the depths of the rainforest. Equipped with knee high rubber shoes, headlamps and anti-bug spray, we head out on a narrow trail into a dark dense forest, buzzing with insects and small reptiles of all kinds. The foliage is so dense you can neither see the sky, nor anything around more than a few feet away. This is the real Amazon- an absolutely surreal experience that cannot be captured in words or pictures. At one point where we find an opening to the sky, the guide asks us to turn off all lights, and it reveals a beautiful sky full of more stars than you can imagine. Back to the lodge, we are greeted by a few glowing light bulbs. Although the lodge has no electricity, they run generators to light up a few bulbs for a couple of hours in the evening to get through dinner. There is also one power strip to charge any phones or cameras. Post dinner, it is lights out, the insects are out in their nocturnal glory so there is nothing else to do but get inside the cottages shielded from insects and call it an early night.
We are woken up by knocks on our doors at around 5am. Half asleep, we trundle out and on to the boat to sail out into the middle of the river for sunrise. A few minutes of waiting later, we are greeted to a riot of colors and a beautiful sunrise reflecting over the calm vast expanse of the Rio Amazonas. The view is totally worth the early morning start. Along the way we also end up spotting a variety of birds and a giant iguana chilling on a tree. Back at the lodge, fresh hot breakfast awaits us, complete with delicious juicy tropical fruits fresh from the forest. Later in the morning we are taken for a "Meet the Tribals" event. Walking into what looks like a small village, we are taken to a well maintained ground with seating all around it, and tourists from other jungle camps arrive there too. The tribals, donning stereotypically tribal attire made of grass and feathers, perform some dance and try to sell some handmade jewelry. It is pretty clear this is a show-and-tell for the tourists and not how the tribals really dress and live.
At lunch we mention to our guide about the fake tribal event and he offers to take us to a real tribal village, minus all the dancing and fanfare. Fair enough. The main Amazon river branches out into many many smaller rivers and backwaters forming a network of water-highways connecting the villages in the forest. Some of these waterways are too narrow for our motorboat to go, so we are instead going to take a canoe this time. A long and slow canoe ride through the narrow backwaters brings us to a village that has relatively modern houses, a school that gets visiting teachers for a few weeks in a year, some solar powered lights provided by the government, and the staple of any South American place- a soccer field! The local residents are dressed in regular modern clothes, no feathers and grass, but they still live a very isolated life, farming rice and fruits and raising animals, their livelihood is earned by taking the produce to Iquitos and exchanging it for their necessities. This is much more real insight into life of the people in the Amazon rainforest
For the past two days we have been blessed with bright sunshine, but the rainforest has to live up to its name. And so it does. As we get into the cottages after dark, it begins to pour cats and dogs, complete with loud thunder and lightning- raindrops loudly hitting the tin roof, light from lightning bolts seeping into the cottage through window cracks, it is a scene straight from the movies! Thankfully Mother Nature decides this is enough of a show, and by the time we are up, it is dry again. It is time to depart back to the civilization, and our guide has summoned a super-fast speedboat for the return leg, cutting down the two hour journey to under an hour. The speedboat drops us at the port, but this time around there is no car to take us back. Instead, we get to ride on a local contrapton- a hybrid made of front half of motorcycle fused with rear half of an autorickshaw. It is loud, fast, and a lot of fun to ride! I don't know what they are called but the city of Iquitos is full of thousands of them.
As we are dropped off at the airport in Iquitos, the air conditioning in the terminal feels like the best thing in the world after sweating buckets for the past three days! Also, oh there is phone network and internet. We are back to civilization. Or maybe not, since we are still waiting at a tiny airport with no planes in sight. After an hour of wait, one small plane lands and comes to a stop on the empty tarmac and a friend quips "this is unlike any airplane I have ever seen!". We are flying StarPeru, a local airline that operates a fleet exclusively of BAe-146, a stubby looking rare airplane that specializes in operating from short runways at remote airports. We board quickly, and as the little plane takes off, we leave behind the winding river and dense forests for as far as the eyes can see, taking with us memories of a lifetime.
TIPS AND TRICKS
So you want to experience this and visit the Amazon rainforest? Here are some tips for an enjoyable trip-
- There are two different locations that offer Amazon tours in Peru- Puerto Maldonado is conveniently located close to Cusco but it is on the Madre de Rios which is a tributary of the Amazon, while Iquitos is a bit far but on the actual Amazon river which is a lot bigger and impressive. Make sure to pick the right one.
- Carry along a small USB powered fan and a rechargable power bank to run it. You will thank me later.
- Take lots of bug spray, more than you think you need, and don't hesitate to use it liberally.
- Make sure to get all recommended vaccinations and medicines before going to the Amazon. Check out details here.
- If you are unsure about staying away from civilization for 3 days, you can do the 2 day/1 night version. It will still give a good taste of the forest.