Travel Writers: Trekking the Peruvian Amazon

by Josh Cutler

Location: Yanayacu branch of the Amazon, Peru

The sky roared like the belly of a hungry jaguar…

Our small boat was headed right toward the navy blue storm cloud. By small, I mean large enough for five passengers and the three live chickens cramped behind my seat.

We had only been on the Amazon River for ten minutes when the sky opened up and sheets of rain poured down upon us, filling our ride with puddles of water. I had total confidence in our driver, although I must admit it made me nervous when I saw him cross himself and begin to pray. The five of us each grabbed a corner of a plastic tarp to shield us from the pounding rain.

Soon nature’s fury was over and all my belongings I meticulously packed for the next 17 days were completely soaked! ¨Thats life in the rain forest¨ my guide joked in broken English, ¨You can always expect some rain”.

Moments later we were baking in the tropical sun, coasting down the murky brown river like a condor on a mountain breeze. Civilization disappeared behind me as I headed into the great unknown.

The Amazon River is one of the world’s great natural mysteries. It stretches 4,000 miles long and most of it has yet to be explored. The basin is home to 2,000 species of fish (more than the entire Atlantic Ocean) and 4,000 species of birds! Its greatest biodiversity is in its insects – millions of them – needless to say, I packed my deet bug spray.

After two hours on the open water the river started to become very thin and shallow. The underside of the boat was taking a beating from the sunken logs and debris. Suddenly, our boat became lodged on the bottom, scraping its belly on the muddy surface.

Patiently, my guide waited for a local to arrive and literally tow our motor boat the remaining five kilometers upriver. Amazonian children curious to see what all the commotion was about rushed out of their ramshackle stick huts to give us a wave. At 135 km into the jungle, this ‘excitement’ was probably the highlight of their week.

After clearing that obstacle we docked our boat and made our way to the Muyuna Lodge where I was to stay the next three days. Muyuna is an ecological establishment with eight simple wooden cabins built on stilts. They are sometimes underwater during the wet season. Fortunately, we had two months until the rain really began to come down. Muyuna is literally in the middle of nowhere, about 20 miles due east from ¨Bumblef*ck¨. It has no electricity, gas or hot water. Here, nestled in the heart of the Yanayacu branch of the Amazon, life is simple. The area is filled with tons of trees, animals and all the oxygen the world will ever need.

This deep in the jungle you can see colors you’ve never seen before or even knew existed! The combined sounds of the birds, insects and running river can lull one into a state of complete serenity.

Nocturnal Hunt

As night sprawls across the Amazon basin, the mosquito army arrives in swarms. The massive amounts of pesky insects call the attention of their biggest predator – the bat. As dusk envelops the area, hundreds of bats awaken for their feeding frenzy. It is like witnessing an airborne buffet. One bloodsucker eating another. The bats erratic flight is an unbelievable sight to witness; they whizzed inches from my face, never once crashing into one another.

After sunset, I accompanied my guide, Horhay, on a nocturnal hunt where we would shoot nothing but pictures, take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footprints. We trekked through the jungle under the luminous moonlight until we came upon a massive fig tree. It looked like an arboreal labyrinth with its entire root system above the ground. The tree had lots of hiding spaces for the Bird Eating Tarantula. You can imagine how big these arachnids are if they eat BIRDS! They were everywhere, creeping, crawling and eating. The tree appeared to be alive with the furry legged creatures. Horhay caught one with his bare hands and put it on my arm. He assured me ¨It won´t bite if you don´t move¨. Needless to say, I was as still as the night…petrified as wood!

After the adrenaline rush of the tarantula tree we boarded our small boat to witness some of the nocturnal life along the riverbed. With the choral soundtrack of a million frogs, we coasted downstream, motor off, to avoid scaring away the Amazon Caimans (gators). We shined our flashlights into the mass of vegetation hoping to see the reflective reptilian eyes staring back. ¨Theres one!¨ my guide whispered. Fifteen feet from our small boat lay the prehistoric beast. It´s crazy to think that only hours before, the local children were bathing, swimming and fishing in this very river. Such is life on the Amazon.

Fishing for piranha

The following morning we awoke early for a sunrise fishing trip. Dawn in the heart of the jungle is a different kind of visual feast. A light fog pulls back like a blanket revealing nature´s intense colors. Within minutes the universe changes from misty gray into a blinding green. A light layer of haze hovers over the waters surface until the intense tropical sun beats it into submission.

Today we would be fishing for the Amazon´s most feared predator – not the caiman or the jaguar – the pirhana! Catching these infamous beasts is quite simple. They eat anything and eat often. Within an hour we caught enough pirhana for lunch and dinner. They’re actually quite tasty – once you get past the bones.

Jungle trekking

If the Amazon River is the spine of the forest, than the trees are surely its lungs, breathing life into the land. I saddled up my knee high rubber boots and grabbed my machete and agua. In the Amazon, a jungle trek requires a machete knife; any semblance of trail can potentially be covered with plants and vines within days. Thats how quickly vegetation grows here.

Our boat docked at the trail head. We would walk another two hours through thick mud to reach the village of San Juan. The dense mud clung to my heels like a vice grip as I hacked my way though the fallen trees and branches.

Monkeys, sloths and tropical birds were hidden, however, Horhay’s eagle-eyes seemed to find them with ease. The air was thick, humid and so dense you could almost drink it. The mosquitos were absolutely relentless, after the first hour I became used to the sound of buzzing in my ears. They hovered over me like a busload of seniors at an Atlantic City buffet. I was definitely their main course that afternoon.

We finally arrived at the village, only to be surprised at the presence of a soccer (err…I mean futbol field) in the center of their small community. Besides fishing, what else is there to do in the middle of nowhere? I wandered around and took pictures of the children. I later showed them their faces on the digital camera screen…you would think I was a magician the way their angelic faces lit up. They surrounded me in utter amazement. It´s quite possible these children had never seen a digital camera before…there was no electricity for 100 miles!

There was an elderly ‘medicine woman’ in the village with a blind pet owl. It was quite tame and let me pet it. And I thought MY pets were strange! As I strolled around I noticed I had a trail of curious children following me, perplexed by my magic camera. Since I had a captive audience I did some simple magic tricks for them (detachable thumb and pulling coins out from their ears). Their laughter was a language that transcends all boundaries. It warmed my heart and soul. After a couple more tricks I departed on my boat. I figure I better leave before the tribe adopted me as their new Shaman,¨Magic Josh¨

The pink dolphins

For my last day in the Amazon we embarked on a quest to find the elusive Pink Dolphin. These freshwater dolphins can reach 7 feet in length and weigh 350 pounds. Their bodies are entirely pink (they have blood vessels right below their skin). We cruised down the river until it bottle necked into a thin stream. Tall jungle reeds slapped against our boat, startling hundreds of resting yellow butterflies into the air. They fluttered about, creating a living kaleidoscope against the bright blue sky.

We reached an opening in the dense reeds and the thin river transformed into a large stagnant lake. Horhay turned the motor off and we waited patiently. Within minutes a vibrant pink head emerged from the murky brown water and blew a spritz into the air. WOW! It mesmerized me. Here I was, one hundred miles deep in the jungle and dolphins – PINK dolphins – were frolicking around my boat. Deep in the Amazon, life can be full of wonderful surprises.

After our sighting, we docked the boat on an embankment. ¨You can swim here¨ Horhay said reassuringly ¨No Pirhanas aqui¨ What the hell, you only live once, and if he was wrong it was going to be a short life.

I nervously inched my way into the lukewarm murky water. It smelled like a pile of wet leaves on collection day. Despite the smell, it was heavenly warm and felt great on my tired muscles. The bottom was sandy, yet sticky. It was a substrate like I´ve never felt before. With each step, the riverbed clung to my feet like bubble gum. Funky…yet I never sunk into the mud. I relished in the moment. Here I was, swimming in the infamous Amazon River. A childhood dream of the ultimate nature lover had come true.

Just then, out of nowhere, I felt a bite! I screamed and jumped out of that river faster than a jaguar in heat! I was totally freaked out by the whole experience. My guide and boat driver were totally hysterical at my reaction. They had never seen anyone move so fast. I had a little nibble mark on my elbow…my newest travel scar with a cool story behind it. I don´t think I´ve ever been so scared in my entire life! Who else can say they’ve been bit by a pirhana and lived to tell the tale?

Text © Josh Cutler 2004, All Rights Reserved

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