“Don’t touch anything,” Rafael cautions as we begin our night hike into the rain forest. To emphasize his point, he directs the blade of a machete towards a tree that has what look like stingy spikes protruding in every direction.
“Very sharp…If you fall, do not reach out as you go down.”
The trick will be to remember his admonition when the fall occurs. We are not practiced in the art of walking through dark, sticky mud concealing roots and who knows what else while simultaneously ducking under branches teaming with ants or containing lurking snakes and tarantulas. Again…a gesture from Rafael towards a branch hanging just over the trail reveals a snake…that is pretending to be a branch. Perhaps fifty feet into the jungle, I realize that everything around us is alive. We are walking softly through the living, breathing heart of the planet.
I am not a spiders and snakes kind of guy. Yet I am oddly calm at this moment. The flash lights and headlamps of our little group create a visual cocoon that feels safe. I cannot fear what I cannot see.
For Rafael, this is his paradise. Over the next eight days, we will come to agreement with him on this view. Everything that is needed to sustain life is here, but is difficult for Western eyes to see. A particular vine holds drinkable water. A tree has “jungle iodine” that can be used to sooth and protect scratches made by sharp, stingy things. Food can be found in the form of nuts and fruits, and of course there are fish. Without Rafael, we would be bloody, battered, bruised and full of nasty parasites, wallowing in the mud and utterly lost just ten yards along the trail from the lodge. But in his care, we are well looked after and kept from harm.
Just yesterday, we landed in Iquitos where the passengers applauded the skill of the pilot who made an exceptionally smooth landing in what must sometimes be a difficult approach. At just 3 degrees south of the equator, this is where equatorial waters evaporate and rise into the air beginning a great global energy transfer – the very birth of the winds that drive Earth’s climate. Currents of water become worldwide currents of air. Powerful forces are at work here, and you can see it in the fast moving clouds.
A mosaic of organized chaos, Iquitos rises with the sun and is at work in the markets and on the river in skiffs and boats. The action in the streets begins as quickly as the sun shoots into the sky. “Rapido, rapido,” calls a foreman to the soft banging of hammers just out of sight. Some Latin pop calls out from the cantina to no one in particular across the Itaya river. Moto taxis swarm the streets like mosquitos on a sweaty body. Lane markings are mere suggestions – a framework upon which to practice the art of driving Iquitos style.
We are wandering no particular street of Iquitos when a dark wall of clouds some distance away spreads like a curtain across the visible horizon obscuring the jungle. It advances over the river in a clear line and soon drops torrents of rain. A river of water falls from the sky into the three rivers which surround Iquitos. For a moment, the river seems to rise appreciably.
As the first drops begin, boatmen paddling offshore pull on ponchos, although they are in no hurry to do so. We are caught without a poncho between us and huddle under an overhang, watching as the moto taxis pull up their rain guards – square sheets of plastic through which the drivers strain to see who has the lead position.
While staring at this elegant dance of moto taxis, each continually jostling the other to get at the front of the pack, a little girl looks around the corner at this soaked group of gringos. She asks if we are lost. Her mother invites us into their home. Peruvians are an easy going and delightful people – ever generous and hospitable.
“No, gracias. Nosotros estar bien.”
But you can’t be in Iquitos long before you hear of ayahuasca. Later that evening, we meet William just outside of Dawn on the Amazon Café. He is an American expat who has been in Iquitos for ten years.
“Have you tried ayahuasca?” William explains that Iquitos is the ayahuasca capital of the world. One must be careful to choose the right curandero.
Ayahuasca is basically a purgatory with a psychedelic side effect. It cleans you out, and then you see God. Or something like that. Since it “…opens up the sluices at both ends,” someone must look after you for three days…we politely decline. Because as we are to find out, who needs psychedelics when you have giant river otters, which we will soon see when we head upriver in the morning.
Some fifty-six miles south of Iquitos we are at the Tahuayo Lodge positioned on the left bank of a bend in the Tahuayo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Away from the bustle of Iquitos, the cycle of activities throughout each day becomes perfectly synced with the natural rhythms of life. You awake just before sunrise to the sound of monkeys far off in the canopy. They are also beginning their day. To start, there is some physical activity in the form of a hike before breakfast, which is followed by an excursion – perhaps a trip in a boat looking for pink dolphins and a refreshing swim in the river. It is then time for lunch, after which there is a nice quiet paddle in a canoe. During the hottest part of the day is the important siesta. Then dinner follows announced by the beating of a drum. The day is capped with either an evening hike or a boat ride to look for giant caimans which refuse to be coaxed out of favorite hiding spots, appetites apparently sated, despite the persistent bird calls of the guides. Shine a flashlight into bushes lining the river, which are really tree tops because of recent floods, and many eyes stare back like stars fixed in the night sky. Finally, it is bedtime, and you discard the clothes that have been soaking wet since the moment you dressed in the morning…A hush descends over the lodge, and the sounds of the rain forest take over, covering you with a soft aural blanket.
My most vivid memories of the Peruvian Amazon are the sounds. Many birds with different calls; innumerable frogs – chirping frogs, gladiator tree frogs, clown tree frogs – the smallest of which seemingly has the loudest rumble; and, whatever passes for crickets in the Amazon. These sounds serenade us to sleep each night. Think of waves washing up on a shoreline and receding across sand and pebbles, this is the effect. Towards morning, the monkeys awake and become active once more, joining the chorus. The day begins again…
The Hike and Fishing Trip
Before sunrise, we are on the slippery trail behind the lodge to look for monkeys – specifically, howler monkeys.
Sounding like an ill wind blowing through the trees, one group is close. But Rafael says they are across a swamp and unreachable. There is a second group that is further away. Taking a moment to listen, Rafael points in their direction. But since their deep howls can be heard up to three miles away, there is not time to track them before breakfast.
On the way back to the lodge, Rafael points to a branch covered with spikes sharper than hypodermic needles.
Later, he points to a plant that looks not dissimilar to many others.
“Don’t touch. Very bad.”
One of my legs slips between two submerged logs, causing me to lose my balance. Remembering not to touch anything, I go straight into the mud. It is a soft landing.
“That’s one set of clothes for the laundry.” Fortunately, it looks to be hot and sunny today – good laundry weather…otherwise, it can take days for anything to dry.
Raphael cuts me a walking stick with his machete, something he must have done many times…then a quiet pause as he scans the treetops.
“There is a sloth.”
“You see this tree? Follow the base up to where the two branches go like a ‘Y.’ Take the right branch and behind it is another tree. You see the yellow leaf on that tree?”
“Look at the black spot to the left of the leaf…that is the sloth.”
With a slight smile, Rafael begins again. I finally spot the animal, and even through a sloth moves as slowly as a… well….it still moves too fast for me to get a focus lock with my camera…
Raphael makes one of many astute observations. “Blue eyes don’t work in the Amazon…blue eyes are for decoration.”
After breakfast, fishing gear is loaded into the skiff. Not being a lover of all things fish, I plan on being an observer. The plan is to fish for piranhas.
Quickly, in the medium distance, strange forms are leaping straight out of the water. What initially sounds like barking, actually turns out to be “a chorus of loud snorts.” We are apparently the object of this attention, and “they” are getting closer.
Giant river otters are very territorial. They will fiercely defend their young and have even been known, when attacking as a group, to drive a jaguar away (Neotropical Rainforest Mammals). The otters decide we are not a threat and are a nice surprise.
Rafael is at the bow of the boat and guides, while Beto mans the outboard at the stern. Once Rafael is satisfied that he has found a suitable spot, the outboard is silenced and the fishing gear, sticks with a bit of fishing line and a hook, are passed around.
Beto, it turns out, is a champion fisherman. Lightly slapping the water a few times with his line, he dips the hook below the surface and instantly he has got a fish along with a contented smile. He slaps the line again on the surface, drops the hook into the water, with the inevitable result – another fish. The process is repeated again, and before you can say “Beto,” another fish has been landed. Raphael calls out the name of each fish Beto hauls into the boat – a paiche, a catfish, a piranha, another piranha…no one else in the boat has the “Beto touch” – slap water, lower hook, fish, big smile…It is back to the lodge where piranha will be on the lunch menu.
At Tahuayo Lodge there is a domestic cat. He has the run of the place and is sometimes seen at the river’s edge plucking catfish (truly) out of the water. He also gets into the rafters and walks on the screen that serves as a ceiling – all the better to look down on his domain. The screen over our heads must occasionally be shared with snakes and tarantulas. Given that the cat is still around, it has clearly mastered some unique survival skills.
And now, thanks to Debbie, there may also be a resident dog named “Kenny” at the Lodge. Let me explain…
There is a dog which was seen swimming across the river to the Lodge, and then there is Kenny. Kenny called Dr. Paul (the proprietor) earlier in the summer and asked if the Lodge needed an intern. “Book a flight,” he was told. Kenny does a great job doing whatever needs doing around the Lodge. It may be helping with repairs or construction, or clearing the dishes after a meal. He gets the job done with obvious delight and a smile. He is well liked, and, as a consequence and in gratitude, he is happy to report that a recent birth in El Chino was affectionately named “Kenny.”
Some think the dog may have come from a nearby village – clearly hungry and starved for affection. Dogs are viewed as work animals in the Amazon, raising the question as to what a dog does for work. Apparently, they assist with the hunt but do not share in the spoils…The staff are bewildered by our attention towards the dog. But Kenny promises to look after him. One can only imagine that if the dog takes up residence, it will be named….”Kenny.”
Speaking of large cats, at dinner I was asking Rich, one of the scientists working at the research center if he has seen a jaguar.
“You don’t want to see one. They’re huge. Even the guides get nervous if they sense one is nearby. They are so leery of humans that if you see one, there’s a good chance it’s been stalking you, and it’s probably too late to do anything about it.”
Rich was finishing up his visit at the research center where he had been studying the shy and elusive Saki moneys. He was heading back to the states, whereas we were bound for the more rustic research center the next morning.
Amazon Research Center and The Lake Hike
Just as the name implies, serious research is conducted at the Research Center. It is a “…long-term conservation initiative undertaken in consultation with government offices in Iquitos, Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Chicago Botanic Garden.” This is the place to be if you are looking for monkeys.
Rafael explains that the “survival hike” to the lake will take two to three hours and the same back again. It will be swampy.
“Don’t touch anything,” he reminds us as we disembark onto the always muddy river bank.
Arevalo is leading the way in front. So far, the walk is delightful. A deep carpet of leaves and branches is soft to walk on. But it quickly gives way to a muddy swamp. We begin slogging through a bog. It is hard going, but good exercise.
Arevalo pauses and is still as he listens to a sound I cannot hear. Then there is a distinct sound which to my ear sounds like a large animal. It is merely a branch falling through the canopy. Another sound focuses his attention. Placing hand to chin, Arevalo signals his decision by gently raising his machete and pointing it in a certain direction.
Rafael soon announces that “the lake is in ten minutes.” Thirty minutes later, he repeats this announcement with a smile. “The lake is in ten minutes…”
It is the mating season for birds, and they are making quite a fuss in the trees when we arrive at the lake. Hoatzin are the most vocal and argumentative of the birds that are vying for mates. Potential suitors are rejected in a fluttering of wings and squawking.
Arevalo pulls out the fishing sticks to rustle up lunch while Rafael tries to start a fire in order to charcoal grill freshly caught fish. He is ultimately unsuccessful. “The wood is too wet.” So the fish are packed away to reappear at dinner.
The hike back to the boat? Ten minutes…
Hiking the Grid
Arevalo is with us again the next morning as we begin to hike the grid. Today, we are looking for Saki monkeys. The grid is just that. A sign posted collection of trails with A through P oriented in one direction and 1 through 22 in the other – like city streets.
But these are not the sign posts I am used to. They are easy to miss, and because of the recent floods, some have been loosened from their moorings and deposited not in their original locations.
Raphael said that before the sign posts were added, one of the guides got lost on the trails. He was found later in the day, only his pride bruised. I ask Raphael how he navigates. He can orient his direction by the position of the sun. On unfamiliar trails, he will make a slight notch on a tree trunk with a machete.
A half rotted post is lying on its side just off the trail. It indicates “M 13.” Rafael and Arevalo begin a discussion in Spanish as to which trail is “M” and which is “13.” Once resolved, they plant the post upright in the muddy goop.
Then we see, or rather Rafael sees, the recent prints of a jaguar. Later there are tapier prints. Rafael also spots the path that a wild pig has taken and the muddy pool of water in which it took a bath. He also points out where a jungle rat has grabbed a bit of food in the shelter of tree roots during the night. The jungle itself is vast, yet the details are tiny.
Rafael turns over a leaf and uncovers a poison dart frog no larger than my finger nail. He places the frog on his machete and raises it so that we have a better look. The frog crawls onto the back of Rafael’s hand, and he ever so slowly lowers it back to the ground. Careful not to touch its poisonous back.
This is his paradise, and we are his guests…