The Mighty Amazon!
Trip Start Sep 21, 2008
122Trip End Jun 19, 2009
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You can only get a real understanding how large the Amazon is when you're on it. At times, it was clearly more than a mile wide. On each side, you could see untouched jungle, then other times, rows of banana trees and other crops clearly planted on the banks. Occasionally you could see a glimpse of a path heading in and primitive jungle huts perched atop the banks.
We finally slowed down and headed for an inlet barely visible from the river. It was the Tapira River - home of the Chullachaqui lodge (our home for the next 4 days). Once we entered the inlet, the river widened significantly. There were birds along the banks, and the river was covered with a green blanket of water plants. Over the next 4 days, we would trudge through the water plants to cross the river many times. The blanked constantly shifted and moved, sometimes covering the river, sometimes more patchy.
After 10 more minutes on the river we arrived at Chullachaqui Lodge. Chullachaqui is a term that describes a mythical jungle "gremlin" that plays tricks on the locals. We would learn over the 4 days how much lore and stories and teachings of generations guided the lives of the villagers in the Amazon.
We met Raul ("Wolf") - our guide. Raul is 25 years old and from the village across the river from the lodge. We learned about his passion for his village and his life. Unlike so many other villagers clambering to leave the jungle life behind, Raul loved his village and his way of life.
The "modus operandi" for the lodge and visit was as follows: Early am tour, breakfast, break, morning tour, lunch, break, afternoon tour, break, dinner, evening tour, go to bed Go to bed means pretty much right after the last tour. The humidity and the walking and the meals and the fact that there was no electricity and it was pretty dark made it pretty easy to fall into bed early!
There were just four of us in our group. Paul and I, and Adam and Annie - a fun couple from San Francisco who have traveled the world extensively. On our first tour when we got there, we got a brief glimpse at jungle plants, trees and insects. We learned what plants they use for food and medicine, the symbiotic nature of the plants, animals and insects in the jungle. We also got Raul's perspective on the beliefs and meanings the locals connect to the plants and animals. Stories and beliefs are passed down from generation to generation and guide the relationship with the jungle. The jungle provides the food, medicine and shelter for the people. We ate a giant beetle larvae just to celebrate and "become one with the jungle". It was a little chewy, kinda tasted like coconut!
On our second tour after lunch, we hopped in a small dugout canoe and headed across the Tapira river to the jungle around Raul's village. Our mission for this trek was to find Iguanas, birds, and sloths, and end with a walk through Raul's village. Our first goal in the mission was to keep the canoe from tipping over, and we all were constantly compensating for tipping as we got used to the motion of the boat.
It was hot and steamy on this trek as we trudged over logs and across water and Raul machetied a path through vines and thick jungle. Along the way, Raul successfully pointed out iguanas high in the trees, an owl that blended so well with the tree it perched in that it took binoculars for us to separate it from the bark, and sloths lazily sleeping (or sometimes moving at a snail's pace) in the trees, and a jungle version of a porcupine traversing a tree above us. Each time Raul found another animal, all we could do was shake our heads and ask, "How'd you see that?"
We also spotted window rats and birds and a small tortoise on the walk. But the highlight was when Raul spotted a baby sloth resting low in the tree and was able to climb up and bring it down for a close encounter. The catching wasn't hard since they move so slowly, but balancing across the branch was, and once he had ahold of it, he had to make his way down while avoiding the sharp three-toed claw as the sloth tried to grab him for security.
The sloth was very strange and alien-looking. Its face and slow movements made it look more like a robotic toy rather than a real animal. We briefly held it, then released it back in the tree, where it lumbered slowly back to safety.
Next we trekked further and eventually came out of the jungle at the bank of the Amazon. It was amazing popping out of the jungle and facing the river. It looked twice as big and twice as far from one bank to the other when we were standing on the edge. We walked along the river for quite a ways until we finally reached the entrance to Raul's village, named "Centro America". Along the way there were banana and taro plantations and corn field planted by the villagers. You could also see areas of the jungle they had cleared to make way for crops.
When we reached the opening to the village, surprisingly there was a perfectly poured concrete sidewalk that wound back through the village as far as the eye could see. (Late we found out it was about 2km long. Raul told us that their mayor had petitioned successfully to receive government aid to build the sidewalk.
Dotted along the sidewalk were the village homes. Simple huts built on stilts and covered with palm thatch roofs. Most of the homes were built of wood, but the village was an exception, and most of the other village's homes were built strictly of palm.
Since it was the dry season (just coming into rainy season), the village was dry. During the rainy season, the Amazon River floods the village and the sidewalk becomes a canoe route instead.
Most village homes had chickens, ducks and/or pigs eating below the stilts. A supplement to their staple foods of taro, bananas, corn and rice. A few houses had solar panels for electricity and there was an occasional generator, but most were primitive and none had bathrooms our outhouses. The main transportation was by foot or canoe, but there was one three-wheeled motorcycle in the village.
On this day the village was quiet and most of the houses were empty because everyone had converged in the main square for soccer matches with other villages. It was a big event and part of a celebration of the anniversary of the opening of their first school. We did see one young girl along the way hulling rice by hand. Just one glimpse of the hard work simply to cover the bare essentials of life.
We arrived back at the edge of the Tapir River and the canoe crossing to the lodge at dusk, just in time to see an incredible orange sunset with a black/blue landscape as a backdrop.
Over the next three days, we went on 7 more treks: The next morning was an early am bird watch down the Tapir river. Later that day, we took a trip down the Amazon to see the shy and elusive pink river dolphin. We were able to see them break the water surface a number of times. But unlike the bottle-nose dolphin, they'd sneak away and stay far away from people and boats. This was followed by a stop on a sand bar to take a swim in the Amazon. All of us were careful to hold off peeing in the river to avoid the dreaded "pee worm" - a worm that travels up the pee stream and lodges it self with barbed hooks into your privates!
We took another trek through Raul's village to "Muerte Lake" - a beautiful tranquil lake with giant lily pads along the edges. Raul told us how the lake got its name after one of his uncles disappeared on the lake when he was young. All they found was his canoe, and it was rumored that it could have been a alligator. As a result, the villagers avoided using the lake for recreation and only used it occasionally for fishing.
That night, we were back on the river for a night trek. We sat silently in the canoe as Raul paddled with barely a ripple or sound. The sound of frogs was deafening. Most of the time we kept our lights off and just used the moon and the stars. But occasionally we would turn the lights back on to try to track the red glowing eyes of alligators. We spotted one small set and Raul guided us along and caught it bare handed. It was a baby alligator about 1 foot long. Then after we released it, we saw a much larger set of eyes in the distance. We stalked it silently in the dark as I progressively freaked out with visions of horror movies and Animal Planet stories about alligators tipping the boat over with his tail and making us his dinner. Thankfully Raul missed that one!
The next day was very hot and steamy. Our first trip of the day was to a village upstream to visit the Shaman. The shaman is the regional medicine man. They go through a year of training and fasting to become one, and then are one for life. The villagers rely on the shaman to treat anything from a cut to childbirth and rarely get treated with Western medicine. We thought our visit to the Shaman was as much for Raul as it was for our pleasure - he may have been looking for a cure for a night of too much of his village's anniversary celebration!
We got out of the canoe at the shore down a hill from the village and walked up into a primitive village with a dirt path, palm huts and no electricity. The people were warm and welcoming, and there were lots of pigs, chickens, dogs and puppies throughout the village. We entered the Shaman's house and were greeted warmly. We talked with him for about an hour about being a shaman. We learned about Ihuasco - a potent hallucinogenic elixir made from fermented root that they use to get visions and guide their lives. We decided that the violent vomiting that most tourists get wasn't' worth it and we left it for the locals. Afterward, we saw the Ihuasco root that was planted outside his house, then walked further back through the village and ate fresh fruit supplied by villagers. We also saw a small cemetery for the ninos (babies and kids) that was along the path in the village.
The next trek was "The Trek from Hell". It was supposed to be a trip to a nearby lake to fish for Piranha and swim. Remember, it was steamy and hot and we were looking for some refreshing relief from the heat. Instead, we took a long boat ride to another village and a 1-1/2hour plus trek to a lake that wasn't a lake at all. It was a scum-ridden pond that we wouldn't put our toe in, and had barely any fish. We spent a brief moment in the lake before we had to had back to the boat since we were running out of daylight. The one memorable moment was the rainbow over the lake from the rains falling in the distance.
We finished the trek back to the boat with flashlights to avoid tripping over the roots and vines and fallen trees across the path back. And arrived at the lodge fully exhausted and barely able to keep awake for dinner. For once the cold shower we took daily felt like heaven!
The next day was our last, and Raul wanted to make up for the last trek. We headed out early for the lake we were supposed to go to the day before. It was a long trek - over an hour, but this time it ended at a real lake with a family hut and a friendly group of pigs and chickens. The family got a kick out of us gringos swimming in the lake - and getting bit by the fish that attacked us when we entered the water. They would bite us then fling themselves across the top of the water - quite entertaining, but painful for Paul's exposed nipples!
We fished from a log, but then headed out in a canoe seeking larger Piranha. We successfully hauled in four decent-sized Piranha that became our lunchtime meal back at the lodge. (They were pretty good - light and flaky and no fish flavor). Then it was time to make a final trek back to the lodge and our awaiting boat trip back to civilization.
Overall the trip was amazing. It was our opportunity to see the Amazon before more of it gets swallowed up by civilization and deforestation. We have amazing memories of peaceful villages and smiling faces and a primitive way of life. A way of life that is slowly being "gobbled up" by the lure of city life.
Afterward we had another day in Iquitos. We wandered the streets and markets and watched as mothers and kids begged for leftovers. We were reminded again of how primitive life is even here, but yet how chaotic and noisy and polluted it is, and how much of their lives are spent just taking care of the basics. We were glad to experience Iquitos too, but ready to leave it behind as well.