Into the Wild
Permit me a moment of orientation: we left you last, with many wishes for the New Year, in the rainforest town of Yurimaguas in northern Peru. Less than an hour after posting our last blog update, we headed down to the port and caught a long boat to the town of Lagunas, with seats for roughly sixty passengers and a toilet with the latest in privacy provisions (a sheet of material on a string to draw around you). For several hours, we travelled along the Huallaga River; wide and muddy, the colour of milky coffee, and bordered by thick rainforest most of the way, aside from a few communities of stilt houses with thatched palm roofs.
Though the population of Lagunas numbers more than 10,000 people, there is no cash machine, the bank runs on electricity from a generator, the ‘main road’ is differentiated from others by way of that fact that it is tarmacked, and, though there were meant to be a few hours of power each evening, we quickly learnt that aside from generators this was not the case, and that evening we remained in the dark as much as the other thousands of people.
After settling into our hotel, we walked to the office of the agency for our rainforest trip. Talking to Miguel, the president, we discovered that Huayruro Tours is more of an association of guides. The guides take turns, between guiding work, to enter the reserve for stretches of ten days at a time in order to protect the area, earning nothing in return except the right to fish for their meals. The reserve is vast, comparable in size (and please forgive the British newsreader explanation) to Wales (honestly, there is only about a 0.2% difference!). By way of providing a more varied perspective, that makes the reserve larger than the land area of Slovenia, Israel, or El Salvador, and more than twice the size of my beloved Cyprus. There are several entrances into the reserve which can be accessed from different town and cities in the Amazonian basin of northern Peru, but we decided to leave from the Lagunas entrance as we thought that with its lack of jungle lodges and motorised canoes we might just find what we were searching for: an unadulterated, really wild experience in the rainforest. We settled on sixteen days, simply because the tourist zone extending away from this entrance could be covered in twelve days and we wanted to see more, wanted to go just a touch further than the usual. We were shown the rough route we would be taking on a map the size of one of the walls. The reserve was named Pacaya-Samiria after the two main rivers which run through it; our journey would consist of travelling down the Samiria River for roughly seven days, then back again, with a diversion along the way to a large lake.
The next morning, we met our two guides, Llefri and Octavio. After a half hour ride in a moto-taxi along a bumpy dirt track, we arrived at our starting point: PV8. PV8 was the last in a series of government Puestos de vigilancia, Points of Vigilance, arranged along the entire river, a wooden house on stilts, luxuriously equipped with a radio as a means of communication (and evidently, vigilance) with the other PVs. In the shallow river next to PV8, Llefri began emptying water out of the bottom of a dugout canoe which looked suspiciously small to carry four people and provisions for sixteen days, whilst Octavio and several other members of the agency organised supplies and began loading up the canoe. The items packed ranged from the staple (a binliner full of bread rolls, two barrels of water, three trays of eggs) to the thoughtful (glass jars of strawberry jam, a sandwich bag of garlic cloves for flavouring, two pineapples), and all were bagged up or contained in some way to protect them from the water and weather. Llefri climbed in and sat at the front, Octavio at the back, two thin foam mattresses were folded up to make our seats, and Sam and I stepped aboard our home, sweet home, for the next sixteen days.
The first half hour of rowing was along a narrow tributary called the Tibilo. After the excitement and flurry of our departure, I settled into my wildlife-watching pose, keenly staring all around me at the trees, the dark mirror of the water, any sign of movement. We shortly reached the Samiria River, the highway for our journey. At its inception, it was essentially a small, fairly fast flowing river of dark, glassy-brown water. Our first couple of sightings — a few Common Squirrel Monkeys rustling in the trees close by and Blue and Yellow Macaws squawking overhead — were incredibly exciting. For lunch, we stopped at a small thatched structure on stilts, which had one ‘room’ and, biggest surprise of all, a sit-on western toilet (no flush, of course). The guides started a fire in a trough-like pit to one side of the structure and cooked us our lunch, then we set off once again. Over the next few hours, I relaxed into it a bit; since the majority of each day would be spent paddling along in the canoe, I simply couldn’t maintain such a level of alertness and what’s more, didn’t need to, what with the eyes of both guides and Sam, who turned out to be by far the better spotter of the two of us.
That night, we stayed at Poza Gloria camp, several thatched, stilt buildings, with rooms, beds and more sit-on toilets. Our evening wash was a swim in the deliciously fresh river.
And so the days unfolded. They all followed a similar structure: meals divided the day into a morning and an afternoon session, both of which were usually spent rowing. During the first week in particular, as we travelled downstream and therefore rowing was easier and the pace faster, we sometimes only had one session of paddling in the canoe and spent the other half of the day going for a walk through the jungle or on a fishing expedition to catch food for the guides.
For lunch, the guides would either make use of a handy cabaña libre, an open structure on stilts with a thatched roof and fire pit to one side, or simply pull over and make a fire close to the bank. Being vegetarian, our food ranged from rice or spaghetti mixed with a tomato sauce with fried onions and cabbage, to fried potato or fried/boiled banana, either sweet banana or plantain, accompanied by eggs cooked in different ways: hard-boiled, fried, made into omelettes.
Our accommodation for the nights varied. For night two we stayed in PV7, and being a fancy government building and all, we got to stay in a room with a bed, but most nights we either strung up our mosquito net and laid out our mattresses on the floor of a cabaña libre (being careful to position ourselves in a choice spot in case it rained, as the quality of the thatched roofs significantly decreased the further we got into the reserve and away from the more frequently used tourist facilities), or the guides made a camp in the jungle, assembled by hanging tarpaulins over a structure of thin branches they cut from trees. After the first couple of evenings, and much to our dismay, we couldn’t swim in the river anymore: due to caiman, it was simply too dangerous. Instead, we used a plastic tub from the assortment of cooking items to scoop up water whilst stood on the river’s bank, as our means of taking a shower.
The rigidity that timekeeping inadvertently exerts over usual life began to dissolve; with no time-telling devices besides our cameras, we lived by the light and so I am pretty sure that we went to bed between 7-9 p.m. each evening, shortly after darkness, and woke up between 6-8 a.m.
Small tricks that my mind played over the first few days demonstrated how much the world we humans have constructed is so integrated into our cognition. One evening, for a good half an hour, I thought in the back of my mind that the full moon rising behind the trees was a street lamp. I mistook certain bird calls for the honking of cars and insects for car alarms. Slowly these moments faded and I settled into the reality, and simplicity, of the nature around us.
The further we travelled, the fewer people we met. Although there was a vague tourist zone marked on maps, in reality visitors rarely spend more than six days in the reserve, and as we were also visiting during the rainy and therefore low season, once we were three days deep, the only other people we saw were those in the odd passing motorised dugout from a community in the reserve, or the people posted at the PVs.
The Carnival of the Animals
The river was the centre of our trip, the thread which bound it together. We were sat in the canoe for more than six hours on most days, and so as not to scare away wildlife, we generally maintained silence. This meant that the many hours stretched over the sixteen days became a sort of process, a quiet contemplation and meditation as we slowly glided through the green world. The deep black colour of the river created a mirror world, reflecting the jungle in saturated tones, which flickered as water boatmen darted around on the surface. What I can only assume is a type of parasitic vine thickly covered entire sections of the jungle here and there. We passed huge, thick spiders’ webs, sometimes stretching more than four metres and wrapping foliage in dusty white. Approaching logs semi-submerged in the river, we would often hear a series of plops as small river turtles slid into the water. Sometimes bats would flit from one branch to another, so well concealed when they were resting that their heads were faint bumps and their bodies couldn’t be seen at all. We turned over thoughts which popped into our heads, considering and mixing the internal and external.
On day 2, we came to a bend where two rivers merged, and heard loud snorting, gusts of water. Dolphins. They were surfacing and exhaling through their blowholes, offering us tantalising glimpses of small fins or the shiny skin of their backs. We were incredibly excited and madly attempted to photograph each appearance, trying to guess where they would surface. Looking back, our animated behaviour makes me laugh: dolphins became our most frequent encounter by far: Multiple times a day, and increasing in frequency the further we travelled along the river, we would hear snorting and splashing and see the curve of a body, or several, surface. By the end I could distinguish between the smaller Grey Dolphins and the larger Pink River Dolphins. Occasionally we saw an exuberant individual jumping, but usually they would just surface enough for us to see a thin grey nose, or in the case of the Pink River Dolphins, the beautiful pink of their bodies and the odd melon shape bump on their heads.
A number of times, we came across Giant Otters. They were always in groups, disappearing under the water with a plop, then taking it in turns to poke their long necks up, meerkat-style, and call out to each other, a sound like someone rolling their rrrs loudly or a stuttering machine gun. They had a funny urgent, confused expression, if you will forgive the anthropomorphism, and sleek brown fur with a large patch of white on their throats. On one occasion, we came across a couple of tiny individuals chomping on fish, which turned out to be the smaller, but similar, Neotropical Otter.
Despite being the rainy season, the weather was by and large sunny and extremely hot. Sometimes there would be a well-timed downpour during breakfast or lunch and we would wait it out, and occasionally we rowed along in drizzle. We were only caught out in two rainstorms, which turned the world around us grey, made the chances of spotting wildlife almost zero, and confined us to sitting rigidly under thick ponchos, like two uncomfortable peas in a pod, trying not to let the puddles of water gathering in the folds drain through any holes.
All day, every day, we were accompanied by the symphony (or cacophony) of the rainforest. Birds squawked, honked, chirped, tweeted, pecked a rhythm on trunks; one bird, I haven’t been able to find the English name, sang a short melody throughout the day and night which I would wake up singing or hum for hours in the canoe. It became usual to hear male Red Howler Monkeys howling each morning (nature providing us with an alarm) and most evenings, a sound like the wind roaring, a guttural warbling, which the females of the troop would add to with a staccato ‘yuk-yuk-yuk’. Dolphins snorted, otters stuttered, and occasionally a long drawn-out whistle descending in pitch would signal the presence of a sloth nearby. Llefri had an incredible repertoire of noises, and engaged in call-and-response with a number of birds, monkey species and sloths. Although we slowly learnt to distinguish certain animals, the soundscape around us remained a layered mystery, but we realised that for both guides it was like hearing conversations all around them spoken in their own language. At night, the noises changed. The loud croaking of frogs and buzzing of insects were a constant theme. On a number of occasions a Rufescent Tiger Heron would take a starring role, their name in Spanish translating as puma heron due to its big cat-like moan, though it reminded me more of plaintive mooing.
Although I have visited the Amazon rainforest on a number of occasions, in reserves and parks in both Bolivia and Brazil, this tour was unique in its use of a canoe without a motor. Without a doubt, we saw so much more wildlife because of it.
Within a few days we had seen eight species of monkey. Common Squirrel Monkeys, small and yellowish, were generally unfussed by our presence and foraged for food along branches close to us. We also got near groups of Black-Chested Moustached Tamarins, so tiny that one could sit in the palm of my hand and coloured black all over with a white beard, though if we drifted too close they would cry out in warning to each other with high-pitched squeaks. A number of times we saw the Red Howler Monkeys in action, pulling faces as though they were playing brass instruments as they howled from the branches of taller trees. Common Woolly Monkeys, large and grey, would dangle from high branches, nonchalantly eating or peering at us. We saw shaggy Monk Saki Monkeys, sometimes with fluffy babies clinging to their backs, Brown Capuchin Monkeys which often hung out in groups with the Squirrel Monkeys, and on one occasion came across the nocturnal Black-Headed Night Monkey peering out from behind the trunk of a tree.
The howling of male Red Howler Monkeys is answered by females of the troop
The reserve was also a birdwatcher’s paradise. We saw numerous birds of prey, such as a Black-Collared Hawk eating fish close to the lunch cabaña on day one, Great Black Hawks calling out with a piercing whistle, and Black Vultures circling on the thermal winds above us. The discordant squawks of Blue and Yellow Macaws became normal, and we frequently saw them flying over us, almost always in pairs as they mate for life. Toucans, we discovered, look hilarious when they fly, interspersing hurried flapping with moments where they pull in their wings and tail feathers and dart forwards like bullets. We saw two species, the larger White-Throated Toucan and the smaller, but more brightly coloured, Lettered Aracari. We saw spotted numerous waterbirds, from the burnished brown and blue-grey of the Rufescent Tiger Heron, to the silvery grey of spindly Cocoi herons. Iridescent kingfishers sat on thin branches close to the river’s edge, and here and there we encountered cormorants diving into the water. We also saw various woodpecker species tapping away at trunks, some with bright red streaks on their head, others with bodies mottled with different shades of brown. I conscientiously wrote down all the Spanish names and it took Sam and I many hours poring over a ‘Birds of Peru’ book Miguel lent us upon our return as well as internet guides, in order to identify the sheer number of birds we saw; even now we still have a small handful we cannot work out.
A Lakeful of Sky
Aside from the contemplation and wildlife spotting of our canoe journeys, the rainforest had many more details to show us. By lunchtime of day three we had arrived at our cabaña libre for the night, so during the afternoon we went for a short row down a fork in the river and came to a field of aquatic plants, covering the water so thickly that it looked like the guides were trying to row through solid green ground. Their hench arms prevailed though, and soon we came to huge floating lily pads, big enough for me to sit cross-legged on had they been able to hold my weight. That evening, we celebrated the New Year in great style, by being in bed by eight and muttering ‘Happy New Year’ to each other when we happened to wake at the same time at some point in the night. The rainforest makes for one hell of a crazy party place.
In the evening of day four, as I washed by the river bank, Sam informed me that my back, bum and thighs were covered in huge red mosquito bites. Squatting to pee was a distinct disadvantage when it came to the hordes of hungry mozzies, and after hours of sitting in the canoe these bites became very irritated and developed (yes, I’m sure you want to know) into a kind of nappy rash. Needless to say I was very uncomfortable, and by lunchtime of the next day, not in the best of moods. We had pulled over, and whilst the guides cooked our lunch, Sam found something to cheer me up, one of the most minutely perfect animals I have ever seen: a frog smaller than the word frog, about the size of a fingernail. The more we looked, the more we found these tiny brown blobs jumping around the leafy forest floor. You’ll be pleased to know, the bites and rash soon cleared up and though there were a few mosquitoes at every camp, I was by and large left alone after that. I also had a run-in with a huge wasp on day two, which was at least five centimetres long and had stung me on my side-boob (technical term), leaving the area sore and patchy red for a couple of days but otherwise unharmed.
For nights six and seven, we camped on the corner of a t-junction created by the Samiria River flowing past Caño Pastococha, Pastococha Canyon. It was a beautiful spot, and seemed to be a congregation point for dolphins from the frequency of snorts and glimpses.
On day seven we made a diversion, leaving the Samiria and rowing up the canyon for a few hours. Towards the end, the waterway slowly began to widen and more aquatic plants gathered at the banks. Llefri began to make a loud gulping sort of noise. Out of sight, and to our astonishment, we heard many similar, but lower and louder, gulping noises and several splashes. Llefri was playing call-and-response with the Black Caiman.
Suddenly the river opened up and we were rowing across an immense lake. Until that moment we hadn’t realised how enclosed within the rainforest we had been for six days. The guides rowed us into the middle, their oars dipping into the reflections of the cloudy sky, as huge black and green dragonflies flitted around the canoe. The long elegant necks of Great Egrets poked out of areas of dense aquatic plants and reeds. In the middle there was a rusty iron structure, the remnant of a petroleum storage unit from a company which exported rainforest products from the area before the reserve was formed roughly fifty years ago. We ate a picnic lunch floating next to the structure and we had a lovely bonding moment when, in my desperation and being at least one hour from the entrance back into the canyon, I had to move to the back of the canoe and wee off the edge whilst the others looked away.
On our way back to camp, we spotted an eagle (as yet unidentified in English) which was evidently close to the nest of a couple of Social Flycatchers, as they dived and trilled at the great bird until it flew off, and Llefri spied a nest with a couple of Hoatzin chicks. We also saw two Brown-Throated Sloths, one high in a tree which turned its head slowly to look at us when Llefri imitated the long whistle of its species, and the other very close to the water level. Llefri scaled the tree trunk and brought the sloth into the boat. I was very hesitant, but the sloth seemed to exhibit no signs of distress, merely turning its head now and then to look at us with what, quite frankly, can best be described as the expression of the world’s most chilled-out stoner.
On night seven, after darkness had fallen but before the full moon had risen high into the sky, we all climbed into the canoe and rowed a short distance down the canyon waterway. We were as absolutely silent as we could be as the guides flicked their powerful head torches into the leaves of the submerged trees on either side of the river. Slowly, they would row the canoe closer to the edge and lift up a branch, and two huge eyes caiman eyes would gleam back in the torchlight. If we made too much noise or got too close, the caiman would disappear under the water with a thunderous splash which suggested its vast size and added to the creeping tension of the activity. In less than an hour, the guides found nineteen Black Caiman in the water. The last had such a long head and made such a crashing splash as it disappeared that the guides estimated it to be about five metres long.
After our day’s detour to visit Pastococha Lake, we continued for one more day along the Samiria until we reached PV6, the final point of our journey downstream. There we met the jovial and very welcoming Manuel, and because his month on rotation covered the festive period, his family were visiting him as well. For the next couple of nights we all became a mini-community: Sam played football with Llefri and Manuel’s young son as our host regaled me with stories from previous postings, in particular, his work with native rainforest tribes which had previously had little or no outside contact.
We stayed at PV6 for two nights, taking the full day in-between to explore the area. We found patterned shards of pottery from a tribe which must have inhabited the area before the reserve was made, came across a Yellow-Footed Tortoise, and passed an armadillo hole and tapir tracks. We climbed many large mounds of fine soil which turned out to be anthills. At a few of these, we saw Leafcutter Ants marching into multiple entrances, carrying large fragments of foliage in their mouths. Manuel informed us, backed up by both guides, that the mother of these ants was a white, chirping two-headed snake which lives in the centre of the anthill, and as we approached another of these hills, we heard this noise emitting from within. We recorded the sound with our microphone; make of it what you will.
Llefri also spotted the perfect print of a jaguar paw, fresh from the night before. This, and a small pile of shit on a previous walk, was the closest we came to the elusive cat. In the combined eighteen years of guiding experience between our two guides, the number of jaguar sightings can be counted on two hands.
The afternoon was spent piranha fishing. The two canoes carrying us and Manuel’s family slowly drifted down the river until an advancing storm chased us back to PV6.
The World’s Pharmacy
On the morning of day ten, having waved Manuel and his family goodbye, we began our journey back. Travelling upstream was very different: the pace was unsurprisingly much slower, and the distance travelled each day shorter. We hugged the banks a lot more, crossing the river at bends to be on the inside curve where the flow of the current was less. This changed the nature of the wildlife we encountered, spotting smaller animals that live on and around the banks. We saw the venomous Tiger Rat Snake in a tangle of thin vines on the riverbank. We caught a glimpse of a bright orange Smooth Machete Savane before it slithered away when the canoe drifted too close. On day thirteen when we were close to reaching PV7, our stop for the night, we came across the most beautiful of all the reptiles we encountered: a Common Anaconda. It was resting on a bush above the water, its five-metre-long body in loops, its skin an olive colour with spots of bright yellow and black. I was excitable as a child: finding an adult of this size at this time of year is unusual and it had been one of the top animals I most wanted to see.
We were received at PV7 by Juan, who we had met on our journey downstream, the government worker currently on rotation and a veteran guide with more than thirty years of experience. The next morning over breakfast, he told me the story of a visit to Pastococha Lake he made at night with a shaman fifteen years ago. Using a cigar of pure tobacco, the shaman called up two guardians of the lake, the greatly feared and highly dangerous Tigre Negro. Throughout our whole journey we had heard mention of this beast, and Juan filled us in with more details: it was the size of a bull, with a gigantic head and paws which made the earth thunder as it walked, and brought nightmares to sleeping men. He also told us about sirens, mermaid in form when above the water, nymph-like below, which can pull a man into a whirlpool they create in the river if they fall in love with him, and of a water-snake which the shamans have a bond with, which can transform into an illuminated, round, flying object when out of the water. The two guides joined in with extra details they knew, then the conversation shifted to the medicinal properties of various jungle plants. The rainforest is well known as the world’s pharmacy, but I bet you don’t know exactly how to make remedies for male impotence (there are many, oh so many), or how vaginal juices and cut-up pubic hairs can save your life after certain insect stings and bites.
That morning, we went for our last walk. Sam tried his first ever maggot, pulled from a fallen tree nut, and Octavio found a Smoky Jungle Frog in a small hole, its skin a light brown fading into a blue grey and marked with irregular black splodges and lines. Sam kept his cool very well when a Bullet Ant, so called because its sting causes twenty-four hours of pain akin to being shot, crawled inside his t-shirt under his chin and he had to wait tensely until it crawled out and Llefri could flick it off. We came to a palm tree with a large bristle of acai fruit, fifteen metres up its slender trunk. Llefri scaled the trunk of the tree next to it, and hacked off the bundle of bristles with a machete. It came whizzing down, and we all pitched in, pulling off the black fruit and collecting it in a white sack which weighed more than twenty kilograms by the time we had gathered them all. I got side-tracked at one point by several weevils, large beetles with funny trunks, which came crawling out of the bristles. That evening we had a tasty juice made by grinding the boiled acai fruit and adding sugar and water, among other ingredients.
Over the last few days, the guides took the opportunity to fish more, in order to take some back, preserved with salt, for their families to eat. On a drizzly morning, when the fish gathered at the river’s edges amid the reeds to escape the rain, Sam tried his hand at spear fishing and was, to his own surprise most of all, successful on a number of occasions.
We could tell we were slowly withdrawing out of the jungle. Over the last few days, we passed a several canoefuls of tourists, and we found out that twenty-two people from our agency alone had entered and left the reserve without us crossing paths in the time we had been on our journey. By the time we arrived back at Poza Gloria, which had been our camp for night one, it felt like a luxury resort with its toilet unit and so many beds, as well as being a buzzing centre of activity with twenty or so people.
The jungle had just a few more things it wanted to show us. On the morning of day fifteen, as breakfast was being cooked, Llefri heard the squawk of a Red and Green Macaw. As we hadn’t had much of a chance to see this species closely, let alone for Sam to photograph them, Llefri rowed us across the river and quietly tracked the noise until we found a female, her head poking out of the hollow of a tree. She flew out of the hollow, where Llefri thought her eggs may have been, and sat on a branch meticulously cleaning her feathers for the long day ahead.
On our last day, we had only three hours of rowing in the morning. The river was once again narrow and fast flowing, and we cut through a lot of small channels where the guides had to paddle madly, so strong was the current. Midway through the morning, we pulled over for me to go to the toilet and the guides warned me to watch out for snakes as the undergrowth was particularly thick. Once we set off again, we came across a Common Lancehead snake only twenty metres down the same bank, its patterned body bulging from a recent meal. When we asked if the guides could row us closer, as they had often been doing, they vehemently refused, informing us that this snake can lance you at three metres and is so poisonous that its venom can kill a human in less than two hours. Wide-eyed, I stared back at my toilet spot.
An hour later, we rounded a corner and there we were, back at PV8. We unloaded the canoe and loaded up a moto-taxi, the buzz of its engine such a weird noise to our rainforest ears. We bumped along the dirt track back to Lagunas, disturbing bright yellow and orange Sulphur Butterflies which were puddled in groups along the way.
Re-entering the human world once again was a slow process. We began with Lagunas, with its dirt roads, houses, and hordes of moto-taxis. During our first shower, our shampoo and conditioner smelled weird, really weird, a chemical mix that we couldn’t believe we had liked. It took about a week before they were back to smelling ‘normal’. We then took the long boat back to Yurimaguas. It had tarmacked roads, restaurants with veggie food, electricity and even WiFi internet. A shared-taxi ride later, we arrived in the city of Tarapoto, still in the rainforest, but large enough to have a range of restaurants and great, clean accommodation, and for a couple of days we just chilled out, starting to work our way through all the photographs, and ordering so much pizza.