Friday, June 6, 2014

The Tourist's Guide to the Peruvian Amazon (Surviving the Peruvian Jungle)

The Amazon region of Peru is a vibrant expanse of strange and sweltering biodiversity.

peruvian amazon header

After spending 2 nights and 3 days in the Peruvian Amazon, not only did I discover living conditions I had never encountered before (good and bad), I was forced to confront many of my phobias. I've driven all around the Australian bush, taken the train from top to bottom of Europe and Japan, but travelling deep into the Amazon Rainforest was one of the first times in my life I've felt like I was walking head-on into another world.


We flew from Lima to Iquitos, one of the gateway cities of the Amazon. In Iquitos we found a random tourist agency that recommended us to head to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, about 180km south-west of Iquitos. We booked a fully inclusive 2 night 3 day package at an ecolodge. The next day we were picked up from our hotel in a small coach and headed towards Nauta City 90 minutes away. In Nauta was maybe the first time I had felt any culture shock in Peru - there were almost no paved streets, no electricity (I could notice) and none of the buildings were properly built. From Nauta we caught a river skiff to the ecolodge.

nauta boats on river


When we arrived at the lodge we were warmly greeted with a fresh maracuya juice and the owner of the lodge explained the house rules to us. Three meals a day at strict set times and the electricity in the entire lodge will turn off between 10pm to 6am (there were "emergency lights" in the room however). Also, no wi-fi (wahh). These rules are in place because the lodge is remotely located, so access to electricity is limited.

peruvian amazon ecolodge

After lunch we had an hour to explore. From the highest point of the lodge I could see we were completely surrounded by lush greenery. Ahead was the Marañon River and behind was nothing but green for miles. We were right in the thick of the rainforest.

peruvian amazon ecolodge by Marañon river


We met at the front of our lodge and hopped into a boat to start our first activity - animal spotting in the junction of the Ucayali and Amazon rivers. Occasionally we passed people in small canoes fishing. We spotted all sorts of exotic fauna, sloths lazily hanging from treetops, monkeys, crocodiles and exotic birds. My favourite was the pink dolphins, but they were so fast I caught only a few glimpses.

peruvian amazon river ucayali canoe

As we got deeper into the rainforest, our guide explained to us that the water goes from brown to black, and the forest can be perfectly reflected in the water. It happens because the biological waste from the trees empties into the river. After a few hours exploring, sunset came. Our guide turned the boat engine off and we sat in silence for 10 minutes to enjoy the sounds of nature. I thought it sounded lame, but it was so calming I almost dozed off.

peruvian amazon river ucayali reflection

At nightfall we started heading back to the lodge. Our fearless guide noticed a baby crocodile in the water and scooped it out with his bare hands!! He held it by the neck to calm it down and passed it around. I think this might be the first and last time I ever hold a baby croc fresh from the river. We got back, had a tasty dinner, and I passed out at lights out.

peruvian amazon baby crocodile


After breakfast we visited a local riverside community and saw how they lived - schools, houses and public areas. We didn't spend long, only an hour. We then headed back to the river to swim with pink dolphins. We were about to jump in and our guide noticed a swimming snake close by. We had to wait until it disappeared in case it attacked us (I thought it was really cute though - I didn't know snakes could swim).

peruvian amazon snake in river

Seeing the snake didn't make me feel any better about what might be lurking below. But my guide assured me the crocodiles never come to this part of the river. We spent an hour in the water and felt a few splashes and glimpses, but unfortunately we didn't get close enough for him to catch any pink dolphins.

peruvian amazon swimming in river

After lunch we headed to our next activity - a rainforest trek. Our small group was accompanied by 2 guides this time. Our head guide told us he brought a machete in case we encountered any jaguars (I wasn't sure if he was joking or not). Well, we did make it out alive without seeing any jaguars, but we did encounter lots of exotic wildlife - poisonous frogs, beetles, carnivorous ants and butterflies. The worst one of all was the tarantulas. We were assured that tarantulas are in fact NOT dangerous, and if you are unlucky enough to be bitten, at worst you will get a sore wound and fever - not that it helped cure my fear for them at all...

machete for rainforest jaguars

We arrived back at the lodge at 9pm sweaty and dirty, had dinner and promptly went to bed. One of the things you forget about living in the city is how bright the moon can get. In the middle of the rainforest with no big cities around for at least 100km I got one of the clearest photos of the moon I've ever taken.

moon from peruvian amazon so birght


For our final morning activity we went piranha fishing. I was scared because I always thought piranhas were carnivorous, but our guide assured us they are harmless to humans.

peruvian amazon fishing for piranhas

A few people in the group caught piranhas quickly, but since they were babies the guide threw them back in the water. I felt tugs on my line every 5-10 minutes, and my bait kept disappearing when I pulled my rod up. I thought I was outta luck. But finally, after sitting in piranha infested waters for an hour I caught a big one! The guide opened the mouth to show us the teeth piranhas use to feast on flesh.

piranha mouth

At midday we headed back to the lodge and all the caught piranhas were sent to the kitchen. It felt so rewarding eating something I caught with my own bare hands. After my satisfying lunch we hopped on the river skiff back to Nauta. Definitely, this was not my typical "holiday" experience. There was no wi-fi, we were warned tarantulas creep into the rooms occasionally and you will be devoured by mosquitoes if you're not careful. But I still had an amazing time. I've never been to a place like this before (middle of nowhere) so everything I did here was a first.

cooked piranha for lunch


If it's your first time in a rainforest there are a few things you need to keep in mind. Yes its hot and yes you will get sticky and sweaty. But you need to wear the right clothing to make sure you aren't devoured by insects - that includes long pants and long sleeves. Sneakers are great for walking but boots are even better - you will be wading through mud and water so your shoes will get wrecked. A rain poncho is also a good idea (we were lucky we didn't need ours). Sunscreen, repellant, hats and glasses are a must. And if you have any material goods, donations (clothes, books, toys) are very welcome in the surrounding communities.

birds on log in amazon river

Image attribution:
"An active community" by Allen Sheffield // CC BY 2.0 *
* changes were made to the original materials

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