This morning I woke up in Cuzco. Two plane rides later, tired and starving, I arrived in Iquitos, the largest town in the Peruvian Northern Amazon, and only accessible by car or boat.
From the airport in Iquitos, I hailed a mototaxi. IT. WAS. AWESOME!!!! It was my first mototaxi ever and it was an adrenaline rush. Cars are very expensive in this jungle town, and I saw only a handful during my visit. There is one lane, however five “lanes” of mototaxis zip in and out around each other, inches away. Mothers in high heels ride on motorcycles with their babies in their laps. There are no street lights and no one wears a helmet.
Iquitos is a bustling town, full of thousands of locals, people from the jungle in search of work, curious tourists, missionaries, backpackers seeking enlightenment from Ayahuasca retreats, and many, many stray dogs.
Pre WWI, Iquitos was booming from the rubber industry. There are remains of powerful mansions and a building designed by Gustavo Eiffel. Sadly, with the rubber barons gone, the city is now struggling with poverty.
I asked to be dropped off at the Plaza de Armas downtown. The first hostel (found in my tour guide) that I walk to was closed for business. The second I walked to was very expensive and did not look appealing.
Discouraged, I stopped at Ari’s, a large, open air restaurant overlooking the Plaza. Ari’s is known as “gringolandia” and serves burgers and milkshakes. It’s comforting in this busy, confusing, exotic location.
I study my guidebook and decide to try the Flying Dog Hostel. I take a mototaxi for 1.5 Soles (50 cents) to the hostel, and am relieved to find a 6 bed air-conditioned dorm room for only 30 Soles. I take a shower and lay down for a nap. I accidentally slept until 5 AM the next morning!!!
I wake up and decide to make the most of my visit here in Iquitos. I was discouraged because I hadn’t pre-booked a trip into the Amazon, and I was confused after being bombarding by scores of people trying to sell me tours (everyone and their brother is a tour guide here, supposedly).
At 7 AM, I go to the crowded Belen market, a giant open air market featuring exotic fruits and vegetables, spices, jungle medicines, freshly caught river fish, chickens, and meats, including crocodile and turtle. The sights, sounds and smells are overwhelming, and I leave with only one pomegranate and two limes.
I return to the hostel for breakfast, and there I was greeted by Walter, a tour operator with strong ties to the hostel. He explained to me that he owns a lodge on the Amazon River, 2 hours away (by boat) from the city, and that he provides a less touristy and more natural experience. He charges 200 Soles ($63 USD) a day, and this includes round trip transportation to the port, the two hour boat ride to the lodge and back, 3 meals/day, a private room, guide, and excursions. Ready to leave the city, I decide to go for 3 days/2 nights, and within 20 minutes I am packed up and riding with him by mototaxi to his office.
Walter has owned Amazonas tour company for 6 years and he is from the Amazon himself. I paid him and then toured the downtown square for an hour while he completed the arrangements.
Walter escorted me to the port, where I boarded a 30 foot motorboat captained by Leo. Leo revved the engine, and soon we were navigating through canals, reeds, water hyacinths, and jungle vines to the great Amazon River. We passed herons, egrets, and terns and passed fisherman in dug out canoes. Thatch roofed villages stood on the banks, and a group of five fish jumped out of the water as we sped by.
Two hours later we reached the Chullachoqui Lodge, a charming, mosquito netted, thatch roofed compound. There is a dining room, a kitchen, a hammock lounge room, and personal dorm rooms.
I’ve learned that I have come during the end of the raining season, and the water level is 20 feet higher than expected. A portion of the lodge is currently unusable, as it is partially under water.
The guide, Raul, is from a nearby village (called Centroamerica) and he told me that the village has to be evacuated each wet season. An Italian non-profit organization provided tents to the residents, and they live in them, several miles away from the village. When the water level drops, the villagers will return to their thatch roofed, single room homes and farms. Raul has one daughter, and he must send her far away to go to school.
The lodge is very rustic. There is currently no running water, no electricity and no internet. There is a generator that runs for one hour each day so that staff and guests can charge their personal electronics.
Besides Raul, the other staff members include Rosa (the chef), Vincent, the groundskeeper, and Elias, the muscle. :). They are all so friendly and helpful.
After lunch, which is a delicious meal of river fish, white rice, peas and jungle salad (tomatoes, cucumbers and shredded palm pulp), fruits, lemonade, water and tea, we go for our first excursion.
We board a brightly painted canoe with Raul and Elias, and they paddle is into the surrounding jungle. We (they) spot sloths and iguanas in several nearby trees. The kamikaze iguanas have a habit of diving from the branches (up to 30 feet) into the water near our small boat. It takes me off guard and I laugh.
Raul points out the flora and fauna. There are giant strangler fig trees that have sprouted massive roots into the water, appearing as multiple trees. Bats and snakes make homes in these giant ecosystems.
Raul shows us monkey bites and we each try them. They taste slightly like bananas. Raul points out squirrel monkeys playing in the nearby tree. We also see beautiful tropical birds, including the scarlet tanager.
Our excursion lasts over 3 hours and we return to the lodge for dinner. We have another fine meal of chicken, rice, vegetables, and mango juice.
We then head out for a night ride. Equipped with our flashlights and headlamps, we head out into the dark in search of crocodiles and other nocturnal creatures.
The sky is clear and every star can be seen. Mars and the Milky Way shine brightly.
Three hours later, and we have only been able to spot spiders, mosquitos and frogs.
The night sky is magical, as fireflies glow in the sky and their babies glisten in the water hyacinths next to the boat.
We return to the lodge, which is now beautifully aglow by the light of lanterns. I am tired and I happily retreat to my screened in room overlooking the Amazon River.
I sleep well, despite the bug bites, and I wake early. The lodge is quiet, except for the beautiful songs of hundreds of birds and insects. Howler monkeys can be heard faintly in the distance. I brew some tea and relax in the hammock.
After breakfast, we go for a hike in the jungle. We don our knee high rubber boats and hop into the canoe. Raul takes us up a tributary until we reach shallow water. We climb out of the boat and the water reaches my knees.
We wade onto dry (muddy) ground and trudge through vines and palm leaves. We reach a clearing and Raul explains that the locals are leveling the balsa trees to use this ground for a banana plantation.
There is a home nearby and we talk to the man and woman living there. They have chickens, roosters, a cat and several puppies. They share their apple bananas with us as we talk together. They have a fire going and they share their cooked jungle potato with us, too.
We thank them and begin our hike. We weave through the trees and through the thick mud that coats our boots. I struggle with my footing and almost fall several times.
Raul points out a bullet ant mound and proceeds to tap it with his machete until they come out (I explain to him that it’s really not necessary….). The bullet ants are two inches in length and Raul explains that they are one of the most dangerous ants in the world. The sting of their bite will linger for 24 hours.
We spot a large green snake overhead and then pass large tree cutter ant mounds.
Raul strips a stalk of sugar cane with his machete and gives us each a taste. The stalk is hard and fibrous, and you must chew on it to get the sweet juice out. We also are some purple jungle peanuts, but they hadn’t ripened enough.
After 3 hours of trekking in the mud and the muck, we returned to the boat. I was happy to rid myself of the boots when we returned, and my pants were covered in mud.
After lunch, we went on another boat excursion to a nearby lake, where we looked for anacondas (thankfully we didn’t see them) and then fished for piranhas.
Using rustic wooden fishing poles baited with chicken, we patiently waited for the fish to bite. I had two close calls, but I really just ended up feeding them. Two other girls caught piranhas and they quickly released them back into the river. I had only fished one other time in my life, as an 8 year old, and I felt so sad for the fish. I felt the same way now and was happy to see them released.
The next morning, we woke early to watch the sunrise over the Amazon. Raul stopped the boat in a nearby lake and we saw pink dolphins swimming around us! Pink dolphins are believed to only be found in the Amazon and that it is a genetic mutation that causes their coloring. Fortunately, dolphins are not hunted by the villagers.
After breakfast, we went on our final cruise. Raul showed us giant water lilies, the largest water plants on the planet.
We accidentally got stuck in the reeds and hundreds of spiders climbed into the boat as the sun burned down.
Just when I thought I was ready to be done with the water, the mosquitos and the jungle, Raul took us to his mother-in-law’s home (it seemed as though many of the villagers were family).
We pulled up to the hut and greeted the woman. She has ten children living in the two room, open aired home. She talked with her daughter, and Raul asked us if we want to see her sloth doll. I thought she would bring out a stuffed animal, although I hadn’t seen any of the children playing with toys.
To my shock and awe, she brought out a tiny, slightly moving, adorable, real life baby sloth!!!!! I couldn’t believe my eyes! Raul explained that the 5 month old baby had been abandoned by its mom, and the little girl had been feeding and caring for it. She named the baby Marguerite.
She allowed us to take turns holding Marguerite. When it was my turn, I was pleasantly surprised at how soft, sweet and cuddly this baby was. He thick hair was clean and soft, and she clutched onto me. I was in love. I was sad to say goodbye to her.
Sloths are said to be excellent swimmers, climbers and eaters. They are gentle and they mate for life. It is nice to know that they are well respected and cared for in the Amazon.
After lunch, another boat had come to return us to Iquitos. I enjoyed my time in the jungle, but I was very ready to leave. I missed the creature comforts of home and I was covered in bug bites and sunburn. I love wildlife, and I respect the resilient, hard working people that live in the jungle (in the dry season, temperatures reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, too!!).
I returned to the Flying Dog hostel for the final night of my trip (not counting the red eye flight the following day). I was thankful for the warm shower and my clean clothes that were held in storage here.
Tomorrow, I will stop at Ari’s for a gooey banana split before heading the airport, after which I will board three more flights before returning home.
This was a fantastic trip of a lifetime! Thank you for joining me on it!
Have you visited the Amazon? Share your stories below.