A Week In The Amazon Jungle
January 1, 1970
by Sally Hartl-McWilliam
Peru is a wildly contrasting country.
From Lima’s ulta rich beach side apartments to the favelas of small towns. Towering 6000m mountains to a peaceful oasis in a desert. Out of the seven countries I’ve explored in South America, Peru was the one that captured my heart. And didn’t let go.
After spending five weeks in Bolivia at altitudes above 3000m, the oxygen rich Amazon jungle was a welcome change.
Despite mostly traveling independantly, my husband and I decided the best way to see this part of the world was with a professional guide. The majesty of the jungle would require an expert to guide us. After getting a few quotes from tour companies in Cusco, we decided to head straight to the source and try our luck there. The only thing standing between us was a 12 hour bus ride. 566 pot holes later, we arrived into the sticky heat of Puerto Maldonado.
This is the small town from which most Peruvian Amazon tours begin. The town itself isn’t much – unless you like tuk tuks and dirt roads. We quickly found a tour company we liked and off we went.
The First Day
The tour began with a simple yet delicious lunch of rice and manioc (a root vegetable native to Peru) wrapped in a banana leaf. I was already feeling more tropical! Not 20 minutes into our first boat ride we spotted a family of Capybaras – an animal I’d never even heard of until a few months ago.
Looking a bit like an oversized water wombat, these semi aquatic mammals are actually a type of rodent. The largest rodent in the world. Despite them being members of the rat family, they were actually quite endearing.
A few hours later we arrived at our rustic jungle lodge and promptly ventured out on a nighttime hike. Imagine my terror when our guide started pointing out hand sized tarantulas, oversized cockroaches and poisonous plants. You’d think being Australian (therefore growing up with these assholes in my backyard) my fear of arachnid type things would have dissipated by age 28.
Beautiful Macaws & Boat Rides in the Dark
The next day provided us an eye opening adventure deep into the animal kingdom. Starting out before dawn, we boarded the boat in the dark and set off upon the river. The driver must have been keen on carrots as the entire boat ride was done with zero lighting. We were barreling down a huge river in the pitch black pre dawn. Now I’m a good swimmer, but the idea of going into the drink – in the Amazon, in the dark, was slightly horrifying.
We arrived at a small clay island two hours later and hiked our way to a viewing spot on the far side of the island. There, we were treated to an unforgettable sight – hundreds of beautiful birds flocking to a clay lick for their morning breakfast. Not just there to feed, we learned the birds were also there to socialise. Our guide Juanito likened their daily ritual to people meeting at a cafe.
Ultimately we were all there for the same reason – to nourish our bodies and satisfy our social desires. It seemed as if both human and animal came together at the break of day for the same purpose. The beauty of these wild birds is something that will stay etched in my mind for years to come.
Jungle River Swimming
Despite a certain film titled ‘ Anaconda’ hovering in my mind, I though it would be a nice idea to cool off in the river. Our guide assured us this part of the river was 100% piranah free. One of the other travelers, Bonnie, braved the murky water with me. After the very accurate ‘toes in the water and nothing has bitten them off’ test we jumped in.
It was delightful, refreshing and relaxing. And I’m sure the sithery thing I felt slide past my leg was definitely some kind of jungle seaweed.
Powerful Plants and Oversized Otters
After the cooling swim it was time to work up a sweat (again) with an afternoon hike through dense jungle forest. With Juantio at the helm we learnt about the incredible health applications of many jungle plants.
To learn about the healing techniques of shamans and how they use complex plant remedies was fascinating. Plants to cure cancer, HIV and kidney problems. Plants to heal both body and mind. Plants to fix anything from simple scrapes to broken bones.
The jungle, as we learned, is an incredibly powerful place.
One of the standout moments was during our visit to the very beautiful Lake Sandoval. With a half hour boat ride, a 3km hike and then a kayak – this lake is one of the most remote I’ve ever been to.
We were instructed to speak in whispers to maximise our chance of spotting an animal. A stillness was in the air. A quiet settled over the boat.
Suddenly the tranquility was interrupted by a happy family of giant otters. Imagine my delight when one torpedoed toward our boat, popped it’s head above the water and excitedly squealed. A few seconds later he surfaced again, this time with a fish in his clutches.
We learned the reason behind this endearing sound – it was a mark of celebration. Whether the otters were celebrating a good catch, the presence of us humans (doubtful) or the fact that it was sunny, I don’t know.
I like to think the little guy I saw was exclaiming:
“Look! Look at me! I caught fish!”
The otters played just metres from us for 15 mesmerising minutes. Our entire group was silenced by the beauty of these amazing animals. Of all the stunning moments I experienced on this trip, this one will remain my favourite.
I want to point out the jungle isn’t all about happy otters and colourful birds. The Amazon is wildly contradicting place. To thoroughly experience the jungle you must open yourself to it’s awesome embrace. Walk deep into the forest and allow yourself to feel it’s deadly power and it’s healing atmosphere.
The flora and fauna in the Amazon have both the power to kill and to heal. It is a powerful thought to know you are surrounded by hundreds of species of plants knowing that the touch of one can inflict deadly pain while the brush of another can soothe.
That is nature of the Amazon jungle. It levels you. It makes you realise just how powerful Mother Nature really is.
The Amazon is place of raw unfiltered beauty which few visit, but those who do take a deep respect for the jungle home with them.
Watch this space to hear about my next adventure somewhere else in stunning South America.
Travel. Adventure. Explore.
All photos credit to the very talented and very lovely Meg Barstow.