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Amazon Rainforest

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In March 1999, Alex (a friend from Edinburgh now residing in Manchester) and I flew to Iquitos to take a trip into the Amazon rainforest. The first time I had been there the previous year it was a relatively ordinary experience; I stayed in a comfortable lodge with plenty of facilities and although it was interesting as an initial experience I didn't see much in the way of wildlife. This was because the lodge was only about 20km from the city, the vegetation is secondary growth (the original rain forest having been cut down), the riverbanks have frequent settlements and much of the wildlife is scared away (apart from spiders and insects!) This time I wanted to get well away from Iquitos and into the virgin rainforest. (Click on the thumbnail pictures to view them full-size.)

Belen We flew from Lima and arrived in Iquitos in the late morning where the temperature was 36 degrees Celsius, and humid. We were met by our jungle guide called Luis and planned with him that he would take us 100 km up river for the following three days. Next morning we were met at the hotel at 7 a.m. and walked down to the riverbank. We found out our transport was to be an aluminum; canoe with an outboard motor but without any protective roof. We loaded up with sleeping mattresses, food supplies and drinking water, then called at a floating petrol station to take on fuel. As we headed up-river we passed the floating shanty town of Belen, the "Venice" of Iquitos.

At this time of year, towards the end of the rainy season in the mountains, the river level is nearly at its peak and the current in the middle of the river is 15 km per hour. So traveling up-river we stayed close to the riverbank where the current is less strong. Around Iquitos the river averages 2km wide and sometimes we had to cross to the other riverbank to cut off a corner. When we did that we had to dodge round all the tree limbs and branches that had been torn off trees in the forest upstream and that were being swept down river.

Lilies After one hour we stopped at a small lodge for an hour for some breakfast where we met up with another couple, an English guy called Richard and his French wife Agnes, who were to join us on the trip. We then set off again and continued for a further two hours before turning into the tributary called Rio Yanayacu. As we got further away from Iquitos there were less villages and native huts to see. Sometimes we were able to cut off corners by taking short cuts through the jungle where the river level was high enough and once when we did this we saw some Victoria Lilies with leaves nearly two meters across.

Platform By now the banks of the river were virgin rain forest and finally in mid-afternoon we arrived at our accommodation for the next two nights - an open wooden platform about 3m x 5m on stilts with a thatched palm-leaf roof and no walls. The river level was 1m below the level of the platform. At one end of the platform was the kitchen and food storage area and cooking was being done over a wood fire. There was just enough room for our sleeping mattresses and mosquito nets in the remaining space. The other occupants of the platform were the cook and a young boy who was assistant boatman and general helper. Non-human occupants were aParrotyellow-blue macaw with clipped wings, a kinkajou that was quite tame and cuddly, and a monkey who was an absolute pest. After the monkey had stolen some of the food, broken the glass of the oil lanterns and also a couple of cups, and got itself tangled in Agnes hair it was banished for the rest of our stay. The kinkajou being a nocturnal creature slept during the day (some of the time in my bag) and livened up at night, although when we bedded down for the night it was taken over to a tree and deposited there for the rest of the night.

There were no toilet facilities on the platform and when we enquired about this we were directed to a small hut up in a tree about 30m away with a ladder leading up to it coming out of the river. The only access from our platform was by canoe through the jungle. We could ask the boatboy to paddle us across by day but at night it was self-service. Nobody went during the night. The men in our group took to relieving themselves from the edge of the platform into the river. I have really no idea how Agnes managed. There was a shower next to the little hut but it was mostly submerged under the water so the only option was to take a body wash using river water. Nobody bathed for the next three days.

The first afternoon after a lunch and a siesta we all got into a wooden canoe and went exploring, with a Luis and the boatman doing the paddling. After a while we came to an area the river hadn't inundated and we all got out for a walk through the jungle. Out guide Luis pointed out the various flora, including a rubber tree, bromeliads, fungi, and a vine that is a source of fresh, potable water. (Just cut a section of the vine about half a meter long and hold it nearly vertical with the bottom end to your lips and clear, sweet water runs out!) After our walk we came back to the canoe and disaster struck. I was first to step in, the bottom of the canoe was wet and slippy, my foot shot out from under me and I fell backwards into the river. It was only maybe 20cm deep but enough to get me wet but, worst of all, my camera that was clipped to my belt took in water. Anyway after that we carried on and although I was wet I wasn't cold because the temperature was still around 30 degC.

BabyBy this time it was dark so we went looking for cayman (the Amazon alligator). These are also nocturnal, lying up in reed beds by day and hunting at night. We paddled our way through the jungle into an oxbow lake and slowly and very quietly paddled round the reeds. The boatman and guide both had torches and we saw the eyes of the cayman reflecting back the light. We must have spotted around twenty altogether. A couple of times the boatman at the front dipped his hand into the river and pulled it back out holding a wriggling baby cayman about 40cm long.

After that we went back to our platform where a meal was being cooked and we were able to have a couple of cans of beer from the icebox thoughtfully included by our guide in the supplies we picked up in Iquitos. I also was able to change into some dry clothing; a task carried out very rapidly as by this time the hungry mosquitoes had scented fresh blood and were attacking in mass formation.

After our meal we set out the mattresses, rigged up the mosquito nets, and since there wasn't much else to do we went to bed. The jungle is amazingly noisy at night from frogs and other creatures. Also both at dusk and at dawn we heard howler monkeys that don't actually howl but make a roaring noise - a really spine-chilling sound.

Early next morning before breakfast we went out in the canoe for a paddle around and saw many troops of monkeys and birds of different species. There were heron, kingfisher, hawks, and many varieties of parrots, plus many more species of birds that I had never seen before.

River After breakfast we set off in the outboard-driven canoe up-river to visit a tribe of Bora Indians living on a tributary called the Rio Yapara. The journey took four hours until we came to a group of very simple huts at the rivers edge. We all thought later that the trip was a bit of a waste of time as the people didn't have much to show us except some very simple native handicrafts which they were keen to sell us. We had some lunchCayman there of fried fish and fried banana which is the staple diet of all the people living on the river. The journey on the way back was much quicker since we were going down river, and on the way we saw several pink fresh-water dolphins in the river. As we were traveling up the Yanayacu near our campsite some people from a small village on the riverbank called us over to see a cayman about 3 meters long that they had snared.

Sloth After we got back to our platform and while waiting for dinner to be cooked we went out in the other canoe (paddle power again) and saw more monkeys and birds. We also spotted a sloth about 10 meters up a tree so we paddled to the base of the tree; our young boat boy climbed up the tree and tipped the sloth off its perch into the river. Luis then pulled the wet, bedraggled creature out of the water for us to have a close look at. It looked really unhappy (well wouldn't you be?!) so Luis put it back on a branch and as we left the sloth was climbing back up to resume its siesta.Snake

The next night was the same as the first although we all slept better having got used to the jungle sounds more.AnteaterWe set off back towards Iquitos next morning after breakfast and as we passed the same village as yesterday they called us over again. This time they produced a large sack and pulled out an anaconda around 3 - 4 meters long (about half-size!). Richard was brave enough to hang it round his neck with the help of one of the villagers,Prisonbut it was all I could do just to bring myself to stroke it. The children of the village were tormenting an anteater that had been foolish enough to stray into the village. The cayman of last night had been killed and cut up and was now gently stewing in a large cauldron over a wood fire. (On return to Iquitos I tried cayman steak in a restaurant and found it quite enjoyable.) While we were in the village we were also shown the "prison", a tiny wood hut where a miscreant (usually drunk on the local home-brew) would be held.

The journey back, again being down river, was a lot quicker, we stopped once for lunch, and again for fuel at a village with a river-bus station and got back into Iquitos around 4 p.m. We were really fortunate with the weather during the three days because, apart from a brief shower during the second night, the only time it rained when we had to get out our rain ponchos was in the last half-hour of the return journey.AlexOn our return to Iquitos we were able to shower and shave at last, and have a nice cold beer sat at a cafe on the Malecon (promenade) watching the Amazon flow by.

My thanks go to Alex for supplying the pictures. During my ducking in the river my camera took in water and didn't dry out fully until I returned to Lima. The few pictures I had already taken came out fine and the camera is now working as well as ever.

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