Peru, Vol. 2: Welcome to the Jungle

Peru, Vol. 2: Welcome to the Jungle

Part two of a series about my 2015 trip to Peru with my friend Chris. The first of three stories in which we realize we’re not in Kansas anymore.

There are three distinct stories from my trip in 2015 – moments where I felt truly transplanted, lifted out of my known life, and changed by Peru and the sweaty hands of the jungle.

This is the story of the first, and perhaps the most humorous, moment in which I knew I was no longer in Kansas. And by Kansas I mean Reno. Yes, they’re often mistaken for each other.


Chapter 1: Best-laid plans

Trip to Amazon - River tourLet’s start with my friend Chris. He has traveled.

Years ago he’d been to Machu Picchu, checking off that particular life box as part of a six month South American excursion. At some point in the years since, Chris happened upon a movie called “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a beautifully-made film about Che Guevara’s formative years in South America, adventuring with his friend, Alberto.

A quintessential scene was of Che and Alberto, floating down the Amazon river aboard a barge, sleeping in the mid-day heat in a pair of hammocks.

The movie struck a chord. Chris, having yet to experience the Amazonian jungle, began to fancy returning to Peru.

One evening in April, 2015, Chris and his wife had me over for drinks. I’d just gone through a hard break-up and they were doing their duty as good friends.

Chris told me that his wife had given him leave to take a trip somewhere, to go adventuring like he had in his younger days.

“I think you and I would travel well together,” Chris said. “Want to go?”

I agreed immediately.

“But wait, where are we going?” I asked.

“Have you seen The Motorcycle Diaries?” he said.

I hadn’t.

Chris described this idea he had of a trip to the Peruvian jungle.

It included:

  • Motorcycle tours down dusty roads
  • Hacking through dense jungle undergrowth
  • Fighting anacondas
  • Searching for the world’s largest rodent, the capybara
  • and of course…
  • Humid days aboard South American barges, sleeping afternoons away on hammocks

I knew that, were I to partake in this fantasy I’d be playing the role of the simple sidekick. Truth be told, I was all the happier for it. I’ve been to ten countries so far in my life, but Chris has been to over fifty. I’d follow his lead.

“You have to watch The Motorcycle Diaries first though,” he told me. I laughed and looked at him. He didn’t laugh back – he was serious.

In the weeks thereafter, our jungle plans were facilitated by a college professor from Chris’ undergraduate years.

Barbara Land is perhaps best known to our friends for teaching History of Dance at the University of Nevada. Apparently the course is a great place to meet girls.

That said, Barbara is much more than a facilitator of romance – she’s a lover of Peruvian culture and has, over the last twenty years, spent a good deal of time in Iquitos, Peru. She’s made a name for herself in that city through consistent charity work and teaching, and she has some close friends there who happen to be Peruvian tour guides.

In 2015, Barbara’s tour-guide friends (Victor and Usiel) ventured out and formed their own tour company: AquAmazon Lodge.

Trip to Amazon - Victor Coelho and UsielBarbara, hearing of our impeding Peruvian adventure (and eager to send business to her friends), put us in touch with the two guides. We scheduled to meet with them on our second day in Iquitos, and we did just that.

…Fast forward a couple months, to our second day in Iquitos…

There we were: Chris and I sitting on a small couch across from Victor, Usiel, and their third partner, Larisa, in their newly rented office.

After about an hour of discussion, Chris and I were satisfied to learn that not only were they an upstanding team with over forty years experience, and that their senses of humor were just as twisted as ours, but that we’d even have the honor of being their first official customers.

We booked the trip.

Now, normally a person schedules expeditions a few weeks or months in advance. However, our time was limited and, due to the threat of an impending gasoline strike in eastern Peru (which would impede our travel if we got caught up in it), we opted to leave the very next day.


Chapter 2: Little boat, big river


The next morning our group formed early to catch a taxi from Iquitos to its sister city of Nauta (about an hour’s drive south). After arriving in Nauta we ate breakfast as a group. Then we split: Chris and I explored the city while the guides spent a few hours buying the supplies we’d be bringing with us into the jungle.

Chris and I walked through a soggy morning market, talking excitedly about how the jungle would be.

Then we happened upon a local urban park. Trip to Amazon - Nauta Painting

In the middle was a largish lake, and on that lake was a four-foot cayman (alligator) floating on a log. It was the first we’d seen. Along one side of the lake was a long wall, covered in little vignette paintings. Each painting told the story of a different mythological jungle creature.

Our combined Spanish allowed us to divine the gist of most of the stories, and there was one recurring theme:

“Don’t go into the jungle or the [insert scary monster here] will get you.” We laughed at the superstitions and left the park, heading back to find our guides.

Upon reuniting with them we found that their purchases consisted of nearly equal parts rubber boots, fresh fruits, and Pisco alcohol. Satisfied that our guides had covered the basic necessities (we’d surely kill and eat whatever else we needed), we found the launch bar where our boat stood ready to be boarded.

We jumped aboard our little skiff, supplies in hand, and set off down the river.

Which river?

The fucking Amazon. Trip to Amazon - Amazon River

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a big river. The longest, in fact, in the world. If you can, imagine Jeremy Clarkson saying “in the world” – it’s better.

Even near its headwaters, where we were, the Amazon was nearly a mile wide.

Our little boat (with its single outboard motor and seating for about 10) seemed minuscule as we motored down the expanse of water. It was like riding a bicycle down the tarmac at LAX.

We saw few watercraft as we left society and ventured into the green wilderness.

Nearly two hours later, and without warning, the boat turned hard to starboard (“to the right” for you landlubbers) and we headed up a tiny Amazon tributary, the mouth of which we’d barely noticed as we’d approached.

Trip to Amazon - Heading up the riverDark muddy riverbanks encroached from either side of the tributary, and the water depth became very shallow. The river slowly dwindled in size as we progressed – at some points it was no more than eight or ten feet wide.

Up and up we went. The newly-built AquAmazon Lodge had been built on the shoreline of a lake at the top, nestled in the Tamshiyacu – Tahuayo Communal Reserve.

“We’re entering the dry season”, Victor explained, “which means that while we can go the entire length of this tributary by boat, in just a few weeks the river will get too shallow. Tourists later this fall will have to get out of the boat and walk, for a half-mile or so, just to get to the lake.”

That didn’t sound like fun, and we thanked the gods when, after about twenty minutes of navigating up-river, the tributary literally “flattened out” and we were, all of the sudden, on the lake.

Trip to Amazon - AquAmazon LodgeIt was an odd sensation for me, a boy from the mountains; I’d never driven up a river and onto a lake. But then there we were, speeding across this gorgeous expanse of flat water, surrounded by jungle and cool air, toward a little lodge perched on the shoreline at the far end.

We moored our boat at the base of a little muddy dock, near steps which led upward toward the newly built lodge.


Chapter 3: Night hikes and new friends

Upon arrival, we found the lodge consisted of three bungalows (each with comfortable beds and clean bathrooms), a separate cooking building, and a two-story common building in the center of the others. Meals would be enjoyed at the large dining table on the lower level of the common building. The second story was open and was a perfect place to hang hammocks and chill.

No Netflix, mind you. Just chill.

While a generator provided electricity for a few hours each day, there was no air conditioning, nor was there any connectivity. We were on our own.

Where windows might have been, the lodge buildings had screens – they let the air flow freely while keeping the insects out. Additionally, fresh tar-oil had been applied to the wooden flooring to keep the baddies from crawling up from underneath.

We loved hearing all of this as it was explained – with the jungle just outside (and fresh memories of the vignette paintings and mythological creatures) it was nice to know that inside we’d be safe.

We had arrived just after dusk, and by the time we’d set our packs down and toured our lodgings it was quite dark.

“Perfect time for our first night hike,” said Usiel, who happens to look like a Peruvian Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Donning our brand new rubber boots and healthy dollops of DEET, we left the lodge and walked single-file toward the lake to explore the shoreline.

Apparently the mosquitos had been alerted to our presence, because within seconds they began to swarm. I immediately lowered my mosquito head-net down over the edges of my wide-brimmed hat and snugly around my neck. I then buttoned my long-sleeve shirt all the way to the top and flipped the collar up.

“I’m gonna show up to a date dressed like this one day,” I laughed to myself.

The mosquitos were loud, but the jungle itself was even louder. Birds, monkeys, and other bugs… I hadn’t fully appreciated their cacophony until just then.

We’d reached the shoreline and had just begun to walk along it when Victor exclaimed something in Spanish and squatted down. A moment later he stood upright holding our first discovery: a snail.

Trip to Amazon - freshwater SNAILIt was surprisingly large. The fleshy part was nearly as large as my fist, and it had made its home inside a shell as large as a softball.

“Put it in your pocket,” Victor said. “We’ll cook it for dinner.”

And so I did.

We soldiered on, a bulge in my pants which surely wasn’t happy to see me.

We shined our flashlights down amongst the lilies and reeds, and it wasn’t long before we gathered round our next jungle encounter, a fishing spider.

That’s right – a spider that sits on lily pads and hunts minnows. A spider large enough and smart enough to kill fish. We were honestly more amazed than disgusted. Thankfully Victor didn’t ask me to put this one in my pocket – minnow fishing down there sounded, well, dangerous.

We “hiked” for about twenty minutes in total, shining our flashlights up into trees, listening to the hoots of unseen birds, and at one point tracking the call of some monkeys nearby.

The DEET seemed to have little effect and I realized that jungle mosquitos (unlike the pansies of the Sierras) can easily bite through a single layer of clothing. Places where I was wearing two layers (basically the regions of my underwear and socks) fared slightly better, but were still not totally safe.

Then, in a tree above, we caught a glimpse of a huge Avicularia avicularia, or what we in the modern world call a Pink-Toed Tarantula.


Chapter 4: Spiders and me

Trip to Amazon - Pink Toed TarantulaThe pink-toed tarantula was about the size of my hand, and it was scurrying across the trunk of a tree, about four feet above our heads, from one dark crevice to another.

Confession time: the Pink Toed Tarantula was the very same species of animal I’d secretly kept as a pet at the US Naval Academy. Laugh all you will, but a tarantula (and cage) was one of the few things one could easily keep inside one’s locker without it being found. Having a rather dangerous pet was kind of cool for a room full of four testosterone-charged boys. That said, I haven’t owned one since.

But my real reason for such a pet? Therapy.

See, as a child, I developed a strong fear of spiders. I remember being a child, running naked from my shower into my parents’ bedroom because there’d been a black widow on the shower curtain. My father had gone in and killed the thing, but the memory was never one of proudest, and since “manning up” was the thing to do in Annapolis, I’d decided to purchase a tarantula and conquer my fear.

Honestly, the technique had worked, for a time: our numerous occasions of handling the eight-legged “Duchess” (as we’d named her) had desensitized me, and for a few years I had almost no fear of spiders.

Eleven years had passed, and while I still wasn’t all that afraid of the pink-toed tarantula, smaller arachnids had slowly regained their ability to make me jump. And so, as we returned from our first “night hike” in the Amazon jungle, I was thankful to be back in the confines of the screened windows and tar-oiled floors, safe from the bugs we’d braved.

Trip to Amazon PISCOAfter a dinner of fish, platanos, snail, and some Pisco, Chris suggested we hang our hammocks and sleep upstairs – just like Che Guevara and his simpleton friend.

I agreed. We said goodnight to our guides and the lodge workers, grabbed our gear, and went up to the second floor of the common building. There we hung our hammocks between exposed wooden columns. Having finished, I grabbed my book, while Chris went back to our bungalow to use the bathroom.

Slipping into the embrace of my hammock, my Joseph Campbell book in one hand, I breathed a sigh of relief: We’d done it, we were here.

Then I saw them, near the column. Eight legs.

“It’s on the outside of the netting,” I told myself. “It has to be. It’s an optical illusion.”

And so I rousted myself from my hammock and stepped toward it. As I got closer, I saw the ugly eyes of a four-inch wide spider, peering at me from the inside of our sleeping area’s screen.

Trip to Amazon - house SPIDERSeen the movie Arachnophobia? I know, it’s been years for me too, but to me the spider looked exactly like that.

I looked around at the screened-in windows and the oiled floors in disbelief. How had this one monster spider bypassed our security? Who had it paid off? It was huge.

“It must be killed,” I decided.

The only thing I could find was a mop, presumably the mop they’d used to ineffectively oil the floor. I held it in my hand and approached the arachnid.

“Have to be careful to kill it without punching a hole in the screen,” I told myself.

But wait, Chris had to see this too. We’d kill the single intruder together and get back to the business of taking our well-earned shuteye.

I watched the spider. It watched me back.

Nearly five minutes passed until finally Chris ascended the narrow stairs to the second level. As his head appeared, he gave me a quizzical look. I was holding a mop, after all.

“Chris, I’ve got to tell you something,” I said.

“I’ve got to tell you something first,” he interrupted. “There was this huge spider in the bathroom.”

And in that moment my heart sank – I knew we were fucked.

We could kill this one, and maybe the other one in the bathroom, but if there were already two, there were more.

We were stuck, in the jungle, for the next five days with spiders that had infiltrated the safety (but was it ever really safety?) of our bungalow.

I felt defeated.

That feeling was intensified when my attack with the mop was unsuccessful. The damn thing saw the blow coming and scurried behind the wooden column.

Left with no other options, and tired as hell, Chris and I went on the defensive. We applied liberal amounts of DEET to each of our hammock straps, hoping our chemical minefield would discourage aggression. Then we each hunkered down, me with my mosquito net pulled down over my face.

At this point Chris revealed that he had no face net, just a full-body one.

I’d never been more jealous of anyone in my life.

That night I slept poorly. I kept imagining the spider slowing making its way down the hammock strap, inching toward my feet. The screeches of the birds outside didn’t help – they sounded too much the knife scene in the movie Psycho. This was how I finally fell asleep, at nearly 4 am in the morning.

Hammock Sleep copy
I awoke to sunlight. After slowly checking my own body to be sure I hadn’t been killed (and to be sure there weren’t an extra eight legs in with my two), I got out of my hammock and looked around. It didn’t take long to re-locate the spider – he was still perched next to the support column from the night before. I looked at him with my dull, sleep-deprived eyes.

Not sure he’d even moved an inch.

When Victor and Usiel awoke, we called them upstairs. They arrived, bright-eyed, as if they’d slept wonderfully in their beds.

“Look!” Chris said.
“It’s huge!” I gasped.
“Spider!” we exclaimed.

I pointed at the monstrous thing, still very much on the inside of the screen.

Usiel looked at it calmly. Then he walked right up to it, placed his hand mere inches away, and lightly tapped the screen. The spider scampered back into its hiding place.

“Haha, it’s just a house spider,” he said, laughing.

Chris and I looked at each other in disbelief.

This thing had nearly eaten us, and it was now being compared with a “house spider?”

It was in that moment I knew we’d arrived somewhere new, somewhere foreign.


In conclusion

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 10.18.31 AMAs I used the shower that morning, I saw the other spider – the one Chris had seen the night before. This one had taken up residence in the corner of the shower (apparently it was a voyeur). But rather than yell for the guides, I let it be.

Don’t get me wrong, I watched it vigilantly through shampooed eyes, but I didn’t freak out.

That spider kept its home on our shower for most of the days of our stay (though sometimes we had to shoo it off the shower head) before we’d get in. Near the end of our trip though, one of the lodge-crew overheard us laughing about it and promptly killed it with some bug spray.

But by that point we were each sleeping in our own beds, soundly, not worrying if the spiders would join us or not.

Because we’d moved past spiders. After catching cayman with our bare hands and narrowly avoiding being killed by one of the jungle’s most venomous serpents, the house spiders just didn’t seem so bad after all.

Kansas? Nope, no it wasn’t. Nor should it have been. It was the Amazon.

~ Cecil / Chuck

Trip to Amazon - mosquito NET

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