It´s a JUNGLE OUT THERE!! I´m totally serious.

21 11 2012

Seven whole days in the Amazon rainforest. Holy paradise, Batman! And we survived!

I also found my inner Amazon Rainforest Queen and let her loose. I ate a termite off a tree (tasted like a carrot), I let half-naked natives paint me blue, I took my shoes off and waded into the MURKY WATERS OF MY PEOPLE! Ok, they aren´t my people, but you get the idea. And I really did those things!!

We got off to a bit of a slow start. The trip to Macchu Picchu and this trip were back to back, so we arrived in Cusco that night at about 1:30am, to bed by a bit after 2, and had to meet our next van to the jungle at 5am. Needless to say, we missed the first portion of the drive because we were both passed out cold. But no one else booked a trip at the same time, so we had another private tour! This time, we had our guide, Ketti, our cook, Sabina, and our driver, Raul. All super great folks. And so the adventures began!

The first leg of the trip was about 8 hours by van just to get to the rainforest. A couple hours in, the pavement gave way to gravel road. Eventually, we hit the pass, in the cold highlands, then started down in the jungle! We went through the cloud forest first, where the road started getting more exciting. It is the rain forest, so, well, it rains. Like, a lot. The water comes down the side of the mountian and the road has to cross it. No big deal…usually. And the road is just made mostly of rocks, so the bumps can get pretty extreme. I found it best just not to look out at the sheer drop-off at the edge of the road.

We had several breaks as our guide would spot wildlife for us to jump out and see. Look at these amazing Cock-of-the-Rock birds! Watch the little squirrel monkeys jumping through the trees! (They were actually my favorite.) Check out this giant bird with the funny name that looks like a tree branch! So much going on. We would dutifully hop out of the van, raise our binoculars and follow the direction of her finger. And every time, we were rewarded with cool creatures. The squirrel monkeys were especially cute, as they were leaping tree to tree across the road, so we were directly underneath them. And they didn´t even throw poo or anything! A bunch of them even had little babies on their backs. I think a squirrel monkey would be a great friend to my alpaca…

The first night, we stayed in a little village called Pillcopata. We had a great little lodge surrounded by gorgeous trees and bushes, everything with amazing flowers. Soon after arriving, it started raining. Dinner was nice in the little dining room, then back to our room for an early bedtime. However, during the night, tremendous crashes woke me time and again – a HUGE thunderstorm was raging right over our heads! At breakfast the next morning, Ketti was amazed – she hadn´t heard anything, despite the whole building shaking with every crash!

Day 2 was more traveling. We didn´t have a long drive, but the torrential down-pour during the night made the road a bit more tricky. In one rather soft spot, a huge truck full of concrete couldn´t get past – the weight was causing him to get stuck every time. After a while, he finally backed up a bit so we could go around him. Then, just a couple curves later, the van in front of us was stuck in a water crossing. Everybody out! We all pitched in to gather rocks and fill in the huge hole his van fell into, until finally they could pass. But just to be safe, we took off our shoes and socks and waded the stream barefoot! Without further incident, we pulled into the port town of Atalaya, the end of the road. From here, we said so long to our wonderful bus driver and met our boatmen – from here on out, we would be on the river! We handed over our bags and jumped aboard a long, low wooden boat with a nice tarp cover to keep us shaded.

Soon, we were flying down the Alto Madre de Dios River, out of the mountains and deep into the jungle. We had a good distance to cover, but there was so much to explore through our binoculars! Beautiful macaws flew overhead, always in pairs. The odd-looking tear-drop-shaped nests of the oropendolas hung high in the tree tops. Every sandy spot offered a chance to see a caimen (log or caimen?!)  – but we only saw bamboo and driftwood. I was fine with that – even the flora here kept my rapt attention. Gigantic ferns! Umbrella leaf trees that really look like little umbrellas! A super tall tree with amazing purle flowers! Vines hanging everywhere, just dripping with brilliant flowers! I love this place.

We pulled over on a sand bar to have our picnic lunch Sabina had packed us. Propped up on a big piece of driftwood, chowing down on potatoes and rice, I couldn´t help but think I might have died and gone to heaven. Ketti is a fountain of information about all the amazing creatures, insane plants, and villages of native people. She tells us stories of the people and how their lives are changing with the introduction of the road and the concept of money. The national reserve park we are in, Manu National Park, is split into 3 sections. The one we are in now is the cultural zone, where native people are allowed to live and trade in small villages, and people are able to see the culture of the jungle. The second section, where we are headed, is the reserve zone. No people live here, and the only people allowed in are tourists for observation and researchers. The third zone is the largest  – most of the park – and is off-limits to everyone. It´s protected completely, and the only people there are some tribes that remain in isolation from the western world, continuing to live in the traditional way. Ketti tells us of the Naked People, an agressive tribe that has crossed into the other zones a time or two, following food. They even shot a couple guys with their arrows a few years ago! Wow – real jungle folks! I don´t really want to meet them…

So on we go down the great river. The boat pulls over again and we all get out. Ketti leads us up and we´re in a village! The folks here wear western clothes, or at least partly. Most of the men are shirtless, and a bunch of little kids are butt-naked going swimming. But they have a school, and they raise pigs and chickens and are in touch with others. And you have to remember, it´s crazy hot here with about 100% hunidity. I was ready to ditch my clothes and it was only day 1 in the jungle! We follow one man back to his hut after he sees us examining some strange fruit. He talks to Ketti in rapid Spanish and we are soon lined up on a log/bench waiting for something. He finally returns with a bowl of mashed up fruit and starts pointing and gesturing and I think, “Perfect! I could use a snack!”

No snack. He gestures for me to hold out my arms and immediately starts smearing the mush all over my arms! It´s warm, and sticky, and feels really strange. Ketti laughs as she draws designs on her arms with the same mush. I´m confused – playing with our food? J has a funny grin on his face as he helps the dude smear mush all up his arms, too, but adamently shakes his head with a firm “no gracias” when the man goes for his face. Finally, we get the story – they believe this fruit has natural properties to ward of mesquitos. And by tomorrow morning, it will have stained our skin black, sort of the same way henna does. Perfect! Now I´ll really fit in with my awesome temporary tattoo sleeves!

A bunch of barefoot kids and toothless men and scraggly chickens send us off back to the boat. We rinse a bit in the river, trying to get the chunks off. The boatman, Frederico, laughs at us and takes some of the mix Ketti offers him to smear on his own arms. We don´t have far to go before we´re at our own village for the night: Boca Manu. We get settled into a nice little room, complete with mesquito nets for our beds and a little generator that will give us electricity from about 5:30 til 9. Wow, electricity! We take a little walk around before dinner and watch kids playing soccer, others playing volleyball – all really good – and a group hundled around a CB radio talking to someone from another village. Back at our camp, we relax in some nice hammocks, where a little girl and boy come up to talk to me: “Como te llamas?” “Me llama Kalista.” (We try several times and he finally says my name, close to correct.) “Y tu? Como te llamas?” The girl tells me “Melona” then points at J. “Justin” I tell her, which sends them both into giggles before they dash out. I later learn these are the kiddos of Frederico, and they want anxiously for the times he passes through.

We watch the sun set over the river, swinging in our hammocks, just loving life. We have a lovely dinner made by Sabina, then head to the showers. I can´t wait to clean up a bit after so much sweating. The showers and bathrooms are in a separate little hut, and I soon discover that the primitive plumbing is just water pumped up from the river to the shower. The air might be hot, but the river is not. After a lightning fast rinse off and record-breaking shampoo, I race back to the room, hoping J has already warmed up a spot in bed. We save electricity and go straight to bed, tucking in the mesquito net in hopes of keeping the pests at bay.

The next morning, at 5am, we stumble through the rain to the dining room, hoping desparately for some coffee. Sabina does me one better – she brings out a real-life CAKE!! It´s my birthday, and J has somehow managed to find a way to get me a CAKE in the middle of the jungle where they barely even have electricity!! It´s totaly legit, too, with icing and everything. Sabina and Ketti and the kids and the family who runs the lodge all come out to sing Feliz Cupliaños to me. I could just cry. Everyone gets a slice and the day is ready to just be the best day in all of the universe. Even better is that the weird fruit from yesterday worked and I now have beautiful, dark blue arms and hands. My transformation to Jungle Queen is complete.

The next three days are spent in the reserve zone. We boat up the Manu river, spotting tons more birds and new plants, and settle into a camp for two nights. From here, we hike all over the place, wandering the trail system on the rainforest floor. We´ve stepped into a different time and place for three days, our only concern is trying to spot as much wildlife as possible. We sweat buckets as we gasp at the different species of monkeys in the trees, easy to find by the crashing noises as the jump tree to tree. There are two oxbow lakes we visit, still on the lookout for the allusive caimen, and spend an entire morning on a catamaran excitedly watching a family of giant otters. We see turtles and fish and more monkeys and crazy-colored birds. I check off species after species from my list. And the plants!! Everything in the forest seems to have two main objectives: find food to eat, and keep from being eaten. So everything is always on the defensive. Trees and vines and fruits and bugs and spiders all have a variety of spikes or thorns. Just about everything is poisonous in some form, and it´s a true game of Survival of the Fittest. Trees that walk, and others that strangle. Giant centipedes that tickle my hand and the termites that we litereally plucked from the tree and tasted. Army ants and leaf cutter ants and giant bullet ants. Everything seems larger than life or from a different planet completely!

I think the best word would be saturated: saturated in humidity, saturated in color, saturated in life. Everywhere you look, so much is going on!! The second day, we come across an amazing crested owl – even our guide has never seen one in real life, and so close! The third day we meet up with a huge pack of piccaries, or wild hogs, and get to witness them turning over the forest floor in their rummaging. They were cool to watch, but smelled amazingly rank. They didn´t pay us much attention, either because they have really bad eyesight or because we smelled just as rank. It was an experience of a lifetime, the most fantastic 3 days – and we were the only people in the whole reserve zone! We stopped at the Ranger Station there, and they told us so!

The nights in our jungle camp were a bit more interesting. As soon as the sun goes down, a new set of wildlife appears, mostly in the form of gargantuan nocturnal insects, like the 4-inch cockroach I met on the way to the shower, or the huge 3-inch scorpion on the wall behind my bed. We had dinner and showers by candlelight, which meant the creatures were in the shower with me. It was the first night of this I decided that my Amazon Queen alias didn´t need clean hair, and I stuck with braids and a bandana all the way until our very last night.

When we finally left to head back to civilization, I was sad but also glad to have gotten this opportunity. Our boatride was a bit rough, with a heavy rain making it pretty cold, but we also encountered an adorable little antiater on a sandbar. Our second to last night was at a lodge where we ran into our first group of tourists. We did a cool hike up the mountain a bit to a beautiful viewpoint, and hiked down in the dark. This wasn´t as fun for me, as I kept slipping in the nasty mud and fell several times. But we did see a couple impressive spiders on the way down. Well, J was impressed.

And now we are once again in Cusco, having survived the savage rainforest. A dream come true for me, and something I will never ever forget. I can´t wait to show you pictures!!! Time to go, but I hope this finds you all well. We fly home next week, so chow for now!!

Much love,

J/K

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