Saturday, 29 March 2014

Jungle Lodge near Iquitos: Part One

Going to the Amazon was something I was thrilled and terrified about.

Thrilled because I was going to go to the AMAZON. Terrified because I hate spiders. Yes, that's the only reason... But there was no way that I was going to go to Peru and not go into the rainforest. So it was kind of something that I was forcing myself to do because it would be a growing experience. Which is what this trip is all about. 

So, despite the occasional nightmare involving waking up covered in flesh-eating spiders, last Saturday I flew with Star Perú to Iquitos from Lima. The flight cost about £90, so it wasn't too expensive. South American flights are not cheap, and international ones within the continent are very expensive. More so than Europe. 

My flight stopped in Tarapoto, a city just outside of the jungle. I'd never been on a flight that has just stopped and then continued to its final destination. The flight over the Andes to Tarapoto was quite bumpy, but that was to be expected, as it's still rainy season in the highlands. 

We stopped for a short while, changed passengers, and then were back in the air on the way to Iquitos. Iquitos is the largest city on earth that is not accessible by road. It's either a flight or a three-day boat ride from the nearest non-jungle civilisation. But it's a proper thriving city, despite being in the middle of the rainforest. It has clubs, a University, and several distinct districts. 

As we descended and broke the cloud cover this view came into sight. Can you get any more Amazon? 

Landing in Iquitos brought a big difference in weather from Lima, which is because of the huge barrier of the Andes. It wasn't as hot or humid as I was expecting, but it had obviously been raining that day as the runway was quite waterlogged when we landed in our toy-size plane (there weren't a lot of rows). 

I was met outside the airport by a motokarrista (a driver of a motokar, which is like the front of a motorbike attached to a covered seat with two wheels). This had all been arranged by my lodge, which I'll talk about later. 

At first the roads were fine. Then we turned off onto a dirt track to the port where the lodge's boat was waiting. I have never been on such a poor quality road. At one point we came across a timber truck stuck in the mud. The buildings had also changed from closer to the airport. The concrete and tile had turned to corrugated iron and thatched reeds. This was when it first looked to me like a jungle city. But of course every house had its satellite dish. 

The two men from the lodge greeted me at the port and helped me into their boat, which had about four rows of seats big enough for two, and a covered top. And on the half an hour journey down the river to the lodge I saw the first thing that made me delighted that I went to the Amazon. 

Because it was high-water season, when the rivers swell and engulf everything in their path, just the tops of the trees were visible above the water. For the shorter trees that stood alone from the general tangle of treetops this meant they looked like bushes. And their black silhouettes were reflected perfectly in the silver river beneath them, making it look like there were floating black snowflakes against a twilight sky. 

It was so surreal. And so beautiful. I knew I wouldn't regret going there then. 

I was greeted at the lodge by the owner, Cato, a Norweigan hippy with a Masters degree in finance, shacking up in the middle of the rainforest. Then I was shown to my bungalow, with a powerful torch, and shown how to use the mosquito net. It was a small twin room, but had plenty of space, even for two people. The bungalow itself had two halves, and two Finnish girls were in the other half, who I got on really well and ended up going out for dinner with when we got back to Lima. There was a shared bathroom between the two rooms, which worked absolutely fine. There was no glass in the windows, but rather a strip of mosquito netting separating me from the outside world. 

Now there I was, rucksack on my back, torch in hand, searching high and low for any hint of spiders. And could I find any? No I could not. I was delighted. I didn't come into contact with any spiders at the lodge at all, which may have had something to do with the two cats they had. I did, however, have one encounter of the eight-legged kind, but that will come later. 

Once I was satisfied I wouldn't become the hive for the next generation of arachnids, I went back to the main building of the lodge, which was the only one that had electricity. I met the other guests, a Chilean family, a German-Peruvian married couple, and the two Finnish girls. They were all really cool and we got on really well over the following few days. 

I asked around what day tours (all provided by San Pedro Lodge where I stayed) they were planning on doing the following day, and it was a resounding Day 3 - the jungle trek. So I tagged along, and actually couldn't wait to explore. I slept surprisingly well. The temperature was very comfortable, but it was humid. My sleep was completely uninterrupted until the dawn chorus of frogs, birds and the local Amazonian roosters. 

We had to get up at 6am anyway for a 6.30 breakfast and early start to the hike. The trek lasted four and a half hours, and was amazing. We started off by walking through the local San Pedro village, and met some of the locals, washing their clothes and cleaning their teeth in a pond. Then we were into the forest, following chocolate-coloured trails through the moist greenery. 

Our guide would point out specific plants of interest. There was a fern that quickly retracted when touched; a tree that bled a milky substance that can be smoked to treat hernias; and another tree that's sap ran blood-red until you rub it into your skin, where it turns a chalky white, and can be taken to relieve muscle pain

We went through deep jungle where the dead leaves threatened to swallow our feet, sandy savannah-like terrain, charred deforested areas littered with ashen tree trunks, and sparsely-populated woods with monkeys playing in the canopy above. 

I was using 100% DEET bugspray, which is meant to last 12 hours, but I was constantly reapplying it to air on the side of caution. I was taking malaria pills (Doxycycline) but they are not always completely effective. As a side note, I haven't had any side effects from the malaria pills, which is always a worry, so I was relieved about that. And I was only bitten three times during my four days in the jungle, so the spray does work. 

The goal of our trek through the jungle was to reach a 400 year old tree, which stood in a small clearing surrounded by impenetrable undergrowth. The tree was enormous, with roots that dwarfed me, and I'm 6'2.

It even had vines hanging from its uppermost branches, which I could just reach. That obviously called for a Tarzan moment. 

We took a break at the tree, and by that point in the morning it was already hot and humid, and when the breeze dropped the air was very close. They gave us a bottle of water each (and rubber boots) at the lodge, but I'd brought a bottle of my own and I was very glad I did. 

On the way back to the lodge we found a crossing of leaf-cutter ants, carrying their cargo in a perfect line across the trail and into the bushes. At the other end of the nature spectrum we also walked through a remote village where I spotted a 'Commando Force' towel hanging on a washing line. 

Upsettingly, there was quite a lot of plastic litter around the population areas we walked through. It really highlighted to me the need for education in rural communities as to what will biodegrade and what won't. 

We got back to the lodge around midday, exhausted and ready for lunch, but I was so happy that I'd seen everything I had done. We had a fish lunch, which was delicious, and a bit of a siesta before taking to the river for fishing in dug-out canoes. 

Now I had a lot of trouble getting my canoe to bend to my will. Unless my will was to spin in circles and head on collision courses with treetops. But with the help of the guide I made it to our first fishing stop. I was so pleased to find a bare tree trunk sticking out of the water I reached out and grabbed it for security (apparently a lot of people overturn the canoes) I didn't check it for wildlife. And this is where I had my spider run-in. Right below my hand was a long-legged, fat-bodied spider sporting a comforting red blotch on its black back. As soon as I saw it I recoiled and probably gasped embarrassingly loudly. But thanks to the canoe, all I could do was bob back and forth comically, as I tried to angle my oar to lever myself back to open water. I got away as the spider started to climb skyward. The guide said that it wasn't dangerous, but I wasn't taking any chances. In my haste to escape the spider tree I found myself colliding with an ant-infested one. Yay nature. 

Shockingly I didn't catch any fish, but a couple of others in the group did, so it can be done. It spattered a bit with rain, but not too much and then the sun came back out for our paddle back to the lodge. 

I ended my first full day in the Amazon with an amazing meal of meats, beans, rice and vegetables. And a political debate about the future of the world's markets. What better place to put the world to rights than the lungs of the earth, right? 

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