13-21 February 2014. Wearing headlamps, we shoved our feet into our knee-high rubber boots, and following our guide and his flashlight, headed out into the nighttime jungle darkness behind the lodge. Within seconds: ‘here, come here’ he suddenly whispered and shone his beam onto the trunk of a tree. There caught in the light in full view: an enormous hairy tarantula. The real thing, all bristling black and gray and as big as your palm. Wow. Just like that we’d seen a tarantula, and not a hundred metres from where we’d be sleeping. I tried not to think about it. Suddenly, again, the whispered ‘here, come here’. This time it was a scorpion. Almost as big as your palm and with tail raised. As we continued on our guide pointed out a line of cutter ants each carrying a piece of leaf that waved above it like a green sail, and a couple of different kinds of frogs. Thus unfolded our first night of discovery in the Amazon jungle.
Very early that morning we’d flown from Lima to Iquitos, a town that sits on the shores of the Amazon River and is so remote it can only be reached by plane. From Iquitos we’d travelled by fast motorboat down the Amazon, and then one of its tributaries, for about three hours, finally arriving at Tahuayo Lodge. We were shown to our room, deposited our luggage, and then went to get our rabbit boots. Rabbit boots? Our guide’s thick accent and our erratic hearing meant they were ‘rabbit’ boots for the rest of our stay. After choosing the perfect boots from literally a roomful we unpacked, and then had a sumptuous meal in the dining room where we met Todd and Julie from Minnesota who were to be our travelling companions for the next eight days. And then we went out to make the acquaintance of a tarantula and a scorpion.
The mighty Amazon
Tahuayo Lodge main entrance and behind it the dining hall
One of the wings of the lodge that stretches out along the river. I think our room was the left side of the central cabin in this photo. The floor and half-walls are wood and the upper walls have screening to let in the breeze (if there is any), and to keep out the bugs. I couldn’t help but be aware of some gaps in the screening. To be honest I was less afraid of tarantulas and scorpions than I was of mosquitoes. It turns out my fear was well placed, but that’s another story.
After banging our boots upside-down against the wall of the cabin to encourage any over-night visitors to leave, we pulled them on and set out again the next morning, slogging our way over the rough, tangled and swampy jungle floor. We were off on a hike for a few hours to see what we could find – me, Don, and our excellent guide Cesar.
Cesar continually amazed us with his ability to spot things hidden in the dense foliage. This mouse for instance, as big as a large rat, nestled high up a tree.
The highlights of that little trek were: the shining confident exuberance of the passionflower. Look at me!
a beautifully patterned cicada,
the unexpected colours of the manakin bird,
and best of all, a tiny, shy pygmy marmoset, the world’s smallest monkey, weighing in at 100 grams (3.5 pounds).
Returning to the lodge for lunch we were greeted by a tiger rat snake, not a hundred metres from the dining hall.
In wooden canoes we headed down the river and then turned literally right into the jungle, much of which, this far into the rainy season, is covered in water several feet deep.
The jungle is dense. At times having to use the narrow, tightly spaced tree trunks to pull our way through we eventually emerged into a large lagoon.
Gliding silently up and down we were looking for any signs of caiman, the prehistoric Amazon alligator. We saw signs of them aplenty; at a great distance, the telltale bumps of the two eyes barely showing above the water. Each time as we approached they disappeared.
We were awed by the silence, the stillness, the power of this immense place: vast, largely uninhabited and uninhabitable, remote, continually renewing itself over thousands of years. This existence, this earth-plants-animals-water-sun-oneness holds itself in time and space as a cohesive unit. Not one thing here survives without all the others. Not one thing moves without all the others. I think to understand the jungle may be to understand life itself.
We didn’t see any caiman that day but we did see this white-eared jacamar
and a tropical kingbird.
And thus our days in the Amazon unfolded. Each day we would go out morning and afternoon, either on foot, or in a boat or canoe, and explore. Oh the things we saw!
a brown tree frog,
and this extraordinary stick insect. You would never know it was a living creature unless you saw it move.
Jungle hiking is not for the unfit or the faint of heart. Hiking in rubber boots is never a comfortable exercise. The ground is uneven and will jump up and grab you at the slightest hint of a root or vine. At this time of year it is often swampy and we found ourselves oozing through thick mud that tried to suck our boots off with every step. At other times the swamp was covered in loosely placed logs and we found ourselves suddenly needing the balance of tightrope walkers to get across. Never never reach out to grab a tree if you think you’re going to fall. I did once, for the slightest balance-check, and received three bloodletting needle pricks in my palm for my trouble. Lucky it was not poisonous. A couple of jungle walking sticks were much welcomed.
Mostly the land was flat but the area where we saw the poison-dart frogs was quite hilly. These little darlings, less than two centimetres long, are lethal to any animal that touches or eats them. The neurotoxin on their skin, which comes from the ants they eat, will kill a child, and will just about kill a grown person. The guides, though eager to show us, and make it possible for us to photograph them, were unsurprisingly very careful not to touch them, but used a leaf to maneuver them, when they could. They hopped around all over the place – the frogs, not the guides. For the guides it was just another day at the office. The traditional hunting weapon of the jungle is the blowgun. A dart is tipped with the toxin from the frog, then placed in a hollow tube and blown through it with great force. Those spikes on the tree above sure look like pretty handy darts.
We went zip lining. Finally! I’ve wanted to do this for so long. There’s a zip-line on top of Grouse Mountain near Vancouver but we never went on it. During the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 they slung a zip-line between two skyscrapers downtown. The line-ups were – no joke – eight hours long! Can you imagine? It’s the Olympics! There is so much going. Eight hours in a line for a thirty-second ride didn’t make any sense to me.
The zip-line way back behind the lodge was worth the wait. It is about 60 metres high, way up above the jungle canopy, and has three sections ranging from 40 metres to 70 metres long. First you get strapped into your harness, and then hauled up to a platform way above in a tree. Then you’re attached to the zip-line, and sitting on the edge of the platform you launch yourself into the air. Yeah. That was a moment. It doesn’t matter that you’re harnessed in, and that you have a second safety rope attaching you to the line, there’s still that ‘what if’ fear, that part of the mind that says ‘you’re kidding right, you’re not really going to launch yourself into space right?’ And then you do it. Screaming. It was so much fun. After that first time we got quite blasé about it.
This is a walking tree. Old roots rot, new ones grow, reaching down from the trunk, silently slipping gripping into new earth. In this way it walks itself slowly across the forest floor. The jungle is full of astonishments.
Before heading out in the boat one day we were given bananas to take with us to feed the moneys. We travelled a short way along the river, and around the bend and along down another smaller river. When we pulled in towards the bank there they were – three or four appropriately-named wooly monkeys waiting in the trees as if they knew; which of course they did since the guides from the Lodge had been feeding them regularly for some time. Two of them came right down onto the boat and one of them curled up in Todd’s lap, another hung from the trees, reaching down at full stretch, determined to get its share of the banana treat. We were excited to see them so close, captivated by their wooly charm.
Next post: The Ribereños (people of the river), the local shaman, fierce fish, squirrel monkeys, titi monkeys, sloths, snakes, birds, bugs, bats, poisonous caterpillars, and caiman. Swimming with pink dolphins!
And fresh puma prints . . . . . .
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.
If you would like to stay at the same lodge contact Amazonia Expeditions. We highly recommend them. We have received no compensation for this recommendation, we just like to pass on good information.