Having spent a day and a half in Iquitos sweating like a pig and fighting my way through touts, all of whom are hungry for my blood, I choose a jungle lodge for my six day expedition. I have some small misgivings before I leave, as all of the lodges had showed photos of fat Americans with cameras and baseball hats groping dolphins and sloths. I don`t want to grope the animals. The lodge I choose is Muyuna Lodge. I choose it for a number of reasons. It focuses on conservation. It doesn't offer commission to the legion of touts that infest the town. It is 130km upriver, and I want to get as far away from Iquitos and civilisation as possible. A little hint to anyone planning on going out to the jungle from Iquitos : No need to book ahead. Seriously, most of these lodges are busting for custom and have plenty of space. Even the big ones are going to be hard to fill. If you just show up, you'll always get a reduction on price. Although Muyuna is not an easy haggle.
The lodge is built in the local style, entirely from locally available materials. Recycling occurs and most food is from the jungle. The chef is a genius - utterly incredible. There was not a meal that wasn't superb. It is located on the Yanayaku river. Yanayaku : yaku = black, yana = water. Yanayaku is a tributary of the Amazon and just a short boat trip from the major river itself. It is built on stilts, but at this time of the year the water is very low, so all of the flooded forest can be walked in. The guides will often point to the waterline on the trees, some six feet above my head, and my imagination goes wild at the prospect of the vastness of the Amazon at high water.
Muyuna has a good selection of boats, which are driven by villagers from the local village. The language in which Yanayaku was named has been all but lost. The villagers speak heavily accented Spanish. But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is going to be a very long post.
I am met at my hotel by a smiling potbellied man of about 46 who introduces himself as Julio. He is full of vitality and laughter, and we bundle my vast bag into a mototaxi and drive ten foot down the street to the docks. I am bombarded by people thrusting water bottles into my face, and am so busy fending them off that I overlook the fact that I need some.
A speedboat is waiting for us, and I am glad to see it is full, as the less fumes per person the better. But I begin to worry I may have booked the wrong holiday. I assumed that the relatively high price tag on the lodge was down to some sort of conservation tax, but there is a clean cut American family on the boat - young parents, two identical children, bible school T-Shirts who I instantly dub Tweedledum and Tweedledee - and they have come all the way from Colorado to sit in front of me.
"Mummy, when am I going to see a piranha?" asks Tweedledee.
"Soon," replies daddy. And yes - every question is asked to mummy and answered by daddy. I used to do that too. Poor fathers.
"Mummy, do piranhas eat fish?" I liked that one, as it met with silence until the guide piped up with "They eat meat."
Not having enough room to jump out of the boat in the hopes they eat me too, I brazen it out as Tweedledum pipes up with the question that has been troubling him since we got on this boat in the Amazon.
"Is Ice Age 2 called The Meltdown?"
So now I know I prefer Tweedledee. (Their real names Dorian and Julian. Is that any better? Perhaps.) Dorian asked at one point what The Picture of Dorian Gray was. His parents didn't know.
The Amazon is teeming with life. Less than ten minutes into the river the boat stops and we watch a pair of river dolphins. These are not a rarety as they are in the Yangtzee. They are easily found and observed.
Later we pick up a man whose boat has broken down and drop him off in the middle of nowhere so he can get help from his village. Right next to where we ground the boat is a shocking green lizard watching us. It is 100 per cent definitely not an Iguana.
"Iguana! Look!" pipes up Julio, our guide.
3 hours later we are at the lodge. After about two hours travel the sightings of boats and people have dwindled. As we enter the Yanayaku we disturb a shoal of fish, and they jump high in the air. One of them narrowly misses my face, and slaps hard into the nose of the man who is sitting at the back of the boat feeding the engine. He laughs.
At the lodge it is close. Hot. We are met with towels and lemonade.
"Does that drink have alcohol in it?" asks Tweedledum.
"Does that drink have alcohol in it?" I ask too. Only one of us is happy with the answer.
Lunch is a platter of jungle foods - (Jungle "spaghetti" insists Luis who serves us. It's a vine, but we are not told its real name. Everything is westernised for the yanks.) I sit next to an English couple who are sharing my guide with me. I know them now to be called John and Liz. I have an individual hut with a double bed - number 11. There is an ensuite bathroom with loo and cold shower and sink, and a balcony at the back with a hammock. And a hornets nest in the roof, above the all round mosquito netting.
In the afternoon Julio takes us on a jungle hike, as he calls it. It is more of a well travelled path round the back of the lodge. A gentle rain begins to fall, but not enough to discourage the mossies. Julio talks constantly this first day. He blends folklore and knowledge with a sense of humour to create a charming - if occasionally flawed - narration. We find a centipede, encouraged out by the rain. It crawls on me. We find "bullet ants". They are very big and look like they would bite like hell. Julio tells us how midday sun kills them in seconds. He is a farmers son from an Amazonian village, so he is very good on pests. I can believe the sun will kill them - they are black and large and probably can't process heat too well. Ants are in great supply - we find a huge leafcutter ant pile, and see them all at work, 2 to a leaf. The big one carries and a wee one sits on the leaf and makes sure there are no wasp eggs on it before it gets taken into the nest. Clever. The leaves aren't food. They are used to grow fungus, which is.
We then find some pygmy marmosets. They live in families on one tree, gradually killing it by boring little holes in every spare inch of the bark to suck out the sap. They are very very little and scamper like squirrels. We also wake up some nocturnal monkeys, and we hear some howler monkeys, but Julio tells us we'd be lucky to find them. Also there is a frog, that does a great job of looking like a dead leaf.
I retreat to my cabin, pleased that there is some wildlife living close to the camp. Since I've been gone they have put kerosene lamps in. I sit and write my diary on a big wooden table in my cabin surrounded by the evening sounds of the jungle - frogs, crickets and night birds. Stunning. After dinner Julio trys to find some caiman, and fails. But I am happy to be on a boat at night out here.
Day 2 begins bright and early to go birdwatching. This is Julio's speciality. He is quick to spot and quick to name, and reference to the bumper illustrated book of Peruvian birds shows no inconsistency the first five times so I lie back and trust him. I liked the "ruffliated?" Tiger Crane myself. Odd shape. Julio tells us it roars like a tiger, hence the name. It is also coloured much like a tiger. I do not hear it roar.
Julio does not like being asked questions by me. Usually he responds to my questions with a little laugh. I am not deliberately asking him difficult questions, but I am intensely curious and he is the best knowledge base I have. As the day goes on I begin to realise that Julio is Farmer Giles. Replace the shotgun with a machete, and we're off for a nature walk round the farm.
'That'd be a tree-rat. It eats nuts it do.'
'That'd be a piggy. They can smell truffles. Truffles be chocolates."
His recognition is mostly good. He has anecdotes that are amusing if folkloric. His science is not. He is good at spotting movement. I wish he understood more about habitat. His style is to blunder through the jungle in wellies and if something jumps out he can tell you a story about it. Hunting for caiman is already proving to be difficult at night. Surely there is a type of riverside habitat where they are more likely to be found? Why not focus on that rather than shining the torch on every bit of mud.
There is so much life here that his blundering will always turn things up though, and the mornings walk provides plenty of insects. A couple of hours in, however, he stops dead and his breathing rate speeds up. He then goes totally silent, and we are hacking through pathless forest. He is marking trees and hitting dead ends. His pace speeds up. His shoulders rise. We are lost. I realise I have left my water in the boat. I hope his botany is good enough to find those vines you can drink from, or this is going to be rough.
After what feels like hours we come upon a stream. Julio laughs crazily as his body language resets. "Ah - now guys - these streams are always good if you are lost. You follow the flow of water and it leads you to the water." We all breathe a sigh of relief. And Farmer Giles is back to his old self. We find some cuckoo spit, or the Amazonian equivalent. Cuckoo Spit is what I used to call froghopper larvae as a child. It's definitely the same stuff.
"This is the Spit Beetle. Look - see them in here. They use this for camouflage. Spit Beetle."
Yep. I too would be the only white thing in thousands of miles if I wanted to camouflage myself.
In the afternoon we go fishing. This is fishing in the unskilled manner that would make my godfather Peter Rittmaster spit fire out of his ass. We use bait. I lose two hooks on submerged twigs and catch nothing but a few bait fish and one small piranha. The driver of the boat must be a local fisherman. He pulls out one after another, including a humungous piranha.
At dinner we get to eat our catch grilled. They taste great. We go caiman hunting unsuccessfully again - despite seeing their glowing red eyes in the torchlight. The problem is that they find the eyes and then ram raid them in the boat while dangling over the side in the hope of grabbing them before they run like hell. I noticed that all the caiman we saw were in reeds. Why not kill the engine near a load of reeds and use the paddles to get in close? Rather than waste all evening locating them and then scaring the shit out of them.
Back at the lodge John vomits copiously and I hope it wasn't the piranha, which was tasty white meat and I want more. Liz later informs me that he's on malarone, and hates swallowing pills so he's eating them on biscuits. Ugh. I haven't seen a malaria mosquito yet, and I imagine that I won't. But perhaps it's better to be safe.
The third day begins wet, after torrential downpours all night. My hut is totally rainproof thank goodness. In the morning we see many sloths. They are hairy, so they clamber up to the tops of trees to dry out after the rain. My favorite bird today was a Greater Ani, according to our guide. I am more inclined to trust his twitching than anything else, but the book says that it likes the high ground.
Then we go out in a small motor boat and find our plans thwarted. The local villagers have erected a fence preventing us from getting into their favorite lake, as we had been there the night before looking for caiman and they were worried we were stealing their fish. So we find a very small river, totally clogged with weeds. Julio and the driver both lean out the side of the boat and start to hack, swear and paddle their way through. After some time I offer to help. "Hee hee hee," responds Julio - his favorite response to any question I ask. So I grab a paddle.
When we get to the shore some time later, the clouds open and a deluge begins. We slog disconsolately into the jungle, and I stuff my camera down my pants since it's the only dry place left. Most of the land here is cultivated. There is a plantation for watermelons and yukka. Then there is a burnt stretch of lake shore. This is to make an artificial beach, so the river turtles can lay their eggs there, which are then harvested by the villagers who even go so far as to dig pit traps in the hopes of catching the turtles. Who they will eat and then sell the shells in the market at Belen in Iquitos for thoughtless tourists to buy in order to speed the destruction of yet another species. By lunchtime we are so wet that if I didn't have a camera down my pants I'd jump off the boat and swim back to the lodge, notwithstanding piranhas and leeches. I have realised the effect that a large village has had on the local wildlife. Caiman are edible and can be sold dried out to tourists. So they are rare here. Capybara are good eating, so they've all been eaten. Monkeys are stringy so they're okay so far. But large wildlife is not to be found so close to the village. And the lodge wants us back for lunch, so we can't go far enough afield to find anything interesting. And Julio might scare it off in his wellies even if we did.
Canoeing in the afternoon, and ram-raiding caiman with no luck.
There has been an article about Muyuna published in the inflight magazine for LAN Peru, the major carrier. It has been good for business. I can't go birdwatching as there are too many people so I lie in instead. The temperature has plummeted after the rain and I am cold. A good day to go swimming. The boat takes us to the main drag of the Amazon, and we see some shockingly pink dolphins very quickly. These dolphins have been saved by superstition. I'm sure that there's plenty of good eating on a dolphin, but the local legend is that if you attract their attention they may turn into a human and then take the children from your village. So they are abundant as they have not been hunted - and of course there's plenty for them to eat. John and Liz and I all jump into the river, which is warmer than the air and the showers, and filled with very icky sticky mud. YUM.
The village is home to about 200 people. They live in wooden huts much like the ones in our lodge, which must have been built by them. There is one concrete building, which is the school. There are two churches, of course. A catholic church and an evangelical one. In the evangelical church there are pews. The catholics have to stand. Their church is near the prison which is a small brick structure which looks like it would be hell to have to crouch in for the night as the mosquitos home in. I buy a present for Emily whilsy wondering what she would make of all this. I ask about the ayahuasca ceremony, and am roundly discouraged by Julio. It's not a question of IF you vomit, but HOW MUCH. It's a purgative. You hallucinate for 3 hours, vomit and hallucinate for 2 hours, then the diarrhoea starts, and all three continue all night. I decide that maybe I'll save it for next time.
This evening is magical as John, Liz and I go out on a very small canoe upstrean under the clear clear sky and see the southern cross hanging over us through the bats and the trees. Julio funds a caiman and I hold him and feel him breathing and think of how fortunate I am to be out here in the middle of nowhere clutching something that was much the same millions of years ago.
Today was a visit to some hoatzin birds that live nearby. The guide insists that they are prehistoric. As chicks they have talons on their wings, as a defense from their natural predator - the caiman. They use them to climb trees. The adult bird makes a noise like a pig, and eats,, shoots,,,,,, and! leaves..) It has three stomachs like a cow. Odd bird.
Then we go fishing. I clamber out onto a fallen tree, and find the perfect fishing spot. Within moments my wooden rod bends almost to snapping. I try to move with it - tire the beast... It swings left. So do I. My hat hits a branch. It falls. With one hand on my rod, I grab desperately for the hat, causing my glasses to slip. Quick as a flash I snatch them out of the air. They snap in my hands. Half of them falls into the river and sinks out of sight. "My HAT!" I lament as I turn to see it slowly sinking. The driver of the boat grabs his spear and hurls it, but to no avail. I land the fish, and clutching half of my glasses go disconsolately - blindly - back to the lodge. Where they grill my big fish for me.
In the afternoon, we are reminded that it is Peruvian National Day, and Moises the guide tells us that there must be a football match - Muyuna vs the village. Thank goodness I have lenses. I play and for the first time in my life I am on the winning team in a game of football. I sample the palm sugar rum which tastes unutterably foul, and then have a little too much beer.
A little hungover in the morning we go to look for lily pads - Victor Regia ones. They`re the ones that children can stand on. We find them and one of them is in bloom.
On the way back I get stuck in the mud - so much so that I have to be plucked from my boots like a radish, before my boots are retrieved with sticks. Fool that I am. Then it`s back to civilisation.
In the boat I think of how lucky I have been to have spent 6 days in the jungle. It has not been deep jungle, but the lodge struggles to have minimum impact on the environment, and despite the boat fumes I am impressed with how well they did it. The village is prosperous as a result of the lodge and I wish someone would tell them that dropping biscuit wrappers on the floor is not the same as dropping banana skins. The village is carpeted with plastic wrappers. The food at Muyuna is nothing short of spectacular. The service is invisible and brilliant. The only vague misgiving is the fact that - inevitably - the mattresses and pillows have got damp in them.
If I return to the jungle it will not be to Muyuna unless I do it with my children. I want something rougher and more hands on now I have experienced the safe and luxurious version. But for families it`s wonderful. For foodies it`s wonderful. I would recommend it to anyone who has never been to the jungle before.