Restlessly drifting in and out of sleep, a stiff jolt sent from the ailing dirt road underneath opened my eyes. I tiredly peered out the dusty window of the rattling truck to catch my first glimpse of the remarkable Cloud Forest, an aptly named highland rain forest in Peru. Perched 14,000 feet above sea level, the misty collection of low, seemingly orphaned clouds were clinging to the steep lush green valley walls decorating the rain forest like epaulets on the shoulders of each ridgeline. The bumpy, puddle-ridden path that we were descending connects the Andean highlands and Amazon basin. Space is a premium on this rain-soaked and pocked road as it is only one narrow lane flanked with a forested wall to our left and a sheer drop to the river thousands of feet below. Each encounter with an oncoming vehicle was test of nerves.
You see, the direction of travel on this age old path changes daily; on Monday it is a one way avenue to the east, on Tuesday all traffic is strictly due west, and so on. Each time our driver was forced to balance the wheels of our truck on the crumbling edge of the off camber road to accommodate an oncoming vehicle, his fear and frustration became apparent through a string of Latin profanities with which he greet each oncoming vehicle.
This harrowing mountain road eventually brought us to an epic expedition into the sacred, ancestral territory of the Harakmbut, Yine and Matsiguenga Indians. Located near the well-known Manu National Park, the Amarakaeri Reserve is a half a million-hectare reserve that is so remote and pristine, its crystal clear rivers do not even require treatment for drinking. You just crouch down and drink straight from the water.
THE PLAN The idea began innocently enough, Rich, Tim and I all recently graduated from law school and decided on a post bar-exam peregrination to the Amazon. Rich and I met studying law in Kenya in 1999 and have explored many far reaches of the world together since then. Tim, a law school friend from Denver who has also traveled extensively, joined us for the first time.
We left our respective locales to meet in Lima, a bustling, overcrowded, smog engulfed city that is the economic nucleus and capital of Peru. After arriving in Lima, we flew directly to Cuzco, the launching pad for many wayward travelers planning trips into the jungle and to Machu Pichu.
Cuzco is a beautiful city that is deftly clinging to its identity and history as the tourism industry surreptitiously makes off with its irreplaceable culture. In the shadows of a fifteenth century chapel lays the Plaza De Armas, the town square, which was teaming with camera toting tourists clad in ubiquitous khaki zip-away travel pants. As beautiful as it is, it was still often hard to visualize this city as it once was; adorned in gold and ruled by the Incan empire before the Spanish took it all away in 1532.
What a great place to begin an adventure. But first, we had to find someone to take us somewhere no tour groups went or were allowed to go. We spent days inquiring into the countless tour agencies, all boasting the best adventure money could buy, but none of them suited our seemingly maddening, but discerning goals. We wanted to trek as deep into the Amazon as someone would take us.
After we almost gave up and stooped to purchase a Manu jungle tour by boat and lodge, we stumbled upon a tall, Danish gentleman. He was distributing small, crude, single sided black and white flyers that advertised a slide show detailing a primitive adventure into the Amazon Basin.Numb from the incessant bartering with other tour operators, each reached for a flyer.
That evening, we walked out the door of our hotel and followed the directions scrawled on the four inch by four-inch piece of paper. We zigzagged through Cuzco’s labyrinth of steep and narrow cobblestone streets slowly escaping crowds milling about the Plaza De Armas.
As we began to each feel secretly uncomfortable with our increasing distance from a known public area, we located an ambiguous door to what appeared to be a private home. A sheet of computer paper with the removable holed perforations from an antiquated paper-feed printer was taped to the heavy wooden door that announced: “Wanamei Expeditions.”
THE SALES PITCH We entered and ascended a rickety and narrow steal spiral staircase up to what seemed like a bedroom. It was actually an office and presentation room that happened to be in private home. There, we met Claus Kjaerby, the flyer distributor from earlier that afternoon; whom we immediately nicknamed him the “Great Dane.” From behind the Great Dane, stepped Mateo Jicca, the voice of Wanamei Expeditions.
The Dane then translated Senior Jicca’s friendly introduction to us. Listening intently to the Great Dane, we no longer hear his voice, but listened intently to his words as Senior Jicca spoke through him as he passionately explained that Wanamei Expeditions was built around eight Indian communities and bears the name of the Harakmbut Indians’ sacred tree, the Wanamei. Senior Jicca went on to proclaim that his enterprise is the first and only ecotourism company in Peru that is owned and operated by an indigenous Indian, him.
After a brief slide show outlining the extraordinary and somewhat daunting venture into the remote depths of the Amazon jungle in one of several small guided trips, we were sold. We chose the longest selection they had, nine days.
After we assured the Great Dane that our health or travel insurance would cover an emergency extrication by helicopter, we were headed far off the beaten path and into the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru. There, we would trek for several days into the rain forest and then spend a week traveling down the Isiroé river in traditional balsa rafts constructed on the spot solely from Balsa trees.
The Great Dane emphasized the trip would be “rough going,” but I’m not sure even he realized the gravity of this understatement.
After finalizing the departure logistics with the Great Dane, we met our transportation in the pre-dawn hours of the following morning for the first leg of what turned out to be a uniquely orchestrated journey.
The first light of the morning was probably the only time the sleepless town of Cuzco was in a state of repose. In the dull amber glow of the moments before sunrise, we shivered in the thick and cold predawn air while we marveled at the empty streets and the incredibly novel silence.
A small, grey four door Toyota pickup truck carved through the silence when it awkwardly back up a narrow alley to within feet of us. A small Peruvian man hopped from the driver’s seat and flashed use a tired grin. He introduced himself as the driver who would take us to the jungle. As if to head off the next inevitable question, he promptly clarified that he was only a driver, not our guide.
Through our limited Spanish skills we asked when we would meet our guides. He smiled again and said that he did not know anything about our guides. He then held up and envelope incased in plastic sandwich bag and explained that the contents of the envelope contained the directions about what do with us. He loosely elaborated that the Great Dane instructed him to drop us off at a small village and hand the envelope to somebody in the village. Without another thought, he walked away to begin loading the truck.
Now into the flat lowlands, we passed through countless rural villages made up of concrete buildings and wooden shacks adorned with thatch roofs. Interestingly, each home in these towns was supported high off the ground with stilts to evade the rising waters during the wet season.
As we made our way in and out of the unpaved streets, our driver deftly navigated around the “Three C’s,” cats, chickens and children.We traversed the muddy, potholed avenues of countless Amazonian hamlets then finally arrived at our port of call, a minute riverside village inhabited by about 100 people. This little community was simplistic, yet efficient and charming.
An abandoned cement foundation served as a town square amongst a myriad of corrugated metal shacks, partly constructed mortar buildings and carcasses of retired boats strewn about, a small break in the dense jungle surrounding the township revealed a steep, narrow footpath that lead to a waterfront teaming with daily commerce.
We headed down the path, ineptly dodging the nimble locals who were scurrying up and down the worn trail with their loads precariously balanced on their heads and backs. Emerging onto the shorefront captured our first glimpse of one of the thousands of tributaries stemming from the great Amazon River, which is where we would be spending the next two weeks.
THE FIRST RIVER
Decorating the shoreline were several long, narrow, canopied boats outfitted with rows of padded seats and modified outboard motors to whisk tourists through the shallow rocky stretches of the river. Believing that we would to be shielded from the weather and blessed with padded seats, we let out a sigh of relief and began to chuckle at the other boats nearby.
One boat in particular stood out, a hand built dugout canoe that could barely hold four people. It was powered by an outboard motor so crudely fashioned it would have made Macgyver blush. We felt sorry for the poor fools who would have to tempt fate down the river in that one. As Murphy would have it, we were those fools; and we packed seven people in that leaking log.
After three hours of exposure in a downpour, we reached the shore of a small fishing and agricultural village of about 300 people. The tentative plan was to spend the night there and then have the log drop us off further downstream to begin our trek into the jungle abyss. We still had no idea who our guides were, but were content with the thought of shelter for the night.
Although the skies were still dumping rain as we stepped on the beach, we were greeted with a warm welcome by various residents of all shapes, sizes and ages. A small group of young men quickly summoned our attention and then whisked us through their quaint village while dozens of young children curiously orbited around us. We were cheerfully lead to an empty, unused barn with a cement floor where would set up camp for the night. There, we became the main exhibits in a human zoo. As we changed, ate, set up our tent, etc. we were perpetually watched and studied by a dozen or so curious villagers at an unusually close distance. They simply could not get enough of us, especially when we were changing. Naked white men, go get the kids honey they’ll love it!
After entertaining the inquisitive locals with our pale skinned derrieres, we were summoned to dinner in a small, elevated thatch hut. Two men promptly brewed us some tea and prepared us their favorite delicacy, Tapier. A Tapier is a large and elusive nocturnal rodent that resembles an anteater. Famished from the day’s journey and ignoring the bats dive-bombing our heads, we dove right in to our meals, which, interestingly, tasted just like chicken. We graciously thanked our hosts and then retired to our exhibit in the zoo. If you have never tried to sleep with several young men and women snickering and pointing at you, try it, it’s strangely therapeutic.
After a breakfast of comparable intrigue to the last evening’s dinner, we finally met our guides. Pablo, Rolando and Walter. All three were residents of this friendly little village, and only one, Pablo, the eldest guide and the apparent paladin of the group, had ever guided anyone before. Walter was notified only an hour earlier that he was to guide three westerners through the jungle and Rolando appeared to just be along for the ride. After a detailed explanation of our upcoming adventure by Pablo, the first significant challenge was made readily apparent, the language barrier.
Our guides’ first language is Quechua and their second, like us, was Spanish. Our common thread of communication turned out to be a language none of us have mastered. After this realization, we all smiled and clamored into the same log from the previous day and hunkered down for a long ride to our drop off point. Rife with anticipation, we each quietly reflected in a quixotic manner what the next ten days would hold in store for us.
ON FOOT At a long sweeping bend in the slow moving river, the boat dropped the six of us off to begin our journey to a final rendezvous point over eighty miles away. At this point, we sorted through and organized our small cache of food that was meant to last only a few days. Once on the river, we would be fending for ourselves. Rice, noodles and ketchup would to serve as our only reserve for the lean days.
The terrain we began trekking through would have made an Eco-Challenge racer cringe. Rich, Tim and I each carried our backpacks and took turns tying the tent to each other’s packs when one’s attention would drift elsewhere. As the monogamous pairs of Macaw Parrots screeched above us in unison, we hiked in and out of water almost entirely on rocks varying in size from golf balls to basketballs. Small dunes of river sand broke the monotony by grinding away our tender urbanized feet. Even the pain of my feet bleeding through a half inch of caked on mud could not distract me from the indescribable beauty of this remote region.
The rainforest of Peru is a breathtaking mosaic of life. The rich soil, abundance of water and overhead canopy of trees, form the perfect environment for life. The thick, wet, oxygen rich air is consumed by millions of species of animals all around us. This region is known to have most prolific array of flora and fauna in the world. As I was attempting to take it all in, an Indigo blue butterfly the size of a man’s hand casually fluttered by as if to welcome us in. Amazing.
We spent the next two days slogging through a river with clarity ranging from crystal clear to opaque brown. After a short period of being hopelessly lost, we graduated to hacking through the dense tropical rain forest up a hill so steep that the heels of the lead hiker were at eye level of the person following. The ascent required gentle steps so as not to slip on the dense ground cover and quick hand to grab the nearest vine for support. With only a few dozen feet of visibility through the dense jungle, one cannot grasp any perspective of distance or orientation. We were at the mercy of our guides, who were diligently clearing a barely discernable path with their machetes to our next campsite.
The most fascinating part of the jungle was its persistent symphony of noises. In fact, one could compare the frequency and volume of the noises heard to that of New York City. Birds squawking, frogs croaking, monkeys howling, trees shaking, creaking and falling. With not a human in sight and only the piercing noises of the jungle, there was little doubt we were miles from nowhere.
After three days, we reached the resplendent waters of the Isiroé River. The next step was to create our transportation to carry us farther into the jungle abyss.
As we collapsed on the rocky shores of the river for a rest, the guides sprung to life. We curiously watched Rolando, Walter and Pablo feverishly search for the perfect Balsa tree, hack it down with their machetes and then scurry off to find another one. The three little Bob Villas then began their artfully choreographed boat building; a skillused by their ancestors and passed down through generations.
After about three hours a balsa raft emerged consisting of five large logs bound together with small spikes and bark rope. Two other rafts rolled off the primitive production line soon after. No part of the tree was ever wasted; the trunk was used for the hull, the branches as nails and luggage racks, the bark for rope, and finally, the leaves for wrapping food and for sitting mats. It was two people per raft, plus gear in the middle. We steered and propelled these little rafts with a bamboo-like pole, which proved to be easier said than done. This was our transportation for the next several days.
The welcoming committee of wildlife was diverse, often a bit testy and somewhat unnerving at times. For example, river obstructions were not uncommon. Periodically, we would be required to push and pull the rafts over logjams and fallen trees. After inadvertently agitating a very large and disgruntled freshwater electric eel, we came to one such obstruction. As per tradition, we were waist-deep in the river tugging our Huck Finn raft over a logjam, this time with an irate eel lurking around our legs.
The ever-present Piranhas searching for meal were always prodding at our consciousness. Soon after the eel, several Caymans made their presence known as they would hauntingly break the water’s surface with only their eyes and nostrils. As we floated by one of these wading predators, it leapt out of the water and began thrashing for the shore. Upon reaching the shore, the frightened crocodile sprang to life and sprinted along a section of dry shoreline before disappearing into the jungle.
Our cache of luxury food, including crackers, salami and cheese, ran out after a few days, which shifted the diversity of our meals to rice or noodles with fish and ketchup for a garnish. Each day floating on the rafts, we would fish for our breakfast, lunch and dinner. A crudely fashioned fishing hook on a line wrapped around a small piece of wood was our tool of the trade. Piranhas were the easiest to catch. A small piece of baitfish on the hook would almost always yield a hungry Piranha in seconds. We would use the Piranha as bait to catch the Sabalo fish, prized for its large size and Trout like flavor. When the Sabalo were not biting, we were relegated the stringy, boney Piranha meat as a protein filled supplement to our starchy rations.
The jungle would often relinquish elusive culinary opportunities to keep us on our toes. A watchful eye, a quick hand and a sharp machete would sometimes yield a fresh water stingray. Although difficult to clean, the noodley meat was always a welcome change to the usual monotony of fish and rice, with a splash of ketchup. Boiled plantains and the occasional rare find of soft-shell turtle eggs would also affix some variety to our menu.
A SUMMER SHOWER
In the planning stages of this adventure, the Great Dane assured us that it was the dry season, and rain would not be an issue. That hypothesis of was the subject of many of our conversation as we huddled in our tent for the fifth day in a row of torrential afternoon rainstorms. It was unanimously agreed upon that the Dane had a particular talent for understatement.
On one particular evening, however, a normally distracting monsoon evolved into a menacing storm. Camped at a 90-degree bend of the river on a small beach, we watched the river slowly rise while the sun fell behind the horizon. Our spacious camp began to methodically decrease in size with the rising water.
Sheets of rain churned up the calm river and activated countless flash run-offs from the jungle into the river. As the rain poured down, the jungle began to release its loose soil into the river with such ferocity that the crystal clear water turned an opaque muddy brown in a matter of hours.
As the darkness of the evening enveloped our surroundings, we took to peering out our tent door to watch this remarkable storm unfold. Not long after nightfall, the three of us were fixated on the glowing eyes of the Cayman crocodile patiently waiting out the storm only a few yards away. We all eventually fell asleep, but nobody slept more than a few hours. Our concern about the rising water was exacerbated by our fear that water would deposit the Cayman on our doorstep. We awoke the next morning groggy and wet, but not eaten.
The next few days were difficult because the now brown river was not potable for our consumption. It would be like drinking a mud milkshake. Therefore, every time we needed water, we would dock our rafts and hike into the jungle to look for a small waterfall or spring to retrieve drinkable water. Fortunately, the local fauna kept our minds off our seemingly never-ending quest for water.
FELINE WILDLIFE The looming presence of the many non-human jungle residents always occupied our minds. The mocking screams of the Howler monkeys perched high in the trees abusively reminded us they would never relent from surveying our every move as we carefully shuffled through the water in an attempt to avoid disturbing one of the many fresh water stingrays skimming the river bottom. It was the night, however, that brought about the most intriguing creatures, such as the most enigmatic of them all, the Jaguar.
Late into the evening, Pablo began frantically gesticulating to get our attention. With eyes as wide as saucers he uttered “Tengo miedo para ustedes” (I am afraid for you).
Clutching his freshly sharpened machete, Pablo cautiously rose from his haunches, as did the other two guides in unison. All three silently stepped towards the wall of the dark jungle to investigate. Rolando turned to us in a state of controlled anxiety and whispered “Jaguar!”
Stopped in mid conversation, we were still chuckling and a little reluctant to believe them. Rolando then narrowed his eyes and loudly whispered: “Jaguar… muy peligroso!” an authoritative tone overshadowed by what appeared to be genuine fear. We realized this was the real deal. Tim, Rich and I sat silent, curious and dumbfounded.
The methodical movement of the elusive cat snapped a twig every few steps, which permeated the cool night with a foreboding sound. The only way to describe the noise was that we could actually feel it getting closer.
Pablo explained in his best Spanish that the jaguar has found us and will return later when we are asleep to choose one unlucky soul for a late evening meal. Although many Peruvian Indians no longer believe that the Jaguar carries the spirits of their enemies, as their ancestors once did, they are all very cognizant of the danger that these powerful animals can pose to humans. Just one year before in a nearby village, a Jaguar killed a man in a late evening attack.
We stoked the fire and the guides placed a variety of human effects (shirts, packs, etc.) around the edge of the jungle to act as decoys in the hopes of giving the predator enough pause to allow for some action on our part; whatever that may be. The guides vowed not to sleep that evening until they could determine it was safe. As we finally started to doze, the guides began their all-nightlong vigil with machetes firmly in hand.
Shortly after midnight, the eerie silence was shattered when a large and frantic animal tore through our camp only to evanesce into the darkness without so much as a trail of lingering sound in its wake. In one lightning fast motion, we shot straight out of our sleeping bags to train our lights in every direction, searching for what we thought would be the source of our demise.
Only the footprints of a frightened Capybara (the largest rodent in the world weighing around 60 pounds) remained a mere ten feet from our sleeping bags. Pablo began talking, but I could barely hear him over my thumping heart. I gulped down several deep breaths so that I could decipher what he was saying. As my heart slowed and the novelty of the moment faded, I began to listen to Pablo.
With an air of grim certainty, Pablo calmly revealed that Capybaras are gifted with a keen nose. He opined that the frightened animal likely smelled the jaguar nearby, panicked, and made a fleeting dash for its life. He then concluded the Jaguar was very near and waiting. Lovely, exactly the sort of information one wants to ponder while drifting off to sleep days from a radio and even further from a phone.
Tim and I awoke, quite startled, around 1:00am to witness all three guides frantically heaving stones into the murky black jungle with tremendous veracity. While Rich blissfully snored away, Tim and I exchanged looks of dismay and bewilderment; the kind of “do you want to attempt to explain this one?” stares. Then, Rolando coolly explained that the jaguar came dangerously close to us and needed some encouragement to search for food elsewhere.
Some time later that night while we slept, Walter heard the jaguar make a kill. As it turns out, we were unknowingly camped next to a herd of wild boars. The jaguar was stalking them, not us. While not as romantic as our initial perception of a natural tourist population control, it beats getting dragged off into the jungle by an oversized and underfed nocturnal kitty.
LOGJAM The mercurial nature of the Amazon jungle seldom relented. The morning after the Jaguar encounter, we broke camp to make our way to the final rendezvous point where we would be picked up by another boat to begin the hitch back to civilization. After seven days of navigating our rafts through the gamut of river conditions and obstacles, we all acquired an air of over-confidence.
In a fleeting moment, all three rafts, one after another, wrapped around, dove under and smashed against a fallen tree obstructing the river. As my raft was instantly ripped from underneath my feet I found myself pinned against the raft, which was smashed against the log by the massive flow of water.
My legs were being pulled underneath as I hung on to the top of the raft and part of the log. Staving off thoughts of a watery grave, I to slowly inched my way up to the top of log.
Upon removing myself from the clutches of the river, I began to chuckle. There was Tim’s pack, the water filter; six thousand gallons in the front pocket, six thousand gallons out the bottom pocket. Then I realized Tim’s camera was floating listlessly in that pocket. Tim would have been better off scuba diving with his new non-water-resistant camera. After an hour or so of dismantling part of the logjam and retrieving each of our battered rafts, as well a medley of floating personal items, we quietly drifted to the pre-planned rendezvous point.
THE RETURN Not breaking with tradition, our trip from the rendezvous point back to Cuzco provided for another memorable enterprise. After waiting for over 24 hours with no food at the pickup location, which also seem to double as an experimental breeding ground for every single flesh hungry insect in the Amazon basin, we set off on one hell of a journey.
Over the course of the next maddening 16 hours, we experienced a smorgasbord of every type of transportation available in the region. First, back into a dugout canoe for a few hours of fun, then in a small restaurant, yet another human zoo. Next, we climbed into a small four-door Toyota pickup truck for three hours on a road irretrievably damaged from decades of erosion. After tasting my spleen on several occasions as a result of our driver plowing through enormous potholes at such speed that we could feel the wheels of the truck leave the ground, we climbed into another small, ailing riverboat. After that, we climbed into the bed of pickup for another leg of the journey.
This truck was an Amazonian engineering marvel. The bed, hood, doors and quarter panels all moved independently of one another during yet another stint on the harsh boulevards of the Peruvian backcountry. We clung to whatever we could to keep from bouncing out of the truck, all the while hoping that whatever we gripped to would also not leap from the structure of the vehicle. The friendly driver dropped us off in small village of only few hundred inhabitants and bid us farewell with instruction to hop the next bus heading to Puerto Maldonado. Before retreating with a warm smile and a salute, the driver mentioned that the bus would arrive in either a few minutes or many hours.
For several hours in this quaint little village, we languished on the main dirt avenue near many ramshackle shops constructed of discarded corrugated metal and bound together with bailing wire. As nightfall crept across the town, the generators coughed to life. Moments later, the naked, solitary light bulbs dangling from the rows of commercial shacks, flickered to life with a dull yellow candlelight glow signaling the start of the evening. Workers began emerging from all directions as they labored home to greet their smiling families and learn of the day’s news and gossip. There was no doubt that we were the topic of their discussions as fingers were inconspicuously pointed our way during the pauses in their conversations. We relished in these snapshots of daily life as much as the citizens enjoyed peering, smiling and jeering at us, the three pale skinned oddities.
Hacking, wheezing and billowing black smoke, a dilapidated, but strikingly colorful 30-person bus arrived. After some friendly interrogations to determine the intended destination of the vessel, we concluded it was our chariot back to electricity and running water. We clamored aboard the ailing vehicle that was packed tightly with intrepid locals heading to Puerto Maldonado.
As we began to map out a place to hunker down within the rodeo of people all seemingly vying for the same spot, the overwhelming aroma of the hardworking villagers took over our senses. The limited number of seats combined with the mass of passengers relegated many to sit in the aisle between the legs of those who were standing. We clawed through the stench and all three of us were each lucky enough to creatively lay claim to an uninhabited corner of a worn and torn seat. There we sat, perched precariously, clutching our backpacks for nine spine compressing, claustrophobic hours through the muddy, and pot-holed jungle roads. After dozens of seemingly random stops to pick up and drop off enigmatic pedestrians, we arrived at our destination at 1:30am. Alas, a frigid shower and a night in a stiff bed. It felt better than the Four Seasons.
The next day we enjoyed the usual idiosyncrasies of South American travel as we worked our way to the small airport to catch our plane back to Cuzco. Upon reflection, and in consideration of all the hardships suffered, it was a perfect trip.