"It's the fucking jungle, my friend!" – Two weeks in the Amazon rainforest

by Jakob Horvat, July 9th 2017, Iquitos/Perú
I thought I’ve been to the jungle before – in Thailand, Mexico or Bali. Truth be told, I had a profoundly different idea of what the jungle was. The Amazon rainforest is indeed a whole different story. It was a big mystery to me and I went out to explore. After I did, its magic appears in even bigger dimensions and more shades. Where medical plants connect humans to the gods, where celestial myths survived thousands of years and where nature can kill you in an instant. Welcome to the jungle.

I was pumped with adrenalin

We were floating along enormous trees on the dark waterfront, spotlighting the thicket with our torches. The air was alive with an orchestra of hundreds of frogs of all different kinds and voices. An army of other animals I couldn’t identify accompanied them. It sounded surreal, as if I was drifting in a fairy tale. Finding Caymans on the still riverside was the mission. We succeeded. Well, our guide Raúl did. He paddled slowly into the dense reed, grabbed with hyperspeed into the water, first with one hand, then with two. When his upper body made his way back into the boat, Raúl held nothing less then a Cayman of 70 centimeters in his hands. I had a hard time believing my eyes. It was not until I held this scarily beautiful animal in my own hands until I could. The eyes of the cayman were widely open, staring at me. That I was scared must have been apparent to Raúl: „The cayman is very relaxed“, he reassured. I couldn’t tell. I believed him.

Pulsing nightlife in El Poblado – where the "paisas" mix up with tourists

Our group of six came just back to the lodge shortly afterwards. I was still high from my spectacular encounter and probably just wanted to add that spicy something to the night. My intuition works well usually and makes me feel that certain „NO!“ before I do anything stupid. This time it didn’t. So I jumped off the boat and went straight into the dark thicket ten meters next to the mooring. It was the entrance we used the evening before at our night walk with Raúl. I just wanted to see the moon from out of the dark. For the moment I overheard Raúl shouting, too loud were the jungle sounds. It was not until I was ten meters inside that I heard him: „Vipers! Get out there quickly!“ Don’t ask me what made me losing it so awfully, but for some reason I did not think about the snakes. That dimmed my ecstatic mood instantly. As if I was walking on hot coals I was rushing out. Raúl received me with a serious and rather angry tone: „You never do that again! Never go inside without me and without rubber boots. It’s the fucking jungle, my friend!“

Guide Raúl and the cayman he casually grabbed out of the dense reed

One week earlier: With chickens, cows and pigs down the Rio Napo

It was already dark when I put up my new hammock between the two rusty iron bars in the passenger deck of the old cargo boat. The floor was dirty and of wavy metal plates that made a creepily dull sound every time it whipped back after I stepped on the curvature. After two days and a first date with the rainforest in Nuevo Rocafuerte/Ecuador, I crossed the border to Perú on a long boat to Pantoja and embarked on this spectacle. Four days and four nights to Iquitos lied ahead. The cargo boat to the capital of the Peruvian Amazon is the slowest and most adventurous way to get there. Most backpackers fly. But with 30 Dollars it’s fairly cheap and I just thought: „How crazy can it be?“ Again the Amazon caught me off the guard.

This is what crossing the border between Ecuador and Perú looks like.

Sunrise and the morning fog makes for a mystical scenery at Rio Napo in Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador.

A bunch of 17-year-olds loads the boat with bananas.

This cargo boat is the only connection for the hundreds of tiny settlements along the riverside to the outside world

Most of their inhabitants belong to the indigenous Quechua. Taking the nine days roundtrip to the big city is an event for them and has mainly one reason: to sell their animals and bananas on the market in Iquitos. „They get around seven Soles ($ 2,30) for one Kilo of their cow if they sell the live animal to merchant in their village“, tells Alejandro, the Captain of the boat. If they bring it to Iquitos, slaughter it there and sell it on the market, they get twice as much.“ So my home for four days turned slowly but with an inevitable persistence into Arche Noah. The passenger deck became incredibly busy and on day three there were hammocks hanging not only intimately close to but even above each other. Babies and Roosters competed in a comical match for who can scream the loudest. Luckily the occasional grunts of the pigs on the cargo floor had no chance to win. I was speechless the most when twenty men pushed and pulled a bull of 600 kg on board. The animal was bleeding heavily on his face for he hit his head so hard on the wooden planks trying to escape. So much, that once it was on the boat after two hours of fighting against it, half of the loading platform was full of blood.

Cows on deck. Will be sold and slaughtered soon in Iquitos

I was the only Gringo on board

The only other backpacker was Ecuadorian. Luis traveled with his trombone, which made sound wise for a charming variety. Each night we sat on the upper deck amongst plastic barrels and wooden chicken cages. We watched the sun diving slowly beyond the horizon and the endless riverside turning darker and darker. The jungle was magical with all its sounds and its evergreen grandiosity. I had a hard time creating a connection to any other passengers. They looked at me as if I was naked. When I smiled at them, only a few smiled back. And yet I tried to start some conversations – and failed. I was the stranger here, no doubt. The Gringo, who ordered his food without meat and more often than not ended up eating plain rice with a dry banana. The one, who wiped off his dirty feet before putting them into his sleeping bag. When I put in my contact lenses, people were staring at me in disbelief. I quickly shut down my efforts to make friends here. That was a mistake. It just took more work than usually to build trust and make them see that I am not the scary stranger they have never met before. Unfortunately, I needed three days to realize that. Three days of spending 20 out of 24 hours a day in my hammock. I listened to Cheryl Strayed’s audiobook „Wild“ and Pink Floyd’s crazily awesome and well-fitting album „The Endless River“. And thought wistfully about home.

The passenger deck. This was day two. It became busier.

Luis and his trombone made for a charming variety in my perception of sounds on board

Sunsets on the upper deck. Ever so rewarding.

Colonization has arrived in the jungle

It was the sunset of day three on the upper deck when a teacher broke the ice and gave in to his curiosity. Franklin is 35 years old and lives in a village one day upstream. Hundreds of blinking fireflies made the trees sparkling and far away on the horizon I could see lightnings, when Franklin shared some insights with me: „My daughters study in Iquitos. The roundtrip to visit home takes them nine days.“ What’s the biggest problem of the communities here, I ask him. „We are slowly losing our culture. Our children don’t want to learn our Quechua language anymore, rather go to the cities and search for jobs there. They have learned about western clothing styles and don’t want to wear our traditional outfits anymore.“ Colonization has arrived in the jungle, I thought, when I spotted a satellite dish in front of a lonesome house on the riverside. Left and right to it nothing but kilometers of rainforest.

Franklin lives in a village and is teacher of 150 students

Families have in average 8 children. The riverside is packed with curious village kids when the boat arrives.

Arriving in Iquitos was a relief

I couldn’t wait to get to a clean hostel, sleep in a proper bed and have some of the ever repetitive „Where have you been? How long are you traveling for?“ – style-conversations with other travelers. I booked a tour for the next day, starting at 10 AM. Four days and three nights in the jungle were just about to happen. Close contact with nature in it’s most essential way. I was holding a cayman, flirting with vipers and doing the second most stupid thing on my trip so far (the most stupid one I can’t tell here). I slept in a tent and heard a monkey drop from a tree behind me thinking it was god knows what. I fished for piranhas – embarrassingly unsuccessful. I took a bath in the mud and swam with dolphins. I escorted a Scorpion out of my room in a tea cup and watched a tarantula wandering around in the chill out area of the lodge.

Mud wrestling in the Amazon river

The ceiba tree: Around 450 years old and of the size of a room

Coral snake on the way

Scorpion in the room

Tarantula in the chillout area

The codes of the jungle

I got to know a world that is so different from everything I used to know, that even my instincts could not cope with it. No tools in my toolbox. The natives know exactly how it works. They navigate through the thick jungle, they communicate with the animals and know how to deal with them. Raúl spots a perfectly camouflaged iguana in a tree from forty meters distance with his naked eye. But for me, who doesn’t understand the codes of the jungle, this world is as full of wonders as it is of dangers. Where touching the wrong place at the wrong time can be lethal. Where my senses have been on high alert the whole time, activating some that have never been awaken. The fucking jungle made me feel fucking alive!

Boat from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte: 18$
Boat from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja: 10$
Cargo boat from Pantoja to Iquitos: 30$
Jungle tour for 4 days: 200$

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