One more long overnight bus trip ... and FINALLY I arrived in Lima and was saying hello to Tracy, my friend from the US whom I'd met last year while traveling in Bolivia.
After discussing various travel options, Tracy and I decided to do a jungle trip, something she'd never done before. As it turns out, we established a real jungle theme in our 4 weeks of travel together by visiting not only one but two different jungle regions in Peru.
Jungle trip #1 had us flying into Iquitos, Peru's frontier city in the northern Amazon region and the largest city in the world without road links. I had visited Iquitos in my previous travels through Peru and have a friend, Oscar, who lives there. When Tracy and I decided to do a trip to Iquitos, I contacted Oscar and a private tour was arranged for us with Dany, Oscar's jungle guide friend.
Our jungle adventure started with a 14-hour overnight riverboat trip down the Amazon River from Iquitos to Pevas, the oldest town in the Peruvian Amazon. I've spent many an enjoyable hour lazily swinging in a hammock, but this was the first time I've ever slept in one overnight, something that actually takes a bit of getting used to, especially since I normally sleep on my sides and belly. And to make it more interesting, we were packed together like little sardines amongst 40 other hammocks strung up on our particular level of the boat. Having your own "personal space" in the jungle is definitely a rarity!
We stopped in Pevas long enough for Tracy, Oscar and me to enjoy a hearty breakfast while Dany organized transportation for the next leg of our journey. We then set off in a small motorized canoe up the Ampiyacu River, a tributary to the Amazon, for a few more hours, finally arriving in the tiny remote village of Okaynas (18 houses), which would be our home base for the next few days. After formal permission to visit/stay was requested and received, hammocks were strung up, sleeping mats were laid out, and we officially moved in.
To our knowledge, we're the first tourists to ever visit Okaynas. The women were somewhat reserved but respectful and courteous, and you can just bet these 2 large gringas were top of the hot jungle gossip for a while. The men were more friendly, every handsome-five-foot-nothing-toothless one of them. The children were absolutely precious, their reactions falling into a few different categories:
(1) Fear - some of the kids literally took one look at us and ran away crying every time they saw us. Hard on the ego as we think we're pretty damn irresistible, but thankfully it was only a few.
(2) Curiosity - some kids cautiously observed from a distance, while a few brave souls actually visited us for, well other than curiosity we couldn't really figure out why they visited, although a lot of giggling was involved.
(3) Friendship - okay so there was only one little girl named Gloria who took to us immediately, but she visited regularly, took great interest in everything we wore or had in our backpacks (although only to look, not to take), and she instantly became "our love child of the jungle". Gloria couldn't actually speak but she fully understood Spanish, and she taught us that true friendship transcends words.
Every day we went for long strenuous hikes through the hot and humid jungle, always accompanied by our local Okaynas guide, Juan (former chief of the village), who mostly went way ahead scouting the path and removing the most dangerous hazards for us. Machetes were always carried by the men, and for one hike when we packed in supplies and spent the night in the deep jungle, a rifle was also slung over Juan's shoulder. Somehow the sight of all this protection was more comforting than alarming.
We didn't actually see many animals, but I suspect the sounds of our tromping, tripping (that would be FROM Tracy and me) and laughter (that would be directed AT Tracy and me) chased them away. "Janes of the Jungle" we certainly weren't, but "Jane T" and "Jane C" were nicknames that we soon adopted.
Footing on the hikes was always difficult as there are so many tree roots and vines hidden under layers of decaying vegetation, as well as numerous water or thick mud crossings requiring great balance as you inch along a narrow, slippery half-decayed tree branch. It soon became apparent that Tracy was the "accident prone" person in the group (normally my designation) and with each new mishap she made me look more and more graceful and elegant!! Thank you Tracy!
Thankfully none of her mishaps were too serious, but they certainly added to the humor factor. Eventually we designated "jungle points" to Tracy based on type and complexity of mishap, the most points awarded for: (1) a failed water crossing where she slipped, sank up to her thigh in river water/mud and required 2 people to tug her out while she held on and tried not to lose her rubber boot, and (2) when she broke through the floor of one of our sleeping platforms while demonstrating how Balinese men wrap their sarongs (it's a long story, don't ask). I don't have sufficient time to write about all her OTHER jungle points, but let's just say that in the end she accumulated quite a score!
Dany, who we fondly called "Tarzan", is a specialist in medicinal plants and as we hiked he explained the uses of the various plants and trees that we passed. It became apparent that the bark of basically every tree in the jungle, when boiled and drank like a tea, can be used for pretty much any ache or pain ... stomach problems, arthritis, back pain, hair loss, labor pains, malaria and the most common ... to enhance fertility for women and sexual performance for men ... like apparently they don't already have enough children??
When not exploring the jungle, we also had time to enjoy other new jungle experiences, such as:
- relaxing hammock time, normally while waiting for the rain to come or stop. Eventually we became quite proficient at sleeping in them, although we never really mastered the art of a graceful dismount,
- eating creative jungle cuisine from food and animals of unknown and probably best we don't know origin. This was lovingly prepared for us by Dany and Oscar, and usually eaten in the company of at least one crying child, Lorenzo the pet macaw who often projectile pooed beside our food, and Kiss the dog who was always nearby to hoover up the scraps, and
- bathing and washing clothes in the local watering hole, normally while slipping on river mud that oozed between your toes, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes that dive-bombed into any exposed flesh, and always mindful of snakes, leeches or other things that go bump in the water.
Word also spread through the jungle grapevine that the gringas had medicine. Shortly after our arrival, "Dr. Tracy" and "Nurse Connie" started receiving patients seeking medicine for minor aches and pains. Apparently the tree bark tea isn't as effective as good old modern medicine! Between mild Ibuprofen and children's Aspirin that Tracy had wisely brought along, we were able to successfully treat a few patients while hopefully not destroying their natural way of life or immune system.
Tracy and I even had the opportunity to do a little jungle shopping. In the house where we ate meals, we had noticed a bag of bracelets and handbags, so we asked if we could look at them and maybe buy something. Well, later that night, all the women of the village brought out their handicrafts - knitted bags, bracelets, necklaces, paintings - all handmade from natural products of the jungle. With lots of laughs and great fun we went on a shopping spree, and between the two of us were able to buy a little something from each woman of the village.
A few days later we said farewell to our new Okaynas friends, and continued along the river by small paddle canoe for numerous hours until we reached a village inhabited by the Bora and Huitoto Indians. This community was definitely more developed - even has a paved street through town and one store! - and they also receive a few tourists during the summer months so, for better or worse, we weren't such a novelty here.
We didn't have to ask to see handicrafts this time ... literally within what felt like seconds of our arrival we were inundated with locals displaying their artesanal products ... and again the Janes went jungle shopping! And shortly after that, Doctor Tracy and Nurse Connie were again receiving patients and dispatching medicine.
We only stayed with the Boras and Huitotos for one day/night, so didn't really become one of the "village people". We had relaxing hammock time, strolled around the community, went for a swim in a beautifully scenic lagoon, watched an amazing sunset, and admired the stunning scenery that these people probably don't even realize they live within.
The next morning we retraced our steps back to Pevas in time to catch the return riverboat back to Iquitos. We were tired, filthy, covered in mosquito bites, but had had an absolutely fantastic time. Once in Iquitos we slept a few hours, cleaned up as best we could, then went to a restaurant for breakfast at which time Tracy stated what became a classic representation of our trip: "and to think that a week ago I thought eating HERE was primitive"!
We had just enough time left in Iquitos to squeeze in a quick boat tour through Belén (the floating shantytown) and a little walking tour through Belén's outdoor market (I won't describe some of the animal parts that were sitting and probably rotting away in the hot afternoon sun). And then we were at the airport saying goodbye to Dany, Oscar, and the northern jungle region.
In addition to being extremely humorous and way too much fun, I think the best way to describe our jungle experience in Iquitos would be ... "authentic".
We didn't stay in fancy guest lodges ... we lived in tiny villages and slept and ate meals in houses belonging to local families.
We didn't sleep in fancy beds ... we slept without mattress under mosquito nets on the floor.
We didn't have running water for a shower ... we washed in a nearby watering hole that served as both bathhouse and laundromat.
We didn't have a flush toilet ... we used outhouses and sometimes the bushes.
We brought some food with us from Iquitos ... but mostly we ate what we caught (fish, baby lobster), killed (agouti, which is also called "jungle rat"!) or chopped (sugar cane, heart of palm, pineapple).
We watched the most amazing sunsets over the beautiful Amazon River.
We developed strong friendships with each other and with locals.
We observed the locals with as much curiosity as they observed us, and realized how privileged we were to be witnessing a way of life so foreign to ours.
We truly enjoyed these simple pleasures ... well, okay, maybe I could've enjoyed the occasional shower, flush toilet, and a lot less mosquito bites, and I think Tracy was about ready to kill for a Snickers bar. But we made some amazing memories that will, if we're really lucky, last a lifetime.