I, Tommy, have felt pressure at times writing this blog knowing that Caroline is much the better author, a qualified journalist no less and she is capable of conveying sentiment and feeling much better than me. However, if I can’t make our 5 days in The Amazon sound interesting I may as well stop writing now. It is beyond doubt the most fascinating and divers place I’ve ever had the fortune to visit and I’ve certainly seen some incredible places so far in the last 8 months and throughout my 34 years on this beautiful planet.
Caroline had done a magnificent job of researching just the right guides for us on this trip and had made sure we were going to get a real personalised tour and not be just part of a huge, safe, pampered, tourist group. Our guides, Gerson and Frank, met us at Iquitos airport and took us to our hostel in a little tuk-tuk, where they played us a video of the things we were going to see and do for the following 5 days and 4 nights in the Peruvian side of The Amazon, all set to some strange Elton John music!
It’s always been a dream of mine to go to this magical place and I’ve been fascinated with it for as long as I can remember. I have always watched every program possible on the Amazon, from nature programs by David Attenborough to survival programs by Bear Grylls and Ed Stafford. They’ve only ever fed my imagination and I’ve couldn’t believe we were on the verge of finally going there.
Back in Iquitos we spent the day trying to buy long sleeved tops and insect repellent. Apparently though this is almost impossible to do in a city where lots of people leave from for their Amazon tours. Bearing in mind the local people sell literally everything it seems somebody is missing a huge trick here. Iquitos is famous for being the biggest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, you’re only options are via the rivers or the air. It leads to it being quite a strange, isolated city.
It was a very early start as Gerson picked us up in a minibus at 5:30 am. There we met another lovely Kiwi couple called Heather and Dave who would be on the trip for 3 days with us. We drove to the port in Nauta from where we took our 2 hour long boat after demolishing a decent breakfast in town. There was an ominous sign when the sky turned very black and the lads started rolling down the blue plastic sheets that were to act as windows. Sure enough just as we set off the heavens opened. This is never a good thing when you are in a rainforest area and it absolutely threw it down for about an hour. We hadn’t quite had the amazing views of The Amazon we’d imagined to begin with but as the rain stopped we rolled up the blue sheet windows to see freshwater dolphins in the river just breaking the surface. That was more like it.
We got to the village where we were staying and it was everything we’d hoped for. Very traditional, stilted, wooden huts with palm thatched roofs. Basic but just what we wanted, we didn’t wish to see The Amazon the easy way from a 5 star resort in a big boat. We wanted a small group with the best indigenous guide we could find and to be right amongst the real Rainforest. Gerson and his side-kick, Frank (The Jungle Clown), were absolutely amazing and it was fantastic to be with people who have spent all their lives in The Amazon.
Our first day was one we will struggle to ever forget. After a lovely lunch we headed out in our wooden long boat to go hunting for anacondas on foot! Unfortunately we didn’t find any that day but just walking around in the densest most beautiful rainforest in the world was unreal. It was like being on a movie set, only the dangerous animals were very, very real. Gerson and Frank pointed out lots of beautiful plants and birds and even convinced us all to eat a few very large larvae that were growing in a fruit. It was much like the big grubs you’ve seen them eat on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’ Gerson promised it didn’t taste that bad and to just think of coconut. To be honest the taste was a little bit like coconut, it was just the first initial crunch that was a bit off putting! Still we were up for pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones over the next few days and this was just the start. We also stuck our hands in a termites nest and ate them off out fingers. This time the taste was even more surprising, they tasted like chocolate orange!!
After the trek we were back in our little 6 Seater long boat and just cruising along a river so thick with floating plants that you couldn’t see the water felt pretty special. As the sun began to drop and darkness took over, Gerson said we were no way near finished and proclaimed we were off to catch Caiman (crocodiles)!! So powering our way down the Amazon with only the power of head torches and flashlights we took a turn down a practically invisible tributary. About thirty seconds down this ridiculously dark and enclosed water way I spotted a small pair of orange eyes high up a tree reflecting my torchlight and alerted I the guides. Sure enough they were eyes and unfortunately for Caroline the belonged to a snake. At first it looked like a pretty small one but then as we got closer to it it was actually about 5 feet long. Not content with just looking at it from afar Gerson made some ninja type move and grabbed its head and brought it on board the boat for us all to have a closer look. As I’ve mentioned Caroline likes snakes about as much as I like Nottingham Forest so she was pretty on edge about it being less than a metre away from her. It was a beautiful light brown and black colour and had wrapped its powerful body all around Gerson’s arm whilst he kept hold of its head. We asked the two obvious questions, 1) what sort of snake was it? and 2) was it poisonous? To which Gerson calmly replied it was a Tree Viper and yes it was very poisonous and would we like to hold it? Knowing that Vipers are up there with the most dangerous of snakes we all politely declined the offer and instead took heaps of photos with the expert holding it. As Gerson put it back in the tree it gave one final warning of its danger as it coiled up in the famous S shape whilst dangling from a branch. Needless to say we left it alone and moved away. Next up the guides directed our boat into the floating plants and reeds so Gerson could catch a Caiman. Soon enough a small 2 year Croc was on our boat and being passed around for a few amazing photos of us all holding it. Carefully we put it back into the water and moved on. We tried once more to find another however, the only thing we succeeded in doing was getting the boat stuck in the reeds. As the boys struggled to untangle us we got bombarded with insects and 4 small tarantulas also decided to try and hitch a lift home. They were not the usual type of tarantula but were still big ass spiders all the same. Dave and Heather opted for the pretend they are not there approach until we got home. It had been a really phenomenal first day and after a good feed we all collapsed into our beds amongst the cacophony of noise you’d expect whilst sleeping in The Amazon. Fortunately we were all too knackerd to worry about what may or may not be crawling around our rooms whilst we slept, plus we had decent mosquito nets to keep the baddies away!!!
The second day began with a fascinating jungle medicine trek where the boys showed us things like iodine trees, rubber trees and palm tree roots with such big barbs on them that they used to be used as nasty weapons by the tribes people as they were both sharp and toxic!! We also got to eat lots of weird wonderful jungle foods like fruits that tasted like figs, small coconuts full of water, palm hearts and small oranges! The many insects in there were all fascinating apart from the 1000’s of Mosquitos that were so strong they bit me through my clothes!! I must’ve ended up with about 200 bites on my elbows and back and had to try my best not scratch them.
After a beautiful fish lunch we went off to Monkey islands loaded up with food to feed the apes. After a quick search with their amazing eyes the guides pulled us up next to the river’s edge and sure enough about 6 monkeys of all different shapes, sizes and species appeared to grab some banana and bread. They were incredible and were mostly Howler monkeys, not angry or aggressive like the other monkeys we’d met on our trip already. These little cuties were happy to climb aboard our boat and sit on your lap whilst they had their lunch. A little small one with a poorly eye took a special shine to Caroline and spent the entire time either sat on her lap eating its bread or on the back of her neck searching for nits!! It was awesome to get to see these amazing mammals up so close!
Next we headed to a village where there was a house where a couple of sloths had decided to live in its rafters after the river burst its banks in 2012. One of them was down and we were allowed to cuddle it. It was so incredible. Even though you know they move slowly, having it wrap its arms and legs around you as it very slowly looked around and munched on was phenomenal and felt very special. After that I played a couple of games of footy with the villagers (all with money riding in them!!) Whilst I had a great time and sweated out some of the four tonnes of rice we’d recently eaten it wasn’t ideal to be playing in green wellies and I picked up a fairly gnarly blister.
As the sun set we went on our night jungle trek to see what lurked in the shadows…..
We saw scorpions, a huge bull frog which pee’d all over me when I held it, poisonous frogs, scorpion spiders and tarantulas which we even put on our face under the promise they wouldn’t bite. At one point we turned all our headlamps off just to listen to the jungle noises in the pitch black. After the initial fear it was actually beautiful and kind of relaxing, but I wouldn’t have liked to do it without our guides being there. On the way home Gerson caught another viper and brought it on board again. This one was only a baby but was still highly toxic!!! He even released it back into the river so we could see it swim away, needless to say this didn’t help improve Caroline’s fear of snakes very much!
On Day three heavens opened again in the morning so we had to wait a while before we set off on our piranha fishing expedition. When we did get in our little wooden boat we firstly went to see the giant Lilly pads and a after a brief history lesson from Gerson we made our way through a very dense tributary of the Amazon and set up our fishing rods. These were no ordinary rods though they were long sticks of bamboo with some fishing line attached and a little hook on the end, the kind of rod your Dad first made you! Our first bait was to be finely sliced beef. After a few near misses and a few snags on branches, Dave hoisted up a small catfish, quickly followed by Frank and Caroline catching the same. Our silent driver Bala decided this wasn’t good piranha territory so we moved round the corner to a slightly more open area. Sure enough within 5 minutes the little red bellied piranhas had turned up and were being caught by all of us (except me) pretty regularly. The switch to catfish as bait and the change of location had helped enormously. They were just like little versions of what you imagine them to be. They had horrendously sharp teeth and a nasty bite on them! Caroline was now flying and caught three more whilst I only managed to snag one. Caroline was happy to catch them but she was adamant that if they were going to be wasted we should put them back. However, this is The Amazon and nothing is wasted and everything we caught would be cooked for lunch!! Rightly so. The ladies of the kitchen fried the catfish, sardine and piranhas and it has to be said they were excellent. Piranha flesh was firmer than normal white fish but had a lovely gently flavour.
In the afternoon we had to say goodbye to our new Kiwi friends, Dave and Heather as they were taking a boat all the way to Columbia the next day. They were a really sweet couple who were up for doing as much in The Amazon as they could in their three days which was really important to us as if you don’t fancy it in the jungle it could be a pretty scary place!! They also took with them the other guide, Frank, who was a real character and provided a lot of the entertainment for us.
In the evening we went to a local village to see a butterfly conservation facility where they were increasing the population of endangered species such as the Owl Butterfly. It was pretty interesting and the nice man who owned it let us release about six into their butterfly house although most of them decided to land on my head instead. We then watched a simply stunning sunset whilst floating in the huge river before heading off for some night fishing. As if that wasn’t extreme enough it was also pitch black except for our head torches and was really raining hard as well! Undeterred and poncho’d up we cast our hand lines 20 meters away from our little wooden boat and sat patiently. After a few little bites each, Caroline squealed as her line was snatched from her hand and nearly into the great river! Bala (the silent assassin) grabbed the line and proclaimed it was “¡Mūy Grande!” This must have been ‘very big’ to get him to speak because we haven’t heard much from him in three days. As he struggled to get Caroline’s catch closer to the boat Gerson picked up a spear not dissimilar to Poseidon’s trident and thrust it into the beast beneath the water. As they lifted it into the boat the told us both to move to the other end of the boat as the catch was very dangerous!! Sure enough as they pulled the monster onto the boat (after killing it!) it became clear that it was a really large stingray that Caroline “old fisher woman” Eccles had caught. Gerson again assured us not to worry about waste as we will be having it for tea tomorrow! Bala pulled out its massive stinging barb and it was fairly easy to see how dangerous these creatures could be if you annoyed them like my poor hero Steve Irwin did. I had another go but failed to snag any of the bites so we set off home and had an excellent tea as always.
The forth day started with a surprising breakfast of fried sting ray and plantain, the very stingray Caroline caught the previous night! This was definitely a first and it was actually really nice. It was like a nice firm white fish meat with no bones to worry about. It was the hearty feast we needed to power us for a three hour jungle trek. We went out for about 45 minutes in our wooden boat down one of the small rivers off the Amazon and then down a really tight and narrow estuary before we were dumped in the middle of dense rainforest with Gerson and Bala to guide us. It was real jungle exploring as we hacked our way through dense undergrowth with machetes stopping every now and then for some jungle survival tips about the plants and fruits you could eat and which plants you could get water from. It was fascinating. We ate palm hearts again (after chopping down the 20 foot tree with a machete), drank water from coconuts and also from the root of the cat claw tree. The dangers of animals and insects had kind of subsided now as things were much more dangerous at night time. We eventually made it back to another village and were rewarded with some bright Yellow Inca Cola in one of the villagers houses. We then went to another gentleman’s house who was a friend of Gerson’s. He was a really nice man and told us a really disturbing story about his eight year old daughter. He said a teacher in his village offered to help his daughter with her further education by letting her stay with a friend of his in the capital city, Lima, whilst attending secondary school. He said it had all been ok until one day he was speaking to her on the phone and it was snatched away from her and he hadn’t been able to speak to her since. It was really horrible to hear about and Gerson was very upset and angered by it saying it she was being exploited and promised to help using his friends in Lima and the police.
After a we’d finished our fish lunch we went out to find the river dolphins. We were meant to be swimming with them but they weren’t there in enough numbers to encourage us to jump in the murky brown Amazon. To be honest I wasn’t too disappointed bearing in mind we had caught Caimen, Sting Rays and Piranhas in there in the last 3 days; let alone the electric eels, anacondas or fish that can swim up your winkle (its true!!). To be fair Gerson does the swimming with his groups very regularly and insured us its not dangerous during the daytime. What was extra special about the dolphins was that we saw some of the Pink Dolphins which were an amazing bright pink colour and a slightly different body shape. We just sat for about an hour watching them playing and catching fish where two rivers joined as that is where there are vast amounts of fish swimming down from the flooded areas.
The undoubted highlight of the day and probably the trip was the night fishing and jungle trekking trip we did that night. We stopped on one small area of land and got off the boat with Gerson telling us to watch where we stepped and put our hands as this place was full of scorpions!! Sure enough there were loads of them on the big trees and where they weren’t they were usually huge black furry tarantulas! However, they decided that this area was too flooded so we hopped back in our little wooden motorised canoe and cruised down the pitch black river again for about half an hour. Along the way Gerson spotted the reflection of his head torch in the orange eyes of a snake and ordered Bala to turn around. Sure enough it was another tree viper and with amazing skill and courage they grabbed the toxic serpent and brought it on board. Before I had time to say no, Gerson said I had to grab its head to show ‘my wife’ my courage by holding this poisonous beast! I grabbed its little V shapped head hard and half-smiled for a few photos whilst trying to not shake like a leaf! It was a beautiful reptile, measuring about four or five foot and it was felt strange having it wrap itself around my arm and squeezing. Holding it was perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done and that includes Great White Shark diving, bungee jumping and skydiving!! To be fair the whole Amazon trip had been pretty extreme but this evening was beyond everything else! We put the viper back in the river and watched it swim off and headed back on our way! In the middle of nowhere we turned down a hidden estuary and navigated our way under bushes and through trees in our canoe before getting out into the shallow waters. Here we went spear fishing and after an early miss by Gerson, Bala showed us how it was done by spearing a bass fish. Next up was my turn and I missed twice. We picked up the pace and tried to keep up with Bala in the very dark forest but he was moving way too quick so we were left a little behind. We were both surprised when Gerson shouted something from behind us and Bala turned around instantly. Turns out just off the ‘path/ mud trail’ we’d been treading there was a very poisonous Fer Der Lance viper coiled up and looking very angry. This is one of the horrible snakes I’d heard about in the 1000’s of Discovery Channel snake programs I’ve watched over the years and was obviously making Gerson uneasy. He said he had a duty to kill it as this one snake is responsible for 60-70 % of all Amazonian deaths, so if he didn’t kill it and someone got bitten he would feel very guilty. Sure enough he coxed it out of its dead log and bashed it on its head with the blunt side of his machete as he didn’t want to chop its head off and spray us with blood. We have seen scary stuff a few times now but knowing just how close we had walked to a real killer snake highlighted just how dangerous this jungle could be. Next up was more spear fishing. Caroline had another go and missed a couple of times and one of them was a biggun! Fortunately the big Wolf Fish she missed hadn’t gone too far and was nestled in the shallows of a nearby tree root. The honours fell to me and the guys gave me expert advice about how to spear it. “Boom’. I nailed it and it was actually a huge Wolf fish which we would be cooking for breakfast tomorrow. That was enough extreme night fun for now so we headed back and had yet another amazing fresh fish and yam chip tea served with rice and the mushrooms we had picked on the forest trek that morning.
Today was to be our last day on The Amazon and we were going to really miss it as we’ve had such an amazing time. One thing we won’t miss though is the feeling of putting on damp clothes everyday. You see you have to wear long sleeves and trousers to protect you from the millions of Mosquitos that hammer you every second of every minute. The clothes end up getting pretty wet with rain, river and a lot of sweat and because of the humidity here nothing every really dries that well.
We spent the last day watching the pink dolphins splash around the river and trying in vain to catch some catfish. The food at our accommodation had been great although not always the healthiest as everything was fried and served with lots of rice and the final lunch didn’t disappoint with some more beautiful catfish. After we’d finished our lunch our driver, Bala, who had been pretty silent throughout the tour walked in with a beer and brought over 3 glasses so we could all share it with him. In case that wasn’t enough Gerson did the same. It was a really nice gesture by them and the local beer was really nice. We also heard that Gerson had managed to get hold of the other villager’s daughter on the telephone and that she would be coming back to the village soon, which was a lovely bit of news to finish with. Beers downed, it was time to leave our jungle oasis, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Nauta on the bigger boat, we settled in and drifted off to sleep. We’d took a shortcut through a very narrow reed passage way and both of us got a nasty awakening when our boat smashed into a submerged tree stump. It sent the boat rocking and reeling and we thought we were going to capsize, but thankfully we didn’t, I’m not sure there’s ever a great time to fall into the Amazon. Gerson sorted us a car back to the city of Iquitos and a hotel for the night. Back at the hotel we said a huge thank you and good-bye to Gerson, he’s been a legend. The trip with him couldn’t have been much better to be honest and it was so great to do it with a real local guide as it felt we got to see places and villages you wouldn’t get to see with the large ‘comfortable’ organised tours.
Our flight out of the Amazon Basin was early in the morning and we took one of the cheap tuk-tuk’s to the airport, which was great until he pulled across the busy road to get petrol only to stop dead in the middle of the road! Oh crap, the traffic from the other direction was now heading straight towards us. The driver and I jumped out and pushed us out the way just in time to avoid the on rushing bus! His tuk-tuk never started again so we caught another one to the airport.
We’ve had amazing days in our eight months so far but without doubt these 5 days and 4 nights were right up there at the top and seeing deadly snakes and spiders in their natural habitat is something I’ll remember forever. We wanted to be pushed out of comfort zones, not just be pampered tourists and that is exactly what we got with Gerson’s company. It’s been amazing to achieve this ambition of a lifetime and it really didn’t disappoint. That only leaves me to say a huge thank you to Gerson and The Amazon.
Hope everyone is surviving their own Amazons at home, I hear it’s been raining a bit.
Tommy and Caroline. xxx