Exporing the Amazonas Jungles
Peru offered great opportunities for adventures and amazing experiences. The boys pushed for a rugged jungle adventure, while the girls were willing to pass on the pleasure of hanging out in an insect infected habitat with 100 degree heat and over 90% humidity. The plan was to take the 10 hour night bus from Cusco to the Tambopata jungle nature reserve, situated in the Amazon basin near the border with Brazil. On paper it was a brilliant idea- save two nights in a hotel and gain the experience of a fully reclining luxury sleeper bus equipped with pillows, blankets and all. While waiting on line we already sensed that something was off. The bus was spacious and luxurious, but besides for checking our passports, they photographed us and took finger prints from everyone. Our explanation was that it must be a security measure due to the border area. Only on the return trip did we get the sickening explanation that this was a safety measure in case the bus crashes, to enable identification of the bodies!! Even on operational flights in a military chopper they have less stringent procedures, so what does this mean regarding the safety of this journey? Meanwhile, the bus starts rolling as the kids are cozily tucked in with complimentary blankets. After a few minutes we are startled by a scream- "Allah Akbar!!" We are under attack by the "American Sniper" movie which is blaring from the TV screen and assaulting us with graphic scenes from the Iraqi killing fields. Noga is stuck in front of this screen similar to Clockwork Orange, and we instruct her to close her eyes and cover her head with the blanket during the goriest scenes. The bus traverses the Andes mountains from 10,000 feet, down to the sea level Amazon basin while zigzagging along the treacherous mountain road at 60 mph. Rising from one's seat and negotiating the aisle to the bathroom without falling on one's face, is tantamount to mission impossible. Sleeping in the stifling heat while being tossed about like a driven leaf is not fun at all. Add Orit's acute motion sickness, and you will understand why this ride has entered our journey's Pantheon as "The bus from Hell". Somehow we arrived to Porto Maldonado, the entrance gate to the Amazon, as the heat and humidity blasted us like a burner. Orit marched us directly to the nearest travel agency, purchased return flight tickets to Cusco, and chucked the return bus tickets into the garbage bin. After a sleepless night filled with puke bags, she bitterly hisses to me, "who's idea was it to schlepp us to the jungle?" On that happy note we get on board a river boat which shuttles us deep into the Amazon for a three day adventure.
Arriving at the Monte Amazonica Lodge dock, the path leads us from the river bank into the thick jungle where we see our bungalows which are raised above the jungle floor and built with four walls of mosquito netting and supplied with hammocks. Frank, the guide, greets us with refreshing passion fruit juice.
The jungle by day- lush and alluring
Frank takes us on a one hour orientation tour of the jungle. After a few minutes he points with his machete at a hole in the ground and uses a long, thin twig to lure out a huge, hairy tarantula spider. He warns that they are deadly, aggressive and able to leap three feet in a single bound. This definitely helps us realize that we're not in Kansas anymore, and this ain't no zoo. This is the real McCoy, the Amazon jungle! The next three days would entail many daylight encounters with various wildlife and animals such as monkeys, , wild boars, armadillos, iguanas, tarantulas, piranhas, piranha eating otters, turtles, frogs, parrots, and giant colorful butterflies. The sightings entailed hours of walking in sweltering heat, covered from head to toe against the man-eating mosquitos. Knee high rubber boots enabled us to negotiate quicksandish mud in the pouring rain.
The jungle looks even better from above, as we walked on 200 foot high treetop walkways and ziplined through the brush at 50mph, dodging stray branches along the way.
A wooden raft took us to an island where it is known that a pack of 20 wild monkeys live, but it's not so easy to spot them. Frank equipped us with mangos and bananas, hoping to be able to entice them.
Walking inland through the bush, we keep our eyes and ears peeled, scanning the trees above. Suddenly the treetops sway as a gust of wind blows through. An earie howling approaches and we noticed that the treetops are hopping with swinging monkeys descending the vines with their tails. Frank outstretches his hand with a juicy mango, and the largest, strongest male of the pack darts down the vine, snatches the fruit and zips back up dozens of yards within seconds. He eats the mango at a safe distance from us and Frank explains that as leader of the pack he has first rights. With time, they habituate to our presence, approach and encouraged our kids to toss them fruits. It's one thing to feed monkeys at a zoo, but to see them without a cage, and to feed them while they swing freely in their habitat, is an extremely unique experience. This wild encounter with them felt like a surreal scene from the planet of the apes, but we realized that we are guests on their turf. Respect.
The Jungle at Night- Yikes!
This chapter was written as I sat on a flight from Peru to Costa Rica, as I listened to a 70's greatest hits playlist, compliments of Avianca airlines. As I pondered the unique nature of the jungle at night, Jim Morrison and the Doors serenaded with "L.A. Woman", and I listen how he brilliantly describes the paradox of the city as a type of jungle- inviting and beautiful by day, but dark, scary and capable of eating one up by night. This was our first hand experience of the jungle. By day we saw the bright greenish celebration of life, but night in the jungle was downright spooky.
Frank took us in a wooden canoe along the dark river banks, equipped with a powerful flashlight, hoping to see the jungle's nocturnal creatures. Crocodiles were frequently sited, and we were looking forward to an encounter of this sort. Despite the calming blanket of darkness, we remembered to keep our hands away from the canoes side, avoiding any nasty surprises emerging from the water. The guide illuminates the banks and we see dozens of Cayman crocodiles over the course of the next hour. The black stripes of the adults are clearly contrasted as they lounge on the light sand of the river bank. The youngsters are fearful of predators and make a dash towards the water. Almost every log in the dark water resembles a crocodile but we see a pair of eyes, nostrils and a huge mouth jutting above the water, awaiting an easy prey. Frank estimates that another 16 feet of this croc are lurking underwater. As the canoe passes near the crocodile's head, we all gravitate inwards to the middle of the boat, hiding our hands deep in our pockets.
Returning upstream along the opposite bank towards the lodge, we see some cute turtles and lower our guard in anticipation of the nearby lodge. Frank suddenly raises his hand and commands us to be completely silent. His projector shines upon a log in the water and we see something thick wrapped around it. A huge Anaconda snake! Frank informs us that this is the largest snake in the world and the chances of seeing it like this are one in a million. It's 20 foot long body seems to go on forever, and we stare at this behemoth just imagining how it constricts and chokes a deer sized animal and swallows it up, bit by bit. Frank guides the canoe till touching distance from the Anaconda, and when it raises it's head, he warns us that we must back off quickly because we have woken the beast and are within striking distance. The adrenalin rush gives us strength to paddle frantically to safety.
The second night was utilized for exploring the jungle on land. The guide promised we'd see many insects and spiders so the girls preferred to stay back at the lodge protected by mosquito netting, while the boys ventured out. The truth is that I wasn't too excited about this excursion, but when I saw how Yali didn't hesitate, I felt I had no choice. Sprayed and covered from head to toe, equipped with a flashlight, we followed the guide out of the lodge. Within one minute's walk we are engulfed by complete darkness and the deafening buzz of insects. Yali notices a slight movement on the ground and illuminates a scorpion crossing his path. The guide shines upon multiple tarantulas clambering up the trees. Every nano sound from the brush jolts our nervous system, as we prepare for fight or flight from a potentially venomous snake. A touch from an insect makes us jump out of our skin because we're not sure if it's a lethal tarantula or an innocent grasshopper. Our senses are on high alert, warning us that we are in foreign territory, scary and potentially hostile. After half an hour and a few twists and turns along the narrow paths, I ask myself, if something happens to the guide, will we know how to survive and make our way back? Not sure. As an avid outdoorsman and adventure racing athlete, this is a foreign sensation to me, and I realize I am finally out of my comfort zone. This is exactly the sensation I was hoping to experience in the Jungle. Be careful what you wish for.
Back at the bungalow we find it difficult to sleep because lying in bed under the netting, we hear a cacophony of voices from an other world. Underneath us the leaves bustle with the traffic of various animals, and above we hear the screeching tucans and other birds in sensurround. I had hoped to hear exotic sounds while walking in the jungle, but did not imagine that we would experience the jungle so powerfully from our bed!
In summary, our jungle experience started with a ride from hell to a seemingly more hostile environment, but little by little the jungle grew on us and we became mesmerized by it's magic. We returned after three days full of experiences as well as a sense of efficacy that we survived the extreme conditions of the jungle, mosquitos and all. On the boat back to civilization Noga started writing a story about a parrot that grew up amongst humans in the jungle, a fusion of sorts between Mogli, Tarzan and the Lion King. Look for it in theatres near you- "Poly, Queen of the Jungle".
(Photo of the parrot?)