Welcome To The Jungle – Amazon Adventures On The Javari River
“Let us keep the dance of rain our fathers kept
and tread our dreams beneath the jungle sky.”
– Arna Bontemps
River Boats and Border Crossings
The flight from Chiclayo offers stunning views over the Andes, and a glimpse of the endless expanse of the Amazon Rainforest. Inaccessible by road, Iquitos is a large city set in the middle of the jungle. Apart from the laid-back atmosphere and the friendliness of the locals, the first thing we notice is the multitude of unmuffled, horn-blaring motor-taxis plying the streets.
The second thing we notice is the river. At twilight, the silent water turns from pink to silver and fishermen wave to us from their boats. We stay long enough to purchase onward tickets, and get some sleep.
The next day, we board a speedboat that takes us eleven hours downstream to the tri-border area where Peru and meet Brazil. The twin outboards guzzle gas and belch fumes as they chug their way along the river. We stop to refuel and watch a few local children play with some new toys – freshly butchered goat hooves. The provided lunch is thoroughly unappetizing, and marginally edible. Hopefully, the fish like it.
After exit formalities in Santa Rosa, Peru, and a taxi ride from Tabatinga, , we are in Colombia. Unplagued by drugs, guerrillas and kidnappings, this remote part of the country has a lazy river feel and friendly vibe. We stay in Leticia long enough to organize a four-day excursion into the jungle and, in the morning, return to Brazil and board a launch at Benjamin Constant that will take us up the Javari River. We are technically back in now.
Javari River and Zacambu Lodge
We are greeted by our host and guide, Jorge, while his wife prepares lunch for us. The lodge sits on the Javari River, a few hundred meters upstream from Lake Zacambu, and is built to accommodate thirty people, but we are the only two there. After a rather uninspiring lunch of overcooked fish and bland yucca, we set off towards the lake.
Among the mangroves lining the lake, we bait our hooks, and beat the water with our fishing poles. Jorge yanks his rod after a nibble and produces a piranha. He demonstrates the effectiveness of its sharp teeth on a leaf and releases it unharmed. I yank my rod after a while and produce an unbaited hook.
For every five fish extracted by Jorge, we catch one. After a while, we abandon the angling and drift down the lake to where it meets the river, a favorite feeding area of the pink and grey dolphins surfacing all around us. We spend an hour admiring these mammals before dusk sets in, and return to the lodge.
Come On, Caiman
After a dinner much like our lunch, we walk along a boardwalk to a dock on a small lake behind the lodge and climb into a couple of dugout canoes. We are told that the Javari River is safe to swim in, but are warned against swimming in this small lake. Some caimans (relatives of alligators) can grow to several meters in length. Muy peligroso. With a powerful headlamp strapped to his forehead, and strange guttural sounds emanating from his throat, Jorge leads us on a caiman hunt.
Sweeping the beam of light along the shore reveals a small reflection – a reptilian eye. We paddle towards it but as we approach the creature slides under the surface of the water and disappears. We circle the lake searching for more but the animals vanish as we come too near.
Jorge is finally successful in catching a very small one with his bare hands. It is released and we continue searching for more. We see a glint of something in a bush beside the shore, and upon closer inspection we discover … a beer can.
Dusk and Dawn
We are discouraged by the mustiness of our room and the unwelcome cockroaches, but are put at ease when Jorge appears with two mosquito net-rigged hammocks and begins stringing them up under the roof of the lodge’s deck. These will be our beds for the next three nights from where we can hear the dolphins surfacing and breathing.
The jungle is a noisy place at night, even after the generator next door is turned off. Once accustomed to our hammocks and the strange noises coming from the bushes around the lodge, the chatter and chirping of the frogs and insects eventually lull us to sleep.
We are up just before dawn, and after breakfast Jorge takes us down the river to a trailhead that leads into the rainforest.
Jorge spots an anteater and chases it down before it can scamper up a tree. He harasses it briefly by prodding it with a stick while we take a few photos, and it runs away unharmed.
Suddenly, he starts running through the thick undergrowth, but we cannot keep up. He has spotted a monkey. Apparently, when ran at, the monkeys become motionless (with fear?). It seems this monkey is unaware of this as any evidence of its existence is, well, non-existent.
Jorge cuts one of the many roots and vines hanging from the treetops, and offers us a drink of the water dripping from it. We marvel at the massive Victoria lillypads growing in the swamps throughout the forest, and wade chest-deep through these same swamps, tight roping along unseen tree roots under the water. He slaps the water with the flat side of his machete to scare off anacondas and other serpents, or perhaps to attract them. Muy peligroso.
We find ourselves back at the boat and are shortly enjoying more overcooked fish and bland yucca for lunch. We spend the afternoon motoring upriver to the “traditional” village of November 3rd – presumably the town’s founding date. There, we find a church, generators, T-shirts, chainsaws and polygamy, which reinforces the notion that cultural differences are becoming scarcer, and also reinforces our desire to .
Uncontacted Amazon tribes and villages can only be visited with a special government research permit. The native inhabitants are protected from outside influence and disease for good reason. Tragically, a recent describes the murder of several tribes-people by Brazilian gold miners in this region.
The next morning brings rain, but this is, after all, a rainforest. Happily, shortly after breakfast, the weather begins to cooperate and we embark on another jungle hike. Along the trail, Jorge points out various trees and explains their use and significance.
We turn our heads to protect our faces as Jorge cuts a gash into a large trunk with his machete. The milky sap of the tree is very poisonous and will cause instant blindness if it comes in contact with one’s eyes. Muy peligroso. Local fishermen put it in the water because blinded fish are apparently easier to catch.
Another tree’s bark contains quinine which can be used to treat malaria. Jorge shows one of the many rubber trees that he assures us have brought “mucho dinero y muchos muertes” – much money and many deaths – to the region.
After a while, we are convinced that Jorge has gotten us lost. As we are on the verge of despair, he shows us what he brought us there to see – the biggest tree in this part of the jungle. And, it is by far the biggest tree we have ever seen. It measures nearly ten meters from one end of its buttressed trunk to the other. It would take at least a dozen hippies to hug this tree!
We are awestruck as we walk around it. Jorge tells us that locals would communicate with each other across the vast forest by banging on the trunk of such trees – Amazon smoke signals. After a few Tarzan swings from its vines, we head back to the boat.
Digging the Dugout
It starts to rain, again. Actually, it is a torrential rainforest downpour, and we are soaked to the skin. We are even wetter than our swim through the swamps on the previous day. Eventually, the rain stops, but no sooner does it stop than the mosquitoes return – in earnest. If we stop running, we are swarmed.
Harboring an unfulfilled desire to explore the tributaries of the Amazon in a more natural way, we borrow the lodge’s dugout canoe and head down one of them. We paddle as far as we possibly can, and savor every moment.
Returning to the lodge, we realize that there is still time before dusk, and continue to Lake Zacambu. Again, the dolphins are everywhere. We sit in the canoe and watch them surface all around us. Some even swim under the boat, partially lifting it out of the water.
Dawn of our last morning finds us paddling to the lake to enjoy the jungle at daybreak. Egrets, kingfishers, ducks, parrots, and birds of all colors abound.
After breakfast we motor down the river to Brazil, where we try piranha fishing again. We enjoy the same luck as our first outing. We are served one last meal of overcooked fish and bland yucca before Jorge piles us and his family into the launch, and sets off for Benjamin Constant, where the Javari River meets the Amazon. We say our thank yous and goodbyes, and retrace our steps back to Iquitos.