Colombia: It really is a jungle out there!
Warning: Get cozy in your chair because this is a long one. The Amazon thus far has been constant stimulation so I just have a lot to say.
Our Amazon trip was an adventure indeed! It started with the flight from Bogota to Leticia. As soon as we dipped below the clouds all you could see out of both sides of the plane was green, green, green. It looked the same as flying over the ocean, but with dense green trees instead of water. It didn´t take long once we arrived to figure out that Leticia really is the shit town everyone says it is. So, we headed straight for the tour agency to see about arranging our jungle tour. After a few stressful hours of walking around and trying to make up our minds on what to do and how much to spend and how “frilly” we wanted it to be, we decided to go with Amazon Jungle Tours for 5 days.
After taking care of immigration and passport nonsense the following morning, we left the Brazilian side of the port on a long boat for our 3 hour journey to Zacambu, our chosen lodge. This is “winter” and the rainy season so everything is flooded and there is very little dry land at this time of year. They say the river basin swells by up to 10 meters during these months, so everywhere we went had to be by boat. We had a pretty cool group of 6 heading out together and once we arrived, we sat down to the first of many excellent fish and fresh fruit meals that were provided by our wonderful cook! Our guide is Jorge and our boat driver is Zorro and then there was a guy who stayed at the lodge with us and Jorge´s wife and daughter did all the cooking. Basically, we were going to be treated well for the next 5 days. There are three things I came to the Amazon wanting to see: pink dolphins, giant lily pads, and the meeting of the waters. All three of these things I´d read or heard about in my Brazilian literature and studies classes in college and they stuck with me. Our first afternoon outing checked one of these off the list as we went out to watch the dolphins swimming. There were lots of regular gray dolphins, but occasionally we´d see one of the pink ones. The pink dolphins are incorporated in many Brazilian legends and literature and our guide confirmed that there are still some native groups that believe them to have super powers such as believing that they can impregnate women. Anyway, we watched them for quite some time. Why do you not see any pictures of them in my photo section?? Well, that would be because they are freaking impossible to photograph. I swear that they knew we were there and knew exactly when we had our cameras out because every time we´d put them away, they´d start jumping like crazy and by the time we all got them back out again, they´d hide! Between the 6 of us, you´d think we´d have gotten one picture, but no cigar. After awhile I accepted defeat and was content to just watch them. The pink ones almost looked more like swordfish then dolphins, but they were beautiful regardless. We stayed out there to watch the sunset as we floated aimlessly between the borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil. Our guide would occasionally say “we are in Peru now”, and I have no idea how he knew. He was probably just lying, but it still sounded cool.
Our first night Lani and I had an epiphany: we are not jungle girls!!! There were sounds of creepy crawly things everywhere and super-sized cockroaches, the flying kind. We had to request a bug net for our room even though our host swore up and down that they had fumigated the rooms before we arrived and we´d be fine. Just send us back to Beverly Hills please. But, low and behold, we survived the night!
The jungle is NOT a quiet place. It is continuous noise all the time. You can hear millions of birds and monkeys and frogs and crickets and who knows what else. I guess the animals have a lot of communicating to do out there in the jungle. And they are not quiet about their business!!! In the morning we set out to see what all the fuss was about. We had to boat 2 hours before we were able to find land and after visiting for a few minutes with the people of the little community that lived there, we went on a 3 hour walk, equipped with rubber boots that I was assured were snake-fang-proof. Our guide Jorge was really knowledgeable about all the plants and animals. He showed us which berries we could eat and showed us plants that people used to cure all kinds of illnesses and ailments and told us stories about the jaguars and snakes he´d seen. Fortunately, we didn´t see any!
Side note: the mosquitos here deserve their own side note. As is everything in the jungle, they are super-sized mosquitos. Despite the potential damage to any future children I might have, I was basically bathing in DEET every morning. That stuff is nasty, but effective. Compared to the rest of the group, Lani and I were relatively untouched, but they were still swarming and dive bombing my head nonstop all of the time. Despite the heat, we had to go on our hike with long sleeves and pants and had I had a ski mask handy, I would have worn that too.
Back on the boat we focused on birds. I´d hauled binoculars all the way down here specifically for this trip, but because I´m so smart, I´d left them safely tucked in my bag back in Leticia. Bummer. But Jorge had an amazing eye and could spot birds from a mile away. We saw macaws, red eagles, black eagles, ducks, cranes, parrots, parakeets, toucans, falcons and a bunch of others that I didn´t recognize the Spanish names. On our way back to the lodge, Jorge stopped the boat and told us to jump in for a swim. Um….Hello…..McFly….you just spent the past 36 hours lecturing us on all of the horrendously vicious and fatal things the lurk around here and you want us to get in?!? But what the heck, right? It was about 200 degrees out so the temptation to cool off and the excitement of swimming in the Amazon river prevailed over reason and logic and so we stripped to our skivvies and jumped right in. It felt great but I was a bit freaked out anytime I saw any bubbles coming near me and I had to get back in the boat after a few minutes.
That night we went out after dark to look for caimans. Their eyes glow red in the dark with a flash light so Jorge had a spotlight and we went out looking for one. We only saw one and when Jorge stuck his hand in the water to try and catch it, it slipped away. But the trip was still worth it as it was a chance to see the stars and feel the tranquility on the water and hear the noises of the night loud and clear!
On our third day we spent the morning visiting 2 Indian communities. Before we left Leticia, we´d all pitched in to buy a bunch of groceries and staple supplies to give as gifts to the people we met, so we were able to distribute some of it between these 2 communities. The first one we went to was pretty basic. They had multiple families living in one-room structures on stilts. The second community had a little more structure with a school and play area and soccer field. In both places, the people we met were all very happy and seemed healthy. Although they lived in poverty, it didn´t seem like the same kind of poverty you see in the cities. I suppose having the beautiful amazon as their home helped, but they did seem genuinely happy and content with their lives. During our visits we got to try many kinds of fruits that grow down here that I hadn´t seen before. My favorites were araza and cupuaçu and many of the others that I already knew but that are 10 times better here like papaya and passion fruit and star fruit!!!
In the afternoon, we went fishing. I can´t remember the last time I went fishing and after about 5 minutes, I remembered why. For starters, it´s boring! In this case we were fishing for piranhas, so that made it a bit more interesting. We used bits of cut up fish for bait and a long reed for a pole and threw them in the water. Lani was the first to catch one and after I saw their teeth, I wasn´t quite so sure I wanted to catch one. The little bastards are quick and can nibble the bait off in seconds in you aren´t quick and I was basically just feeding them at first and kept having to have Zorro put more bait on. After successfully “catching” a log, the boat, and a tree branch up above me, I caught one!!! It´s pretty evident that I´m not a very good fisherwoman though because I screamed and tried to bring it in with my eyes closed and head turned so it fell off the hook. But I tried again and brought him up and into the boat on the second try. I caught two and then called it good. That night we ate our catch. It was actually pretty good, but not a lot of meat on them. Jorge and another guy showed us their piranha “war wounds” from where they´d been bitten in the past, both on their fingers. And we went swimming again why?
Later that night Zorro and Jorge went out on the canoe to look for a caiman again, since our previous attempt had been unsuccessful. I think they were secretly trying to tell us that our lively chatter on the boat the night before had not been conducive to caiman catching. They came back a short while later with a little one, only about a foot long. I used to have a bath tub toy that was a little alligator that shot water out of its mouth that looked exactly like this thing, except my toy didn´t bite.
On our 4th day, wakey, wakey came at 4:30 to go out and watch the sun rise. We rode out on the boat and watched a really peaceful sunrise. The ruckus of the jungle was already in full swing. I just couldn´t get over how busy these animals are.
Later in the morning we went out again in search of caimans, but this time we were only going to listen to them. In order to do this we had to paddle out in the canoe so that the boat motor wouldn´t scare them away. We had to paddle through some pretty thick jungle to get to a little lagoon where there are big caimans. Being on a canoe is a totally different experience as it is really quiet and you are able to go into places where our motorboat can´t. Jorge would mimic the sound that caimans make and then we´d all stop to listen. After awhile we heard the response and it was CREEPY!! It was this really low rumble or growl type noise that came from the distance. It was very Jurrasic Park-like and I was just bracing myself for T-rex to come crashing through the trees. Jorge said that from the sound it was making that it was probably a full grown adult of about 6 meters long. I sometimes get confused with all this metric talk, but I do know that 6 meters is GRANDE! Yikes. Again, I was amazed at Jorge´s knowledge of the jungle. I guess that´s what we were paying him for but it really is true that a good guide can make or break a trip. He spotted an otter swimming in the water and it took the rest of us about 15 minutes to see what he was looking at. He was great at spotting monkeys so that we could stop and watch them in the trees and he taught us to fine tune our ears so that we could differentiate between different kinds of birds and recognize a monkey noise. On our way back, we got to experience one of the torrential downpours that make this the rainy season. It was refreshing through, since up to that point I could have fried an egg on my head. On our first day it was pretty cool and there was a breeze, so we were dooped into thinking that it was going to be like that the whole time but we were oh so wrong. It is HOT and about 100% humidity. All of our clothes were pretty much wet the entire time and we were covered in this Amazon funk that just won´t go away. On our way back we stopped to buy some fish from a family and they told us that their dogs had caught a baby jaguar and they had it in a cage. We got out to look at it and it just looked like a cute little cat. It was hard to imagine that this animal is the most dangerous creature in the jungle. I was sad to find out that they were going to raise it and then sell it later on for its fur.
Our last morning was spent on the canoe again, but this time it was a pretty serious adventure. We were going to look at #2 on my list, the giant lily pads, called Victoria Règias. In order to get to them though, we had to canoe through some serious jungle with the person in the front blazing our way with a machete. It is fascinating that there is so much life everywhere you look. It was cool at first, but then got to be too much. The jungle is out to get you!! Tarantuals, termites, scorpions, vines that whack you in the head or trip you if you are walking, trees with thorns, biting ants, a tree that if you touch the sap, it´s like acid on your skin an can blind you. I mean geez…that was a lot to try and pay attention to and still row the boat. 100% defense all the time. I needed about 6 hands: 2 to keep the vines and branches from knocking me out, 2 to keep all the bugs off of me, and 2 to do something useful with my paddle. After canoe trip #2, I think I decided that it´s safe to say that I can cross entomology off my list of potential future careers.
We did come upon a lagoon filled with the infamous lily pads. Jorge says that if you lay something flat across them, like a board, you can stand on them and they will hold you up. That´s a big lily pad! So, that was the end of our jungle tour. And I´m thrilled to report that we didn´t see a single snake. I suppose that means that we didn´t make it into the ¨real¨ jungle, but I´m ok with that. Towards the end we were a lot more comfortable with the jungle and all of the unknowns, but are very glad we chose the trip that we did. Originally we wanted to go on one that combined sleeping in a lodge, with sleeping in a hammock in the actual jungle. I´m not sure I would have been brave enough. We headed back to Tabatinga, and since this area is only accessible by water and air, we set about making arrangements to travel by boat to Brazil.