Iquitos: The Amazon
There is no copy of National Geographic that will ever be able to do the Amazon Rainforest justice. Thick, moist air perfumed with exotic blooms; a raucous cacophony of birdsong and screeching primates; a treasure trove of wacky natural medicines; and the thrill of contracting a flesh-eating disease… it’s literally the stuff of dreams. The jungle spans more than seven million square kilometres – mainly across Brazil, Peru and Colombia – and there are literally thousands of tour and accommodation options available. However, seeing as many are dodgy as fuck with the surrounding wildlife in an effort to “tame” them for tourists, try to go as eco-friendly as possible. To do so properly – especially if you don’t want to end up dying – will cost you an absolute truckload; but it was hands-down the most surreal and tantalising experience of my life.
After double-dropping quinine tablets and forking out our life savings, my family and I were met at Iquitos airport by a guy called Hulber – an enthusiastic midget who was the Peruvian version of Bear Grylls. To my relief, his English was considerably better than my Spanish, which at the time only encompassed phrases such as “hola chica guapa” and “te quiero”: hello sexy girl and I want you respectively. Like the rest of Peru, people in Iquitos treat driving like a game of Mario Kart, so we spent the car ride to the Amazon River praying for our lives.
Yarapa River Lodge – our accommodation – took another hour to get to by boat. It was built in conjunction with local tribes on a natural reserve, and serves as a university research hub, animal rehabilitation centre and guest house. The building is as au-naturale as they come, with no hot water, mosquito nets for walls and a solar power generator (that sadly isn’t strong enough to power a hair straightener). Several species of macaw and monkey roam the building freely as they recover from their injuries and illnesses, which judging from the number of times my leg was humped by a Capuchin monkey, include nymphomania.
Over the course of week – after breakfasting on cake and fried bananas – Hulber and his assistant Plas took us into the depths of the jungle to teach us about medicinal plants, hunt caiman, fish for piranha, look at sloths and tapirs, canoe through seas of giant lily pads, swim with pink dolphins and visit the local village Nuevo Loreto.
Watching Plas mime to my brother that the chance of a parasite fish swimming up the eye of his penis was slim provided he didn’t pee in the river.
Being offered local beer by a village woman, which turned out to be a gluggy white paste in a jar. I despise all types of beer, but to be polite dipped my fingers in and licked them clean. Just as I swallowed the revolting concoction, I was told the woman had made the beverage by chewing fermented yams up and spitting them back out.
Forgetting to bring insect repellent so being forced to shove our hands in termite nests and rub dead families’ guts all over us. “These ants don’t bite,” said Hulber, “but watch out for the big black ones!” Apparently one had once fallen down his shirt when he brushed past a tree, causing him to froth at the mouth and hallucinate for three days.
Realising El-Dorado is real. Hulber told us that there’s a small island on the river in Peru riddled with gold that is still ruled by the Jivaro, aka the infamous head-shrinking Indian tribe who were the only ones to resist the Spanish Empire. For obvious reasons, no one ever goes near it; well, no-one except the occasional dimwitted Yank. In 2011, an American hotshot managed to convince two reluctant members of the Peruvian military to fly him over in a bi-plane so he could try and get his hands on the gold. The second they touched down, the Indians began to rip the plane to shreds. Oblivious to his hysterical crewmembers, the American stepped through a gash that had been torn in the metal with a fistful of money, firing rounds on his machine gun as a friendly warning. A girl with a bow and arrow stepped forward and shot him in the chest with a bow and arrow. He made it back to the trashed plane, which flew him straight to hospital. When his wound failed to heal, doctors soon realised he had blood poisoning – a type that can only be contracted from human faeces. Yup – the Jivaro soak their arrow tips in poo to prepare for invasion.
Trying to teach the cook’s seven-year-old non-English speaking daughter Valeria (rhymes with Malaria) to swim, and ending up practically having to resuscitate her.
Witnessing Hulber asking female villagers invasive questions such as, “Do you use condom with husband?” and “Why your children so fat?” The answer to the second one was rather interesting, though: a bunch of the village toddlers had ingested parasites in the river, so had massive swollen stomachs. Although it’s common knowledge that river water needs to be boiled, apparently the locals are YOLOers and often just get lazy. Hulber MD reassured us that eating a bit of tree sap will cure them in no time.
Waking each day to the sounds of my Arachnophobic mother screaming at the tarantulas on her ceiling.
Wandering the meat section of the Iquitos markets in town. Favourite bits: chunks of caiman and guinea pigs on skewers, skinned monkeys, filleted tortoises and the wild toucan I paid $3 for.