Story and Photos by Carol Canter.
An all-women’s hike through the Amazon rainforest with two barefoot professors.
“Para bailar la bamba, Para bailar la bamba, Se necessita una poca de gracia …”
How perfect it was: dancing to an old favorite song played by new friends. Moises on guitar, Segundo on spoons, Juan on the metal flashlight, and Jorge on Bar, concocting superb pisco sours deep in the Amazon rainforest. The homegrown band, our jungle guides by day, had come together this night to provide the entertainment for a serendipitous celebration – the birthdays of two of fifteen women brought together for a two-week experience of the Peruvian Amazon.
The party, halfway into our trip, was a surprise for us all. The cake was a beauty, even if the pan was the tin from which the capybara, the largest (and cutest) member of the rodent family and temporary camp pet, was served. The birthday gifts were presented by Juan Antolin, our multilingual Indian guide/storyteller/teacher/artist, who had split open a calabasa gourd, cleaned and polished each half until smooth, then painstakingly carved an appropriate design for each birthday celebrant: for Laura, 32, a bird we had seen that morning, the hoatzin, which is linked to the prehistoric Archaeopteryx; for Jayne, 33, a pink freshwater dolphin, with which she had swum the day before. Their names, the date, and Juan’s signature also were engraved, making it a souvenir of a birthday they’d never forget.
A diverse group we were—women aged 27 to 67, from both East and West Coasts. We were a college professor, auto mechanic, social worker, chef, librarian, secretary, rancher, writer, and several artists. Six were grandmothers, active and enthusiastic, who set an inspiring example of “aging” for the rest of us. Several were avid birders, others had never hiked nor camped before!
Yet hike we all did, through the rainforest behind Carlos, Juan, or Moises, our “barefoot professors.” From them, we began to learn not only to recognize countless medicinal and food plants, bird and animal sounds, but to move quietly, carefully, and efficiently with our senses open and hands touching nothing. On our first morning hike, Juan showed us a tree hosting millions of tangarana ants, whose bites are so painful they have been used by the natives to torture unfaithful spouses. We also saw trees with sharp, black sea urchin-like spines.
Even after those two lessons deeply imprinted on our consciousness, it was difficult to break the habit of using hands for balance as we walked trails that were sometimes narrow and muddy.
Yet, the hiking was neither ominous nor difficult. We’d break into small groups according to how far we wanted to go: an hour or two, perhaps half a day. The pace was slow, the better to delight in a fleeting encounter with a neon blue Morpho butterfly alighting on a trailside leaf, or a bright red flowering bromeliad emerging from the forest of multitudinous greens. As we honed our microscopic vision, we tuned into the tiny world of the industrious leaf-cutting ants. Marching in columns with their flags of cut leaves, they cleared a path to the nest they were building, a mile away and as large as a garage!
This was the rainforest we’d all read so much about, fast disappearing in Brazil, more slowly, if inexorably, here in Peru. To experience its wondrous fecundity with all our senses was the reason most of us had flown from Miami to Iquitos, stayed overnight at a city hotel in that once-booming rubber capital, then made the dreamlike ten-hour journey upriver to a rustic lodge we’d call home for the next twelve days.
Our arrival at camp was illuminated by a full moon. It shone on the log pathways that had led us up from the river, beneath African tulip, mango, and guava trees, past the round screened-in dining and neighboring hammock rooms, to our Tambos. Each of these native-style thatched roofed cabins, built on stilts to accommodate the rise and fall of the river, would house four of us in two semi-enclosed rooms. Beds were single mattresses on top of wooden platforms enclosed in mosquito netting.
Dinner awaited us as it would every night with a slight variation: moist tender white fish straight from our Yarapa tributary or stewed chicken with rice or boiled potatoes, fried yucca—a staple of the region from the manioc plant, fried bananas, and the freshest salads of sliced cucumbers, beets, and carrots dressed in lime juice. Twice, after successful fishing trips, we ate the piranha we caught—small, fried, and defenseless; tastier was the dorado, and most succulent of all, the arapaima, known in the region as paiche, the Amazon’s largest fish, weighing up to 400 pounds.
Lit at night by gas lanterns, the dining room served as our social center: from morning Nescafe to evenings over tall bottles of Cristal beer, talking, playing cards, poring over the small but vital library of books on the natural history and wildlife of the region. On many nights a softly strummed guitar accompanied passionate, haunting Latin American folk music played by Alberto Flores, from Leticia, on the Colombian border, or Marie Yvonne, born into a tribe of Paraguayan Indians 58 years ago and adopted as a baby by a French professor. Some of us would stay up late, singing along with the songs we knew; then we’d fill our canteens from the large bottle of purified water and head to bed.
We began to know the lowland jungle that surrounded us in a variety of ways. When we explored its interior on foot, walking beneath the tree canopy which deeply shaded and pleasantly cooled our steamy path, I felt like a tiny Alice in a Wonderland of towering trees, muscular roots, and nests the size of soccer balls. The liana vines that link the forest into a virtual maze were strong and sturdy enough for us all to swing out our Tarzan fantasies. And when we were quiet and lucky enough, from time to time, we watched the real jungle gymnastics of spiders or howler monkeys.
We also learned survival skills: how to drink from the water vine that traps fresh rainwater in its spongy cells; how to build a Tambo or a backpack with palm leaves; and how to recognize some of the jungle fruit, such as the aquaje palm which the natives use as a “female hormone.” The taste of white liquid oozing out of a small machete-cut Carlos etched in a tree was immediately identifiable as milk of magnesia.
More often the forest was a passing green wall lining the banks of our river highway, the Yarapa. This tributary branches from the mighty Amazon close to where it is formed from the merging headwaters of the Ucayali and Marañon Rivers. Daily we would pile into two simple outboard-powered wooden boats—about twelve of us per boat—for outings, which I grew to love all the more as my bottom got accustomed to the hard wooden thwarts.
Each excursion—to a neighboring village or to a lake to swim with the pink dolphins or to the trailhead of a hike to an early morning convocation of hundreds of brilliant blue-and-gold macaws—was another step in piercing the mystery of the green wall. For we began to recognize the bare limbs of the kapok tree silhouetted against the sky and to search the upper branches of the cercropia trees for the three-toed sloth with its mystical Mona Lisa smile; and to watch for a hanging orapendula nest or a tiger heron perched quietly in the early dawn light. Once, our boatman Segundo spotted a glistening yellow-and-grey fifteen-foot anaconda coiled asleep on the riverbank and brought our boat a few feet away so we could watch it in safety.
Wherever we went, animal and bird watching became the focus, yet while the animals were ever elusive, we were always rewarded with the spectacle of brilliantly plumaged birds. Most common were the long slender yellow-billed herons that fluttered noisily from their riverside perch at the approach of our boat; the ring-and-belted kingfishers diving for fish; and the groups of parrots and parakeets that squawked back and forth across the river.
Carlos was masterful at identifying them all by their calls, habits and habitats, and at guiding our naked or binoculared eyes to the right branch of the right tree. During one optional 5 am birding trip, he began by directing his flashlight at the early birds in the pre-dawn darkness. As the rainforest began to blush with the mauves of dawn and fill with the sounds of a world awakening, he softly called to them. By the time the light blazed golden, we had disembarked and followed him along a trail to intrude upon a sand bittern bathing in a marsh and three silver-beaked tanagers shaking themselves dry. That morning we identified 45 different species before returning ravenous to camp for breakfast. After eating, we excitedly located each of these in an oversized copy of Birds of Venezuela in the camp library.
Since it was late July, well into the dry season, the rivers were getting lower each day, so plotting a route was never certain. There were times we were slowed down on small channels choked with lovely purple water hyacinths, amongst which jumped small striped yellow-and-black angelfish. At such times, Segundo would quickly cut off the engine, pick up his machete, and help Juan or Moises hack a pathway as skillfully as they did inside the rainforest. Early one morning, en route to see the macaws, we hit a “traffic jam” on the tributary. Vegetation-choked and obscured by low-lying branches, the narrow waterway could only handle one boat at a time, which caused a lineup of five small dugout canoes, their fisherman silent and patient.
Carlos’ 70-year-old mother accompanied us on many outings, buying their catch from passing fishermen and selling or trading her herbal medicines to the river dwellers (ribereños) scattered in small villages along the way.
Lithe and strong, the Señora would disembark and scamper up the steep, often muddy riverbank, to return with a basketful of food and bottles of mysterious potions. According to Carlos, she is one of the most sought-after healers in Iquitos, drawing wealthy clients from as far away as Lima. One night she let us apply a thick yellow liquid from one of her bottles to soothe our mosquito bites. She treated a number of us for ailments ranging from fever to indigestion and showed us a plant resin used to purify the blood, the leaves of which are used for childbirth and nursing.
We may never use the healing or jungle survival skills learned in the Amazon, but life for most of us has changed. To inhabit, even for a moment, a world in which macaws and monkeys and Morphos live wild and free is to affirm the majesty of life, even as we must be haunted by the specter of its destruction.
An artist in our group captured the Amazon’s vitality in a painting she gave me. The painting will always link me back to those July days when life was stripped to the basics, and clarity of thought and sensory awareness were at a peak. Her painting depicts the magic of the nights we motored upriver when we would turn off the engine and drift for an hour, perhaps an eternity. Under a sky ablaze with more stars than we’d ever seen before, illuminating the river with their reflection, we would listen to the jungle symphony of tree frogs, howler monkeys, and the plaintive cry of the ayaymama bird, and contemplate our own place in the universe.
This story originally appeared in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World 1st Edition
An edited version appeared in the 2014 Bay Area Travel Writers and Photographers clips & pics: http://www.batw.org/wp-content/uploads/BATW-CLIPS-PICS-2014.pdf
IF YOU GO:
I traveled with Amazonia Expeditions in 1989, where I learned firsthand the meaning of responsible travel. Company founder and owner Paul Beaver, Ph.D., still runs the company. His wife Dolly Arevalo Shapiama, a native of the Amazon, is the owner of the lodges, Tahuayo Lodge and Amazon Research Center, on the Tahuayo River. Visit their website at https://perujungle.com to study their diverse Amazon travel options, and make sure to read their Mission statement.