As the plane descended through the clouds, we peered out the window to see a vast expanse of dense tropical jungle as far as the eye could see, with a brown ribbon of water snaking through it. On the tarmac the air was thick with humidity, the promise of rain and a temporary relief from the heat and mosquitos ... there was no doubt, we'd arrived in the Amazon!
Iquitos is the gateway to the northern tract of the Peruvian Amazon – an island jungle metropolis only reachable by air or a 4-day boat ride. Its heyday was in the late 1800’s with the rubber boom, when the European barons flaunted their newfound wealth with mansions covered in imported Portuguese tiles while using the local natives as slaves.
These days it is a major hub for tourism, with many coming to Iquitos to experience the Amazon’s incredible biodiversity and wealth of flora and fauna. But to best appreciate the Amazon and all it has to offer, you really need to delve a lot deeper into the jungle - beyond civilisation and your comfort zone.
After some research we decided to stay at Muyuna Lodge, located 140 km upstream of Iquitos, along a tributary of the Amazon River on the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. We booked the Freshwater package which offered a broad range of activities over the course of 4 days/3 nights.
Muyuna consists of a central lodge where all communal meals are served and which acts as a meeting point for activities. It has various lounge areas and is furnished with maps, books and board games for entertainment.
Radiating off the lodge along raised boardwalks are the individual guest bungalows, simple yet comfortable, furnished with a queen bed, good sized bathroom with a large walk in shower and a balcony with hammocks overlooking the river.
There are two main seasons in the Amazon, low water (June – November) and high water (December – May) when melted snow from the Andes makes its way to the basin, where it empties at the average rate of 209 megalitres (209,000,000 litres) per second!
We visited at the end of low season when the water was just starting to rise, but in high season all the bungalows are over water and excursions are done by canoe, as the jungle is largely submerged. High water season is also when the jungle is filled with flowers and fruits and it is the best time to view large quantities of wildlife feasting on the abundance. However this is also the hottest and most humid time to visit, which can be uncomfortable even if you're accustomed to it.
Upon arrival at the lodge we were introduced to our guide Orlando, who was raised in a nearby village and had an in-depth understanding of the jungle and impressive spotting, tracking and machete skills. He had previously worked alongside biologists at an exclusive eco-lodge and had a comprehensive knowledge of the local flora and fauna.
Orlando had a kind warm manner, a great sense of humour and also spoke very good English. Since we were the only English speaking guests arriving this day we were lucky enough to have his expertise all to ourselves for the duration of our stay.
After we'd settled into our room and had lunch we left on a walk with Orlando through the jungle. We'd hardly left sight of the lodge before we had spotted two different types of monkey - a tiny Pygmy Marmoset monkey and a larger Howler monkey - testament to Orlando's superb spotting skills. He also pointed out several species of birds, insects and plants along the way.
That evening after dinner we went night spotting for caiman. Two long boats silently cruised down the river with the guide in the lead boat scanning the banks using a powerful spotlight. Suddenly he motioned to stop, hopped out of the boat and crept towards the river bank steadily shining the spotlight. Next thing he deftly reached into the water and came up holding a small caiman. We were very impressed with his spotting and caiman catching skills! Unfortunately the bigger caiman were too elusive for us that evening.
Fish for breakfast
The next morning we awoke early with the birds, climbed into a boat and slipped silently upstream through the mist. Today we were going to catch our own breakfast with a spot of fishing - Amazon style! Our simple rods consisted of a couple of long bamboo sticks with fishing line and a hook tied to one end.
When we pulled up, Orlando and our boat driver were catching fish within minutes, but neither of us were having as much luck. The fish were definitely biting - one even leapt out of the river almost landing in the bucket – so it was clear that only our fishing skills were lacking!
Thankfully we both managed to snag a few by the end, including a piranha (with razor sharp teeth!), saving ourselves the embarrassment of going back empty handed and having to tell stories about ‘the one that got away’.
After we’d put our rods away and were about to take off to a camp spot to cook our breakfast, Orlando spotted a sizeable catfish lurking in the shallows. He quickly grabbed his spear, hovered over the area where he’d seen it and with one swift motion he released the spear and nailed the catfish. Another time we saw him swat a fish with his canoe paddle! Check out the movie footage of Orlando’s impressive spearfishing ability.
After breakfast we continued our tour of the river, spotting countless species of birds, fish, caiman, turtles and frogs.
That evening we went on a night walk with Orlando through the jungle in the hope of spotting tarantulas. I’m not sure if ‘hope’ is the right word to use though, because I’m actually terrified of spiders and having a tarantula crawl up my leg would be my worst nightmare.
So we cautiously followed along behind Orlando with torch in hand hoping (or maybe not!) to find these frightening creatures of the night.
The first thing we spotted was a scorpion, followed by a colony of leaf cutter ants winding their way up a tree trunk, chunks of leaf in hand. Needless to say Orlando knew exactly where to look for tarantulas, as they like to hide in the crevices of a particular species of tree. So sure enough before we knew it, he’d spotted one tucked into a tree – even from side on, you could appreciate just how big it was.
Further along he spotted another one, this time it was exposed in full view on a tree trunk. We both froze in our tracks, mouths agape in horror … it was huge - about the size of your face with big black hairy legs! It quickly scurried back into a crack in the tree, which was somewhat of a relief because it absolutely made our skin crawl, but it was great to see one all the same.
Deep in the jungle
The next day we were up and off early with the birds again, accompanying Orlando on a 4hr hike deep into the jungle. As we followed Orlando through the jungle, he ducked and weaved along faint tracks clearing obstacles and dense undergrowth with his machete. He knew this part of the Amazon like the back of his hand - it was his playground as a boy and he told us stories of traversing the jungle with his friends to play football with the next village and their fear of a mythical giant black caiman lurking in the murky waters.
The deeper we ventured into the jungle, the thicker and swampier it became and the more Orlando’s expert machete skills came to the fore. At one point we needed to cross a stream via a strategically fallen tree but one of the supporting stilts had fallen away. He quickly chopped a tree branch down to size and slotted it into position – no need for handrails here!
In another section of the trail we needed to traverse a large stagnant pond of sticky mud, as deep as your chest with mosquitos buzzing all around. Orlando skillfully fashioned us each a walking stick for balance as we stepped along a path of floating logs. We took these crossings very cautiously as one false move would mean a disastrous dive into the mud and possible meeting with the swamp monster!
It turns out that Orlando was somewhat of a professional monkey tracker and could pick up on even the faintest rustling sounds in the tree tops and mimic their calls. As a result we got to see numerous species of monkey ...
We even managed to spot the extremely rare Amazonian Juz monkey (click to play movie).
On our jungle walk we got to ask Orlando a lot about life in the Amazon. The people of the Amazon live in simple raised wooden huts with a thatched palm roof, often with no doors or windows and only a mesh screened sleeping room. There is no electricity, telephone or Internet, and they live on a basic diet of fresh fish and the staple crops that the village grows.
When we asked Orlando if it was a hard life, he sincerely told us it wasn't - the crops grew quickly to provide enough food, land was given to villagers to farm and housing was affordable, so all they really needed money for was to buy clothes and school supplies.
It got us thinking about our lives in contrast to theirs and who were in reality, the fortunate ones. We rush around in our hectic consumer driven cities, working 36.25+ hours a week to pay off grand mortgages, go on expensive holidays and buy gadgets to 'connect' us to our family and friends – ironically, all in the hope of saving enough money to live comfortably until we can retire and live the easy life!
These people have nothing of value, but at the same time everything. Society doesn't measure their worth by the house they live in, the car they drive, clothes they wear or the number of 'likes' they get on a blog post. It's real and when it comes down to it, it’s all you really need for a happy life.
So while the simple life sounds ideal and we've already put our suburban dream into storage, we’re not sure that we're ready to cash it all in for a plot in the Amazon to catch fish and weave baskets just yet.
While we were out hiking, the staff discovered a nest of hatching turtles in the garden and were preparing to transfer them to a safer place upstream. It was a joy to watch the tiny turtles in a bucket as they found their flippers and attempted to scramble up the sides to escape. It made me consider becoming a professional turtle turner for a living.
An unforgettable afternoon
After lunch we jumped back into our boat and headed toward the main section of the Amazon River. Along the way we saw a huge flock of birds resting in the shallows and as we approached they all took flight, giving us a spectacular show (movie below).
We also made a short stop at a lake where we saw giant lily pads, although sadly the flowers were not yet fully open.
As we travelled further upstream the river became much wider and the banks were lined with gum trees and beaches of river sand. Before long Orlando spotted what we had come to see, a pod of pink dolphins playing in the river!
It was mesmerising to watch them, although we only got glimpses of their pale pink bodies as they breached at random places in the water. I was lucky enough to snap two breaching in unison together.
We took this opportunity to also take a swim in the Amazon, but despite our best 'Flipper' impersonations inviting the dolphins to come swim with us, the pod kept us at a safe distance.
On our way back, Orlando noticed some locals working in the fields alongside their village, so we made an impromptu stop to say hello. They were harvesting fava beans and rice for the village and the locals showed us how they remove the husk by hand before storage.
But it was the children that captured our attention the most as they happily amused themselves with just a bucket and string, proving that sometimes it's the simple things in life that are often the best.
As daylight dwindled, Orlando ferried us to the perfect place where we could watch the sun set over the mighty Amazon. Local children swimming in the river quickly lost interest in their games when we arrived, as they ran over to meet us and were fascinated by their own image on our cameras.
It was a sunset we will never forget and the perfect way to end our incredible Amazon experience.
Orlando has always had the dream of starting his own lodge, using his expert skills to provide travelers with an intimate and authentic Amazon experience. His hard work and dedication has finally paid off, with Red Uakari Jungle Lodge opening its doors last year.
We can highly recommend Orlando as a great guide, his love of the jungle is evident in everything he does, as is his passion for wildlife and the preservation of their habitat. We wish him all the best as he pursues his dream.