Diversion Magazine for Physicians at Leisure April 1999.
An Amazon Adventure. In this corner of Peru, the humans have hammocks, and the animals have a choral society. But can you really get pregnant swimming with a pink dolphin? By Jen Karetnick
Shrouded Stinkhorn photo by Darcy Williamson.
You don't have to bee a tree-hugger to want to see the Amazon, the longest river in the world (it's said to beat out the Nile by about 100 miles), before it's too late. Nor do you have to be particularly adventurous. You do fare better is you're not squeamish, though. Life at Yacumamma Lodge, where I recently stayed, is sort of a Gilligan's Island experience -- no phone, no lights, no motorcar. The main building, where meals are served and daily excursions organized, has a generator, and the bathrooms have some solar electricity, but the sleeping cabins are illuminated by kerosene lanterns. Most showers are spartan: You wet down with cold river water, shut the water off, soap up, then turn it back on to rinse.
And you'll certainly fare better if you travel with a good tour operator, as I did. I visited the rain forest with Salmon River Outfitters. Not surprisingly, this company is best know for its rafting trips on Idaho's Salmon River, but it also conducts tours to New Zealand and the Amazon Basin in Peru.
Steven Shephard, owner of Salmon River Outfitters, and Darcy Williamson, trip coordinator, met our group of a dozen or so travelers -- some of whom were veterans to both his other trips -- in Miami. Together, we flew AeroPeru (the flight from Miami is included in the $1,895-per-person price) to Iquitos, a jungle city in northeast Peru that's accessible only by air or river.
Iquitos truly is the last frontier of civilization. The town's cavalcade of motorcycles keeps you up till the sun poke out of the palm fronds, and hot was is an iffy option. Nevertheless, you'd do well to make the most of it and take advantage of the advances (for the rain forest) septic system.
We spent one night in town; the next morning, we heated to Yacumama Lodge, about 110 miles east of Iquitos. To reach Yacumama, we were arranged by weight on a low-riding riverboat -- an ego-busting experience if you have any illusions at all about your size -- and ferried up the Amazon.
About 150 feet deep in the center, with a current of about five knots, the Amazon here is a white-water river, filled with silt that makes it the color of cafe' con leche. This superhighway of the jungle eventually deposits so much water into the ocean that you can find freshwater fish in the Atlantic 60 miles from the river's mouth.
Yacumama Lodge is actually located on the Yarapa, a tributary colored black by decomposing leaves and tree limbs. I was both relieved and impressed by my first view of the lodges, and not only because I had just spend five hours in a motorboat after consuming three cups of coffee. Our trip from Iquitos had provided us with glimpses of poverty-stricken river life -- naked children with potbellies big from parasites, isolated shacks, the occasional dugout transporting small loads of rice or bananas to Iquitos. Up high on the banks, Yacumama Lodge loomed like royalty above the river.
My trip in early November was at the end of the dry season, and the rain forest, which almost never has less than 85% relative humidity anyway, was beginning to live up to its name. After the rains come in, our Yagua Indian guide Gergoiro Esteban Mosquera told us, the river rises high enough to lick at the front door of the lodge. For now, though, we had stairs to climb.
Manager Bonnie Wyatt greeted us in the spacious main building with shots of Seven Roots, a potent liqueur made from sugarcane and a combination of bark and roots. Yacumama may not offer much in the way of technology, but it does have its luxuries. You can take a hot shower for an extra fee. You can have your laundry done, something of a necessity after traipsing through the jungle in long pants and long-sleeved shirts (to protect against mosquitoes).
You can make yourself numb on Seven Roots, Cristal beer, or pisco sours, cocktails that taste like a cross between pina coladas and margaritas, and relax in a room where a multitude of string hammocks descend from a domed ceiling. And you can sit back in dining room chairs made from vines and stuff yourself on the abundant fare, served on lacquered mahogany tables.
But as I've hinted, this is not a Four Seasons resort; how could it be, in an environment in which flushing a toilet is a privilege? In addition to accommodating human guests, the lodge also hosts a few bugs and other creatures that are best not examined too closely by the casual traveler -- or squashed by a rubber boot. As Wyatt told us, "They were here first. In the rain forest, you're the intruder. If you see something in your cabin you just can't love with, call us. We'll remove it for you."
Fortunately, I didn't encounter anything more startling than a flying cockroach, and even that particular insect seemed more interesting than the ones at home; I thought at first it might be an exotic moth. Still, I made sure to tuck my mosquito netting at tight as a tube top around my mattress at night, and like all jungle-wise dwellers, I shook my shoes out each morning before inserting my feet.
Norman Walter, part owner of Yacumama Lodge and proud possessor of ecological mind and sound body, has lived on a houseboat in Staten Island, run organic farms in Hawaii, and played in a rock band in San francisco. He began building Yacumama in 1992, and the lodge opened for business in '94.
Rather than chop down the jungle so he could do construction, Walters chose to conserve it, a longer (but to his mind necessary) process. He designed the main lodge and the bungalows Peruvian-style, with thatched roofs, wood floors, screened walls, and wakapu poles holding things in place, and built walk-ways a few feet above the jungle floor. His original 8 bungalows have now expanded to 31, stretching along the river for 1,000 feet and offering accommodations for 66 guest. Not surprisingly, many botanists, herbalists, herpetologists and photographers use Yacumama as a base camp.
Walters has taught his cooks to prepare Peruvian specialties for the American palate, meaning that vegetables are washed with purified water and meats such as capybara (a giant rodent) are kept off the menu. Instead a fish dish is served every day at lunch with rice, beans, yucca, and salad.
Dinners features chicken and vegetarian recipes, one night we even had falafel, with peanut sauce substituting tahini. And tropical fruits and fruit juices, including cocona, a relative of the tomato family, are available at most meals.
Another option is to catch your meal yourself. On river excursions Mosquera often stopped our canoe so we could troll for piranhas, handing out fishing poles -- actually skinny twigs that in another world would be used for toasting marshmallows. Piranhas are carnivores, in case you haven't heard, so we baited our hooks with chunks of sardines.
The trick is in the wrist: When you feel a bite, you flick your line and pull the fish out of the water. It took me a while to catch on, but I eventually caught 3 of the 18 pink-and-white piranhas the cooks fried up for us one evening for dinner. Squirted with lime, the toothy little monsters were surprisingly meaty, reminding me of trout.
You couldn't possibly get me to take the fish off the hooks myself, however. I like my fingers.
No could anyone persuade me to swim in the Amazon. Piranhas won't necessarily attack humans unless they're really hungry or a swimmer is bleeding, but there is the possibility of parasites in the river. Nevertheless, several members of my party jumped into the Amazon when we went searching for the sacrosanct bufeos, or pink river dolphins, which play around the boats when the water is a little higher. (We glimpsed a few, but always from a distance.)
As if piranhas and parasites weren't scary enough, the locals believe that bufeos are sacred creatures that can impregnate women. And I did not think it a good idea to return home gestating an aquatic mammal.
Just the same, I was contemplating cooling off one afternoon when a guy in our group pulled himself back into the boat, shaking. He's just been grazed, not by a piranha, Mosquera assured him, but by something else with a lot of pointy teeth. So that was the end of free swim.
I did participate in one activity that I'm thrilled to have dome and will probably never do again: A ride on the Canopy Skyline, a rope strung high above the ground. The idea is for guests to hook on to this line by way of harnesses and sail from point ! to point B.
To rig it, Walters first has to construct a tower around a huge ficus tree. The tower, a tree house of the most sophisticated sort, comprises vertical ladders leading up to platforms, nine levels in all, and ascends all the way to the top of the tree -- about 115 feet.
Professional riggers actually did the building, but not before Walters had shimmied up the tree freehand and, with Shephard's help, had used a block-and-tackle system to haul up lumber for the platforms. There guys are some Boy Scouts.
Today the Canopy Skyline skims from the tower over the canopy of the rain forest and lands you on a ledge built into another tree. On our high-flying adventure, Walters hooked enough harnesses on the line so that only those of us afraid of heights (like me) were still doubtful. It was hard for me to let go of the platform and trust myself to the rigging; when I did, though, I found the adrenaline rush to be almost as good as a shot of Seven Roots.
But the primary attraction in the jungle is, well, the jungle. The key word here is symbiosis. Anacondas burrow into the riverbanks and create ponds where spiny, six-foot Victoria lily pads can float like lazy Susans; frogs dig tunnels for ants, who in turn create astonishingly complex anthills.
The plant world of the jungle can be a vicious one. Some palms protect themselves by growing spikes. Others are crawling with bullet ants capable of incapacitating a human being for 24 hours. Obviously, it's never a good idea to lean on an unfamiliar tree in the rain forest.
It's hard to spot large wild animals among the river because the locals hunt; only in the interior of the rain forest can you glimpse jaguars and boars and anacondas (oh my). And, as Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy writes in the foreword to Tropical Nature, "most animals are occupied in not attracting attention."
So how you enjoy the rain forest depends on whether you have what Williamson calls hunters' or harvesters' vision. Hunters' eyes constantly scan the trees for toucans, three-toed sloths, and squirrel monkeys, which travel in chattering packs of up to 80. Hunters' eyes are useful on pink dolphin trips and on night excursions to search for caimans, whose eyes glow red in a dark so complete, you feel like a bat (and yes, there are plenty of those, too).
Harvesters' eyes, like Williamson's (she's an herbalist, mushroom specialist and the author of 24 books) spot the multitudes of fungi that grow on the leaf-strewn floor of the jungle. And harvesters are the ones to follow if you want to see rare plants, such as the shrouded stinkhorn. This mushroom blooms and dies overnight, like a bad marriage. Williamson admits that she doesn't really find the stinkhorn with her vision; she locates this evil bride with her nose.
Since some of us urban consumers are neither hunters nor harvesters (unless you count tracking down your keys in the morning), Mosquera, whose grandfather was a shaman, came in handy.
On our first jungle hike, he plucked a pod from a bush, crushed its seeds, and smeared the orange substance on our faces. Called achiote (annatto), this sunset-hued dye is said to repel insects. It really doesn't, as far as we could tell, but it did stain our clothes quite vividly.
I should also note that people with sensitive skin should, of course, avoid trying unfamiliar substances. I rubbed fresh lemongrass, also a purported insect repellent, on my arms, and got a rash rosier than the pink piranha for my trouble.
Contact with the locals wasn't limited to the 30 Peruvian members of the staff. On one boat trip we stopped for lunch at a plantation where yucca, breadfruit, rice and bananas were grown. Another time we attended market day at the nearby village of Puerto Miguel.
By bringing tourists to the market, Walters has fostered the villagers' artesian skills, which they had almost lost when their crafts were not in demand. Now the women weave beautiful baskets and bags, the men carve gourds and make masks, and the children string bracelets with beads, seeds, and palm fruit, known as natural ivory. I even found a folk painter or two.
The locals like to trade things for factory-made clothing, but they value American dollars (bring clean, unmarked bills) more. At the end of the trading session, some of them will even give away items in appreciation of your business. One woman came up to me and shoved a painted gourd into my hands. "Regalo", she said. Gift. The he introduced herself and kissed my cheek, the last thing I expected as a stranger in the strange, swampy land. And I don't even speak Spanish.
The return to Iquitos and then Miami was more difficult than I had imagined. Although there's no real time change, my body had adjusted quickly to "jungle time" -- going to bed when the sun went down, rising when the tiger heron squawked at 5 A.M. My early bedtime shouldn't imply that I had gotten a lot of sleep, however. The jungle is such a loud, musical place, I found myself lying awake at night, wanting to conduct it: Take the frogs croaking as a beat, the monkey chatter as counterpoint, the birds as sopranos with the tune. Then a caiman roar for a finale, the a cymbal crash.
But aside from being dependably noisy, the rain forest is not very predictable. Probably the only thing we can predict is that this region will continue to be exploited. The folks at Yacumama Lodge are trying to reverse these trends by educating both their guests and the locals. The lodge also donates some it its profits to conservation efforts. Which means that just by singing on for a weeklong trip to the Peruvian Amazon and Yacumama Lodge, you're playing a role in the preservation of the rain forest.
Who ever said saving the earth was all work and no play? Greenpeace should be this much fun.