Taking a trip into the Amazon was always on the cards when we embarked on this epic adventure more than nine months ago in São Luís, Brazil. Finally it was our chance to see pristine jungle, spot wildlife, fish for piranha and learn about exotic flora.
I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.
We decided to access the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru, as it was recommended by some travellers we met on our Bolivian salt flats tour. We were sold. All we needed to do was get chatting to a few of the operators in Iquitos and get a sense of costs and what kind of accommodation and excursions they offer.
We chose Amazon Adventure Expeditions, and this is what we got up to.
It all began with a hotel pick-up in Iquitos, followed by a 1½ hour drive to the small river town of Nauta. Here we met our guide Juan, and had the opportunity to pick up any last minute bits and pieces from the fascinating outdoor market.
We grabbed a couple of rain ponchos and a dozen cans of beer and, in retrospect, we should have picked up some fruit, other snacks and maybe something else to drink.
Fruit and drinking water is provided at the jungle lodge, but the limited selection of bananas and unripe oranges was wearing a little thin each day.
Once stocked with any essentials, it’s off to the dock and onto a wooden motorboat for 1½ hours zipping along the tributaries of the Amazon. It was all getting very exciting – spotting birdlife, tiny fishing villages and simply feeling the might of the Amazon all around us.
Arriving at Renaco Lodge brought on a mixture of feelings. The excitement of seeing our temporary home in the Amazon – the isolation of being on a meandering Amazon tributary with nothing but jungle around it.
A local man from the lodge was sitting in his dugout canoe shaving as our boat pulled in, a hawk swooped down from a tree and scooped a fish straight from the water and a tree towered overhead, decorated with the pendulous nests from oropendola birds as they sang their fascinating song. Listen to my recording below.
As for the lodge, we were beginning to wonder whether we were brought to the right one. Was this the same place we saw in the photos before we made the booking? Or were those photos taken in the lodges ‘glory days’ when planks on the raised wooden walkways weren’t rotting, the thatched roof above them wasn’t full of gaping holes or the bathroom not so run down?
Still, rustic was what we were told back in Iquitos when we made the booking, and rustic-and-needing-some-maintenance was what we got.
Wooden stairs lead up from the grassy riverfront – or straight from the water if it’s wet season – into the main pavilion which is strung with hammocks and some ineffective shade cloth to keep some of the biting insects at bay. Beyond that is the communal dining area, with a kitchen behind it.
Off to the sides there are raised wooden walkways that lead to a handful of rooms, all of which are covered with patchy thatched roofing that transforms into a glorious series of undercover waterfalls when it rains.
As for the rooms, well, you can see how rustic they are. Little more than a wooden shed with flyscreen windows. They’re not somewhere you really want to spend time in other than sleeping, as it’s like a furnace in there during the day. But why would you? You’re in the beautiful Amazon!
Netting cocoons the beds, for obvious reasons. During the day it’s mainly flies, but at night you have a plethora of critters flying or walking straight out of the jungle and into your room via sizeable gaps in the bathroom. The bathroom has a toilet, basin and shower that dribbles out water. No hot water – not that you need it in this part of the world.
Electricity is switched on between 6pm and 9pm each night. There’s an outlet in the dining room to charge any devices and a single light globe in the bedroom, plus a few dotted about the lodge. Once those lights come on, that’s when you realise how many insects there are in the neighbourhood – and how large they can get. An entomologist would be in heaven, for sure.
Each morning there’s a fresh catch of catfish that’s netted in the river just outside the lodge. Morning was my favourite time of the day. It’s cool, peaceful, and you can simply pour a coffee, plonk yourself down on the wooden walkways and breathe it all in.
Watch or help the guy pluck catfish from the nets or just sit and listen to the birds all around. You can even go for a swim in the river.
The food at the lodge is basic, but very tasty. Each day the meals are different and you can expect omelettes, toast and fruit in the morning, fried river fish with rice and salad, spaghetti with garlic sauce or slow-cooked chicken with rice, salad and plantain for lunch and dinner.
There are no fridges at the lodge, so if you do bring any drinks like the beer we picked up, they can squeeze a couple of cans or bottles into foam cooler boxes that are kept in the kitchen. The ice they contain is brought in, and seeing they only have a couple of cooler boxes, it isn’t exactly a free-for-all with hogging up space with your own drinks. They have to keep food cool in there, as well.
No televisions or wifi at the lodge means you make do with what you’ve got. Yes there are the daily excursions, but aside from that, it’s just you, the lodge, maybe a book, the jungle and the natural soundtrack that comes along with it. The sounds that come out of it are magnificent.
Anyone that’s curious about what’s growing around the lodge can learn that the lawn around it has many culantro plants (above left pic) growing in it. I noticed the cook pick several leaves before heading back to the kitchen, so I went out to investigate and discovered what she was foraging for.
Even the small malba tree (above right pic) next to the stairs has its uses. It’s known locally as the headache tree, where it’s crushed leaves are mixed with water and put onto the scalp to soothe or cure any pain.
The morning and afternoon outings are the highlights of each day and generally involve getting into a boat and heading somewhere up or downriver, paddling through pistia and giant lily-covered lagoons and serene semi-submerged jungle.
There’s also the chance to jump off the boat in a specific area to cool off as pink dolphins swim nearby. I was hesitant at first, but the heat and humidity got the better of me. Jumping into the cool and murky water was so refreshing, and seeing those pink dolphins made it all the more magical.
Our guide Juan asked what we were interested in seeing and doing whilst in the Amazon, and one of mine was to see sloths. You can spot them in the trees, but you need good eyes and plenty of luck to encounter this elusive animal. Juan has the eyes of a hawk and spotted them from great distances.
Or you can get up close and personal with Pablo, an 11 year old orphaned sloth that lives with his adopted family upriver from the lodge. He has the freedom to go wherever he wants – into the jungle, up nearby trees – but he always comes home to stay in the roof of his human family’s house. And you get to hold him and quietly wish he was yours. The most beautiful face, soft and clean fur and tight embrace.
Another activity includes an afternoon expedition through the partially submerged jungle to a lagoon that’s home to caimans. As a storm cell was flashing and brewing on the horizon, we sat in the boat and waited for darkness.
This is the time of day that you can spot the caiman’s reflecting eyes, and it’s as simple as reaching into the dark water and swiftly plucking it out. Well, our guide made it look easy. All we did was sit at watch it happen.
With the enormous storm fast approaching, the decision was made to head back to the lodge. Within minutes the sky dumped its load on top of us as we tried to navigate through the submerged jungle in virtual darkness and torrential downpour. Cracks of lightning overhead and even a lightning strike just metres away. Talk about exhilarating! I think we all shat our pants a little, as well.
Guided night walks in the jungle near lodge offer a glimpse of what kind of animals emerge when darkness falls. Slathered with plenty of insect repellant and armed with a torch and gum boots, you head into jungle where there are prowling tarantulas and many other spiders, enormous frogs that stand 20 cm tall, countless buzzing insects and even cicadas molting from their shell. It gets pretty noisy out in the jungle at night, too.
Aside from seeing sloths, my other ‘must do’ activity was piranha fishing. We travelled over an hour downstream through blistering sun and then sheets of rain, deep into the submerged jungle to bait up our simple wooden rods and wait for a bite.
A handful of nibbles from other fish, but those piranhas were proving to be more elusive than the sloths. Sadly we came up empty-handed as the water level was too high, which results in the piranha being scattered across a vast area, rather than in smaller and more localised places.
One of my favourite outings was the few hours we spent walking through the jungle, learning about the wealth of edible and medicinal plants the Amazon is filled with.
“All you need is a machete, and you will never go hungry in the jungle” says Juan.
Such true words, but it does help if you know what is edible and which plant, insect or animal is poisonous.
“See this plant and this leaf with the pattern on it?” says Juan.
“As we walk, do not touch it or brush against it. The plant is not poisonous, but the ants that live beneath its leaves have a nasty bite and can paralyse and potentially kill you.”
All around are plants and fruits you can eat. You just need to know where to look. Our guide began hacking at a spiky and woody ‘nut’ hanging from a palm tree, revealing gelatinous cells that we thumbed out to sample.
This is the yarina palm, where the female plant produces up to 20 of the nuts, called tagua. The young fruit contains something akin to coconut water, but as it ages, the water turns into a gel, which we tried. It’s just like young coconut flesh. As it matures further, the gel solidifies into an ivory-like substance, which you can see in the above right pic.
“This hard white part is used to make buttons” says Juan.
Clelia flower – Water vine – Ginger leaf.
The more we walked, the more we sampled and the more we learned. From jungle fruits like the juicy and sour cocona, the equally juicy ubos that tastes like passionfruit and pineapple combined, and the custard apple-like macambo that looks like a cacao pod.
“See this little tree here?”
“Pick a leaf, crush it in your hand and tell me what it smells like”
The unmistakable smell of ginger, and it isn’t even ginger as we know it. The leaves are used to wrap things like fish, when cooking. You don’t eat it, you just use it for its flavour. Meanwhile, I’m quietly formulating recipes in my head.
The jungle was dotted with beautiful pink flowers called clelia. Nothing edible about them, just spots of colour in a jungle filled with many shades of green.
It’s thirsty work, traipsing through the steamy Amazon jungle, so we stopped as our guide hacked away at a twisted vine – handing each of us a length of it.
“Now lift it like this and open your mouth” says Juan.
Within seconds a stream of cool and slightly sweet water dribbles from the vine. Talk about refreshing.
The mosquitoes are pretty ferocious all through the jungle and somehow have the ability to bite through several layers of clothing and even get past your applied repellant. And then Juan showed us his little Amazonian trick.
“See this termite nest?” he asks.
With his machete, Juan breaks off the top of the nest and lets the termites emerge in large numbers. He then rests his hand onto the nest and lets hundreds of termites cover it. And no, they don’t bite.
“Now watch this” says Juan.
He rubs his hands together and crushes the termites into a gritty paste. Then rubs it over any exposed skin.
“This is natural insect repellant that we use in the jungle”
We merely scratched the surface as we walked through the jungle, filling our minds with fascinating information. I simply didn’t want it to end, but sadly it did.
Of the three tour operators we spoke to prior to making a decision, Amazon Adventure Expeditions was the most genuine, not at all pushy like one of them or unenthused like the other. Plus it was the right price for our budget. In retrospect, we should have gone for more quotes as there are many properties you can stay at out there with varying levels of rusticity up to luxurious comfort.
For our 4 day 3 night jaunt into the Amazon it cost $1600 for the two of us. This includes all land and water transport, accommodation, daily outings, a guide, 3 meals a day and drinking water. The only extras are if you want to bring snacks, drinks other than water and a tip for the guide.