It was 10am when we boarded S.V Leonides , joining a sea of swaying hammocks strung side by side like a scene from ‘Papillon’, our presence further clogging the heart of a boat that rusted by the second. Below us a manic scene unfolded. Angry bulls, their horns tied with rope, were run on board into a pen brimming with cows anxious to make space. Chickens remained calm in their boxes, resigned to their own fate, whilst a line of men moved back and forth like ants, loading everything from sacks of rice to whole trees on deck. The undeniable energy of the moment made the prospect of sleeping above all of this for twenty four hours seem tolerable but this was mad, even Noah would have gasped at the sight, and just to top it off a horse trotted on to join the party.
Twenty hours into our journey and we still had not moved due to a delay in yet more cargo. But, as the oppressive Amazonian heat began to subside with the breeze created by the ships slow putter downriver, the collective nature of our situation; man, animal and cargo, was affirming. Men gambled with their Soles
over a game of dominoes, whilst women invested in their children. The last desperate cluck of chickens rang through the bowels of the boat as the chef prepared dinner next door to the toilets that slopped with an Amazonian antiquity. Amidst the calm chaos, two backpackers looked on in awe as the bursting cargo boat drifted past thick, continuous Amazon rainforest. This was travel!
Once our boat had reached the middle of nowhere it was time for us to get off. We deserved to be here in the small town of Lagunas, hemmed in by jungle and inaccessible by road. Two days sleeping in a sweaty hammock sharing a boat with more animals than people was how nature had meant it to be. The journey was not only an Amazonian rite of passage but the right passage for entering and continuing our trip into the depths of the jungle and its myriad of rivers.
So with an eight foot wooden canoe packed to the rafters in the same style as our cargo boat the previous day, minus the chickens and the dominoes, we paddled off down the murky waters of Reserva National Pacaya Samiria for what would be
another unforgettable journey.
The 2.8million hectare Reserva Pacaya Samiria is Peru’s largest national park and yet not much is known about this inspiring place. In the shadow of the tourist haven of Machu Picchu and the other more publicised Amazonian enclaves, Pacaya Samiria is overlooked yet possesses a thriving habitat rich with an astonishing array of animal and birdlife which, most impressively, is understood and supported by its inhabitants. We booked our seven day trip with the forward thinking company ESTYPEL whose owner, Manuel, has worked for twenty five years, pioneering sustainable and affordable tourism in the area. Our guides were Javier and Jose, two likeable lads with whom we spent the first few days just trying to understand. The fast, lilting Cocameeha dialect here takes some getting used to but we slowly began to gain from their vast knowledge of the area.
As our paddle gently slapped the flowing river, sliding us quietly past the singing jungle, a comfortable silence fell between us which was universally understood. The rainforest beamed with the resonant sound of the Panguana bird as our eyes followed Javier’s finger to a Sloth that sat atop a towering tree. It had taken this
lazy creature all day to reach his sleeping destination upon where he was mocked by a Toucan that flew by with effortless ease. High above us a green snake wrapped itself around a branch as our canoe swivelled for a better look. Mouths agape we were persuaded that it was not dangerous, like nothing in the Amazon was. As we nonchalantly moved on, butterflies coloured our path that occasionally became hampered by a fallen tree. A knock above us made sure we were still alert. A woodpecker engrossed in his work captured our attention, before a rustle and snap of a branch exposed the inquisitive eyes of some squirrel monkeys, letting us know we were not the only ones on the lookout.
Despite the hard wooden seat of our canoe the comforting simplicity of the moment was beautiful. Floating calmly along searching for life with our guides eagle eyes, the tranquillity was reflected in the river that mirrored the scene. Water boatmen glided up and down the surface whilst Kingfishers swooped low overhead, trying to catch fish that jumped to avoid their predators. Gangly spiders spun their webs as wide as possible before waiting for insects to fall fowl
to their mastery. Sitting on a warm rock watching all this unfold, a creep of tortoises who plopped into the dark water in a blink of an eye when our canoe got too close. A perfect ecosystem right before our eyes.
The days flowed by as easily as the river beneath us, the combination of oar and current carrying us deeper into the jungle and increasing our chances of spotting more elusive creatures. Battling the claustrophobic midday heat we found an Anaconda cooling in some low lying bush by the river. Its long muscular body, coupled with our guides excited but cautious eyes, attested to its reputation as one of the kings of the jungle. Our proximity to this deathly serpent was intensified as Javier morosely described its killing techniques that range from constriction to creating a whirlpool in the water to suck down their prey. So as the slithery beast whipped into the water we hastily moved on. Weaving through some tiny side streams we came to a deep water lagoon, our minds still drifting towards the awesome Anaconda. As if our day could get any better, out of the murky abyss came a family of inquisitive Pink
Dolphins who splashed around our humble canoe, their rosy bodies defying gravity as easily as they did our camera. It was a magical experience.
With the days light fading beneath the trees and our canoe firmly anchored in the mud, dinner was prepared using a wood fire. Javier declared that after eight years being a guide in the Amazon rainforest it was not the threat of Crocodiles or Anacondas that worried him, more how to creatively cook for seven days using only fish, rice and eggs. He did it with aplomb. As we sat and talked through the flicker of candlelight, our Español improving with each nod of the head, it became yet more apparent how much he and the surrounding community love their environment. We slept at simple wooden outposts built as living quarters for those enlisted by a committee to protect the Reserva. Working on a ten day rotational basis their efforts have ensured that the park has been free of logging and illegal hunting since the 1970’s. The emphasis is on sustainability with only those who live in the surrounding villages allowed to fish within the Reserva; canoes use only paddle power and there is no
rubbish littering the banks of the river. An example to other jungle habitats like it.
As the inhabitants of outpost PV7 murmured with snoring sleep, Javier and Jose floated us off into a jungle rattling with the sounds of insomnia. An eerie silence rose up from the river that glistened with the light of the moon. Our torchlight scoured the surface until it fell upon a pair of piercing eyes. As we edged closer the solitude was broken by a huge splash and the monster was gone. Undeterred we found another pair of glinting eyes hiding under some bushes and with a precision that Steve Irwin would have been proud of Jose plucked the two metre Caiman straight out of the water. Its body was a fine tuned killing machine, a hard outer shell and a tail of muscle with razor sharp teeth at the end of his snout. Back to the safety of land, Jose let us hold it and then release it back into the darkness. Holding this, and three other types of Crocodile during the trip, was a true interaction with the power of this awesome jungle.
We had travelled four days downriver and it
would now take us three days to get back. Frantic rowing against an increasingly strong current made life a little sweatier, but our encounters with animals no less unique. As my paddle kept rhythm with Jose’s, a white condor, special to the Reserva, soared above us preying on anything below it including the ubiquitous squirrel monkey that continued to follow us. Our boat turned with the river, meeting the flight of a shy Herron that seemed like it wanted to say hello but couldn’t quite dare. Its long white wings opened up to us but nothing more than that. And then the rain came.
As the playful cirrus sky darkened its mood, a silence befell the jungle heightening our anticipation. A slow rumble generated from afar grew into a crescendo as harrowing as the wail of a gale force wind. It was not thunder that was warning us of the impending doom but Howler Monkeys. Then it was the rains turn, lashing down and soaking us in seconds but bringing with it an appreciation of this area’s incredible weather system. Straining to see through the blur of the torrent a family of Otters came into focus, their long necks
rising with our mood. The rarity of the occasion slowed our path as the oily skinned creatures bobbed above the rippling river before disappearing with the first continuous croak of frogs who signalled the end of the downpour. Some days it would rain for five minutes, others five hours, our soggy body’s just visitors into this habitat in total harmony.
While our canoe returned the same way, after seven days in the Amazon, we had not. The distractions of civilisation had thawed from our bodies with each passing day; peacefulness coming naturally as we fully embraced our surrounds. The environment had left a lasting impression on us along with the mosquito bites that scattered our skin in an itching frenzy.
Leaving this part of the Amazon rainforest on a cargo boat the next day, it was comforting to think that the Reserva National Pacaya Samiria was on its own journey. Whereas many have been on a path to destruction, here in the place that Javier and Jose call home, the jungle and its animals are thriving because of their work. We were privileged to witness this special part of the world where a model for sustainability is truly
in practice. Just like the ecosystem in the jungle, outside of it man and nature seem to be working together in perfect harmony.
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