by Roberta Sotonoff
Life is simple along the Amazon - very simple.
Here no one sends out party invitations. Instead, hosts hang colorful blankets, pots and pans atop a stripped palm tree to signal party time. The dress code consists of painting your face red with paprika plants. Dancing provides the entertainment - round and round a tiny, crowded dance floor to the rhythm of flutes and drums.
I learned about Amazon party etiquette on a seven-day visit to the Peruvian rainforest organized by Explorama Lodges. On my journey, I explored, fished and birdwatched alongside the world's longest river, traversed the world's longest canopy walkway, and learned about wilderness survival, all while staying in accommodations that ranged from the simple to the downright luxurious.
The Amazon conjures up images of excitement and the unknown. Forty miles at its widest, it starts in the Andes Mountains in Peru and then rushes 4,000 miles to its mouth in Belm, Brazil. Its basin nurtures an unrivaled diversity of life - 4,000 species of birds (including 120 types of hummingbirds), 20,000 different plants and 2,000 species of fish.
Piranhas & Pink Dolphins
The Amazon hosts neither huge animals as in Africa, nor exotic temples like the ones in Asia. Instead, its jungles are home to tribes who still hunt with poison darts, colorful birds that squawk like shrews, and unusual animals such as three-toed sloths, pink dolphins, piranhas, and tapirs.
My trip began in the unremarkable town of Iquitos, where music usually blasts from unseen multi-speaker radios and car mufflers seem to be an endangered species. Located in northern Peru, Iquitos is the country's largest Amazonian town.
The first stop, Explorama Lodge, is a 50-mile boat ride from Iquitos. The pristine, thatched-roof accommodations don't have electricity or in-room running water (shower huts and kerosene lamps fill the gaps), but instead offer matchless amenities. Where else can your wake-up call be four macaws walking atop your mosquito net? Where else can you see a 400-pound black tapir appear in the kitchen at mealtime then saunter through the dining room door?
I spent my time on the river pursuing pink dolphins and piranhas. A food staple for ribere–os (river people), piranha make easy prey. A clean tree branch, some line, a hook, a weight and some beef for bait easily snare these toothy creatures. Since I wanted to keep my fingers, I let the guide unhook my catch.
While fishing from a small boat close to shore, our group was sighted by some local children. They giggled at our piranha prowess, then hopped into the boat and started fishing with us. Most river people are like that - curious, friendly and smiling.
"The lakes are like the market to the river people. Every day they come here for fresh fish," says our guide, Luis Mayanchi.
Someone is always fishing in a dugout canoe. Night fishermen keep warm with liquor from the riverside rum factory, where the equipment consists of a bowlegged horse to work the sugarcane grinding wheel, a canoe for fermenting the juice and a big pot for boiling. Hopefully the alcohol from the newly stilled rum eliminates any germs. The rum can be sampled and purchased (US$3 per bottle) in the tasting room, which is also the owner's home.
The Yucca Brew
One day, we made an excursion to Luis' tiny village. Residents welcomed us into their one-room, thatched-roofed homes on stilts. One young girl was making ma-sato, a popular and sometimes potent white brew. Its manufacturing process is even more basic than that at the rum factory. To produce the masato, the girl chewed yucca plants and spit the remains in a bucket. The juices were fermented by her saliva. Presto - masato!
If Amazon hooch or rum doesn't cure ribere–os ills, the rainforest offers plenty of other remedies. Luis' father was the village shaman (tribal doctor), and so Luis learned the medicinal uses of certain plants and trees. Every medicinal recipe seemed the same: cook the plant for hours, let it set for a week and then drink the elixir for about three days straight.
Luis explained which plants make the best rope and how to weave a thatch roof from palm leaves. "If you want to sleep in the jungle, do it in the hollow of a large tree root," he recommended. "Cover the area with palms. Just pull on the palms when a jaguar walks by. The noise will frighten him away." Sure.
For more rainforest hikes and jungle survival tips, we floated over to ExplorNapo Lodge on the Sucusari Stream, about 100 miles from Iquitos. Although I was impressed by its resident capybara - a hairy, four-foot domesticated rodent - the lodge's biggest attraction lies in its proximity to the Canopy Walkway, about an hour's walk from the lodge.
This engineering marvel, with suspended bridges and 14 platforms that span nearly 2,000 feet, was constructed without nails. For those of you who have never traversed a suspended bridge, the bounce takes a bit of getting used to, but I think it is worth the effort. On reaching the 118-foot-high Tower #6, visitors literally have a bird's-eye view of the rainforest.
"The canopy is for the people in the day and the porcupines in the night. They come to eat the (tourists') sweat off the rails," says Luis.
As the sun got higher, sweat was more plentiful, so an afternoon boat trip held substantial appeal. River taxis, dugout canoes and barges all ply this watery highway frequently. People smile and wave - think Main Street, Amazon style.
We cruised to the Black River to peek at plants that look like they have been on some serious steroids. Measuring more than three feet wide, the immense Victoria Regia water-lily pads turn the river into a green carpet - a popular landing pad for jacana birds.
With plentiful feathered creatures throughout the Amazon, bird watching is a given. All the chirping, whistling and squawking made it easy to spot kingfishers, great ani, black-collar hawks, egrets and vultures.
Also easy to find are the monkeys on the aptly named Monkey Island. Branches swing and leaves tumble as the monkeys jump and play. As soon as they spotted us, they swooped down and ate bananas right out of our hands.
The African Queen
We departed Monkey Island via a shortcut through a marshy swamp with tall, thick plants that came through the boat windows. At a fork in the swamp, our driver, Pablo, took what he thought was the correct route. Wrong. We got stuck. It was like a scene out of The African Queen. Just when Pablo was getting ready to push, we made it out and headed toward Ceiba Tops.
The crown jewel of Explorama Lodges, Ceiba Tops features rooms with not only air-conditioning and hot showers, but also flush toilets. Lush plants and colorful flowers surround the Jacuzzi, swimming pool and water slide.
Back to Basics
This jungle paradise lies just a short river ride to one of the larger towns (pop. 3,000), Indiana. Its small market area sells everything necessary for river life, which isn't much. Though it has electricity several hours a day, it is not as thriving as Mazan, where three-wheeled motorbikes shut-tle people from the Amazon River to the Napo River to catch river taxis.
One day we visited the Yagua Indians, known for hunting with darts dipped with curare - poisons from frogs, ants and plants. The Yagua wore traditional dress, with grass skirts and stringy hats that trailed down their backs. Standing alongside a cone-shaped grass hut, a little boy held a baby three-toed sloth - an endearing, slow-moving creature that reminded me of a koala bear.
Show and Tell - Blow-Gun Demo
The Indians soon got down to the business at hand - a "how-to" demonstration of making and using a blowgun. We onlookers then had a chance to test our lungs with the guns, or just have our pictures taken holding the long-tubed apparatus alongside a Yagua. The jungle gift shop (more like an open shed) displayed handcrafted masks, blowguns and jewelry. No pressure to buy. Like I said, life is simple on the Amazon.
For further information about visiting the Peruvian Amazon, contact Explorama Tours: Tel: 800-707-5275 or 781-581-0844; Fax: 781-581-3714; E-mail:Info@saca.com; Website:www.explorama.com.
• American Airlines and Lan Peru fly direct from the U.S. to Lima via Miami and/or Dallas. Aero Continente and Tans Peru fly from Lima to Iquitos; flight delays on both are common.
• For the trip, guests should bring a flashlight and a good mosquito repellent, along with plenty of film and extra camera batteries. Hiking boots or old walking shoes are a must for muddy jungle trails, while quick-drying clothes counteract the sweat factor.
• The Amazon fluctuates about 45 feet throughout the year. Waters start to rise in November; low waters begin in June. During the low-water season, there is less rain and better fishing, but many excursions can only be done by trail. When the water is high, it is easier to visit the interior black-water lakes, and animals are more visible.
• U.S. dollars are accepted practically everywhere along the Amazon.