Emily Hammock graduated from Davidson College in 2009. A History Major, she participated in a college Travel Writing course and submitted this piece as part of our 2009 Davidson College Travel Writing Contest. Emily currently works in higher education; she is also a freelance writer and you can read more of her work here, http://voyage-on.blogspot.
I’m sitting in a tiny, wooden canoe floating on pitch-black swamp water and hooking pieces of raw meet onto a simple, wooden fishing rod. The question isn’t whether the fish will bite, but whether I’ll be able to yank the line out of the water before the little monsters have devoured the meat and darted off. Such is the rub when you’re fishing for piranha in the backwaters of the Peruvian Amazon.
My guide Abby–short for Abelardo–pulls my newly baited rod to the edge of the boat. “Slap the water like this,” he says, jerking the pole up and down against the mirrored face of the water. “The piranhas will think it’s an animal falling in,” he tells me slyly. I lean over the side of the narrow craft and begin slapping the water with the rod as Abby instructed.
Then I wait, tense with concentration, for the nibble. Sensing movement beneath the surface, I tug on the line with a yelp that is echoed by a flock of startled birds. The silver hook glints in the air above the boat, empty and clean, as if it were newly minted. I grumble. “There goes our dinner,” Abby laughs.
Back at the Explorama lodge where I’m staying, the cooks will gladly fry up any piranha that guests bring home. Even though I come back empty handed, there’s plenty to eat. The dinner spread consists of local fresh fruit, fish simmered in spices, and all the rice, beans, and plantains I can eat. It’s all served in the thatched-roof common room, where nothing but screen windows separate me from the sounds of the quieting jungle. It’s both a chilling and exhilarating sensation, hearing but not seeing the wild things that roam without.
I’ve been traveling in the Peruvian Amazon for days now, and everything still feels fresh–not only because of the massive oxygen infusions I’ve been getting from breathing in the rain forest air. It’s a big change from the smoggy, port city of Iquitos where I began my journey. A land-locked island, Iquitos is unreachable by road. Small planes and riverboats are the only vehicles that come in and out of the city. On the first day, Abby picked me up at the tiny airport. As we drove towards the riverbank, I glimpsed the city’s architectural mélange, a haphazard mixture of colonial squares and crumbling lean-tos, through the blur of zipping motorcycles and rickshaws.
The Explorama tour group runs a string of eco-friendly lodges along the Amazon river. With amenities ranging from luxury suites to glorified tents, the lodges vary depending on how far they are from the city. The main office in Iquitos perches precariously on the edge of the river, which at first glance looks more like an ocean– broad and still, unlike the thin, roiling rivers I’m accustomed too.
Abby and I travel deeper into the rainforest, and the towns and houses on the river’s edge get fewer and farther apart. A tamed toucan greets me at the entrance to the next lodge. The bird bobs his head and pounces, cat-like, snapping his beak as I waggle my fingers at him. The other lodge pet is a capybara–a rodent the size of a wild boar–named George. He happily accompanies me when I recklessly take a swim in the river, which is home to everything from tiny parasitic fish to razor-toothed caimans.
This lodge sits on a slope above an offshoot of the Amazon, hidden away in a jungle alcove. The rooms are connected by Indiana Jones-style slatted walkways, lit by rows of kerosene lamps. After a long afternoon of piranha fishing, the lodge’s hammock house provides the perfect spot for relaxation. Sinking into the sturdy folds of hand-woven fabric, swaying with the breeze, I think I could stay here forever.
Inside the Amazon rainforest, the attractions are endless. Abby takes me on canoe rides up and down the Amazon-tributaries, pointing out spider monkeys and making calls to neon-colored birds. On a night excursion, he nearly explodes with excitement when he spots a rare Emerald Tree Boa coiled in the crook of a tree. I hide my head as giant moths and swarms of mosquitoes dive-bomb our flashlights.
We boat to the black swamps, where the water is so saturated with tannins from rotting plant matter that it looks like asphalt. Lilly pads the size of tractor tires languish on top of the dark water. Some of Abby’s friends kindly show me their pets: a baby anaconda at least six feet long and a young three-toed sloth that clamps onto my shoulders in a vice-grip and smiles as it moves with chronic slowness, like a furry animatron. I ask Abby what his friends will do when their pets grow bigger. “They’ll eat them,” he shrugs.
At an Indian village located conveniently near the lodge, Abby casually introduces me to the bare-breasted women and the old men in grass skirts. I feel wretched, like a spectator at a human zoo. The villagers go through the motions of showing me around and teaching me to shoot a blowgun. I play my part and buy knick-knacks made out of seedpods and shells that customs probably won’t let me take home. Later that afternoon, we pass one of the village women paddling her boat in the opposite direction. She’s wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt.
On my last day on the Amazon, it begins to rain. As sheets of gray water fall from the gray sky onto the gray water, I begin to forget how vibrant this place is when the sun shines. Abby half-heartedly offers to take me boating, but neither one of us moves to get up. Instead, we sit at the lodge’s bar, listening to the rain pour while we sip Inca Colas, the Coke of Peru, which tastes like pineapple ambrosia. Abby pulls out a guitar and we spend the morning singing the songs we have in common: Hey Jude, Hotel California, and a rousing version of Feliz Navidad.
The rain turns to a fine mist, and Abby readies a boat to take me back to Iquitos. I say goodbye to the capybara and the toucan, to the green trees and the black water, to taking outdoor showers and constantly scanning my surroundings for the signs Abby’s shown me of where sloths like to eat and iguanas nest. I take a final, deep breath of heady, jungle air and get into the boat.
Visit the Amazon:
Lima, the capitol of Peru, is the first stop on an Amazon journey. Many U.S. airlines offer non-stop flights to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport. From Lima, take a short flight to the river town of Iquitos. Once there, Amazon Explorama Lodges can provide transportation, lodging and local guides for travelers interested in any level of adventure in the Peruvian Amazon. Enjoy fishing trips, the rainforest canopy walkway, and visits to local schools.