Piranha fishing in the Amazon

My fascination with the jungle began when I was a teenager. I remember reading some now long-forgotten novel about researchers trekking through the rainforest in search of lost tribes and mysterious healing plants. It was an exotic world away from our prairie town, and just the sort of adventure I thought I should have some day.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I was bouncing around in a van with a few other travellers, destined for a remote lodge in the Peruvian Amazon. The red dirt road was closed in by thick forest on both sides, branches from above clawing the roof of the vehicle. When we reached the bank of Tambopata River, I got out and surveyed the milky brown flow curving its way through walls of endless green.

Amazon boat ride

We scrambled our way down to a wooden dock where we were immediately greeted by a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering in a twirl of orange and black. One landed on my arm, so gently I could barely feel it. I held my breath, willing the moment to last. The delicate creature slowly opened and closed its whisper-thin wings three times, then lilted away. I'd been officially welcomed to the rainforest.

During our two hour boat ride on the churning river, our guide occasionally asked the captain to slow down as he pointed out wildlife onshore. There were plodding turtles, camouflaged caimans and prodigious rodents called capybaras, whose distance I was happy to keep. None of the creatures took any notice of us.

Aside from a few isolated sets of stairs leading up into the foliage, there were no other signs of human habitation. It hit me then, how far away I was from home. If something happened to the guide, I'd have no idea how to find my way back. Doubt and fear eddied through my head and my stomach roiled like the river.

Jungle accommodations

As we arrived at the lodge's dock, dozens of tiny monkeys chattered in greeting as they leapt from tree to tree high above our heads. They followed our path from overhead and continued their animated commentary all the way to the main lodge structure, a thatch-roofed lodge raised on stilts. A smiling waiter greeted us with a tray of Coca-Colas, chilled bottles beaded with perspiration. I held one up to my forehead as I'd done many times on blistering summer days at home. Ahhhhh.

The eco-friendly lodge was designed to blend in with the environment and minimize energy usage. Kitchen appliances were powered by propane and the thatch-roofed bungalows were warmed by solar energy. Rooms were equipped with lazy ceiling fans to create gentle breezes. There was running water -- not hot, but certainly warmish from sitting in the pipes. Indoor lighting was produced by candles. At dusk, staff lit oil lanterns to illuminate the pathways. The atmosphere was rustic and exotic. Did I really need anything more?

Nighttime in the Amazon

After dark, we took a night walk in the jungle with our guide, Juan Carlos. He helped us spot spiders, ants and frogs and other nocturnal jungle life. Chatting with him in the bar afterwards, we learned he was only 26, youngest of four. His sister had a restaurant in Puerto Moldonado, and one of his brothers sold satellite dishes, a burgeoning business in the area.

In my thatch-roofed bungalow that night, the steamy heat and raucous Amazon soundtrack made sleep elusive. I was sweating prolifically in the front row at a performance headlined by the Rainforest Symphonic Orchestra. Frogs and insects laid down a base rhythm of chirps and whirrs while birds, monkeys and unknown creatures layered on their periodic hoots, squeals, howls and shrieks.

The volume increased, imperceptibly at first, then more urgently. It rose to a level so resounding I could feel the vibrations in my chest. Each creature seemed to be asserting its position in the orchestra, competing for the audience's admiration.

This battle of the night sounds went on for a few minutes until finally, the decrescendo began. Players softened their voices, decreased the frequency of their calls and finally laid down their instruments. Only the buzzing and chirping of insects continued. Their steady reverberations took on a new soothing tone compared to the preceding cacophony. At last, sleep.

Exploring the rainforest

Daytime in the jungle was quieter. We tramped along overgrown trails between massive trees so tall their tops disappeared into darkness. The pathways oozed with mud, especially in spots where the canopy above blocked out virtually all sunlight. It was dark and dripping. My borrowed over-sized rubber boots kept sticking to the muck, making it hard going.

My eyes stung as sweat mixed with sunscreen and bug spray trickled down from my forehead. I discovered it was actually cooler to walk slowly than to stand still; that way I could at least create a slight breeze for myself as I moved.

I was uncomfortable, but thrilled to be living out my jungle adventure dreams. And there was no need to pinch myself; the periodic  insect stings were more than enough to remind me I was very much awake.

Before returning in the rowboat, Juan Carols gave  each of us a turn at piranha fishing. He attached some bait to a roughly bent hook attached with fishing twine to a simple wooden stick -- no fancy reel or shiny lures. When it was my turn I could feel the toothy fish tugging at the bait. They were much too quick for any of us to pull one out of the water, so I never got to see what they looked like up close. Maybe that's a good thing!

Fragile future

During my stay, I learned much about the complexity and fragility of the rainforest ecosystem with its thousands of interdependent species. For example, how butterflies need salt from the tears of turtles and caimans in order to kick-start their reproductive functions. The way leaf cutter ants inhabiting a tree keep it clean of vines and parasites in return for free rent. And how the pods of brazil nut trees can only be broken by one species of rodent with teeth sharp enough to puncture the rock-hard shells. The creatures bury the nuts they can't eat right away and then forget where they hid them, giving the seeds a chance to grow into new trees.

Each life form has a role, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant, and each being relies on others for something essential to its life. I was wonderstruck by the genius of it all.

Flying away from the forest, the mass of green cut by ribbons of brown rivers at first looked like it went on forever, making it seem like the claims of disappearing rainforest must be exaggerated. Sadly though, it didn't take long to spot huge scars of razed jungle.

According to the Amazon Rainforest Conservancy, rainforests once covered 14% of the earth's surface, but we're now down to only 6%. Over half of it is gone, and with it, countless species lost forever.

If my nieces and nephews ever dream of the Amazon as I did, I want them to be able to see it someday. So I decided to contribute to to a rainforest conservation charity. If you'd like to do the same, here are some options to explore:

#Peru #SouthAmerica #rainforest #jungle #wildlife #boattrips

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