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 enormous sharp-toothed rodents called capybaras, whose distance I was happy to keep.
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.
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.
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 rustic, 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 raised on stilts. Rooms were equipped with lazy solar-powered ceiling fans to create gentle breezes.
There was running water -- not hot, but warm enough 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 bungalow that night, the steamy heat and raucous Amazon soundtrack made sleep elusive. I was uncomfortably sweaty as I heard what could have been billed as a performance 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 squeals, hoots, howls and shrieks.
The volume gradually 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 thick forest 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 that walking slowly was actually cooler than standing still; I could at least create a slight breeze for myself as I moved.
Yes, I was uncomfortable, but I was also 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.
At an oxbow lake, 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 was a good thing!
During my stay, I learned about the complexity and fragility of the rainforest ecosystem with its thousands of interdependent species. How butterflies need salt from the tears of turtles and caimans in order to kick-start their reproductive functions. The way leaf cutter ants inhabit a tree and 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. 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 just 6%. The earth needs rainforests -- for biodiversity, and for vital defense against climate change through natural carbon absorption and storage.
The Rainforest Alliance reports that another 50 acres are destroyed every minute, and two dozen species of animals and plants become extinct each day. Over half of our rainforest is gone, and countless species lost forever.
After my trip, I started thinking about how much tourism could be hurting the Amazon. Building lodges and shuttling people and supplies creates carbon emissions and damages habitats. But, responsible tourism can also help prevent illegal logging and poaching by providing jobs for local people to sustain their families. It also raises awareness about the issues, as it did for me.
To minimize our impact, we need to be careful when choosing tour operators and lodging. We can also give back and contribute to preservation efforts in other ways, such as buying carbon offsets or donating to rainforest conservation charities, which I chose to do. Here are some options to explore if you'd like to do the same:
If my nieces and nephews ever dream of exploring the Amazon as I did, I want it to be there for them.