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Monday, July 8, 2013

Going two thousand miles deep into the Amazon of Peru

(Offline for a couple days for a trek to a ruined city that sounds like the name of a Pokemon)

Otorongo, a local word meaning jaguar, is located 2,000 miles from where the Marañón and Ucayali rivers meet, forming the great Amazon river.

With its roots beginning in 2005, Otorongo was started by Anthony Giardenelli, an upstate New Yorker, and his wife, Ivonne, a native of Iquitos. It is a twelve room lodge surrounded by spacious open gardens where various plants are grown and where the lodge's macaws, chickens, and ducks roam about. At one end of the rooms is a large dining area. At the opposite end is a hammock room where ~6 hammocks are set up in a semicircle ready to encapsulate their residents. 

After relaxing for a little bit, we had lunch with the other lodgers, including a fellow consultant! Lunch, as would be all of our meals, was delicious. Cooked by a Peruvian going by the name of Richard, the food has often been acclaimed as the best food travelers have encountered. In the 30+ days of traveling so far, I would wholeheartedly repeat that statement.

After lunch, we got a brief hour of respite in the hammock room before taking a canoe out onto the Amazon river to find pink dolphins.  We spotted quite a number of them; however, unlike those at Seaworld, these were rather shy and taking a picture of them was nearly impossible.

Afterwards, we stopped on a sandbar, an island of nothing but sand. During the dry season the local inhabitants use it to plant various vegetables. It's impossible to do this in the wet season because the sand becomes, at a minimum, knee-deep mud if not completely under water.

After a quick swim in the Amazon river, we stopped at a small town on the river. There, we had the opportunity to explore its streets, observing the locals going about. A couple years ago, the Amazon river had flooded by a few meters. As a result, a lot of homes that were not built sufficiently above ground were flooded for months. The wood and paint at the bottom of the homes remain a darker shade than the part that had been above water.

A soccer and volleyball game was in play when we first got there. We decided to stop and watch. It wasn't long until the guide for Alain and Soche (sp) joined the game. 

Game over, we left the town and headed back for the lodge, where dinner with eggs, chicken, beets, carrots, and fresh star fruit juice was served for dinner. Afterwards, Edinson and I headed out for a night walk, with flashlights in hand looking for what lurked in the darkness of the Amazon. We spotted tree frogs, monkey frogs, a possum, a giant tarantula, a bamboo rat, and other critters of the night. What was most amazing, however, was what laid above us. Undiluted by light pollution of any sort, hundreds of stars glimmered brightly over us. It was as if someone had taken a fistful of glitter and threw it against the dark sky.

In the morning breakfast was served. Amongst other things, we had the world's best pancakes. Swallowing down two eggs and seven pancakes, I was ready to roll.

Though it's currently the dry season, you wouldn't know it by the downpour we were having that morning. But, rain or shine, the adventure must go on. For two hours, we went on a canoe ride through the Amazon river and its tributaries, looking for any animal that was brave enough to remain exposed to the pouring rain. At moments we sat in silence, listening to the drops of rain hitting the leaves of the tallest trees, and dripping down leaf by leaf until it was reclaimed by the river or the forest floor. It was during one of these moments when I decided that four nights were not sufficient, and chose to extend my stay by another night - right up until I would have to get on a plane to Cuzco. 

Edinson and Tayo (the gentleman maneuvering the canoe) had eyes like an eagle. They easily spotted sloths, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, and other fauna that to me looked liked were just dry leaves hanging on a tree. 

We docked at the edge of the river and walked underneath the thick layers of leaves that hovered above us. The ground beneath us was soft, as if threatening to swallow us up at any moment. Fallen trees laid around us, some having been there for long enough that stepping on them felt like I was stepping on soil. We encountered a rather large species of a ficus tree wrapping its roots around its host tree. Despite the rain, it was difficult to resist climbing up the tree, so I did. 

By the time we headed back to the canoe, the rain had stopped. The sky was blue all around us, with multiple layers of clouds dotting the sky. It truly felt like we were in a giant blue marble. 

After lunch and an hour siesta, we took another walk through the Amazon jungle, spotting pigmy marmosets, toucans, frogs and toads playing dead, and scent emitting caterpillars, centipedes, and beetles.  

And so that was how our days went - Edinson, Tayo, and me heading out either on boat or on foot each morning and afternoon.

Some highlights:

One night I requested if we could get up early the next morning to watch the sun rise. With that, we got up at 4:30AM, hopped into the canoe and, in the dark, went to the sandbar that we had encountered previously. Around us, frogs were croaking like there was no tomorrow. With each passing minute, a new sound joined the growing symphony of jungle music. Birds waking up began to chirp, squawk, and squeal. Roosters began their daily cock-a-doodle-doos. Drops of silent rain and rushing wind served as supporting background music. As the sun rose, the fireball swallowed up the remaining visible stars and created silhouettes out of the trees on the horizon. Meanwhile, a swarm of mosquitoes feasted upon my exposed hands. 

We went back to the lodge for breakfast, but were not expecting to return until dinner time. It was an all day outing in the Amazon.

At one time, Edinson spotted a group of monkeys about 50 meters inland. So, we docked the boat, but as I got out, my right leg immediately sank knee deep into thick, thick, thick mud. Using my left leg as leverage, I tried to pull myself out. In return, my left leg sank in just as deep. I was stuck. It took the help of both Edinson and Tayo to eventually pull my sunken legs out. And that was only 30 minutes into the morning.

We chased after monkey colonies, fished for piranhas, and paddled through flooded forests. Like a scene from a horror movie, sections of the forest are underwater, with only the upper trunks visible and giving the sight a ghostly atmosphere. 

(The first picture is actually upside down)

For lunch, we had docked to the side of the river and Edinson and Tayo pulled out two pots. Together with pieces of nearby wood, coal, and some diesel, a fire was started. One pot with rice and water was being boiled. In another, Edinson and Tayo threw in chicken, tomato sauce, and other spices. Meanwhile, I was peeling limes, making, as I found out later, limon-ade. 

Just as we were getting ready to wait for the two pots to cook the food inside, a raindrop hit my nose. Within ten seconds a downpour was upon us. Very quickly, we split an empty rice bag in half and held it over the fire. The rain went on for awhile, but that wasn't an obstacle to filling three empty stomachs. Food cooked, we all ate under the thick foliage that grew above us. And that, is the meaning of eating out when in the Amazon rainforest.

After a couple more hours on the river, including a sunset to match the sunrise earlier in the day, it was time to clean up for dinner.

One of the guests had previously requested if we could have a campfire outside. Her request was fulfilled. Fifty meters from the lodge sat a conflagration spanning 3+ feet wide and 8+ feet high. It was more of a bonfire than a campfire. Standing two feet from it, I could feel myself slowly being cooked outside in. Even better, the guides had found broken branches, shaved off the bark, and voila, we had skewers for our marshmallows. 

The next few days went by quickly, with more animal sightings, as well as locating giant lily pads and one of the largest tree base I've ever seen. I swung from a vine dangling off a tree and met a local and his son collecting their daily catch from previously set up fishing nets. You can usually tell where these nets are by locating a series of water bottles floating atop the water. Spaced several meters from each other, these empty bottles help keep the nets vertically afloat.

Like most nights, I fell asleep listening to the rain falling down upon us. In the darkness of the jungle came the sounds of various nightlife waking up in search of mates, food, or shelter. It was on my last night that many of us heard the roar of a mysterious animal just a couple meters from the lodge. I, however, slept like a log. In the morning, when we took a hike into the jungle we found fresh puma tracks just right where the sound emanated from.

There remains so much more to explore in both the Amazon river and rainforest. The clouds that sweep the sky are found at various altitudes. Together with the seemingly endless Amazon river, they created the illusion of a flat world surrounded by thin stretches of land all around us. The opaque brown water of the river creates a never ending reflection of the world above it. At the surface of the river two beginnings meet. 

On the day I was to leave, Anthony told us that there was no coffee. Asked why, he told us a protest was occurring in Iquitos. When the guides dropped off three travelers - Becca, Megan, an Kristen - the day before, they couldn't return with supplies since basically everything was shutdown.

On the canoe ride back, we got stopped once by the drug trafficking police. Looking as innocent as ever, we were quickly allowed to go. When I eventually made it back to Green Track Hostel, I saw a brief glimpse of a peaceful parade marching by. In addition, the streets were littered with garbage everywhere. At dinner, I overheard the waitress telling a patron that they had no more salads as they hadn't been able to get any fresh vegetables due to the protest.

Back at the hostel, I met Kelly, a fellow American, and Lizbeth, a fellow Aussie. The three of us quickly bonded over our disdain for a crude gentleman from Los Angeles who displayed all the characteristics that give Americans a bad name abroad.

It was way past my bedtime by the time we went to sleep. Luckily, I never even unpacked and Otorongo had already booked my taxi. Living like the king of backpackers.

More pics to come after I return next month!


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