John Fishback's Trip to the Amazon- March 1999:
I'm writing about my recent visit to Peru where I explored the Amazon Jungle
and the Andes Mountains with the Fishback and Tyson families. I took more than
3500 pictures of wildlife and landscapes. I wanted to bring back some great
educational slides and first hand experiences. Most people don't know that Peru
has a large part of the Amazon Jungle in its eastern half.
Our first stop was Iquitos, which sits on the southern bank of the Amazon River in northeast Peru. This is a large jungle city with 400,000 people a few hours travel from the border with Brazil. It can only be reached by airplane or by boat. There are no roads leading here from the rest of Peru because the thick lowland jungle surrounds this city. The Amazon River begins in the Andes Mountains of Peru and by the time it reaches Iquitos it is about one mile wide (during the rainy season). During the raining season, large ocean going tankers anchor at Iquitos. This was once a rubber boom city earlier in the century when large amounts of rubber came from jungle to supply the world's growing demand for automobile tires. A few men became multi-millionaires, unfortunately at the expense of the native people who where treated very badly , either as slaves or as low wageworkers. The rubber industry collapsed when someone snuck out rubber seeds to Indonesia. There they could grow the trees more efficiently in farm rows. Farming rubber sap is much faster then gathering from a series of trees scattered through out the jungle. Today, the Iquitos economy is centered on oil exploration and tourism.
As we got off the plane the tropical heat and intense sun saturated our bodies. There were a few military aircraft and then some friendly soldiers. Every male in Peru has to join the military for some period of time. Outside the airport, taxi drivers and other venders vied for our attention and business. Four or five Amazon Expeditions staff members met us outside and drove us through the city to our river departure point. All along our city route we saw three-wheel combustible engine taxis, which produced plenty of pollution. These rickshaw type vehicles moved about like amusement park bumper cars but they never hit each other. It was amazing. We stopped at a tourist market to look at an insect collector's display since I wanted to bring back a few unique creatures to show my students. The butterflies were large and all the colors of the rainbow could be found in gorgeous patterns. There were beatles 4-6 inches long with legs another 4 inches longer. Some had horns 3 inches high and others wings 8 inches across. There were tarantulas 10 inches from leg tip to leg tip. I decided I would wait until later to buy since I planned to catch many butterflies in the jungle and was not sure what other insects I might find.
We drove three hours up the Amazon River in a small motorboat to reach our
jungle base camp. Every few miles there was a little village along the river
banks with houses built of palm thatch and small logs. They were raised 6-10
feet above the land to avoid the wet season floods. Almost every house in the
jungle was built in this way. We stopped for lunch at one of these villages
halfway to our base camp. It was at the dock that I really noticed how fast
the river was moving. It had to be going at least 5 or 6 miles/hour. The water
was so forceful that logs caught under the dock were bouncing up and down. Here,
I opened my bag of gifts for the many children hanging at the barge dock. I
gave them lolly pops , pencils and pens since I heard these things were dificult
to get and much appreciated. Here I had my first jungle meal which consisted
of fried bananas , chicken and rice along with hot jungle peppers on the side
and a 22oz bottle of Cristal beer.. Those peppers were as hot as you could ever
want them. I gave all five adults lolly pops and took several pictures of the
children swinging in a hammock. Hammocks are very popular in the jungle. They
keep you up in the air where the breeze can cool you and away from the many
pests. As we continued up the Amazon the sun came out and begin to burn our
skin. We finally reached the base camp mid-afternoon Saturday with a good sunburn.
Our camp was on the western edge of the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo communal reserve. This reserve has a high diversity of wildlife since it has three different types of jungle within its borders. It was formed in 1991 to protect the Red Uakari Monkey which I will talk about later. It has more than 700 species of birds and the highest number of primate species (16) found in any park or reserve in the world. The reserve has more then one thousand types of butterflies and the greatest mammal diversity for any protected region in the Amazon . In general, The Amazon jungle has about half of all the species of birds in the world and the Amazon River has more species of fish then the entire Atlantic Ocean. Take a second to think how many animals that is.
The jungle has two main seasons. A dry season which runs from May until October
and a wet season, which contains the months of November through April. We were
in the jungle during the first two weeks of March, which meant plenty of rain.
The rain normally fell once a day for a couple hours although one day it rained
all day and two days it did not rain at all. When the rain fell, it really came
down in buckets. The palm thatch roofs of our huts were very steep and easily
repelled the hardest downpour. Twice we were caught out in a downpour several
hours from camp but we always had raingear if we wanted it.. One day while in
our log canoes at Hoatzin lake it rained so hard we had to nonstop bail the
boats for an hour or else we would have been submerged. Heavy rain can quickly
cool you down to the point of shivering. The sun usually shined a couple hours
each day although a few days it shone most of the day. When the sun came out
we would quickly hang out our wet cloths because you did not know when the next
opportunity might come. When the equatorial sun did shine, you had to be careful
because you could get a bad sunburn in only 15 minutes. As far as the wind,
I can only remember one time when the it blew more then a slight breeze.
As a result of all the rain, we watched the water rise around our came 4 or 5 feet in one week. W hen we camped up a river deep in the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo reserve, our river route droped 12 feet when it stopped raining in a two day period . All this water gave us great access by boat and so we could travel just about anywhere. On these water travels we often saw both gray and pink dolphins. Gray dolphins are believed to be younger individuals while pink dolphins are the older or larger creatures. The dolphins would only surface briefly so getting the classic dolphin jumping photo was impossible. These dolphins are only found in the Amazon and so do not swim in from the ocean as many people suspect. They are absolutely different from the well know ocean dolphins and porpoises. Their dorsal fins are much smaller and look like a thin ridge.
Fishing is a very common activity in the Amazon. I believe it is the most available food for humans with plenty of different choices. One of the most bizare species I saw and ate was the walking catfish. As the water level rises the swollen females migrate up into the shallows to lay their eggs. They have strong leg like fins which allow them to actually walk across land to a better birthing area. At this time our groundskeeper put out his nets and caught at least 40. This fish is considered a delicacy and a whole individual is served in a bowl of its soup. I decided to try a bowl and thought the soup tasted good. The ugly, heavily armored fish lay there like a beached whale. One can really learn a lot about natural history when they eat a fish served to the whole. That fish was very similar to a sturgeon looking fish I was given by a family I visited. This fish was smoked over a fire and tasted pretty good. The difficulty in eating these fishes is they are usually served whole and one has to pick at the entire carcuss untill you can find a weak spot in the armor. We ate many kinds ofcatfish which were fresh and tender.
We caught piranha and Barracuda , which had extremely sharp teeth. Barracuda were easily caught with minnow lures spray painted white. For catching piranha you need bait fish. To get baitfish we would machete a termite nest, which was close to the water. Each nest was 2-3 feet in diameter and had 1,000s and 1,000s of termites. Each hack of the machete drop a good handful of food to the fish below. Then would come the multitude of small fish attracted by the dancing wood eaters. Battling a few mosquitoes, we would bait our small hooks with pieces of chicken fat. Shortly after we would be catching sardines, angelfish and a host of aquarium type species which people back in the United States would pay a ton for. The baitfish were then cut into pieces as we drove off to the Piranha strong holds. Our guide stopped the boat at promising spot and we baited large hooks with chunks of flesh. The hook was tied to a metal leader that the fish could not bite through and then finally a 6-10 foot line which was tied to a long ,strong sapling pole specially prepared by our guide. Once the hook was in the water we splashed the water vigorously with the pole which attracts these predators. The Piranha think there is a wounded animal and so come to inspect. We caught both White and Red-bellied piranha. The white piranha is the larger of the two while the red piranha has the greater beauty. Taking the hook out of a piranha's mouth is a lesson in caution. The teeth are razor sharp. When one holds a piranha jaw, you really can feel how strong they are because every chomp of the jaw delivers a great vibration to the hand.
On our many journeys up the Amazon tributaries we saw interesting new plants and animals. The tributaries were very twisty and winding so we often took short cuts through long jungle tunnels. These areas held many stinging ants and waspsOne of the rivers we traveled was named after a small ant called the Tangaranga, which stings bad like a wasp. . At one memorable river tangle, they invaded our boat stinging madly and causing us to react with a defense dance. At each tangle we had to keep a look out for the extremly sharp acacia tree type thorns. These thorns were shaped like fishing hooks and do not detach from the branch like more friendly thorns. They grip onto your skin until either the skin rips, the branch breaks or the boat stops. They are nasty. Of course we encountered all these tangles because the water had risen up into the tree tops. In order to travel deep into the reserve we had to cut our way through fallen logs and tree branches with machetes and axes. At one tree branch tangle, we came to a wasp that makes a masterful pottery nest shaped like an urn . We found that nest becase they decied to sting me and that hurt bad. The only way to move past that road block was to spray gasoline on the nest and light it. Every where you went in the jungle you had to be careful what you touched. I once hung my vest on a branch while I set up camp and then came back and put my vest on. In a few seconds ants were crawling all over my neck and back. At another campsite we discovered a few Vampire bats hanging under a thatch roof. I was disappointed they flew off quickly but was amazed at their crow like size. While zooming up the river we often scared up long nosed bats which love to rest on stumps. They are so perfectly camouflaged that you maybe floating six inches away from them and not even know it. One time I got my macro lens a few inches away from them before they flew. Bats are beautiful in many ways . They are loving parents and are responsible for pollinating many plants we eat every day like bananas. They are also the only mammals in the world that can fly. There are 4,000 species of mammals in the world of which a 1000 are bats. Some bats can eat as many as 1200 insects in one hour. They are vital in destroying many pests
Of man like mosquitoes. Mosquitoes were ocassionaly scare but at other times they were so thick you had to swat at them nonstop or within a few minutes there would be a hundred biting you.
As we drove are 20 foot John boat we would often would stop to pick the delicious guava bean pods. In side them where approximately 5- 15 seeds covered with a white, fuzzy layer which tasted like cotton candy. You suck off this layer and spit the seed out. There were many different kinds of palm fruits with unique flavors some bright orange and some yello. The natives collect these fruits and sell them to people in the city who make delicious flavored ice cream. We would also see the locals along the river making charcoal which people in the jungle and city use for cooking . Charcoal is easily made by cutting a large pile of wood, setting it on fire then covering it with dirt and letting it burn slowly for about one day. Smoke would be rising out of the mound center.
We took several walks into the jungle, which revealed many interesting things such as 6-inch tall pygmy marmosets, which lick tree sap for food . There were several families which lived around are lodge. Many of the children in the jungle have monkeys as pets including the grounds keeper's son who had a Red faced monkey which is absolutely stunning. This is the monkey that the reserve was created for. It looks a lot like a blushing old man. Anyway, back in the jungle we tried some of the extraordinary survival and medicinal foods available. Our guide Moises cracked open a palm nut the size of a lemon which had some weevil grubs which he suggested we try. He set the example by chewing up the slow moving white, fat, worm like insect. Then I tried it and was amazed at the oily caloric flavor. It was good and reminded me of a buttery ,small egg. I can see why this is a favorite jungle meal when fried up with garlic. While walking the highland area our guide stopped and focused his attention at the ground below him than slowly raised his all important machete and gave a cou[ple sharp whack. He had killed one of the most poisonous snacks in the jungle. It was a Ferr-de-Lance which kills many people in the jungle each year. This snake might easily kill several people since it was living around a trail often used by the locals. Fortunately we did not come across the most dangerous snake in the jungle which is the Bushmaster. This snake grows up to 16 feet long and will chase you down and bite you for no other reason then it has a bad temper . Its bite is deadly.
We saw the copal tree which has a sap that can start a fire like lighter fluid. There was a milk tree whose sap dripped thick and white. We scooped up some on our fingers and tasted. It is great for stomach problems since it coats every thing it touches. When you spit it ou t on a leaf it fizzes up like peroxide and will not run. It was sticky. There are so many amazing drugs in the jungle. Powerful like you have never known. The last day in the jungle I got very sick with some diarrhea and extreme tiredness. I had to stay laying down all day. Moises asked me if I wanted to try some of the jungle bark tea medicine . I tried it and the next day I was up doing fine by breakfast. These are strong reasons why the Amazon needs to be protected . The Amazon also supplies a lot of the world's oxygen. I really noticed this fact. I could breath deeper then I ever had before. Half the world's diversity of plant and animal species lives in the Amazon.
Here is a list of some of the birds we saw in the first few days in the jungle: Screamed Piha (which is the classic bird voice of the jungle), Amazon and green Kingfishers, White-eared Jacamar, Blackfronted nunbirds (which I took many pictures of around camp), White-tailed trogon, Blue and yellow macaw, orange-winged Parrot (which the camp had as a pet), Cobalt winged parakeet (whose flocks of noisy chitter-chatter was common place), Dusky-headed parrot, Dusky Pigeon, Gray Chested dove, Spix's guan (which is a turkey like bird favored by the locals, Columbus kite, Yellow headed caracara, Black collared hawk (which flew through camp and I got some good pictures of it), Undulated tinameos, screech owl, Brown-chested martin, white-winged swallow, Smooth billed and greater aniAnhinga, Laughing falcon, King vulture(which circled very high), Muscovy duck, white-necked heron
We saw several Poison arrow frogs along are woodland hike which are guide would pick up after he dried them off some. They were many different colors like yellow and orange. These bright colors are a warning to other animals that they are dangerous. This is a common way animals protect themselves all over the world. Their poisons are more potent when the skin is wet. Our guide also said it is not true that the natives used these frogs for their arrows. Only two kinds of plants here make the deadly curare poison. One poison is made from the bark of a tree and the other poison is made from a vine. The poison arrow frogs live in a cup of water found at the base of plants called bromeliads. We would find the frogs by looking inside each bromeliad we cane across.
In our wanders we visited several scientists camps. One was a occupied by a women who was studying beatles which is the largest family of insects in the world of which consists of 25,000 plus species. Her one hut was in a small open in the forest which attracted several types of lizards. We also saw the small stream where she washed her clothes. We visited a Japanese scientist camp which was not presently being used. They had done a great job of building a school and small medical building all of concrete which is rare in the jungle.
Most of the native people we saw had adopted Spanish ways including the catholic religion which is very popular in Peru. However, many of them still knew a lot about native skills of survival.. Many people lived a day's paddling even from a small village and so often have to fall back on ancient jungle knowledge. They are living in two worlds. They basically speak Spanish but there are many words in their daily language which is jungle Indian . We had a shaman come to are came who was in his early 30's. He preformed a good luck ceremony which I found soothing and relaxing. Before and after the ceremony he was dressed in his normally modern day shorts and shirt but during the ceremony he wore a grass skirt and headdress with a few beautiful baby blue macaw feathers pointing straight up. He smoked a lot of tobacco in a very short pipe with a large bowl. It seemed the more smoke in the air the better. (Native people through out the Western Hemisphere have been using tobacco in a ceremonial way for the last several thousand years. It is the modern which has abused the use of this sacred herb. Tobacco grows wild in the jungle and jungle species are more powerful then those grown up north. ) The shaman laid out two large leaves where he placed garlic root, rum and lots of large hand rolled cigarettes. Here he also placed a bundle of bamboo like leaves which he held in his hand while performing the ceremony. The room was lit with a few low burning gas lanterns. There was no electricity at our jungle camp. As he preformed the ceremony he constantly smoked the pipe creating a heavy fog . He danced vibrating his body up and down while vigorously shaking the bundle of leaves all around the persons body . At the same time he would sing a soft relaxing tune using short quick phrases of "dee,dee ,dee, dee, ddddd" The bundle of leaves rattling gave a pleasant background to the song . He would end the "blessing " of each person by blowing smoke on the top of their head and then down their shirt. Before each "blessing" he had made a garlic rum drink in a gourd bowl. The garlic was from a plant very different from our garlic plant. This plant grew in many pla1ces through out the jungle and was more like a tree with broad leaves. He would shave off the outer coating of the long root and mix it with a powerful rum. It was then passed around the circle and everybody had the opportunity to drink it.
At night we would walk under the base camp structure looking for those nighttime
animals. We saw many beautiful red-haired tarantulas and one big ugly cockroach.
The roach was 5 inches long with huge transparent wings which covered its entire
body. At another nightspot we saw 4-inch long scorpions
With antennae 12 inches long. In fact, we had to watch out for scorpions of which the black scorpion can be very dangerous. Our groundskeeper showed us a small scorpion which stung him but only gave him a mildly swollen arm. At night we would drive the boat searching with powerful flashlights for night creatures. There are many animal which can only be spotted at night like the boat-billed heron which was white with a huge swollen bill or the spectacled owl. This owl had the most human like call which sounded like some body playing the flute. I would have sworn some person was out there playing his flute. This is one of the reasons why native people see animals and plants as people. This owl reminds me of whippoorwills which live in Maryland but people rarely hear them. We you first hear a whippoorwill you think some body is playing a joke or a car alarm won't stop. We also discovered several speckled caimans at night. Our guide slowly snuck up with the boat and caught a two foot one. These reptiles are suprisingly docile when young
But when they reach 12 feet or more can be very dangerous. In Iquitos we saw a vender who was selling large chunks of Caiman meat. Despite all these creatures being out there it is fairly safe to swim in the water . Piranha rarely attack people and they are much more peaceful then people give them credit for. One of our guides Ramon was partially electrocuted by an electric eel while he was holding onto a motor boat engine.
At one of our stops we visited a very small village which gave us the customary food or drink welcome. Our guides were given some meat off a fire where many pieces were smoking. They were eating with great delight so I asked what it was and said I would like to try it. It was monkey and tasted good like a good piece of venison. At another village welcome we were given a fermented palm fruit which are guides drank with joy but when I went to try it I nearly vomited. One mans pleasure is another man's displeasure.
These villages usually consisted of 6 - 10 families often with each palm thatched hut housing eight people of which 5 or 6 where children. We saw many children in most places we visited. In the jungle children are vitally important. They are like insurance when the parents get older and cannot work. There are no retirement plans nor social security so having a lot of children means you have somebody to take care of you when you get to old to work. They often provide food through fishing or gathering fruits or they might weave or make trade goods. There is also very little modern birth control available. But then again many people don't want to use it if it was available. It is not uncommon for men to look for ways to be more fertile.
Before we left the jungle we visited the zoo. Here we could see many of the animals that had hidden from us. We saw the huge rhinoceros looking Tapir which is the largest animal in the jungle. We saw peccaries which are a pig like animal which roam about the jungle in large groups sometimes as big as 50 or 60 individuals. They have been know to eat people just like domestic hogs occasionally will do. We saw the most spectacular animal of the jungle which of course is the Jaguar which is like its African counterpart the leopard but bigger. We had seen footprints of this cat but they are so stealthy we never had much of a chance to spot them in the wild. I got to pet an ocelot which is like a big bobcat. At this zoo one can reach through the cages at your own risk and touch the animals. I petted the back of an ocelot which purred deeply. That was fun. Of course I kept my eyes on his head to see if he would swing around and smack me like a fickle house cat. While we were eating our lunch a black spider monkey had jumped across his island moat and was raiding the garbage cans. I got some great photos of his face and him hanging in the treetops. It was amazing to see this animal using his prehensile tail like a long arm. We saw the capybara, which is the largest rodent in the world (800 of the 4000 mammals in the world are rodents). It was the size of a medium sized dog. Of course we saw many boas and the great Anaconda which can reach lengths of 40 feet (some reports have mentioned 60 foot individuals). We saw several beautiful types of monkeys all with unique personalities. There are many kinds of Monkeys found in the jungle. The reserve where we stayed had 15 different kinds.
While in Iquitos
we walked along the waterfront and saw a series of statues of native people
who used to live in the area . There was a stunning diversity of tribes who
dressed and adorned themselves in unique ways. One man had a huge disk in his
lower lip. From this vantagepoint we could look out over the Amazon River. Along
the river/city edge was a large poverty town. There was many small wooden shacks
side by side one hundred deep. Most were up on poles due to the wet season.
We walked down into the heart of this town and saw many children playing in
the dirt streets. Volleyball and soccer were being played . In general it seemed
people were happy. Many children walked up to us as we were taking pictures.
I was told that when the water level rises many children fall over and drown.
The sanitation was not so great. You can probable guess what happens to the
sewage-it goes straight into the river. As the water rises some people are forced
to live out on the river and so you can see families living on rafts. One of
the big problems around the city and in the jungle is cholera since sewage disposal
is bad. Many children die of this disease.
One of the highlights in the jungle was visiting a local village named chino. Here I got to play jungle soccer and celebrate carnival. The soccer field was like a marsh since there was about 3 inches of water all over it was more like wrestling then soccer. It was more slippery then a bar of soap. The locals only wanted to play if there was a bet involved so 10 soles was waged. 2.75 soles equals one dollar. We lost 3 of the 5 games played during that week. The rules were like street baseball or football were things were modified to meet the surroundings.
Carnival is weeklong celebration each year in late February or March. It popular through out the Hispanic Western Hemisphere. During this fiesta dancing, drinking and somba like bands dominate. People like to dress up in strange and fanciful customs and parade about. They often paint their face with ash, mud or a variety of pigments. The little Chino community center at the water edge had a band playing several days and nights on end. The band had flutes, drums and other percussion instruments. At many of the nearby villages they had a tradition of erecting a pole which had many useful items at the top like cloth, buckets, wash basins and the like. It was like a pinyatta pole. The last day of carnival they would slowly dance around this pole while they chopped it down. The whole time they were spreading mud all over their friends. I got too close with my camera and was covered with a layer which I thought was fun. When the pole finally fell people dashed in like hawks fighting for their desired object of affection.
Email John: Fishbac@cs.com