Adventures in the Amazon

We flew into Iquitos because it’s the only way to get there. Flying over the Andes was pretty awesome.

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Iquitos is the entry to the Peruvian Amazon, a city not connected by road to the outside world. It’s a fascinating and chaotic city right on the Amazon River. Part Delhi, part shanty town and part wild frontier. There are literally thousands of motorkaros (tuk tuk/rickshaws) all driving as fast as possible. The noise is deafening. It’s a crazy party town of raucous bars, karaoke and gambling dens with walls of poker machines. It’s tropical, hot, wet, humid, abundant in fruit and green vegetation. Most of the buildings have no glass in the windows and neither do the buses.

I wanted to go on a retreat with a traditional shaman. JH wasn’t keen but agreed to come along for the ride. I researched meticulously both online and ear to the ground. It became apparent that there are lots of charlatans and to have a genuine experience we would need to go to the source. Hence, from Iquitos we travelled a few hours by road to the noisy little town of Nauta and then by boat for a few more hours along one of the many tributaries of the Amazon river.

The Amazon basin (Amazonia) is so much bigger and more impressive than I even imagined, covering parts of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Columbia. It’s made up of countless rivers, lakes and wetlands all covered in thousands of square kilometres of thick jungle forest. An enormous diversity of indigenous people live in this jungle, pretty much as they always have – in self-sufficient families or small groups trading locally as needed. Travel is by river in dugout canoes or versions of. Many have small ‘brushcutter’ motors.

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We arrived at a small camp in the swamps in the middle of a storm. Our hut for a few days retreat was rustic – thatched roof, bed with mosquito net, tap of cold river water for a shower and millions of vicious mosquitos. The only way to avoid them was to hide in bed under the net. They were totally impervious to repellant, they bit through clothes and even through my hair. Obviously there was no electricity or internet and light was just a torch. Part of the shamanic healing ritual is a limited diet so there wasn’t much eating. I’m so over bananas.

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We spent the next few days exploring the myriad lakes and swamps during the day and attending ceremonies with the shaman at night. The swampy lakes and rivers around the retreat are teeming with life. Dolphins and piranhas jump up out of the water and all kinds of birds skim along the surface and fly overhead. There are patches of exquisite giant water lilies straight out of that fabulous movie with all the blue people.

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The little boy who lives at the camp has a pet otter called Biscoe. It goes into the river and brings back fish in its mouth for the family’s dinner. It’s free to come and go as it likes and could run away if it wanted to but it seems very happy to sleep on beds, get lots of love and play in the water with the children.

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Another strange animal we met was a sloth called Pablo. I was nervously vigilant keeping an eye out for trafficking of animals, however everything we saw in this area seemed to be above board. We visited a family living along the river and they said that Pablo is a sloth that visits them and has done for many years. Apparently sloths can live to be 40 years old. I couldn’t really understand enough to get the story of how the visits started but they said that Pablo has a sloth family in the forest and he comes by every few weeks because they collect leaves for him. They insisted he was free to come and go and there was no evidence of cages or restrictions. I really hope so. It was amazing to meet a sloth and Pablo is adorable, moving so slowly he looks directly at you and gives you a hug. He has wicked looking claws so I’m pretty sure he could attack if he wanted to.

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While travelling along the river in one of the groovy wooden boats we saw a big group of monkeys in the trees. When they saw the boat some tried to come and get in. A baby Capuchin monkey jumped in and clung to JH and I. It didn’t want to let go and screamed like a human baby when it was forced to. When I asked our guide about the strange behaviour from the monkeys, he said that its actually a monkey reserve and lots of the monkeys are rescue ones so they are accustomed to people and are hoping for bananas.

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Our shaman, known affectionately as ‘Lucho’, is a gorgeous man all smiley dimples and laughter. The healing ceremonies are supposed to cleanse and heal on all levels – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. A native vine, Ayahuasca, is used in the ceremonies as it has been for centuries. In local lore it’s known as the ‘mother vine’ or simply ‘the medicine’. All participants in the ceremonies drink the juice of the vine which helps to cleanse the system (often by vomiting) and hope for visions of insight, epiphany or healing. The shaman’s job is to collect and prepare the vine (crushed and turned into a liquid), decide the right amount for each person, call up the spirits to help with the healing and direct the ceremony by chanting Icaros (songs). We had three quarters of a cup the first time, then graduated to a full cup.

The ceremony is conducted in complete darkness. We sit in a circle in the pitch black dark, we drink our cup of Ayahuasca then sit in silence to wait. The shaman wafts us with tobacco smoke for protection and slowly begins his chant. Gradually I begin to feel the effects – a few lights in the darkness, other ‘beings’ entering the room. My first ceremony was the most intense and pretty unsettling but I couldn’t make much sense of it. I was surrounded (way too closely) by giant alien clowns who kept trying to give me things and take me somewhere.

The shaman’s chants are cyclical. At the end of each cycle he stops chanting and in the silence you catch your breath and prepare for the next round. As he begins the next Icaro he calls up the ayahuasca and you feel it writhing in your stomach serpent-like and rising up to your throat. At this point it often comes out your mouth and you throw up violently into the provided sick bowl. As the chant increases in tempo multicoloured flashing patterns begin to spiral and become a moving kaleidoscope. The visions intensify and there is nothing to do but let them come. Each nightly ceremony lasts around four hours and is concluded by the shaman again wafting tobacco smoke for protection. The experience is somewhat different for everyone but there seemed to be a lot of similarities with other people I asked – the lights, the really big people in the room, the kaleidoscopic colours and spirals. In retrospect I can say that I was pretty terrified through a lot of it. Conversely, JH had a lovely time – but then he wasn’t being harassed by giants. I don’t yet see any difference on a physical level but perhaps some things were subconsciously resolved. It’s recommended that you need a much longer retreat than a few days for real healing. I do feel that I threw up some of my fear, self-loathing, grief and guilt and left them in that bucket in the Amazon. I hope they got a proper burial.

We retraced our steps back to Iquitos and arrived hot, sweaty, grubby and covered in mosquito bites. We had one night in a hotel to regroup, replenish supplies, get our laundry done and have a decent meal at the Karma Cafe with all the freaks. While waiting for my much anticipated dinner, I studied the Ayahuasca art on the cafe walls and recognised many of the patterns and symbols from my own experience. Freaky.

From here we planned to go to Ecuador by boat through the Amazon, rather than the conventional way of flying to Lima and then getting a bus north to the border. My research said that it was possible to get there by a series of boats – along the Amazon River and then north on the huge Rio Napo, however it wasn’t recommended as boats were infrequent, uncomfortable, crowded and unreliable. Not wanting to be any of these things we found a guide with a private boat to take us along the Amazon and then up the Rio Napo to Ecuador. Our guide Fernando is bilingual, speaking Spanish and Quichua so he could communicate with the indigenous people along the way. Unfortunately he didn’t speak much English so we had to make do with mime and our basic Spanish.

Fernando and his partner Laisa collected us at 6am and we set off to the port in Iquitos. About 6 hours later (two boats and two motorkaros) we arrived at Santa Clothilde. JH lost his hat on the Amazon, it flew out the window of the boat and disappeared. Strangely, his last hat did the same thing on the Mekong river in Asia. From there we got in Fernando’s boat and set off up the Rio Napo. It was such bliss sitting back and cruising along the beautiful wide clear river in a simple open boat, watching the Amazonian jungle float by on both sides with occasional glimpses of the native Quichua people going about their business in their houses or fishing in their dugout canoes. Sometimes we saw dolphins playing in the river, birds flying overhead and huge turtles along the banks.

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All along the river are family dwellings. They are all the same style. Wooden slats with thatched roofs, up off the ground, open style communal living. Each family has a few chickens and pigs and very occasionally a few cows and a couple of scrawny dogs. The river is used for everything – food, washing, cooking, transport. They grow corn, vegetables and fruit such as bananas and mangoes. It’s a simple healthy life with no waste or pollution.

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We travelled until nightfall and on the first night we stopped and camped with a Quichua family in their house. They were making a big vat of alcohol from corn. In fact, every Quichua house we visited was doing the same thing. Luckily it wasn’t ready or who knows what would have happened. We slept in a tent on the floor (for protection from the relentless mosquitoes) with the family sleeping directly on the floor next to us. There are no beds, no dedicated toilet area (just anywhere in the jungle), no shower, and no electricity. The steps on the houses are cut from a big plank, quite steep and hard to negotiate half asleep in the dark. I went out to go to the toilet and almost stumbled over a giant turtle.

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The morning bird chorus was amazing. One particular bird sounded like drops of water falling into a deep pool. When we set off the seven year old boy came with us. We tied his little dugout canoe to the back of our boat and travelled for an hour or so (about 40-50km) upriver. He then got in his little boat and paddled home. We continued on.

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On the second night we reached the Peruvian border town of Pantoja – a dodgy looking town if ever I saw one. There was only one place to stay. Supposedly a hostel but more like a concrete prison block. I was excited to see an actual bed, a shower and even a sit-down toilet. Sadly no water though. The next morning we had to go and get our Peru exit stamp before getting back on the river. There was no cup of coffee to be had in the entire town.

On the third day we passed the Yasuni River national park and arrived at Nuevo Rocqueforte in Ecuador. Ecuador! I think this is the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced – hotter than a middle eastern desert in summer. The humidity was so high that sweat was running off us in rivers and puddling on the floor. Apart from this it was a lovely tropical village with flowers and fruit growing abundantly and everyone so friendly. No one walked past in the street without smiling and saying hello. This was the end of our boat trip with Fernando as this is where they live. It was sad to say goodbye to the boat and family that in a short time had come to feel like home.

The last part of this trip to our destination of Coca in Ecuador was by public boat – a 20m or so long and 2.5m wide skinny motorised boat. The same style as all the other boats in this region, basically a fancy dugout canoe with a motor. It’s the daily transport and cargo service on this stretch of river and takes 10-15 hours each way, depending on river conditions. It leaves at dawn. Fernando and Laisa arrived on the river bank before we left and brought us cups of coffee. So sweet and thoughtful. Unbelievably the boat started playing loud party music (samba, reggaeton, pop) through the speakers pre-dawn and kept it up all the way to Coca. People got on and off along the way, tossing in bags of potatoes, corn and goodness knows what. The army occasionally got on here and there to have a nosey, so sometimes it must be bags of cocaine.

It was a painstakingly long slow journey but eventually we arrived in Coca – tired, grubby, hot, sweaty, sunburnt and covered head to toe in red itchy lumps and sores from countless layers of insect bites. We’re still in the Amazon jungle but from here there are roads out, so escape is possible, but we might decide to continue south into just one more uncomfortable but exhilarating jungle adventure.

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