I recently got home from a two week expedition up the Madre de Dios River in southern Peru, in an area near the Andes mountains where the chocolate brown water still has thousands of miles to travel through the jungle before it gets to the Atlantic. I’m not really at liberty to say why we were there and what the trip was for, but suffice it to say that everything we did was for a reason.
Our departure upriver was delayed for two days, the first when my backpack full of gear didn’t show up at the Lima airport, and the second when massive storms to the north flooded the river and made it impossible to launch. Fortunately it passed quickly, and we were able to depart on the third day after driving as far upriver as we could. Our boat driver looked fully native to me, about 5 foot 6 with huge gold and silver capped teeth and very dark skin, and his boat was a long, narrow canoe powered by an outboard motor with an 8 foot long shaft between the motor and the prop, locally called a peki peki.
Our first stop was directly across the river at a little logging community where we got our first stares of the trip. I wasn’t sure how to interpret them at first, but I quickly realized that they weren’t “Wow, look at those gringos,” stares, they were more like “What the hell are you doing here,” stares. After buying a few snacks and some gasoline, we headed upriver.
The top speed of our noble vessel was probably about 10 mph, but with the current going against us at about 5, we were moving pretty slowly upriver. The motor was not exactly muffled, and I’m surprised our boatman’s hearing was as good as it was, sitting next to that thing all day. The sound was sort of like a powerful lawnmower but with more pop, and when we were close to the bank, something about the way it bounced off the uneven vegetation made the forest sound like it was teeming with chattering birds. Jason said he’d even had a half-hour long debate with someone about whether it was birds or the motor, a debate which ended abruptly when they got where they were going and all went quiet.
After a brief stop at a small village where our boatman decided he wanted a higher salary, we motored upriver for several hours before arriving at Lagarto, a tiny town home to 9 families that was sort of the “big city” of the area. On Sunday, the loggers and miners from miles around descended on Lagarto to play volleyball, dance, and listen to God-awful music until 4 in the morning (we later learned). Although everyone had the “What the hell are you doing here stare”, we asked if there were any beds available as we’d need a home base for a few days. They were suspicious, but not enough to tell us to get lost, and we would spend the next 6 nights in Lagarto.
For our first foray into the jungle we stopped at a nearby logging camp and asked if someone would take us to a lake we pointed out on a map from Google Earth. The best way, they said, was by heading up a small creek that joined the river just upstream from the logging camp, and one of them volunteered to be our guide. Being in the camp was pretty uncomfortable, especially thanks to this little weasel of a guy with a plastic sack draped over his back like a cape and a big, crooked, homemade cross made of twigs dangling around his neck. He mumbled at us basically the whole time we were there, most of which was unintelligible, and several of the other loggers later told us he was nuts.
The trip up the creek was definitely fun and eventually we made it, though it would have been hard to find a boat that was more unsuited to the task. The 25 foot long, 5 foot wide boat didn’t take sharp corners well, and this creek had a lot of them. But with the help of our guide standing up front with a 15 foot pole and shoving the nose of the boat in the right direction every 5 seconds, we managed. We almost got stopped within 50 feet of the lake by a thick floating forest of vegetation the the motor couldn’t push through, but with everyone kicking it out of the way and some fancy work by the boatman we made it to open water, where it wasn’t long before someone was down to their skivvies and in the piranha and caiman infested water. I let him swim around a bit before I jumped in…
We made the trip back down the creek with no mishaps other than a good-sized chunk of metal getting knocked off the prop, which gave the boat a pretty jarring vibration as it cut through the water.
The next morning we met our guide at the logging camp, and told him our goal was to hike to and around the lake from the day before, and he set off into the forest. Throughout the day we passed old mining pits and downed trees, mostly walking on trail but doing a fair bit of bushwhacking when the trail curved in the wrong direction. As soon as we got to the lake we found an Amazon Wood Lizard, which is probably the most interesting critter I saw and photographed on my trip to Peru in 2010. This one was much more colorful than the last, and it’s bright orange skin wasn’t very good camouflage against the gray tree trunk it was clinging to.
We made it halfway around the lake before a wide canal blocked our path, so we headed back to camp. By this point in the trip, I was somewhat amazed that I wasn’t sick yet. Some conquered monarch or other always takes revenge on me when I’m in Latin America, regardless of how careful I am, and being careful just wasn’t an option on this trip. Eventually I lost track of potential causes of the illness that I knew was bound to strike me at any minute.