One of the things we were looking forward to the most in South America was a visit into some of the lush and expansive jungle the continent is famous for. Jungle tours are available in a number of different locations, including Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, and usually involve accommodation in primitive lodges, walks through the rainforest, visits to indigenous groups, and boat or canoe rides.
With so many options, we spent a lot of time researching the pros and cons of each destination, finally settling on the Iquitos area in Northeastern Peru, where smaller rivers and tributaries running from high up in the Andes merge together to join the massive Amazon River.
Iquitos, home to about half a million people, is the largest city in the world without roads connecting it to the outside world. Here, deep in the jungle, the only way in is either by a multi-day boat trip or domestic flight from Lima. We found cheap $50 flights with Peruvian Airlines (including free food and alcoholic drinks to boot), which we booked a few days in advance while in Lima.
We arrived to the small airport on a hot, sweaty evening. The sweltering heat, clouds of insects swarming around the lights around the baggage claim counter, and aggressive motortaxi “tuk tuk” drivers were unlike anything we’d seen before.
Welcome to the Jungle.
Taking a bit of a chance, we decided to wing it and book a tour last-minute from one of the local operators in Iquitos. As it is the low season, we figured there would be plenty of openings along with significant discounts.
That night, we sprung for an air-conditioned room with cable TV, enjoying our last night in “civilization”. In the morning, we woke up around 7, found and booked a 5-day/4-night tour with Cumaceba Lodge, grabbed a delicious breakfast at the quirky 24-hour diner “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and were on our way in a small speedboat up the Amazon to the lodge by 9. The pieces all fell together fairly fast and we were lucky to join a tour leaving immediately at a cost that was half of what it would have been to arrange the same tour from Lima.
Cumaceba Lodge is located 35 km downriver from Iquitos, on a small channel feeding into the Amazon. The trip to the lodge was fascinating, as we passed floating houses, dugout canoes, and hundreds of riverboats – some very large.
On the way to the lodge, we made a stop at a small village to visit a fish pond. But this wasn’t just any fish pond – it was home to the Amazonian Paiche fish, one of the biggest fish in the world, with the largest weighing in at over 400 lbs and growing to a length of 10 feet.
We were given the chance to feed the Paiche some leftover fish heads and tails and watch these massive behemoths jump and thrash out of the water.
The Amazon River rises and falls through the wet and dry seasons by more than 40 feet each year. When the waters recede and the upper banks are exposed, farmers plant corn and children play soccer games on the newfound empty dry land.
As we were visiting in the dry season, the water levels were very low and we had to transfer from the speedboat to a smaller canoe for the quick trip up the small channel where Cumaceba Lodge is located. After a couple minutes motoring up the channel, the boat got stuck on the muddy bottom. Everyone in the boat was forced to rock back and forth to try to free it. When that didn’t work, the guides stripped to their skivvies and jumped in the water to push us free. After getting stuck again and again, they finally decided to give up and make us walk the rest of the way along the dry river bank.
After such a long journey, we were glad to finally make it to the lodge, where we were given juice made from the native Cocona and shown to our “huts”. While the lodge is fairly rustic (no hot water, electricity, or cell phone reception) we were impressed by how comfortable the accommodations are. Our large hut was completely screened in to keep out the creepy crawlies, had a comfortable bed, good ventilation, and a standard bathroom with a regular flush toilet and shower. Not bad for the middle of the jungle!
Food at the lodge was decent, though a bit dull. Breakfast usually consisted of eggs and bread, lunch featured fish, and dinner always included chicken. Surprisingly, the lodge also had a bar with cold beers, which were very rewarding after long sweaty days of trekking around the area.
As night fell, the staff lit kerosene lamps, which were placed in the dining room, along the elevated walkways, and in front of each hut. Luckily, the sweltering temperatures dropped significantly at night, and we were able to sleep solidly.
In our next post, we’ll talk about some of the wildlife seen, people encountered, and activities we did in the Amazon at Cumaceba Lodge.