Junglin’

3 Nov

This past weekend, I took advantage of the Nov 1 national holiday for Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day), and took a 4-day trip to Pacaya-Samiriya National Reserve.  Pacaya-Samiriya is a vast expanse of dense Amazonian jungle, a bit difficult to access, and not heavily frequented by tourists.  In order to get to our destination, our group — myself, fellow TNS volunteer Yun, and a Canadian NGO worker I met recently named Veronique — had to take a colectivo from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas, a long ferry ride from Yurimaguas to the flyspeck town of Lagunas, and from there ride several hours in a canoe to get to our first campsite.

Holding a baby crocodile just snatched out of the water
Holding a baby crocodile pulled from the water by our canoe during a night-time excursion in the park

It Wasn’t “El Romantico”, But It Turned Out OK

Our Friday late-night drive through the mountains to Yurimaguas took us through winding, dangerous turns on a narrow cliff-side road in near-total darkness — yet proved surprisingly uneventful thanks to us having the rare colectivo driver who isn’t a complete maniac.  The thought struck me that if I ever finally grab my huevos and get a motorcycle here, this would be an amazing ride.

Early Sat. morning we headed to the port, and specifically to the office of the Huallaga Express, where Yun had made reservations for us on a “high-speed” yacht that would take us ~55 miles up the river to Lagunas in about 4 hours.  The only problem was — the desk agent claimed no evidence of our reservations existed, and the boat was absolutely sold out.  Which left us scrambling for alternatives to get to Lagunas that day.  The only viable option was to ride a cargo/passenger ferry misnamed El Romantico, which had the advantage of being cheap (only 25 soles, compared to 130 for the Huallaga Express) — and the disadvantage being my reaction to seeing it: I pictured a newspaper headline which read “Rickety Ferry Capsizes, Dozens Drown”.

At first glance, the “seating” appeared to be a long, hard wooden bench along the sides of the boat, looking in on a dirty, wooden-slat-floor interior.  Also, the ride would be 10 hours instead of 4, we were told.  Actually, with the ferry stopping at what seemed like every village or tiny riverside community along the way, the ride turned out to be 11.5 hours, and by arriving late on Sat. night, we had already lost a day of camping.

Interior of the El Romantico ferry

But as it turned out, none of us minded, because against all odds that ferry ride turned out to be a lot of fun.  We learned that the empty interior of the boat was where people strung up hammocks, so we bought one right before leaving, to alternate naps between the three of us.  Once on our way, there was mercifully a gentle river breeze, and we whiled away the hours reading, chatting, eating, and drinking cold Cokes while sitting on the front end of the boat with our legs dangling over the water.  Although the boat was crowded — we were surrounded on one side by a woman carrying a cardboard box with small airholes for the two live chickens inside it, and a fisherman toting a large sack of fish he’d caught — it wasn’t too cramped.  At times I wandered about and struck up conversations with other passengers; late in the evening, I climbed up to the flat deck on top of the boat and wound up having a long chat with the couple who owned the boat.  From there also I witnessed an amazing sunset over the river.

Sunset viewed from the El Romantico ferry

“You’re in the Jungle, Baby!  (You’re Gonna Die!)”

Sunday morning saw us at long last at the entrance of Pacariya Samiria, accompanied by our guide Marcial and cook Maria (two locals who tend to their farms when not leading expeditions in the park for tourists).  We loaded ourselves and all of our gear, including the food and water to get us through the next couple of days, into one long wooden canoe which sat barely a few inches off the water’s surface.  With that, we were off, slowly into the dense vegetation.  Above us, as macaques chirped and the occasional capuchin monkey or marmoset scampered about, I thought of Heart of Darkness — and hoped that neither the staggering number of mosquitoes sucking my blood dry, nor the liberal coats of carcinogenic DEET which I was futilely painting my skin with literally every 5-10 minutes, would cause me to descend into madness.

It took us a full day in the canoe, with a few short breaks for food, to reach out night’s campsite.  Toward the end of that run, as my aching hips screamed about the cramped seating I’d endured, I had actually begun to get a little weary — although we saw birds a plenty, sightings of mammals were relatively rare (though we did spot a sloth!), and I was disappointed to learn that the pink dolphins I badly wanted to see were (as with many of the other cool animals) far deeper into the jungle then we would get on our short excursion.

Luckily, that night’s adventure perked me back up, and then some.  Well after dark, on a cloudy, moon-less night where I could barely see my hand in front of my face without a flashlight, we set off in our canoe for a little nocturnal expedition.  During this time, Marcial — who had already amazed us with his preternatural ability to see and hear animals in the trees that were completely undetectable by us — really put on a remarkable display of skill.  Just minutes after scooping a baby crocodile out of the water (and handing to me for inspection), he pulled out his pica (spear) and turned into a one-man fishery.  How he did this I still don’t know — intuitively finding a location amidst the darkness; stabbing at what seemed obviously arbitrary, but was in fact precisely timed and calculated; and coming up each time with a wriggling fish on the end of the blade.  In no time at all, we had a bag of freshly caught fish, helpfully KO’d by the back end of Marcial’s machete.

Marcial using his pica to expertly spear fish in the dark

The Old Man Jay and the Sea River

As this was going on, I too was having my epic battles with the creatures of the not-very-deep.  At one point, a sardine jumped into the canoe right in my lap, and began flopping about.  Startled in the dark, I freaked out a little, and before I came to my senses, may have almost capsized the boat.  After a moment, I managed to grab the little sucker and flipped him overboard.  I’d intended to return him to the water, but I guess owing to the fish’s flailing and my own state of excitement, I flung him a little too hard — onto the opposing river bank.  As Yun and Vero laughed uproariously at my anti-saving “Nemo”, Marcial was good enough to paddle over and give the little sardine yet another lease on life.

I redeemed myself just a couple minutes later, when a larger fish plopped into the boat in Yun’s lap, right behind me.  This time I had the presence of mind to tell her to hold still, and then I resolved the problem in a manner than many problems are resolved: with punches.  That is, I hit the thrashing fish once, twice, and a third time with my fist, until it was still.  Then, having “caught” my first fish ever in my life, I held it up triumphantly to Marcial, who approvingly nodded and put it in our bag along with his trophies.  We wound up eating all of them for breakfast the next morning, and they were delicious.

Am I Smarter Than a Piranha?  (No.)

We woke up on Monday morning, ragged and relieved after a tense night, owing to the fact that our campsite was overrun by huge cockroaches (and a few hand-sized hairy spiders).  Remember Will Smith’s house near the end of I Am Legend, when he is frantically trying to keep the horde of zombies at bay?  That was us versus the giant critters at night.

That afternoon, we tried to get our mojo back — looking to score points for Team Human over Team Scary Creatures — when we set out in our canoe to go fishing for pirañas (Spanish-language, not Brazilian spelling).  Other than one time I went “crabbing” in the Chesapeake Bay some years ago back home in MD, this was my first time fishing.  I’d never even held a rod before — assuming that’s what you could call the rudimentary long wooden stick and string with hook on it we used here.  To that hook we attached little cut-up bits of a fish Marcial had caught earlier, and cast our lines into the water.

Fishing for piranhas from our canoe

Unfortunately, it turns out pirañas are a crafty breed.  Despite having two bona-fide Canadians in the boat (I had assumed those Northeners were all expert hunter-fishers), bites were hard to come by.  Actually, I should clarify — there were indeed pirañas biting.  But these bastards were experts at eating the bait off the hook without getting snared themselves.  Even Marcial struck out!  We were forced to admit defeat once all our bait had become free fish food.

I Hope They Fuel Airplanes More Accurately…

That was the last major adventure of our time in the park.  In the evening, we ate a light, early dinner, and shuffled to bed early.  This time we had become not exactly used to, but at least less squeamish about, our crunchy, long-antennaed amigos.  And we didn’t have to spend much time with them, as we were up before 2:30AM in order to start our long canoe ride down the river back to the park exit.  It’s a measure of how quickly we were getting accustomed to long, uncomfortable stretches crammed into a canoe that the ~7 hours passed by quickly and my old-man joints weren’t screaming as they had been a couple days before.

Among the other highlights we saw were a poisonous river snake whose venom, Marcial informed us, could kill a human within 24 hours if untreated.  Also, right before we reached the park exit circa 10am, we were treated to the sight of a couple of river otters splashing along.  Cool furry fellas!

We returned to the port at Lagunas to catch the 11am Huallaga Express, and this time our seats on the boat were secure.  Though our run of bad luck with this boat continued, as some 2/3 of the way into the journey back to Yurimaguas, our boat ran out of gas in the middle of the river.  Stranded, we had to make our way to the river bank and then wait as crew and passengers placed several calls to people in the area, appealing to them to come rescue us with a supply of (what turned out to be opportunistically marked-up) fuel.

Oh, Peru…  As another passenger on the boat remarked, “I hope they calculate fuel for airplanes better than they do for boats around here!”

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3 Responses to “Junglin’”

  1. nj November 3, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    Great entry.
    DEET is carcinogenic? I don’t believe so.
    You didn’t catch that fish, that fish caught you! (And then you killed it, hehe.)

  2. neha November 7, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    holy cow. hah that’s all i got. awesome sunset picture, btw.

  3. jen November 8, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    haha still laughing about the squeals over the sardine 😉

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