Off The Beaten River – Adventures in the Peruvian Amazon
Deep in the dark heart of the Amazonian jungle it’s not the big beasts you have to worry about. Thankfully, the jaguars and the snakes tend to keep their distance.
In any case, our three-fingered guide Achiles had his gun handy at all times and we two city boys had a machete each, even if we weren’t all that sure about what to do with them.
No, what gets you in the end are the tiny monsters you don’t see – the mosquitoes and all their blood sucking cousins that will literally eat you alive. They grind you down with their constant attention and
there’s no relief. You long for night so you can cower under a mosquito net for a few hours.
And then there’s the mud. The sound of the rain thundering off a million leaves can be heard from miles away, but soon enough it’s cascading down on to your head, turning the ground into a mire of feet-
binding, cement-like mud. The jungle doesn’t care how much you spent on your Gore Tex boots or your hiking trousers. The mud will devour them all. And if you hang around for long enough, the insects will
devour you too.
Our rugged and taxing five-day journey into the jungle started in the bustling Peruvian lakeside port of Yarinacocha in eastern Peru, some 500 miles from the capital Lima. We had both seen the jungle many
times, but we wanted to experience it as the locals do – travelling through genuine wilderness for five days, calling in at indigenous villages, but otherwise largely living off our surroundings.
And so it was that we found ourselves on board a narrow riverboat with our captain and guide Achiles and his 18 year-old son Junior. We found the pair by making enquiries at Yarinacocha docks – being
Spanish speakers was essential.
And as the boat chugged away from its berth and headed for the dense, ominous jungle in the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had bitten off more than we could chew. Past this point, the river was
the only way forward and civilisation was slipping away behind us. Our kit and provisions: A cylinder of gas, thin mattresses, mosquito nets and rice, eggs and fruit. We would be hunting and fishing for
As we left the port and the river traffic behind, we gradually entered another world – coasting past riverside settlements from which villagers paddled their dugout canoes to check on their fishing nets
or gather reeds to patch the roofs of their simple, wall-less platform houses. Here, in many ways, the boundary between water and land is blurred. The river is a source of food and transport, homes and
entire villages are built on stilts surrounded by water. And the geography is shaped by water – patches of reeds conspire to form islands of swampy mud, which themselves unite into banks of earth and,
eventually, whole clusters of trees. Whether or not any of this was connected to earth under the water was impossible to guess. The land seemed to be floating on the glassy surface.
Cruising past river dolphins jumping and dancing in the evening light we watched the sun set, continuing upstream as the dusk gathered around us. Sitting in the bow and calling commands to his son working
the engine, Achiles shone his torch occasionally but it wasn’t needed. Fireflies lined the narrow channel, lighting the way for us like the blinking lights on an airport runway.
It was pitch black by the time we came to a suitable camp, an abandoned and partially washed- away platform house, the roof still intact but the floor raided for timber. Finding just enough floor space to
hang our mosquito nets and lay out our thin mattresses, we hauled our kit from the boat in bare feet: boots were not much use in the knee-deep mud.
Suddenly Achiles cried out through the darkness. “Serpiente!” he yelled at us, shining his light somewhere near the bare feet of my companion. There we saw the deadly still body of a black and red
jergon, a highly venomous snake, lying directly below the patchy floorboards of our new camp.
Brandishing machetes and a wooden stake, father and son set about attacking the creature, an assassination attempt that failed as the snake made its escape, writhing furiously into the night.
Later Achiles explained his instinctive attack on the snake: “In the jungle you are playing with your life, second by second,” he said. “If someone held a pistol to your head, if he wanted to kill you, you would
try to kill him first. Here it’s exactly the same. The snake wants to kill us. He wants to kill your family. We have to kill him before he gets his chance.”
It didn’t make for a restful night. But just after dawn, and a breakfast of scrambled eggs we continued the journey, up the Utuquinia river, heading for the house of Achiles’ friend, Don Luis, who has spent every one of his 67 years living in the jungle. A small, wiry man with a ready grin, wisps of white hair and a face hardened by living a subsistence life, he and his three grandchildren welcomed us into their home – a collection of platform huts in a small clearing cut away from the jungle on the riverbank.
As we clambered up the muddy bank Don Luis’s sow and her two piglets were cooling off in a small creek, chickens ran free, and the children watched, beaming toothy grins at their unfamiliar visitors.
Don Luis and his family are remarkably hospitable people. Two days travel from the closest market, money carries little weight. Instead, life works on a barter system, everyone exchanging what they have
for what they need. Sitting down to eat with the whole family, we contributed our rice and eggs, while they filled a large pan with fish.
But they still have precious little to spare and if we wanted to eat anything other than rice, eggs and tomatoes we would have to take the gun and head into the jungle to find our dinner. Out here monkey and caiman support fish as the staple source of protein. The trade in these creatures is strictly prohibited, but villagers are free to hunt according to their traditions.
That evening, Achiles led us out on an expedition but the only caimen we found were babies – strictly off the menu. I was secretly glad when we came home empty-handed, but still there was the gnawing hunger. Trudging through thick forest for several hours, hacking our way with machetes and wading through waist deep swamps is hungry work.
“Across that swamp is virgin jungle.” Achiles had told us, “Plenty of animals.”
It was only when we were halfway across that he mentioned the electric eels.
“Now you tell us!” We shouted back in protest, but we were already up to our waists. “Todo parte de la aventura,” our guide chuckled. It’s all part of the adventure; a phrase that had already become our
The electric eels left us alone but the mosquitoes couldn’t believe their luck. They were the only ones not going hungry. Achiles with his healthy share of native blood that makes the locals immune to the
worst of the jungle’s excesses, told us to ditch our useless commercial repellent and use the local methods instead. He showed us how to scrape the bark from the hubos tree and squeeze it in our fists to produce a dark, strongly alkaline fluid that would keep the blood suckers at bay for hours. He showed us how to cut the bark of the árbol de sange (blood tree) to release its scarlet red sap that turned into a
soothing and antibacterial lather when rubbed on to our countless bites.
“Thanks to the mosquitoes!” Don Luis laughed after dinner one evening, as we sat in the dying light watching the local youngsters’ impressive display on the village’s volleyball pitch. “If it wasn’t for them,
everyone would want to come and live here!”
The village of Nueva Utuquinia, just downriver from Don Luis’ small farm, is home to around 400 people. The settlement consists of various platform houses, a school and a community building, all built around
a marshy football field and the volleyball court.
Life in the village is virtually self sufficient. The river teems with fish and the jungle drips with plátanos, a fibrous and energy-rich cousin of the banana. Each family raises a small flock of chickens and grows yuca root in their individual plots of land. Excess crops are taken to Yarinacocha and sold or exchanged for
whatever they can’t produce for themselves; tools, medicine and other necessities.
But self sufficiency isn’t easy. There is no electricity, villagers go to bed at 7pm when the sun goes down and they wake up at 5am when dawn breaks. Everyone is expected to make a contribution; Jueyarl, Don
Luis’ permanently beaming eight- year-old grandson, prepares the evening fire and lights the candles while Jeay, Don Luis’ daughter, cleans, guts and roasts the piranhas for dinner. Don Luis himself works all day, every day, and then canoes home to his farm, alone and after dark.
I asked Junior whether or not this hard life meant that most youngsters wanted to leave for the city. My question baffled him. “Why would we leave? Here we have everything: fruits, fish, the forest. Everything.”
We left the following morning, with Don Luis’ family waving us away from the riverbank. It would take us two days to get back to Yarinacocha, partly because we wanted to take our time, but also because of the almost impassable blockages of swamp and driftwood that unusually high waters had dragged into the channels.
Before long our boat was caught fast in a tangled carpet of floating logs and debris. “Everybody out!” Achiles ordered. We jumped into the water, machetes in hand. Fortunately the channel was no more
than a few feet deep and we hacked a way through the 200 metre-long web of branches that lay between our boat and the open river.
Dragging our boat by hand through the morass, we finally burst through back into the river. Congratulating ourselves, we climbed back on board and restarted the engine. I had only just pulled off my waterlogged boots and put a victory cigarette between my lips when we were confronted by a second blockage. We spent the rest of the day in and out of the boat, forcing our way through the clogged channels, eventually limping into the last camp of our journey with a shattered propeller and drenched to the bone.
A lone fisherman sat in the hut we headed for, the last remnant of a jungle lodge that had been abandoned by the waves of terrorism that rocked the region in the late 1980s and 1990s. Grateful for the company, the fisherman was happy to share some of his catch with us and as night fell we enjoyed one final meal of fish, rice and fried plátano while, in the far distance, an electrical storm rumbled, the magnificent lightning carrying for miles as it illuminated the night sky.
Changing our propeller with the spare at daybreak the following morning, it wasn’t long until we were back on the Ucayali. We stopped for breakfast on the banks of the great river and watched the cargo
and logging boats struggling against the powerful current.
Arriving back at Yarinacocha, I had just my mosquito bites and the vague sense of unbalance that comes after a spending a long time on water as a souvenir of the previous five days. Switching river for road
once again there would be no more cutting our way through the undergrowth, catching our own dinner or sleeping on patchy floorboards above venomous snakes hiding in the darkness. But sometimes these
are the things that make it all worthwhile. It was all part of the adventure, after all.
Peru’s Jungle Highlights
Spending a week up to your waist in mud, river or swamp is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for the wild at heart seeking some proper adventure, this stretch of jungle makes the perfect alternative to the luxury lodges further north and south.
Achiles Amasifuen Souza is primarily a guide for researchers and professional expeditions, although is happy to accompany travellers on trips into the jungle. Be aware that this is in a different league to the more comfortable (and outright luxurious) options that are available in Peru’s northern and southern Amazon.
Contact Achiles on firstname.lastname@example.org or (+55) 01-6172-8108. Some knowledge of Spanish and a willingness to get your hands very dirty and your feet very wet are essential. If you’re seeking a more typical foray into the jungle, take a look at some of the jungle lodges on offer from a Peru tour operator such as Peru Discover. Most lodges are situated either around the Iquitos or Puerto Maldonado areas, or around the Manu national park.