Monday, September 19, 2016

The Amazon & The Erotic Palm

My final new stop of the entire gap year (nooooo!) was the Amazon!  Not just confined to Brazil, the Amazon actually stretches across nine countries, including Peru, and oddly enough, France (I’m not joking).  After being high up in the Andes for the past two weeks, it was refreshing to get back down to an altitude with oxygen.  It was a quick flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, our gateway to the Amazon.  Looking out the window, the scenery rapidly changed:  the mountains just stopped and all of a sudden there was thick green jungle.  It was an incredible transition.

Our flight landed in Puerto Maldonado and we boarded a bus to a little dock to hop on a boat down the Tambopata River, which is a tributary of the Madre de Dios River, which itself merges with another tributary to become another river all together, which then flows into the Amazon River, and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean.  Our lodge was lovely – despite being super hot and humid outside, we had no air conditioning.  The rooms actually cooled down quite well at night and the “windows” were big screens – letting fresh air circulate in while keeping the insane amount of bugs out.  We only had two days to explore this tiny little slice of the Amazon and nearly everything we did revolved around the flora and fauna.

A few highlights of my time in the Amazon:

Caiman-spotting night cruise:
Caimans are smaller cousins of alligators and crocodiles, though smaller doesn’t mean cuter and I’d still be deeply terrified if I saw one anywhere near me.  We saw white caimans during our time in the Amazon, though black caimans also exist there.  Our first caiman spotting was on the initial boat ride to our lodge during the daytime, but the next night we took a boat ride down the river with the explicit purpose of spotting more caimans at night.  We saw some adults as well as little baby caimans which were about the size of burritos.  Yummy!

Night walk and bugs:
Our first night including a guided night walk through the jungle.  It was just a small trail that extended out from the lodge so it was perfectly safe and not as scary as “walking through the jungle at night” sounds.  It was here that we saw various insects including leaf cutter ants, bullet ants, a golden silk spider, an owl butterfly (so named because the design on its wing looks like the eye of an owl), stick insects, hunting spiders, crickets, and the wandering spider.  The next day, we also saw the chicken spider tarantula.  That’s what our guide called it so I’m just going with it.  His name was Elvis (the guide, not the spider) so the whole experience was meant to be a little crazy I think.  Elvis poked a stick into the spider’s hole to lure it out.  Not at all crazy.  We also saw a big ass beetle and the skeleton of a spider that had been killed by wasps, just like the ones I learned about previously in Costa Rica.

Day walk with a penis tree:
Our morning walk took us through some trails further up the river.  It was here that we learned a lot about the local plants.  My favourite plant was the “penis tree” or “erotic palm” so-called because of its dildo-like roots that shoot out from the base above the ground.  Hehe!  We saw several strangler figs, which I had seen in other parts of the world as well.  The kapok was a less funny tree with a fibrous cotton-like substance in the seed.  The tallest we saw was about 45 metres but they can grow up to 60 metres in height.  The local custom is to walk around the large base of the tree three times:  once for health, once for love, and once for money.  I walked around three times but it didn’t work.  I feel fatter than ever after spending six weeks in the USA and not having gone to a gym in well over a year.  I’m still single as usual and my bank account is slowly draining (I need a job fast!)  Our day walk also consisted of a jaunt around Lago Condenado (“condemned lake” in English).  The lake is an oxbow lake, the arc of a winding river that has been cut off from the main river.  It will eventually dry up, hence the name.  I had a moment of unleashing my inner geology nerd and I’m sure the rest of the group was just like “shut up now please but do still be on our trivia team”.

Birds birds birds:
If you’ve been following my travels and looking at my pictures, you’ll notice that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of birds along the way.  This is because of James, a young Englishman I met on my first Africa tour.  James seems cool at first, but he’s actually a huge bird nerd, and he spread his bird nerdiness around to the rest of our safari group.  In Zambia we are all like “Whatever, James”, but then by Cape Town we were all like “Did you see that fucking bird?!?!? So cool!”.  So, yeah, thanks James for destroying twenty seemingly cool people.  Anyway, the whole point is that I saw a shit ton of birds in the Amazon.  The red and green macaw was colourful like Christmas, and the mealy parrot (the largest of the Amazon parrots) wasn’t disappointing either.  We saw a lovely photogenic white-winged swallow, an ugly vulture, and an even uglier bird:  the hoatzin.  The hoatzin is more colloquially known as the “stinky bird” because its particular leafy diet gives it a bad smell which therefore makes it unappetizing to eat which means it has no natural predators.  So this ugly ass bird is basically the lion of the Amazon.  The birding highlight, however, was an AMAZING juvenile crested owl sitting on a branch only a few metres from where our group was walking.  My university’s mascot is the owl so I made sure to snap a great close-up photo of this beauty.

At the lodge:
The lodge itself has an array of wildlife for viewing pleasure.  Our guides began calling us all over one afternoon to see two species of monkeys just swinging around in the trees next to the dining room.  The red howler monkeys were everywhere, but I think the saddle-back tamarins are way cuter.  There were quite a few common lizards running around.  Their colouring – bright green body and tail with a brownish-grayish head – was anything but common.  We chopped some brazil nuts which led to the appearance of some brown agoutis hoping to have a little snack.  They are decent-sized rodents but actually super cute – not ugly and scary like mice and rats… and squirrels.

Elsewhere in the Amazon:
If we thought the brown agouti was a large rodent, then the capibara was a shocking surprise.  The largest rodent in the world, the capibara is as big as your good-sized dog.  Ewwww!  Surprisingly, they actually look super cute!  We also saw beautiful butterflies licking salt out of the eyes of turtles (so cool!), fruit bats, and tapir tracks.  The tapir is a big mammal related to nothing really, but closest to horses, donkeys, zebras, and rhinos, though it looks sort of like a pig crossed with an aardvark.  I was hoping to see a tapir on the trip, but I had to settle for its footprints.  Sadness.

I do plan on getting back to the Amazon one day, with one trip to the Brazilian Amazon, and one trip to cover the Amazon in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana (that pesky part of France that is actually in South America).

And that’s it.  That’s the gap year.  Mostly.  We flew back to Lima from Puerto Maldonado.  After one more day in Lima, I flew back to my hometown in Florida.  Despite doing a mini-tour of Texas and Florida back in January and February at my halfway point, I still hadn’t seen many of my friends in four years (I’m a neglectful American).  So, the final journey of the gap year was a grand tour of the USA.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the Amazon, follow this link:

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