Madre De Dios
Amazon Basin, Peru
Written/edited by Andrew Gibbs and Nos T. O'maniac
Black Caiman. Photo by Richard C. Hoyer.
THREE LAW SCHOOL GRADUATES, the bar exam, and a shit ton of pent-up, restless frustration. We’d been “learning to love the law” long enough. Time to blow off steam. A South American sojourn seemed a fitting reward for a summer wasted in exam prep purgatory. As we hovered above the clouds, Tim and I discussed expectations. No swank. No amusement park hogwash. No touchy-feely tourist trap horseshit. Something real. Something substantial. Something that might sting a little.
After our rendezvous with Rich in Lima, we hopped a flight to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire in southeastern Peru. It doesn’t take long to see why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. And somehow, someway it clings to its identity even as mass tourism tries to dissolve its distinct culture. In the shadow of extraordinary fifteenth-century architecture lies the city’s beating heart, Plaza de Armas. Even throngs of tourists, trinket hawkers, and imperious shoe shiners can’t diminish the square’s grandeur and colonial allure.
Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. Photo by Jesse Chehak.
Days of planning, investigation, and tour agency negotiations centered on a jungle incursion went for naught. Instead, our fortune hinged on a single flyer passed along nonchalantly in the plaza. Anyone interested in a jungle trip should attend a slideshow presentation, it read. Promising? No. Intriguing? Yes.
We weaved our way through Cuzco’s labyrinth of narrow streets and up a long steep hill to a nondescript door with a white sheet of paper taped to it reading only: “Wanamei Expeditions.” Encouraging? No. Still intriguing? Yes.
We entered and met Claus Kjaerby and Mateo Jicca, the Danish brains behind Wanamei. An online summary of their operation is as follows:
“Manu National Park is situated on the eastern slopes of the Andean mountain range descending to the lowlands. It is bounded by the west margin of the river Rio Madre de Dios. Extending to the east of the river is an area settled by indigenous people consisting of the Harakmbut, Matsiguenga and Yine tribes, designated as the Amarakaeri Reserved Zone. This is where some 1,500 indigenous people live scattered across nearly 500,000 hectares of largely unspoiled dense rainforest traversed by numerous small rivers.
WANAMEI EXPEDITIONS is a tourism enterprise based in Cuzco, Peru. It is wholly owned by eight indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon lowlands and run exclusively by its members. WANAMEI EXPEDITIONS sees itself as an agency for ecologically and socially acceptable travel to explore the territories of the Harakmbut, Matsiguenga and Yine communities. WANAMEI EXPEDITIONS takes its name from a sacred tree of the Harakmbut tribe.”
As promised, a slideshow ensued detailing various itineraries of duration and difficulty through the nature conservation area east of Rio Madre de Dios. Does the “Mother Of God River” not require a “Mother Of God” expedition? We thought so. We chose the extended nine-day option: A two-day trek along the riverbed and through the jungle followed by a seven-day float down river to Puerto Maldonado via rafts—rafts to be constructed along the way. Our enthusiasm was a little much even for Claus and Mateo who reminded us, “This is not meant to be a day in the life of a native, douchebags.” I added the “douchebags”, but I’m sure they were thinking it. Point taken. Lo siento.
Rich and I were giddy, school girl giddy. This was, by far, our most extreme collaboration. Tim’s wide mouth and vacant stare betrayed reluctance and inexperience, but it quickly evaporated, no match for our DEFCON Giddy: Level 5. We’d just finished four days on the Inca Trail under suboptimal conditions. That was a hootenanny, so…
Claus did emphasize the “rough going” nature of the excursion, but his tone and affect were, in hindsight, conspicuously understated. Intentional? Probably not…probably. The outfit was new. No doubt kinks were still being ironed out. And let’s not forget Mother Nature, the Mother of God, and the fickleness of Fate. As if to tempt all three, he assured us it was the dry season and rain would not be an issue. Upon reflection “dry season” and “jungle” do feel somewhat contradictory.
We met our ride outside Wanamei Expeditions at 5:00 am, realizing for the first time our itinerary lacked substantive detail. In our excitement we’d never bothered to ask about the exact “where to’s” and “how longs”. Why would we? The driver spoke zero English and our Spanish wasn’t much better. So, we decided to conserve energy. Buckle up. Sit back. Besides, I thought, surprises are neat.
After eight hours of bone-jarring, kidney-damaging roads, we reached our port of call—a small riverside village of forty or so inhabitants with corrugated metal shacks and little else. As we unloaded our gear from the truck and hauled it down the footpath, we got our first glimpse of river life in the Amazon Basin. Decorating the small shoreline were several long, narrow boats common to the region with canopies, rows of padded seats, and modified outboard motors to accommodate shallow, rocky river stretches. Canopies? Padded seats? Not too shabby, right?
We laughed when we considered what it might be like on a forlorn neighbor barely one echelon above a dugout canoe. Capacity? Four passengers and a few stacks of bananas…max. We felt sorry for the fools forced to navigate the river in that contraption.
We fools paid for our insolence, managing to pack seven passengers and all our supplies on the glorified motor log. All that weight seemed, per us naïve fools, to invite disaster. And though I’m no marine commander, the water did rise precariously close to the sides. We would’ve chalked it up to our ignorance had we not been asked to exit the boat on more than one occasion to allow the safe passage through light rapids. To complete the picture, I’ll mention how the boat runners stripped down to their tidy-whities as a precaution.
In the spirit of Master Yoda, brimming with confidence we were not. A three-hour downpour didn’t help… Gracias.
The boat we wanted.
The boat we got.
A small fishing/agricultural village would be our first overnight stop. The tentative plan, as far as we could glean, was to spend the night and then have our motor log drop us at our insertion point come the morning. However, we were still just guessing. Our guides had yet to appear and the language gap was vast. And I’m not talking English-Spanish. Many of these folks spoke Spanish as well as we did. They were using their native tongue (a Quechuan language, I believe).
Heavy rain and smiling locals greeted our triumvirate and, thankfully, they took pity on us. Rather than pitch our tent on the waterlogged river bank, we were directed to a small building with two things I love, a roof and a floor. Might as well have been the Marriott lobby. Our gratitude was palpable as we welcomed dinner—a delicious mystery which included live entertainment, i.e. live bats skimming our heads and table.
Ever been to the zoo? Of course you have. Ever been in a zoo? Our every action and gesticulation provoked the curiosity of villagers. The bolder ones entered through the door for a gander, while the more timid types, usually children, peeked over and through open-air windows. I guess we were their version of a reality show, albeit an alternative reality. The curiosity was friendly, non-intrusive. Nothing like half-naked white men to set the town abuzz. As welcome guests we were honored by the attention, attention that continued long into the night. I suppose falling asleep to the sound of giggling teenagers could be unsettling. We found it soothing, reassuring; maybe even oddly therapeutic. I suppose it made us feel safe.
The next morning we met our guides—Pablo, Rolando and Walter, a matching triumvirate. There was a faint awkwardness lingering in the air as both groups sized up the other. Not unusual considering we, and they, were about to spend over a week in the jungle with strangers. We were helpless neophytes. They now owned our lives. Tension was understandable.
Pablo was the oldest, possibly mid-to-late thirties. He had a hardcore aura underscored by his apparent inability to smile…ever. We would come to appreciate the man, but, at least initially, we found his affect a bit off-putting. Walter and Rolando were much more congenial though they too were distant in the beginning. Walter, the lead guide, had a kind disposition. We pegged him for late twenties, early thirties. Rolando was the youngest; we guessed late teens, early twenties. His youthful exuberance was a welcome counter to Pablo’s brooding manner, and he had a fine sense of humor.
Pablo no likey?
The language hurdle diluted our understanding of a brief orientation, but this did nothing to quell budding enthusiasm. Still, after a day in, we had little idea what the hell we were in for. I think, in hindsight, this was the whole point. Consciously or not, we let Fate take the reins. So, we climbed back into the motor log and set off. Three hours later, we landed at the insertion point and start of our two-day trek.
The initial terrain, a mostly dry riverbed, proved a challenge for our soft, urbanized feet. Per Claus’ recommendation, we brought two types of footwear only—sandals and rubber boots acquired at a local bazaar. The boots were awkward, so we went with sandals. Our path varied between mud puddles, river sand dunes, and stones varying in size from golf ball to basketball. My sandals, fashioned from a used truck tire, were rather unforgiving. Blood seeping through a half-inch of caked mud would attest to this. That was our second day.
Then came the jungle. Over the hill and through the woods. We hacked our way through dense foliage, meandered small, trickling creek beds, and waded shallow rivers for hours. Of course, by "we hacked our way" I mean they did. I wouldn’t trust us with machetes. Neither should they.
At one point they appeared disoriented, leaving us alone momentarily for some jungle recon. We discussed our plight while waiting for word of salvation. Were we sure these dudes knew what they were doing? We were not. Did we really care? We did not. We were “lost” in the fucking Amazon.
The jungle is never quiet. It lives. It breathes. Birds, monkeys, frogs, and who knows what else contribute to the constant din. All you need do is close your eyes and let it flow through you…
Where else did we want to be? Perhaps, we should’ve been more concerned, but that was not our way. Also, sometimes we’re idiots.
Finally, it was the last obstacle of the day—a steep incline through dense underbrush. Needless to say, we were pooped when we reached the river that would be our home for the next seven days. Unfortunately, for Rolando, Walter, and Pablo there was more work to be done. Besides building a temporary shelter and providing dinner for the clan, there were transportation issues. We watched in awe as the trio felled large trees and fashioned logs with nothing but machetes, using bark and jungle twine to bind them into rafts. It was grueling work and though we offered our assistance, they politely declined. Was this business policy or recognition of our worthlessness? Dunno. My money’s on the latter.
Eventually, there would be one guide/one yahoo per raft but a dearth of suitable trees and exhaustion cut the maiden fleet to two. This made maneuvering a bit difficult when you consider space and weight limitations, a fact we’d discover soon after launch.
By the fourth day, the mood began to sour. Three people to a raft was tight and uncomfortable. Only the navigator, bamboo pole in hand, could stand due to stability issues. And though we could hear animals, we just couldn’t see the fuckers. A monkey ass here, a giant otter head there. A scuttling caiman. That was pretty much the extent of it.
Our companions weren’t having much luck catching dinner, forcing the group to subsist on small baitfish, rice, and ketchup. And then there was rain. We were told by the Danish duo it might rain one day. Ya know, the dry season? If our trip had started on day four that would’ve been true. As it stood, we’d hit five straight days. The fifth was the worst. Over dinner, we were treated to a spectacular jungle lightning spectacle that remains one of the best I’ve seen, providing brilliant flash chains every few seconds. A riverbank. A smoldering fire. A spectacular light show. There are worse things. When the thunder subsided I thought, Great, looks like the storm is moving away.
Given the context, the resulting downpour felt biblical. Cascading dime-sized hailstones help cement the imagery. The tent was a rental. Would it hold up? The proverbial fingers were crossed. Periodic headlamp sweeps revealed the spectral eyes of nearby caimans. We were being watched. It occurred to us we might be only a flash flood away from taking on the role of baitfish ourselves. Our flood fears and caiman concerns were likely overblown but, in the moment, it felt like shit might get for reals. And I have yet to mention the piranha.
The next morning was bright and shiny. We were not, nor were our companions. The river was mocha colored. Pretty to look at but terrible to fish in. And though we had the luxury of a tent, our companions were forced to construct a shelter each night. By “shelter” I mean a slanted roof covered with leaves and branches but open on three sides. Not exactly weatherproof. By the morning they were cold, tired, and hungry. I’m sure they contemplated murdering us for our tent. Can’t say I would’ve blamed them, especially considering all the laughter and jackassery emanating from within during the night.
Um, not exactly weather proof, fellas. Lo siento, compadres.
They hadn’t been expecting monsoon weather either. Were they the hardened jungle wayfarers we assumed? Sure, they had indigenous skills and some basic tourism training, but I don’t think they were ready for what unfolded, nor do I think they had ever been away so long. They were doing this to help the tribe, generate income, and learn skills that might attract tourists. In other words, this was a job.
Thankfully, shit changed. The forest provided a third raft. The fishing improved dramatically. Additional delicacies included fresh-water stingray, piranha, and turtle eggs. The rain stopped. Rich found shitting underwater brought with it a glorious sense of freedom. No wiping. No mess. And, with no human settlement for miles, no guilt. Tim and I agreed.
The toil was behind us. Now, we could float downriver at our leisure. All were content. There were smiles. There was laughter. Rolando inquired as to the genuine nature of WWF-style professional wrestling. He also, much to our confusion, thought Rich bore a striking resemblance to Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. Walter and Pablo agreed. Rich bears as much resemblance to Sly as I do to Meryl Streep. Guess we all look alike.
I’m gonna go with… definitely not!
Not that the journey was smooth. Most of us managed a header in the river at one time or another. And there were also the bugs that, at times, ate us alive. Frequent plunges to ward off the onslaught were required. Rich’s legs resembled a smallpox infection. And let us not forget the recurrent logjams and shallows that required pushing, pulling, and periodic raft elevation. Mishaps occurred. Pablo’s miscalculation lead to a submerged raft and, sadly for Tim, a submerged backpack. Still, no casualties...unless you count Tim’s camera.
The animals had a change of heart as well. Colorful birds, caimans, giant river otters, and monkey species all made cameo appearances. We even spotted an electric eel, coaxing it to the surface with a bamboo pole. So what if we couldn’t get a decent photo? Nobody cared.
Electric Eels (Snuggle Pic) -- Photo by depositphotos.com
Electric Eel (Less Snuggly)
How were the bugs?
Wanna piranha? Does a gringo shit in the river?
But it’s what we didn’t see that truly captured our imagination. There was a ghost in the darkness. Folklore. Legend. Myth. The jaguar has a place in it all. We’d come across tracks but nothing more. They are elusive denizens of the nighttime jungle abyss. We probably had a better chance of spotting Bigfoot...and this was just fine with our guardians.
“Tengo miedo para ustedes.” I am afraid for you.
That was the warning on our second to last night in the jungle. They were nervous. Really nervous. I’d read some believe jaguars carry the spirit of their enemies, and that the felines were feared by the indigenous peoples. Supposedly, one year before, a man in a village near their own was killed. Were we in genuine danger, or was this nothing more than superstition on androgen? Would a kitty cat, however formidable, really attack a group of six huddled near a fire close to the river? It seemed implausible at best. And yet, they remained on high alert. They even drew a diagram in the sand demonstrating a possible attack scenario which concluded with one of us being dragged into the jungle by the noggin.
By this time we’d forgone tent and shelter use in light of favorable weather. Anxiety skyrocketed when a lone capybara sprinted past us not twenty feet from camp. Heard a gallop. Saw a blur. And it was gone. Nothing like a panic-stricken oversized gerbil to mix things up.
Running for its life?
Sure as hell felt like it. As you might imagine that did little to settle nerves. And yet Tim, Rich, and I still weren’t sure what to make of it. Should we be that concerned?
Rich was not. How do I know? Because he slept straight through peak drama hour. Sleep was out of the question for our protectorate, however. During the night Tim and I awoke to find them hurling rocks into jungle. Kitty was close, too close for comfort in their judgment. How did they know? No clue, but it wasn’t time to demand proof. How I got back to sleep is beyond me. Rich was astounded at his failure to wake, sorry he’d missed the commotion.
In the end, all was well. Over breakfast Walter explained they were able to relax when they heard the jaguar make a kill. Apparently, we were sharing the space with a herd of wild boar. Pigs, not humans, were the target. Hats off to Porky and his noble sacrifice. Even now we’re not sure how much danger we were actually in, or if this was all a cultural overreaction. Either way, it makes for a hell of a story.
We arrived at our extraction point a day early. At the time we weren’t sure if we were early or late. Clearly, there had been a mix-up. We spent our final hours huddled in the shade, recapping our epic adventure, and defending ourselves unsuccessfully from the insects. The next day would bring a grueling sixteen-hour journey via motor log and dilapidated pickup truck to Puerto Maldonado where we arrived at 1:30 am. A few hours later, we were on a flight to Cuzco and back to a non-jungle reality.
Life was good. Life was very good.
From Top Left: Pablo, Walter, Rolando. From Bottom Left: Tim, Andy (Me), Rich.