Adventures in the Amazon

‘Is it bad?’ ‘Yes, it’s biting!’  Probably the number one thing I did not want to hear from our guide, Juan Carlos, when I had an insect on my actual eyeball that Sam and I had failed to remove!  Thankfully Juan Carlos got it out with his t-shirt and my eye is fine.  The Amazon rainforest is an amazing and terrifying place all at once!  I’m keeping this blog post as a diary while we’re here as I have a feeling we’re going to be learning a lot.  So here we go...

Day 1

We took a three hour boat ride upstream to the Madidi Jungle Ecolodge.  It was a bit touch and go earlier this week as to whether we would be able to come because there had been major flooding in Rurrenabaque (where we departed from) and so the river was flowing pretty fast and our boat had to avoid floating debris including many trees.  Sam and I are the only people at the lodge for the next three/four days, so the lodge staff travelled with us on the boat.  Whilst travelling upstream we saw lots of birdlife as well as a family of capybaras (the biggest rodents in the world - they looked like they were pig-sized).   

Upon arrival we had lunch, a siesta and then headed into the jungle with Juan Carlos.  I think he was a bit disappointed with how ‘little’ we saw but we found it extremely interesting.  First there was the ‘walking tree’.  The roots search around for sunlight with new ones growing regularly.  In time, the back roots die away, so the tree really does ‘walk’ around!

We saw lots of spiderwebs as well as some poisonous spiders.  Some of the biggest webs were made from lots of little spiders working together as a community.    

Juan Carlos is from a jungle community which is home to around 750 people.  While we were walking, he found a frog that has poison inside it.  His community use this poison to line their arrows when hunting.  

Many termite mounds here are up trees because the ground is too humid.

We saw the backside of an anteater high up in the trees!

Thankfully this tortoise wasn’t quite so camera-shy.

We arrived back at the lodge to find an excited seven year old boy (the son of two of the staff here) who had found a snake!  He took us back into the jungle and there it was, a boa constrictor!  

It’s been a great first day - we’ve found beautiful butterflies, the biggest trees we’ve ever seen, and I still have both of my eyeballs!  

Day 2   

The adventures begun at 1.17am as I woke Sam up screaming about the snake under the bed.  Thankfully it was just a nightmare, I have a feeling it won’t be the only one while we’re here!  I woke up later in the night to a noise that was pretty terrifying, especially in the pitch black.  We later found out it was red howler monkeys (and the noise travels for over 2km).  The best way I can describe the sound is like the howling wind during a storm by the sea, only deeper.  The photos below are of a rather sad looking howler monkey that we came across later in the day.

It rained heavily most of the night (cue me panicking that we were going to be stuck here for weeks), so all in all I had a pretty bad night’s sleep!  Everything seemed much less scary in the morning as I watched a hummingbird taking the nectar from the flowers by our bedroom (photo of our lodge).

We enjoyed three walks today and saw four different types of monkeys - the brown capuchin monkey, the red howler monkey, the black spider monkey and the yellow squirrel monkey.

I sneaked a peak at a white throated toucan, some red-and-green macaws and two blue-and-yellow macaws.  Because toucans and parrots only really hang around at the top of the canopy, getting a clear shot without any trees or branches in the way is quite a challenge as you can see!  

One of the most interesting birds we saw was the hoatzin - the most ancient bird species in South America and a relative of the dinosaur.  They make quite the noise - Sam describes it as a ‘Jurassic chicken squawk’.  There have certainly been a lot of sounds in the jungle that wouldn’t be out of place in Jurassic Park.  

I think the highlight for me was watching a reddish hermit hummingbird display to a female.  It was the kind of thing I thought I’d only ever see on a David Attenborough programme!  This chap was hovering backwards and forwards for ages.  She seemed keen and was watching his every move.

Other birds we spotted included a blue-throated piping-guan, a razor-billed curassow, a gray tinamou, a red-necked woodpecker, a blue-crowned trogon, a black tailed trogon, a couple of falcons and a screaming piha.  The screaming piha, although quite boring to look at, made me laugh when it made its call as it sounded like a wolf whistle!     

Our final walk was a night walk where we saw lots of poisonous spiders, caterpillars, frogs and a couple of tarantulas.  The caterpillar below has poisonous spikes which would leave you in pain for four hours if you came into contact with it.  

After such a fantastic day, I went to sleep much easier than the night before and enjoyed listening to the sounds of the jungle as I drifted off.    

Day 3

Another fantastic day!  After a peaceful and long sleep, we had breakfast and headed to the boat.  We have now visited three different areas within the rainforest, all within a 20 minute boat ride, but they are all so different.  Yesterday just crossing the river made a huge difference to the landscape but today was even more varied.  The ground was extremely muddy so we had to wear wellies (which only protected us so much when we both fell over in the deep mud!).  It wasn’t long before we came across some jaguar prints.

We saw a sleeping rainbow snake that had a beautiful purpley-blue shimmer to it (the photo below is completely unedited).  

Sam had read a book by someone who had walked the Amazon which said that you never want to be third in line when walking past a snake.  The first would alert it, the second would annoy it and the third would get bitten.  Unfortunately for Sam, he was third in line.  Sure enough, the snake started to move rather quickly just as Sam walked by!  Thankfully it headed into an ant nest instead.  Good news for Sam, bad news for the ants.   

We then went fishing for piranhas!  It was the first time either of us had ever been fishing, so I was very proud when I caught a snake-head fish.

Unfortunately for Sam, he only managed to ‘catch’ four sets of branches!  Our guide, Juan Carlos, was the only one who managed to actually catch a piranha.  

While we were fishing we attracted the attention of a caiman!  Being young and curious, the caiman came out of the water when we caught the fish.  To begin with I was quite scared, but then I figured that it must happen all the time.  It was only later when Sam asked Juan Carlos whether a caiman had ever come out of the water when fishing before that we found out it was his first experience of it too!

We saw a few new birds including a southern mealy parrot, a juvenile and adult walted jacana, a greater ani, some wood-creepers, some white eyed parakeets, a crested oropendola and a red cap cardinal.  

On the walk we visited a viewpoint where we were lucky to get a ‘flypast’ from two red-and-green macaws.  

With bigger gaps in the trees, we also got a much better view of a white-throated toucan and a couple of red-and-green macaws.  The trees are so tall, the photos have been taken at full zoom (the equivalent of a 600mm lens although I’m using a bridge camera) and have been cropped too.  So they were still pretty far away!  

The gaps in the trees enabled me to take a photo to give you some idea of just how tall the trees are - they reach 60-70m high here (further into the jungle at a different altitude trees can grow up to 80m).  It’s hard to photograph as you can’t get a whole tree in one photo!  

We had our last night in the ‘fancy’ lodge this evening.  We had asked for a last minute upgrade which they gave us for free as we couldn’t upgrade for our entire stay.  We’ve been really lucky to have the entire complex to ourselves for the past three days including the 43km of pathways that are solely for Madidi Jungle Ecolodge.  Tomorrow we will be joined by 10 mushroom biologists and three additional guides.  Sam has been unimpressed with me asking whether they will be ‘fun-guys’ and if they will need ‘much room’ for their equipment, might keep those comments to myself tomorrow...

Day 4 

We couldn’t go on our morning walk as planned due to the rain but we learnt a lot about the jungle community that the staff here are from.  Tco San Jose de Uchupiamonas is home to 120 families and around 750 people.  Although tourists do not enter the community itself, a number of people from the community work within tourism in places like Madidi Jungle Ecolodge.  The community has little electricity and what they have is solar powered.  The only place that has internet is the school.  They grow their own crops organically and have a small pharmacy where they use traditional remedies, for example boiling the bark of a particular tree to make a drink to help with kidney problems.      

On previous days, Juan Carlos showed us jungle food that has been eaten by his community over the years.  ‘Jungle garlic’ comes from a tree - he took a small chunk of bark away from a tree to let us smell it... it smelt more strongly of garlic than garlic does!  He also showed us ‘jungle mango’ which is popular with humans and monkeys alike.

Later on the rain calmed down and we were able to go on a four hour hike.  We didn’t see too much this time, but we did get a much better look at an Amazonian motmot - take a look at its two tail feathers.  We also saw a hawk and a broad-billed motmot.

Because of the heavy rain last night and this morning, some of the paths were more like rivers (which were so deep in places that the water went over my wellies!).  Although we didn’t see as many animals and birds as previous days, it was a good opportunity to look more closely at the trees.  The fig strangler tree below is a parasite tree which kills the tree that it grows around - hence the hollow middle.

Day 5

Having decided to make some traditional jungle handicraft rather than going on a final nature walk, we were extremely pleased to have our breakfast interrupted by some saddleback tamarin monkeys - the fifth type we’ve seen in the Amazon.   

We also had a visit from a swallow-tailed moth.

It was great getting a chance to create our own jewellery.  I am now the proud owner of a ring made from the nut of a jungle mango (made shiny using ash) and a necklace and bracelet made from various nuts and seeds.  The main decorative pendant is made from an oil fruit.  

After lunch we started to make our way back on the river to Rurrenabaque.  We could see in the distance that the weather had taken a turn for the worse.

The military had stopped people from coming upstream today because it was too dangerous because of the flooding, but still allowed us to go downstream.  It was pretty scary going through the rapids trying to avoid the floating trees, strong currents, waves and whirlpools.  Then during quite an extreme section of the river where it had narrowed, the engine cut out!  I’ll be honest, I was pooping myself! We were going really fast and although two of the people with us got the oars out, there wasn’t really much they could do (we later found out that when this happened before, the boat had capsized and all the luggage had floated away/sunk).  My main concern was how far we would float downstream if we did capsize and whether we would be able to safely get to shore (or whether we would be separated and stranded somewhere in the jungle!).  Thankfully another boat came to our rescue.  After quite a crash into each other, the boats were tied together side by side and we finally made it safely (and soaked) back to the town of Rurrenabaque!    

All in all we’ve had a total adventure in the Amazon!  It was a once in a lifetime experience - we had a truly amazing time and we’ll never forget it.