When I left the Amazon jungle thirty years ago, I had no illusions that I would ever return. In 1988, I was there with my then husband Orlando to see the sights of his homeland Colombia; the Amazon River and Manaus, Brazil were tacked on for good measure. Flash forward thirty years and here I sit, under mosquito netting, the sounds of cicadas and frogs outside and the humid air that hangs on you like wet jeans. This time, I am in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle and half a mile from the Tambopata River, a downstream tributary to the great Amazon River. I am husband-less, older but no less tenacious and traveling with a friend; I think tenacity is a requirement for this type of journey.
There are many differences besides the language and technology, but there are many things that are magical and otherworldly. This is what I found:
- Tour guides. The first time around, I was in Manaus with Orlando searching tour companies that would take our American Express card. We were willing to go with any guide that would take our “plastic”. At the time, Brazil had extraordinarily high inflation rates so they would actually receive significantly less cruzeiros to the dollar once they received reimbursement from the credit card company. Nonetheless, we prevailed and ironically found a young Peruvian guide to take us upriver on the mighty Amazon. Our guide in 1988 knew English, Spanish and Portuguese but mostly regaled us with Michael Jackson songs instead of biology. This time around, I searched and received recommendations from several well-traveled friends, set up the dates and itineraries 6 months before and, most importantly, had a very well-educated guide, Saul, who was a wealth of information on all the flora, fauna and culture of the region. Saul knew where to go and at what time to fully take in the rich variety of nature in the Amazon.
- Food. In 1988, we followed our guide around the streets of Manaus purchasing provisions for our two-day trip into the jungle. I remember limes, chicken and rice along with Brazilian rum. I know bottled water was not so ubiquitous as it is today. I think we typically drank bottled Coke. We traveled on a small boat and would stop at riverside places that would cook for us. This would take several hours and I never knew what we would be eating. In 2018, we had freshly-prepared buffets for each meal with salads, soups and desserts. Fresh juice from an array of unpronounceable fruits that were all delicious but completely foreign and not replicable. Bottle water dispensers were located throughout the jungle lodge where we stayed. Hot coffee and tea were available all day. We could eat at our leisure and have as much as we wanted. What a difference 30 years make.
- Animals. I can still remember dragging a 15-pound “state of the art” camcorder with film cassettes and trying, haplessly, to record the monkeys and birds as they flied and romped in the trees. I failed. Orlando failed. We could not record a thing but we pointed aimlessly above, in the hope we’d accidentally caught something on tape. This time around, we cruised right up to a chalky cliff and saw 50 to 60 parrots flying, swooping and cackling. Amazing. We walked 25 yards and enjoyed coffee and cake as we saw some dozen or so brightly colored Macaws perch, soar and lick the chalky cliffs. There were about a half dozen scopes set up to record or view the varieties of Macaws that came out to play. Most amazingly, for me, was running into, on three or four occasions, the romping, swinging and flying of six or so Saddleback Tamarins. Two would jump from branch to branch like they were synchronized swimmers. They are very small monkeys and their bodies were the size of a squirrel with a very long black tail. I felt like they would show up mid-hike just to entertain us or perhaps we entertained them with our cameras, scopes, flashlights and iPhones? Who was watching who?
- Accommodations. This is a drastic change from 30 years ago. My first time here, we slept in a one-room house with what seemed like 15 hammocks. The family we stayed with included their children, our guide, our driver, Orlando and myself, where each of us slept swinging from the rafters in individual hammocks. No bathroom. Just the woods and stories of pythons lying in wait (I recall relieving myself once on the entire trip…but perhaps my memories have been edited). This time, we are in a beautiful open air two-story lodge complete with television, masseuse and store. Our rooms had a private bath, mosquito netting, and intermittent Wi-Fi. There was a hammock by an open wall facing the jungle full of howler monkeys and exotic birds, like the Amazonian Oropendola, which made a sound like water dropping in a barrel.
Regardless of the decade, the Amazon is timeless. The water rolls by ceaselessly, the animals still make sounds foreign to my urban ear, and there are a million species of insects who ignore Deet and still penetrate long sleeve shirts. The beauty and grace is unmatched. It cannot be recreated by animation or drawings. It must be experienced. And to do so is life changing.