After I crossed the picket lines in Northern Peru I met a guy called Daniel on a boat. We decided to hire our own guide and go on a really cheap jungle trip. We went on an unofficial tour from Iquitos in Peru and this is what happened.
Our first stop was essentially a caiman farm although I thought it would be a lagoon with caiman in. I was wrong and this was one of the less weird places that we visited on this jungle trip. The couple that lived there had essentially filled a pool full of caiman, I’m not sure whether they had fed them or caught them but there they were. I recently had a similar experience in The Gambia and visited a crocodile pool which the villagers had essentially made themselves.
One particularly aggressive specimen tried to attack my boyfriend which was a bit terrifying and there is one that they encourage you to stroke which is purely for the photo opportunities. Needless to say, I declined.
The great thing about caiman in the Amazon is that they are not difficult to see and if you look around the peripheries of the rivers and on the banks, you will see them. They are largely nocturnal so if you go on a boat trip at night you can see them in action.
Caiman and alligators are both from the same subfamily of alligatorid and the difference between them is that caiman has its osteoderms or boney plates buried on their underside. The physical differences between the two are that you can see the dagger-like teeth on the caiman and the inside of its mouth is orange. In contrast, alligators have conical shaped teeth and the inside of their mouth is beige in colour.
In contrast to the round nosed caiman and alligator, crocodiles are distinctive by their triangular faces and their bottom teeth stick up at the sides of their snout. Geographical location is, of course, the major factor in identification except in Florida which is the only place where alligators and crocodiles side by side.
Caiman are very useful for environmental management as they eat capybaras which consume a lot of vegetation, as well as piranhas which can attack cattle whilst they drink. Just like sea turtles the temperature of their nests determines the gender of the babies. Their system works in the exact opposite way to the sea turtle whereby higher temperatures mean males and lower temperatures mean females. They can lay up to 65 eggs the female guards her nest mound for 6 weeks until they hatch.
We visited a kind of unofficial zoo, which was a man’s house full of random animals. The man tried to sell us a potent aphrodisiac from the jungle that would make a man ‘go all night’. We politely declined. The woman then tried to sell me the baby kinkajou as she, in her own words ‘had loads of them’. I desperately wanted to rescue the baby but my better judgement prevailed. I dreaded to think what conditions her ‘excess kinkajous’ were living in.
After this, we visited a monkey island which was a much more salubrious establishment than the self-proclaimed ‘kinkajou farm’. Unlike some of the other outfits that I visited, the monkey island does have a website, which while not entirely compelling in itself, it is at least on the right track. It is one of several outfits in the area surrounding Iquitos, all trying to keep up with the constant flow of wildlife confiscated by officials as well as abandoned pets.
This particular sanctuary was donated by the Peruvian government and various monkey friendly trees have been planted over the 450-hectare site. There are 200 monkeys that live free on the island. After we arrived one of the owners showed me around the kitchen and showed me all the various powders and things they use to treat the monkeys. I now wish that I had paid more attention, as wildlife rehabilitation has continued to be a part of my life.
Some of the monkeys were unbelievably cute, and they were roaming free including the babies that were still being fed. There was a baby howler monkey that I particularly fell in love with that looked like a little ginger baby. They had five different species including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, titi monkeys, woolly monkeys and saddleback tamarins.
We had a woolly monkey at the rescue centre where I worked but I hadn’t interacted with the other species before. Luckily they didn’t have any capuchin monkeys tearing the place up like the ‘monkey garden’ we visited in Ecuador.
We stayed in a tourist lodge that had been built and then for reasons of which I am not sure of, it was abandoned. The locals were convinced it was haunted which freaked me out a bit when I was there at night. The shower is outside in the darkness and whilst I washed I wondered what was down there in the wilderness.
Outside the tourist hut, they had a small bog where they kept an electric eel, presumably to show tourists. You can see why the numbers of creatures in the rivers and forests are dwindling as such vast numbers are imprisoned. We gave them a small fee for them to catch it which of course I would not do now. They caught it inelegantly as they were afraid of being electrocuted and it lay there in its net, we looked at it and then they released it back into the bog. It just looked like a large black slimy-looking catfish without fins.
In fairness, you can never appreciate the true majesty of an aquatic animal when it is out of the water. Electric eels are not actually eels as they are related to carp and catfish. They can produce electricity because their organs contain specialised cells called electrocytes. These act like batteries and they can all discharge at once in order to stun its prey or evade a predator.
They can produce 600 volts which is about five times that of a standard plug socket. Their poor eyesight means they can even use a low-level charge like radar in order to locate prey in the murky Amazonian tributaries. They eat mainly fish but will take reptiles, mammals and birds. Although they are not usually a threat to humans, they can emit multiple shocks which can lead to respiratory failure and drowning.
As we were travelling down the Amazon river we cut the engine in the middle and I immediately jumped out and went for a swim. It was very freeing to swim in the middle of such a ginormous river despite its brown and muddy appearance. Daniel followed me, annoyed that he hadn’t been first. I loved it was surprisingly unfazed by all the beasties that lurked beneath.
The next day we were met at the edge of the Momon river by the Yagua Indian tribe. This area is also the home of the Bora Bora tribe who are also open to travellers. I think this sounds more much edgy and hardcore than it was in reality. They had the air that they met plenty of tourists and they took you through a set of activities that I imagine they do for everyone.
First of all, they take you spear throwing and they show you how to throw a big spear at a target and then they take you to a straw hut for some dancing and drumming. Visiting this tribe was our last stop before returning to the madness of Iquitos. It was a weird trip and meeting the tribe was the icing on the cake of an otherwise bizarre 3 days.