From Cartagena I took a flight to Laeticia, on the Colombian border with Peru (and Brazil), on the banks of the Amazon. My plan was to book a ticket for the following day on "El Rapido" - the speed boat that would make the 10 hour, 300 odd mile trip to Iquitos in Peru.
Cue the first major problem of the trip. I took a taxi boat out onto an island in the river where they sold the boat tickets. Unfortunately there were no tickets available for the next day. Or the day after. My schedule could just about cope with a day of delay, but not two. This was a major problem.
I had a desperate chat with my boat taxi driver in broken English and very broken Spanish. I tried to explain that I HAD to get to Iquitos, and were there any other options? His advice was not to take a boat but fly. I explained that this wasn't an option, I'd checked all the websites and there were no flights the next day, and the day after they were far too expensive (£500 ish). Then I got an unexpected answer.
"No, no no. Plane tonight. No internet. Jungle Plane!"
What the hell?
Turns out there's a locally operated "Jungle Plane" direct to Iquitos that was leaving that night, and didn't appear on any websites. If I was quick I could make it. The cost? A Whopping $90. The boat would have been $70! Sign me up!
I bought a ticket from a shed somewhere and got a hand written ticket. After a big kerfuffle where they were trying to work out what entry and exit stamps I needed in my passport (immigrations are handled by another shed by the river) and concluding that I needed nothing, I rushed back to my hostel and surprised them a little by checking out 2 hours after I'd checked in. Got to the airport and boarded the "Jungle Plane", the smallest plane I've ever been on - a little prop plane with just 8 rows of seats!
After a slightly more bumby than normal flight, I arrived an hour later and a day early in Iquitos. Disaster averted!
Iquitos is an odd place - in the jungle and on the banks of the Amazon it's part Amazonian and part industrial, having been built on a booming rubber trade. It's the largest city in the world that isn't connected to anywhere else by road, the only way in or out is by plane, or boat. I had a wander around the market there, which to be honest wasn't a very pleasant place - but there were lots of interesting and disgusting smelling exotic meats on sale. The oddest thing for me though were the local pests
See those birds dotted about everywhere like pigeons back home? They're Black Vultures!
The vultures were everywhere - and a bit more intimidating than a flock of pigeons!
After a day in Iquitos I booked a "Jungle Tour" where I'd be staying for a few nights out in the Amazon rainforest. I'd paid extra for an English speaking guide who would be my companion for the 4 days in the jungle, and whom I met the next day.
"Hola! Me llamo Enrique!"
"Hi Enrique. Me llamo Matt. Habla Inglese?"
"Si si! Matt"
"Ok great! What time are we leaving?"
Turns out Enrique's grasp of English went as far as to say my name. Even this skill left him after about 2 hours, when I became Max, or "Machs". After correcting him 3 times I stopped bothering. I could be "Machs" for a few days I guess.
Our Jungle tour started off with a bonus surprise - a trip to meet a local Amazonian tribe. They did a dance for us, then got us to join in, and then tried to sell us loads of tat made from Anaconda skin and stuff.
Topless Amazonians. It's not Vegas, but they tried.
After this is it was out onto the open river, and I mean open. I can not believe how big this river is. We're 2 thousand miles from the coast here, I was expecting something relatively small. As it turns out I can barely see the other side.
We travelled down the river for an hour or so before turning up a tiny tributary and arriving at my jungle lodge. What a place! Built on stilts out of the river (which had flooded the forest for about a mile in every direction) and right in the middle of the rainforest.
A small tributary and my house for the next few nights.
After getting settled in the lodge Enrique took me out exploring the Jungle. This was pretty amazing, paddling round in a dugout in the flooded rainforest. It was also pretty fascinating to see how the amazonian people live, with their villages being completely flooded for half the year. It was odd seeing houses and schools on stilts, and football goals sticking up at either end of a clear patch of 3 foot deep water!
Enrique showed his skills as a guide as he picked some fruit that looked a bit like a banana from the outside, but was split into juicy segments inside. "Monkey fruit! Nombre es Monkey fruit!" he exclaimed, showing that his English vocabulary was infinitely larger than I had thought, and I was pleased to learn the name of something new. An hour or so later, we found some more fruit, that vaguely resembled an orange. "Monkey fruit, nombre Monkey fruit!" Enrique exclaimed delightedly. Right. thanks.
Enrique's lack of language skills were however made up for with his sharp sightedness. I don't know but he could spot an Iguana in a tree from 50m away, but he regularly did. If only his directions were as good.
"Machs, Machs! Iguana, Iguana!"
"Where? Where? Err.. Donde?"
"Mirar! Mirar! Machs, mirar!"
"Yes, I'm looking! Where? Donde?"
"Mirar! Mirar! Machs!"
"En arbol! En arbol!"
Well I could have guessed it was in the tree - we were in the middle of a flooded bloody jungle. Where the hell else would it be? We got there in the end though, and also eventually got there with the same directions when we saw more iguanas, chameleons, and even a couple of sloths. The only thing close enough to get a good photo of though were these tiny little monkeys. So cute!
The next day we visited another part of the flooded forest - an animal "sanctuary" where they were apparently helping injured animals. I'm not sure how much of this was true, but the animals were free to roam about the forest even though they were clearly pretty domesticated. Still, it was cool getting so close to macaws like this, and the furry monkeys were fun, if a little over friendly!
The final night of the jungle tour was a visit to a jungle shamen for an ayahuasca ceremony. This is some kind of cleansing ceremony where the ayahuasca spirit is supposed to help you cleanse your body and mind and sort out any issues in your life. It involved going to a different lodge, in an incredible setting. Built over a lagoon full of fish and giant waterlilies, the first phase of the ceremony was meditation - ie. being left on my own, lying in a hammock watching the wildlife. Enrique and the shaman dissappeared for a few hours, and as I led in the hammock more monkeys came to play in the trees, and a hummingbird flitted into the lodge for a look around. Pretty special.
I was feeling very relaxed and happy as it went dark, until Enrique came back for the night.
"Machs, Machs! Mirrar! Tarantula!"
In the light of a torch we could see a spider the size of my hand climbing one of the stilts of the lodge - right below where I was going to be sleeping. Nice. Then the thunder and lighning started. This all made the night pretty exciting, but unfortunately the ayahuasca spirit never showed up. I guess he thought I was being a cheeky bugger asking for help with any issues, given that I was chilling out in the Amazon rainforest and would be on the holiday of a lifetime for another 3 months!