Doing More With Less in the Jungle
After 90 minutes in the air from Lima and a quick weather-related flight redirection to an airport in a city where the only pavement was the runway itself, we land in Iquitos, Peru. Lucky enough to avoid the schools of voracious taxi sharks simply by not being the most obvious tourists, we slide into the backseat of Jose’s Suzuki and make our way to the port. Jose introduces us to Jaime and disappears into a cloud of tuk-tuk dust.
We follow our new friend Jaime to the river, brought off course by our noses more than once by jarras of fresh papaya juice, whole catfish on ice, buckets of live centipedes, trays of fried centipedes, and at least 15 stray dogs. Aboard the river taxi, a skiff handmade from wood and palm fans, we glide over the river delta, a phenomenon where water as black as night sloshes shoulder to shoulder with water the color of cafe con leche, never mixing so much as a drop after thousands of years.
After an hour and a half on the water, the single engine is sputtering to a stop at a bank deep inside of a subsidiary river. We are escorted off of the skiff and reminded to watch our heads - something we would be smart to get accustomed to hearing, for though we have far fewer than 144 inches in height between us, we tower over the general local.
We are passed off for the third time to the care of a new guide, this time Fransisco, and this time for good. We can tell he is a charmer when he teases that the ritualistic paint being applied to our faces by the local native tribe chief should only last about 3 years - I always wanted a tattoo!
It is 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the Peruvian Amazon River jungle, a cold front welcomed by Franco, bartender, concierge, and head chef at Sinchicuy Lodge. It is the first of June in the Southern Hemisphere, so this breeze signals what us northerners would call Pumpkin Spice Latte Season. Things work differently here, so it means the coming of dry season, and lucky for us, the farewell to wet season. We are told it climbs to over 100 degrees in December and January, so if you’re looking for me during those months you can look there last.
I am in the process of applying my third layer of Deet when we hear the 1pm lunch drum - the only constant in our river adventure is mealtimes, which pleaseth us much when we discover both how ravished we are left from adventure and how well Franco finds his way around a rustic, sparsely-stocked, generator-powered kitchen. Franco and his kitchen staff are nothing if not resourceful, utilizing nature’s surrounding bounty to feed 15 rotating strangers three square and very timely meals each day. Dietary restrictions and allergies are tended to with care, on several occasions I noticed Franco and his men stocking up a plate with a few extra cauliflower fritters and plantain chips for one vegetarian visitor. Finicky eaters are just as welcome, but may not have a splendid time if avoiding fish or citrus is their game.
Among thousands of other creatures I am choosing to remain ignorant to, catfish lurk in the depths of the narrow river that borders our lodge. I know this in part because we dined on filets of the thing more than any other protein. Our first taste of the jungle is a buffet centered around plump and juicy hunks of oven-baked catfish swimming in its own oils, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro. Each fish dish we have throughout the week is accompanied by a fluffy rice or pilaf to soak up the liquid. Down the line we would always find several steamed and citrus marinated vegetable options, navy or pinto beans, savory plantains, and an array of squeezed-moments-ago juices labeled by an example of their mother fruit (orange, papaya, cashew) - typically two or three pitchers representing various shades of orange.
I may have been the last gringa on Earth to learn that cashew nuts hail from the bottom of a large colorful fruit on trees in the jungle. Assuming “cashew” was a colloquial Quechua term for some other fruit with which I was familiar, I was shocked when a staff member brought me something that resembled a wrinkly heirloom tomato, carefully demonstrating to me its anatomy. Quickly and without considering my manners, I informed him that in America cashew nuts are quite expensive, and asked why here they just threw them away. If he wasn’t concerned with being a good host, he may have asked me why we just throw the fruit away. He smiled and settled for, “Peruvians don’t eat nuts, we give them to the monkeys.”
As for the few items that physically cannot be scrounged from the lodge’s surroundings, Franco sends for them by river taxi. There is never a guarantee of their arrival time, date, or frankly their arrival at all. Our first morning I suffered from a caffeine withdrawal-induced headache, but the lodge was out of coffee. Franco informed me that he had sent for it two days ago and assured me that it would come on one of the next few boats - he seemed to be reassuring himself by simply saying it out loud. Sure enough a can of instant grounds arrived on that evening’s supply taxi. Franco’s daily reality set in for us when we went to pour our java in the morning only to discover that the lodge had just run out of sugar.
Perhaps the most satisfying part about the meals in a remote, riverside lodge is that there is no need to ask if something is “raw”, “organic”, or “paleo”. This trendy western desire to eat like a caveman is based on our idea that humans were in our healthiest form when we were closest to nature, and few things bring man closer to nature than hunting and gathering, then dining off of his or her findings. One morning we made our way through the mangroves to a pocket of the tributary covered in lily pads to catch river fish. The poles could be described as rustic, composed from a smartly harvested pinky finger-thick tree limb, a single piece of twine, and a hook. I won’t say that folks who spend a thousand dollars on a rod and reel don’t catch fish, but I will say that Fransisco caught a fish on his second drop. That afternoon after lunch, we shared a spread of oranges, maduros, and our very own deep fried piranha.
We spend the next 4 hours carving through river channels by boat searching for tropical wildlife, encountering toucans, monkeys, and several species of songbirds. Deep in the channels we came across a handful of local villagers fishing for dinner, as they do daily, on canoes made from tree trunks forged by burning and shaping the core until what is left barely appears to be able to support weight. The women lay nets along the shrubs at dawn, and the rising tides bring in enough fish for the men to haul in the nets at sunset. We are told that six or seven piranha will do, especially when the water levels are this high at the end of wet season. We take this as but another indication of how simple and pure life is for an Amazon River family.
Though that activity did not involve much movement, I was hungrier for dinner than the mosquitos were for my flesh. (side note: 10,000 new species of insects are discovered every year in this region...how exciting!) For dinner Franco presented a buffet centered around marinated chicken with citrus pico-style salsa, tomato & cucumber salad, and quinoa. The strawberry gelatin cup served a sweet surprise dessert. Though momentarily we have nothing in the world to be stressed about, we decide after dinner that we deserve a drink. One thing that the Sinchicuy lodge staff has figured out how to keep more than adequately stocked is the bar, we never desired an unavailable adult beverage.
I am still not in a good headspace about the general lack of refrigeration in South America - the generators ran for only two hours per day, and eggs and cheese products are often sold on the street - but at the time it was not enough to keep me from having one (or two or three) of Franco’s famous pisco sours. This classic Peruvian drink is made by blending Pisco, simple syrup, lemon juice, and egg white and topping the foam on the final product with bitters. He gushed excitedly behind the bar on our first night about the fact that he had ice, another rarity.
One nocturnal creature-seeking night hike later, and we lay down for nine hours of well-deserved rest in the mosquito-netted beds. In the morning we lumber towards the sound of the breakfast drum to discover hard-boiled eggs, plantain fritters, bread with butter and a selection of tropical jams, and bacon. I am sorry to report I did not inquire from which type of animal the bacon derived, but I am pleased to report that it was delicious, salty, shreddable, and indulgent.
Since no two days on the river are the same, this morning we spend 45 minutes tracking down pink river dolphins and watching them breach and dance in the chop. These enigmatic and elusive porpoises are not hunted or poached by the locals for their highly valuable skin which can be sold on black markets for leather, but rather protected, praised, and regarded as sacred. It is fabled that the vibrant male dolphins shapeshift on Saturday nights, transforming into handsome young men who go ashore to court and impregnate young female villagers in the discotheques. Pics or it didn’t happen, am I right?
Our adventures take us to a small nearby village where for young boys and girls, school is in session. The soccer field begs for the final bell when they will spill out of the one room schoolhouse and give it a purpose. Two small boys in the village show off their pets to us visitors - a tortoise with a ‘permanent leash’ (a hole drilled in the back of its shell and tied up to a piece of string), a three-toed tree sloth, and a baby caiman (terrifying man-eating alligator relative). Growing up my brother and I had pets to teach us responsibility, and as far as I am concerned they will learn plenty of responsibility figuring out when to let that caiman loose before it makes a meal of the sloth.
Before we leave this village we are invited to the sugar cane plantation, where I abstain from tasting jungle beer, a malt-style beverage whose fermentation agent is human saliva. I do however partake when we visit the village’s medicine man to learn how the local people use natural remedies to stay free of disease and cure minor ailments. Siete Raices, or Seven Roots is a fermented brew infused with the seven most powerfully medicinal roots, a bit of a ‘cure-all’ that supposedly prevents and treats everything from inflammation to gastritis while also providing energy and aphrodisiac properties. We all succumb to peer pressure and sample four or five root and bark liqueurs, which have varying percentages of natural alcohol content leaving us too tipsy for it to only be 11:00 AM.
Near the end of our stay, we are granted time for siesta in the hammocks by the water. A symphony of tropical bird calls served as the soundtrack to my reflection on the intangible benefits of our time in Sinchicuy, like hand-feeding Capuchin and Tamarin monkeys and Franco's bar-side South American history lessons. The Amazon River Jungle is Peru's wild west, there is no real estate market or architectural code to follow when settling down on its domain. The rule you agree to when setting up camp on her banks is treat the land and water with the respect they deserve for providing so many gifts. We are thankful for their gift of a wonderful adventure, and we will be back.