Jungle Critters and Swimming with Piranhas
When I read the Peru multi-sport trip itinerary, I might not have booked the trip had it listed Swimming with Piranhas in the activity list. I was lured to pull the trigger with promises of famous Incan ruins (namely Machu Picchu), downhill biking, mountain trekking, Peruvian cuisine, jungle excursions and exotic wildlife viewing. The list was impressive enough without the piranha addition. I didn’t find out about the surprise activity until the day it happened deep in the Peruvian Amazon. It was election year, November 2008, and I opted to head to South America instead of watching Republicans and Democrats throw proverbial punches. My absentee ballot had been turned in and I happily flew to Peru with my two adventure pals, Steve and Theresa to join our group. Our adventure began in Cuzco, the Kathmandu of South America.
My trekking and ruin exploration near Cuzco gave way to a short flight to the eastern border town of Puerto Maldonado, on the edge of the jungle. We touched down, the puddle-jumper’s doors opened, and a wave of hot and humid air hit me. I began to sweat, without stopping, for the next three days. Off the plane, our journey continued by bus to the town market, then on to a riverboat, then finally on a short hike to our jungle lodge. Two rivers, called the Tambopata and the Madre de Dios, converged in this area of the Amazon, which would be our playground for the next few days. The excursions were built around the theme of critter viewing, which meant tarantulas, monkeys, caiman (mini crocs), tree frogs, exotic birds and snakes that could kill you. I have vivid memories of traipsing through jungle trails in knee-high rubber boots to avoid being bitten by fire ants or other stinging insects. Several of my trip mates got stung one afternoon by an angry swarm of bees, after their ground nest was kicked up. For all the potential danger and creepy crawly feelings I had in the jungle, I was positively amazed at the sights and sounds of the jungle. For example, what sounded like loud, extended droplets of water hitting a sink, was actually a bird calling to its kin in the canopy. I also watched our guide coax a mama tarantula and her six babies out of her ground hole. He explained the arachnid did not poison its prey, rather it captured it then crushed it with its very strong body and legs. Considering its size (four-five inches wide), it made perfect sense. After returning on our first night from a nocturnal walk, it was time to get some rest for a very early wake-up call for bird watching at sunup. Our assigned rooms had two sets of bunk beds with exotic flowers in a vase on the lone dresser. The door was a linen curtain, and the back of the room connected to an open-air patio area. The entire lodge was built on stilts about four feet above the ground, no doubt to control the critter traffic in the rooms, kitchen and dining area. I hopped into my twin and followed the instructions of securing my critter netting around the edges of the mattress so there was a seal all around me as I slept. I checked my work four times before falling asleep, my dreams laced with odd noises and water dripping.
At 4:45 a.m. I woke from activity in the lodge and lazily pulled myself out of bed and joined our group. The jungle wildlife continued to amaze us all, even that early in the morning. We had hopped back in the motor riverboat and traveled about 15 minutes to a bird watching hut. It was a slippery and muddy scramble up the riverbank to our little hideaway where we spied on thousands of parrots and macaws, who were also very early risers. Swarms of these colorful tropical birds lined the clay banks and their calls all together, were nothing short of a din. We passed the binos around by our group to get a close up view. The birds were eating bits of the clay where they perched. I was perplexed. Our guide explained they ingested small amounts of the clay to offset the acidity of all the berries and fruit that were the mainstay of their diet—it was bird antacid. I noted that everything was more exotic and colorful in the jungle… bright yellows, oranges and reds were boldly painted by nature on these amazing birds.
Our morning turned to lunch and we ate more rice and veggies neatly displayed on a large banana leaf, that doubled as a plate. We explored more trails around the lodge, all of us wearing our rubber boots except for Fred and Steve, who apparently were set on tempting fate. We found massive termite nests that had invaded some trees, more tree frogs, and Jose Antonio pointed out a plant that was the equivalent to Peruvian Viagra. Jose Antonio and Hugo (our jungle guides) gathered us again in the late afternoon for a boat and river raft journey. The riverboat deposited again on a bank with a small hole in the canopy that led to a trail to an inland oxbow lake. We walked single file on the narrow trail continually mopping the sweat away. The trail opened to a clearing and the lake was encased in jungle trees and foliage. Jose Antonio motioned for us all to join him on his crude Huck Finn style wooden raft equipped with one large pole, that both propelled and steered us across the lake and through the reeds where the caiman might be napping in the sun. The heat was brutal and the lake offered us no shade. Our guides distracted us with an activity though, that made me forget the heat. We floated to a stop at the edge of the lake and he handed several of us crude wooden-stick fishing poles. As I looked closer, it was complete with a short line baited with raw beef on a hook. He smiled and explained as he handed us our poles that we could fish for piranha in the lake. I grinned in disbelief, but I became a believer when I watched a small, but very aggressive, toothed fish (about five inches in length) tear into my bait. Both Theresa and I yelled in delight with the piranhas on the line as our guides helped us hold them up to pose for pictures. Seeing them close-up out of the water, I spied a row of tiny, pointed, teeth that was the signature feature of the piranha. Many of our group got a chance to catch one and we’d enlist the help of J.A. or Hugo to throw the fish back in the lake. We all took turns watching this tiny fish destroy a piece of beef just under the surface of the water. Catching a varietal of a man-eating fish certainly was adventurous and we all laughed, wondering if anyone back home would believe our tale. Eventually, even piranha fishing can get old, so we pushed off back toward the middle of the lake and spied some turtles and bats along the way. I lazily watched the lake water go slowly by our raft, and I thought about how nice it would be to jump in and cool off. About the same time, I overheard J.A. having a conversation with Brittany about taking a swim in the lake. I looked up at them and confirmed; I had indeed heard him say it was ok to jump in and cool off. I cocked my head to the side and in disbelief, thinking this was some cruel joke or deadly snipe hunt. I imagined a headline, “Tourists Found Ripped to Pieces in Amazonian Swamp!” I continued to listen to our guides affirming it was ok and that they had done it before. Steve and I both agreed we wouldn’t be the first to give a swim a try. I whispered to Steve, “Let’s wait to see if anyone actually takes the plunge.” It seemed a little nuts to take a swim in a lake infested with caiman, giant snapping turtles and piranha. But, after some urging, one by one, everyone jumped in. With most of our group already in the water, Theresa, Steve and I shrugged at each other and leapt off the raft cannonball style. I surfaced and took a huge breath of air and waited for something to start gnawing on my toes and legs. Nothing happened, we all escaped injury… I guess the piranhas decided we were too big to try out for dinner. Back on the raft, our wet clothes dripping trails of water, I realized I could add swimming with piranhas to my list of activities in my journal.