It took days to recover from our 3-day journey through the Amazon jungle in Peru. The experience I’d been dreaming of for over a decade had a long way to fall off it’s lofty pedestal, but ended up surpassing my scrutinizing expectations.
I was practically insufferable to my family in the days leading up to our trip. I bounced around like an eager bunny preparing for Easter, spouting “We’re going to the Amazon on Wednesday!” at the drop of a hat. While Ben tried to warn me off getting too excited (who hasn’t been let down by high expectations?), I knew this trip would be everything I’d hoped as soon as we stepped off the plane in Iquitos. The wall of slightly warm humidity hit me like a welcome hug after our dry, cold month in Cusco, and my Southern American roots connected right there on the runway.
Cry count: 1.
“Buenos dias! Soy Susannah.” I greeted the smiling man holding a sign with my name on it in Iquitos airport’s tiny baggage claim.
He’d been sent by our jungle lodge to be our guide for the next three days. “Buenos dias!” he replied. “Do you prefer English?” Oh good. His English is wonderful!
Raul was born and raised in the Amazon jungle and lived most of his adult life in the riverside city of Iquitos. He had avoided life in the oil refinery which claims so many others, instead teaching himself English and becoming a certified tour guide. He has visited every corner of Peru but prefers educating others on the land of his roots: the Amazon jungle.
We weren’t impressed with the dilapidated city as we drove thirty minutes from the airport to Explorama’s boat dock. Though Eiffel designed a stunning, silver 2-story building which still stands in the center of Iquitos, but it is surrounded by the slowly crumbling remnants of other 19th-century tiled landmarks built by European business owners intent on making Iquitos one of the main hubs on the Amazon River. They succeed in drawing destitute Peruvians to Iquitos to help run the oil refinery and rubber factories, but today makeshift homes built along the banks of the Amazon river and crime and destruction in town remind visitors that this is not the grand town it may have once been.
It’s no bother, as we’re heading straight for a covered, 20-person speed boat to take us directly to Explorama’s flagship lodge in the Amazon jungle.
After 40 minutes of speeding down the Amazon river I’m forced to tear my eyes away from the kelley green foliage as we approach our first destination. It’s Explorama’s flagship jungle lodge: Ceiba Tops.
Lodges dot the river banks hundreds of miles downriver from Iquitos, all offering similar amenities for the adventurous traveler: peaceful kayak or boat rides on the water, gray and pink river dolphin spotting, visits to some of the many indigenous jungle villages, fishing for piranhas and other Amazon species, and treks through the jungle. Ceiba Tops, however, is the jungle resort offering the most comfortable experience travelers to this area could hope to find.
Raul walks us past the lodge’s pool and slide, lobby and restaurant, and hammock station to our set of rooms: fully-enclosed rooms with private bathrooms featuring king-sized beds, hot water, and air conditioning. For all the excursions we have planned, I’m grateful a good night’s rest and refreshing showers are on our itinerary!
Day 1 on the River includes more than just a tour through Iquitos and boat ride into the jungle. We soon board a smaller, uncovered boat and travel down a small tributary in the chocolate water toward the Yagua tribe’s village. On our way Guillermo, our boat captain, stops suddenly as he expertly spots a small pod of gray dolphins playing along our path. It feels like a good omen to be greeted by such prominent river life so quickly, and we are duly in awe of our good fortune.
After walking a few minutes along our first jungle path we’re suddenly overtaken by the view of a large, circular structure with thatched roof which emerges in a clearing from the crowd of trees around us. A young boy wearing nothing but a grass skirt meets us while holding their tribe’s pet sloth, Poncho, and the sight is almost too much for me to handle. Jungle path. Sudden clearing. Community building with thatched roof. Child in grass skirt. Sloth. My mind can’t process all the culture and significance hitting my eyes at the same time.
Before I know it the sloth is turned over to me, and Raul is snapping photos of Ben and Whit crowding around Poncho and I. It has coarse fur and long, sharp claws which dig into my shoulders, but I don’t feel any discomfort. I’ve never felt drawn to this recently-famous animal the way other people seem to be, but in this moment I completely understand the fascination with these tranquil, happy creatures: sloths are not overrated.
Cry count: 2.
A large group of Chinese tourists is fast on our heels into the village and joins us inside the circular building for a demonstration of Yagua music and dancing. We can hear them chatting across the building and watch them run alongside the dancers to snap photos of the scantily-clad women and children, but the experience doesn’t turn me off as other obvious tourist attractions do. Yes, the Yagua are wearing traditional garb for our benefit and will change into shorts and t-shirts when we leave, yes, they are parading in front of us and encouraging photography in exchange for the money which is donated to their village, yes, they allow us to shoot their modified blow dart gun at a target 5 meters away while they’ll use a more deadly version to hunt a moving dinner, but in that moment of holding a sloth while a topless woman dances around you and a tribe leader shows you how to shoot (and hit) a target with a blow dart gun, nothing in the world feels more authentic.
The next morning we wake to the sound of heavy rain before our alarms go off. We’re meeting Raul not-so-bright and early for a long boat ride to one of Explorama’s more rustic lodges. While I normally despise being outside in the rain, I can’t help but feel like a powerful explorer as I trudge out of my air-conditioned room to the boat launch with my high-end rain jacket dripping around me. I’m in the rainforest!
Watching the sunrise over the Amazon River is worth waking up before dawn, and soon the rain stops to reveal a rainbow directly in the center of the water. The combined view is such a testament to the wonder of nature that I’m left wishing this moment could be frozen in time. While I can’t stop time, I have the best alternative: a camera. I’ve turned into one of those people who insists on showing people photos taken every few seconds of similar landscape, even though we all know there’s no way they’ll understand the magnitude of the moment I was trying to capture.
The original plan was for us to stop at one lodge for breakfast and hike to it’s neighboring lodge, which hosts the area’s only treetop canopy walk, but after the morning rainfall the hike is considered too difficult for our basic tennis shoes. We’re left to get to the canopy walk by boat which turns out to be a massive blessing in disguise, as the route during the high-water season navigates along a small canal overgrown with plants. The tunnel of diverse greenery on the narrow, windy waterway is an entirely new view of the mighty Amazon, and makes us feel part of the jungle in a new, extraordinary way. At one point a fish actually jumps into our boat, further cementing our oneness with the river.
Once again I feel as though we’ve arrived too quickly when our boat docks along the riverbanks at the edge of the canopy walk, but this is yet another adventure I’m all-too-eager to experience. The canopy walk, a series of 12 rope bridges along the canopy line of tall forest trees, is the highest and largest canopy walk in all of South America, built in 1992 for research purposes. Though it eventually opened up to paid tours, the canopy’s main function remains that of scientific discovery. Scientists of all fields spend weeks and months sleeping under mosquito nets at the lodge nightly while perched on a bridge’s platform by day actively studying the thousands of plants and animals around them. New species are discovered in the Amazon each year, and the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies, which is funded by Explorama and this tourist experience, is hoping any one of them could hold the answer to the life on Earth.
I feel equal parts empowered to be walking the bridges that scientists have made discoveries from for the last 30 years and giddy to be some of the tallest creatures in all of the Amazon. Even as I try to convey the educational significance of the rainforest and its many species to my son I’m betrayed by my own sense of child-like wonder and excitement at our incredible vantage point of one of the 7 Wonders of the World. But who says something can’t be both life-alteringly important and amusing?
Growing up I was taught that we needed to protect the rainforest because any of the undiscovered plant or animal species thriving there could be the “cure to cancer”. The idea that plants can be used for such important purposes made the shamans of indigenous rainforest tribes seem like rock stars. How were they able to discern and remember the use of so many different things? They’re practically magicians.
Some of the secrets of one of the most mystifying professions on Earth were revealed to us as we met a practicing shaman after our descent from the treetops. Dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis, the only thing setting this man apart from Explorama employees was a feather headdress, snake-bone necklace, and calm smile. He taught our group, through a translator, about a few of the roots, barks, and leaves he finds in the jungle and how he uses them to treat various conditions. How someone took a specific leaf and experimented with crushing it and adding it to the liquid from a bush root to make a potion which helps the prostate I’ll never understand.
Our shaman invited us to participate in a ceremony meant to help the universe deliver our deepest desires. We sat side by side on a long bench as he went behind us and, one by one, wiped an unknown liquid across our foreheads, blew smoke around our heads, waved cleansing leaves around our shoulders, and chanted in his native language as we focused on the desire of our hearts. After two days of full immersion in the other-worldly nature of the jungle I was perfectly primed to accept this unusual ritual, the people next to me fading away until the shaman and I were the only people left in the small clearing. On any other day it would have felt like an inauthentic tourist trap, but today tears flooded my eyes as my deepest desire really did come to mind. Thoughts of professional success or comfort while traveling fled my mind in favor of the desire for my son to have a remembrance of our journey and that this trip around the world would bring us happiness as a family.
Cry count: 3.
I couldn’t think of words to adequately express my gratitude for him opening my heart and mind, but I believe he intuited my appreciation. He gave me a hug and sent me away with a small bottle of Dragon’s Blood Magic Elixer; another successful demonstration over.
That night we met a toad as big as my head, a 20-year-old tarantula who had never left her tree, a nervous snake watching us from a tree limb, and a crocodile masquerading as a water-logged tree limb before gorging ourselves on another surprisingly delicious and diverse meal, hot shower, and falling asleep by 8:30 pm.
Our final opportunity to tame Wild Amazon was showing nasty piranhas whose boss. The large, mean-spirited biters were the stuff of nightmares growing up, and I was eager to take revenge on behalf of my storybook friends who’d fallen to the foes.
On our third and final morning our boat moved swiftly through the smooth water, and I, armed with some fishing line tied to the end of a stick and a belly full of sausage and rice, was up for the challenge of weilding it. We moved from one small plant-throttled lagoon to another, until we found their secret clubhouse. Raul demonstrated how to agitate the water violently with the end of a fiishing pole to attract the piranhas and pull the line quickly when we felt a tug.
Well… two handfulls of perfectly good-looking beef chunks later those nimble guys started going down. At the end of our time we counted our haul, 5 measly fish about the size of my palm.
This is what would devour us in seconds if we stepped a toe in the river?
Turns out, no- piranhas have been the recipients of unfair marketing for decades. Imagine!
A plate of cleaned and fried piranhas were presented to us as a sort of going-away present at lunch that afternoon. After struggling to catch these poor critters I felt determined to scrape as much of the meager flesh off their bones as I could with my bare teeth.
Now whose the piranha?
After three days of committed whole-heartedly to this mystifying experience it was nearly devastating to realize it wasn’t meant to last. We were silent on our boat ride back to Iquitos, already feeling the loss of a life we’d only barely tasted. As I watched the chocolate river and lush greenery whip by me, knowing this mysterious, magical landscape would never really meant to be mine, I teared up for what had been.
Cry count: 4.
I’m left now with 32 bug bites, a miniature blow dart gun, a vile of dragon’s blood to explain to every future security officer, a piranha bone stuck in my throat, and a deep yearning to return to the wild of Peru.
Learn More about Traveling Through Peru:
Visiting more places on your trip through Peru? Visit these other travel guides to make the most of your tour through the country!
- How to get to Lake Titicaca, but it may not be worth it
- Which 6 ruins you can’t miss on your trip to Cusco
- How to get to Machu Picchu and what it costs
- Top things to do in Miraflores and other Lima neighborhoods
- How to see South America’s only oasis in 1 day
Our stay at Explorama Ceiba Tops Jungle Lodge was provided in exchange for an honest review of their services. As you can tell we were absolutely thrilled with our experience. All opinions are our own.