The tarantulas are as big as my hand and creep along the trunk of the tree we are standing beside. Our guide Paul helpfully shines a flashlight on the creatures a couple of feet from my head. It’s our first night at Explorer’s Inn, a research station and guest lodge in the Peruvian Amazon. This is what I’d been dreading since I planned and booked this trip. I love adventure, exploring new places, learning about different cultures. I do not like spiders. At all. Even as a kid, I would make my younger sister come into my room to kill any spider who dared to take up residence. Being in the Amazon, surrounded by the creatures? I was not in my happy place.
My husband Rafael, our 10-year-old daughter Rachel, and I had arrived in Puerto Maldonado that afternoon from Cuzco. We already hiked around Machu Picchu and attended the Inti Raymi festival so were riding the high of those experiences. We met our guide Paul and drove to Infierno (which means Hell – a not so auspicious start) and then took a motorized canoe for a three-hour trip up the Tambopata River. It was a beautiful ride; exotic and unique. Oropendula birds’ nests hang from trees. Caimans line the banks of the murky river. Turtles rest in the sun with butterflies sipping their tears. Beautiful birds fly overhead.
When we arrive at Explorer’s Inn, it’s what I expect from my research, rustic but comfortable enough. There is no electricity in the cabins but there is running water. Yay, showers and toilets! Other lodges I looked at had one wall opened to the outside so that you could be one with nature. Yeah, that’s too much for me. I like screens if they can help keep the spiders out! We settle in, eat dinner at the main lodge and get ready for the night hike.
We cover as much skin as possible; long pants, long sleeves, hats and rubber boots that go up to our knees. We also have mosquito netting for our hats. We’re dressed like this whenever we hike in the jungle, no matter how hot it gets. The creepy crawlies here mean business. There is an ant they call the bullet ant because if it bites you it feels like you’ve been shot. In the beginning of our hike my daughter and I are tense and trying to see every direction at once. We’re convinced a spider or something is going to drop down for a bite. Eventually, though, we relax and just start to enjoy how amazing and beautiful the jungle is at night. There are all kinds of chirping, fluttering, croaking and flapping sounds around us. At one point a howler monkey starts roaring and it’s scary. Chills run down my spine (supposedly they used howler monkey calls as the dinosaur sounds in the Jurassic Park movies to give you an idea how scary they are!)
The next day we go another few hours up river in the canoe and camp in a tent. We are right in the thick of the jungle. Our guide uses a machete to hack a trail for us to hike. The critters are everywhere, from the wild hogs who scare even our guide to the ants marching up the trees. Spiders, snakes and more insects than I can count surround us. Birds fly overhead and monkeys swing in the trees. Many spiders come out at night so, of course, Rachel, who never does this at home, needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. We unzip the tent, bang our boots to make sure nothing is in them and head to the “bathroom” (read that to be a hole in the ground with a sheet around it!) On the way back is when I have my revelation. I realize I am actually enjoying myself. The world I am in at that moment is so foreign to me, so amazing and full of life. The sounds, the smells, even the air just feel so alive. I cannot help feeling the same way. This is exactly why we travel and bring Rachel. At that moment there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be. I realize that maybe I’m not as afraid of spiders as I thought. I let it go and open myself up to the wonder around me and it is incredibly liberating. It’s a great lesson for me and Rachel. We are never too old to challenge ourselves and overcome what scares us most. That means I have only one more fear left to conquer. It is something that has been holding Rafael back from doing what he wants to do!
I’m from the Jaws generation. I remember seeing that movie and being afraid to swim over the deep end of the pool in swim team practice. Never mind the ocean! My husband has been after me for years to get our scuba diving certification, but I was too afraid to go in the deep ocean. After we return home from Peru, we sign up and get certified. Now, sharks are one of my favorite dive sightings. From Bora Bora to Galapagos, we have been thrilled to watch them glide effortlessly through the water. When I was riding in that canoe in the Peruvian Amazon, I never would have believed it would lead me to the incredible world of scuba diving. Life is such an interesting journey.
Can I do this trip?
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most challenging:
Courage Level: 3 – As we saw, there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of, except for the unknown. However, you need the courage to get there and figure that out!
Fitness Level: 2-3 – You don’t need to be truly athletic to do this trip, but you do need to be able to hike for fairly long periods in high heat. We left for our hikes very early in the morning to beat the worst of the heat, and would walk for 4-5 hours. Luckily, there were not a lot of elevation changes. Afternoons would include rest times.
Do I need special gear?
You want light clothes in the jungle, but you need to be covered. I wore a long sleeve shirt from Exofficio that had SPF in it with a bikini top under it – mostly because I could wash the bathing suit out at night and it would dry by morning or at least not feel awful damp. My husband wore a long sleeve shirt with wicking fabric. For pants we used thin, long pants that had bug repellent built in. Use the same clothes every day for hiking. Bring something else to change into when you are done and showered – shorts and workout tops worked for us. They give you high boots to use, but bring sandals for hanging around or to walk to dinner on the boardwalk. You don’t need any nice clothes here.
We use the Olympus Stylus Tough Camera. This is not the camera for photographers, but it is great for adventurers. It takes great pictures and causes you no worries. You can drop it, get it wet and bang it into trees and rocks. Nothing we have done to it has hurt it yet. It’s perfect for memory photos. Make sure you have enough memory cards because you won’t have your laptop here to upload pictures. They do have a generator for you to charge your camera.
Bring a hat and mosquito net for your head.
Get a small headlamp that will light your way at night. There is no electricity in the cabins. Bring a book for relaxing and a journal for recording your experiences.
A small pocket notebook is helpful on your hikes because your guide is full of information about plants. The Amazon has so many medicinal plants and he will be naming them left and right. You will never remember them all if you don’t write them down!
You will need sunscreen and insect repellent with Deet.
Bring a sense of adventure because you are going to love it!!
Here is a link to a blog that has a photo and recording of the call of the Oropendula, a beautiful bird and an amazing nest builder!
Here is a link so you can see some of the spiders in the Peruvian Amazon. Luckily, none of these were crawling on us (that we know of!) http://thinkjungle.com/amazon-rainforest-life/amazon-rainforest-spiders/
We stayed at the Explorer’s Inn, where we did a 5 day/ 4 night package. One night was three hours farther down river in a tent near a clay lick that macaws visit in the morning. We highly recommend this as we saw a lot of animals while so far out in the jungle. It was just my husband, daughter and I, and our guide, the cook and porters. http://www.explorersinn.com/#
I mention Inti Raymi in my article. Inti Raymi is the Incan festival to the Sun God that is held in Cusco on June 24, the Summer Solstice. It is a huge event and well worth attending in Cusco, which was the Capital of the Incan Empire. The party goes on for days, culminating on the 24th with a ceremony at Saqsayhuaman, a Sun Temple about 2 km walk from the Old Town. Here is a link to learn about it:
In Cusco, where we were prior to our trip into the jungle, we stayed at Second Home B&B, which we highly recommend. It is in the old section of the city, in walking distance to everything. The prices were extremely reasonable, the rooms were very comfortable, they had WIFI, and breakfast was included. You can read about them on TripAdvisor. http://www.secondhomecusco.com/en/bed-breakfast-cusco