Herping Peru with Amazon Eco-Tours
By Mr. Terry A. Johnson
Chapter One – Iquitos and Beyond
In the reptile hobby there are special places where we herpers simply must make a pilgrimage when we have the means. The Amazon basin is one of those places, and it became a priority on my ‘bucket list’ because of it’s broad biodiversity and rich herpetological fauna.
The eco-tourism business that I contracted was Amazon Eco-Tours because they offer a 10 day ‘herpetology-photography’ tour in the
Amazon Basin of Peru. The tours take place in January during the rainy season, and again in June, the dry season. I went in June of 2014, and although it only rained a couple of times during my stay, the surrounding waters were high and many of the trails required shallow wading.
Our trip began in Iquitos with a hectic ride from the airport to our first overnight accommodation at the Hotel Pasquana. Traffic here is mostly made up of 3 wheeled motorcycles that have a carriage built on; sort of a rickshaw contraption… And they drive crazy, man! The streets were filled with these vehicles all hell bent for leather, and weaving around in complete chaos to my eyes… God help the pedestrians!
The Hotel Pasquana lies on a quiet side street behind a locked door. Once inside, beyond the anteroom, front desk, and the interior coffee shop is a small landscaped courtyard that forms the center for a double row of quaint and pleasant rooms for rent. Showers are cold water only and there is no air conditioning. The tropical heat and humidity dissipates somewhat after dark, and the ceiling fan moves enough air to make for a comfortable night’s sleep.
The next day we went out with Devon Graham to do some birding along the riverfront only a couple of blocks away. Devon is the director of ‘Project Amazonas’, and Amazon Eco-tours is essentially a fund raiser for that parent organization. Their core business is providing medical care, promoting environmental stewardship, and facilitating educational improvements for the Peruvian people who live in the many small remote villages along the Amazon River and it’s tributaries. It’s a humanitarian undertaking, not a missionary function.
We were waiting for the last member of our group to arrive from Lima. Mike Pingleton was our tour guide for the trip, so as soon as he checked in then we headed for the boat. The other members of our group were Aaron, Ingvar, Steve, and Kate. Aaron is a frog expert from NYC, Ingvar is a birder and retired dentist who lives in Florida, Steve is a college professor at UCLA, and Kate is a Medical Student from England.
We were also accompanied for the duration of the tour by local staff members who drive the boat, guide, cook, clean, carry, you name it…. These folks were some of the most friendly, helpful and competent people anyone could ask for in the jungle! Certainly one of my regrets is that I am not fluent enough in Spanish to enjoy a meaningful conversation with them. Learning a foreign language seems to provide a real freedom to enjoy the depth of a culture. Devon speaks Spanish well of course and he acted as our interpreter as well as our resident naturalist.
Sometimes the trip downriver is on a houseboat, but we were such a small group that we got to take the speed boat, thereby making the journey downriver to Madre Selva Forest Preserve in about 3 hours. The Amazon is very expansive, even this far West, and the water is brown. We also travelled down convenient tributaries such as the Yanashi and Arosa Rivers to reach our destination.
But the first stop was at the rum and molasses farm. Devon had previously seen an unusual bird here so we hiked around the property taking pictures of this and that. The bird is a Bald Faced Ibis, and it was pretty cool to
see, but I think the main idea for coming here was to buy rum! Great idea!
I have to admire the proprietor’s business plan…. He lives beside the river, grows sugar cane, uses a horse to turn the press which produces the sugar water, then he distills it on site and produces at least four different rums. We sampled them all, but now I could just kick myself for only buying two bottles.
I was sold on the ginger infused rum and another one that is made using five local herbs. All flavors were a little sweet, very smooth, and entirely sip-able.
Chapter Two – Madre Selva Biological Research Station
Our destination for this leg of the trip was Madre Selva, which means “Forest Mother”; it’s the Biological Research Station on the bank of the Arosa River, where we stayed for the next 4 nights.
When we first approached the dock there were staff members ready to help us off the boat and also several young women that I thought looked out of place, until I learned that they were medical students at the half way point of a month long volunteer stint. They said that they were happy to be able to talk English to “new people” and also that they were glad we weren’t a bunch of teenaged boys! (I was sort of wishing that I was at that point!)
The girls were very sociable and they didn’t seem to be bothered by the hot and humid climate. They work together each morning helping to build a medical clinic downriver, then they spend the afternoons writing in their journals and doing their personal chores, which, by the way, may mean doing their laundry in the river just like the locals do. (They could also use the “laundry facility” which is a plastic tub that goes in the shower with us!) I was pleased to see that these brilliant and attractive young women were not camera shy and their smiling faces
made for some very nice images! Our Kate fit right in with the group and if I remember correctly, she will be spending three months on the Amazon serving in distant villages on a Project Amazonas medical houseboat!
The Madre Selva camp consists of one big building that serves as the kitchen, dining hall, meeting room and staff quarters. Beyond that is the shower/restroom building with about four of each, then scattered around nearby and up a small hill were our cabins,
called “tambos”. They are thatched roof, simple wooden rooms on short stilts. The walls come up halfway and the rest is mosquito netting including the ceiling. The beds are also covered in mosquito netting and of course,
there is no air conditioning. I initially thought the mosquitos would be really bad, but they seemed to be more of a localized annoyance than an omnipresent irritation.
It’s not unusual to inadvertently share your tambo with various other creatures of the
forest so it’s a good idea to keep a flashlight handy at night. A generator provides electricity in the dining hall for a few hours each night to power the lights, and also for powering the refrigerator
where the food, cold beer and Coca-Cola was stored. The showers/restrooms also have lighting, but the tambos do not. The bathrooms have flush toilets, but there is only one valve in the shower stalls – cold. I believe that’s a recurring theme in this part of the world, but you get used to it.
I was pleasantly surprised with the wonderful meals that were prepared for us. Breakfast was often eggs, pancakes, local fruits and juice. Coffee was always in the pot. Lunch and dinner usually consisted of white rice, fish, pork or chicken, fresh salsas and/or some kind of green sauce that tasted slightly spicy, and various local vegetables. The roasted plantain was excellent! French fries were very popular but not always made with potatoes, they also used other starchy tubers whose names I’ve already forgotten. I especially enjoyed the wide variety of local fruits and juices!
One of the juices was made from wild tree tomatoes, which look nothing like the tomatoes that I’m used to seeing. It was curious to me that condiments like mayonnaise, catsup and mustard sat on the table in air tight squeeze bags. The big bottles of beer that we enjoyed were either “Crystal” or an Iquitos brew that was sweeter and equally good.
At Madre Selva there are three hiking trails into the jungle that loop back to camp. Devon, Ingvar and I immediately set out on the short trail the first day. I love being around nature freaks! People like Devon who really know their ecology, their biology, their taxonomy are cool in my book. Devon showed us lots of plants and animals, he talked about them in detail and really gave an enjoyable introduction to the wonders and hazards to be found there. At the beginning of the trail there is a wooden tower built to see above the forest canopy, it’s about 50 feet high I suppose. I know the
birders enjoy using it. I climbed it once and it’s stairs are kind of steep! I conned myself into doing it because, well, “if Ingvar can do it, then I surely can too”…. Once was enough for me though.
When going into the jungle, one wears rubber boots. It’s the required footwear for jungle
hiking because they help keep the ants and other critters from climbing up your pants (tuck your pant legs inside). I suggest bringing your own boots. I borrowed a pair already on site but my feet were killing me after a few days of hiking. Since rubber boots offer little support, always walk carefully. One night I stepped wrong and rolled my ankle… I had to take the next day off and soak it in alcohol. Thank goodness for river rum and big bottles of cold beer!
The trails are muddy and sometimes slick. There are few rocks, but plenty of roots. It’s not flat ground as I had presumed either. There are plenty of ups and downs, some with footholds or steps carved into the inclines; plenty of narrow planks to traverse over watery ravines;, and plenty of plants to avoid touching. Spikey palm trees, stinging nettles, thorns…. Once we (Mike, Aaron and I) had to bushwhack around a fallen tree on the long trail and somehow I ended up with three thorn cuts that covered my arm in blood.
There are bullet ants scattered throughout the jungle. They are black and huge (over an inch long). I’m told that they will bite and that they also pack a wallop of a sting, hence their name! The jungle has a lot of ants and the ones I enjoyed watching the most were the leaf cutters, they used the same trails as us and I felt bad for the ones I must have unfortunately crushed under foot. I try to avoid stepping on bugs when I can.
Mike, Aaron, myself and one or two guides slowly walked the trails day and night. I didn’t make all the hikes though because sometimes I just didn’t feel like getting all hot and sweaty, or my feet hurt too much. I was amazed at how dark the jungle was in the day time, and the humidity under the canopy is truly humbling in its ability to make a body sweat. I bet I’d have sweated off ten pounds on this vacation if they weren’t feeding us so well!
I liked the night hikes best because that’s when most of the animals were active. It was so much fun to shine a light around and see a snake, or a frog, or some bizarre bug. Eye shine is what gets the adrenaline going! I wasn’t nearly as good at spotting the critters as the others were, but, as they say, ‘the more eyes the better’, so we all benefitted from each other’s discoveries. I actually only found two snakes the whole trip:
A Big Headed Snail Eater in ambush mode on a vine, and an Ornate Snail Eater that was sleeping on a leaf. Jungles are thick with vegetation and it’s hard to see small animals, for that reason I was impressed with Aaron, Mike, and all the guides’ abilities to find small frogs, bugs, reptiles and other wildlife.
The herping protocol we used is to capture anything “new”, bag it and bring it back to camp. The following day, everyone who wants to can photograph the animals before we return them to their capture sites on the next hike.
My favorite pastime was herping and birding from the skiff in the Yanashi River. It was great fun to look for roosting birds, or especially to eye shine caimans and frogs in the water.
Photographing them from the boat was problematic though, especially at night. Basically, those pictures didn’t turn out well for me. On the first night we saw red eyes on the water, that’s a caiman! So the boatman steered it right next to the toothy reptile and then the guide up front reached down and grabbed it, bringing it on board for us all to hold and examine. Well, it was only a couple feet long so the danger was minimal, but nevertheless, a Spectacled Caiman is a very cool herp to see!
On a daytime boat ride we were able to get close to a Caiman Lizard that was asleep on a branch over the water, so that was also a special ‘Nat Geo’ moment for me.
On the second night we found a “Giraffe Phase” Variable Clown Frog with the exact same colors and pattern as it’s namesake…
It was simply amazing! Besides all the neat animals we found from the boat, generating a cool breeze while motoring along was a pretty great feeling too.
We also took a couple of side trips: First to visit the clinic construction site where the girls were working, and the second was to visit a big downed tree that the village men were cutting into boards and packing out. It was quite a long jungle hike to get there, so their hauling out 4”x8”x12’ hewn boards on their backs was no small test of endurance.
I really admire the villagers for their skills to make things, grow food, or find in the forest almost all that they need to live comfortably in the rain forest. They are ‘Jacks of all trades’ it seems, and most are adept at building a house, a boat, a boat dock or anything else. These folks strike me as having a genuinely sustainable civilization.
They work as a community, and no one gets wealthy at the expense of the others. If someone needs a house, the community joins together and builds it for them using the traditional resources at hand. I was told that they marvel how much we Americans have to work for money just to pay for our food and shelter, and that they also think we are all rich people. I think they are richer than they know!
Chapter Three – Santa Cruz Forest Preserve
Our next destination was the Santa Cruz Forest Preserve, which is a couple of kilometers into the jungle away from its boat dock on the Mazan River. Fortunately, we stayed at the two story guest house right on the river and didn’t have to hike all our gear into the main facility. Getting there required a transfer from our speed boat to motorcars at Timicurillo, a ride through the countryside to the town of Mazan, and then back into another boat for an hour long ride up the Mazan River. This is an overland shortcut that takes many miles off of our journey.
I think I liked the Santa Cruz area even better than Madre Selva. As Mike said, it was “snake-ier”. There are two trails off the guest house property that take you up to the main Santa Cruz facility, the longer path was apparently too deeply submerged with high water so we never walked that one. The shorter “main trail” began with a boardwalk that was also submerged, but since it was only a foot or two deep, we always started or ended our treks in that direction. After a hundred meters or so the boardwalk ends right next to the caretaker’s house, and on our first night hike he came with us part way in order to cut a new trail paralleling the flooded parts. These guys sure know how to get that machete flying! The newly cut trail also had several severed sapling stumps left over that I dubbed “pungy sticks”; they were best seen and not experienced.
The jungle trail to Santa Cruz was a favorite of mine. It is wide and well worn, but unlike what you’d expect in the states, the wildlife are just as accustomed to using it as the people are. It is truly a path through no man’s land and any number of wild animals may be encountered along it.
There are several ravine crossings on narrow boards and some short but challenging hill climbs. I preferred going uphill to downhill because it’s almost entirely wet mud and can be slippery. We were deep within the Amazon to be sure. Our guide Cezar even found a set of Jaguar tracks at a soft spot in the trail!
We looked for Aquatic Coral Snakes and Mata-Mata Turtles in the many shallow streams that we crossed.
The wide leafed plants and vines often harbored colorful frogs, lizards, or cryptic snakes. Weird katydids, armored millipedes, huge spiders and Tailless Whip Scorpions were frequently seen on the foliage. We saw monkeys high in the canopy and Tree Opossums in the understory; Cool looking flying birds and sleeping bats (or visa versa)…
One night I shined my light up the trail just in time to see a fruit bat fly right at me and release a mid-air defecation that struck me front and center with the accuracy of an Obama drone over Yemen.
Cezar was great about showing me the snakes that he’d found. One time on the trail he called my attention to the beautiful bright red body of a snake slipping into the leaf litter. I hesitated to grab it until he told me “non-venomosa”, but by then it was too late because the snake had disappeared into the catacombs of leaf litter. No amount of probing would reveal it again. I had mistakenly thought it was one of the deadly Micrurus clade of Coral Snakes that frequent the region, but according to Devon it was more likely a commonly seen species of Egg Eating Snake.
The jungle sounds were surreal… Birds calling, bugs clicking and frogs belching… Endless onomatopoeias in concert… A tribe of termites audibly clicked their jaws together sounding an alarm, and moments later they had all gone back underground.
The Giant Monkey Frogs loudly called out “BOB”; their calls seemed to help me gauge how close I was getting to the pond. At night, everything seems to be awake and interacting as predator or prey; or like us, the watchers and the watched… It was really an interesting cacophony of sounds!
As it was at Madre Selva, the flora here is beautiful and bizarre. I saw mighty trees with buttressed feet, thick wandering vines that went on forever skyward, brilliant red flowers, yellow flowers, and aromatic seeds.
Only a few of the plant species are painful to touch, and most of them are pretty obvious about it. The locals grow up living off the land, and to the untrained eye, their fruit and vegetable gardens look very similar to the rest of the jungle.
Camp life at the river front guest house was a little different than at Madre Selva because we were a smaller group and with just one shower/restroom. It’s pretty common to shower twice a day, or swim in the river to cool off. (No, the Piranhas are not a threat, that’s a myth.)
The guides occupied the bottom floor veranda where the kitchen and dining room were located, and the guests shared rooms on the top floor.
I think we all enjoyed the local music that was playing on the radio, it has a lot of flute and soft singing in it. Cezar told me that the song we’d just heard was about a shaman giving love advice and good will to a lonesome young man. The “wooshing” sounds indicated the shaman’s blowing of magical smoke to cast his spell. The music of the region really fits the primal setting.
The Santa Cruz Research Facility, which lies at the far end of the trail, has several tambos and a meeting room, it more closely resembles Madre Selva structurally than where we stayed by the river. Next to the facility is the aforementioned pond where all kinds of interesting animals live. We hiked a trail around the pond and also a denser trail leading away from it in hopes of finding tree vipers. The first things we saw around the pond were huge Cane Toads on the ground, and equally huge Giant Monkey Tree Frogs in the trees. I was enthralled by the four sets of Caiman eyes floating out in the water.
One of the herping highlights, in particular for our amphibian fans, was a pair of Giant Monkey Tree Frogs hanging off a banana leaf and locked in amplexus, and then on the next night, we saw their resultant egg mass wrapped up in the banana leaf. For me the reptilian highlights were the Aquatic Coral Snakes, one of which I caught for photographs, and the other I snapped a picture of in situ as it made its submarine escape.
Chapter Four – Noche de Shushupe
My feet were sore and I was ready to walk back to camp. It was nearly eleven o’clock at night, Mike was in the lead and Aaron trailed us both as we made our way down the hill from Santa Cruz. Not far along the path, near the bottom of the steps, Mike shouts aloud with excitement: “ BUSHMASTER!”
Bushmasters are large venomous pit vipers that live in the jungle, but they are rarely seen. Finding one is every herpetologist’s dream and they are one of the top big game animals to photograph in our hobby. By a stroke of good fortune, this was Mike’s second Bushmaster, after the first being found by him and Matt Cage back in January. Called “Shushupe” in Peru, the Bushmaster’s voluminous bite is always considered to be fatal.
This animal was coiled up in ambush mode and it looked like a very big snake. I estimated it to be around six feet long, which everyone agreed upon once we saw it uncoiled and moving. Mike had snake tongs and Aaron volunteered to run back to the facility for a suitable container to put it in, fortunately he intercepted our guides on the back-trail who quickly fetched a short plastic tub with a cover, which they brought along to carry the snake in. I asked Mike if I could catch the Bushmaster, and he seemed just as happy to let me “have at it”, as I was happy to do it!
The tongs couldn’t hold it, he was too strong! I had eased the bottom prong under a coil and tried to lift him towards the barrel, but once he felt the top prong touch his back, he thrashed like a Gracie Black Belt! He got away from me and circled to my right, where I watched him pause for a moment to consider his escape route. He looked regal, he looked profound. He looked like the king of the jungle to me… But he didn’t look like he was planning on biting me so I held my ground.
Fortunately, he threw himself across the trail directly in front of my position, thereby giving me another chance to bag him. I put the tongs on his “chest” and grabbed him by the tail with my left hand; this time he was caught! We spun back around together and I directed his sturdy body into the now sideways laying barrel. I tipped it right side up with my foot while continuing to maintain control of his business end. Then one of our guides slid on the lid and held it down while they tied it in place with a jungle vine… I think the highlight of this trip for Mike was finding a Bushmaster, and for me it was definitely catching it!
Everyone back in camp was happy and excited to see this spectacular animal! Of course he was eventually released where he was found after a rather tense daylight photo session.
Mike and Devon did the wrangling while the rest of us took pictures and checked our emergency exits. I’ve re-lived our penultimate Bushmaster experience the whole way back to Arizona with a big smile in my heart… Quetzalcoatl was with us!
On our final night in Peru we were at the pond when Mike shouted to us from across the dam, “Here’s a SLOTH on the GROUND!” Aaron and I hurried on over there and saw that Mike had found a Two Toed Sloth sitting on the ground in a small clearing, where it was digging up and eating something tasty. That’s not a sight you see every day! The rain started to fall heavily as we watched and photographed this real-life ”Wookie” (from Star Wars). Mike called it his spirit animal… A sloth… Hahaha!
All too soon the rain forced our retreat to the nearby shelter of the facility’s group tambo. I was pretty soaked by then, but at least my camera was dry. I think the rain must have washed off my DEET too because the mosquitos were bad at that time and place! The sloth evidently drifted back into the jungle and eventually we did the same; herpers and guides quietly walking the Santa Cruz trail one last time in the sultry darkness of a jungle night.
It was great going off grid in one of the most remote places on Earth! I savored having no phone, no watch, no internet, no calendar and no public surveillance. There were no electronic bells, beeps, alarms or whistles to keep me on schedule. For that brief period of time in the rain forest I could forget about office politics, HR directives, and redundant safety initiatives. Nothing levels the playing field like the jungle does. I was looking forward to a good “time out” for weeks before the trip began, and I completely enjoyed living it. I had a real good time in Peru!
We made for Iquitos on Saturday, June 21st, 2014, but I didn’t even know what day it was. Soon I was looking forward to air conditioning, hot showers and ice water. On the plane I was thinking about how much I would enjoy the drive back home from Los Angeles; more so for the solitude of passing through the arid Mojave Desert than anything else… While driving alone, lost in my thoughts, I was still on vacation time.
Back on the ground in LAX, my friends Jackie and Roger arranged to have a car and driver pick me up at the airport, so after I cleared customs I found my chauffeur waiting near the exit. (Even though he held up a sign that read “Jerry Thompson”, I knew he was there for me. Thanks for the new alias, Senor!) Once again I became the grateful guest of their charming hospitality in Alhambra. It makes me glad to know the girl I knew back in high school has turned out so well. What a great trip it’s been! The people I’d met, the sights I saw, and the nature I witnessed… That’s what it’s all about. I could make a habit of this travelling thing!