When I think of the Amazon, it has always been almost this mythical, exotic place with rare species of plants and animals that can only be found there and have magical healing properties. With all of its beauty, power, and wonder, the Amazon also has its dark side. No one has escaped the tales of what lives within it’s murky waters like piranhas, electric eels, anacondas, giant river otters and so many more creatures you would never think to swim with. Not to mention the hidden tribes of people who have used poisonous dart frogs and shamans for centuries while living in the jungle. All of this sounds surreal and has given the Amazon it’s fairy tale reputation that makes it seem like an impossible destination not only to reach, but be able to survive in. It doesn’t seem like your first choice to go for a vacation or honeymoon, but after visiting I have changed my perception of this mysterious place. You have to be able to throw out all of the rules and preconceptions of this place and adapt to life in the Amazon. The only way to truly experience the Amazon is to do what the locals do; either live on the water, or escape high into the trees.
The Amazon only ever has two seasons, dry and wet. The water levels change drastically between these two seasons and the river can swell up to 35 feet higher than it is during the dry season flooding the forests, villages, and even forever altering the landscape once the waters recede. Since there are no roads to get to most of their villages, the only way to get around is by boat or on foot. When the rivers rise, people have learned to migrate to the second story of their stilted wooden homes just like how the animals retreat higher into the canopy of the trees. Life goes on and is dictated by the changing tides of the river.
The most typical way to view and experience the Peruvian Amazon is by boat, and the only luxurious options are through Delfin Amazon Cruises. The Delphin I II, and III riverboats (the same boats National Geographic uses to charter trips in the Amazon) are floating hotels that gives you the opportunity to see the eco-systems of the rainforest up close, but also enjoy many five-star amenities and comforts that you are used to. The Delfin boats boast fine dining prepared by some of the top Peruvian chefs, massages, private rooms and bathrooms, hot showers and air conditioning (something you don’t realize is a luxury until you’re down there), and numerous activities the crew offers.
Life in the canopy of the forest while escaping the rising waters of the Amazon River, is the only other way to truly experience the wonders of this vast rain forest. 90% of all life in the rain forest is found in the treetops, so literally you are living in the richest plant and animal habitat on Earth when you stay in a private bungalow in the Treehouse Lodge. Every morning you wake up to the symphony of exotic birds and monkeys while in the comfort of your canopy bed in your gravity-defying treehouse home. Each of their 16 bungalows are connected by suspension bridges sometimes as high as 70 feet up in the trees and are each equipped with bathrooms, showers, comfortable beds, and electricity.
I have had the privilege of having visited the Amazon already 4 times in my life, so when I recently brought a group of women on an Andeana Hats retreat to the Peruvian Amazon, it was amazing to see their first reactions to this incredibly WILD world. I asked Kelli Hayden, another professional photographer, to guest blog her experience in the Amazon. So here is our story in her words...
While in the air on our way to Iquitos, I glanced out the window and saw what looked like a huge brown snake in lots of greenery. That was the mighty Amazon River and the rainforest canopy, up at several thousands of feet! What we were about to experience for the next few days hadn't fully sunk in yet. I didn't know what exactly to expect. When we landed, we all gathered into the van the Treehouse Lodge provided for us for our two hour drive through the jungle towns and villages that would take us to the port where we then walked down the dock to our motor boat that took us for another hour-long ride to the Treehouse Lodge, right on the Amazon which would be home for the next three nights. Laura had done this exact trek many times, however, most of us were going into this not realizing what staying in the jungle actually meant!
Once we arrived and docked the boat, we walked up the stairs and were greeted by the most friendly staff of Treehouse Lodge, offering us a fresh passion-fruit beverage after our long trek from Cusco. Once we relaxed a little and checked out the main lodge common area, we hopped on a fishing boat for a sunset ride, in search of pink river dolphins. What a magical ride this was. We were treated to the most beautiful sunset, paired with dolphins teasing us with appearances, swimming around our boat. Once we arrived back to the lodge, the sun had gone down and it was time for dinner. Let me tell you, night time is when the rainforest REALLY comes to life! Things started to get real! The moment we saw our first tarantula of the trip was when Nish almost stepped on it on the bridge. While we all have our phones out, recording this really magnificent species just walk along like it ain't no thang, one of our guides casually goes over to it and tries to pick it up and hold it in his hands and instead of it just sitting there, allow him to be handled, it FREAKS OUT and sends all of the girls into hysteric shrieks as it's scrambling to get away and for a quick moment, crawls up and then darts through Laura's legs before it finally gets away and then crawls underneath the bridge. Not exactly the experience we had expected, at least not yet. Some of us would prefer to be eased into these insect and arachnid situations!
After that hilarious moment, it was time for dinner, and then the night tour for those of us who were brave enough. I have a personal fear and phobia of insects that fly and swarm, so that was my struggle; beetles with audibly flapping wings, jungle roaches that fly and jump, moths...omg. I could do everything else all day. Our night tour consisted of LOTS of bugs flying into you and on you. They're attracted to light, and we had flashlights for this, so...yeah. However, this is when to find all the rainforest LIFE. Spiders the size of dinner plates, snakes, frogs the size of basketballs...it's all there! I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't done it yet, but you never know what you're about to stumble upon! It's a real life adventure. After we survived the night hike, it was time to go to our rooms, aka our TREEHOUSE! All the treehouses are different, but all of them are situated up in the canopy, about 50ft or more above the ground. We're talking, IN the jungle, up IN a tree. You're living and sleeping with nature. Most of the rooms require walking across a suspended bridge more than 50ft high. Here's the kicker: at night, these bridges are covered in bugs and frogs and that's the ONLY way to and from your room! Saddle up and put your tough face on if you want to get to your room without falling down the stairs...insects LOVE visitors! Kathleen and I were roomies again, and we given the FURTHEST room from the main lodge. It took two suspended bridges and many flights of stairs to access it. Upon doing the trek, the reality of truly being in the rainforest was starting to kick in, hard! Our phobias were starting to shake us. I repressed how many times a jungle roach flew/jumped onto me and how many times I squatted mosquitos who gave zero f*cks about the bug repellant. I look back on this, laughing hysterically at it, but at the time, it was every man for themselves. I almost shoved poor Kathleen down the stairs a few times so I could literally run away from all the insects buzzing and flying into our ears as we're carefully trying to navigate our way to and from our room. Once we actually arrived in our first room (we were So-Cal girls freaking out and made them move us!), it was surprising to us to see how much of that nature was inside, and not just outside. Since that's to be expected, the beds are “sealed” with nets so guests can sleep comfortably without waking up with mosquito bites and other surprises lurking about. We were almost ready to accept that mission until we noticed a tarantula inside our room, in an area too high to capture it and have it tossed outside. Luckily we were able to be moved to another room, closer to the ground, and closer to the lodge so if we died, someone would at least hear our screams! Kidding! But the trek to our new room was a lot easier and contained a lot less nature! While in our new room, the most hilarious thing happened. We heard a faint yet blood-curdling scream come from the room we were in previously and Kathleen and I just looked at each other and started giggling. I guess they left the tarantula there for the guests who arrived after us!
When we woke up the next morning, I saw a banana I accidentally left out in our room had a hole eaten into it by a mystery creature, and a pile of poo left on the floor by the front door by what I assume is from the same mystery creature! As horrifying as it was, it's equally really really funny. Then immediately after, I see something moving on the backside of one of the curtains by Kathleen's bed and instantly recognized the shape of its silhouette; a freaking scorpion! I thought it was awesome, Kathleen did not. Ha! I tried to shake it off so I could capture it and toss it back outside, but it disappeared and never found it again. Oops. Turns out, all of us have our own stories and accounts of rainforest nature that found its way inside our treehouses! The same night, Laura had to discreetly throw a towel over a tarantula that sneakily crawled out from under Nish's bed just as she zipped her bed net closed and threw it outside. It's amazing what we're truly capable of when we're forced to face our phobias and for me, the rainforest was it. Although some things in the jungle are poisonous, many things actually aren't. Tarantulas can bite, but they're not poisonous to humans, nor are the roaches, most beetles, and some other spiders. Even the large constrictors aren't, and are usually not even aggressive (provided they've eaten recently)! Once the sun comes up, nocturnal nature recedes back into the jungle, just as the tide recedes back into the ocean. I found the early mornings to be the most peaceful. You're in your bed, safe and secure, literally surrounded by nature. Howler monkeys to the left, a toucan to the right, frogs ribbit-ing below, insects chirping all around...there is nothing else like it! What you hear on those white noise machines, you actually get in the jungle. It's real! And ironically, I was able to sleep very very peacefully and I absolutely LOVED waking up to that every morning. It was the gift of surviving the night!
Our agenda on this day consisted of exploring the amazon in search of wildlife, and piranha fishing! We strapped our swimsuits on and made our down to the main lodge for breakfast, then piled back into the fishing boat for a day on the water. We managed to spot some monkeys, a caiman lizard swimming across the river, and even bats camouflaged on a tree trunk! After cruising through dense marsh, and several twist and turns down the river, we found the perfect spot for fishing. Laura had an idea plotted out in her head for days now that she was finally able to execute: fashion wire to her GoPro and pin raw meat into it to capture RAW footage of piranhas going crazy and let's just say, they did not disappoint! Let's just say, never ever go swimming in the Amazon with an open wound. I had never gone fishing before, so I was really pleased that I was able to catch a few piranhas. I released all but one, to simply keep for a meal. After we all caught our dinner, we had the opportunity to cross off a major bucket list item for most of us: jump in and swim in the open amazon river! It felt SO good! There were swirls of hot and cold water all around you.
(WATCH THE VIDEO OF PIRANHAS FEASTING AFTER WE ATTACHED RED MEAT TO OUR GOPRO)
Once we made it back to the lodge, we had lunch, then got ready for the next part of the day: our day hike, a visit to the giant lily pads, and then a brief visit to the Campesina Community of 30 de Agosto (all of the communities along the river are named after the dates they were founded). The day hike (a lot more comfortable than it is at night!) was brief, yet still exciting. We saw a centuries-old Kapok tree that stood several hundred feet tall. During our visit to the see the huge lily-pads, the guide spotted a baby pit viper snake, one of the most lethal reptiles in the jungle! We made it to the Campesina Community just as the sun was setting and the storm was rolling in. It was so beautiful, listening to the children gather and sing at their community church, while watching the lightning in the sky from afar. We left the community as the sun had went down, and now we were in search of caimans. Since it was too dark to photograph anything, I chose to focus on photographing the lightning storm that continuously lit up the entire river. I eventually got a shot of the lightning bolt, and the sky and river all lit up with Laura and a few others at the front of the boat. Essentially, Laura and her intrepid self, in her natural element. I've got to say, personally, this was probably the most magical moment in the Amazon for me on this trip. I find lightning and thunder storms be so majestic and cleansing. I really resonate with the rain. Sitting in a boat, watching the lightning light up the sky and the open amazon river was just so...magical! I can't really find the right words to recreate the moment! You just have to do it yourself.
The next day was our visit to the protected Pacaya Samiria National Reserve community. Here, they make a special serum that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. It's made with an extraction from a special berry that grows atop of a tree that they climb with a makeshift “straddle” that they use to climb all the way up the tree top to pluck these berries. They then compress them and bottle up this serum onsite. It contains Vitamin-D, Vitamin-B, and several other antioxidants and is formulated to help with hair growth in areas where hair has stopped growing, skin care, etc. Basically, it's like a fountain of youth in a bottle and for 20 Peruvian soles, you can take a bottle home with you!
In the evening, a shaman came to visit us at the lodge and did a special chant and blessing for each of us individually. He even brought real authentic ayahuasca tea that he brews himself and offered us the experience to us. After we realized the conditions we were in may not be the most desirable for an ayahuasca ceremony, he did have us taste some. While none of us got high or experienced a trip, I did have some VERY peculiar dreams that night. I do wish we had time to fast and prepare for an actual ceremony. Peru is THE place to do it.
As we awoke to our last day in the Amazon, our main agenda was to visit a community with a rescue sloth, and then to our surprise, stop by a community that had a captured ANACONDA! These were also bucket list items! As Kathleen and I woke up before the sun came up, we boogied our way down to the lodge, chugged some coffee, and jumped back into the boat to visit 20 de Agosto, the community that was home to Pablito, a sweet sloth they rescued and still care for. I almost cried from the sheer joy you get from holding a sloth in your arms. After wanting to be Pablito's mommy for the rest of his life, we left and headed back over to the 30 de Agosto Campesina Community where the anaconda was being housed. The fishermen accidentally caught her in their net and she ended up with some puncture wounds so they decided to keep her in their community, isolated on her own cage, until she heals. If you leave a bleeding animal in the Amazon, they instantly become prone to the piranhas and had they done that with her, she would not have lived. During her time of being nursed back to good health, we had the opportunity to visit and meet her....and then pet her....and eventually have her slimy, massive self be held by us all for a group photo. She was SO heavy! And dare I even say, sweet?! Apparently, well-fed constrictors aren't typically aggressive. She didn't show any signs of being aggressive either. Probably could have smooched her right on the face and she wouldn't have flinched.
After our final Amazon activities, we had to say our goodbyes. Even though I craved sleeping in my bug-less bedroom, I knew I'd really miss this place. Once we were in the boat and making our way back to the port in Iquitos, all of our luggage in tow, we were hit by an oncoming boat! The tip of the other boat that hit us was on the inside of our boat, and just missed the shaman where he was seated. The wire frame of the window flew and landed on top of my seat and just missed my head, just like a game of ring-toss. Before any of that set in, the staff on the boat saw the water on the ground and immediately yelled “LIFEJACKETS ON!” and then things suddenly got real. The possibility of the boat going down in the middle of the Amazon became very real. I was instantly thinking “I can float to the shore with my whole camera bag with all my gear on my head, right?” The idea of losing all my images and content of this trip sacred me more than losing my own life in that moment. These are real photographer thoughts, unfiltered, coming in hot! Eventually we all realized that the water inside the boat came from the initial crash and we weren't sinking, so all we could do was carry on and finish the journey back to the port. No one was hurt, and we weren't going to sink. We're all very thankful we escaped that incident without a single scratch.
Since our flight out of Iquitos to Lima wasn't until later in the day, Laura had scheduled an afternoon of some poolside R'nR at the floating restaurant, Al Frio y Al Fuego, which requires a boat ride to enter. We spent the afternoon in our swimsuits, sipping cocktails, swimming in the pool, and playing with Laura's drone for some fun aerials. It was the perfect way to end the most epic trip!
It was really difficult to come back to Los Angeles because by this time, the city had changed drastically from when I left it a week prior. Shutdowns for bars, restaurants, and most non-essential businesses had begun shutting their doors due to the Coronavirus outbreak. As we were standing in the Lima airport, it was announced that president of Peru would be closing the borders at midnight. My flight was schedule to leave Lima at 12:45am! This sent some of us into a mini-panic as we all said our goodbyes to each other, and made our way to our different airline counters, deal with the incredibly long lines, check our bags, and hope like hell we can get back to the states so none of us are stuck in Peru. Luckily, our flights were some of the very last out of the country before they shutdown the border and we were fortunate enough to make it back on US soil. For me, this trip was non-stop insane adventure and fun, from the moment Laura demanded I catch the next flight out of Los Angeles to Lima, to us standing around in Lima, wondering if we're going home or living in Peru for the next several weeks. It was a life-changing trip, even more so to come home to our everyday lives being completely changed during this strange time. Experiencing the Amazon for a few nights has reminded me to always brace yourself for the unknown. Life is bountiful, but also never guaranteed.
Fun fact: I had always said out loud while talking to someone many, many times, “I really want to visit Peru!” or “Peru is on my top 5 places to visit next.” Maybe it's just a delightful coincidence, or maybe it's proof of the importance of verbally saying out loud the things you desire. They are delivered, just maybe not always in the ways you imagined. A lot of things on this trip that we as a group have discussed and verbalized to one another, totally manifested. From me wanting to go on the trip, to Laura wishing to see an anaconda, it all came true. Peru has proved itself to be an incredibly magical place, better than I had ever dreamed it would be.