Diego and I are currently at a large community only a few weeks walk (and swim!) away from the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, Iquitos. We have found WiFi in a school that is a mere hour’s boat ride downriver in Yanashi, where I had planned to re-supply food and rest a day or two.
Diego has had to make a flying return visit by fast boat to his family in Atalaya do Norte, to drop off money there and renew his visa. Now, while recovering from the last (fairly traumatic) traverse and preparing for the next, I am uploading an interim blog whilst waiting for Diego’s return before we finally reach Iquitos.
Sleeping in the rainforest exposes us to various potential natural hazards. Most people here in the towns and communities always caution us about the jaguar (onça), anaconda, venomous snakes and the black caiman, but in fact I think we are much more at risk from falling trees, fast-flowing waters from flooded rivers, or from crossing paths with dangerous people. There is also the ever-present, much less ‘glamorous’ danger of mosquito-borne disease. However, we have certainly had close encounters with many incredible animals over the course of the trek, most recently large troops of Uakari monkeys and the elusive jaguar. Here is a brief account of the latter…
It was a pitch-dark, cloudy night, intermittently illuminated by distant flashes of lightning. With no ambient moon- or star-light, the few fireflies swirling around were like tiny flares, and the incredible bioluminescent leaf litter glowed eerily on the ground below. The faint red embers of what had been a raging camp fire a few hours earlier completed the scene. We were deep in the jungle, about 23 km from the main Amazon river, skirting the vast swathes of flooded low-lying forest, and navigating the areas where we were warned there were cocaine plantations.
This particular night I had hung my hammock about 20m away from the fire, as I could not find any trees the right distance apart, nearer the fire. There were claw marks on the bark of the tree I had selected, and Diego cheerily informed me they were made by a jaguar, to mark its territory and sharpen its claws [any large cat here is called a jaguar, although it could also be a panther, an ocelot or a margay). But I have seen this several times before and have often had no choice but to hang my hammock on such a tree. I thought little of it.
At about 21:30, just as I was drifting off to the soothing sound of the insect chorus and the low rumbles of distant thunder, I felt something nudge the cord attached to my hammock. Again, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and happens when small branches fall or small animals like bats etc catch the chord – but it felt different this time. The pull, or twang, was like that from a much heavier object, and I sensed the presence of a large animal directly below me. I wondered whether it might be a tapir or one of the larger species of anteater (tamandua), although I was not sure they would be wandering around at night. As I fumbled around for my head torch, I could hear the creature sniffing below me, just under my back. Wow, I thought, this is a large animal! Although I had hung my hammock quite high above the ground, it did not stop my heart racing as I began to realize it could well be a jaguar. Now, I’m fairly certain this type of close encounter has happened many times before, but the animal has passed unnoticed because I was fast asleep, but this did nothing to stop me worrying. One swipe of a jaguar’s powerful claws could rip open the thin hammock and most of my back along with it. With my heart in my mouth, I finally managed to find my head torch, and as I rolled over and switched it on, I heard the creature start, and then run off. I frantically scanned the forest with my torch, and then I saw clearly in the distance the eyes of the predator staring back at me before the animal turned again and disappeared into the night. I am almost certain that in this case I was briefly locking eyes with a black panther: beautiful, intelligent, agile and stealthy creatures – kings of the Amazon that have been feared and worshiped for thousands of years. Also a 250lb killing machine!
I think it was just the cat’s curiosity that drew it so near, wanting to know what was scratching its tree. I have not heard of one attacking someone in a hammock before, although there are the inevitable stories. Diego has told me of a few people he knows falling victim to the king of the forest while working on their own. We are probably most vulnerable when we walk alone away from camp to a nearby stream to wash at night.
Although at the back of my mind I felt confident our visitor would not bother us, it is fair to say that I did not get much sleep that night. Looking back at the encounter, I’m sure it will not be the last time. I feel privileged to have seen this “God of the night”, and looked into the eyes of the Jaguar.
“These beautiful and powerful beasts were prominent in ancient Native American cultures. In some traditions the Jaguar God of the Night was the formidable lord of the underworld. The name jaguar is derived from the Native American word yaguar, which means” “he who kills with one leap.”
Measuring up to 1.8 meters and weighing in between 90 and 115 kg, the jaguar (Panther onca) holds its post as the most powerful predator of the Americas. It is found from Mexico to Argentina, sleuthing through a great diversity of habitats that include dense jungles, swampy wetlands, and dry grasslands. For thousands of years, as far as historic and archaeological records show, the jaguar has been a cultural icon in Latin America. Peru has one of the most important jaguar strongholds in the Amazon due to its rich soils, which translate to fruit and plant abundance key for the existence of peccaries and other smaller mammals– the bulk of the jaguar’s prey.
Jaguars are the largest of South America’s big cats. They once roamed from the southern tip of that continent north to the region surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border. Today significant numbers of jaguars are found only in remote regions of South and Central America—particularly in the Amazon Basin.
Read more about jaguars and the international conservation projects HERE
A more detailed blog about this eventful traverse – including accounts of hiding from armed drug gangs, of robbery and hunger, and of the other guide who quit, will be uploaded once we get to Iquitos. Look out also for details of the ‘wild west’ communities we passed through, including a former Leprosy community, and the almost impossible terrain we faced, as well as the long 12km swim I will undertake down and across the Amazon river to Iquitos when we eventually arrive there.
Slow boat back up the Yavari after getting my Peru entry stamp. Complex logistics but time & patience prevailed….
First small friendly community on the Rio Oroza after 13 days of challenging jungle. Diego chats in Spanish to the President.
Three kilometers from Alto Monte Israel. We were welcomed into this house for food and coffee.
On this section, many naturally growing Heliconia plants are a welcoming contrast to the endless green flora of the jungle.
Alto Monte Israel community members. Drying maze in the tropical sun after 5 days of rain.
An interesting large spine covered tree i had not seen before. No good for tying a hammock!
One of the easier river crossings, when a fallen tree acts as a bridge.
Click on OK on the map below. Pan and zoom to see more detail. It needs a repair, but i cant afford to pay for any changes at the moment.