Anacondas 0, kidnappers 0, dolphins 5, monkeys 50

Previous readers may remember my mixture of excitement and trepidation before going to Colombia last month. Although most of me was excited by the prospect of this exploration, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also nervous about it, what with the kidnappings, the malaria, and the anacondas (well, to be honest, I was really only worried about the kidnapping). I’m here to tell you that I went, I’m home, I’m safe, and I’VE BEEN TO THE AMAZON!!!

I flew into Bogota and once I hit the ground, all my fears dissolved in the rush of elation I felt just at being in this country. But in the cab on the way back from the airport at about 10 pm, we were stopped at a light in a sketchy-looking neighborhood when a man with a big stick (really more like a club) came up to the car and started circling it quickly while banging this stick on the doors and the tires. HARD. I thought—seriously?? I’ve been in the country for 20 minutes and it’s already happening? The little old man driving our cab just smiled and wagged his finger at the guy, though—turned out he was trying to get paid for “checking the tires” the way the next guy was trying to wash the windshield for money. We drove on, got dropped at our hotel, and next thing I knew, my friend and I were eating ceviche and drinking from a bottle of rum with three Colombians at a late-nite restaurant in downtown Bogota. What was I scared about again?

And honestly, that’s the only time I had a glimmer of fear the whole time. We left for the Amazon the next day, and flying in over the rainforest is one of the biggest thrills of my life so far:

We came to this Colombian border town with plans to sneak over the Brazilian border because we hadn’t had time to get visas. Though we’d been unofficially told that this wouldn’t be a problem, I still had a few visions of being thrown in a jungle jail without communicaton to the outside world to even bail me out. The border turned out to be this plastic barricade in the road, which my taxi drove around, surrounded by dozens of locals on motorcycles making the crossing too. No problemo. This is our cab crossing the international border I was worried about:

The taxi took us into a tiny Brazilian port town, where we waited with a bunch of locals on the pier.

We took a 4-hour boat ride down the Amazon to the preserve, starting just before sunset

and ending in the dark, going through tiny channels with vines hanging down and frogs going wild and birds and bugs making a huge racket overhead.

We stayed in an ecological preserve that has a visitor’s lodge attached to it. All the structures are raised high on stilts because of the huge variance in the river’s level.

The lodge had a wide deck under a palapa, strung with hammocks overlooking the river where we sat and drank caipirinhas after dinner, listening to the sounds sounds sounds everywhere and watching the river for dolphins and snakes and lightning and beauty.

The river was so high that we were kayaking in the canopy when we set out to see some wildlife the next day.

Birding at 6 am another day, we took the kayaks way down the river and into a small channel which, our guide informed us once we got deeper, was in Peru. We didn’t see many birds—a hawk and a few toucans high above us, but not much else—but when the trees started to shake, we found that two different colonies of squirrel monkeys, about 50 in all, were joining forces above our heads and had picked this spot to cross the river—jumping through the trees from one side of the banks to the other. I sat in my kayak and shook with excitement as this noisy convention ignored me below.

We bought three piranhas at a local market and asked the cook at our lodge to fry them up whole for our dinner; they’re so thin and bony that it’s hard to get much meat off them, but what we got was white and flaky. I tried to save the jaws as a souvenir, but when early morning came I didn’t have the stomach to pull the rest of the meat off the bones where I’d been soaking them overnight.

In the maloka of a nearby village where an indigenous tribe lived, we saw the head of the family, his three wives, and some of his several children, all of whom shared space in this big round thatched hut with hammocks and food hanging from the ceiling–and a string of havelina skulls they used to make arrowheads:

They invited us to try their local “medicine,” a green powder of ground coca and tobacco that one of the tribe blew up my nostrils through a 2-foot tube of bone. Who could resist? This was washed down with a vegetable extract served in a coconut shell. It burned and made me a little lightheaded, but nothing more. On the way back to the boat to go home, some locals were preparing a newly slaughtered pig on the riverbanks:

Finally we even saw the elusive pink dolphins, in the early evening as the sun set; the driver turned off the boat’s motor and we all sat silently as our local guide blew low, eerie whistles in the air. The dolphins began to surface around us, breaking the water gently and arcing back down. These freshwater dolphins are smaller than ocean dolphins and don’t have a real dorsal fin, just a ridge; they also don’t often jump out of the water, just sort of curve upwards (though we were treated to a breaching snout or two). And here’s the bonus: they really are pink. Strawberry ice cream pink. It was like catching a vision of a unicorn. Of course I have no photos of this, but here’s one someone actually caught in midflight:

On our last night there, I lay in my bunk looking through the mosquito net and, further, through the screens around our cabin. The night was bright with the full moon

and the lightning storm that had started around midnight. The thunderclaps lasted for up to 45 seconds and the rain hammered on the thatch roof above us, which proved watertight. A scratching in the eaves above me got me to poke my head out of the bottom bunk to see the light greyness of a small opossum about ten feet above my head in the rafters of my room. It was raining hard and I couldn’t really blame him. The rain slammed down until about 5 am as I drifted in and out of sleep, the lightning flashing through my eyelids.

The crazy thing is that from here we went back to Bogota and on to Cartagena; this was only the beginning of the week! I still can’t quit marveling at the fact that I made it to this amazing, amazonazing, corner of the glorious planet.

11 responses to “Anacondas 0, kidnappers 0, dolphins 5, monkeys 50”

  1. Andrew says:

    The number of things that I didn’t know existed in this post truly amazes me. Edible piranhas? Pink dolphins? I need to get myself to the Amazon…

    Great post!

  2. marleyfan says:

    Thank you for the write up. This looks like it was a fabulous trip. However it left me missing my son, formerly known as Demosthenes on TGW, who is living in Recife Brazil…o

  3. Rachel says:

    Welcome back, Swells! I am glad to hear that you are home safe & sound. More pictures, please, if you have them.. Also, how was the rest of the trip? Hope this is a multi-parter!

    How much of this stuff did you have planned in advance & how much was spontaneous? It all seems so mind-blowing.

  4. Wow: this sounds like a whole lot of fun. Thanks!

  5. LP says:

    What they said. Swells, this sounds so awesome… Very glad you had a great time and had no complications.


  6. Tim says:

    Color me as green as the rain forest with envy!

  7. ScottyGee says:

    Thanks for coming back home.

  8. Jeremy says:

    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8: Ditto, ditto, ditto! Mostly, I am happy that you got home safely.

  9. farrell fawcett says:

    In the name of jesus christ. amen.

  10. swells says:

    Thanks all for your concern and sorry to cause any consternation in my absence! Rachel, I do have lots more photos but didn’t want to inundate anyone, so these are a good overview. I really recommend you click on the one where they’re about to skin the pig to see it bigger; those boats on the river behind them housed very, very large families with lots of small kids squatting on their haunches. The whole experience of even being in that part of the world seems pretty surreal to me now.

    As for the rest of the trip, which prominently featured one T. Honeycups . . . want to write a post, Trix?