In part one of this series, Laurel C. Allen heads into the Peruvian Amazon in search of science. What she finds are big bugs, dragon's blood and pisco sours.
Through the plane's windows, rivers are suddenly plunging through dense forest, coming in from all corners, doubling back on themselves, curling in impossible directions. The trees go all the way to horizon, darkening from bright green to black as they reach away. The whole landscape seems both deliberately designed and totally out of control. It also seems to pulse with intent — a stage set for something, on a scale too big to take in.
We're dropping down into Iquitos, Peru — the largest city in the world that connects to no roads whatsoever. Located deep in the Amazon basin where three massive rivers meet, you get into (and out of) this place by plane, by boat, or not at all.
What's going on: I'm not usually a group-travel kind of person, but that's what this is and I'm weirdly okay with it, because science. This trip's being led by famed canopy biologist Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences, a cheerful, can-do badass who picked up a slingshot and rope in the '70s and became one of the first people to study trees from above instead of below. This is her thirty-first trip to the Amazon, and by bringing 25 of us with her, she'll collect more environmental data in one week than she could alone in two months. It's called "Citizen Science," broadly speaking — a movement that puts non-scientists like me into science-serving roles.
Why pay to travel with scientists? Because, with their knowledge underpinning it all, your experience of a place gets way more intense: more beautiful, more mind-blowing, more heartbreaking, more hopeful, more connected, and way, way more recognizably poisonous. It also gives you a chance to fight back against the kinds of damage being done to some of Earth's most beautiful places, all while drinking horse-powered rum and sharpening blowgun-darts on piranha teeth.
Day 1: The Way In
The humidity doesn't even wait for you to get out of the plane — it comes in after you as soon as the doors are open, rolling down the aisles like a hot, wet sheet. The tarmac's empty other than a few helicopters (which might come get you if something goes wrong, but probably won't), and the sun blasts everything with white light. Squinting to make out the details on the biggest bug I've ever seen in my life — which is dying next to my foot as I wait in customs — I catch the eye of an entomologist behind me in line and nod at it. She smiles and makes the international pinchy-finger sign for "tiny."
We're soon on a bus trundling noisily through the city, swarmed by hordes of moto-rickshaws. Outside, every person looks hot and every job looks hard. Buildings shed paint and bricks just from the effort of standing, dropping pastel flakes onto cracked, red earth. Stepping down into the dim, labyrinthine alleys of the vast Iquitos market, things get quieter, cooler, and stranger. The smells come in waves here, shifting from delicious to revolting every few feet. On one street, enormous fish scales are washed up into every crack; on the next, blood and flies mix while vultures reel overhead.
In the medicine alley, Amazonian plants and animals have been repackaged for sale. "Dragon's blood" fills an old soda bottle; a severed anaconda head in a jar sits above a sleeping baby; bouquets of small, yellow flowers are packed into woven baskets. Vendors murmur promises, some legit, some suspect: tiny vials of berries protect against mosquitos; penis-shaped gourds will get you married in three months.
At the boathouse, I grab my bag, head for stairs, and almost fall as a first view of Rio Amazonas hits me full in the face. Somehow I forgot about the river itself until now, or just assumed I knew what it looked like. Instead, it takes two seconds to realize that this thing in front of me — this force of nature, this clay-colored torrent that looks ready to jump its tracks — is going to haunt me for the rest of my life. The river's alive, purpose-driven, unstoppable. It's a biological system — powering one-fifth of the whole world's river flow — and some sort of ancient god. It creates and destroys channels, shores, and islands at will; it makes everything around it temporary.
It's also beautiful, this river — more beautiful than anything that smells like decay should be. Tucked in the back of a roofed-in rapido, I catch one of those perfect moments that only hit when you're traveling: river spray sheets over the boat's open windows, sunset fires up the edges of clouds, and the real forest — the kind that crowds all the way up to the river's edge — starts to roll in. The air's so rich with oxygen that I'm literally/biologically high on life.
And then another shift in scale, so abrupt it feels like vertigo: the river unfolds three times wider, its opposite bank leaping miles away. That last river? It's called the Itaya. This is the real Amazon, and before it gets dark — before the light fades dangerously on the giant tree limbs and other debris flying along just below its surface — we're headed 50 miles downriver, into the interior.
An hour or so later, the boats duck into an unmarked side channel, cruising past weathered, elevated shacks whose outlines emerge slowly from the gloom. And then ahead: light, the soft hum of a generator illuminating a big, screened-in room now above us on stilts, a string of kerosene lanterns stretching into the forest behind it.
This is the Explorama lodge, a fixture at these coordinates since 1964. And before the night is over, it'll teach me three important truths: pisco sours taste better down here; the best use of first-aid tape is to patch holes in your mosquito netting; and if you breathe slowly enough — at a tenth of the pace of the plant and animal life pressing in on you from all four sides — you can almost trick your skin into thinking you're dead and don't need to sweat anymore.
This place will also promise the best trio of reasons I've ever heard for waking up: boats, breakfast, and blowguns. Next week in Part Two.
Photos: Rob Nelson.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.