Peru: amazed by the Amazon

An angel walks with Adrian Beeby through the wilderness of the Amazon jungle, and unearths a magic forest of the night
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The Independent Travel
Nobody likes the idea of rain on holiday - but in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, expectations change. Usually it's shortly after dusk when the first clouds appear. Within half-an-hour of sunset these fleecy wisps swell into massive, anvil-shaped thunderheads rising thousands of feet into the air. That's when the lightning begins - as vast and nebulous as the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Each strike lights up the forest, defining every silhouetted tree and branch with razor-sharp clarity. And then, as the final act in this nightly drama, the rain arrives, pattering on upturned banana leaves.

How much the weather affects your trip depends on where you are staying. I took a room in the Explorama Lodge, one of Peru's foremost rainforest hideaways, and I hardly noticed it.

For many people, the idea of holidaying in the Amazon rainforest conjures up visions of machete-wielding Operation Raleigh students. In reality, the past 30 years has seen an eco-friendly tourist industry burgeon along the upper Amazon, most notably in and around the Peruvian city of Iquitos. Here Explorama Tours built its first rainforest lodge in 1965 and created an entirely new way of experiencing the sights, sounds and awe-inspiring fertility of one of the world's great wildernesses without sacrificing all the comforts of home.

To reach most of the lodges in Peru's vast Amazon basin, one must first travel to Iquitos. That means a choice of boat or plane as no roads penetrate this densely forested area bordered to the west by Brazil and Colombia, and to the east by the Andes mountains. I plumped for the 6am flight out of Lima and it was not until the final minutes of the plane's descent that I was granted my first sight of the Amazon itself. As the small jet dropped beneath the cloud ceiling, I saw a huge ochre-brown channel coiling through the greenery like a colossal serpent. Apart from the river, nothing - just endless forest wreathed in morning mist. Not the sort of terrain to get lost in.

At Iquitos's primitive airport, we doused ourselves in insect repellent; we had all heard the same horror stories of mosquitoes as big as aircraft carriers. The weather was humid and sunny. Dark sweat stains were already blotting my polo shirt. I prayed for a shower.

A five-mile bus journey from the airport through crowded, potholed streets led to Explorama's riverside dock. There I descended steep, wooden steps to board a high-speed jetboat for the 50-mile trip down river. I judged the Amazon's channel to be at least a mile wide here, but was surprised to find that what I thought was the far bank was actually a mid-channel island 30 miles long. For someone used to the Thames, the scale is breathtaking.

In the wet season, the jetboat is able to navigate right to the steps of the Explorama Lodge. This being the dry season, the water level was 40ft lower and that meant a 10-minute walk. One thing I had not been prepared for was the sheer volume of mud. Rainforests, as the name suggests, are perpetually wet. Thank God I had chosen heavy boots. My heart went out to a middle-aged Scottish woman tip-toeing through ankle-deep sludge in gold braided plimsolls.

If Barrett Homes ever asked Robinson Crusoe to design an estate, the result would be something like Explorama Lodge. The compound is a collection of large opensided timber cabins with palm-thatched roofs. Each is built on 6ft wooden stilts to withstand the regular flooding. Linking the cabins is a network of ramps, bridges and covered walkways.

Accommodation is basic. Each guest has a room within a large, partitioned hut. There are no windows - not needed when the temperature never falls below 23C (73F) - just openings with a curtain. Privacy is hardly an issue as the only thing outside is jungle. Although the local insect life proved to be nowhere near as voracious as feared, I was relieved my cot cocooned in a white mosquito net as thick as linen.

As the lodge has no tap water, showers are en bloc a few feet from the rooms. Each wooden stall is supplied by collected rainwater - a tad chilly, even with the 100 per cent humidity. Toilet facilities are something of a trial - seats mounted over lime pits. The thinking is that the lodge should be self-contained and have minimal impact on the rainforest. However, two huts have been set aside for a dining area and a well-stocked bar where the guides sing and play guitar. The lodge has no electricity so drinking and singing is about all you can do after dark.

Surrounding the lodge on all sides is the rainforest itself - a virgin landscape of towering plane trees, banana trees with their giant leaves, lianas strong enough to swing on Tarzan-style, breadfruit the size of footballs. Apart from the lodge's pet tapir and a couple of inquisitive macaws which roosted on the beam above my cot, most animal life remains hidden. But you can certainly hear it; the rainforest is filled with a rhythmic electric buzzing punctuated by whoops, clicks and screeches. After nightfall this noise intensifies, filling my dreams with the hum of a million killer bees.

Guided excursions into the forest are the highlight. The party of seven I joined was accompanied by a young Indian called, poetically enough, Angel. While we dressed for maximum protection - long sleeves, long trousers, hats - he wore nothing but an old tee-shirt, shorts and a pair of laceless Reeboks. "Try not to touch anything," he warned us as the track disappeared into the shadow of the trees. "Some of the plants ... they can cut you or poison you."

And so with a tingle of anticipation we plunged headlong into the great primal forest. It was hot and steamy. Columns of leafcutter ants marched across the trail at our feet. In sunlit clearings, jewelled insects hovered in the air. A yellow-billed toucan cried out and fluttered noisily in the branches.

We walked for several hours along narrow tracks, our sense of direction lost. Only Angel knew where we were going and how to get back. If the Indians get lost, he said, they find a giant plane tree and bang on its side. The tree reverberates like a drum and is used as a means of communication.

My party was mostly silent - too many new things to absorb. Every few minutes Angel stopped to point out some rare plant or demonstrate how, by tapping an ant's nest with his hand, he could encourage the insects to crawl up his arm and spray formic acid, providing a natural mosquito repellent.

In the UK, forests are somewhere to spend a few quiet minutes before returning home. But in the Amazon, the Indians' lives are interwoven with the forest. They use its timber and leaves for their homes, its wildlife for their food, its plants and herbs for their medicines. Parasites in the gut are a particular problem for the locals because they drink unboiled river water. The milky toxic sap of one tree is the perfect antidote.

Beautiful as it is, the forest is not without dangers. Angel showed me the scars on his back left by a childhood snake attack. He was lucky, he told me - it wasn't a bushmaster. "The bushmaster is the worst of the snakes. Once it attacks you, it won't stop until you're dead. Even if you run away, it chases you. It can move very fast. And when it bites, it bites like this." Angel extended his hooked first and second fingers and slashed down viciously. "It rips the skin. You die in about an hour. The poison makes your veins explode." He shuddered, hugged his arms. "It is horrible - I have seen it happen to people in my village."

This may be one of the lushest environments on earth, but it is no Garden of Eden. Life expectancy is low; in the small villages along the river, most people are dead by 50. A tourist with grey hair and middle-aged spread is an object of curiosity.

Poverty is endemic. We saw families of up to 12 living in rickety, open huts surrounded by their pigs, dogs and goats. By 18 most girls will have given birth four or five times. Children dress in a curious mix of cast-off clothing: girls in what look like torn party dresses; boys in tee-shirts advertising Power Rangers and Peruvian football teams. A few have the distended bellies of malnutrition. All are bare-foot.

Village Indians have grown to expect tourists to bring gifts. The children with their chestnut eyes and Three Stooges haircuts flocked around us, fighting for every pen, sweet or hat we gave them. One of our party threw handfuls of boiled sweets into the air, laughing as the children scrabbled in the dirt for them. I found the spectacle repellent. Later we were able to join the youngsters in a game of football on the village pitch - a rare moment of equality.

After dinner, and the worst of the evening deluge, we ventured into the forest again - this time by torchlight. In a small clearing, we switched off our torches. The buzzing and chirruping seemed to double in volume. I became aware of new sources of light all around me. Leaves glowed with a faint, ghostly radiance; fungi on the forest floor phosphoresced grey- green; glow-worms burrowed through the mulch at our feet, while in the air fireflies sparked and drifted. This was a rainforest within a rainforest - a shadowy nocturnal twin made of light rather than substance.

A short stay in the Amazon can only provide the briefest taste of what life in this ancient rainforest world is like. For me, the most memorable experience was one of the simplest - lying in my cot, enclosed within a mosquito net, listening to the unending forest symphony. A sound that has existed for millions of years, and will continue to exist for millions more if lodges like the Explorama can encourage conservation.

FACT FILE

Adrian Beeby travelled to Peru with Kuoni Travel on their Highlights of Peru tour. This is a 14-night tour which also includes Lima, Cuzco, Arequippa and Machu Picchu. Cost ranges from pounds 2,096 to pounds 2,399. Telephone: 01306-742222.

If travelling independently, accommodation at the lodge costs $150 (US) for the first night and $60 for each night thereafter. Explorama Tours can be contacted in Iquitos on 00-51 94 25 2530. They do have staff who speak English.

Flights

KLM fly Heathrow to Lima via Amsterdam and Aruba - pounds 534 return. Then a return flight Lima-Iquitos costs pounds 145. (Prices exclusive of taxes.) Telephone Trailfinders on 0171-938 3939.

Season

The Peruvian rainforest has no real rainy or dry season so it doesn't matter when you go. The only seasons to speak of are the high water season from December to May and low water from June to November. Temperatures are relatively constant all year round, with daytime highs of 88 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime lows of 72 degrees Fahrenheit. It is always extremely humid.

Kuelap

Journey Latin America offers tours to Kuelap, taking in the Moche and Chimu ruins on the north coast and a rainforest boat trip; tel: 0181-747 8315. For independent travellers, the best source of information is Footprints' Guide to Peru and/or the South American Explorers Club in Lima (Av Rep de Portugal 146, tel: (511)-425-0142). Lima-Chachapoyas flights can be booked on Expreso Aereo for about US$90. Basic dormitory accommodation is available at the Kuelap ruins.

Reading

The South American Handbook (Footprints) is the best practical guidebook. Bradt's Backpacking and Trekking in Peru and Bolivia also describes some of the ruins. For independent travellers, the South American Explorers Club in Lima (Av Rep de Portugal 146, tel: (511)-425-0142) has more information.

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