I thought I had come to Yurimaguas only to spend a night before catching the boat to Iquitos and, again, I was wrong.
We made a cool group here. Maruan, Edera and Leonardo from Italy, Sergio and Patricio from Argentina, and Dave from Canada. Together, we booked a tour to the jungle.
We wanted the real jungle experience, we wanted an adventure off the beaten path, and we got it. We paid 320 S for a four-day tour to a place I can’t even find on Google Maps: Lake Pucate. None of us had any idea of what we were getting into.
According to Peruvian tradition, we left 2 hours later than agreed on a wooden motor boat charged with our backpacks and some supplies for the tour.
After navigating the river Shishinaua for three hours, we arrived at the village of El Progreso. It started to rain cats and dogs, and we waited for the weather to get better while eating a chicken killed just for the occasion at the local shop.
We kept navigating the river until sunset, when we finally found land. Land and virgin jungle, nothing else. The obvious question was quietly building in all our minds: where are we going to camp?
We didn’t have to wait long for the answer: Elio and Segundo were already opening their ways with machete blows. They set our hammocks and mosquito nets, and covered them with plastic tarps.
By nightfall, the camp was set. Elio and Segundo also tried to light a fire in the second room they made, but it had been raining and they didn’t manage to set the fire. We then went back to the boat and had some tea with sandwiches for dinner, listening to Elio’s implausible stories from the jungle.
It started to rain hard soon after we climbed in our hammocks. We woke up at the sound of machete blows: Elio and Segundo were cutting wood to make breakfast.
We ate our eggs while the mosquitoes ate us, and this is the result:
We navigated on the boat until 2 PM, getting rubbish and plants out of our way, until we finally reached the lake.
It started to rain again, and we found shelter under an abandoned house that was falling apart. Our guides lit a fire putting some mud on top of the rotten wood and cut some branches. They cooked the piranhas that we had previously bought from some fishermen we had met on the way.
While we were getting warm and chatting around the fire, Elio and Segundo were building our shelter for the night, directly on the boat. They went looking for more branches and made arches, cut the rotten wood of the hut and used it to create an elevated floor on the boat. Then, they used the plastic tarps to create a waterproof roof, and more to cover the floor.
Then, we went hunting for caimans. Floating on the incredibly beatutiful ice-cold lake, the calm was immense. It felt very much like the quiet before the storm: the exciting fear, the suspense, the expectations.
I suddenly realized that we had no idea of what we were doing. How the hell were we going to get a caiman? Our guides were imitating the sound of the animal in order to locate their whereabouts: besides that, the chirping of the insects around us was the only noise.
We got to trust Elio and Segundo, but what would we do once we had located a caiman? They only had machetes. And what if something happens to them? What are seven gringos in the middle of nowhere going to do?
We were surrounded by dozens of caimans, we could hear them responding. But the moon was shining bright in the sky, which was not a good condition for hunting. The men advised that we shall try again later at night, when it would be darker.
So we just stayed there: a lonely, tiny wooden boat floating in the immense darkness, lit up by the moon light. Hundreds of stars keeping us company from up there, and nothing else.
We never caught a caiman. We woke up at 4.30 AM surrounded by hundreds of floating plants.The lake was gone. First, I thought that our guides had brought us to the shore. Then, we thought the stream had carried us there. Truth was we had only moved a dozen of meters from our original position: the plants had moved and surrounded us.
The stories from the previous days about the sacred lake and the Malefico started to come back into our minds. Was the lake punishing us for not keeping silence, had the caimans moved the plants because we had been clear on our intentions of hunting them?
Still, we were stuck there, because the engine had broken, too. We had no alternative out but to paddle our way from the plants.
Once more, the boat changed shape. Elio and Segundo used the wood to create oars, and more to light a fire… on the boat. Still, they didn’t seem stressed at all about the situation, so they decided that cooking pasta on a wooden boat would be a great thing to do while waiting for help.
Help came 12 hours later. After hours of waiting and paddling under the burning sun, we managed to get freed of the plants and back to the river. We moved extremely slowly, but still it was beautiful to finally navigate the jungle without the noise of the engine and to fully appreciate the sounds of the birds, wasps and grasshoppers.
A quick swim in the lake (first “shower” in days) and the encounter with a sloth broke the routine of so many hours chatting with the guys.
Around 4 PM, a young man finally passed by with his boat and brought us back to the village of Selva Alegre. Here, we were given roof by Segundo’s family.
The water levels had incredibly risen since our first visit, and the stilt house was completely surrounded by water.
That was the water we had to cross every time, and that water was also the family’s toilet. Yes, because the only bathroom there was a whole on the floor behind the kitchen, and all form of human waste would be floating around us. Edera and I used the school toilet across the field, but still we had to pass from the big, suspicious brown pool every time.
As usual, there was no sink, so our morning ablutions were performed with bottled water and hand sanitizing gel.
After barely sleeping that night (the Malefico had apparently possessed our friend Sergio’s body after too much cañazo, a distillate made of sugar cane), we were served breakfast cooked with water from the river. I decided to skip coffee that morning (my cup filled with brown water was not really tempting), but I did eagerly ate all my rice with fish.
Elio told us that, because of the problem with the engine, we would spend one more day in the jungle. So, even though we were all dreaming about a shower and some clean clothes, we all welcomed the news with excitement.
With the engine now kind of fixed -we were going half the original speed-, we set to reach the village of San José, where we made camp at some locals’ place.
We spent the rest of the evening chilling in our hammocks until we left for an evening walk, where we saw a huge tarantula but little more.
Lunch/dinner -we were only given two meals a day, and a bunch of coconuts and pineapples- consisted again of rice, pasta and bread. Some of us listened to Elio’s stories about his encounters in the jungle both with fascination and disbelief.
The next morning we left early for a hike in the jungle, where Elio explained about the use of medicinal plants, and we drank water from lianas.
After a filling breakfast, we set off to leave. It took us almost 12 hours to get back to Yurimaguas. We had some more trouble with the engine and we had to stop to buy more gasoline, but besides that we kept navigating the river until 2 in the morning.
The sunset was something amazing. The pink lights were reflecting in the river and we all stared at the last rays of sun being swallowed by the water, without a sound.
Then the moon came out and it was magnificent. Huge, round, bright and full, I have never seen it so close. Hundreds of little shiny stars seemed to be dancing around it, showing us the way back home.
It was damn cold, but we had no shelter. We took out everything we had in our backpacks, including the emergency blanket I had bought in France, that did make the difference.
When we arrived in Yurimaguas we could hardly believe we had made it. We made our entrance by breaking down the wooden fence of the hostel and found out that the whole ground floor was flooded.
We were given rooms upstairs, took our ice-cold but well awaited showers, and slept in beds for the first time in five days.