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Adventure, Travel / February 12, 2017

How to not die in the Amazon

Written by: Molly McCowan

It’s our fourth day deep in the Amazon rainforest of Manú National Park, Peru, and our intrepid guide, Ronaldo, has just told us, “Taste this plant.”

He hands my friend and me two small, white flowers. We each put a flower in our mouths and chew. I’m about to swallow mine when he says, “Oh, but don’t swallow—it’s poison.” 

We’d gotten used to eating whatever Ronaldo handed to us.

On our drive to the rainforest from Cusco, we’d stopped in several mountain villages. In the market of one, Ronaldo spotted a huge green-bean-looking thing and exclaimed, “Oh! Ice cream.”

They were ice cream beans, and they melted in our mouths. They looked like something they weren’t and tasted like nothing I’d ever had before, solidifying the growing feeling that this was a place full of strange and wondrous and dangerous things.

Our guide Ronaldo with a sloth from an animal sanctuary just outside Manú National Park. Photo by Molly McCowan.

The conditions of our eco-lodges challenged my understanding of "outside" and "inside" as distinct spaces. Photo by Molly McCowan.

Our boat, ready to depart down the Madre de Dios at dawn. Photo by Molly McCowan.

Our journey into the Amazon began the morning after that, when we boarded a long, creaky boat on the murky Madre de Dios River. Ronaldo reminded us that it would be very difficult to evacuate us from beyond this point—we were quite literally at the end of the road, and would hike and boat from here.

Having left us with that thought, he fired up the motor and whistled as he guided us slowly downriver into the setting sun. Butterflies the size of our faces fluttered by as the light faded. Shit had gotten real.

That night, we slept in a “rustic” eco-lodge with splintered wooden walls, rock-like mattresses, and a roof that was lifted up from the walls to let in the open air.

After our dinner there, Ronaldo guided us on a nighttime hunt through the jungle for bird-eating tarantulas. We didn’t find any, but I almost walked into a spider web as tall as I am (5’10”) with a spider on it the size of my fist.

“Muy bonita,” whispered Ronaldo, eyeing the spider. “But no touch—she kill you.”

Then, he told us to turn off our flashlights. With thousands of bugs crawling around us and the noise of birds and who knows what rustling and calling nearby, I hesitated. But I ultimately decided to take yet another in a series of trust falls, leaning on someone who’d been born and raised in this undulating, crawling place.

I switched off my flashlight and it was like I’d closed my eyes, even though they were still wide open. We were swallowed whole by the jungle. I looked to the sky, but the canopy was too thick to let in even a shred of moonlight.

Manú National Park protects more than 6,600 square miles of rainforest in Peru's Amazon Basin. Photo by Molly McCowan.

Also known as the "stinkbird," the hoatzin is known for its bizarre call, tree-climbing behavior, and... well... stink. Photo by Molly McCowan.

The next day, we awoke at 4:30am to already brutal heat. This is going to be a really, really hot day, we all said at breakfast, wiping the sweat from our brows. None of us had slept well; sleeping at that point was just lying in a pool of your own sweat, daydreaming of cold water and a cool ocean breeze.

As we began the first of four hikes planned for that day, trekking farther and farther into the cacophonous, insect-brewing, mud-slick jungle, we began to notice the trees getting bigger, until their roots alone were six-foot walls of smooth bark extending above the ground.

I spent a silent moment with one such tree, placing my palms and forehead on its smooth, greenish-white bark and breathing in its heady, earthy aroma before Ronaldo said quietly over my shoulder, “Be careful—anacondas like to hide behind there.” He gave us similar warnings about leaf-cutter and bullet ants when we sat at the tree’s roots to eat our lunch. 

We jumped back onto the boat and headed upriver to a hidden lake famous for its large population of a Jurassic Park–like bird, the hoatzin. You hear—and smell—these birds before you see them: they make a guttural huffing sound, like a rhino about to charge, and they smell like rotting cow manure. Oh, and they have claws on the inside of their wings. So they can climb trees, of course.

The Amazon is not comfortable. In fact, it’s the opposite of comfortable. But that’s the point of it: it’s the kind of little-kid-in-the-mud, skinned-knee, shit-eating-grin uncomfortable.

There’s something beautiful and epic in being able to push everything aside and revel in the beauty, magic, and danger of a place like that. After all, what’s life without that little twinge of fear telling you that you could realistically be killed at any moment?

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about the author

Molly McCowan

Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor based out of Fort Collins, Colorado. Her love for travel sees her globe-trotting whenever she can, and she seeks out experiences that are off the beaten path so she can immerse herself in new cultures. She speaks fluent Spanish, so she’s almost always planning a trip to somewhere in Latin America. She also lived in Spain for a while, and backpacked across Europe on a shoestring budget. She hikes, camps, goes four-wheeling in her old Jeep Wrangler, and fly fishes in the mountains of Colorado regularly.

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