It took nearly two hours to reach the ceiba tree. Guided by Juan and Osmar of Otorongo Expeditions, my husband, Jay, and I motored in a small fishing boat along the Peruvian stretch of the Amazon River to the community of Islandia. We walked through the village’s rice fields and past families who live in tidy huts on short stilts; we shook hands and greeted people along the way. From there, we rented a second boat—a motorized canoe—from a local and headed upstream along the tributary Yanayacu River to Sangregorio, with Juan and Osmar pointing out wildlife: horned screamer birds, sanguine poison frogs, and fire ants.
The tree, stretching high above the jungle, was visible from 40 feet away. Justly famous, the Amazon ceiba can reach 200 feet in height and more than 10 feet in diameter. The ceiba’s base was curvy and imposing, deeply rooted, its limbs long and spidery. As we approached, its immense size became even clearer: Its extensive roots enveloped a space large enough to hold a bus and, from its base, it was impossible to see the top, let alone guess its height. The ceiba plays an integral role in the jungle’s ecosystem: monkeys use its limbs to cross the forest, birds find shelter from predators, and bats burrow in its cavernous bends. A logger would pay the Sangregorio community about 30 soles ($9) to chop down this ceiba, but to ensure that the magnificent tree stays, Otorongo pays the community $500 a year to protect it.Iquitos—Peru’s largest city not reachable by car—and chosen Otorongo Expeditions, a lodge and adventure outfitter located a three-hour speedboat ride away. Choosing a responsible base from which to explore the mighty Amazon can be a strenuous task.
Follow these tips and your trip to the Peruvian Amazon could contribute to the preservation of the river, rather than its destruction:
1. Skip the easiest-to-access lodges (those within an hour’s boat ride of Iquitos). Otorongo’s isolated location allowed us to see more elusive wildlife, such as sloths and squirrel monkeys, and to get a peek at how people truly live near the Amazon. The boat ride from Iquitos was its own adventure. We passed oil barges and a ferry packed with cows, cargo, and passengers from Brazil. In the dry season from June to December, when the Amazon is at its lowest, the riverbanks are covered in rice fields, tall green grasses, and some sandy beaches. Fishermen will camp out in tents to catch migrating tiger catfish, which they sell at Iquitos’s eclectic market.
2. Choose a lodge that’s invested in the community.
It’s easy to see from Otorongo’s website that it cares about its impact on the surrounding Amazon communities. Nearly 15 years ago, owner Anthony Giardinelli, then a high school student from New York, traveled with his family to the Amazon, which was transformative and inspiring. He completed two years of the State University of New York’s wildlife and fisheries program before returning to the Amazon to work in a lodge, where he met his wife, Evi, a professional guide. He then began scouting remote places to build his own lodge, stopping in villages with gifts of rice and sugar and asking them for land to purchase. Eventually, the Oran village granted him 18 acres on Otorongo Creek, just a few hundred yards from the Amazon River. Now, everyone Giardinelli employs at Otorongo Lodge is from either Iquitos or Oran.
3. Don't cheap out on lodging.
A true ecolodge is rustic and minimally invasive to the environment, but don’t go with the cheapest one you can find. The low price tag likely means that the lodge cuts corners on sustainability and doesn’t pay local guides and employees well. Four-day, three-night packages at Otorongo are $550 per person (for a couple), but include a private English-speaking guide, all activities, meals made by a local cook, and lodging. Everything is customizable, which is what you’ll want to get the full Amazon experience.
At night, Otorongo was so dark we could barely see 10 feet in front of us. There was no electricity in the lodge, except for a small rope of lights in the bedroom and an even smaller strip in the bathroom. We charged our devices at a communal outlet station in the dining area. Toilet paper was the only available paper product. While the amenities were minimal, the experience was fulfilling: The Amazonian people—at least in the Peruvian communities we visited—live in the moment. On the banks of Otorongo Creek, we saw a toddler basking in the mud, throwing it around and looking thoroughly pleased. On the way back from a trip to spot pink dolphins, we watched as a dozen children from the neighboring community of Oran splashed, laughed, and held swimming races in the muddy Amazon waters. Embrace the lack of electricity and other amenities. If you don’t, you could inadvertently create demand for amenities and development that are harmful to the local environment—or just miss out on a cool surprise.
5. Trust your guides.
I was impressed by the skill of our guides, Juan and Osmar, especially when it became clear during a hike in the high ground forest that we were lost. As Juan looked at the sun, using it as his compass, I realized it was the first time I’d seen him appear distracted or unsure. It was far from unsettling, however, because we’d come to trust their skills. Eventually, we wound up in the right place. Don’t ever pay to take pictures with animals on the streets or in villages, and ignore people trying to sell animals or their parts. Participating only encourages people to capture animals for profit.
© 2016 AFAR Media