Everything is exotic in the Amazon rainforest: the hues of the jungle, the taste of the air, the muddiness of the river, the vibration of the sounds, even the constellations carved in the sky. The elusive presence of primitive tribes cozing with the spirits that reside in each star, plant, or animal frames an alien reality that befriends – or, often, intimidates – the visitor. Undoubtedly, there is an all-powerful shamanic energy in the area.
We decided to spend a few days in the jungle while visiting Peru last summer. We crouched behind trees, paddled quietly on the tributaries, tip-toed along leaf-covered footpaths, and held our breath while waiting for the forest to reveal some of its secrets. To my dismay, anacondas preferred to linger in their clammy depths, piranhas scorned the crumbs of peace we generously offered, and the colorful tribes religiously protected the mystery of their identity remaining hidden in the uncharted parts of the jungle. Still, we had our fair share of exotic encounters, some deceptively small, others flamboyant and vibrant.
The Bullet Ants
The venom of this tiny creature is so strong that victims compare the pain of its sting to being hit by a bullet – hence its name. Notorious for its unique superpower, the insect is also widely known as the “24-hour ant” because the effects of its poison last for a full day and, in general, bears numerous other names in local dialects, Spanish, or Portuguese. I was lucky to keep my acquaintance brief and safely distant – approaching a colony just enough to take a quick photo in the darkness of the night.
The Leaf-Cutter Ants
They exist for 60 million years and are considered to be the first farmers on the planet. Their nests are built at a depth of 6-8 meters with a width of an average of 50-60m, and the size and complexity of their society compare only to that of the humans. At the center of their nests, they construct big circular farming areas where they cultivate fungus to use for their nutrition. This fungus is fed with leaves, grass, and flowers brought from the surface. Amazingly enough, it takes just 24 hours for these ants to defoliate a full tree – and considering the size of the trees in the rainforest, this is no small feat.
The Walking Tree
Unbelievable as it sounds, it seems to be true: some trees do walk, though obviously not very fast! The particular kind stands on stilt roots which, depending on the needs of the plant, grow in new directions (while old parts of the root decay), thus allowing the tree to shift weight and move over time, securing the needed sunlight from above and nutrition from the ground. Who knew that Ents were not entirely fictional after all!
Every floating piece of wood looked like a lurking caiman, ready to attack. We spent hours on the river, eyes stretched wide, searching for mysterious wildlife, discarding, again and again, the random branches that were gliding slyly next to our boat. In the end, we were rewarded with several caiman toddlers basking under the sun, and a rare dwarf caiman which, though being the largest alligator we saw on this expedition, is still quite smaller than the normal-size caimans that live in the area.
Officially called “Hoatzin,” this bird with the blue face and the spiky crest comes with a lot of surprises. When young, it resembles a dragon: with its claws at the front digits of its wings, it climbs its way on the trees rather than flying. As it grows, its more widely-known nickname comes from the foul odour that emanates during the digestive process of its food. I was too far away to experience this first-hand, but I preferred to trust the testimony of our guide.
The Red Howling Monkeys
A daunting moan of unknown origin, unnaturally long and tenacious, traveling like a sonic snake among the tree trunks, shattered the serenity of the night. It occasionally seemed to wane as if moving away, only to return even more thundering and intimidating. It felt as if the pits of hell had opened, and the souls of the damned were taking over the surface of the earth. For a few moments, we remained frozen in our beds, eyes searching the darkness nervously, expecting something big and horrible to land from the jungle directly into our rooms. At breakfast, we were informed that it was just the red howling monkeys passing by our lodge.
Traffic was minimal at our birdwatching spot: a toucan; an orange-cheeked parrot; a yellow-crowned parrot. We sat for about 90 minutes as silently as a group of people who are getting bored but, still, are trying to respect the moment, can be. The first macaw appeared the minute we had lost hope and were about to leave. It lightly rested on the tallest branch of the furthest tree on one side of the river bank, imperceptibly signaling to the rest of his species. A second macaw appeared on the other side, remaining as remote as the first one. A couple more flew in, hesitantly scouting the area, before settling on another branch, just a tiny bit lower, closer to the ground.
Gradually, more and more appeared, summing up to a flock of considerable size: they lazed on branches or initiated vivid gossipy interactions, occasionally flying from one side of the river to the other, getting, with every move, closer to the ground. Finally, they all encircled a barren piece of land that was sloping over the river, rested briefly there – just enough to extract from the earth a mineral that is vital for the proper absorption of their food – and then flew off in a sudden, massive wave. Even though the target of this daily practice lasted only a few minutes, the whole routine took more than 1.5 hours to complete.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (unless stated otherwise)