My travels have twice taken me to the mighty Amazon River: Once to the eastern side at Manaus, Brazil, and more recently to the western side near Iquitos, Peru. It was on this later trip that I had an opportunity to trek into the Amazon Rainforest which is situated in the Amazon River Basin. This gigantic rainforest covers approximately 1.7 billion acres, 60 percent of which is in Brazil. The remaining acres are in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and Ecuador. Of these eight countries, Peru has more of its land area covered by the Amazon Rainforest than any of the others.
The rainforest in Peru, sometimes call the “Peruvian Amazonia,” extends from the Andes all the way to the borders with Colombia and Brazil. In Peru, this rainforest occupies more than half of the total area of the country. Almost all of the rainforest area in Peru is covered by dense forests and only a tiny percentage of Peruvians live in these areas.
My two trips to the Amazon Rainforest were quite different. On the first one I stayed in a jungle lodge in Brazil located about one hour from the harbor at Manaus. When I exited the bus to the harbor from the airport, I could hardly believe my eyes. The Amazon River was so wide I could not see the opposing bank and actual waves lapped gently upon the shore. The second longest river in the world, the Amazon has hundreds of smaller tributaries that snake off from it. The waters were “usually calm” the captain announced over the boat’s PA system.
When the ship docked at the lodge, eager young men appeared to help with the luggage and escort the guests up the steps to the check-in desk. Glasses of cold fruit juice were distributed as we waited. The lodge was small, with its common areas and guest rooms built upon stilts since the whole place rested on a slope down to the river. There was a beautiful garden area just outside the main dining area. It had tables and umbrellas should guests want to enjoy their meal outdoors. Surrounding the lodge, opposite the water’s edge, were a series of wooden walkways elevated slightly above the terrain. The purpose of these walkways is to allow guests to trek into the jungle in a safer and easier manner. For trips along these walkways, guests could wait for a guide or strike out on their own to encounter all manner of plants and trees.
There are so many types of fauna and flora that I lost count well before I could identify just the types that were pictured in the handbook provided by the lodge. As you walk along the wooden walkways, sounds and smells assault your ears and nostrils. Countless birds and insects play above, below, and alongside you in this rich jungle. A journey to the Amazon Jungle is a discovery of the senses unlike any experience you have never known.
One night after a huge buffet dinner, the guide took several of us for a canoe ride. He had a spotlight, and, as we sailed silently along the river, he shone the light on crocodiles who were sleeping along its banks. One of the giant creatures was aroused from his sleep and immediately crawled into the water. “Not to worry,” said a confident guide. But I did worry, if only a little, because that crocodile was a good bit longer than the canoe!
On my second and more recent trip to the Amazon Rainforest, I flew to Iquitos, Peru, which, with its 500,000 inhabitants, is the largest city within the Amazon Rainforest. For this trip into the Amazon Rainforest, I was based on a ship. I had joined a GAP expedition group of about 20 folks, almost all of whom were far less than half my age. But despite my physical limitations, and in light of the groups’ obvious consideration of my advanced years, I managed to keep up fairly well as we trudged through thick jungles more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. The variety of wildlife ranges from large mammals like jaguars, monkeys, and river dolphins, to colorful birds including macaws, parrots, tanagers, millions of fascinating insects. Someone once said, “The Amazon Rainforest is truly the treasure chest of life on Earth.”
The Amazon Rainforest is bursting with life. Not only do millions of species of plants and animals live here, but there are people who call the rainforest their home. These indigenous peoples have lived here for many thousands of years. Early accounts by European explorers indicate a far larger and denser population may have lived in the rainforest in previous centuries. Some of these original peoples, such as the Caribs (for whom the Caribbean Sea is named) have disappeared completely. Others remain only in scattered remnants. But there are many hundreds of ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive language and culture. These tribal people remain today in the tropical rainforests throughout the world.
Recent wildfires coupled with on-going general deforestation have dominated the headlines about the Amazon Rainforest, and rightly so, since scientists claim that every fifth breath we take is a result of the oxygen generated by the forest. And then, beyond the continuing negative effects of climate change, many observers also point to yet another tragedy. Namely, the effects these factors are having upon the rainforest’s indigenous peoples and local communities who depend upon the rainforest for their way of life. There are scores of these native communities many with histories that stretch over many centuries. Thankfully, some of these communities are in the “protected areas” which constitute about 20 percent of the rainforest. Those who are not in these protected areas are feeling the effects of a ballooning non-traditional population which inevitably will result in the acquisition of more and more acres of the rainforest.
Some of these indigenous people live much as we do, others still live much as did their ancestors hundreds of years earlier. These communities organize their daily lives around the rainforests in which they live. Their food, clothing, houses, and medicines come primarily from the forest itself.
It was extremely hot and humid on the days when we trekked from the river’s edge. The shade of the forest was most welcome. One day the group arrived in a remote village where the native people had prepared a lunch for us. We sat in the shade of the porch on the front of a modest sized home and ate a traditional meal of soup, rice, chicken, beans, vegetables, and dessert. After lunch the village chieftain took us on a tour of the village including a look inside the school house with it open walls and primitive desks. Even though these folks are impoverished, by our standards at least, they insist upon the education of their children.
This village leader also sold special medicines he had concocted from various plants that grow in the wild. He presented them, through the translator, with great enthusiasm. Some of the women of the village offered various items such as bowls and plates that had been made locally.
On another day we trekked several kilometers to a butterfly farm which is situated on about 50 acres of land tucked away deep in the jungle. It is home to hundreds of species of butterflies and to many species of rescued animals ranging from monkeys to jaguars. Some of these animals have been rescued from traders who gather along Iquitos’ Riverside Boulevard where they attempt to sell them. This activity, of course, is illegal.
Of the 16,000 species of butterflies in the world, over 3,300 are found in Peru, and, of these, approximately 2,500 are found in the Amazon Rainforests. A large section of this “farm” is enclosed with gigantic nets. Once inside, these beautifully colored creatures fly free for the enjoyment of the visitors.
The vastness of the Amazon Rainforest is almost unimaginable! It stretches for more than 2 million square miles, and is home to an estimated 390 billion trees. It is a pristine natural kingdom – a force of nature that remains virtually untouched by human hands. In this magic land there are thousands of species all around you. There is no feel or smell of pollution. The air is clean, the sky seems bluer, the clouds seem whiter, and the trees seem greener. The Amazon Rainforest has a well-deserved place on the Smithsonian’s list of “28 Places to See before You Die.”
Next time: “The Great Barrier Reef”