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Canoeing the Amazon Basin, Peru

The Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve covering an area of 20,000 km2, roughly the same size as Slovenia or Fiji and forming part of the impressive Amazon Basin. The Amazon Basin itself spans a huge area of 6,915,000 km2, making up 40 percent of South America. A place of this size is not easily explored in a short space of time, although we endeavoured to do our best in under a week.

Flying from the capital of Peru, Lima to the City of Palms, Tarapoto, takes just over an hour. Unfortunately due to time constraints we didn't stop at Tarapoto and instead put our efforts into finding a taxi that would take us six hours along the newly constructed Transanden Highway. Don’t be fooled by the word highway, it’s still pretty rough and makes for an entertaining trip. We found a taxi outside the market, loaded our rucksacks and waited. We waited and waited. Slowly but surely the taxi filled up. It went beyond being full and people continued to pour in and it became evident that we we’re paying the majority of the fare, about $7 US each and everyone else was taking their opportunity for a cheap ride. Fair enough. I was sitting in the front of the taxi and thinking that I had made a wise choice until a lady, her baby and a dog joined me on the front seat. We we’re very cosy. I'm sure we had double figures and the dog in the car. Efficient.

Eventually we began our bumpy ride to Yurimaguas, Pearl of the Huallaga. I think I smiled the entire trip, thinking to myself that this is what travelling is all about. The dog was a great travel companion who was always willing to be the recipient of a good head scratch and the baby was comfy resting on one of my legs, whilst her mother sat on my other.

Upon arrival, a horde of tuk tuk swarmed us, all willing to take us to our destination, which was a pre-booked hostel. The hostel had glowing reviews within my trusted travel companion, the Lonely Planet and a mere 10 minutes later we we’re at a hotel. Did you notice that I said a hotel? It had a very different name to our hostel, a friend of the tuk tuk driver no doubt. After a little negotiation which mostly consisted of refusing to pay the driver until we we’re taken to our booked hostel, we we’re driven around the corner to our hostel and greeted by an elderly lady who showed to our room. I was still smiling at this point, especially when I was given a stick by the owner who went on to explain that it had two uses… The first use was to prop it up against the room door if I wanted to lock it and the second… To scare cockroaches away from the bed at night. My smile turned into a obvious grin. I used the stick for locking the door. In hindsight I think I should have used to it scare cockroaches off. Let me tell you, it’s not a pleasant experience to be awoken by an inch long cockroach getting cosy in the small of your back. Making the situation a little worse was the fact that the cockroach and me we’re enclosed within the mosquito net, which, when in a panicked frenzy, are near on impossible to escape from!

In the morning, whilst chatting to the owner over a platter of fresh fruit for breakfast, the owner told me a story. To cut a long story short, it went something like this… There used to be a very popular hostel in Yurimaguas, which for unknown reasons closed down. She took the name of the hostel. Yes, it all became clear. I wasn't staying at the highly rated hostel. I was staying at a hostel that had taken the name of the highly rated hostel. Clever.

We continued our journey, moving deeper into the Amazon Basin to Lugunas, where our canoe trip with Huayruro Tours would commence. Armed with our hammocks, my latest acquisition of a charango (similar to a ukulele) which I was attempting to master and failing, we boarded a slow cargo boat for a 12 hour trip. Hammocks hung, we settled back to relax and watch the local’s board armed with pigs, chickens and other essentials. The journey was very peaceful. The gentle flowing river, with rain forest surrounding us on both sides and the a golden sunset. With the clucking of chickens in the background, we arrive at Lugunas and are dropped off in the middle of a small market. As per usual everyone wants to take you somewhere. Anywhere. It doesn't matter where. Eventually, we find our guide, who helps us fend off other moto and tuk tuk drivers and soon we are on a 4×4 quad bike, heading deeper into the Basin.

The journey to get here is long one, involving many forms of transport, all entertaining in their own way and makes it an achievement in itself. However, for me, being seated in a dugout canoe, surrounded by dense rainforest in humid heat was why I was here in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. I felt like Indiana Jones. Just a very exhausted Indiana Jones. The heat and humidity really does sap your energy. However, our local guide was clearly not short of energy and paddled our canoe down the winding murky river, deeper into the national reserve. You can’t help but feel small in comparison. I felt privileged to be experiencing it and I found it really quite difficult to take in. Everywhere you look, there is wildlife and incredible fauna, new sights to be appreciated. Spider monkeys swung and screeched in the trees above, frogs, spiders and snakes watched as we passed by and parrots in their hundreds flew off in the distance before we got too close. We observed a sloth. I know, I know, it’s not hard but they really are fascinating. For me, what was under the water was even more fascinating. Having kept tropical fish for most of my life, to be among their natural habitat provided an incredible insight. My trip was complete the moment I had the opportunity to fish with a bamboo cane for red bellied piranha. It’s something that I have always wanted to do for as long as I can remember. With a piece of chicken on the hook, as soon as the meat hit the water a piranha took the bait and pulled with an almighty force, considering its small size. A bright red belly, silver back and razor sharp teeth, I had my first piranha! It looked angry. It looked annoyed. It looked scary. He was soon back in the water. I was contempt for the rest of the trip.

Our guide decided to cool off from the humidity and took a dip in the river. To me, this seemed like a death sentence, considering the piranha that I had pulled out only minutes before. He would surely be looking for revenge? However, he returned with something even more impressive, a Cayman! Apparently the caymans eyes had just broken the surface of the water and our guide had spotted him, swimming off and wrestling him with his bare hands. We took photos of his catch and it was soon returned, swimming calmly off like nothing had happened.

We stayed overnight in the stunning Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve and canoed for 2-days. It was a stunning experience, albeit short and really is a must do. I suggest you add it to your to-do-list now. I promise you’ll be in awe of your surroundings and the vast array of wildlife with over 500 species of bird, 100+ mammals, 60+ reptiles, 50+ amphibians and an incredible 269 fish species, all living in their natural habitat. Spectacular.


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I am Adam Constanza, an avid traveller based in Wellington, New Zealand with a passion for sharing my adventures and experiences, specifically cycling and tramping both within NZ and worldwide. Credit to Ashlee Gross for the amazing photography.

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