SOME TRIPS WERE MY GIRLFRIEND’S IDEA, others were mine. This one was all mine. Colombia offered everything from beaches to mountains to rainforest. I made a list of things to do, including of course a visit to the Amazon. Never enthusiastic about tropical heat or bugs, especially bugs, my girlfriend acquiesced to the trip rather than jumping on board. All my boosterism went out the window anyway once we arrived in the Amazon and started changing underwear on an hourly basis. As it turned out, Hayley was the one who donned the explorer’s hat.
“I arranged for two nights in Puerto Nariño,” she informed me over dinner.
I picked at my fried piranha, an angry-looking specimen that was perched on my plate like a fossil.
“It’s a village about two hours upriver. Not a tourist town, a regular village.”
The guidebook disagreed with her assessment, describing the village as “rather touristy”, but it was also described as “the first tourism sustainable town in the country” due to its lack of roads and services. It was the kind of place, apparently, that welcomed tourist dollars without accommodating the tourists themselves. This was often the case anyway, Puerto Nariño had just decided to be up front about it.
The next day we squeezed aboard a longboat and experienced the famous monotony of the Amazon as we passed mile after mile of unchanging scenery. The greatest river in the world suffered the same fate as the greatest empires: it became bland through expansion. We traveled fifty miles on a river that coursed over four thousand. Francisco Orellana, the first European and perhaps the first human to travel the entire length of the river, did not lose his mind. For that, he probably had the native population to thank. Generally hostile, they kept him and his crew focused as their boats were under almost constant attack. Without their efforts, Orellana and his men would undoubtedly have died of boredom long before they reached the Atlantic.
There was a certain hostility about Puerto Nariño as well. Even the animals were dicks. As I walked to our cabana a scarlet macaw stepped onto the path in front of me and tilted its head in what was unmistakably a challenge. As I walked past it leaned over and sank its beak into my foot. I winced but kept walking as it turned its attention to Hayley. Their eyes met and she grabbed a broom. The macaw stepped aside grudgingly but watched her all the way to the cabana, then bobbed its head as if to say, “I know where you live.”
The monkeys were little better, scampering over the roof and scratching at our window screens like zombies. They had the run of the place and even the owner seemed to fear them.
“¡No los deje entrar!” she howled when we opened the door to her cabin.
After paying for two nights we were informed that there was no restaurant and no food. We would have to walk to town for groceries. Just then it started to rain.
We followed her directions, navigating a slippery path to a sleepy community where all the shops were closed because it was the middle of the day. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to work in this heat either. We found a shop that sold bread rolls and on the way home we importuned a shuttered bakery to sell us a few eggs. Returning from the hunt, drenched but laden with food, we were greeted by the macaw which was perched on our cabana roof. It raised a foot as we approached, spreading wide its dinosaur-like talons, and stared at us. It was the avian equivalent of a gang sign.
Once inside, I opened the lid to the toilet and startled a frog. It launched itself onto the wall where it stuck like poo. After dinner we called it an early night, tucking the mosquito netting around our bed and drifted off to a chorus of displeased wildlife.
The second person to navigate the length of the Amazon was Lope de Aguirre, who was fictionalized by Werner Herzog in his 1972 film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God. Aguirre came to the New World in his twenties and spent the next two decades as a conquistador fighting his own countrymen in the factional power struggles that marked the early colonial period in Peru. In the year 1560 he joined an expedition down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. Unlike Francisco de Orellana, a respected leader who was able to maintain order on the river, Aguirre was a madman who quickly fomented a mutiny, killed his superiors, and seized control of the expedition. Fearing another mutiny he grew paranoid and set about thinning his ranks, murdering at least a quarter of his own men. He became grandiose and broke with the Spanish crown, declaring himself King of Peru and Chile. Accompanied by – and devoted to – his young daughter, he was like a psychotic Humbert Humbert, fleeing the authorities with his Lolita until cornered near the Orinoco River. In a final act, he stabbed her to death before he was captured and executed by royal troops.
In a missive written to the King of Spain and delivered after his death, Aguirre was unrepentant: I am certain there are few kings in hell because there are few kings, but if there were many none would go to heaven. Even in hell you would be worse than Lucifer, because you all thirst after human blood.
As Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
Determined to explore the river further, Hayley signed us up for an excursion that would be led by Luis, who worked at the hostel. He was something of a passe-partout, serving as translator, water-taxi driver, and tourist information clerk. While the owner of the eco-friendly resort barricaded herself from the outside world, Luis stepped in as our Amazonian Vergil.
He was, certainly, a low-rent Vergil. We piled into his longboat expecting to be treated to a leisurely tour of pink dolphins and tropical birds, but he cut the engine before we’d gone a mile and coasted to a river shack.
“Necessito gasolina,” he smiled.
We nodded and went back to dozing. A moment later there was a nervous cough.
“Necessito gasolina,” he repeated, rubbing his fingers together.
I fished a 10,000 peso note from my pocket and Luis disappeared into the hut. A few minutes later he returned with a plastic tub, sloshing gasoline on the deck as he walked. He managed to get most of it in the engine and we set off again.
Puerto Nariño is located on a tributary river of the Amazon called the Loretoyacu. Luis kept the engine purring until we reached the confluence with the larger river, then hit the kill switch and began to whistle. He didn’t tell us why he was doing this, but it was understood that the sound was meant to attract dolphins. He posed theatrically on the stern, scanning the riffles and trilling softly. I thought about the winters I’d spent as a tour guide in Yellowstone and wondered what kind of sounds I would have made in order to attract bison and elk. Ineffective ones, no doubt. Our guide had apparently stopped in the one part of the river that didn’t have dolphins because they appeared everywhere else that day, surfacing like whack-a-moles first here and now over there but never long enough to capture on film. There would be a splash and we’d spin around in time to catch a flash of pink just as it disappeared underwater. They all seemed to arrive once Luis stopped whistling, as if they’d heard him but didn’t like his tune and were voting with their flippers.
Luis landed the boat, disturbing a swarm of yellow butterflies, and told us to get out. It felt like a punishment as we left the breezy river for the humid jungle, but Luis wanted to show us a “parasite tree”, a species of Ficus commonly known as the strangler fig. It spread throughout the forest with the aid of birds who carried its seed in their droppings, allowing the plant to gain purchase and eventually coil its tendrils around its unfortunate host like so many anacondas. The Ficus would then draw nutrients away from the tree until it died and decomposed, leaving only a hollow death mask in mock homage. This was the Amazon I came to see; not pink dolphins but murderous figs. It was the Amazon that Werner Herzog alluded to when he said, “The trees here are in misery, and the birds here are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.”
Why was I attracted to the harshness of the jungle? I think it’s because I see the Amazon as the last great hope of nature against the onslaught of Man. Representing a kind of après moi la deluge moment before the great ice fields melt away. I want the Amazon to take us down, humble us, stop us before it’s too late. As a child raised on B-movies from the 1960s I keep hoping that one of these extractive industries will awaken a slumbering atavistic beast that will rise and wreak havoc on our reckless endeavors. Climate change is too slow. We need Godzilla.
Back in the boat Luis hugged the shoreline until he spotted a stream that meandered into the jungle. We pushed aside a soft crust of water plants, advancing slowly in semi-darkness as the green river narrowed and the trees touched overhead to form a tunnel. Luis cut the engine and we drifted to a stop. He then handed us a pair of branches and unwrapped a small packet of raw chicken, which he proceeded to dice into small pieces. Like riding elephants in Thailand or horses in the American West, piranha fishing in the Amazon is just one of those things that get included in every tour. I dropped my line in the water and sat back to enjoy a nap. Almost immediately I felt a tug and pulled a piranha out of the river. It was about the size of my hand, silver-colored with splotches of red around its mouth as if it had just torn apart some fresh prey. Its protruding jaw showed a row of sharp teeth as uniform as a comb. It grunted as I attempted to remove the hook.
“Careful!” Luis warned.
I dropped it back in the water and proceeded to pull out several more until all the chicken was gone, then Luis piloted us back to the main river and told us to jump in.
Hayley laughed. “It’s full of piranhas!”
“No, no. No piranhas here,” he said.
“What about candiru fish?” I asked, using my very serious voice.
“No candiru here.”
He pulled his hat over his eyes and settled into a corner of the boat. Hayley and I listened to the water lapping against the side of the boat for awhile, then jumped in. It was as warm as a bath. Dolphins continued to surface around us while egrets sailed overhead or stood motionless on the shore. Fish rose to the evening hatch as the sun sank below the trees, casting an orange glow on the clouds. The Amazon seemed determined to show us its Disney face.