Expedition to the Peruvian Amazon Jungle Part 1: Falling in Love with the River

Author: Claudia Dickinson

The author makes her first fish collecting expedition and finds out first-hand just how difficult, yet rewarding, an Amazonian adventure can be.

Return From the Amazon

I have just returned from the Peruvian Amazon jungle and it was a fabulous experience! I fell in love with the people, the land, the river, and of course, the fish. There are no words to describe what a time I had; my heart and my spirit have been captured forever…

Under the exceptional guidance of Dr. Devon Graham and Margarita Tours, as well as Dr. David Schleser, a celebrated authority on fish, photography, and wildlife, a small group of us traversed the river and explored the jungle, collecting and observing a combined total of over 230 species of fish in their natural habitat. We were into mud over our ears (almost!), as we seined the river and dip-netted the streams and banks. We hiked all day long, and at night we took out a skiff to view the wildlife. An added pleasure was to have Marilyn Weitzman and Jaap-Jan de Greef along to share their wealth of knowledge. The camaraderie amongst our group was paragon, as we shared the special warmth of family and formed everlasting friendships.

Preparations for the Trip

Having dreamed of a visit to the Amazon for years, I always thought that my first visit would be to the dense inland regions of Brazil. I first learned of this expedition to Peru through Luis Morales, proprietor of Watersedge Travel. With his meticulous attention to detail, the last year found Luis diligently organizing group plans for the adventure. I was intrigued, but a look at the calendar made it clear that the date was only weeks following the annual American Cichlid Association convention in Texas, so the trip was surely out of the question…or was it?

While I was at the convention in Texas I spoke with everyone who has traveled. I asked about where they’ve gone, the best places to go, how to prepare, and what to expect. The best and most heeded thoughts came from Ron Coleman, who echoed one of my own longtime philosophies of life when he said, “go with no expectations, and you will receive no disappointments.” I have discovered this outlook to be the perfect ingredient for the richest of experiences, and the Peruvian Amazon jungle expedition was no exception, as each moment was brimming with memories that I shall treasure forever.

Full Speed Ahead

Barely in the door from Texas, I took one look at my bags that were still packed, and I dashed off emails to Luis, as well as Devon and Margarita Tours with hopes that they might still squeeze me in. As Devon was out on the Amazon River for the next week, there was no time to spare in waiting for an answer, so it was full speed ahead. I proceeded on, obtaining my passport, inoculations, and a whirlwind of collecting the necessary gear. The good news did arrive from Devon at the end of the week in a characteristically welcoming email, and I was on my way!

The decision to make the majority of the flight to the final destination of Iquitos during the night on Friday made perfect sense, as that is when one normally sleeps. And how fortunate for me, as Luis had booked the exact same flights! This brought a shared excitement, as well as time for me to receive valuable camera tutoring from Luis.

Most of our group met in Lima early on Saturday morning, and after what we were soon to discover were routine delays, we were on our final flight to Iquitos. Devon was at the airport to greet us and he, along with a staff member, made certain that all our luggage was accounted for. We were then whisked off for the beginning of our extraordinary adventures.

A Taste of Things to Come

The first night we had lovely and gracious accommodations at the Dorado Plaza Hotel on the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos, with a delicious dinner at a local restaurant amongst the new and existing friendships of our group. It was my first taste of what was to come of the exquisite foods of South America. Every meal was accompanied by a sumptuous juice of papaya, mango, or some other exotica—nothing as I had ever experienced before, each rich and luscious in its own distinctive character.

Sunday morning we were packed and headed out by 8 a.m. to the waiting minivan that took us through the streets of Iquitos, amidst the many open-air two-passenger taxis that filled the streets. Arriving at the port facilities, we hiked down the sandy beach and made our first climb aboard what was to become our beloved, frequently used little skiff. The expectancy enveloped us as we sped off to our awaiting pamacari riverboat, the Tucunare. Over the next week we would foster an intimate affection and respect for this beautiful riverboat, and I shall always recall my first vision of it, as it rested peacefully, moored alongside the banks of the Amazon River.

Battling the Mud

As the Tucunare departed down the river with its new charges, we were given an orientation of the boat and procedures, after which we chose our bunks and quickly unpacked and arranged our equipment. It was not long before word was sent that our first collecting site was approaching. We rapidly donned our fishing gear, which, no matter what type of clothing is was, would always get soaked with river water, caked with mud, baked by the sun, possibly spattered (sometimes drenched) with rain, and infiltrated by a curious insect or two. It became clear that the same clothing was best worn for all collecting, with a quick dry over the railings of the Tucunare between sites. The soon-to-be familiar mental checklist ticked off: brimmed hat, sunglasses, insect repellent, sunscreen, followed by soon-to-be wet socks and squishy wet sneakers, collecting net, bucket, camera, and plastic bags for bringing wildlife specimens back for photographing.

We hopped onto the waiting skiff and sped up the Rio Nanay to the junction of the Rio Momon. Since it was the dry season in Peru, the waters were exceedingly low. Jumping out of the skiff brought us our first encounter with the deep mud that engulfed us (literally!) over the course of our journey. During our travels, the question became not “if” it was muddy, but just how deep the mud was in a particular spot. After several trials, I learned that I could manage to pull my legs out if it was just above my calves. When I observed the men go in over their thighs, I came to realize that I had to skirt that particular area in order to reserve my strength, as pulling ones body through the thick mud was intensely energy-depleting.

Beginner’s Mistakes

This was my first time out collecting so I had a few things to learn. With all of nature’s uncertainties, one thing about the Amazon River and jungle is for certain: what you do need to learn, you learn fast, and once you learn it you do not forget! The crew was already on the other side of the river, casting the seine net in a wide arc as some of the others in our group swam over to begin working the parameters. Not wanting to lose a single moment of new experiences, I took my collecting net in one hand and a bucket in the other and began wading through the mud, and then into the water. The bottom dropped away from under my feet and it was time to swim. This is the moment where I realized I had to learn something quickly…

Although I practically grew up underwater (my father is a noted scuba diver), swimming across a tributary of the Amazon, fully clothed with drawstring pants filled with water, net in one hand and bucket in the other, is a situation abounding with lessons to be learned! Naturally, my bucket immediately filled with water, and as hard as I tried to hang onto it (please remember, my other hand was holding a 12- x 12-inch net with a 4-foot handle), I soon had no choice but to let go of the water-laden bucket. How mortifying! How was I going to admit this one—there I was, out in the middle of the river, with no bucket to put my fish into!

My pants were laden with water as I was trying to hold a seemingly larger-than-life net over the water while searching behind me in hopes that the darn bucket would somehow magically reappear. Somehow I made it across to the seine, laughing the whole way. Then the fun really did begin! By the way, after undoing the pant drawstrings from around my ankles, and releasing half of the Amazon back to continue on its downstream journey, I then remembered to leave the drawstrings open before taking the plunge.

Our Bountiful Collections

As the net was worked into the shoreline, the glistening bodies of fish just realizing their capture (the cichlids first, being the smartest, of course) could be seen leaping high in the air, some of them over the net and back into the safety of the waters on the outer side. What an unequivocal thrill came over me as we gathered the net up to the bank. The powerful crew members, Segundo, Cesar, and Eugenio, pulled the ends while the rest of us worked the center by holding the corks on the top of the seine up above the water, moving the bottom edge through the mud and keeping it tucked under to prevent any escapes. Large quantities of all species, sizes, and shapes flipped and leaped, their scales brilliantly dazzling in the bright sunlight, shimmering across the entire length of the net. It was a breathtaking site!

Everyone excitedly began picking through the catch, calling out the names of species discovered amongst the bounty, and placing in our buckets those that would return to the boat with us for identification, photographing, or to take back to the United States; the rest were returned to the river. Among our finds there was a lovely mix of cichlids which included Mesonauta insignis (Peruvian festivum), Acaronia nassa, Biotodoma cupido, Cichla monoculus, Hypselecara temporalis (chocolate cichlid), Pterophyllum scalare (angelfish) and Satanoperca jurupari, as well as Acestrorhynchus falcatus (freshwater barracuda), Hemigrammus pulcher, Trachelyopterus galeatus (woodcat), and Boulengerella maculata, along with a vast array of other species. There was tremendous elation for all, as there was something to suit all of the cichlid enthusiasts among us; Scott Jacobson, John Luckshire, Luis Morales, Ed Young, and I were all certainly ecstatic!

Returning to the skiff, our group was filled with the enthusiasm of our good fortune and ready to move on to the next location. We were short one member and looked across the ridge to see Jaap-Jan coming out of the jungle where he had walked up a small stream to collect. It was customary for him to go off and explore for prime spots, always returning with something new and different. This time his bag held such prizes as Apistogramma bitaeniataas well as Pyrrhulina sp. “Nanay.”

Moving further up the Rio Nanay, we stopped at several more sites, one being a brush trap of dense branches that had been set out to attract fish. This was a great success in harboring Pterophyllum scalare, which was to the immense delight of Luis and some of our other angelfish enthusiasts. It was now time to make our way back to the Tucunare, where a delicious lunch would be waiting.

An Amazing Crew

Segundo, Cesar, and Eugenio accompanied us on all of our collecting excursions. Segundo was amazing in his notorious prowess at using his bare hands to catch any form of wildlife, be it fish, snakes, birds, frogs, or insects. Cesar excelled at searching out and discovering the best fishing locations and the rarest fish. If you had a dream fish he wanted to know about it, and he would find it. Eugenio was a master at going off into the jungle and locating new collecting sites that were bountiful with rare finds. He was also able to steer our skiff with an innate skill through the low waters, around fallen trees, and over the many traps laid along the way by the river people.

All three men were forever ready if we needed a helpful hand, and they were my heroes on several occasions when we traversed fairly rough terrain. Always in the best of spirits, their contagious laughter resounded across the Amazon River and quickly drew us all to join in with good cheer.

Emerson and Raul remained to watch over the Tucunare, handling the many items that needed tending to there. Raul was our chef, preparing the most delicious meals that one could imagine—each more exquisite than the next. The platters were piled high with steaming hot seafood, chicken, local meats, rices, potatoes, yucca, sauteed bananas, and breads, as well as delightful chilled dishes of fresh slivered hearts of palm, avocado, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, peas, carrots, and always a huge assortment of fresh local fruits and juices that rival any that you have ever tasted. Raul’s beautiful presentations were unsurpassed, as his creativity went far beyond the sumptuous cuisine, with every dish carved and decorated to perfection.

Emerson was magical! His quiet care for every minute detail of our needs went without compare. I never ceased to be surprised and touched by the thoughtfulness and concern that he put into making sure that our stay was a pleasant and enjoyable experience. That was the way all of our time spent with Margarita Tours went. I shall always treasure the friendships, memories, care, and kindness provided by the entire crew of the Tucunare.