The jungle isn’t for the faint-hearted. Mosquitos, snakes, spiders, jaguars, wild boars, and many other creatures wreak psychological, and at times, physical havoc on jungle dwellers. If that isn’t enough, the humidity fosters an environment suitable for tropical diseases. Primal predator/prey relationships shape the jungle hierarchy. The dense vegetation allows predators, like jaguars, to stalk their prey and ambush with little warning. Needless to say, threats in the jungle make daily traffic seem juvenile. The jungle is also an enchanting place. With an abundance of biological diversity, it feels like you’re stepping into another world. The sights and sounds engage the senses and evoke a world of imagination. Searching for jungle wildlife is challenging, but extremely rewarding.
During our first night in the Tambopata National Reserve – a protected area in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon – our guide, Yomi, led us on a night hike in search of nocturnal jungle creatures. We spotted several tarantulas and snakes, as well as bats, toads, and sleeping birds. At one point, a small frog hopped into a tarantula burrow. Judging by Yomi’s reaction, I assumed the frog was the tarantula’s midnight snack. But Yomi explained that the frog and tarantula have a symbiotic relationship. In other words, they mutually benefit by protecting each other from their respective predators. Fascinating. I couldn’t help but nerd out about this night “neature walk”.
The next morning we awoke at dawn to the deep, guttural sound of red howler monkeys, while many species of birds and insects harmonized with their baritone counterparts. During breakfast, Yomi told us he woke up in the middle of the night to a sound of a distressed wild boar not far from the lodge. I didn’t think twice about his confession until we encountered a few non-human footprints some fifty feet from our cabin…which Yomi quickly identified as jaguar paws. Our guide stopped another 100 feet down the trail to observe a few more footprints. This time, we saw the familiar jaguar paw, with a much smaller jaguar paw right behind it. Yomi looked up with a stoic facial expression and told us: “A mother jaguar and her cub. Good news for the Reserve…bad news for us.”
His ominous comment set the tone for the rest of the jungle hike. I asked Yomi what to do in case we encountered the jaguar. He responded, “First of all, it’s important that you see the jaguar first. If it sees you first, you may be a lost cause. Secondly, look big and hold your ground. If the jaguar isn’t deterred, look for a narrow tree to climb.” As much as I wanted to see a jaguar during my trip, I started to feel conflicted, imagining a jaguar pouncing on its prey (me) without a warning sign. I was on full alert during the hike, keeping my head on a swivel and eyeing suitable trees to climb. I was envious of Yomi’s machete, thinking that I might stand a fighter’s chance if I had one.
We saw many birds, monkeys, piranhas, insects, turtles, caimans, macaws, and giant sea otters during the jungle excursion, but no jaguars. I also thought it might be neat to see an anaconda in the lake, river, or swamp. After hearing of an unlucky encounter between a local man and an anaconda, I second-guessed my desire. I finally settled on a happy medium: spotting a jaguar and an anaconda…from a distance. Fate decided that neither were in the cards this trip. As Yomi, our guide, would say: “It just wasn’t your time.”
The jungle is menacing and tranquil – offering risks and rewards. It’s exciting and scary. My trip to the Amazon Jungle awoke my senses and opened my eyes to a primal world that is both liberating and unsettling.