Adventures in the Amazon: Fishing for Piranhas

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the Amazon Rainforest has an incredible diversity of wildlife. There are literally hundreds of different species of birds, amphibians, and mammals, and that doesn’t change when you go beneath the surface of the Amazon River, where more than 3000 species of fish dwell. Fish like the pirarucu, which can reach ten feet in length and weigh over 400 pounds, or the payara, which can also grow quite large, and have two distinctive fangs on their lower lip. Of course, the best known fish in the Amazon is none other than the piranha, which has a mean and nasty reputation, despite its relatively small size.

While that reputation is well deserved, it has also been highly exaggerated by Hollywood as well. The fish is definitely aggressive, and their sharp teeth can inflict plenty of damage, but attacks on humans, or larger animals for that matter, are a seldom occurance, and rarely fatal. One thing Hollywood did get right, however, is that Piranhas do tend to travel in large schools, which has only enhanced the idea that they are organized and efficient killers.

On one warm, and especially humid, morning while I was in the Peru, I found myself aboard one of La Turmalina‘s skiffs, along wtih a dozen others, edging our way deep into the Amazon backwaters. At times, the jungle was so thick that we had to break out a machete in order to clear a path for the boat. We were in search of a calm, open patch of water that would make for a good fishing hole, and since it was the high-water season, the fish had retreated far from the main channel.

%Gallery-63881%Eventually our guide indicated to the driver to stop, and they were soon handing out our sophisticated fishing gear which consisted of long wooden branches, which served as poles, with fishing line running their length and a medium sized hook on the end of that line. Chunks of beef were added to the hook, and would serve as bait for the hungry fish.

Our guide quickly demonstrated the process of attracing a piranha by dipping the end of the pole in the water and thrashing it about just below the surface. Apparently, this attracts the fish’s attention just before we drop the bait into the water, and it seemed to work, as it wasn’t long before several of us were getting tugs on the end of our line, tell-tale signs that the fish were biting.

The legendary aggressiveness of the piranha was on fine display that morning, as they were making it a habit of stealing our bait without having the common courtesy of joining us in the boat. The little fish would hit fast and often, and sometimes they would clean off the hooks without any of us even knowning. In fact, at one point, I drew my hook from the water to find that it was completely clean once again. This incited a round of chuckles from three of my fellow fishermen, whose lines dangled in the water right next to mine. I told them that they shouldn’t laugh until they had checked their own lines and upon inspection, all three of their hooks were clean as well.

Eventually we did start to get the hang of it, and began to haul the piranhas on board. Most were no more than six inches in length, but their razor-like teeth were constantly on dispaly, reminding us how they got that nasty reputation. I personally managed to catch three of the silver and orange fish, plus a “talking catfish” so named for the hisses and squeels that he made after I pulled him from the water. Over the course of the morning, nearly everyone else managed to catch at least one fish as well, much to their delight.

Later, back aboard La Turmalina, the ship’s cook would fry up the fish we caught and serve them as part of the evening meal. Most of my fellow passengers passed on trying the Amazonian delicacies, but those of us who opted to sample them, found the piranha to be quite tasty.

Our morning of piranha fishing turned out to be one of the most enjoyable of the trip. It was incredibly fun, and a bit surreal, to be fishing for the predatory fish while surrounded by the waters of the most powerful river on Earth. Afterall, how many people can say they caught, and ate, a piranha?

Next: Dolphins at the Confluence

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Adventures in the Amazon: A Birdwatcher’s Paradise!

Cruising the Amazon aboard a beautiful, 19th century styled, river boat is a fantastic experience. The passengers aboard La Turmalina, the ship that was my home while I explored the river, spent a lot of time up on deck, watching the world around us drift by. But there was a lot more to our journey than just sitting on deck drinking Pisco Sours and admiring the scenery.

La Turmalina was outfitted with two twenty-foot skiffs, each powered with twin outboard motors. These powerful little flat bottomed boats became our shuttles to the backwaters of the Amazon, and we would make two or three daily excursions out into those remote regions to look for wildlife, visit local villages, and take in the beautiful scenery. The skiffs were maneuverable, making it easy to negotiate the sometimes narrow channels, that were often choked with vegetation, and yet they were still large enough to carry a dozen passengers, along with their gear, quite comfortably.

Riding in the skiffs allowed us to glide through the water and get very close to the wildlife that is so abundant in the Amazon. At various times we drifted silently under trees while over head monkeys played and sloths dozed. But the creatures that were in greatest numbers were clearly the birds, which came in hundreds of species and numbered in the tens of thousands.

%Gallery-63881%I’m personally not much of a “birder”, as bird watching enthusiasts are sometimes called, but even I couldn’t help but be impressed with the bird life that was on display in the Amazon. There were flocks of bright green parakeets zipping across the sky and white egrets spread their broad wings and took flight when ever we ventured too close. Under the dense canopy of the jungle, humming birds flitted about, no bigger than insects, while colorful toucans gave off their distinctive croaks.

All told, there are more than 600 species of birds in the Peruvian Amazon, ranging from the mundane like ducks and swallows to the more colorful and exotic like macaws and cuckoos. There are birds of prey, such as hawks and ospreys, as well as scavengers, like the vulture, which seems to make its home in all corners of the globe.

The Amazon is indeed a paradise for bird watchers, and some of my fellow passengers were very passionate about the pursuit. They would get very excited when we would spot yellow-tufted woodpeckers or masked crimson tanagers, and they were quick to grab their binoculars at the slightest movement at the top of the trees. One of the couples that I traveled with had circled the globe, spotting unique and interesting birds where ever they went. Near the end of our time in the Amazon, they proudly proclaimed that they had spotted 61 new bird species since coming to the rainforest. We added several more to the list that morning, raising their total even further.

For experienced birders, there are few places on Earth that can rival the Amazon for the pure number of birds that can be seen. Fully one third of the world’s avian species can be found in the jungles that surround the river, and there seems to always be a new one to see. It is safe to say that the bird watchers who traveled with me were quite content with what they saw, and were glad the made the journey just for the birds alone.

Next: Piranha Fishing!

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.

Adventures in the Amazon: Life on the River

After spending the morning in the Belen Market, I was more than ready to truly get my Amazon Adventure underway. I’d been in Iquitos for a full day, and while I found the jungle city a fascinating place, I was eager to get out on the river itself.

I planned to cruise the river, along with a small group of other travelers, aboard a boat called La Turmalina for a week. The ship operates out of Iquitos and is one of the few that gives tourists access to the Amazon. Built almost entirely out of wood, and painted in bright colors, La Turmalina is styled after the 19th century river boats that once roamed up and down the Amazon, providing access to the region in a time before air travel.

I’ve mentioned the incredible diversity of life in the Amazon in previous posts, but heading out onto the river really brought that home. We were minutes out of Iquitos when we spotted the first river dolphins, and the number of colorful bird species increased immediately as well. Even more impressive than the animal life, which would come to include a variety of lizards and monkeys in the days ahead, was the flora. With more than 40,000 species of plants growing in the Amazon, and more being discovered all the time, you can imagine how lush, colorful, and diverse the rainforest can be.

Amidst all that incredible diversity and stunning amount of life, the one creature I was surprised to see in such abundance was man. Make no mistake, once we set out from Iquitos, there were very few settlements of any size, but there were plenty of small huts, suspended above the river on stilts, lining the banks and throughout the day there was a constant flow of boat traffic, with local inhabitants paddling up and down the waterways.

Life for these river dwellers is, as you can imagine, fairly simple. The Amazon, both river and jungle, provides them most of what they need, although they make occasional trips into the nearby towns to trade for goods they can’t find themselves. They gather items from the rainforest or craft handmade goods to trade, and make the journey in simple dugout boats.

Most of the river huts that they live in are little more than simple wooden shacks with thatched roofs. A few have small generators for power, although most do not, and when the sun sets, darkness brings an end to their day in more ways than one. Those constructed right on the river are built on stilts to deal with the changing levels of the water, while the homes on higher ground sit on dirt floors with primitive living areas. The river provides for their water needs and they cook over open flames, much the way it has been for hundreds of years.

The people that live along the Amazon have a great respect for the river and jungle. They know that it provides them with everything they need to live, and they have a great understanding of how the variety of plants can be used for medicinal and herbal purposes. They are careful to maintain the environment, as it is their home, and they want it protected for the future. Something we could all learn from.

Next: Birdwatching in the Amazon

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE

Adventures in the Amazon: A Trip to the Market

Iquitos, Peru is, without a doubt, a unique city. Its colonial heritage can be seen at every turn, and its jungle roots can still be felt, despite the fact that modern conveniences have become a part of everyday life. No where is this contrasting lifestyle more evident then in the Belen district, home to a sprawling market that is loud, colorful, and hot.

The Belen Market is by far the largest in Iquitos, and people come from all over the city, and the surrounding jungle, to buy and sell their goods there. it can be approached by land or boat, and many of the merchants sell their goods from floating platforms and their own boats as well. When I visited Belen, it was Palm Sunday, and very crowded, so we elected to stroll through on foot rather than approach from the river.

The narrow streets are lined with stalls, and the crowds jam in tightly, examining the merchandise and haggling over prices. Thick plastic tarps are used to create makeshift awnings, and they prove their worth on the 270 days a year that it rains in the Amazon. While I was there, however, it was sunny, and hot, and those colorful tarps just trapped in the heat and cast an eerie blue or red glow over the entire place.

If the colors and heat don’t overwhelm you, the sounds just might. As you walk past the hundreds of tables, well stocked with a variety of goods, the merchants shout out prices and beckon for you to come nearer. The shoppers tend to shout right back with counter offers, which are met with a variety of reactions ranging from jubilation to outright disdain.. Some of the stalls have an old radio which contributes to the cacophony of the market, blaring out the unmistakable sounds of Latin music. The occasional scooter or motorbike adds to the din, puttering up the crowded streets, leaving exhaust in their wake.


The real draw to this colorful market is the amazing array of things for sale. There are colorful fruits of all shapes and sizes, locally grown tobacco in a number of forms, unique meats, like monkey, turtle, and caiman, and of course, dozens of varieties of fish as well. The Amazon is the home for hundreds of species of fish, and most of them find their way into the market in a variety of sizes. Piranha were in abundance of course, as were Paiche, a species that can grow several meters in length.

One of the more interesting, and out of the way, sections of the Belen Market was a narrow alley where the merchants were selling home remedies and other concoctions. The stall that I stopped at had all kinds of odd looking elixirs poured into old coke bottles and a variety of jars. Most of them didn’t look appetizing in the least, but the young woman behind the table assured me that they could cure baldness, heal a variety of ailments, or serve as a powerful aphrodesiac. Each was made with planets and fruits gathered from the rainforest, and created from a formula that is passed down from one generation to the next verbally, and is committed to memory.

If you visit Belen, be sure to go early. I spent the morning there taking in the sights and marveling at the endless variety of things to purchase, but by late morning many of the shops were closing up, as they were either already out of their wares, or they were endanger of spoiling. This was especially the case for the meats and fish. The warm afternoon sun would make them go bad quickly, so if there was any hope of preserving them, they have to be removed quickly.

Visiting an open air market in a foreign country has always an interesting experience for me, and Belen continued that tradition. You get to see a “slice of life” from the place you are visiting, and a sense of how the locals life. You also learn about the local quisine as well, and if you’re luck, you might even get to sample some. In Belen, you can easily see the still very strong connections between the people of Iquitos and the Amazon.

Next: We head out on the river at last!

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE

Adventures in the Amazon: Iquitos, Peru

The Amazon River Basin is an amazing place. It is a vast ecosystem with the most diverse array of plant and animal life found anywhere on the planet. It is also one of those iconic destinations that sparks visions of adventure, with thoughts of Indiana Jones raiding lost temples for golden idols. It was all of these things, and more, that spurred my recent visit to the Peruvian Amazon, seeking a little adventure of my own.

The Amazon River officially begins at the confluence of the Ucayalli and Marañon Rivers in the Maynas Province of Peru. The largest city and capital of that region is Iquitos, which also serves as the gateway to the Amazon headwaters. With a population of nearly 400,000, Iquitos holds the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road. The city sits on the banks of the river, and is encroached on at all sides by the rainforest. Visitors to the city must arrive by plane or boat, and many goods still need to be shipped in via the river.

Iquitos was originally founded as a Jesuit mission around 1750, but it remained relatively small until the 1860’s when it became the seat of government for the region. It remained a modest sized town until the early 20th century, when the rubber industry exploded, and the population of the city followed suit. The remnants of that era can still be found all over the city, with large mansions still in use, and colonial architecture dominating certain districts as well.

Today, tourism has become one of the biggest industries, with adventure travelers making the journey to gain access to both the Amazon River and Jungle. But even with the increased tourist trade, Iquitos is still far off the beaten path for most, as many who go to Peru are there to hike the Inca Trail and pay a visit to Machu Picchu. Indeed, in my time in the city, I saw few people who could easily be identified as tourists at all.

Iquitos is clearly a town steeped in tradition. On Saturday nights the Plaza de Armas, one of the major town squares, is lit up like a carnival, with music playing, bright lights flashing, and food and drink in abundance. On Sunday morning, the same plaza hosts an elaborate flag ceremony, with soldiers and sailors stationed in the city, marching the square, while the flags of Peru, the Maynas Province, and the city are run up the pole to great pomp and circumstance. Locals line the street watching the proceedings, as if they are watching the weekly ceremony for the first time.

Despite the fact that Iquitos is a fairly large city, the people that live there still have a sense of harmony with the Amazon. It may be the largest city in the region, but it is still a jungle town at heart, and that is reflected in the way its inhabitants live. Many of their homes are literally right on the water, and plenty still depend on the jungle in one fashion or another, for their livelihood. The town markets are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fish and other meats harvested from the Amazon.

Iquitos is indeed a fascinating and lively place, with a rich history. But its real allure is the huge natural resource that surrounds it, and in upcoming stories, I’ll share my experiences there. It is filled with life, both plant and animal, but also plenty of people as well. And the diversity of all three is amazing to behold.

Next: A Visit to the Market

Read more Adventures in the Amazon posts HERE.