the leaves of this mature Victoria amazonica were approximately 1.60 meters in diameter

Wilder came to our hut to wake us up at 2:05am (and yes, we asked him to do this since none of us had alarm clocks). By 2:30 we were heading downriver on a pequi-pequi with 12-year old Danilo as boatman. There would be no stops along the way as our destination was quite distant–about an hour and a half away. We went down the Yanayacu almost to its mouth with the Amazon and followed one of its tributaries to one of the lagunas pantanales–floodplain lakes adjacent to the Amazon.

Victoria amazonica flower

Our objective was to see a natural stand of Victoria amazonica, the giant water lily that I had seen only in botanical gardens–most recently in Japan at one of the hells of Beppu. Easily recognized by its enormous round leaves that look kinda like gigantic pizza pans, there is enough buoyancy to support a small child. Just seeing this plant under any circumstance (especially for the first time) is a mesmerizing experience. Seeing it in nature is sort of a biologist’s dream–at least for this biologist. Seeing it flower was just a geeky, over-the-edge thing i thought I’d ask for, and when Wilder agreed to do take us out on a nocturnal flower-watching trip I was just blown away. My most excellent traveling companions Seth and Karen were down, and this is how we ended up on an Amazonian lake well before sunrise. During the daytime the flowers look more or less like purple-ish tennis balls just below or just above the water’s surface. At night the flowers open and attract beetle pollinators.

the beetle seen here had been trapped by the petals of the flower--part of the pollination mechanism

I had seen Victoria a few times before, but I was still struck by the size of the leaves in this stand. We estimated the largest leaves to be over 160 cm in diameter. The open flower was a spectacular spray of magnolia-like mostly-white petals (I think they start out purple, though) and as large around at its base as a dinner plate. We saw a few cane toads hanging out on the enormous pads (maybe taking advantage of the beetle traffic into and out of the flowers?).

el amanecer

For the next hour or so–as we waited to witness an Amazon sunrise–Wilder entertained us with some pretty weird stories that blended his village’s history with traditional folklore. Danilo slept curled up on one of the boat’s seats using my backpack for a pillow.

ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis sp. This is one of three plants revered throughout the Amazon as a gift to the Amazonian people from the great anaconda god at the beginning of time. (The other two were manioc and coca.)

Once the sun was well up it was time for us to return to the lodge to pack for the trip back to Nauta. Looking back on our time at the Yanayacu lodge, we really did a lot in a very short time. I could see myself coming to know the plants, fish, and birds much better with a few more days or weeks in a place like this. Seth was actually considering buying his own spot along the river in the village. All he would need is a boat and a place to hang his hammock (and mosquitero!).

Psychotria, source of a key ingredient in the ayahuasca mixture

chacruna, apparently a mint, also used in the ayahuasca mixture--perhaps to mitigate its horrible flavor

tobacco (the small plant with only a couple of leaves at the top, and a chopping block for ayahuasca bark

We had a little delay at the village–the lodge manager had forgotten an important bit of luggage and had to make a run back to pick it up before we could push onwards towards Nauta. I took this advantage to press Wilder for one more little tour focusing on the ayahuasca plant that he had told us he knew about in the forest near the village. A short hike over some sloppy terrain brought us to the promised Banisteriopsis, which turned out to be a rather young plant and more of a vine than a liana. Nearby was a shaman’s hut where the resident shaman performed the ayahuasca ceremony. Wilder showed us the other plants involved in the mixture, which involves boiling down an aqueous extract of several plants into a small volume that is drunk by both the shaman and his “patient.” The ensuing effects typically involves a lot of vomiting and psychedelic visions of becoming an animal–the anaconda and jaguar figure heavily in one version of a trip, while another common result is being attacked by alien robots (or so I’m told).  The active ingredient of ayahuasca is a beta-carboline which tends to be degraded by monoamine oxidases in the gut–no good if the psychotropic chemical gets broken down before it can have its effect (all that vomiting and no robots–that would suck). This is why mixing ayahuasca with another plant, specifically the tryptamine-containing Psychotria, is important. Tryptamines serve two purposes. First they inhibit the monoamine oxidases, thus allowing the ayahuasca chemical to stick around for long enough to get absorbed. Second, they are psychotropic in their own right, so you end up getting a double-whammy of mind-warping fun (or so I’m told). The other plant agents that are added to the mixture–Wilder said that a mint-like chacruna, forest tobacco, and highly caffeinated yoco plant were also essential in the ayahuasca potion–vary substantially in different parts of the Amazon.

ajo-sacha, which means (in Quechua) "like garlic"--indeed the wood of this liana smelled exactly like garlic

I was a bit disappointed to see the set-up here. The Banisteriopsis was really just a sapling and appeared to be planted for the purpose of adding credibility to having a resident shaman who could perform the ayahuasca ceremony for the benefit of tourists.

pink river dolphin. according to Quechua legend the river dolphins transform into young men to seduce village women by their most excellent dance moves.

On trip back we made a short stop for a swim at a sandy beach on the Amazon frequented by dolphins. Getting back under way, the bright, sunny weather we enjoyed at the beach was replaced by a violent chubasco, through which Wilder had to stand watch at the prow to alert the boatman in the back to floating logs and other water hazards.

On returning to Iquitos we had dinner at el Zorrito–a favored eatery among Iquiteños–to celebrate the completion of an unforgettably splendid excursion. This wasn’t a first choice for us, and we were probably lucky with Seth’s slightly random decision to walk into the tour office that we did. I strongly suspect that the quality of experience offered by companies varies widely. If anyone wants the specifics of the tour operator that we went with, just ask.