Yanayacu, part 2

10/07/2011

Apart from getting eaten alive by zancudos last evening’s hike was fun–not too ambitious, as there was little daylight left. It turned out to be a before-dinner thing, and after dinner Wilder took us out on a pequi-pequi to look for caiman.

many trees are protected by herbivore- and climbing- deterrent thorns

sap of the Hura tree is toxic and causes skin burns

Of all the scary things lurking in the forest, one of the nastiest is Hura, a tree that flows with highly toxic sap that also causes serious skin burns. I might insert here a story about the hapless dude who shimmies up one of these bad boys with spurred tree-climbing boots and ends up in the hospital with chemical burns over most of his body. Wilder demonstrated respect for the tree’s toxic potential with the way he stood at a distance from the trunk while poking it with a machete and then stepping quickly back. The pressure was great enough for the sap to squirt out and then flow freely from the tiny wound.

four bats huddled in the hollow of a tree

We saw some mammal life— group of four bats huddled in the overhang of a partly hollowed tree, a family of night monkeys watched us from a high tree, an arboreal rodent peeked out from its tree-hole. Wilder showed us a cannonball fruit and explained how if we heard any loud wood-on-wood knocking sounds from the forest, it would probably be the black capuchin monkeys breaking these fruit open by slamming them against a tree trunk. Underneath the hard, heavy shell is a purple meat that is pungent and sour and is used by the monkeys as a purgative treatment for parasites.

The caiman hunt was our first encounter with Danilo, a twelve-year old whom I had seen chopping wood for the lodge’s kitchen. The strategy was a familiar one–use a flashlight to spot the animals by the red reflected back by their eyes. Caiman here hide out for the whole day coming out to hunt by night. We were advised that while it’s mostly safe to swim in the river during the day, swimming at night was a very bad idea because of the caiman and also a good abundance of electric eel, another nocturnal threat.

note the red eyes and mosquito-covered back and legs on this smoky jungle frog

bespectacled Seth, spectacled caiman, bespectacled Karen. the guy wearing contacts does not belong in this picture

On spotting a caiman Wilder would direct Danilo to guide the boat towards the animal and using bankside trees and vines to pull us towards the animal. Where the tangles of vegetation were too thick to penetrate, Wilder went on foot and with just a bit of effort came back to the bpat first with a small black caiman in one hand and a large frog (Leptodactylus? Rana?) in the other. Not long after that, Wilder missed at an attempt at a larger spectacled caiman but managed to find it again. Apparently they don’t always swim away after being attacked. On a brief stop on the bank we spotted a red-eyed frog that was covered by feeding mosquitos. The whole time we were on the water fishing bats swooped around, occasionally we could see one touch the water briefly but I didn’t get to see a fish taken. There were plenty of fish to be had–it’s easy to see how even random skimming of the water is likely to pay off with all the fish a bat could eat. In the course of paddling or motoring through the river, it’s not unusual to have several fish jump into the boat.

one of a few of the fishies that jumped into the boat

Things we heard but did not see included river dolphin, which make a loud, low, resonant grunt as they surface to breathe I didn’t hear when we saw dolphin during the day–possibly because the noise of the pequi-pequi drowned it out. Another loud voice of the forest that I never got to put with a face was that of the horned screamer, which is described as a sort of jungle turkey though it sounds like an angry monkey ­čśë

not a bird, but the one animal that we could get a good pic of while birding. this is a large freshwater snail called "churro"

Early the next morning we took a paddle-only birding excursion for about a kilometer down from the lodge. Several species of wading birds, of course. The largest of these was a white heron–I don’t recall seeing any storks, though. Raptors included the mama vieja (black-collared hawk), a black caracara and a golden caracara. Another spectacular sighting that is common in this part of the Amazon is the kingfisher known locally as catal├ín and is the largest of five kingfisher species native to this area. We saw a large woodpecker which I think is the Guayaquil species and looks like the Ivory-billed woodpecker that I doubt I’ll ever see. Several passerines, too–there’s the kiskadee named after what it seems to be saying with its call, “Victor Dias” according to Wilder, though I remember deciding in Costa Rica that bird was really saying, “Mira a los gringos!” Small parrots called “paraquitos” flocked above the treetops, and larger parrots like green and red macaws flew in and out of view. Chestnut-cheeked aracaris were the only toucans I saw. Not being much of a birder, I still managed to get a good look and listen at species that would be “holy crap” moments most anywhere else.

what started out as a whole sardina was attacked mercilessly by carnivorous pira├▒a

After breakfast we took a pequi-pequi with Wilder and Danilo to do a little fishing in one of the lakes adjacent to the river. Using tackle that’s a bit more primitive than what I’m used to (stick, line, swivel, hook) and chicken skin for bait, we caught sardina, s├íbalo, pira├▒a, and pac├║ (the “vegetarian pira├▒a”). Kept a few of the bigger ones for dinner.

looks like a sábalo and a pacú on the bottom of the boat

After lunch, we had time for a quick swim in the river before the whole group was heading over to the village–Canadians to play friendly soccer match with the local kids and for us there would be botanical/cultural tour. For me the swim would be the one opportunity I had to wash some of the stench off my shirt–I just swam a few meters with the shirt on before wringing it out and hanging it to dry. Once the shirt was off and I was about twenty meters downstream I learned that human in the water here is just another thing for the fish to gnaw at. I was being pecked at–and rather aggressively–and that image of the cow being skeletonized in a piranha-themed horror film burgled into my consciousness. It didn’t help knowing that there were most certainly carnivorous piranha in the Yanaycu (as well as caiman, stingrays, and electric eels), and the effect was unsettling enough for me to not want to stay in the water for very long.

the stove in Wilder's house makes use of a real wood cooking fire

The list of fish I either caught or ate in Peru would go something like this: sardina, corvina, pacu (aka “vegetarian piranha”), s├íbalo, piranha (the carnivorous one), donzella (a large spotted catfish that I didn’t make note of as a whole fish but we ate some at the Yanayacu lodge). In addition, we saw plenty of the tiny mojarrita in the water–I had experienced these little biters in Brazil and I’d guess that they were taking part when I was the main dish in the feeding frenzy. Locals love an armored catfish that is common in these waters. The staff at the lodge had some in their canoe, and I saw them being roasted by a street vendor in Nauta. Plenty of others I saw on grills and in the market that I didn’t have time to try–for me that’s a good enough reason to come back for another trip.

the macambo seeds we helped prepare earlier in the day. sauteed by the lodge cook

On the botanical tour the plants Wilder showed us were mostly the useful plants that he kept in his huerta for food and for medicine. Wilder also showed us his home–I’ll do a short post on this later. This was also where I spent 60 soles on tchotchkes handmade locally and entirely from forest products–truly beautiful stuff, and I really wish I had more than 60 soles in my pocket. We bought a macambo and dismantled it on a bench near Wilder’s house, eating the sweet, creamy, and aromatic pulp off the seeds and then peeling the seed coat off and saving the endosperm for dinner. And yes, we actually did get to eat some of the fish we caught as well as the macambo as a very special “second dinner” after we had polished off the meal that was served to everyone. Food at the lodge was generally excellent.

After a full day we are retiring early, as tomorrow will start with a 2:30 am wake-up. Wilder has agreed to take us to view the flowering of the giant water lily, Victoria amazonica.