julia dimon/for metro toronto
A pair of googly reptilian eyes zigzagged towards us through murky green waters. Our guide and resident jungle expert was the first to notice. “It’s a black caiman,” he said with a thick Spanish accent.
Part of the alligator family, caimans are not usually harmful to humans, but can get aggressive when hungry or protecting their young. Just my luck — this particular specimen was a baby and its overprotective mother, who could have been up to nine feet long, was surely lurking in the area.
As the young caiman circled the rickety canoe like a vulture vying for his breakfast, a few of us peered over the side to get a better look. The weight shifted, the canoe rocked ominously and we almost tipped. “Whoa,” I called- out, flailing my arms to regain my balance. The canoe teetered, the water rippled and the caiman vanished.
Animal sightings and untamed nature were what had attracted our gang of nine to Peru, but the prospect of swimming with alligators in the Amazon rainforest was, um, just a little too authentic for comfort.
We were on a 12-day G.A.P adventure called Amazon To The Andes, which brought us from Lima to the quaint town of Cuzco, along the grueling Inca Trail and, finally, to a lodge in the Puerto Maldonado area of southeastern Peru for a three-day jungle experience.
Walking through the jungle, the group was anxious to see anacondas, jaguars and other infamous man-eaters, but in this region, the chances of spotting large mammals or killer snakes aren’t great. Spider monkeys, caimans, tarantulas, colourful birds and cabybaras, the world’s largest rodent, are far more common creatures.
Also common in a rainforest — a lot of jungle. A self-sufficient ecosystem of symbiotic relationships and complicated microclimates, the Amazon jungle turned out to be more than just a bunch of trees.
The strangler fig was my personal favourite. A parasitic plant with aerial roots, this tree ferociously struggles for life and remorselessly competes for valuable jungle real-estate by leeching on to a host tree. Spouting murderous branches that shield the host’s access to the sun, the strangler fig has a hollow interior of overgrown, twisted vines that travellers can actually climb into.
Local shaman will use many other plants as medicine. When boiled, the Cana Cana plant’s blossom — which looks like a pink corn-on-the-cob — acts as a natural aspirin.
“Who knew foliage could be this fascinating?” I thought to myself as I followed the group deeper into the mosquito-infested jungle.
Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an on-line magazine for the young and restless traveller. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.