Vast Amazonian jungle is not always the first thing that comes to mind when people imagine Peru. However, the Peruvian Amazon covers 60% of the country and a remarkable 96% of its fresh water eventually drains into the Amazon basin.
During our last excursion to Peru we explored the land of the Incas, ventured up the highest inhabited place on earth, and ate our way through Lima, South America’s culinary capital, so we figured it was time to return to Peru and head into the jungle.
This time I had a Peruvian friend, Marissé, who was willing to accompany me on a jungle adventure. She has family in Lamas, a enchanting town in the hills near Tarapoto. So we decided to head there and make a few stops along the way.
The sweltering jungle rainforest metropolis of Tarapoto lies at the edge of the Andean foothills and the boundless jungle. The muggy streets are packed with mototaxis, three wheeled motorcycles, and stalls piled high with fresh fruit. The locals almost sing when they speak Spanish and are exceedingly friendly.
Tarapoto is popular vacation destination for Peruvians, usually the gringos head to Iquitos. During the 80’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorized the Amazon jungle and the central highlands. Years of coca cultivation and trafficking followed in these regions. Thus for many years large areas in Peru were off limits to travelers, but now it is mostly safe and the burgeoning Peruvian middle class is taking advantage of the their country’s natural wealth.
The jungle is worlds away from the chaos of dusty Lima and the breathless colonial, Andean cities. It is a land of plenty. Seemingly every plant can be eaten or used in some way. There will always be dinner. What they lack in modern amenities they more than make up for in spirit. No trip to Peru is complete with out a journey into the jungles of Peru.
We descended through conical, forested hills into the lush and sticky market town of Tingo Maria.
Resting adjacent to the town in a hill that the locals refer to as La Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty). They say she was princess of one of two tribes who was secretly in love with the other tribe’s prince. When the elders found out she was turned into stone.
Mototaxis dominate the jungle streets. They can tackle anything from flooded streets to bumpy dirt roads.
We could have wander the market all day eating unknown fruits and drinking the freshes juices. Like all markets in Peru it was chaotic, raw and full of life, but the market in Tingo was the craziest. We were lured to the mountains of salted river fish by the pungent smell.
Armadillo was just one of the many animals, alive and dead, that were on sale in the market.
After a bumpy 8 hour journey through former narco country we arrived in Juanjui. We rode with a cop who explained that this inaccessible region was a hotbed of coca, but since the creation of a new police force in Juanjui that activity has decreased. In remote regions coca is preferable because of its accessibility compared to other heavier crops.
As we sat alongside the surging Rio Huallaga a girl brought her pig for a drink.
From Juanjui we took a combi (shared van) to Tarapoto, the department’s largest city and economic hub. The family seated in front of us was bringing what appeared to be a juvenile jaguar pelt to sell in the market.
Tarapoto and the surrounding area have been inhabited for hundreds of year. In many places the jungle has been tamed for the cultivation of numerous crops and cattle grazing.
While searching for a waterfall we discovered a clandestine aguardiente still. The friendly family running it were using a rudimentary machine to mash the juice out of the sugar cane. They fed what was left over to the cows.
One of the children looks on while his brother mashes the suger cane.
A bottle of Aguardiente cost around .50 cents.
The hills around Tarapoto are often shrouded in clouds and flush with waterfalls.
Majas soup is a speciality in the region. It was very tasty.
Napoleon sells masks near the main plaza in Tarapoto.
The best place to start in any city or town is the market. A group of colorful, young men wandered the market singing and dancing, trying to make an extra buck.
They danced their way through the market.
Cars are rare in the jungle. Motorcyles and scooters are common.
We were wondering why there were pictures of this man all over Tarapoto. Turns out he is a homeless man who spends his days cleaning the streets of the city. He is a local hero.
By far one my favorite meals in Peru. The Upscale restaurant served typical food from the jungle with a little extra flare. We tried chonta salad made from buttery heart of palm and avacados and sampled four types of Juane. Juane is one of the main dishes in the jungle. It is rice, olives, hard boiled eggs and meat, wrapped in a bijao leaf and boiled. We tried river shrimp, fish, pork and chicken (the most common.)
In the hills above Tarapoto where the temperature is noticably cooler lies the enchanting town of Lamas. My friend has a chacra (small farm) on the outskirts of the town. We decided to brave the mosquitos and spiders to sleep there.
As the night engulfed us on the chacra an array of bright stars illuminated the night.
The next morning we discovered Virginia, the neighbor and caretaker, preparing aji, a salsa made from spicy, native peppers
This was her father Jose.
Her mother was happy to host us for breakfast.
Boiled pijuayo (peach palm) and coffee for breakfast.
A typical home in the jungle. The houses usually have a second level for sleeping.
The father of Jean, the little boy, asked me to be his godfather. I said I would think about it, but soon he was telling everyone that I was his godfather. So its pretty much official.
HIs energetic sister wanted me to try all the different fruits she could find.
Ciruela (similar to a plum) was one of my favorite new fruit discoveries. Fruit is free in the jungle because it is growing everywhere. I found a tree and was eating these all day long.
We walked to a community deeper in the jungle where people were gathering to play football. While the men played the women made white clay pots.
She was tending to the fire while the pots baked.
A typical jungle lunch of rice, beans, a little bit of pork and of course bananas. Bananas are used in what seems like every dish in the jungle.
Resting in the shade.
The winding road through the Cordillera Azul, the Blue Mountains, was stunning.
A last glimpse of the jungle before we crossed up and over into the Andes.