Amazon, part 2. Out of our comfort zone!

There were so many beautiful, magical and wonderful things in the Amazon, but we wouldn’t be giving you a true impression if we only told you about these things. The Amazon is also filled with creepy, scary and disgusting things too! Here are the top 5 moments that definitely made us feel out of our comfort zone.

Number 1:Night walking

By Oren:

One of the most memorable parts of our trip, for wonderful as well as weird and worrying reasons, was our night walk. On our first night in the Amazon, we were in our room listening to the jungle chorus starting up as darkness fell, and our guide came to escort us to dinner. This might sound a bit over the top, but the only way to get to where we were going to eat was to trek through the wilderness. Ahhhh! This offered us the unique opportunity of walking through the Amazon jungle, at night!

From the very first step, we were surprised about how much night time activity there was, but apparently 70% of animals in the rainforest are nocturnal. Our guide set out in the front and as we walked behind him, adrenaline was rushing through us, our hearts beating at what felt like 1000 beats per minute. Soon, he pointed out several stunning frogs and giant stick insects (like the ones our friend Harvey has as pets). It was a great start to our walk, but it was only going to get better. Later on, we saw lots of small spiders and one thing called the scorpion-spider. With a name like that you would never want to meet it in a dark jungle, but it turned out that it was harmless! Suddenly the guide stopped and pointed to a spider a lot bigger than my hand. It looked like something out of a horror film, and to make things worse it was poisonous! It was pretty scary watching my Mum lean in so close to take photos of deadly creatures. We steered clear of that one!


Spotting insects that you had only ever seen in books and on TV was nerve wracking because you had no idea what was likely to kill you. Or perhaps we’d see something we recognised, but it would be 20 times as big as at the version we knew at home! We also wondered if at any moment, we’d meet the night wasps again.

Night wasp nest

During the day, we’d seen them arranged in incredible formation in their nest, with one look out perched on top while the other slept. We had been relieved that they had been sleeping, but suddenly I remembered that night was their time. The sense of nervous anticipation will definitely stick in my mind.

Later on Brae spotted a snake too. It was small and cute, and it was perched on top of a leaf so it looked like it was posing for a photo, but apparently it was poisonous too. Literally everything is dangerous here! The scariest part of the snake encounter was that the guide had walked past it. We all had torches and as Brae scanned the undergrowth, his torchlight fell on the snake, so he pointed it out to the guide. He told us that it was in attack position and advised us to walk right off the path in order to go round it. Basically, if Brae hadn’t spotted it I bet that one of us would have walked into the leaf it was sitting on (which was right by the path) and it would have bitten us!

Suddenly we came to a stop and we were told to turn off our torches. It was like being in a pool full of ink, you couldn’t see your hand even if it was pressed up against your face. I felt very sorry for the French people we had heard about who recently got lost in the jungle for 2 nights! Being there in the total darkness was pretty scary for us at first but in that stillness we could really appreciate the sounds of the jungle. We heard booming echoes and screeching. We thought it was monkeys until the guide said casually, ‘oh that’s a frog’. We weren’t expecting that! We did hear monkeys too, and countless insects, but perhaps the strangest noise of all was the spooky sound of the witch frog cackling in the dark! With each moment we were realising how far away we were from everything that we considered normal and how lucky we were to be having these experiences. Then, our guide held up something glowing to me. It was a leaf, and there was a fungus on the leaf that glowed in the dark! It was magical seeing all those tiny lights appear around us on the forest floor as our eyes finally adjusted to the dark.

On the way back we split into two groups and our group spotted tarantulas -and not one, but five! They were lurking behind a rotting log, in the nooks and crannies. They were really impressive and I was thrilled to have seen them. I have seen so many pictures of tarantulas that it was insane seeing them for myself.

So after all that, was dinner worth it? Well, I certainly enjoyed my half a piranha! All in all the night walk was an incredibly unique and wonderful experience and it was one of my Dad’s top 3 moments of our whole trip.


Number 2: Canopy

By Oren:

During our Amazon trip, we had the opportunity to journey through the jungle canopy. Before deciding to take on this challenge, we had thought it over quite a bit, because my Dad is scared of heights, so it was definitely out of his comfort zone. To get this completely different perspective on the jungle, we first had to haul ourselves 38m up a rope to the top of a tree. We had harnesses and braces that held us in place and stopped us sliding back down when we were climbing, but it was incredibly hard work on your arms. We were absolutely exhausted when we reached the top so we were pleased to rest and admire the view from a platform before starting our journey from treetop to treetop, by zip wire!

To tackle the first zip wire, which carried you through the air, high above the jungle floor, we first had to swing our legs off the platform while the guide strapped us in. Then you had to stand on a thin branch and jump off! It was extra scary because whenever someone went on the wire, the whole tree shook (including the platform).  The next wire was much longer and it took you down 21m to the next tree, and it was over 100m long. It was so fun but also frightening going down that one because you felt like you were going to hit a tree at any moment. We got into a chat with one of the helpers before waking along a wobbly, rickety bridge that was held together with bike tyres! That was the worst bit in my opinion because the bridge sagged and swayed under your weight. We then proceeded to slide/fall down a rope to the ground. Brae and I went first and, as you went one at a time, we weren’t exactly sure how our Dad was getting on behind us. We thought he would find it a lot scarier than us and he did. He found it especially scary when we were hanging our legs off the side of the platform and standing on that log. In the end, we felt very impressed that he completed the whole course, until he said that the guide had told him that once you started there was absolutely no way back!

Number 3: Jungle houses

By Brae:

When we were in the Amazon we slept in places that were very different to what we’re used to at home. For example, on just our second night, our guide announced that we would hike through the jungle for a whole day, then travel by river, then hike some more and eventually arrive at a large indigenous hut in the middle of the jungle and that is where we would sleep. Well, first I should tell you that the night hike we did was in something that the guide called secondary jungle. This means that at some point in the past, the jungle in that area had been cut down and what we could see now had regrown. It still looked like wild, huge jungle, but apparently the trees weren’t as old and it was full of fast-growing plants and trees. The place we were going to stay on our second night was going to be in primary jungle – jungle that has never ever been disturbed – so it felt even more like the real thing. Primary jungle is generally where the jaguars are.

After an amazing day of hiking, we reached our ‘maloka’ house, in the middle of nowhere with no other huts to be seen. Our guide had built the house himself and it was really beautiful. We arrived just as it was getting dark and so soon we were surrounded by candle light. There weren’t enough beds for us all so me, Oren and our friend Hector slept in hammocks surrounded by a mosquito net. At first I wasn’t sure about sleeping in the hammock because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get to sleep, but actually I had a wonderful night’s sleep. The hammocks were hung in the middle of the room and to get inside you had to undo the zip at the bottom and climb inside the net, and then get round into the hammock before reaching down to do up the zip at the bottom.

The beds weren’t the only different thing about this stay. Also on this night our shower and loo was outside the ‘maloka’ on a pentagonal platform. It had no walls so there was no hiding if a indigenous person or monkey came wandering in the other direction! This felt quite strange as I stood there in the shower but it was actually really cool too. It was the best view I’ve ever had from a shower!

Another odd sleeping place was on our first night when we slept in a tree house. This was not what might come to mind when I say ‘tree house’ as it really was a house in a tree. It had four beds, a bathroom and a balcony. Our first impression was: wow! It was a very nice place to stay as you could look out of the window and see the jungle below you! The balcony was home to a small colony of bats who slept in the roof. As I got in bed to go to sleep that night I said to my dad “I have Oren on my right and bats on my left!”. You may think that the bats were about 10 metres away but they were actually under a foot from my face. I could hear them squeaking to each other as I went to sleep.

As well as the bats we had been warned that there was a small mouse living in the treehouse too, but that we shouldn’t worry about it. That night my Mum went to the toilet and suddenly a loud scream echoed through the cabin. We all called her name to see what was up but she still didn’t answer straight away. Eventually she came back into the room looking a bit white and said that our treehouse guest wasn’t a small mouse, it was a huge rat, or some other jungle rodent! I told her off for not answering when we were saying her name – anything could have happened to her – not just a rat-sighting. Later on we had visits from a massive cricket and a lizard . It was cool seeing them flitting about. It was a wild cabin!

You have probably guessed that even though these sleeping experiences were definitely out of our comfort zone, we thought they were pretty awesome in the end. The thing that I found most amazing about sleeping in the jungle was having the sounds of the jungle around me as I dropped off. However it was a little bit worrying because there was not much stopping a tarantula or a venomous snake getting into our huts!

Number4: Grub!

By Oren:

While we were staying in Puerto Nariño we were just having breakfast when our guide came in holding a writhing humungous maggot. It was absolutely revolting and when he said ‘this is lunch!’, I almost threw up. It was even worse when he said, I know someone who will eat it, follow me. Outside we met an indigenous man who proceeded to eat this creature alive! It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen, or at least the top five! I can hardly write this without feeling sick. What he did was rip its head off and then suck its gooey yellow insides from inside it. I had to walk off quietly and take some deep breaths after that. To make it worse, Justine offered 50 pounds to anyone who tried it and so did my dad! Hector was considering a teeny taste but I said it was worth all the money in the world and more! As you can imagine no-one felt hungry after that!

Even though we didn’t try the grub we did try to think about how different cultures have different traditional dishes and people from other countries might find them disgusting. People from Puerto Nariño might find some of our traditional dishes horrid too. Even though I try to keep an open mind about tasting new things it was on a whole new level of gross for me. I’m not a complete disgrace though, in Bogotá they sold fried big bottomed ants and I tried a bit of that. I just hated the fact that the maggot was alive. To be honest it was quite a disgusting experience in total.

Number 5: Indigenous chief

By Brae:

In the Amazon region, most people are indigenous and they call the places they live communities, instead of town and cities. Each community has their own way of life and traditions and, as Oren mentioned in the last post, they can decide their own rules and laws. We have been lucky enough to travel so much around Colombia, and we think that some of the Amazon communities we visited were among the nicest places we saw anywhere in the country. We especially loved Mocagua (where the monkey sanctuary was) and the communities in Puerto Nariño (we will tell you more about that in the next blog). They seemed to have a lovely way of life and you felt like if you lived there you would probably be very happy. But, we did spend time in one indigenous community that made us feel a bit out of our comfort zone and this wasn’t a place that we thought we’d want to live. I am going to tell you about this one.

On our second day in the Amazon we went on a long walk through the jungle and stopped for a rest when we reached an indigenous house. We were going to have lunch there and we were about to walk in when we were told we had to go round the other side and enter through another door. It was explained to us that these indigenous people believe that the house is like a body and so you must enter through the mouth and then go out through the rear!

The hut was a large oval shape with just mud for a floor. There was a wooden table and benches, some hammocks and an open fire. So it was quite basic but it was very pretty and surprisingly cool considering how hot the jungle was outside. In the corner there was a big pot which we thought might be our lunch. We looked in and there was a sloth’s head being cooked in it! It still had all its hair still on, it was absolutely disgusting. This was a real shock as we had spent all morning hoping to see a sloth sleeping on a branch of a tree. We definitely didn’t want to see one in a pot! Thankfully our guide told us that it was not for us, and he said that the chief did not hunt sloths to eat but this sloth had died accidentally when a tree was cut down so they were cooking it so that it wasn’t wasted. I was happy to learn that they didn’t hunt sloths but I was still quite upset about the head in the pot!

To escape this cooking we quickly got into our swimming costumes and headed down to a small tributary of the Amazon river. Because it is so humid in the Amazon, going in the water felt like being brought back to life because of how refreshing it was. However, it was a bit worrying because even though caiman, anaconda and piranha usually don’t go in that area there was nothing to stop them doing so! After we had had a swim, the chief asked us to help move a canoe, and we were quite surprised when we found the boat about four foot under water!

Lifting it was actually fun but it was really tiring work because the canoe was VERY heavy and we were up to our chests in water and there was a very powerful current! In the end, one person stood in shallow water so they could be really stable and then we joined hands to make a chain, with each person getting deeper and deeper and nearer the canoe, and then we all heaved, pulling against each other so that we didn’t fall over. We nearly gave up a few times but finally we succeeded  in getting it near the surface and then we bailed all the water out. Then me, Oren and our friends Hector, Petra and Tom all got in the boat and went across the river to test it. It was extremely wobbly and kept letting water in the sides so in the end we all jumped out into the deep river.

When we got back to the hut we had lunch and we were served catfish and piranha, not sloth. This tasted fantastic, and instead of a table cloth and plates we had a colossal banana leaf covering the table to eat our food off.

After lunch, the chief wanted to show us one of his community’s traditions and he asked us to help him make a powder from the coca leaf. I know that the coca leaf is used to make something that Colombia is very famous for but this is not the same. The indigenous people use coca to keep them alert and active, a bit like coffee. Coca leaves are also used across the country and in other countries like Peru to make tea to help with altitude sickness and for general health, and the indigenous people used it like this for a long time before the other way of using it was invented.

So, we helped the chief. First you pick the mature leaves, leaving the youngest ones on the plant. Once you have picked the leaves you roast them over an open fire being careful not to burn them. You grind the roasted leaves into dust by using a large stick. Then you add ash from a special tree and mix the two together.To take the mixture, you place some of the powder under your tongue. Some of our group tried it and the chief had loads. Apparently it is like putting a load of ash in your mouth and it made speaking very difficult.

It was then time for one of the scariest parts of our trip! It was time to make the next part of our journey, by boat. The chief led us to the river and told us to get in a boat. He said he’d got a new canoe for us but the one he pointed to looked very familiar! Yes, the one we had raised from the bottom of the river! Yes, the one that we had tested that let in loads of water! But we didn’t know what other choice we had so 10 of us clambered into the small and extremely unstable canoe. Once we were all in it, the rim of the boat was barely above the water line. The next half an hour felt like ten hours as the boat continually let bucket loads of water over the side and, if that wasn’t bad enough, there were holes in the boat that let even more water in.

Oren and Brae looking nervous!

I think the chief picked up on our nervousness, so he sang us a song to cheer us up. This was a nice idea, but his swaying in time to the song just made more water enter, and so the trip was even more terrifying! Three of us were constantly bailing water out and my mum was petrified that we were going to lose her camera to the water with all our photos of the trip. We somehow managed not to sink and arrived at our destination only slightly soaked. We then said goodbye to the chief. As I watched everyone else receiving a very sweaty hug from the half naked chief I slunk off and hid behind Oren. Thanks to my Dad who pointed me out, and made sure I wasn’t forgotten and got my special squish!



Amazon, part 1. Animal encounters.

By Oren and Brae:

Last time we were in Colombia, one thing we really desperately wanted to do was go to the Amazon rainforest, but because we were at school there just wasn’t time. It was about the only disappointing thing about our 3-month experience. So, as soon as we started talking about returning to Colombia this year, the first thing that popped into my head was ‘AMAZON’!

After three action-packed weeks in Colombia, it was hard to believe that we still had one more humungous adventure waiting for us. Our final week in Colombia would be spent in the southern region of Amazonas. As our plane touched down in the town of Leticia, we felt so overwhelmed that we were here at last. It felt surreal after reading so many stories set in the Amazon, and watching David Attenborough talking about the unique plant and animal species that live here. We felt like the luckiest boys in the world, and we weren’t disappointed. During our week in the Amazon, every day was jammed full of moments when we found ourselves open-mouthed with wonder.

It was impossible to know where to start when we sat down to write this blog so in the end we’re going to write some top 5s. Here is part 1: Top 5 animal encounters.

Number 1: Maikuchiga monkey reserve

By Oren:

In my opinion, visiting this monkey reserve was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Before we went to the Amazon, we had heard all about a place  near Leticia called Monkey Island. Tourists can go there and when you arrive hundreds of monkeys climb all over you! You know how much I love monkeys, and the thought of getting so close to them was really tempting. But also we read that these monkeys might not have been treated that well, and they couldn’t escape from the island, so we decided we didn’t want to go there and support it. My Mum knew that was a hard decision for me so she continued to research and in the end she found out about a sanctuary further down the Amazon river that takes in injured monkeys and then releases them back into the wild. She tried for months to see if we could arrange to visit it to find out about the work they do and finally, a few days before our trip, the plans came together!

The sanctuary is run by the indigenous community of Mocagua, who are mostly Tikuna. When our boat arrived there (in the Amazon you get everywhere by boat, as there are hardly any roads), we were met by a guide who showed us the way through the jungle to reach the sanctuary. As we neared the small wooden building deep in the jungle where they do their work, we straight away looked up and saw a beautiful woolly monkey climbing in the branches above us. I love woolly monkeys especially because they look so graceful and intelligent, as well as being soooo cute and fluffy.

But the more we learned about the woolly monkey during the hours we spent at the sanctuary, the more I grew to love them! Although they had 4 different species of monkey there, the woolly monkey (which they refer to as ‘churuco’) is the main focus of the conservation work at the sanctuary. This is for several reasons. First, because woolly monkeys are particularly likely to be hunted for food because they provide a bigger meal than other monkeys. 😢 The indigenous communities have their own laws, and not the laws of the Colombian government, so even though the land where they live is a national park, they have the right to hunt animals to feed themselves. But because the woolly monkey was becoming an endangered species the local people decided themselves that they wanted to do their best to protect them. This means that in 2003-4 this community made their own law against hunting endangered monkeys, especially the woolly monkey. Thankfully this law has been stuck to and it is great to see that everyone in the community is respecting the wildlife. People who used to hunt monkeys now work at the sanctuary and they teach other people the importance of saving the woolly monkey. This has made them become known as ‘the community that protects its fauna’ and it is hoped that other communities will follow their example. Another reason that the sanctuary decided to protect the woolly monkeys that this species eats fruits whole and when they go through their stomachs the seeds are still intact. When they excrete them the seeds then grow into new trees which is great for the forest. A woolly monkey troop is much, much better than any reforestation programme.

One of the things the people told us was that their ultimate goal is to have no monkeys at the reserve! It seemed a bit confusing until they explained it. The monkeys that they take care of have either been injured or have been kept as pets by humans after being taken from their families in the jungle when they were babies. Also, if the police find a monkey being kept as a pet then they take it to the sanctuary to be looked after. It was really upsetting to think that only a few years ago they had 65 monkeys there because so many were kept as pets.😡  Now there are only 7, so it is so great to think that so many monkeys have been released back into the wild.

Before they are released, the monkeys are taken care of and taught to survive on a diet of things that they will be able to find for themselves in the jungle, rather than human food. While they are first in the sanctuary, they are still allowed human contact and one of the things I found most amazing is that the monkeys came and hugged you and used you as a climbing frame.  As well as the woolly monkey, there was a noctural monkey, some squirrel monkeys and a capuchin monkey. It was an amazing experience for everyone, but especially for me to get so close to these magical creatures. One of the monkeys even went inside my t-shirt; then it wriggled around, trying to find an exit. I loved every second of it! I learned so much that afternoon, talking to the people who worked there, and I didn’t want to leave. I found out that they sometimes let volunteers work there for a few months so you can guess what I am planning now!


Number 2: Dolphins!

By Brae:

As you can imagine, when we came out of the monkey reserve all the kids were grinning from ear to ear thinking about the cute little monkeys. When we got to our boat we were just waiting to get on when Tom said ‘all we need to see now is some dolphins and then this day will be truly perfect’. Suddenly, one second later, Justine shouted “DOLPHINS, LOOK OVER THERE!”. It was such an incredible and hilarious moment. We waited a few more moments and then up popped two beautiful, little, grey river dolphins. We watched them for a few moments before the boat set off and the dolphins swam alongside.

Seeing the grey dolphins really did make the day perfect but to make our Amazon adventure complete, I still really wanted to see the pink river dolphin. This is one of my favourite animals and you can only see it in the Amazon. Our guide Nicolas said that we could try to see some pink dolphins in Lake Tarapoto. So, the next day we went there and the whole place was full of dolphins! Grey dolphins were popping up here, there and everywhere, including babies and groups. Suddenly, I saw a pink dolphin break the surface of the water about 20 meters to the left of the boat. It was then that I really noticed the difference between the two species. For example, the pink dolphin is much bigger but its dorsal fin is a lot shorter. They grey dolphin comes much higher out of the water than the pink ones, who just swim level with the surface for a while so we could see them clearly but the photos didn’t really come out. Also, the pink dolphin can move its head very flexibly so that means they can go in and out of tree roots to hunt fish that are hiding in there.

The dolphins are hunted by jaguars, caiman and anacondas but luckily they are not hunted by humans. This is because the indigenous people believe that dolphins are mythical creatures that swim in the water during the day and at night they can turn into humans, come out of the water, party all night and then take beautiful women back into the water to live with them as dolphins! I’m not sure I believe in this myth but if it helps the dolphins to be protected from human hunters then I think it’s a good thing.

Number 3: Leaf cutter ants

By Oren:

While we were in Colombia last time, we really enjoyed watching trails of leaf cutter ants weaving through the jungle, and this time was the same. This time though we found out many more facts about these ants. For example, they don’t actually eat the leaves that they collect, as we had assumed. In fact, they collect the pieces of leaf and then take them underground and leave them until they grow fungus. It is the fungus on the leaves that feeds their young. We had already noticed that they sometimes carry the leaves for hundreds of metres, but I have now learned that each piece of leaf can be 20 times their own body weight, which I think is incredible!

We were becoming quite used to seeing and admiring these ants, but one surprising thing that we observed near the banks of the Amazon river is that the ant colonies were building their nests in the tops of trees, instead of underground. This is because they know that the nests might get flooded on the forest floor by the Amazon river in times of lots of rain. I could watch the ant motorways along logs and the forest floor for hours. Take a look at one that we saw:

Number 4: The turtle and the butterfly

By Brae:

One night, we stayed in a beautiful nature reserve, and my Mum found a bench by the side of the lake where she could sit and watch the wildlife. There were dragonflies, herons and fish jumping out of the water. After a while, she noticed some turtles, sitting in the sun on branches sticking out of the water. As she watched, she saw a butterfly gently land on the turtle’s head. At first she thought it was just by chance but the turtle seemed to shake it off a few times and each time it just came back and landed on the turtle’s nose! Eventually, the turtle got so annoyed it jumped into the water and the butterfly flew off to find another turtle. My Mum thought this was a strange and wonderful moment and when she came back to meet us for lunch she told us about it. Everyone else agreed that this was a mysterious encounter, except Oren who didn’t find it mysterious. Oren reads LOTS of nature books and he immediately said that he’d read about turtles and butterflies before and that the butterfly was drinking the salt in the turtle’s tears! Since we’ve got back to England we have looked it up and realised that he was right. Butterflies, like many other animals, need the mineral sodium in their body to survive and that is why this particular type of butterfly finds it in the salt of turtle tears.


Number 5: CAIMAN!!

By Oren:

When we were at this same reserve, we stayed in rooms on stilts at the edge of the lake. We were told that lots of caiman lived in the lake and they could be up to 9 metres long. Think about that. We did, and when we could really imagine what 9 metres looks like we were pretty alarmed! At the edge of the water there was a platform with a sign telling you to wash your boots (people always wear wellies when walking in the jungle as it is very muddy and also the wellies protect you from the snakes). Below the sign for ‘boot wash’ there was another sign saying ‘beware caiman’! I didn’t really feel like washing my boots when I saw that and I definitely didn’t plan to go swimming.

Luckily though we soon discovered that there was an area in the lake where they had made a kind of safe swimming area.  That afternoon, we were going for a swim when our guide shouted to us come and look at something. We ran over and there it was: gliding through the water with no effort at all. And it was coming towards us! We were led to a platform where we could watch safely and our guide explained that the caiman had been coming out in the day for a few weeks now (caiman usually hunt at night) and that they had been feeding it. It showed signs that it had been injured in a fight and it had a bend at the top of its tail, but it still swam effortlessly. The caiman swam round towards the live fish that our guide was dangling from a rod just a few feet away from me. As we saw it cut through the water towards us I was filled with awe of how graceful it was, and how enormous! As it reached us, it lunged at the fish and seeing a 4 metre caiman leaping out of the water is an amazing sight.