Travels with Tarzan in the Amazon Jungle
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Entering the rainforest along the Amazon River with a local guide, a traveler gets a deeper insight into this mysterious world and its magic with a man of the jungle.

Amazon pirhana

Uciel Vasquez was of and from the jungle, and if ever a man personified the image of Tarzan, he was it.

We met on a riverboat out of Iquitos, Peru, heading down the Amazon in pursuit of the mysteries of the rain forest.  I boarded at night, stepping carefully over countless Rhino Beetles that had gathered on deck, drawn by the yellow gas lamp operated by two crewmen fishing from the bow. Dry lightning was arcing across the sky and the splash of jumping fish came to my ears in the darkness. It was an old wooden work boat whose best days had come and gone. The first morning found me on deck to watch the silhouette of the jungle appear like an army of wraiths, as the swirling sun melted the morning fog. Staring into that impenetrable tangle of life, gaining in volume as its creatures began to awaken, I felt like Conrad on his way into darkness.

In the Amazon, when you stop moving, you immediately become home to countless jungle creatures that seek your salt and body heat, many of which will draw blood as a thank you. They come over the anchor rope or drop from overhanging tree vines, so the morning deck hand would sweep the horde of evening beetles, mantises, frogs, and assorted critters overboard like so many fallen leaves. I was also told to check under my bed in case any snakes had stowed aboard.

It was in this setting that Uciel first appeared from the aft of the boat like a super hero in an action movie. His massive bare torso glistened with sweat, and his flowing black hair was pasted flat as he emerged from the boiler room where he had spent the past hour pumping iron; something he did early each morning. He seemed to move in slow motion while giving a Fabio-like toss of his mane, and the sight was so incongruous that I was frozen with wonder. He crushed my hand with a shake and introduced himself as my guide, and I remember thinking, “I’m going into the jungle with Tarzan.”

Boating Into the Jungle

He was born and raised in Iquitos, a crumbling colonial remnant of the 19th century rubber boom that raped the forests of South America and enslaved most of its population living along the mighty river. Today, the city is isolated from the rest of the world by a lack of roads, reachable only by boat or plane, surrounded by a predatory jungle that threatens to overwhelm it. This provides a unique existence for its inhabitants, living in a fairly modern city at the edge of a primeval world with equal access to both realities. 

Uciel with a caiman

He carried a perfect blend of urban sophistication with a feral scent, which combined with his stunning physical presence, made him the embodiment of the Greystoke Legend. I would learn that he spoke several dialects of those who lived deep in the jungle and knew every creature of the land and water. All that was needed now was to see him swing on a vine.

We spent our days in the rainforest, traveling by skiff, up tributaries so untouched by man that the wildlife showed no fear at our approach. We left early each morning before the scorching sun burned off the fog, traveling under towering thunderheads that deluged us with biblical rains that began and ended with split-second timing. Wherever we put ashore, indigenous trackers materialized as if on cue to take us into their prehistoric world. They greeted Uciel as an old friend and showed me frogs no larger than a thumbnail that secrete a venom toxic enough to kill a man, and spiders the size of pizza pans. Sloths hung like Christmas decorations from the canopy, moving so glacially slow as to be imperceptible, while brilliantly colored parrots shrieked our arrival throughout the forest.

In plant-choked side channels of the river we paddled dugouts with local natives who have hunted manatees almost to extinction, then sat at their fires at night as Uciel told how the mermaid legend began there with the first Spanish mariners who mistook the large mammals for ugly women with fish tales. He also taught me that fish tails are vertical while mammal tails are horizontal, and a thousand other trivial details known only to one born of the wilderness.

We would drift under the stars at night shining our lights along the shore to spot the red predatory eyes of caimans tracking us, and the green eyes of smaller and easier prey. At the sound of loud splashing he announced it was the pink river dolphins coming to see who was invading their space. Sometimes he would just lazily trail his hand in the water and with a grand sweep of his arm produce a catfish or some prehistoric monster with long fangs.

Uciel moved silently with the grace of a jaguar, a jungle cat he claimed as his sprit animal after a childhood encounter with one of the elusive creatures. He elaborated that story by pointing out the thick scar on his neck saying that when the cat had “chosen” him, it had entered his soul as a brother, and when he knelt to drink from a stream, eyes sweeping about for predators, I swear he looked exactly like a jaguar. He led the way through impenetrable bush with the same ease I have walking down a sidewalk, and when we stopped to rest, the creatures of the forest would gather to watch us. Whether for my benefit or not, he would talk to them in simple language as one would address close friends. It was like a Disney cartoon come to life. Those moments brought to mind a Christian mystic of the first century, named Francis, who could supposedly talk to animals. Watching Uciel, I had no doubt that they were conversing on a level beyond my comprehension.

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Read this article online at: Travels with Tarzan in the Amazon Jungle

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2018. All rights reserved.

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