Changed by The Jungle

Story by Jess McGlothlin

Posted: December 22, 2017

“People are changed by the jungle.” The words came from the darkness next to me in the open-walled hut, tinted with the lyrical tones of a Peruvian accent. We sat by headlamp, collapsed on benches and the rough-hewn floor; listening to the myriad of insects and birds outside in the darkness. The sound of pans and low voices talking in Spanish came from the teammates cooking dinner nearby, lit by the candle suspended in the rafters.

River Hut © Jess McGlothlin

We were all exhausted; soaking from a late-afternoon deluge as we’d stopped to unload the boats for the night, and worn from a week of travel. But it was a satisfied exhaustion, one where life is just as it should be. Things are simple — in the midst of good people in an exceptional place, it’s hard to be anything but satisfied.

“People are changed by the jungle.” I believed it then, and I believe it even now more.

I had started the journey needing something. I didn’t know what, but something. It had been monumentally frustrating few months — a client I’d moved across the country for had reneged on his promises, and I was coming to terms with the fact that my life was about to take another drastic segue. I was frustrated with people in general, disappointed in myself for not seeing the lies earlier, and dealing with an immense amount of anger that I wasn’t sure where to direct.

And so when the opportunity arose to join an expedition into the Peruvian Amazon for a series of stand-up paddleboard first descents, it sounded oddly like something I needed. I bought a ticket, talked with the in-country team, led by savvy, affable Pepe Lopez of Apumayo Expediciones, and on the final day of April found myself boarding a series of planes that would lead me to Peru.

Our mission, on the outside, was fairly simple: explore a region of the Peruvian Amazon near and in Manu National Park. Pepe had assembled a largely-Peruvian team made of savvy rivermen — whitewater kayakers and seasoned stand-up paddleboard riders — and we were eager to see what the jungle might hold for us. The goal was to accomplish SUP first descents on several Amazon tributaries, including the Queros, the Pini Pini, the Tono and eventually the Upper Madre de Dios.

I felt like I was in the midst of a river-running A-Team.

Stand-up Paddleboarding Day 13 © Jess McGlothlin

We spent several nights basing out of the Amazon Conservation Association’s Villa Carmen biological station, which furnished comfy quarters and quality Peruvian food (much of it grown on-site) while we explored a few rivers nearby. A large, open-bed truck provided transportation to and from our put-ins and take-outs, and afforded the team memorable sessions of yelling at each other to duck and dodge as we bounced down overgrown jungle pathways brimming with spiny plants.

Team Preparation Day 2 © Jess McGlothlin

The general consensus was that the jungle is always trying to eat you, in one way or another. Somehow, with this team, I never found myself overly concerned.

Leaving Villa Carmen in the rearview mirror (err, off the stern of the boats) we then dropped further into the jungle, meeting muddy waters with a mere one to two inches of visibility and hot temperatures. The team performed beautifully, meeting the calmer, darker waters with laughter and plenty of bug spray. We camped several nights in the jungle, treated to superb camp cooking from various members of the team and parsing the next day’s gear by the light of our various headlamps. Offer good food in great company, and it doesn’t matter where you sleep.

The one day, as we floated lazily down the Alto Madre de Dios, swatting persistent sand flies and deliberating whether a dip in the muddy river water or simply sweat would wear off our sunscreen faster, I grinned. A stupid, content grin. I was hot, sweaty, and suffering from some stomach bug that meant I’d not yet dared to eat that day. We all were tired. Bug-bitten. Filthy.

But the constant garble of the water was broken by laughter drifting down the river. Pepe Negro and Cookie Monster were trying to knock each other off their SUP boards into the murky waters in some variant of children playing an aggressive game of tag. Daniel had relinquished his board and was now lazily drifting downriver in a kayak, his feet propped negligently on top of the cockpit with the ease only a professional whitewater kayaker could pull off. Victor grinned as he and Chito chattered rapidly in Spanish about some species of crane feeding along the shore. Gian Marco and Alvaro leaped easily from their boards onto the supply-toting motor canoe when it stopped to wait for us, laughing as they danced between the SUPs and the sidewall of the canoe.

Cookie Paddleboarding © Jess McGlothlin

Cranes en route © Jess McGlothlin

Alvaro down © Jess McGlothlin

I shook my head and grinned again, feeling sweat drip down my temple. Unknowingly, this — this — was what I’d come for. Suddenly I understood there were still good people out there. My kind of people. There’s a special kind of friendship that forms when on an expedition, and teams quickly either work or they don’t. This one did. When you can relaxedly compare insect bites to see who's might be diseased, bounce down jungle roads in an open-backed truck dodging various spiny plants, and offer weary grins when carrying gear up-slope in the jungle, you know you’re with good people.

Aboard the open-backed truck in Amazon © Jess McGlothlin

Now that I’m back in Montana, my problems haven’t gone away. If anything, I’m more frustrated with certain people and situations. But then I stop and remind myself… remind myself of laughter echoing up and down the pongo, the cheerful clank of cooking pots and the murmur of rapid-fire Spanish in the darkness, and the savage beauty of the jungle. And I smile. Because, 4,700 miles to the south, I know there are people who I’d want to wander the jungle with. And with whom I have.


If you go, reach out to:

Apumayo Expediciones

Amazon Conservation Association

Casa Andina Hotels