Dispatch, Peru 3: Things I wish I had known before heading into the jungle

MBPERUTravel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran is spending two weeks in Peru. Her trip includes an Amazon River cruise and a visit to Machu Picchu. Baran’s third dispatch follows. 

There is fact and fiction when it comes to traveling in the Amazon. Here's a short list of my experiences with the cliché jungle myths.

Mosquito mania. This is no myth. Mosquitoes, not to mention biting flies and other pesky biting bugs, were aplenty. Some people even busted out their face nets, and let me tell you, I was envious on a couple of occasions. (The joke was that one lady was going to sell her extra face net to the highest bidder).

It wasn’t just because of the bites. The face nets help you pay attention to your surroundings and what the naturalist guides are telling you without being distracted by the swarm of bugs.

I had a thin scarf that I pulled up over my nose, followed by sunglasses and a hat. It worked, even though I looked like a guerrilla. A fan that swats away bugs and doubles as a cooling agent is also highly recommended, though the makeshift banana tree leaf works just as well.

The need for Deet. I wasn’t prepared for the toxicity of Deet, the chemical used in most mosquito repellents. And it doesn’t work 100%. We all lathered it on, and we all were bitten.

PERU-MBmosquitoThere’s something unsettling about a spray that peels away the plastic on your camera and strips nail polish. Not to mention how it might affect the children in the villages we visited, whose little faces were often right at our spraying level. I should have brought an organic agent, for what little protection it might have provided.

The most important thing is to get the proper vaccinations for the diseases mosquitoes carry and to bring a soothing topical cream for the unavoidable itchy bites.

Nonstop rain. There’s a reason it’s called the rainforest. Heading to the Amazon during Peru’s rainy season, I was prepared to be drenched from the minute I stepped off the plane and for the entire week thereafter. In reality, we had one half-hour torrential downpour during one of the afternoon excursions and a couple of afternoon showers.

It was beautifully sunny for the rest of the trip and at times hot and humid, but nothing unbearable. Granted, we got very lucky, as it can rain for long stretches. But bottom line, it doesn’t rain nonstop in the Amazon.

I almost didn’t bring sunscreen, thinking I wouldn’t need it. I ended up lathering on as much Banana Boat as bug spray.

Amazon attire. It may make all the tourists look homogeneous (read: ridiculous), but the stereotypical safari getup — light materials, long-sleeved shirts and pants and brimmed hats — are necessary to avoid bug bites and heat. There was nothing like a throng of mosquitoes to make me a permanent convert to the outdoorsy outfit.

That said, the Amazon is warm and not always buggy. There’s also the indoors (in our case, the air-conditioned ship), and hence opportunity to simply wear normal summer clothing: tank tops, shorts or skirts, sandals, etc.

By the way, it can get cold -- sometimes really cold. When it’s rainy or breezy, it gets chilly. And the skiffs go pretty fast and create a strong wind. I was happy to have a sweatshirt and other warm layers (also for the sometimes frigid air conditioning).

PERU-LaAmatistaOh, and I brought rain boots, and they worked swimmingly for land excursions. In retrospect, I would have preferred calf-high rain boots on all the jungle walks and village visits rather than the seriously ridiculous pants-tucked-into-the-socks-with-hiking-boots look. Rain boots are comfortable, water resistant and have good tread.

Cruising the Amazon. The Amazon is muddy and can get very hot and buggy. When people think about this massive river jungle, they think sweat. And you sure do sweat.

But when cruising the Amazon with a professional outfit like International Expeditions, that’s about where the suffering and sacrifice ends. River cruising in the Peruvian Amazon Basin was a breeze, almost ridiculously so. Because it was the rainy season, we only did a couple of village visits and one jungle walk (with an optional nighttime jungle walk, which only four men in the group of 22 undertook).

Otherwise, many areas were flooded and only navigable by ship or skiff, which meant, sitting, sitting and more sitting -- interrupted only by sleeping, siestas and meals.

With the buffet-style meals and lack of exercise, you could actually put on weight and lose muscle mass on an Amazon River cruise. But hey, it’s a vacation, let yourself go.

Click to read Michelle Baran's first and second dispatches from Peru.

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