Beauty, Abuse, and Isolation in the Deep Forest – Tapiche Reserve

Dates of travel – 25 July – 6 August, 2015
Date of writing – Autumn, 2017

This week i look back to those difficult 10 days i spent volunteering at a well-known reserve deep in the Peruvian rainforest, but did not want to go public about what happened there until now.
While staying at the Green Track, the highly reviewed hostel I had found on my research before arrival, I asked the counter workers about volunteer opportunities and they offered a substitute cook position at their reserve out in the jungle.  This is a rare opportunity, they said, and encouraged me to apply within the next couple of days.
Less than a week before this, I had a work-trade position at the Pirwa hostel in Cusco, preparing short-order breakfast for paying guests 5 days a week for 2 weeks. That had gone well enough and was considered adequate experience for the jungle cook gig, according to the hostel staff.
DAY 0 (the trip begins)
Once in the rapid boat upriver toward the reserve, I begin to question things. I took a taxi with a German couple from the hostel to the town of Nauta, where we were rushed onto the boat and served a meal with no instruction. The Ucayali river is wide, brown, and beautiful with forest on both sides and this continued until the town of Requena appeared on the east bank, with the boat going into port just before sunset.
Here, along the muddy embarcadero, i meet Katoo, the owner of the reserve and the hostel. He is Brasilian-German and says he prefers to stay away from Iquitos. Beyond that, we don’t talk much and it is what is not said that makes me apprehensive.
I find out Requena is on the Tapiche River coming from the southeast and we have already left the Ucayali. This is the last town we will visit and the only place with services in the area. Before dawn we will wake and take the river the rest of the way to the reserve.

port of Requena


Tapiche river sunrise

DAY 1 (to the reserve)
It is a muddy dark walk to Katoo’s wooden motorboat, and we are loaded down with our backpacks and my instruments. Out on the Tapiche we experience a long, lovely sunrise amid mist and clouds. The cool wind whips, and as he entertains the German couple, i drift into dreamland. Occasionally i wake to see a grey dolphin head as it swims across the river. Hours later, it is bright and he explains we are in the reserve already.  We eventually reach the dock to camp and debark there.

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Breakfast and lunch are already on the stove. When we arrive, a Peruvian man and a blonde woman – regular cooks, I guess – immediately leave with Katoo to catch the rapid boat back in Requena, with little explanation of what to do and where things are in the “cosina.” The Peruvian, seems relieved to have a break and the blonde woman glares at me.  Here are Arne and Anya, the German guests, Jose and Jose the local workers, and I, out in the deep jungle with food and two stoves. Only one Jose has any experience at this reserve. It feels a little like a TV show.
Then everyone else leaves on a jungle walk, and i am to stay at camp. Hypnotic bird calls echo along the river and a 4-foot iguana crawls down from the tree. When the others return, the calling bird is identified as a “tinamou” and Arne and Anya refer to its call as “the Fever Ray bird” (like the Swedish electronic musician, inspiring a mood for the days ahead. Sadly, most of the recordings of the bird calls were lost….)

The next outing, I am invited to ride along as we look for dolphins. There is one spot upriver where a tributary flows in and pink and grey dolphins hunt for fish in late afternoon. We park the boat as the dolphins swim around us, bobbing their heads above the surface just for one moment, an awesome sight.

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It is said that Tapiche is unique as an Amazon reserve because the animals here are free in the wild, never in cages on site or camera-ready.  The remoteness of this location and its focus on conservation make it stand out from the typical “jungle lodge.” The ethics are good, despite the disorganization.
I try to make the best of the minimal food that is here. Meals are simple and partially cooked on an open flame. There are yuca, beets, sweet potato, plantain, and plenty of lentils and rice; the crew here seems happy enough with it.

view of camp from the lookout. Katoo’s cabin is on the left

After breakfast (always porridge), everyone else leaves on an excursion to find monkeys. In solitude I sit for hours, hearing the new voices of the forest. As the hot sun shines into the kitchen, the trail behind camp into the forest lures me in. A creature unseen jumps from a tree onto the ground then runs away as if disturbed. To the river I walk, and a large bird flaps its wings as I step on loose wood. Katoo could arrive any moment, and I become anxious.  For lunch I prepare a version of “arroz a la Cubana” with eggs and plantains. I am happy with it, as are the guests, but Katoo comes in cold and businesslike, gives some orders to one Jose to go pick up his wife, then he and Jose leave. Apparently he is replacing me…but he doesn’t tell me until he comes back with Natania, Jose’s wife, and she starts cooking dinner.
“Just let her cook”, Katoo says to me. “I need someone who really can cook, not just for hippies. People pay a lot of money to come here…We’re lucky these are nice people….This is not an ‘it’s going to be all right’ kind of place.”

This is upsetting, but maybe it’s for the best. Katoo’s personality and mine are not a good match. But when are they taking me back to the city?
When I wake just after sunrise and walk into the kitchen, everyone is gone. As I look for food I feel like the opossum, the unwanted scavenger.  Maybe I wanted to leave this reserve and I magicked this to happen. The caught, dead piranha on the counter is a symbol of my situation….left to rot by the cleaner, with a story.

this is how i feel

What happens when the tinamou stops his drone? Another bird comes in with the call of a slow descending space siren, but the absence of the backbeat feels like a warning sign.

The crew returns with fresh bass and catfish which becomes today’s delicious lunch. They are kind enough to share with me, as Natania also offered me her porridge and fruit. Katoo is in a good mood and speaks to me, asks me how my morning was.  Then he explains there are 4 boats of hunters waiting downstream outside the reserve until evening so they can hunt here and take turtle eggs, because this is where all the animals are. Then the rain comes hard and fast, soaking us and presumably the hunters too.
At night, we hear the bang of guns in the forest and Katoo goes out to find the hunters. He doesn’t find them but apparently they were out at the large lagoon. He tells me this lagoon is the reason he bought the land and black caiman live there. Some locals hunt these caiman and also paiche, the big endangered fish.

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DAY 4 (full moon, and the night IT happens)
Natania lets me prepare lunch, and the tinamou is back. A pumagarza (tiger heron) comes into camp and lets us take photos and video of its slow poses. Howler monkeys howl by the river and thunder rolls from the west.
Katoo comes in with a new job for me, to be watchdog for the reserve while he goes to Requena for business. He is worried about the continuing threat of hunters and overfishers, including the family of one of the Joses here working. I politely decline, but he says I’m “staying anyway” so it’s this or nothing and “don’t do it for me, do it for the animals.” He knows how to convince me to do things.

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Tonight is the full moon. By evening, Natania and I have talked, bonded, worried and napped. The crew brings Oscar bass and it is cooked for dinner, as we share bird sighting stories. I ask Katoo about his ant tattoo, and he says the ant is the model animal of society for his tribe in Brasil. Everything feels okay again, and the sights and sounds are amazing.
The moon is so bright and the night bird symphony is going strong. Katoo tells us the potoo is the bird with the descending song.
After the others have gone to bed, I find Katoo sitting on the porch of his cabin. Neither of us can sleep, so he invites me to talk and sit. This two-story cabin, he explains, is made of palo santo wood and the mosquitos don’t like palo santo. As palo santo is a valuable wood for smudging, I find this interesting. An owl calls from the tree directly above, and he takes me upstairs to see the nest from the balcony, and then we are lying together in his hammock, massaging each other’s feet. I’m feeling good, and Katoo likes my massage work, so I continue, though his legs are kind of wrapped around me. When I return from the toilet he is lying in his bed with netting. Massage turns into cuddling and he tells me to stay in his bed for the night. For a moment I feel the rhythm of the forest in me, that primal sense. What a change from 2 days ago when we were hardly talking and I felt he wanted me gone.
Politely declining, I try to get up to leave, but Katoo holds me down and kisses me, pleading I stay with him. I don’t let him kiss my breasts as it feels inappropriate and I tell him so. But I can’t get up so eventually I fall asleep in the warm bed, still cuddling with him. When I wake I have to pee and his fingers are in me. As fast as possible, I get out and go down and into the moonlight, back to my cold hammock.

foggy morning after

I wake groggy, foggy, and in time to see guests Arne and Anya leave with Katoo. When Katoo and I pass he smiles and says “thank you for last night.” Hopefully he’s talking only about my massage work which he needed, but it feels wrong.
It’s a quiet, still, lonely afternoon; the air is hot with little breeze and the tinamou is not calling. I feel trapped here at camp; I have a mini-breakdown before dinner.
Jose and Natania offer me to sleep in the open bed in their cabin, and I take their offer.

I sit at the riverbank, thinking of my friends and family in the world outside. Dolphins swim in the water and birds fly in for fish. For the yearly “eventually” ritual, I write regrets on 3 leaves and toss them into the river. The third leaf says “I regret coming to Tapiche reserve…as a cook;” as the water takes it I feel something lift within me.
Back at camp, with boots and machete I walk into the forest, going deep on my own, leaving my post for my mental state. The trails are muddy but pretty easy to follow. A big-sounding creature I can’t see jumps down from a tree and runs away.

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When I wake from my nap, there are new tourists at camp. From my hammock I see them at first, 5 adults, 1 kid. In the kitchen, there is Lucia and her husband Jose. Natania tells me they are Jose (1)’s parents and they are here to cook now, and he just dropped everyone off and left. She says it’s chaos here and plans to return with her Jose (2) to her town tomorrow.
“I want to go” I tell her. Our stories come to light.
“Katoo doesn’t care about your feelings” she tells me.
She identifies the blonde lady from the day of my arrival as Katoo’s partner, and so her glare toward me makes more sense, so I tell Natania all about what happened with Katoo on the full moon…and that I write everything.

The new travelers – Luke, a Canadian on endless travel who writes a blog called Awe Around the Earth , 2 Israeli guys, and 2 Americans – are all friendly and conversational. We all talk late after dinner and the Peruvians and I listen to cumbia in the cabin. Motorboats go back and forth in the distance, most likely hunters, and surely the wildlife can sense this…

Natania and her Jose are packing to leave. She tells me not to kiss Katoo anymore – he has a wife and kids, he is “malo,” “a player for the heart” and that he was laughing about me out on the playa.  My anger returns…I’m supposed to be loyal to this man?
It’s too bad Natania is leaving. I feel like she is a friend and the only one here I fully trust.  However, the new guests are cool and I spend part of the afternoon with them swimming in the river.
For the rest of the day, I pound on my drum a hypnotic rhythm to the river. Lucia and Jose Sr. both seem to enjoy it. I sing a ‘sombre’ song.
‘Caiman, come rip me…piranhas too.
Waterbugs, I’ll be your dinner.
Mosquitos, nibble my open bites, I’m covered (like Obamacare) and I don’t care.
This is raw, crazy beauty.’
I visualize a big star-eyed caiman chewing the problems of the morning…and ants.

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a peque-peque passes through the reserve

In the dark, I play a Brian Eno music mix on my computer in the cabin…”By this River”….”Backwater” with its lyrics about Ecuador, the South of Peru, and a messed up canoe trip. Then Lucia, the Joses and I share playlists – 80’s, reggaeton, icaro – with crickets and stars and creatures of the night, it feels like a community.

Lucia and I wash linens with detergent in the river as dolphins swim by. How is this protecting the ecosystem? “Ducha para los delfines,” I say, but it’s really not funny.  The Ayudin to wash dishes, where does that drain? Also, to the river. The only way to get a fire going is with a plastic soda bottle? Not so good for a nature preserve, yeah?
Peque-peque boats go by. I want to hitchhike out on one of them but one must be ready to go and who knows where they are going…
When the guests return, we swim in the river again together. It feels good in the sticky heat and the detergent seems to have moved downstream.

swimming with Luke and Allie

Jose 2 catches 10 or so fish. I help Lucia clean them and we start a fire with the help of plastic bottles. It’s toxic but a good emotional release, and I see Katoo’s face in the flame. I don’t want to be angry. The voices in my mind argue…but the plastic wood fire keeps going. “Look happy and they’ll take you away” is my self-affirmation.
So I swim in the river again, then cook again for the first time in a week (spicy lentejas), run through the jungle in the rain with the machete in my jaguar costume, looking for the pumagarza and hiding under the fallen tree that is his home…playing drum and metal persephone and wildly singing with Lucia at camp.
Rumors surface: there is only one boat tomorrow and not everyone can leave….this feels like a TV series again…look up, where are the cameras? Hitchhiking seems like a good idea again.
But during the rain a boat arrives – it’s Eric (Katoo’s son) and the main cook without Katoo, and Eric will take us back to Requena in the morning!
Tonight the sunset is beautiful and the night bird calls comfort. One bird, the pihuichu, makes pish-pish chirps in the rain.

escape with Lucia and Don Jose

DAY 10 (escape from Tapiche)
Before dawn, we all rise for a final breakfast. As we head to the boats to embark, the pumagarza appears for us again. It’s kind of magical.
We are in the second of two boats, piloted by Don Jose, on the several-hour ride downriver to Requena. There are garzas (herons) all along and even a toucan. The sun beats down directly and there is no shade.

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Then about an hour from Requena, our boat runs out of gas and the other boat, with all the guests but one, goes ahead. We reach port just in time for the guests’ rapid boat and also the 1:00 pm daily lancha slow boat which I board immediately. I have a terrible sunburn but it feels so good to be out.
Coincidentally, the lancha is called “Don Jose” and this is my first experience riding one of these (see post “Lanchas: Slow boats of the Amazon” for a whole story about these) so it was exciting riding on the 3rd level with all the locals in their hammocks and the people selling street food like a “mercado flotante.” We would arrive in Iquitos at about 4 am and I would witness an awesome, tearful sunrise on the Boulevard overlooking the Rio Itaya and the pleasures and grit of the city.

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. . . . . .
It is because of the sexual assault that I did not publish this story immediately. I didn’t want that event to overshadow all of the wonderful experiences that I had in Peru and Bolivia, and also didn’t want to cause problems for the Tapiche reserve. However, as I read the glowing reviews on TripAdvisor for the reserve and for Katoo, it has become time to share what happened when I was there.  There are sleazy folks across the world like tour guide Jimmy Jaguar, who are manipulative from the start, and there are community figures like Katoo who would never hurt you until you work for them.

If you go:
Tapiche Jungle Reserve and Green Track Hostel
Tapiche Reserve Booking Office (inside the Green Track Hostel)
Ricardo Palma 516
Iquitos Peru
+51 (65) 600 805 landline
+51 950 664 049 mobile

Wikipedia entry on the reserve with a good list of flora and fauna there

Luke’s writing on Tapiche Reserve

Music soundtrack:
“Kumbari Kira” a traditional Quechua song remade as reggaeton by some kids in Nauta –
Jose introduced it to me

“By this River” by Brian Eno

When I Grow Up” by Fever Ray with bird-like synth sounds


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