Life, Death and Rebirth on the Amazon

In the breathtaking jungle of Peru’s Land of Mirrors, Nina Burleigh confronts the unfiltered beauty—and danger—of nature and begins making peace with her own mortality

by Nina Burleigh
Photograph: All photographs by Adrian Gaut

By my second day in the Amazon, I was getting cocky. The storied jungle had yet to produce a single peril: no colossal serpent or poison dart, no maggots embedded in flesh. We were hiking inside a viny moss-green shroud, a day’s journey by boat from the nearest town with motorized vehicles. The chattering treetops blotted out the sun, and we sweated in the claustrophobic stillness below, all of us soaked in the high-octane repellent DEET to ward off malaria- and dengue fever–carrying insects.

“I’ve seen more mosquitoes in upstate New York than I’ve seen on this walk,” I cracked. Within seconds of my utterance, a cloud of them materialized around the head of our guide, a shamanically trained Indian, then fanned out to attack the hikers’ exposed flesh. Slapping, scratching and spraying on more repellent, the group had just finished cursing me for conjuring the swarm when a villager with a machete on his belt stepped out of the tangled shadows to show us a yard-long anaconda neatly coiled around the end of a large stick. The serpent was utterly still, apparently sleeping, and I decided to venture behind it for a photo op. But the instant I stepped forward, its golden eye looked up and met mine, and I knew what would happen next. The creature darted to strike, missing me by inches.

My drawers stayed dry, but just barely. It does not take long for the jungle spirits to humiliate society’s day-trippers. Chastened, we resumed walking along the muddy path in our -synthetic quick-dry clothes. It was easy after that to envision the forest goblin the Amazonians call the curupira—a gnome-like creature that sleeps in the great buttressed tree roots—smirking from a shady perch. Natives believe the curupira’s feet face backward, the better to leave misleading footprints to lure his prey, the disrespectful outsider, deeper into the woods.

Burleigh on a hike in the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, a "birder's paradise, air and trees filled with shrieking streaks of gold, indigo and crimson."The jungle is lovely, dark and deep. And oh, the greens. There are 16,000 tree species in the Amazon, some still unnamed and each with its own shade of verde and its own world of insects and fauna. The ground is alive with moving bits—leaf-cutter ants endlessly hauling chopped foliage to their nests where they will masticate, then spit, forming a fungus on which they feed themselves and their young.

For seven days, we—two dozen souls on a riverboat—would drift in a Lindblad–National Geographic Expeditions vessel called the Delfin II on mile-wide muddy waters, exploring often nameless tributaries and hiking in the rain forest of Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The area is known as the land of mirrors because of its glassine floodwaters that reflect the sky, turning the world surreal hues of violet and pink at dawn and twilight. It is a birder’s paradise, air and trees filled with shrieking streaks of gold, indigo and crimson. Down below, the jungle produces numberless natural medicinals, from the shamanic spirit drug ayahuasca to cures for malaria, diarrhea and maybe even cancer.

The Amazon Basin is the largest tropical rain forest in the world that still exists mostly as Nature intended. Of course, Nature’s intentions are rarely, if ever, in sync with humanity’s. We love Nature’s gifts of gentle breezes, babbling brooks, flora and fauna. But we are also perpetually at war—with her storms and floods, her predators large and her microbes invisible.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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