August 2004. This was a time, believe it or not, when species such as Ranitomeya uakarii or Ranitomeya flavovitatta were poorly known, enigmatic species represented by only a few accounts and a sparse selection of photos online. This was the time before Taron Grant dropped his taxonomical bombshell on Dendrobatid taxonomy. These were the dark ages before the works of Brown and Twomey began elucidating the mess of what was at the time known as the “Quinquevitattus” group of small Peruvian poison frogs. Still these were exciting times! I was unbelievably excited to return to Peru in August of that year, 6 painful months after my introduction to the country in February 2004. The two aforementioned species were definitely on our radar. With an eager group of travel companions we left Toronto and headed to Iquitos to go frogging.
In Iquitos we met with Manuel and made as hasty a departure as possible from the chaotic hustle of Iquitos for the remoteness of the Quebrada Tamshiyacu.
It should go without saying that a ride on the infamous Amazon River is essential for anyone visiting Amazonian Peru for the first time. The river born at the confluence of the Ucayali and Hualluga River in Loreto Region, Peru, drains the Amazon basin collecting waters from an extensive network of tributaries and ultimately dumping these waters in the Atlantic ocean some 3000 km away. The Quebrada Tamshiyacu is one of these tributaries which flows into the Amazon before the village of Tamshiyacu. The forest along the Quebrada supported a rich vegetative diversity, and of specific interest to us, supported populations of two very interesting dendrobatids, and thus a poorly planned camping trip by a group of gringos completely inexperienced in rainforest camping was conceived. Surely this would be the highlight of my sophmore visit to Peru earning Manuel and I the eternal gratitude of our companions.
Most of the expresses for Tamshiyacu were at that time scheduled to leave before dawn, and because boats never depart on time in Peru, these delayed departures, if not delayed for too long afford one the opportunity to witness the sun rise over the river. This was just our luck! As we departed for Tamshiyacu a spectacular Amazonian sunrise gently encouraged the fog to lift and warmed the cool damp air. The day looked beautiful and we sped down the Amazon wonderstruck at the extensiveness of the river that all of us, except Manuel, were experiencing for the first time. We certainly don’t have rivers like this in Canada.
The companions I had mentioned were in hindsight a rather strange mix, and how we got it arranged to make the trip together is difficult to recall. I was joined by my sister Alicia, her ex-boyfriend Rob, friend and fellow frog enthusiast Ryan, his girlfriend Stephanie, and my girlfriend at the time, with whom at the very same time I was in the process of breaking up. Certainly this was going to be awesome!
Arriving at the village of Tamshiyacu a few hours after sunrise the sky was blue, the air was warm, and we were all happy to be there, and all in our own ways anxiously awaiting 5 days up camping further up the Quebrada Tamshiyacu. I can honestly say standing along the muddied banks of the Tamshiyacu, with dozens of curious children gazing up at our pale faces, we were happy. I can also honestly say that that was the last time we were all happy during the course of the next few days.
Manuel informed us that to get up the Quebrada we would have to travel by pece-pece (pronounced “pekay pekay”) and directed our gazes towards the river at a small narrow wooden vessel about 8 meters long with a small 4 hp motor and the propeller itself situated at the end of a 2m extension shaft. Upon this motorized dugout canoe we loaded our tents and provisions for the week and did our best to get comfortable. We were told it would take two hours to get up river to hour destination. Personally I was thrilled for the opportunity, being blissfully virginal to the pece-pece experience. We departed, piled in amongst chickens, a pig, bunches of platano and salted fish and we headed for the Quebrada and what I was envisioning was certainly jungle paradise and 5 wonderful days of camping. Neither the roar of the motor, nor the growing ache in my posterior damped my enthusiasm as the first hour passed gazing wonderstruck at the vegetation, the birds and the river villages and settlements – all of it wonderfully new to me. As the second hour passed by I could taste the adventures ahead of us; we had to be getting close, and though I had enjoyed my first pece-pece ride, I was glad that it was nearing an end, as both the sun and the temperature were rising, and we sat perched awkwardly, and increasingly uncomfortably along the narrow sidewall of the vessel.
Two hours came and went and there began some grumblings from my fellow campers; some complained about the heat, some about their asses, Ryan had to take a pee, and I swear my sister started nagging ‘are we there yet’. To be perfectly honest though, I was wondering the same, and feeling all the same aches and pains. Manuel soon became keen that his gringos were hurting and he graciously motioned the driver to bring the boat to the bank allowing everyone the opportunity to get out, stretch and pee. I tried to stay positive and upbeat, reassuring everyone it would be over soon and well worth the effort. We couldn’t have dissent among the ranks so quickly.
Excited cries from Ryan drew all or our attention back toward the water where surfacing were some river dolphins. The excitement of this kept us satiated as we reassemble ourselves back in the pece-pece, and also kept the other Peruvians passengers amused as they laughed amongst themselves at the gringo enthusiasm for the dolphins which was probably as exciting for them as seeing a squirrel was for us. As nice as it was to see them, it was mildly disappointing that it was not as romantic an experience as many of the eco-tourism brochures and lodge propaganda I had read made the experience out to be. After half an hour my companions had all tired of looking for more dolphins, and the novelty of an Amazonian canoe ride had worn off. People were starting to get edgy. I just wanted to get the hell off the boat and find some frogs.
A full 4 hours later we arrived at our destination, which was a small clearing, with a small stilted house built back from the river, surrounded by forest. These were friends of Chato, whom Manuel had occasionally used as a guide near Iquitos, largely due to his apparent affinity for frogs, and knowledge of the forest. The homestead here belonged to friends of his, and the husband and wife, and their small children welcomed us enthusiastically to place our tents where we wished and stay as long as we like. Not long after they brought us bananas and pineapple from their chacras, humbling us with their generosity, which we gratefully accepted.
With camp erected we all used what was left of the afternoon light to explore the forest some. The muddy trail took us into a beautiful forest with a lush herbaceous layer and a variety of epiphytes, including guzmania bromeliads, often within reach of curious frog seeking hands. Chatos seeing me reaching towards one informed me that on the other side of the river in the same “sacha pinas” I would find the frogs I wanted to.
As dusk settled in we returned to the house to start dinner. We were all starving. As Chato unpacked the provisions we had sent him to purchase whilst in the village earlier, a look of disappointment slowly spread over our faces. Before long we looking at a small amount of rapidly staling bread, a few cans of miniature cocktail wieners, one can of tomato sauce, a can of sardines, and a large pile of yucca. Not exactly camping fare, and not exactly uplifting. While my friends looked on in horror, I looked back towards the stream hoping desperately we could pull some fish out of it, regretful that we sent Chato to buy the provisions. I was going to be getting some grief about this.
We ate dinner of boiled yucca and canned wieners and platano given by our hosts whilst sitting on the huge stump of what was at one time a mighty rainforest giant. I was able to deal with what I considered the inadequacies of supper by focusing my thoughts on the amphibian treasure hunt the morning would bring. As for the rest of the group, being less enthusiastic about frogs, I couldn’t help but wonder what they did to reconcile with choking down dinner lacking any tastes aside from starchy and shitty.
I could feel angered undertones of resentment slowly gestating. With every bite of food forced down, every swatted mosquito I could feel the probability of mutiny growing. I was fast becoming the least popular individual along the Quebrada and it was only the first day!
By morning my rose coloured glasses were off. The night was long, interrupted by frequent wakening from an aching back or shoulder caused by the uneven ground upon which we pitched our tents. A fierce rain fell through most of the late night and early morning hours. Ryan and Stephanie’s tent leaked. Everyone awoke rather crotchety.
The morning was cool and overcast with the sky threatening still more rain. We hastily filtered watered and grabbed some bread for a snack and prepared to cross the Quebrada. Dendrobatids awaited. While putting on my socks I noticed my ankle and lower shins were covered in small red insect bites which were beginning to itch like crazy. No one else shared these bites, and so I was alone in this particular misfortune.
One by one Chato ferried us across the river in a small dugout. Once all were across we headed single file into the forest. A large emerald green Amereega trivitatta hopped quickly passed and was the first frog we saw as we trudged our way through the muddy, nearly inundated floodplain of the stream. The frog, like us, appeared to be heading for slightly higher ground. Despite 7 pairs of hands chasing it through the undergrowth, it evaded us masterfully. Before long we scrambled out of the floodplain and entered the forest proper.
With the leaves still glistening and dripping with the night’s rains, the forest looked especially lush. Excitement followed soon after with the discovery of the first Ranitomeya uakarii (Then known to us as Dendrobates duellmanni) perched upon the rotted stump of an old tree fall about a meter off the ground. This frog however didn’t evade capture and we were all impressed with the beauty of the animal; Ryan, Manuel and I were far more verbose with our enthusiastic vocabulary than were the others. Other uakarii soon followed and we found this frog to be extremely abundant in this forest, almost always found in terrestrial situations, with males often slightly elevated on a root or stumpy perch.
Flavovittata was the other gem encountered here. The entire known range of the frog at the time seemed to be bound in the forest regions surrounding the Quebrada Tahauyo. This population we would learn to be the most northern extreme of their range. As with the uakarii they appeared to be abundant but more restricted to areas with an abundant growth of guzmania bromeliads or large stands of helicona.
By late morning we had found at least a dozen of each of the species and satisfied ourselves with sufficient photos. Also encountered were the similar looking Amereega hahneli and Allobates femoralis.
Ryan and Manuel and I headed back content with the days finds, having found our two target species fairly easily. This however posed an important question. What the hell would we do with ourselves the next 4 days here?
The rain failed to hold off until we made back to camp. The Quebrada had risen sufficiently to ensure we would all arrive with wet feet and thoroughly soaked. Not meaning to sound like a sissy, but there is nothing that makes me more uncomfortable in the field than having wet feet. Heavy water soaked hiking boots take days to dry out in the stale humid air of the tropical jungle, especially in the absence of sun.
Arriving back at camp, Ryan and Stef had found that their slightly leaking tent was now leaking slightly more, and many of Ryan clothes had been soaked by the rain. Understandably, he wasn’t impressed. I was just glad to be back to camp and to have the chance to get out of these boots and to get at my ankle and give the little red bites a proper itching.
Wet jungle feet often get nasty after hours of walking in wet conditions, and I didn’t expect a pretty sight when I rolled off my socks to get better access to my bites, but nothing prepared me for what I saw. From the lower shin and covering my ankle some sort of slimy whitish film or residue was taking hold. This I assumed was not good and it was perturbing to say the least. A fungal infection of some sort it appeared to be, one that gave my ankles the appearance that I had spilled milk over them. My companions were sufficiently grossed out by my legs; with hundreds of red bites and a strange milky goo they were indeed not pretty. My gf at the time, understandably so, was not enthused about my new growth. To my relief the “milk” washed away easily with a clean cloth. I had had enough of Tamshiyacu. But of course I didn’t admit it. We were all there due to my encouragement and I couldn’t let on that I had had enough.
Rains fell through the afternoon and into the night. Everyone was miserable. But we still had 4 days to go. 4 days!
We were only able to get out in the forest a little the next day due to the rains, and most of the day was spent in boredom waiting out the rains in stuffy tents, with the stuffiness amplified by the rank smell of sweaty shoes and sweaty clothes. During a break in the rain, while stretching my legs I noticed that the milky residue was back, this time reaching up to my calves. I was perplexed, what the hell was happening to my poor legs. I sat down on the log where we took our meals, cupped my head in my hands and contemplated the milk that was growing on my legs. It was a curious matter, which if nothing else made the break up in progress that much easier for her to handle; a guy with a fungal infection of an unknown variety certainly isn’t any prize. Things were at this point getting pretty awkward. While contemplating all of this this, I yelled “who wants to leave tomorrow?
The response was an immediate, enthusiastic and unanimous yes.
We arrived in Iquitos a ragged bunch, and with my ego sufficiently deflated with the realization that I was not as jungle hardened as I had let myself believe I was. I was certainly no Bill Lamar or Rainer Schulte.
We were all friends again and all was forgiven after I introduced them de Los Maderos/Chez Maggy pizzeria, the best in Iquitos. Who can hold a grudge over pizza and beer?