I recently spent 5 days camping in the Amazon, this is the tale of my culinary journey through the jungle. I was definitely not planning on having a global gourmand story come from my camping trip, if anything I was hoping to lose a few lbs after eating my way through Lima for 2 weeks, but to my surprise it would prove to be the foodie trek of a lifetime!
Disclaimer before I begin… I have so many amazing vegetarian and vegan friends I love and deeply respect, and so I would like to just take a minute to alert anyone who would be offended, that there are photos in this post of fresh uncooked wild game. If seeing this would make you feel uncomfortable, but you would still love to learn all about the delicious fresh foods I enjoyed in the jungle, message me and I will send you the article without those photos.
To paint the scene of what I was expecting to be eating on my trip, I have to get a little into the details of the tour I signed up for. This jungle trek was an unusual offer, it was by far the most rugged and pure experience available. Most multiple-day tours of the Amazon in Iquitos take your group of 2-6 people to a lodge with the majority of amenities you would find in any rustic retreat. Obviously there is no wi-fi… But there are beds, and running water, and a bathroom, and maybe even electricity. Yeah the trip I opted for… Not so much. Although I must say I am rather partial to a bed, I knew I wanted a more unadulterated experience in nature. We sat down with the organizer for the trip in his office… aka his mom’s house (who I sat and had some juice with… Turns out she is 96!), and he basically asked my friend and I how much we could spend and how “authentic” we wanted this trip to be. He showed us where most tours go, where all the ones we had looked into had lodges, and explained its just a river lined with lodges and a few villages nearby who keep jungle animals as pets to insure that every tourists who visits gets to “find” and “touch” a wild animal. According to him this area is commonly referred to by the guides as “Gringolandia”. He offered us a 5 day trip that goes to a different river and deeper into the jungle, where we will have the chance to see primary forest and waterfalls. He let us know that it wasn’t going to be comfortable living, and that when it comes to animals he can’t guarantee a thing… because it isn’t someone’s backyard filled with pets. A little rugged trek in the wild was just what the doctor ordered, I was sold! In total there were 4 of us, my friend Trent (who I met on the 5 day river boat), Humberto our naturalist guide, and Manuel our local guide (and medicinal plant specialist) who lives with his family in the jungle close to where we began our adventure.
Along with modern comforts like refrigeration, went the potential to bring with us much in terms of fresh produce. When we met up with our guide we did some last-minute shopping in a small town along the river. For the couple of nights we would be sleeping on the jungle floor, he picked up 3 tomatoes, 2 bags of rice… and a can of tuna. As I thought of the different combinations of those ingredients I decided I wanted nothing to do with any meal that resulted. I was set to turn this trip into a 5 day cleanse… fasting, exercise, the whole 9 yards.
Our first task, after settling in, was to set out our net or “trampa” to catch tomorrow’s lunch.
Seeing as we just set the nets I was dreading that the first meal would surely involve that can of tuna. When we got back to base camp I offered to help in the kitchen, as I stood there chopping a single tomato for our “salad” Manuel came in beaming. He tells us he is giving us a gift for dinner, he will be selling the rest of this “gift” at the market but for us he saved a piece… and then right next to me he slaps down a foot…
… A very scaly foot.
Manuel had caught an alligator in his trampa at home, and by the looks of his foot it was a sizable one. I’m not into eating possibly overfished jungle animals… but it would be really rude not to accept this gift, and I am always preaching about eating local. (I actually don’t eat meat at all unless I am traveling, and I do so then mostly to gain the most out of a cultural exchange… and to make situations like this enjoyable rather than awkward or culturally offensive). The alligator which I thought was called a caimán is locally known as lagarto. The funny part about it all was I couldn’t for the life of me remember why the name lagarto sounded so familiar, until we sat down to eat it… and then I realized it was what I had for dinner in town the night before we left, and I had been raving about how delicious it was to Trent all day! I was told it was a type of “pescado” at the restaurant, which means fish NOT reptile. Fried up over an open flame in a jungle kitchen, or served gourmet in a complex cream sauce… lagarto is one of the most delicious meats I have ever eaten.
The menu for the following day would consist of what we could find in our trampa… which I was praying wouldn’t be an anaconda. The good news when we pulled out the net was that we would be getting to try piraña… the bad news was there wasn’t much of a variety of other things, thanks to the pirañas. It looked like our net had become a piraña “all you can eat” buffet! The few that did manage to survive were bokchico, lisa, and a few pirañas.
On the way back to our base camp, another critter almost ended up on the menu. As we floated downstream Humberto spotted something in a tree… an oso peresoso (a sloth)!! Of course it took me like 10 minutes to find it, and by then we were so close I could just about touch the tree he was hanging out on. Manuel insisted on pulling it off, which did not make Mr. Sloth a happy camper. It was only until I started taking photos that i learned the true reason we got it down from the tree. “Mmmm, vamos a comer” says Manuel… “Ummm I don’t think so” says I. No way I was eating a sloth, “ok, princessita” Miguel said as he grudgingly put him back. I don’t think the sloth was very happy about posing for pictures (I could tell by the growling), but it was that or the grill so I think he got the good end of that deal.
Side note: All those adorable photos you see of people with “jungle” sloths on their hips hugging them close… Pets! If I had turned this guy around so his arms could reach me I am most certain I would have some pretty awesome scars to show for it.
Lunch was delicious fresh-caught fried fish with tomato salad, plantains… and of course bread with another kind of bread because carbs are always served with more carbs in Peru.
After lunch we set off for the deep jungle, and a wilder side of the menu. After a 2 hour or so walk into the jungle we stopped to make camp and began our hunt for supper. First on our list was piwaillo, it is the fruit of a palm tree and comes red, white, or yellow. Manuel fashioned a hook-shaped stick to another stick with some vines and we all took cover as he plucked the fruit down from a lethal height. To be honest I’m not sure if these are fruits, veggies, or something else entirely but they were pretty tasty. We boiled them up and pealed the skins, which revealed a fibrous starchy inside. The taste was nutty with a slightly bitter aftertaste… which totally could have just been the bug spray on my fingers… Let’s hope otherwise. This is commonly called jungle bread, I said before Peruvians need their carbs typically two a meal but we had to compromise being in the jungle and all.
Next for some churo and chonta! Churo is a commonly eaten jungle snail… Yes I ate a giant jungle snail! I actually ate quite a few of those yummy things, and Humberto made an awesome necklace out of the evidence. We waded through the muddy flooded areas near a stream to find the churo, which were the exact same color as dirty wet leaves and thus quite impossible to find. Humberto’s strategy was to stomp and smack his machete around until he heard something like the crunch of a shell, which I didn’t like very much… despite the fact they would all be dinner soon. The churo was reminiscent of conch with a less sweet ocean flavor and a more murky mud-puddle taste… to be honest it was pretty delicious, basically jungle escargot! We also hacked up a fallen wacrapona tree to look for suri, a grub worm that makes its home in the wood causing the center of the tree to be soft and sweet-smelling. Although the center of this tree is soft, the outer ring is some of the hardest wood in the jungle, we used it to carve traditional spears later that day. “Unfortunately” we only found one tiny suri, which Trent was brave enough to eat. Suri and churo are both served grilled on sticks in the surrounding jungle towns and even in the big jungle city of Iquitos.
We also got some chonta for our meal, or as you most likely know it… heart of palm. It was nothing like I expected, practically tastes like it’s of no relation to the final product pickled in a jar that I am accustomed to. It had the most delicate flavor and a delightful texture, soft and slightly sweet. Humberto peeled it thin like a pasta and… unfortunately cooked it with the damn can of tuna! It actually didn’t turn out too bad considering it was canned tuna. Overall I have to say my dining experience was quite nice… and the meal was well-rounded, aside for all the bugs doing nose-dives into my food… more protein right?
From there we trekked onward to the next site about 3 hours away… in a torrential downpour.
Yes I am wearing a hot pink poncho… and I love it, I can still be girlie and kick-butt hiking in the jungle! My nickname became princessita… Not because I acted like a princess, but because I could get down and dirty in the Amazon and still look like one 😉
Most of our other meals were composed of fresh fruit. One of my favorites was granadilla, an orange fruit resembling a maracuya (passion fruit) in structure, a shell outside with small seeds surrounded by jelly inside. It has a much milder taste as opposed to the sour bite of a passion fruit, that is until you crunch down on the seeds… each one erupts into a sharp citric explosion on your tongue.
Also there was mame, a red fruit with an odd shape but the tree blossoms the most incredible neon-pink flowers. The fruit was the texture of an overripe pear with a gently sweet watered-down taste, reminiscent of a fruit from my childhood in the Caribbean. I am pretty certain it is the same fruit we commonly call cashew on the island of St. Croix.
Another favorite of mine was chari chuelo a little yellow ball bursting with flavor, honestly if I could get these at my local grocery store I would never buy candy again. The perfect balance of sweet and tart, these reminded me of sucking on a jolly rancher… without that toxic unknown element taste.
To my surprise we stumbled across a random pineapple… I couldn’t believe pineapples were growing wild in the rainforest, but then I saw another and another.
What the hell, I began to feel like I was in The Truman Show… we had been told we were deep in the jungle but maybe in reality there were condos around the corner filled with locals having a laugh at our “jungle expedition”. I questioned Humberto, he laughed at my suspicions and assured me we were at least 3 hours from any other people… that would be a really creepy statement if it weren’t the answer I was looking for. He explained that farmers hike 2-3 hours into the jungle to make small plantations, otherwise their crops would all be eaten by their neighbors. I thought to myself, that going that far just to hide your crops seemed a little excessive… that was until we turned the corner an came across a small patch of sugarcane, Humberto must have been reading my mind because as I stood there mouth-watering he handed me a freshly cut piece. Then I realized why it was all the way out here, if I was going to plant a field of candy sticks I’d prob have to hide them from my neighbors too. While I stood there sugar juice dripping all over my face, I heard Manuel scream from some distant bushes something about guaba. My heart skipped a beat hoping he was referring to the delicious “guava” I grew up eating in the Caribbean… and then he walked out with an oversized green bean 😦 Despite my initial disappointment, this guaba quickly became my new favorite jungle fruit! To get inside you simple wring the pod as you would wet clothes and vuala! Inside are giant purple beans that are all beginning to sprout, each bean is surrounded by a fluffy white coat of deliciousness! These white clouds of awesome are just thick enough to make you feel like you are actually eating something substantial, but airy enough to be reminiscent of cotton candy… so juicy and sweet I couldn’t get enough! Due to my horrible self-discipline, between all the guaba and sugarcane I ended up eating, I spent the rest of the walk feeling as if I had been drugged with amphetamines.
On the final day, as we said a few sad goodbyes, we loaded our packs with mounds of fresh jungle fruit for the boat ride. Never in my wildest dreams would I have suspected all the tantalizing flavors awaiting my taste buds in the jungle. This was a culinary experience unlike any market could provide, it was a deliciously wild ride in La Selva… that I can’t wait to taste again.