By Katie Kurtessis

Katie is an American expat living in Peru’s northern city of Piura, where she spends her time studying at Piura University, relaxing on Peru’s northern beaches or exploring the country’s vast interior.

“Not happening,” I said. “I am not going out hiking in the jungle at night to purposefully look for tarantulas.”

I was sitting underneath a kerosene lamp in the main room of a lodge, sitting so close to the Amazon River I could hear the water move. It was my first night staying on the Amazon, approximately 120 kilometers from the city of Iquitos, and while the cedar wood and comfortable beds gave an air of luxury to the experience, I had little interest in knowing what could be hiding in the dark folds of the jungle.

I took a sip of an Iquiteño beer, shockingly cold after being pulled from an old-fashioned ice box, and shook my head. “Come on,” coaxed the guest sitting next to me, “you probably won’t even see one.”

Despite my fears, the adventuresome spirit that radiates from Iquitos pulled me in, and I went on the hike. I pulled on a pair of tall rubber boots and headed out on a jungle path through the pitch-black night, our guide occasionally shining his flashlight at ominous rustles in the bushes or a tarantula on a tree. There is something about Iquitos that makes every person feel like a brave new explorer and allows curiosity to trump fear.

My father and I had arrived to the isolated city of Iquitos that morning, welcomed by an oppressive heat and humidity. We stayed in town only long enough to walk through a local market, where we saw they were roasting grubs on a stick. I said a silent prayer that the food at the lodge would be slightly less exotic.

We departed from the city on a small motorized boat and I found myself exhilarated as the waters of the Amazon sprayed on my skin, at least until the rocking lulled me to sleep for the majority of the two-hour trip.

Arriving to our lodge I quickly deduced that Iquitos may be the one place in Peru where it is acceptable to dress like an Indiana Jones movie. As our boat docked, I stared up at the muddy river bank in front of me, looming twenty feet over my head as it was the dry season and the river was low.

Just when I was questioning my ability to lug a suitcase up a rope and wood pathway, the hotel staff appeared to greet us like family and carry our bags. Apparently hospitality and adventure have made friends in Iquitos.

My not-so-graceful clamber up the banks of the Amazon was rewarded as someone placed a drink in my hand and I took in the views of the lodge: gorgeous woodwork, hammocks everywhere, and a perfect pool in the center of it all. Being someone who craves active vacations and adventure but likes comfort too, it could not have been a more perfect place for me. I began to feel like a child on my birthday as they started ticking off our schedule: piranha fishing, dolphin watching, night hike, sunrise over the Amazon, and a day hike. My only concern was when that left time for the pool and the hammocks.

We began the itinerary of activities instantly, constantly boarding a boat that looked like a wood version of a steamboat. As promised, I caught piranhas and saw the famous pink dolphins that are found in the Amazon. I watched the sunset fall in an impressive tapestry over the river. I tasted locally distilled rum after I helped crush the sugar cane. I felt like I was exploring something untouched, though I ate three delicious meals a day and slept in a plush bed.

Iquitos fed me a flame of excitement. Though everything was pre-planned it didn’t make the trip feel contrived. I hiked through the jungle with a guide who claimed he had taken army survival courses, and I believed him as he led us off the trail and into straight brush. I swung on vines and he let me try out his machete as he crafted all the girls on the trek tiaras from leaves. When we went to visit the famous giant floating lily pads, I was able to try my hand at paddling a canoe made from a hollowed out tree. There were no rules, simply opportunities to seek new adventures and genuinely taste and feel what it was like to live on the Amazon.

On my last day in Iquitos it rained. I lay in a hammock and listened to rain pound on the tin roof above me. As I reflected on my trip I realized it was my first vacation in Peru that felt exotic and unique. I felt I had learned something and discovered a part of Peru that was rarely experienced. Machu Picchu may be a wonder of the world, but the Amazon has been called one of the new natural wonders of the world with good reason.

Popular regions of the Peruvian jungle to visit include Iquitos, Manu and Puerto Maldonado, each of which offers a number of comfortable Amazon rainforest lodges to suit a variety of budgets. Take a look at the range of options offered by Aracari Travel.