The Amazon jungle is an amazing place, lush, green, full of life. It’s one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. Which is why it may feel like everything is trying to eat you.
Travel in the Amazon can be slow and unpredictable, due to heavy rains, no roads, lack of regular transportation, and the fact that gasoline is like gold. Almost all travel is done by river, and the only way to get to many Indian villages is by hiring your own boats and provisioning yourself, unless you are attending a tribal festival – like the Yawanawá Festival, or the Xina Bena Festival hosted by the Huni Kui – where the village will arrange transportation and accommodation for you.
If you have the good fortune of being invited to visit indigenous territories as a guest of the tribes, or if you intend to participate in a tribal festival, this post will help you maximize your enjoyment and minimize the annoyances, especially if you intend to stay a while, or indefinitely.
Itchy Jungle Annoyances
Coruba – scabies.
This is the worst. The reason why scabies is a huge problem in the Amazon is because scabies is transmitted through fabric and human contact. Washing laundry in hot water and drying it in a dryer will kill these invisible critters, but unfortunately nobody does this. Heating water is expensive, and in the villages, most laundry is done in rivers and streams. The laundry is then hung out to dry. The hot Amazonian sun will kill scabies, but often the sky can be overcast for days. Which means infected clothes, bedsheets, hammocks, etc remain infected even after being washed.
You know you have scabies if you start seeing inverse scabs. Normally a scab is raised on the surface of your skin. A scabies scab is like a dark crater. You will start to see more and more appear. At night you will feel them migrating to different zones in your body. Scabies is incredibly itchy and it only accumulates and gets worse until you treat it with a hardcore pharmaceutical cream.
How to avoid getting scabies.
- Do not sit / lie in other people’s hammocks.
- Minimize other people sitting and lying in your hammock by tying it up when you aren’t there. If you have a Hennessy hammock you can lock the zippers together with a travel lock.
- Do not share clothes with anyone
- Use your own bedding, like a lightweight sleep sack
Mucums – chiggers.
They are invisible and live the long grass waiting for warm blooded hosts brush by. The trail to the squat toilets are lined with long grass. Mucums are invisible and extremely itchy. You will see a small raised bump that looks like a zit, and if it itches like crazy, a chigger has taken residence. The best way to make the insufferable itching abate is to sterilize a needle and use it to extract the critter. You may see a little white speck, or nothing at all. Your extractions will leave unsightly scars. You have to decide which you prefer. Scars or itching.
How to avoid getting mucums.
Put bug repellent on your legs so they don’t brush off onto your ankles and migrate up to the warm, moist zones of your body, which is quite a horrible crazy-making experience because you will want to scratch your crotch all the time.
IMPORTANT: Wearing solid cotton underwear with elastic will help keep the mucums out of your genitalia. Guys – don’t bring boxers. Ladies, no lace panties.
Piums – midges a.k.a. Flying no-see-ums.
Actually you can see them…because they are legion. Clouds of tiny black specks will swarm around you looking for any exposed flesh. When they bite, they leave a swollen welt with a red speck of blood in the center from where it bit you. I’ve heard if you don’t scratch, the bites go away. However, these bites are so incredibly itchy, it’s really hard not to scratch them. If your legs, arms, back or chest are exposed, you will be covered with pium bites, unless they somehow don’t like you. The good news is, piums are a daytime phenomenon.
How to avoid getting bitten by piums
I made an incredible discovery my last trip to the indigenous territories. Piums hate Tiger Balm.
I noticed that when I lathered my bug bites with Tiger Balm, the piums also stayed away. The Tiger Balm does wear off, after which the piums resume their onslaught, so get the largest jar you can get.
While piums are a daytime phenomenon, mosquitos are a nighttime phenomenon, and are most active at dawn and dusk. Dengue is more of a problem in the city. Malaria is more of a problem in the jungle. If there’s malaria in the region, the locals will know. There is no effective vaccine for malaria, but you can take anti-malarial medications that will reduce your chance of getting sick.
These anti-malarial medications are expensive and as bad for your health as the malaria, so the way Amazonians deal with it is by taking nothing to prevent it, take medication to treat it, then kambô to purge your system of the toxic malaria medication.
How to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos
Continuously re-apply your bug repellent, and stay covered during dawn and dusk. DEET repellents are highly effective but also extremely toxic. I used to be the poster child for DEET until I went to Peru for an ayahuasca dieta, where we were served huancahui – a purgative plant infusion – to cleanse our systems at the start of the dieta. I then spent the next 8 hours crouched between a bucket and a chamber pot, vomiting DEET tasting bile from all the years I lathered myself with it in the jungle.
I eventually found Herbal Armor, highly effective, a DEET-free bug repellent that works well in the Amazon.
Painful Jungle Annoyances
There are a lot of ants in the Amazon, from tiny to gigantic and all of them seem to sting. The tiny ones feel like a multitude of little pin pricks. A bite from a big ant feels like you’ve just been stabbed. Tucandeiras or tocandiras (Paraponera clavata), otherwise known as Bullet Ants, are the biggest, most painful of all the ants in the forest.
Bullet ant stings are so painful that the young men of the Sateré Mawé tribe of Brazil undergo the manhood ritual of sticking their hands into gloves full of bullet ants. Of all the manhood rituals that humans have devised, this one has got to be the most extreme of all coming of age ceremonies for boys.
Boys as young as 12 years old must gather bullet ants from the forest, which are then used to make ant-ridden gloves. The young men wear the gloves 20 times for 10 minutes, performing a dance while those angry insects sting them. As National Geographic points out in its video about the ceremony, the bullet ant’s sting is supposed to be 30 times more painful than that of a bee, and each of those gloves contain dozens of ants.
What’s worse, when one tucandeira bites you, it releases a pheromone that incites other tucandeiras nearby to bite you as well.
The venom contains a neurotoxin.
To get an understanding of how painful a mass attack of bullet ants is, watch this video.
How to avoid getting bitten by a tucandeira or other ants
Tucandeiras aren’t aggressive like army ants, and they don’t really care to bite you unless you disturb them or step on them. When you are in the forest, always look at the ground where you are walking and don’t put your hands on anything without first looking to see what’s there. The good news is, ants tend to be a daytime phenomenon.
Sometimes, it’s hard to avoid stepping on ants. There’s only one trail, thick jungle on either side, and a massive 7-lane swarming ant superhighway in front of you. At this point, if you want to keep going forward, you have no other choice but to run. Run as fast as you can over the ant superhighway. That will minimize the time it takes for ants to clamber up your shoes and into your pants. If you do it right, you can run clean across and not pick up any ants at all.
The jungle is full of large, poisonous spiders. Some of them are deadly, others will make you wish you were dead. There’s a particular large, brown, hairy, and aggressive spider that is everywhere, that likes to hide out in dark places, like the squat toilets and any open pockets and bags.
How to avoid getting bit by a poisonous spider
- Always shake out your shoes by turning them upside down and knocking anything out that may have taken refuge in them, before sticking your feet in them.
- Don’t leave anything open. Always zip up your tent, your bags, and shake out your sleeping bag if you think something may have crawled into it.
- Hang stuff off the ground.
All kinds of dangerous snakes live in the Amazon. The sucuri (Eunectes murinus) is a giant anaconda that lives in the water. The largest snake in the world, it can grow large enough to eat a human. The sucuri attacks its prey in the water, strangling it with its coils, it then hoists the prey onto land, where it will then swallow it whole. The good news is, the really big sucuris that are large enough to eat people are rare, but they do exist. The locals will tell you if it’s not safe to swim in the river.
The surucucú is a venomous viper (Lachesis muta), also known as the shushúpe in Peru, or Bushmaster in English, that is highly aggressive. Not only is its venom deadly, the surucucú will bite you multiple times, and is even known to chase people.
If you are bitten and don’t get the antivenom within a couple of hours, you will die. A friend of mine was bit by a shushupe when she worked for an eco-lodge in the Iquitos area. They rushed her to Iquitos by high-speed motorboat, but it took an hour for her to reach the city. When she got to the hospital, she was bleeding out of her eyes, ears, mouth and fingernails. It took her a month to recover, and her health has been fragile ever since.
The best defense against surucucús are knee high rubber boots and being mindful of where you are stepping. They like to hide in the spaces under tree roots, especially cavities under tree roots that are covered by leaves. If you are stepping over a large root, try to look over it to see what’s on the other side.
In areas where these vipers are common – like Iquitos, Peru – locals typically don’t go walking into the jungle without black rubber boots, a machete, or a shotgun. If you find yourself getting chased by one, take your shirt off and throw it in the opposite direction direction from where you are running. Locals claim that the snake will then attack your shirt while you get away.
Painful Water Annoyances
Amazonian rivers and streams are typically an opaque, milky chocolate color, due to the soft muddy bottom, and lots of rotting leaf debris. That means you can’t see what’s in the water.
Amazonian stingrays have a venomous sting, and while not deadly, your wound will swell up and weep pus for a month, and you will be in misery.
How to avoid getting stung by a stingray.
When you enter a stream, river, lake or pond, enter slowly and drag your toe along the bottom to kick up silt. Stingrays don’t want to be stepped on by you, so doing this will give them a heads up and encourage them to move away.
Candirús are blood-sucking parasitic fish with needle-like spines and razor sharp teeth that like to insert themselves in orifices and chew upwards. They are related to catfish, and are voraciously attracted to the smell of urea and blood.
Think about that for a moment.
When you are doing thinking about that, you can watch this a video of a man who ended up with a candirú in his penis.
How to avoid getting a candirú lodged in an orifice.
- Ask the locals if there are candiru in the stream or river you intend to bathe in. They will know. Ladies, do not go into the water if you have your moon.
- Do not skinny dip in the streams and rivers.
- Do not pee in the streams and rivers.
The electric eel (Electrophorus electricus) can deliver 500 volt blasts of electricity. While there are few recorded deaths by electric eel, it certainly is possible. A single jolt could incapacitate a person long enough to cause him or her to drown, even in shallow water. Multiple shocks could cause a person to stop breathing or go into heart failure.
How to avoid getting electrocuted by an electric eel.
They tend to like to hang out underneath submerged trunks in still water, so be careful. Other than that, pray.
What to Bring to Amazon
I have spent months adding up to years in the Brazilian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian Amazon and here is a list of my top, curated jungle survival products. Many of these links are affiliate links to products I trust listed on Amazon.
- Hennessy Hammock Jungle Expedition. This hammock is the #1 thing you need for Amazon jungle travel. Lightweight, with a double fabric base to make it impossible for mosquitos to bite your ass while you sleep, mosquito netting and a rain fly, you will return from the jungle a Hennessy Hammock evangelist for life.
- A lightweight hangout hammock. There’s a lot of waiting / hanging out in the jungle. Life is a lot slower there. You may find yourself waiting for hours at the river bank for your boat downriver. Why not wait in comfort?
- Ultra lightweight dry bags. Put everything into dry bags. Rather putting my entire backpack in a waterproof sack, I use a big dry bag in the interior of my backpack, so I can keep walking with my pack on my back.
- Lightweight travel sleep sack – bring 2 in case one gets contaminated, you will have another clean one to use while the dirty one is being washed
- A light throw blanket for wrapping around you in ceremonies or as an extra layer on top of your sleeping bag
- Waterproof headlamp with red and white lights.
- 1-Liter, wide-necked, stainless steel water bottle. You will drink a lot of water and refill often. You want a wide-necked reusable, stainless steel bottle because you will be refilling from a variety of sources, and the wide-neck makes it easy to fill and easy to clean. I like Kleen Kanteen because they are durable and don’t have the chemical lining that Sigg bottles have.
- Travel Berkey water filter. This is a great water filtration system for camp and for long term stays in the villages.
- Lifestraw portable water filtration system – not UV. UV light sticks do not kill all microbes. And they tend to be buggy and stop working, which is annoying. Instead, get the award-winning Lifestraw 2-stage water bottle filtration system. Lifestraw an acclaimed, humanitarian water filtration device used all over Africa and other regions, that essentially makes swamp water drinkable.
- A travel clothesline to dry your clothes. Your clothes will get wet and stinky easily. You will likely wash your clothes often. Having a means to dry your clothes conveniently, wherever you are, is wonderful.
- Bungee cords of different lengths. You will use them.
- Extra rope. Extra rope is always handy in the jungle. You can keep a lot of stuff off the ground, which reduces bug invasions. Get the kind that will allow you to extend your hammock cords in case the closest thing to hitch it too is further away than your built in rope.
- Duct tape. So many great uses for duct tape.
- Small fold-up umbrella, for rain and sun
- Herbal Armor. This is the best, most effective, DEET-free herbal insect repellent I’ve been able to find – I shit you not. And I’ve tried so many.
- Tiger Balm.
- Anti-itch cream.
- Antibiotic cream.
- Odorless garlic oil gel caps
- Grapeseed extract in capsules
- Gel alcohol.
- A fold up fan. Not only will it help you cool off, it keeps the piums away.
- Your favorite camera
- MP3 recorder because the music, songs and chants are the best part of the experience. I use an H4N Zoom because it’s a professional MP3 recorder, and getting capturing memorable audio experiences with the clearest sound is important to me.
- Tripod – for your MP3 recorder or camera
- Selfie stick.
- Moisture absorbing silica gel desiccant packs.
- Surge Proof All-In-One Travel Adaptor
- USB Pen Drive – for sharing music recordings, photos and video
- Rain cape, not coat. Because of the torrential rain. If you get the kind for cycling in the rain, this will give you enough room to keep your backpack dry underneath.
- Fast-drying light cotton long sleeve shirts. The kind you get from Indian / Nepalese clothing stores are perfect.
- Long cargo pants that dry fast, with legs that zipper off
- Long light cotton skirts if you are a woman.
- White ceremonial clothes – shoulders must be covered
Join Me at the World Ayahuasca Conference
If you are intrigued by Amazonian culture and want to experience visionary medicines like ayahuasca, rapé, kambô, then join me for the World Ayahuasca Conference in Rio Branco, Brazil, and I will personally introduce you to amazing shamans and medicine makers. Here’s how:
Buy your tickets here & use the coupon code ENTHEO for a 15% discount.
Check out the World Ayahuasca Film festival entries here.
Fun side events include hot air ballooning and the Yawanawa Festival – details here.
What are your “must-have” jungle survival tools?
Please list them in the comments below!