Unless you’ve always wanted “killed by jungle cat” in your obit, here’s what not to do.
Whether you opt for an all-inclusive package tour or plunge head first into the jungle with only a local guide and a hammock, exploring the Amazon can be an unforgettable and potentially transformative experience in one of the most ecologically diverse and impenetrable environments on the planet. For those who are ready to immerse themselves in the beauty and intensity of this dense rainforest paradise but have no idea what to expect, here is a list of mistakes not to make along the way.
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Don’t Poop on a Tarantula’s Home
You may think that it would be easy to avoid pooping on a tarantula’s burrow, and normally it is, unless you are in a jungle. When searching for a hospitable squat spot in a tangled mess of vines, branches, and leaves, the only dark hole that you should feel confidently aware of is your own.
Avoid squatting on top of or close to any holes, doing so as if your life depends on it, because it just might. If a tarantula or one of the many local snakes is inside that hole, your bathroom break can end up breaking you. If you do not receive immediate medical attention for a bite, you can die. If you are bitten and do not die, you might end up wanting to, because on your way to the hospital, many people will probably need to (or maybe just want to) closely inspect your busted bottom.
Don’t Hire a Guide Who Doesn't Speak English
A tour through the Amazon is not the best time to learn Spanish or Portuguese. Although it is usually more expensive, hiring a guide that speaks your language will ensure you don’t miss out on crucial information about your surroundings, the opportunity to learn about the lives of the locals, and the ability to ask your guide if they wouldn’t mind bringing along a bottle or two of aguardiente to calm your nerves when the night sets in.
Don’t Skimp on Taking Precautions to Protect Yourself From Mosquitoes
You will get destroyed by mosquitoes, there is no way around it. However, you would be wise to try to protect yourself as much as possible, as there is a distinct difference between 250 and 400 mosquito bites. Here are a few precautions you can take to reducing their ravage.
Use bug repellant. Your guide might laugh at you, and you may notice that as soon as you spray it on your skin the mosquitoes come flocking back, but if it deters a few of those buggers then it is worth it.
Sleep in a mosquito net. Most tours provide a net, but it is worth inquiring about this before setting out. If you are sleeping in a hammock, there will be an opening at the bottom of the net so you can get in and out. This may feel counterproductive, and it is. Fortunately, a lot of bugs are stupid, so despite the opening in the net, there will still be fewer bugs getting at you than if there was nothing at all. Sleep tight, the bed bugs will bite!
Wear clothes that cover your skin. This sounds like a no-brainer, but when you are out in the heat of the jungle it is tempting to remove those toasty layers. Wear sturdy pants and long-sleeved shirts. Leave your yoga leggings at home, your rump will appeal to mosquitoes with or without a contoured lift.
Take malaria medicine. If you value your malaria-free lifestyle, you will want to consider taking pills that prevent you from contracting this deadly disease. Some parts of the jungle are more at risk for malaria than others, so do a little research to see if you are visiting a high-risk area.
Don't Worry About Bugs
Not because there aren’t any there, but because there are SO MANY there that there is no point in being repulsed by them or concerned if any of them are near you. There are so many near you all the time, especially at night when you can’t see them until they unexpectedly land on your mouth. If it’s dark when your bug encounter occurs, consider it a blessing. The bug cannot enter your nightmares if you do not know what it looks like. Don’t think about how it was probably one of those giant cockroach-looking things and how it could still be on you somewhere, like on your upper back where you can’t feel it and won’t notice it until it tangles itself into your hair.
Don’t Be That Person Who Thinks Coca Is the Same Thing as Cocaine
A very small amount of research (or even this article right here) will inform you very clearly that coca is not the same thing as cocaine. Coca is used to make cocaine. It has similar effects but is far less potent, is not a refined substance that has been mixed with other substances, is not illegal, and does not possess the same highly addictive qualities as cocaine. Many tourists freak out over the coca, thinking it is cocaine, and this either scares them or excites them. For the Amazon’s indigenous population, the cultural significance and rituals surrounding this plant go back much farther than Señor Escobar. Your guide may offer you some on your tour, so partake if that’s what you want to do. You will not become addicted to putting finely-ground dried leaves under your tongue. The effects are a temporary numbness in your mouth and a slight boost of energy, perking you up during a hike or helping you to forget for a few moments how hot it is. These feelings don’t last long, you won’t be fiending for more, and you won’t end up talking about your screenplay for three hours.
Do Not Hike and Take Photos at the Same Time
When you hike through the jungle, you must be aware of your surroundings, pay attention to where you are walking, and stay close to the guide, which is difficult to do if you’re viewing the world through a tiny screen. There are lots of potential hazards and you have no idea what to look out for. Many plants have sharp spines, some four inches long, and if you are distracted you could grab onto one of these without realizing. A snake can jump out of nowhere and scare the dickens out of you as it launches itself between your legs. You could run into a nest of wasps which you will deeply, deeply regret. You could fall into a hole that you probably would not have seen even if you had been paying attention. But therein lies the fun!
Unless you are a photographer, your photos on the move will probably be terrible. What you see through your eyeballs as a lush jungle paradise will appear in your photo roll as a blurry, tangled mass of foliage, and absolutely nobody is going to get a sense of where you were from your crappy photos.
Don't Be So Uptight
Many of us are used to living carefully curated lives. We make plans and lists, refer to itineraries, update our calendars, and contact helpful customer service representatives to answer all our questions. Life is more laidback in the jungle. Not everything is on a strict schedule or meticulously explained to you with concise instructions or guidelines. Don’t worry about how long it will take to get somewhere, what is going to happen when you arrive there, how something will get done, or how you are going to handle what might happen in the future. Remember that you traveled to the jungle to experience some type of adventure. There is no need to dig too deep about what is going to happen in the next hour or two. Take a vacation from your overwhelming preoccupation with scheduling and expectations. You are going to need to save your anxiety for other, more pressing matters such as the terror of the dark.
Don’t Forget Your Place in This Jungle World
Take yourself from the top of the food chain where you normally reside and throw yourself all the way to the bottom. Welcome to your new position—you are totally useless in the jungle. Unless you have lived there for your entire life (and even those people are not immune to the environment), you are an interloper who offers only fresh, exotic meat and blood to the jungle’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Before humans dominated the food chain, we resided somewhere in the middle. You’re not even in the middle here, because those humans knew what they were doing, whereas you know nothing. Give respect where it’s due, or else you may be reminded as to why you should, and it could be quite regrettable. Ask your guide to tell you stories about stupid tourists, they likely have many to share (and maybe a few they won’t even want to tell you about.)
Don’t Rule out the Chance That a Large Cat Is Hunting You
There are large, meat-loving cats in the jungle and they may be hunting you, especially at night. These cats know your weaknesses, which is every single thing about you. You have no strength, no intimidating size, no hunting instincts, no cunning, no ability to sneak up on anything, no knowledge of the environment, you can’t run very fast, you have no claws, and your teeth are an absolute joke. Let’s face it, you have trouble piercing an almond with those sad little teeth.
There is always that person who will tell you (as if they are the absolute first to say) that “cats don’t want to eat humans because they don’t like the taste” or “humans don’t offer enough meat to the cats” or some BS to that effect. Whether that’s true or not, who really knows, we cannot ask a cat their opinion on the gourmet merits of a human. What we do know is that cats have been attacking humans since both have coexisted, so there must be a reason for why they are doing so.
When it comes to cats, it is not necessarily their hunger or dietary preferences that should worry you. What should truly frighten you is their playful personality and the joy they derive from pawing and clawing weaker, smaller animals until they are dead and are no fun anymore. But hey, death by jungle cat is a pretty sick way to go out, just make sure you have someone funny lined up to write your obituary.
Don’t Hesitate to Ask the Guide Every Question You Can Think of
Most guides are happy to share their knowledge of the jungle, but you must be proactive about letting them know your interest goes farther than getting a couple choice posts for Instagram. Endear yourself to them, and you can do this by asking them all the questions that pop into your head and being genuinely interested in the answers. When they see that you are an engaged, curious person, they will show you more things and go out of their way for you. Maybe they will save you the good piece of chicken, give you the inside track on the best river bathing spot, hook you up with some coca from time to time, or (hopefully) protect you first in the event of an emergency. It’s good practice to be a nice human in general, but in this case, the tour guide is your lifeline. Respect them and let them know you are interested in what they have to share. And don’t forget to tip!
Don’t Think You Will Have Access to the Internet or Be Able to Charge Your Phone
Take yourself back to the long-lost days of offline living, because your smartphone has no place here. You came to the jungle to experience the natural world, so do that. Not to mention (and this might be a more convincing argument) the heat and humidity can damage your machines, as can the rain, the water from the river, or the endless amounts of mud and dirt you will be trudging around in. Go full analog and read a book during your after-lunch rest, write in a journal, or sketch the beautiful nature you are surrounded by. Whatever it is, ditch the tech.
Do Not Expect a Refuge of Total Peace and Quiet
It is loud in the jungle! Especially at night when all the frogs, crickets, birds, monkeys, and insects come together to create a melodious chorus of unusual and, at times, unsettling sounds. If you are used to sleeping in a quiet setting, consider bringing earplugs to ensure a restful night of sleep. It is wonderful to wake up in the morning to the sweet sounds of birds singing, that is an experience that has the potential to invigorate depths of your soul that you didn’t even know you had. It is not so wonderful to be kept awake all night because a frog knows how to perfectly imitate the sound of an alarm clock.
Don't Assume Animals Are the Only Threat
Perhaps you thought animals were the only thing you needed to worry about, and that would be incorrect. Trees fall all the time in the jungle, and you will easily notice how many have toppled when you are forced to climb over or walk on top of them. Those trees were upright at one time, and now they are on the ground. There are only a few mere moments in the life cycle of a tree where it is crashing to the ground with incredible force and with very little warning. You’re going to want to keep an eye and ear out for those brief but potentially life-altering moments.
Don't Bring a Keychain Flashlight as Your Primary Light Source
Your guide might have one for you to use, but just in case, bring your own outdoor-grade flashlight with fresh batteries. You are going to need this flashlight at night when all you hear are sounds of leaves rustling, animals howling, and trees falling in a not-so-distant proximity. Also, you are going to need a powerful flashlight to effectively conduct your cat patrols.
ProTip: Shine your flashlight beam into the trees to look for glowing eyes!
NoTip: What to do if you are unfortunate enough to detect said eyes!
Do Not Wait Until Night Falls to Fulfill Your Most Crucial Bathroom Needs
Here we are, back in the bathroom. It turns out that this activity can be fraught with peril, so you might as well be prepared. Trying to do your biz at night in the total darkness is horribly scary, and it’s damn near impossible to feel comfortable when you have no idea what’s lurking in your vicinity. When you’re alone in the dark and in a vulnerable state, you will start thinking about what’s out there—the snakes, the tarantulas, the large cats, and all the bugs that you don’t even know about and don’t want to know about. Many of these creatures have teeth, and sometimes those teeth shoot poison, and there you are with your pants down. You are not good enough at the jungle to determine the safety of your improvised outhouse, and it will be very difficult to relax as required. If you are a person who loves (lives for!) a satisfying bathroom experience, remember this: get those buns down before the sun’s down!