Tourism versus Authenticity in the Amazon
For spring break, my dad and I left the confines of America to travel to Peru for 10 days. Our itinerary spanned across the country, and we were lucky enough to see a variety of things that many people are not able to experience. We began in the Urubamba Valley, hiked up to Machu Picchu, visited Cusco and eventually ended up in the Amazon Jungle. The scenery is definitely beautiful and the weather was not unbearably hot or rainy, but my trip to the Amazon did fill me with a slight sense of despondency. One question kept popping into my head as I went through the jungle: is it possible to experience something like the Amazon authentically?
There is a show called Naked and Afraid which is one of the best things that I have discovered during winter quarter. The concept behind the show is that a man and woman with extensive survival experience are shipped to an exotic place and expected to stay alive for 21 days. As you could probably tell from the title, their clothes are taken away and the majority of the show is one of the two people crying or complaining about their predicament. One episode took place in the Amazon, which, sadly, was my main touchstone for what the Amazon looked like before I came to experience it myself. Although I could recall some basic facts I learned in elementary school about how there are different ecosystems in the jungle (floor and canopy) as well as the fact that there are many huge and poisonous animals lurking around every corner, I did not expect it to be exactly what I experienced.
One thing I noticed about the Amazon is that it is never quiet. The birds, the cicadas, the river boats are always making noises during the day and are replaced at night by a horde of nocturnal animals. Everything is very green and the sky goes in and out of white and blue. There are bugs seemingly everywhere, and no amount of bug spray or serum will ensure that you will come out bite free.
One factor which determines how one’s experience plays out is the location one decides to stay at during their stay. There is a combination of lodges and camping experiences one can choose from when planning their trip, but since I had just finished the Inca Trail a few days before going to the Amazon Jungle, I opted to stay at a lodge since I had already roughed it enough for my taste. The lodge I stayed at during my time in the Amazon provided a balance between luxury and scraping by, but was it really authentic? Can anyone create an authentic experience of the Amazon? Does an authentic experience even exist?
Depending on the way a person travels and what he or she wishes to get out of the experience, the answers vary. For many people who come to the Amazon (read: older couples), this type of place was their speed because they enjoyed the slow pace of the tours and were accustomed to being taken care of while traveling. While I do not mind a nice bed and mosquito netting, the tours seemed the be lacking. There seemed to be a constant commentary from an ADD kid inside my head as we wandered through the rain forest: “Stop pointing out birds, and let’s go deeper into the jungle. Stop talking so loudly so that we can see some monkeys. Pick up the pace so we can see more before the tour is over.”
But would have seeing more wildlife made the experience better? Would I have felt like I got the “real” Amazon experience by seeing a Giant Anteater? Maybe, but then again maybe not.
An authentic experience can only be created by someone else to a certain extent. In order for the experience to be considered authentic by the person experiencing it, expectations have to be managed. Since all I knew about the Amazon were visions I got from falling asleep to Naked & Afraid, obviously staying in a cabaña with a working shower was going to seem like a cop out. After seeing how the natives live, eating a vegetarian and gluten free option from the lodge’s restaurant was going to seem American. Having completed a portion of the Inca Trail, walking slowly through the Amazonian trails was going to seem like I was missing out on something more found deeper within the jungle.
Being able to see Green Acouchys meander through the brush throughout the property, having a tapir basically knock on the door and discovering jaguar footprints while on a trail were all very real things that happened while in the Amazon. I was able to see animals that I will probably never see before and learned about mind controlling spores which can only affect invertebrates. While in the Amazon, I had a lot of time to think about the various comforts I have in my life and how I have taken them for granted (I will now always praise any sort of Internet connection, regardless of speed), and who is to say that my own Amazonian experience is authentic or not? Just because I was clothed and not particularly afraid of anything besides tarantulas doesn’t mean I did not experience the Amazon.
The trip in and of itself was an adventure that I will never forget (read the details of my Peruvian adventure HERE). It truly was a fantastic end to our time in Peru because we were forced to get away from any sort of technology and just enjoy the nature surrounding us. Whether it was authentic or not, traveling to the Amazon was an amazing experience which I highly recommend. Just remember to create your own expectations based off of more than a reality show.