Road-Cruising in Amazonia

One of the hallmark activities of field herping, driving on (preferably) lonely roads at night can be incredibly productive at times. In the United States there are some famous and infamous roads for road cruising; Mexico is chock full of them, and other countries have their share. I’m here to tell you about an unusual one, a singular road in a place more suitable for dugout canoes than tires on asphalt.

Dropping into Iquitos the easy way.

Iquitos, former headquarters of Peru’s long-defunct rubber boom and home to nearly a half million humans, is a land-locked island on the Amazon River. There are no roads to Iquitos – one arrives there by boat, or by air. All things necessary for life in Iquitos arrive in the same way, or spring forth locally. There are no roads to Iquitos and yet, there is one road to and from Iquitos – the one connecting it to the small river town of Nauta, mostly asphalt and in fair shape, a stretch that can be traveled in a few hours, at 20km/h in a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi.

Our road-cruising vehicle.

Iquitos is the port of departure for the eco-tour company that I guide for, and the smart thing to do is to arrive there the day before we shove off down-river, and catch up on travel-deprived sleep at the Hotel Colibri, just off the Plaza de Armas and near the boat docks. The not-so-smart but more entertaining thing to do is to hire a van and a driver and cruise the Nauta road, starting at sunset. Guillermo, our logistics guy in Iquitos, once again made the arrangements for what is now a regular prelude to our expeditions. Matt, Dāv and I spent the afternoon at the Quistacocha Zoo just outside of town, and our driver, Francisco, was to pick us up there around five o’clock. Instead of the usual passenger van, he showed up in a small tour bus, with Guillermo along for the ride. “Same price,” said Guillermo, shrugging. At least the huge windshield would provide an awesome view for everyone inside.

Everyone gets a great view…..

Leaving from the zoo cut out much of the congestion that grips Iquitos, and as the kilometers passed, taxis, scooters, and the smoky rattle-trap buses grew fewer and far between. We were still in a suburban area when the first snake presented itself – “¡Para! ¡Para! ¡Para!” This was not Francisco’s first road-cruising rodeo, having driven for us the previous year – he knew that “¡Para!” shouted a least six times and usually a lot more (and in chorus) meant the game was afoot and that he should stop quickly. He could have taken his time on this one – it was a DOR Forest Racer, Chironius exoletus, just over a meter in length. Dead On Road – there’s a bundle of sadness in that little acronym. Here, as anywhere else, road-cruising includes the ugly business of perfectly wonderful critters getting smashed and mangled by oblivious Muggles who got there first.

Sadness – DOR Chironius exoletus

Next up was a hefty Marine Toad (Rhinella marina), also known as the Cane Toad in other parts of the world. In the Peruvian Amazon, Rhinella marina is a regular member of the local herpetofauna, and not an introduced nightmare of a pest (if you’re thinking of introducing a critter to control another critter, I have a bunch of Australian mates ready to line up and slap some sense into you). The Marines were out in number and we didn’t stop for every toad, but one we did stop for later paid off handsomely.

Rhinella marina – Marine Toad

Frogs are always worth braking for, and an enormous glob hunkered in the middle of the asphalt was no exception. It was a Gladiator Treefrog (Hypsiboas boans), one of the largest treefrogs in the Amazon Basin (males can be five inches from snout to vent). Ours was a large specimen, and handsome to boot. Male Gladiator Treefrogs construct nesting basins to hold rainwater and to attract females, and they defend their basins from other males with the aid of bone spurs on their thumbs. The resultant grappling and hand-to-hand combat evidently reminded someone of a gladiatorial contest (thumbs-up from Caesar?). Less than a half-klick down the road, another large frog sproinged onto the roadway – another Hypsiboas boans, a little smaller and lighter in color. One easy tell-tale for this species is the full webbing between the fingers, all the way to the disc pads at the end of each digit.

Hypsiboas boans, the Gladiator Treefrog

A smaller but no less interesting frog appeared – Dendropsophus triangulum, the Variable Clown Treefrog. Beautifully (and variably) marked, they occasionally hopped onto the road, and more often, called from wet spots along the roadside. They’re common as dirt in Amazonia but beautiful enough to warrant your full attention.

Dendropsophus triangulum – Variable Clown Treefrog

Up next was a heartbreaking DOR, a brilliantly colored Coral Pipesnake (Anilius scytale). I would have given much to see a live specimen of this odd little snake, a Russian nesting doll in its taxonomy (single species in a single genus in its own family). Matt had found a live Anilius the previous year, and while I am rarely envious of others these days, I was jealous of his find (more on this snake below).

DOR Anilius scytale – Coral Pipesnake

We stopped to investigate what turned out to be another Marine Toad, and Dāv spotted a snake moving along the edge of a culvert. It was an Amazon Scarlet Snake (Pseudoboa coronata), less than a meter in length. We usually see one or two of these handsome snakes on our expeditions (we ended up with four this time), and I don’t think they come in Ugly. Occasionally I see them tagged with the common name ‘False Boa’, which is a lazy interpretation of a poorly-named genus, and unfitting for a snake which mimics the sub-adult form of the Mussurana (Clelia clelia), a famous devourer of other serpents. Scarlet Snake it is.

Pseudoboa coronata – Amazon Scarlet Snake

Arriving in Nauta, we stopped in at a place for a soda and ended up having grilled half-chickens for a late dinner, before turning the bus around and heading back to Iquitos. The trip back was less productive, with more Marine Toads and more DORs, including some water snakes (Helicops). Anywhere you go, that’s the essence of road-cruising – you pay your money, you take your chances, and the moment, if there is one, passes. Back in my little un-air-conditioned room at the Hotel Colibri, staring at the ceiling with about five hours left before we must get up and head down the Amazon, I thought about that poor dead pipesnake, and the possibility in a year’s time of seeing a live one on the Nauta Road. Such is also road-cruising – opportunities missed and opportunities to dream upon.

Dāv and Matt, shooting frogs along the roadside.

For more about the Coral Pipesnake, read Andrew Durso’s account in his fine blog Life is Short, but Snakes are Long. You won’t be disappointed. Photos from this year and previous years of cruising the Nauta Road grace the carousel below.

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  1. Don Dean

    Very very nice! I’m actually surprised by your finds along the Nauta highway and I thank you for the education. A dozen years ago, I was looking for a property to buy on the highway, couldn’t find anything where the soil hadn’t already been blown out. Luckily I hooked up with Devon a bit later and we started to invest in more property at Santa Cruz. Thanks for the great post. We’ll be in touch 🙂

  2. Mike Pingleton (Post author)

    thanks, Don – I appreciate your comments. There are some wild-looking stretches along that road, esp. around Mishana.

    cheers, Mike

  3. Michael Cravens

    Catching up on some reading before catching my flight tomorrow evening. Thank for providing some pre-trip excitement. See you in a few days!


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