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Face to Face with a Piranha


When our tour guide suggested we try fishing for piranhas, I thought it sounded like an interesting way to pass the afternoon. Little did I suspect that it would nearly result in permanent disfigurement—and that my wife would be the principal culprit.


A four-hour boat trip from Iquitos brought us to a lovely riverside lodge deep in the Peruvian Amazon. We’d already spent a few wonderful days watching pink dolphins frolic in the Amazon’s wide waters, hiking through thick forests with monkeys scurrying overhead, sidestepping tarantulas during night walks and enjoying delicious meals of freshly-cooked fish.


On one of our last days our guide, Carlos, led us to our “canoe,” a hollowed-out log that nearly capsized as we climbed aboard. After paddling to a secluded tributary, Carlos attached pieces of bait to our flimsy fishing poles. As he dipped his pole into the water, he brought it out almost immediately with a red-bellied piranha dangling from the end. My wife informed us that she didn’t want to participate because it would be cruel for the fish. I found it odd timing, however, since she said so right after Carlos explained that a piranha was capable of ripping out a chunk of your hand when you tried to remove it from the hook.


Smugly assuming that having fished a few times as a child made me an expert, I patted her reassuringly on the shoulder and confidently dropped my line in the water.


An hour later, I had still not managed to catch a single piranha. Although Carlos was using the fish he caught as bait, the piranhas were stealing my offerings faster than he could replenish my hook. Clearly unimpressed by my pitiful performance, my wife finally decided that she would give it a shot.


She put one of the last pieces of bait on her hook and dropped it over the side of the boat. An instant later, she yanked her pole out of the water. The biggest piranha I’d ever seen in my life dangled on her hook. My wife released a terrified scream, wildly flailing the pole around. I watched in horror as the piranha circled my head not once but twice, fixing me with what seemed to be a baleful glare.


“Get it over the edge! Get it over the edge,” I yelped helplessly, certain that the piranha was going to slip off of the hook and fall in my lap at any moment.


A few more moments of pandemonium ensued before Carlos managed to grab the line and remove the piranha. After taking one look at my ashen face, Carlos and my wife erupted in a fit of laughter.


I would return to the Peruvian Amazon in a heartbeat. When it comes to fishing for piranhas, however, I think once was enough.


Further Information

Travel tips: There are a number of jungle lodges available and reservations can be made in Iquitos. You'll probably want to stay at least three days since it's generally a four- to five-hour boat trip (minimum) from Iquitos to the nearest lodge.
Must see/do at this place: Be sure to check out the pink dolphins that inhabit the Amazon. Evening and early morning nature walks and canoe trips are great opportunities to spot monkeys, kingfishers, tarantulas, snakes, and a variety of other animals.
You should avoid here: Avoid taking any electronic devices that need to be plugged in. There's no electricity at the lodges, although the price includes all meals. Take long-sleeved shirts and pants to avoid mosquitoes, especially at dusk and dawn.

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By Ben Hess
A youth group mission trip to Mexico at the age of 16 opened my eyes to the world outside of the United States. Independent travel always brings out...
29 Oct 2008

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