THE AMAZON RIVERBOAT ADVENTURE
April 27, 2014
Four Degrees South of the Equator
We learned that you can only get to Iquitos by air - two hours flight time, or by boat - about three days! There are no roads. It's the northern gateway to the Amazon in Peru and although it looks like a town, apparently the local population is nearly half a million.
We got there before noon - the flight was uneventful. There were a couple of stops before we got to our boat, the Queen Violeta. First stop was the Amazon Rescue Center, which specializes in treating injured or orphaned manatees. We also stopped briefly in the town center to use the ATM's, change money and to pick up a few items, including mosquito repellant, ponchos, and some small gifts to give to village children we will likely encounter on the river.
We boarded our riverboat just past 1 PM, a triple decker nicely furnished vessel with 14 reasonably sized rooms on two levels, as well as a dining room, a bar and an open upper deck. The beer (surprise!) was five dollars not seven - a bargain!
Lunch was served right away, a buffet-style spread with salad, fish, chicken and vegetables. We were introduced to our naturalist, Luis, who explained that we were now four degrees south of the Equator, that the days were exactly twelve hours in length, and never changed regardless of the time of year. After lunch we had some free time to unpack and get settled in our rooms before meeting for our first excursion at 4 PM.
We boarded a large skiff that was being towed by the Queen Violeta - it was detached and we set off, following the shoreline and looking for wildlife. We didn't see much, mostly just birds, but we watched a spectacular sunset over the river before returning to the main boat. We admired the night sky as it darkened and filled with thousands of stars not normally visible at home, and studied the constellations until sitting down for a late dinner.
We were awakened at 5 AM by our bedside alarm. It was still dark as we emerged from our cabin and quickly headed up to the dining room for a quick cup of coffee. "The wildlife is most active early in the morning and late at night," Luis had explained, "So we need to get an early start!" He also pointed out that sunrise is at 6 AM every morning and sunset is at 6 PM every evening.
We set off in the skiff and entered a narrow tributary. Luis stood towards the back with binoculars scanning the shoreline and adjacent jungle. He spoke suddenly: "A sloth! Up there, in that tree!" I squinted upward and quickly spotted what looked like a monkey hanging upside down from a tree branch. Teresa and I shared our binoculars and watched as the creature slowly moved along the branch, crawling upside down and hanging by three legs. Moving further down the tributary Luis pointed out a group of squirrel monkeys careening from one tree branch to the next. (Their movements were indeed similar to the squirrels in our trees back home.) He caught sight of a large iguana laying vertically flat along the trunk of a tree, about twenty-five feet up and nearly invisible to the naked eye - I couldn't see it without the binoculars. We spotted quite a few more birds, including parakeets, woodpeckers and snowy egrets, before we finally headed back.
Later in the morning we paid a visit to a still, run by several of the local men, where they showed how they fermented sugar cane then distilled it into what was essentially moonshine - it was passed around - not much flavor but strong - "like rubbing alcohol" according to Teresa, our resident oenophile. Christopher and several others bought half liter containers - for what purpose I'm not really sure -
Back on the boat we enjoyed a leisurely lunch followed by some down time. I tried to do some reading but dozed off almost immediately - getting up at 5 AM will do that.
Luis had told us that the wildlife was most active early in the morning and late in the evening, so around 4 PM we jumped back onto the skiff and motored down the Ucayali River, an Amazon River tributary. We sped past several eco-lodges spotting only a few birds, when suddenly we were greeted with the strangest sound - it started as a low rumble then quickly increased in volume - we slowed down and immediately spotted several howler monkeys - it almost sounded like they were growling at us. As we got closer they started to swing menacingly through the trees toward the boat below - it looked like they were going to jump right onto the boat - our driver immediately threw the engine into reverse and quickly backed off. They continued to threaten us with this howling/growling sound - it was both creepy and chilling. We took several videos in an effort to capture this strange sound - simple photos wouldn't do it justice.
We continued onward until we reached a broad expanse of water - I wasn't sure if it was another tributary or something else. Luis had the driver stop the boat and quiet the engine, and moments later two bottle-nose dolphins flipped out of the water in a tandem formation. We watched in silence as several pink dolphins appeared and began to swim around us.
We remained in place for nearly half an hour watching the dolphins frolic as the sun slowly set over the river providing a mixture of pink and golden hues framed against the low clouds - truly stunning!
It was dark when we returned to the boat, but in the well-lit dining room, several members of the crew entertained us with pulsating music and dancing before we sat down to dinner.
April 29, 2014
Why they're called fire ants!
We arose early again, then boarded the skiff for a short ride to the shore, where we embarked on a hike into the rain forest. As Luis led us through the jungle, we gained an appreciation for the intensity and denseness of the jungle, as well as its extreme humidity, as both our cameras and glasses fogged up. The variety of plant life was incredible and the insects constantly swarmed around us. At one point we brushed up against some large leaves covered with ants - unfortunately they were fire ants, and we were aggressively assailed en masse, resulting in a frenzy of swatting as we were repeatedly bitten, and we quickly discovered where the name fire ant comes from. Fortunately we found that the fiery sting subsides after about ten minutes.
By the time we returned to the riverboat we were dripping with sweat, drenched in mosquito repellant, and our hiking shoes were covered with mud. Showers were a necessity before an early breakfast in the dining room.
Following our meal we stopped at a small village of about 450 residents, where we were given a short tour, then we were taken to a classroom and introduced to the teacher and about twenty five of her pupils, ranging in age from 2 to 12. The children greeted us and sang a song, and we reciprocated by singing Old MacDonald's Farm to them. After a mutual round of applause, several children volunteered to sing a song or tell a story to us and were rewarded with gifts we'd brought. Afterward, we browsed the local handicrafts that the villagers placed on display just outside the classroom along the sidewalk. They were mostly colorful miniature representations of much of the local wildlife such as birds, lizards, frogs, and various types of insects, and we purchased several to take home.
Late in the afternoon we boarded the skiff once again and motored to another tributary in the river - we came to a clearing and our boat idled as we watched another beautiful sunset, then we continued to search for wildlife in the dark with Luis shining a large spotlight into the forest as we moved along the dark shoreline. Unfortunately we didn't see much, but it was fascinating to listen to the constant humming of jungle sounds under the canopy of stars.
April 30, 2014
Time for a swim!
Once again we were awakened at 5 AM by our bedside alarm and once again we piled into the skiff, taking off under a sky that was pink with the coming sunrise.
We came around a bend in the waterway where it appeared to split in two, and we entered the northern branch, the Maranon River, which led us to the entry point of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. The skiff docked at an undersized building adjacent to the river that was powered by solar panels, apparently the ranger station. Luis greeted the ranger, hopped off the boat, and secured permits for the group.
We then proceeded into the park, passing by the Delfin II moored along the right bank - the Delfin is the National Geographic riverboat - National Geographic offers a version of the Amazon tour that is nearly identical to ours.
We slowly entered a narrow tributary and closely followed the shoreline while Luis, standing at the front of the boat, searched for wildlife with his binoculars. He spotted two three-toed sloths hanging from the top branches of a tree, an enormous hanging hornet's nest (almost three feet in length and a foot wide), and a family of "flying" monkeys darting among the branches. We saw a variety of bird species including several colorful toucans, and we could hear howler monkeys in the distance, presumably growling at the Delfin's skiff that we soon encountered around the next bend.
Around mid-morning we entered a narrow channel surrounded by heavy vegetation - our skiff's engines were cut, bringing us to a halt, and sandwiches, juice and coffee were passed around. As we ate we listened to the nearby sounds of the jungle - a continuous background buzzing.
The sun climbed higher in the sky as we traversed the channel, finally reaching an open area. "Time for a swim!" Luis announced, and most of the group stripped down to their bathing suits and jumped into the murky water. There was an unusually strong current and staying by the skiff required some serious physical exertion. After only a few minutes I was starting to feel fatigued and climbed back into the boat, followed very shortly by most of the others. A few diehards, including Brandon, Christopher and Katie, stayed in the water until it was time to leave.
After an afternoon of rest and relaxation on board the Queen Violeta, we were greeted at the shoreline by a number of indigenous villagers with canoes. Each individual in our group joined a local person in a canoe and we all spent the next hour plying the tranquil waters of several adjoining channels.
Returning to the boat, we watched the sun set over the river, until once again the stars engulfed the night sky, then we enjoyed another evening of live music accompanied by singing and dancing before eventually sitting down to dinner.
May 1, 2014
"My grandfather was a shaman... I was his apprentice for eight years. Women weren't allowed to become shamans, but he saw I was spiritual, so he trained me. Now I look after nine villages." She introduced herself as Carolla, and she sat before us on a low stool, with a row of containers of various sizes in front of her. She said that she did not ask for payment from her patients but was often given items such as vegetables, fish or chickens. She had her own garden and grew some of the items she used in her potions, but others came from various sources such as trees or animals. Some of the potions were for treatment of pain, some were to improve fertility, some were to treat rheumatism... she even had a potion to restore hair growth and rubbed some on my head!
The she chanted a prayer as she smoked a cheroot, blowing smoke into our hands to provide good fortune. Afterward, we perused the handicrafts that she and her family had made... masks, bracelets, earrings, handbags.
We were served lunch at a nearby village, local foods prepared by the women of the village: plantains, yucca root, meat from a "rodent" common to the area - it tasted somewhat like beef jerky - fresh fish wrapped in leaves, and juice made from bananas. I ate most of what I was given although I wasn't in a rush for seconds - what kind of rodent, I wondered... it was too large to be a rat... maybe they have big rats here! I think Anthony Bourdain would have been proud of me for the effort.
Returning to the boat, the crew was kind enough to provide a selection of finger foods - sweet rolls, cookies, cheese, olives, etc. to supplement our just-finished lunch. This was well received as some in our group had declined to partake of the local lunch delicacies.
Later in the afternoon we boarded our skiff and Luis took us to a local fishing hole - a favorite spot for catching piranhas. "We will eat what we catch," he promised. Yes, I thought to myself cynically - that will probably be nothing!
Looking for a quick bite, our boatman threw a stick to which a string and a piece of meat were attached into the water. He only waited a minute or two, then repeated the process - still no luck! He moved to boat to a different location then tried again - after five minutes there was still no action, so he moved the boat again. He was even more impatient than I am, I thought. At third location, he hit the jackpot, pulling up a rather large piranha with extremely sharp teeth.
He and Luis passed around similar home-style rods, nothing fancy, just a piece of string attached to a stick, with a morsel of meat on a hook. Almost immediately, there were a series of tugs on the many lines, and before long we had a bucket of piranhas, snapping and thrashing wildly. At one point a large piranha flew through the air at the end of someone's line - at first I thought it was a butterfly and tried to swat it away - before I could register what it was, its razor sharp teeth caught one of my fingers. Yikes! I'd been bitten by a piranha in mid-air and didn't even realize it until I saw my blood spurt out!
It was pretty exciting - at one point Brandon flung a piranha out of the water and hit himself on the head with it. He was stunned but not injured as Luis removed it from his line! Katie was mortified when she pulled up a strange looking fish, its tentacles waving madly at her - what was it? A catfish!
We returned to the boat before dark and there was a mad dash to get to the showers - I don't know if it was the fishy slime, the sweat or the mosquito repellant, but it all had taken its toll - and the water pressure on board dropped to zero almost immediately. Shortly after, there was a run on beer and the bar refrigerator was quickly emptied.
Then, just as dinner was being served, a stack of fried piranhas (and a single catfish) materialized from the kitchen. Morsels of piranha flesh appeared on a number of dinner plates including my own - I felt obliged to try it since I had contributed to the day's catch - but Katie took a rain check on her catfish!
May 2, 2014
Dancing to the Chunky Monkeys!
Our riverboat approached the small town of Nauta, the only one that is connected to Iquitos by road. Since there was no dock we rode the skiff the short distance to shore, then Geraldine and Luis led us on a short walk around the local market. Luis explained that the town had been increasing in size since the road was built - previously the only access had been via the river.
The town was pretty grungy and we'd seen what little there was to see in less than an hour. It was also getting extremely hot, even though it was barely 10 AM, but with the humidity somewhere around 90%, I could feel the sweat under my shirt trickling down my back. Despite my best efforts over the past few days, my arms were covered with mosquito bites, and the combination of the heat and my own sweat was causing them to itch like crazy!
I didn't see any vehicles, but there were lots of tuk-tuks, and Luis arranged tuk-tuk rides for those who were interested. Teresa and I declined since we'd been ridden tuk-tuks many times before. We wandered through the market one more time, but there just wasn't much to catch our interest so we returned to the boat and snagged a few early morning beers. It was the hottest day we'd had and it wasn't even noon!
After lunch I headed up to the top deck and plopped myself into a hammock, and settled in to do some serious reading. But the air was thick with only the slightest hint of a breeze and I quickly dozed off... I'm not sure for how long. I awakened when my hammock began to swing furiously. I abruptly sat up and saw that the sky was dark with storm clouds - a major squall had blown in! I stayed where I was - the hammock was under a deck cover - but moments later the downpour hit with pelting rain coming at me horizontally! I scrambled out of the hammock and headed below, clinging to my possessions as a fierce wind tried to wrestle them from my grasp. The storm continued for more than an hour as everyone took refuge in the dining room.
The squall passed and the rain abated. Earlier, Luis had asked us to meet him on the top deck (under the canopy) and around 4 PM we gathered round to listen as he spoke at length about the history of the Amazon basin in Peru over the past 150 years, including the rush for rubber at the beginning of the 20th century. He spoke of the rapid influx of money and Westerners into the region and the excesses of the rubber barons who cornered the rubber market and financially exploited the local population. He spoke of the recent rise of ecotourism and the need to pursue sustainable tourism. I was surprised to hear that there are only eight riverboats similar to ours, plying the waters of the Amazon River.
When he was done, he called for the crew to come onto the deck - the captain, the first mate and engineer, the chef and his assistant, the bartender and the cabin housekeepers. He introduced each by name and thanked them all their exceptional service, followed by a well-deserved round of applause.
After dinner, Luis proclaimed that the entertainment would be provided by the Chunky Monkeys - this was the name of the band the crew had chosen. For the rest of the evening, our last night on the riverboat, there was dancing, music and singing, and lots of beer and wine! No doubt there would be a few hangovers in the morning!
May 3, 2014
It was overcast and rainy as we disembarked - I realized how lucky we'd been - our days on the river had been mostly sunny with high clouds - despite the heat and persistent humidity, the weather had generally been cooperative.
The bus took us back into Iquitos where we wandered on foot for about an hour, passing through the central square, admiring the flowers and neatly trimmed foliage, then meandering along the riverfront.
Although it was quiet, Luis said it was busy most evenings when the residents gathered to stroll the length of the promenade. He also pointed out several historic buildings dating back to the rubber boom around the beginning of the last century - these were not especially well preserved, owing to the frequent rain and constant humidity, but clearly they had been elegant in their time.
We bade farewell to Luis at the airport but Geraldine stayed with us for the flight back to Lima.
It was past 4 PM when we made it back to our hotel - Geraldine informed us that she had made a reservation for a farewell dinner and to meet in the lobby at 6:30 PM.
Later, over dinner, we heard more about our fellow travelers' future plans - most were heading to Cusco tomorrow on the first leg of their journey to Machu Picchu - but several were also continuing on to Bolivia and Central America over the next few weeks. After dinner we bade our farewells, hugs and handshakes, then returned to the hotel to repack and get ready for our early morning flight at 7 AM. Taxi pickup at 4:45 AM. Ugh!!
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS...
May 11, 2014
Our first trip to South America proved to be exciting, educational and fascinating!
True, we only visited two locales in Peru: Machu Picchu and the Amazon. Well, three, if you count Lima, which had its own peculiar charms.
The trip certainly paves the way for another visit to South America - it's a big continent with a lot of countries - I picked up a detailed map of South America from a vendor in Lima Centro (for only 5 soles, about $1.85) and as I am studying the brightly colored countries - Brazil, in green, is the largest, and (I think) French Guiana, in brown, is the smallest, with Chile, the narrow yellow strip along the west coast and Argentina, in pink, taking up most of the southeast portion, I can see a slew of possibilities. The names pop off the map at me: Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, La Paz, Quito... Valparaiso, Chili, where Isabelle Allende begins her story Daughter of Fortune!
As with so many trips, the unexpected often proves to be the most interesting... our fishing expedition, for example, when a piranha bit my finger in mid-air... is that weird or what? And of course, collecting a bucket of piranhas for dinner in only 30 minutes!
And Teresa can tell you that if you swat a fire ant you'd better kill it the first time, because (as she was dismayed to discover), if you don't it gets real mad and starts to bite you again and again!
Brandon discovered the downside of eating organic when he pulled a big green worm out of his fresh salad at lunch the first day! (No, they don't use pesticides!)
Katie had an ewww moment when she suddenly found out that there are catfish in the Amazon River and they flap their whiskers around at you when you try to get them off the hook!
And Christopher learned that guinea pigs may be pets back home but in Lima they are considered good eating!
We met some fascinating people as well: Gary, a retired nurse from San Francisco, has traveled the world and can work wonders with a map and has an uncanny sense of direction; Kaeli, a digital editor for Budget Travel, who has interviewed Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G-Adventures; Barbara, a US diplomat stationed in Uruguay who will soon be heading to Beirut: Craig, an engineer for Exxon in northern Alberta traveling outside of North America for the first time; Jenna, a preschool teacher from a small town near Adelaide; Gareth, a professional rugby player from Wales... and so many more!
Educational: I honestly had no idea that the Incas had built such an advanced civilization prior to the "discovery" of the new world in 1492. I seem to recall learning in third grade that "history" didn't really start until then! Not so much!
As I write this note (while scratching countless mosquito bites that are still itching a week later), I realize that in crossing off one adventure from my long list, I need to add several more.
And I still haven't made it to Antarctica!