While Anne, my wife, and I started toward Peru, Katey, our daughter, was going to supercamp in California. She was flying via Delta. Katey had gone to supercamp the day before we left and called back that evening terribly homesick. Anne had talked with her for a long time and we thought that Katey would call back again later that night but she didn't. So, we didn't get too much sleep the night before the trip. We left Dunwoody @ 8:00 a.m. via taxi to the Chamblee MARTA station. Our flight to Miami was delayed and we arrived in Miami about 1:30. We bought a lunch of sandwiches and salads and went to our gate at 3:00. Our flight to Iquitos was via Faucett Air; at the gate we met several folks who were going with International Journeys on our trip. There were also tourists going to Peru with other travel companies. At about 4:30 we picked up our boarding passes and got in a long line to check our luggage.
Click for Rio Amazonas Map
We left Miami on a Faucett L1011 at about 6:30, bound for the Peruvian jungle and the Amazon river. After dusk, we were flying over black inky jungle and suddenly about 11:00 p.m. the lights of Iquitos came into view. We landed at 11:15 on a very hot night and entered the Iquitos airport. The airport walls were covered with large dark murals of jungle scenes that featured painted Indians and animals on the Amazon. We passed through customs [a couple of officials with the appropriate rubber stamps at an old desk] and went to retrieve our luggage. Many local baggage handlers descended on huge piles of luggage from everywhere in a wild, chaotic scene . We had to point out our specific bags so they could be retrieved and loaded onto our bus. On the way to the bus we were met by hordes of kids selling all sorts of items ranging from religious icons to necklaces, candy, turtles, and snakes. We ran the gauntlet and boarded our ancient bus with no windows. But it was nicely decorated with religious icons for good luck --- it certainly needed these as its gears were quite loud and they did not seem like they would survive much longer. We had a 30 minute ride along narrow paved roads leading into Iquitos. We saw many small restaurants and bars, each with its lights holding back the dark jungle. There were many motorcycles and 3-wheeled vehicles with loud horns. Finally, we came to a block of unassuming buildings and proceeded down a long, steep, wooden walkway to the Rio Amozonas, our home for the next week. We could barely tell that we were on a river as there was little light. It was like walking into a dark Egyptian tomb. Our esteemed vessel was built in 1896 in Scotland and has hauled uncountable numbers of goods and passengers in a century of duty. I'll bet this ship could really tell some good stories if only she could talk! After locating the air conditioning switch [see next paragraph], we went straight to bed, really tired.
Next morning we were up early to explore our boat and surroundings. The Rio Amazonas had three main decks. At the waterline was the central dining and meeting facility in the front of the boat. Aft was the engine room, where a large yellow diesel engine purred. On the next deck up, most of the cabins were located off an enclosed hallway. These cabins all had central air conditioning, AC was essential for the trip, as we were to find out later. The next deck contained the wheel house towards the bow, the owners and captains were behind the wheelhouse , followed by about 6 other cabins. We were lucky to be just aft of the owners cabin -- this gave us the right to our own AC controls. However, the AC controls consisted of an ancient switch. The AC switch had two settings: hot as a Peruvian jungle or freezing cold -- blankets were absolutely necessary on the latter setting. Also the switch was located in a separate cabinet outside of the cabin, a feature that I was barely able to discover on my own late the first night! In the morning sun and heat, we found ourselves set near high riverbanks that towered above us perhaps 50 feet. A market with several walkways perched precariously on high stilts was seen not far away. It had piers and docks built out over the river. Small boats in various stages of decay were seen on the banks. Kids were coming by our boat in small dugouts with paddles. The Amazon was so wide that we could barely see across it. There was much river traffic with barges carrying large logs and other goods being transported to the city.
Later, we walked down the nearby streets to a local market where many unusual fruits were being sold. Several pigs were loaded on carts for the ultimate sacrifice. The streets had plenty of human and cart traffic, the favorite type of transportation seemed to be the 3-wheeled variety with small motorcycle engines. Afterwards, we took a two hour tour of central Iquitos. Most streets are paved and you will find pharmacies, dentists, schools, and courtyards. Strangely, there is an iron building designed by Eiffel. The Peruvians were very friendly, especially the kids. They followed the bus and seemed to know exactly where it was going to stop, for the same kids would be at each stop! We stopped to watch a military parade of Army and Air Force soldiers, we were told that there is a two year draft in Peru. At this stop there was an old, but highly polished Ford Mustang. At another stop a kid thrust a snake into the face of one of our group and she screamed "Snake" and jumped to the other side of the bus in sheer terror!
We finished the tour at about 1:30 and prepared to embark on the great Amazon river. A local band of young boys came on board to play Peruvian music for about 30 minutes. After we left the dock and they had collected their tips, they departed by boat. Along the Amazon we saw many small settlements and lots of single houses on stilts. These houses were usually next to very large trees. There were many dugout canoes plying the great river also. Up river we noted that our boat had pulled to an Indian village and stopped. We stayed a few minutes here, then continued on, turned around, and came back to the same village toward Iquitos. It soon became apparent that they had stopped to hook up the boat's TV to the local receiver. The world soccer matches were playing. We stayed at the village for an hour or so until after the match was over. Thus, soccer takes precedence over everything here. As we walked through the village, we noticed that the kids had monkeys and parrots for pets. The village had paved walkways but no cars or motorcycles. There was no air-conditioning of course, but there was a health clinic. There was little trash in the village and it appeared well-kept. I played ball with some of kids to pass the time.
After the soccer matches, we headed downriver and by 5:30 we reached a tributary about 40 feet wide with a few houses ashore. We boarded our powered longboats [these were about 25 feet long and 6 feet wide aluminum vessels] and proceeded up the tributary as night fell, at some points the tributary narrowed so that it was just wide enough for our longboats to pass. We passed dugout canoes and isolated dwellings. Our guide spotted the red eyes of caiman in the water and caught one about two feet long to show us. Later, we cut all of our lights and just stayed quiet and listened carefully to the sounds of the jungle -- frogs, birds, etc. It can be quiet noisy in jungle at night. As we returned, a small fish leaped into our boat. We tossed it out and returned about 7:00 p.m. to the Rio Amazonas. We had dinner at 7:30, some sort of Chinese food. The food on the Amazonas was plain and repetitive, a lot of fish and rice. But it was the only "food in town," so complaining didn't help!
We got up at 5:00 a.m. and motored near a village of Bora Indians. At 6:00 we took the longboats up a tributary to search for wildlife. We saw hawks, kingfishers, and a sloth. I had a difficult time seeing these sloths but Anne claimed she saw it o.k. We saw several large white wasp nests in the trees. There were also ant nests occupied by wasps. We also saw several of the large Victoria Regina water lilies, these are about five feet in diameter. Our guide turned pieces of one over and showed us how the underside had sharp spikes to ward off anything that would try to eat the lilies. Later, we motored up to the Bora Indian village. We walked along the jungle paths accompanied by many Indian kids who would take your hands -- some of us had as many as three kids attached! We walked to their long house where they had attached many items to the walls for bartering. These items included paintings on bark, necklaces, masks, and spears. The Indians did several dances including the Anaconda Dance, the Monkey Dance, and the Snake Dance. They asked Anne to dance, so she joined them for a while as I videotaped the action! The Indians passed around a fermented drink, I did not try it. After the dance, everyone began to barter with the Indians. I traded the baseball, pens, and dollars for paintings on bark.
After lunch we went into the oldest town in this part of the Amazon -- Pevas. Most homes were on stilts but they had electricity. Again the same kids joined us. They had just followed us up the Amazon in their trusty dugout canoes! Kids here are very accustomed to navigating the river. They take no safety precautions such as wearing lifejackets while in their canoes. We went to the home of the artist Francisco Grippa. This was really an extraordinary house, much larger than anything else in Pevas. It was painted stark white and had two stories with a thatched roof and large overhanging awnings. Grippa was there and he served us beer. The views from his house of the river below were fantastic! Most of his paintings were modern impressionistic works. Before leaving Pevas, an Indian kid took me up the same tributary where the Bora Indians lived. We saw lots of birds and fish. When we left Pevas we were accompanied by many canoes with kids hoping to make a last sale!
Downriver, there were many clearings on the banks with just a house on stilts and perhaps a few banana trees. Giant trees were usually near the houses, inland, however, the jungle ruled. About 4:00 p.m., we docked near a thatched house on the bank where a man named Julio lived with his wife and son. We began walking through the forest along a narrow path, led by Julio. It began to rain, at first slowly, then hard. Only a few of us had brought ran gear and Anne and I got very wet. The forest was dark and thick; it would seem to be impossible to traverse it without a path. We saw giant Ficus trees nearly 200 feet high with their huge buttresses and trunks. It is a real shame to cut such trees but on the Amazon one saw barges with their giant trunks from time to time.
We got up early as usual and visited a small Indian village of perhaps 15 houses. There were several types of fruits to eat and a tree called a gourd tree that had light green gourds about a foot in diameter The village had been flooded and banana trees were killed, several houses were being rebuilt, most of the houses were on stilts. Logs were piled everywhere for building canoes and houses. I went in one house to see what they were eating -- a small girl was having fish for breakfast. The "stove" was built of stones on the floor which was far off the ground as it was built on stilts. A small fire was burning to cook the fish. At 11:00 we got into our longboats to fish for pirrana. We headed up into some smaller tributaries with a little bait. As we caught the pirrana, it began to rain very hard, we kept on fishing but it was pretty miserable. Finally we gave up fishing in the downpour and motored back to the Rio Amazonas, completely drenched. But, at least we had tangled with the deadly pirrana and not been bitten or eaten alive!
Today we headed to Tres Frontiers, where the borders of Brazil, Peru, and Columbia meet. The large town of Letecia, Columbia, named after an Indian maiden, is there. Our visit happened to be on the last day of the Tres Frontiers festival and many competing stereos were blasting away on the street corners. Everyone was in a festive mood and gaily dressed. Street vendors were selling ice cream, beer, and many different goods. I really wanted to get some ice cream but didn't think it was safe to eat it so I avoided it. Because the museum was closed, we toured the Letecia zoo. It had crocodiles, many birds, and a jaguar who growled at me when I got too close to its cage! A large 4 foot long anteater followed us all over the zoo. You could feed him out of a drink bottle; he would stick his foot long tongue down the bottle to get the liquid. He had very long claws for digging ants. The anteater had very coarse fur that was black with a white stripe down its back. We were told that the anteater was not a zoo animal but that her had wandered in from the jungle. There were small monkeys that would jump from person to person, get in your hair, and try to acquire any jewelry that you were wearing. Anne had a blast with these monkeys! That morning we had walked around the town and I went in a grocery store and considering buying some pancake mix to replace our rather bland breakfast meals, however I decided to wait and ask our tourguide George at lunch if the cooks would cook it for our breakfast -- this would have been a great change from fish and half-baked toast. He said yes. After an excellent fish lunch at the Anaconda hotel, I went back to the store to buy the pancake mix, but the store had closed for siesta and so we never had pancakes for breakfast on the boat!
Everyone was up early at 6:30 for a long jungle walk. We took our longboats up an Amazon tributary and on the way we spotted two green iguanas far up a tree. We climbed an embankment and began a two-hour jungle walk. We saw walking palms with their inch long briars, Ficus with huge buttresses, ironwood, iodine trees, and rubber trees. We also saw odd-looking fungus and mushrooms. One tree was white and completely covered by fungus. Alfredo knew the medicinal properties of the jungle trees very well.