Other photos of Amazonia


ITINERARIES:  #1) ECUADOR: El Coca via Rio Napo to Panacocha Lodge

             #2) BRAZIL: Amazon River via boat to Tabatinga, plane to Tefe, boat to Mamiraua Bio-Reserve                        

#3) PERU: Iquitos

May/June 2004


We went into the amazing Amazonian jungle three times - in Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. Amazing is right. Our experiences were Amazing-Awful, Amazing-Wonderful and Amazing-Hair-Raising.

We should have seen the Amazing-Awful experience coming at us. No one met us at the air terminal (air shack) in El Coca - a rusty, dusty oil town on the Rio Napo in Ecuadorian Amazonia. We took a rusty, dusty taxi to the fly-spattered, tattered, sofa-spring-sprung bar/office/home of our guide. We waited until Luis, a paunchy, pony-tailed mestizo man (part indigenous native, part Hispanic), showed up and said it would be an hour or so while he bought some food for us. Not an auspicious beginning.

A couple of hours later, he reappeared with two bewildered-looking young Canadian backpackers, two flats of eggs, huge jugs of bottled water and several bags of fruit and vegetables. We shouldered our packs and followed him down to the river bank, edged through a crowd of women washing clothes in the river and gingerly climbed into a long, tipsy boat with an ancient motor. When we saw puddles of water in the bottom of the boat and didn't see any life jackets, we should have gotten out again. But we didn't. Six-and-a-half hours later, tired, rain-drenched, with nerves frayed by the flood-swollen river, we staggered ashore onto a muddy bank at Panacocha Lodge.

Panacocha Lodge has a certain panache - to its name. In reality, it consists of several broken-down thatched huts in a littered yard. (The photo shows Panacocha's main lodge after a machete-wielding clean-up crew came through - just before we left.) We were shown to a room with a semi-functional wooden floor, a rustic bed with mosquito netting, three almost-burned-out candles, a few damp matches that wouldn't light, and walls with planks so far apart you could see into the next bedroom. We learned later we'd been put into the wrong hut by mistake. Good thing. During a heavy rainstorm that night, the roof collapsed onto the bed where we were supposed to be sleeping! (Lou is standing in our bedroom below; note his red face and the sweat on his clothes from the heat and humidity.)

Altogether, it was an "interesting" four days (not counting the two very long days coming and going on the river.) The food was good and no one got sick. We were served lots of fresh fish, tropical fruits and rice. Our favorite dish was kimbolito, a large sweet dumpling steamed in banana leaf. On the trail we sampled some live ants - a bit tart like lemons - and (inadvertently) half a cockroach in our lunch. The only bites we got were probably bedbugs. Fortunately, the large tarantula hanging next to the communal toilet was dead.

Actually, we did have a good guide - a Quechua (indigenous) man named Romero, who spoke quite a bit of English and knew the jungle well. On canoe rides and hikes through the vine-tangled jungle he showed us many birds and monkeys, and taught us about poisonous, medicinal and hallucinatory plants used by the indigenous people. For example, if you mash the berries of the huantoc tree into solution and drink it, for the next 12 hours you'll run around naked and talk with the plants. We didn't try it.

Not having learned our lesson, we plunged back into the Amazonian jungle again - this time in Brazil - and had a wonderful time. During the first week in June, we spent four nights at Uacari Lodge - a floating eco-lodge in the Mamiraua Bio-Reserve on a tributary of the Amazon River. Most visitors arrive via Amazonia's main city of Manaus and from there fly to Tefe; but we came to Mamiraua on a journey almost as tangled as the jungle.

We flew from Lima (Peru) to Iquitos (Peru.) From there we took a river boat for nine hours down the Amazon to Leticia (Colombia) where we spent the night, then crossed into neighboring Tabatinga (Brazil) and caught a flight to Tefe (Brazil) - flying for several hours above a vast jungle and network of meandering rivers. From our plane window it looked like a large head of dark green broccoli dribbled with creamy coffee! We spent a couple of nights in Tefe - where NO ONE spoke Spanish. (Forget about English.) We were able to get our basic needs met by writing down sentences in broken Spanish, which the Portuguese-speaking hotel staff could (sort of) read. At last, we made it to Uacari Lodge - after a three-hour river journey from Tefe on an old wooden boat right out of "The African Queen." 


Uacari Lodge has room for up to 20 travelers, but there were only five during our four-night stay: the two of us, a young British couple, and a Belgian physics professor. Our spacious bedroom occupied half a floating cottage, and had its own bathroom, deck and hammock. (The lodge floats for a good reason: during annual flooding, the water levels rise and fall several feet.)

We liked the lodge, the guides and the surrounding jungle. And the food was delicious: fresh fish or chicken, fruit, vegetables, rice, beans - and manioc, manioc, manioc. Manioc, the staple of the Amazonian diet, is a tuber that tastes like a dry sweet potato. The indigenous people bake it, steam it, fry it, stuff it, make it into puddings and sprinkle it on everything. The lodge even served manioc juice. "Have some more manioc?" was the on-going joke among the five of us.

This part of Amazonia is a rain forest which floods each year. We were there in flood season (June, July, August), which is - strangely - the Brazilian "dry" season when there's not much rain. The water comes down from the Andes and floods the forest as far as twenty miles from the rivers. Guides paddled us in low wooden boats into the flooded forest - floating on top of trails used for walking at other times of the year.

Tiny, screeching squirrel monkeys swung past us through the forest in troops of a hundred or more searching for fruit, followed by birds feasting on the stirred-up insects. Bald uacari monkeys with brilliant red faces and long white fur scampered high in the trees. Near dusk one day, we heard a huge windstorm approaching. Our boatman paddled quickly through the forest and chased the "wind" to its source - a male howler monkey high in the tree above. The howler's diet of leaves doesn't provide enough protein to chase down intruding males, so he's evolved a vocal warning system that can be heard more than a mile away. You'd swear there was a major storm in the area. Nope. Just one alpha male weighing maybe 40 pounds!

Mamiraua is a bird-watcher's delight. The prize for best nest goes to the oropendulas, who weave two-foot-long grassy sacks, suspending them like ornaments from thorny palm trees. We also spotted colorful jacaras, macaws, wild-combed hoatzins, kingfishers, herons, toucans and other exotic birds. (We didn't get close enough to take a photo of toucans with our 3x digital camera, so we cheated. Lou took this shot at an excellent bird park near Foz do Iguacu. See BRAZIL That immense beak is almost weightless, as we found when one toucan allowed us to scratch his neck in a large, walk-through aviary. It has evolved to great size so that the toucan can reach down into long nests to steal eggs.)


We'd read about the pink river dolphins of the Amazon, but that didn't prepare us for them. Expecting pale pink, we were startled when florescent pink dolphins leapt from the water! There were many caiman (small alligators), and we just missed seeing a ten-foot anaconda snake. We ate pirahna, which the guide assured us are harmless - unless they are hungry. (Lou braved a quick swim with them on the El Oriente jungle trip; fortunately they took no nips from his spare supply of flesh.) On a moonlit boat ride through the flooded forest, we saw a flood-adapted gray spider doing a furious Australian crawl - six arms stroking and two legs kicking! Most enchanting creatures of all: giant, furry, Chewbaca-like sloths feasting on moongooba trees and moving about incredibly slowly. One saw us and quickly hid himself - in 20 minutes.
Our group visited a nearby village to meet the local people, who eke out a precarious existence along the river banks. We came away cautiously hopeful that Mamiraua's experiment in eco-tourism will help protect the fragile rain forest and endangered species by providing education and conservation-related jobs. The bad news from the village is that girls traditionally begin bearing children at 12 years of age and give birth on average to 15 kids. The good news is that, as employment and income have increased, the number of children per mother has decreased to 13. Well, it IS a beginning! (The photo below shows villagers hauling - guess what - from the boat. Yep. It's manioc.)

Getting out of the jungle and back to Lima was a bit scarier than we bargained for. We spent half the day and night in a boat that (we're pretty sure) was running drugs from Columbia. We didn't plan it that way. We were just trying to avoid taking a pontoon plane, because our daughter Shanna had asked us to not to take small planes in remote areas. Sigh. Out of the frying pan into the fire... and almost into the river!
The going got sticky in Tabatinga, in the triangle where Brazil, Peru and Columbia meet, when we tried to get onto a rapido boat back to Iquitos. The guy at the office tried to extort an extra $40 from us, so Lou marched self-righteously to the competitor next door, who got us onto a smaller, much faster boat for the normal rate of $50 apiece. He told us that the "River Fox" would take only seven hours to reach Iquitos, rather than the usual ten, and was leaving in just an hour. Yay! We'd out-foxed the extortionist!

We motored up the Amazon and went through Peruvian military, police, immigration, and customs checkpoints without a problem. But barely around the bend (and out of sight of the officials) the "River Fox" was met by a motor-driven canoe. Five large boxes wrapped in black plastic were quickly passed from canoe to rapido, money exchanged hands, the captain revved-up his 200-horsepower outboard motor, and we roared away up the river. Once underway, the crew carefully concealed the boxes behind our backpacks in the bow, beneath seats and behind gas tanks. Very strange. It rained heavily as the afternoon wore on. The boat's plastic side windows kept us dry, but it was plenty steamy inside. We were deafened by the drone of the outboard, jolted by the clapping of the bow against rippled water, and worried as night began to fall that the speeding boat might flip on one of the many partially-submerged logs. As it got darker, the captain turned on the boat's red and green running lights and stood with his head stuck out of the plastic in the rain so he could shine a spotlight on the water ahead.

At one village we all got out at a riverside "mini-mart" - a wooden shack perched on poles above the river - for a bathroom break - the "restroom" being a hole in the floor of a back closet. The captain disappeared for most of an hour, finally returning with a woman who climbed into the boat and sat hunched over - totally concealing herself under a blanket. We took off again, but the captain soon doused the boat's running lights and retired his spotlight. It was a moonless night. Traveling this fast in total darkness seemed really stupid to us. We spent a lot of time whispering back and forth about how to escape from under the tight plastic window curtains if the boat hit something and turned over. Another passenger whispered to us that it was muy peligroso. After an hour of this bizarre behavior, the captain sharply veered over to the other side of the river to an area where there were no houses or lights - only a deserted, jungle-lined river bank. The captain and mysterious woman searched back and forth in the dark along the shoreline until finally we pulled up against the muddy bank and she got off the boat. The crew uncovered and passed the five boxes out of the boat and onto the river bank - in the process climbing all over us passengers. As we motored away, we could barely see the silhouette of the woman as she struggled to drag the boxes away from the shoreline. Probably the contraband would be picked up soon by another boat. We zoomed back to the other side of the river. Five minutes later the spotlight and running lights were back on and soon we arrived at the Iquitos dock. It was nearly midnight; we'd been on the river not the promised seven hours, but more than 12.

We hoisted our packs, hailed a moto-taxi and went to the best hotel in town (air-conditioning, swimming pool, safe & clean - $30 a night.) Which was full. We dragged ourselves back to the small, family-run pension we'd used a week before ($12 a night, cold water, portable fan - but safe and friendly) and - hooray! someone opened the door and let us in off the dark street. And so to bed. And so to sleep.... three minutes later.

(We later learned that we could have taken a medium-sized plane for this journey. It would have cost $10 apiece more - for a one-hour trip. AARRGGHH!!)


Surrounded by road-less Amazonian jungle, Iquitos can be reached only by plane or boat. We had to keep reminding ourselves this was Peru - it was a far cry from pan-pipe playing llama herders in the cool, stark Andes and more like a town in Southeast Asia. Buzzing tuk-tuks filled the steamy streets lined by buildings with peeling paint and rusty tin roofs.

Strangely, we really liked the place and spent several days here. At lunchtime we sat in a small cafe alongside the wide muddy river (downstream it became the Amazon) to eat river fish and manioc, washed down with fresh limeade. At night we went to The Yellow Rose of Texas bar to watch the NBA finals, drink cold beer and eat the best barbecue we've had in years. The bar is owned by garrulous Gerald Mayeaux, an effervescent ex-pat Texan. (Six months after being here, we were sitting in California watching The Motorcycle Diaries - a film about Che Guevara's early life - and almost fell off our seats. Gerald was in the film - sitting at a blackjack table on a river boat, a prostitute's arms twined around his neck!) Gerald loves to give advice on what to do in and around Iquitos - which consists mostly of visiting a jungle lodge, a nearby butterfly farm or the fishing village of Belen (in photo below.)

At the butterfly farm near Iquitos we met three cousins of the uacari monkey we'd seen at a distance in Mamiraua. A red-furred uacari and two black saki uacaris ate from our hands, climbed over our bodies and even groomed our hair. Since we'd been in the jungle for several days at that point, who knows what they found?


In addition to the monkeys, we also met Rosie the anteater (Rose and Rosie below) as well as a tapir and a young jaguar.


Other photos of Amazonia

From Iquitos we flew back to PERU




GUIDEBOOKS: South America Handbook (Footprints guides); South America on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet)

FILMS:  Oscar & Lucinda; Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Raoni -The Fight for the Amazon

(2004 Prices)

MAMIRAUA BIO-RESERVE:  Uacari Lodge   www.amazonadventures.com/mamiraua.htm  email: ecoturismo@mamiraua.org.br

IQUITOS:  Yellow Rose of Texas Cafe: Putamayo 180.

Hostal La Pascana: Pevas 133 $12/double - very basic but clean rooms with bath, cold showers (cold is OK in tropics!); small plant-filled garden, friendly, safe. Ph: 065-23-1418  e-mail: pascana@tsi.com.pe 

Maranon Hotel is newly renovated, has a restaurant and swimming pool. Spotless doubles with private bath, air-conditioning and breakfast $30/night. Ph: 065-24-2673

Butterfly farm: A private reserve about an hour from Iquitos via tuktuk and longboat. Admission by donation; do not visit if you are ill as the animals (monkeys, jaguar, tapir, anteater) are susceptible to human diseases. Ask Gerald at the Yellow Rose of Texas how to reach the farm.




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net