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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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
From Iquitos we flew back to PERU
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com