Cruising Peru's Amazon

OCPATA member Jackie Williams spends an educational week on the Amazon River in Peru

By: By Jackie Williams, OCPATA

OCPATA member Jackie Williams visits the Amazon River // (c) 2008

When I got the information about a boat trip on the Amazon River out of Iquitos I was really excited. I had wanted to go there since I was a child but never got the chance, not even when I was in the travel industry. My husband was less than enthused, but gave in to my whim. It didn’t help my cause any when I went to the State Department’s website for international travel and saw all the admonitions for traveling in Peru. Street crime, counterfeit money, food and water precautions, insect bite precautions, especially for malaria – all had to be taken under consideration. But the lure of the river was there and we booked the trip, knowing that the thrill of the adventure would take over.

Our non-stop flight from Los Angeles on LAN airlines left at 1:40 in the afternoon and we arrived in Lima around 12:30am. There were luggage handlers already looking for us in the baggage area and they spotted us immediately by our yellow bag tags on our carry-on bags. As soon as everyone made it through customs inspection we were on our way to our hotel, the Jose Antonio, where we arrived at around 1:30am.

 The next day, we met with our tour leader, Edgard Vascones and then embarked on a city tour of Lima. We visited the city center beginning at the Plaza de Armas, the seat of power for both secular and clerical authority as evidenced by the Presidential Palace, the Municipal Palace and the Archbishop’s Palace, next to which stands the Cathedral. From there we proceeded to Pueblo Libre, a suburb of Lima to visit the National Museum of Anthropology, Archaeology and History, Peru’s foremost collection of artifacts chronicling Peruvian life from the Stone Age to the arrival of European explorers. The fascinating pottery and fabrics on display represent every major culture of ancient Peru. While there, we experienced a slight earthquake and were rushed to stand under some arches. This same area had experienced a lethal quake last year when more than 600 people had died, so locals are still fearful from that experience.

The crowning point of the day was an optional evening out for a dinner and Peruvian dance presentation. The meal was a lavish Peruvian buffet and the show was outstanding, with representative dances from the different cultures in Peru. We originally had doubts about the $45 per person charge, but it definitely was worth it.

The next morning, we took another optional tour which was also well worth the time and money. Our guide, Dante took us to the Shantytown area south of Lima where he and his eight brothers and sisters had grown up.

On the way there we stopped at a local fishing village. Since Peru’s coastline extends for 1500 miles fishing is a very important industry. On the way to the Shantytowns, where approximately half of Lima’s eight million residents live, Dante explained the different stages that Shantytown residents go through from when they first come from the inland villages and squat on the government-owned land.

They start with simple makeshift huts of reeds, cardboard and whatever else they can find. They try to find jobs and when they are able to graduate to better houses they convert them to brick and concrete. As they advance in their jobs they add second and third stories out of brick or cement for second, third or even fourth generations to live there. A lot of the dwellings that we saw were unfinished, waiting for the next floor to be added. In one of the first stage towns, we visited a soup kitchen that is run by several women from the area who try to provide sustenance for some of the poorer families. We had stopped at a market before we got to Shantytown and purchased chicken, eggs and rice to donate to them.

Upon arrival there, we learned that a family had experienced a death the day before and were badly in need of funds for a coffin and burial. The women in the soup kitchen were collecting coins from other families to try to come up with enough to help them out. We all dug into our pockets and donated some Peruvian money to help out. Some of the family members came to us as we were leaving and thanked us.

The shantytowns do not have paved roads and most of the transportation is either by hired tuk-tuks or vans that take the residents to their jobs. From there we went to an industrial area of small factories where some of the local people work. Near there was a mercantile area where we stopped and saw furniture crafted by the locals as well as paintings and other items of their handicrafts.

The next morning we left our hotel at 5:00 a.m. to catch our 7:00 a.m. flight to Iquitos, our jumping off place to the Amazon River. Originally we were supposed to fly out at 4:55 a.m. because all flights in and out of Iquitos had to be scheduled extremely early due to vultures flying around the field and causing accidents. Someone figured out that the vultures were there because the dump was at one end of the airfield. So when they moved the dump that did away with the vultures.

Iquitos can only be reached by air or boat. The main means of transportation in Iquitos is tuk-tuks. The streets are narrow and our bus driver wove his way amongst the tuk-tuks like the professional that he is. We were amazed at the number of times he proceeded through what we thought were stop signs. They were octagonal and said “para” on them. Edgard said it was optional and whoever got there first usually went ahead. We took a tour of this jungle port city which was established in 1864 in the heart of rubber country on the Amazon’s deep waters. We boarded the ship, La Arapaima and checked out our new accommodations. We had a twin bedded cabin on the first deck with a beautiful private shower.

We spent the afternoon on the top deck which was covered but open to watch the life along the river as we cruised by. Our Naturalist Guide, Segundo, pointed out various trees and plants and spotted numerous birds. He also gave us an overview of life in the villages along the river as he had lived it himself as a child. We saw some small villages with no electricity at all, and some larger ones that have a generator that gives them light for five or six hours in the evening. We boarded the long boat for an hour’s cruise along the banks before dinner. After dinner we returned to the top deck and watched as the generator was turned on in the village nearest us.

The second morning we boarded the long boat again and went to a very small village called Ocho Septiembre, named after the date the first family started the village. We visited the house of the mayor. He invited us in to see the house, though most everything was visible from where we stood. It was of wooden construction raised about three feet off the ground with a loft and thatched roof. The cooking area was separate and food was cooking on an open charcoal pit. The sleeping area had walls around it with an entrance from the main area of the house. The family was so gracious and friendly to have twenty two people traipsing around in muddy shoes looking at their meager possessions. It was heartwarming. This village consists of 9 families, total of sixty-five people in all.

We had brought school supplies for the school, so next we went to the school building which had been donated to the village by Grand Circle Foundation. This was a large-walled structure with a few windows on a concrete slab. The desks had been hand made from wood from the rain forest. Nine of the eleven children were there and ranged in age from six to thirteen. The-government assigned teacher usually spends a year in the village, though this one had been there for two years. Our tour leader, Edgard wanted us to interact with the kids so he had us perform the song/dance “Do the Hoochie Koochie” – you know “put your right foot in, put your right foot out…” Anyway, with all of us and the kids doing it with us, it was a sight to see. The kids then did something for us so that we could learn their some words in their language of Spanish. Most of the villagers are not descendants of the Spaniards but rather from the indigenous Indians that were here before the Spanish came. But Spanish has been their main language since the 1500s. The visit to the school was an uplifting experience.

That afternoon we took off on an entirely different kind of tour. We boarded the longboat and went down a tributary, the Yarapa River to go piranha fishing. Along the way we spotted a sloth and a couple of tree iguanas, not to mention several varieties of birds and parrots. The fishing did not go well for me, although some of our group did catch piranhas and catfish. We were furnished with simple stick poles, line and hooks and cut up meat for the bait. The catfish were too small and were thrown back but the piranhas were later served on the dinner buffet. After dinner we went topside to view the stars from a different hemisphere.

Our third morning was an excursion in to Nauta, a town of 14,000 that has the only paved road in Peru to Iquitos. It was a fifteen minute ride by long boat from where La Arapaima was tied up. We were each given one sol and an assignment to go to the marketplace and buy a fruit or vegetable with a partner other than our spouse.

We were sort of helped along the way by a young boy who looked about twelve holding a shopping bag. I think that he was practicing his English. I bought something that looked something like grapes and once the purchase was made, the boy helped us find our way to La Plaza to meet up with our tour leaders. At La Plaza we learned what everyone had bought, how to say it in Spanish, and how the item is used.

Then we were assigned to tuk-tuks and whisked off down the paved road in a procession. We stopped for a picture opportunity at a farm where there were swarms of mostly yellow butterflies and then returned to the marketplace for a bit more shopping. There we ran into the boy who had helped us before and found that he was selling T-shirts from his shopping bag so I purchased one from him.

Back on the boat after lunch a few of us braved the caliente temperature and went topside. Our efforts were rewarded with the sight of the small fresh water dolphins frolicking aft of the boat. They were too small to be able to capture them on film when they broke water but we enjoyed watching them. Our next activity after that was a walk in the rain forest about a half hour after it had rained. The trail was a little muddy but not too bad.

After dinner we went on a night boat ride on Nauta Cano creek. The first thing that we spotted was a night hawk perched on the top of a dead tree. Amazingly he stayed there all the while we had a spotlight on him, as if he was posing. Besides listening to the sounds of the rain forest around us we also had a wonderful view of the stars in the sky – so many more than can usually be seen in the bright lights of the city. We saw a couple of the varieties of the frogs whose voices we had been hearing and even had one brought on to the boat for a close up look before letting it go free again.

The next morning we went for an early morning ride on this same creek and breakfast was served to us on the long boat. We saw a large flock of egrets take to the air several times and a couple of herons. There were many kingfishers flying back and forth and dipping down to catch a fish now and then.

When we returned to the boat, some of us went to the village, Las Palmas, to invite a family to come back to the boat and meet with us. We went to the house of the “mayor” and he accepted our invitation and asked if he could bring another family. So we went with him to invite that family. In all there were nine that returned to the boat with us. We brought them topside and the rest of the tour group joined us.

Everyone introduced themselves by name and gave some additional information such as age, number of children or number of years married. This was followed by a question and answer period with interpretation by our tour leader. Refreshments had been set out for them and as we left to go back to the village they stuffed their pockets with these goodies to take back. Our whole group went back to the village to present the school (another Grand Circle school) with some supplies and fishing gear.

In the village, there was an anniversary celebration of the village’s 28th year of being in existence. Other villages had come to help the villagers celebrate and there was a soccer tournament going on. The celebration would last several days. Many of the people had never interacted with Americans or “gringos”. Although English has been taught in the schools for the past several years, it is very rudimentary and is only taught once or twice a week.

What was incredible for us was that the river rises up during the rainy season some 12 to 15 feet up the banks almost to villagers’ doors. All the houses were on stilts in preparation for this. Also, the closest town is Nauta and the only way to get there is at least two hours by water. This is where they would have to go for medical help. Our visit with these friendly people was very humbling and enlightening.

That afternoon we went on another piranha fishing trip. This time I was successful in catching one along with several others so there were more to take back for the dinner buffet. Then we moved the boat about 100 yards from where we had been fishing and some of us went swimming. We could see the bank near which we had been fishing for the piranha. We waited for the guide to go in and saw that he didn’t disappear so decided it must be safe. There were pink dolphins in the area but they did not come close enough that we could interact with them.

The next day we went across the river in the long boat to the small village of St. Regis. There we each got in a small canoe with a villager and paddled the canoes on a creek that surrounded the village. This was another time to interact with the Spanish-speaking villagers. We were out paddling around for about an hour without any mishaps. My Spanish was not sufficient to be able to converse much with the young lady who was assigned to me. We did a lot of giggling, though.

Our adventure in to the next village of Monte Alegre had us split in two groups to go to two of the village houses for lunch. The wife had spent three hours preparing the food for us. The meal consisted of shovel-nose catfish wrapped in ginger leaves cooked over charcoal, roasted rodent, roasted bananas, palm nuts, bread fruit and bread fruit nuts, farina, sweetened lemon grass tea, banana juice and yellow tomato juice. It was spread out on banana leaves on the floor. OAT had provided the family with tin plates and cups to serve the food on. The husband, wife and three children sat on the floor to eat with us on the benches.

Our third excursion was to visit a shaman. We went to a super large tepee shaped enclosure with thatched roof. We sat on log stools that formed a circle around the outer edge. We could smell something burning in the background. Through our tour leader, the shaman told us he became one because there was no doctor in his village. He had studied for 8 years under a Master Shaman to learn the secrets of the remedies to use. He and his apprentice went around to each of us waving a plant branch over our heads while she blew smoke from behind us. Then he came around and blew smoke in to our cupped hands which we were to spread over our bodies. Though it was not explained to us, it was an interesting ceremony. This shaman came from a tribe who used to shrink heads of their enemies. His father had been one who did this and passed the knowledge to him but he has never done it.

Saturday morning we went on our last excursion to Jungle Expeditions camp. There we boarded three “catamarans” – two canoes tied together, and paddled across a small lake. As we were pulling away from the dock we saw a monkey cavorting around in the tree top watching us watching him. Then as we got near the other side of the lake, we saw a family of Capybaras come down to the water and swim around. These are the largest rodents in the world and the big male looked to be at least 100 pounds or more. We were able to get close up to them to take pictures.

We got off the “catamarans” on the other side and started a three mile round trip trek through the rain forest by means of eight suspended walkways which elevated us 90 feet up in the canopy. On our way to the walkways we saw a variety of different creatures: at least three different species of frogs; a toad; a small lizard; two different species of brightly colored caterpillars and a colony of inch-long ants. Our guide told us that the ant’s sting could be very painful, and one of the caterpillars was poisonous indicated by its bright orange color. The walkways brought us up close to the beautiful trees and plants that make up the rain forest.

That evening we had a Farewell Dinner and said goodbye to the Captain and crew of La Arapaima hoping that some day we could come back and visit again. We were transferred early the next morning to the Iquitos airport for our flight to Lima and subsequent flight home.