(For more pictures of my Amazon trip, see http://picasaweb.google.com/dkm6266 )
My last adventure of this trip was a 4 day visit to the Amazon River. I persuaded Jorge, a friend of a very old friend of mine from Michigan (VERY old, Craig), to join me as sort of emissary. While my Spanish was getting pretty good, and my understanding of urban Peruvian culture sufficient enough to be safe, I thought having a local advocate with me as I ventured into the jungle was…prudent. Jorge grew up in one part of the jungle, upriver from Iquitos, so he knew the Amazon world and that, in my book, was a Good Thing. The bonus was that he really wanted to explore like I did, and has a great sense of humor.
So, off we go to Iquitos, Peru, arriving at just the right time to participate in a Peruvian National Moment of Earthquake Preparedness. Evidently, at 8:00pm, February 26, the entire country held a drill. As we were waiting for our bags, it hit and alarms went off, fire engines raced about, official people stood around looking…official. And we arriving passengers were ushered back out onto the tarmac, while all the people waiting on the other side of the security fence were ushered out the other way. They cleared the ENTIRE airport terminal! True, the Iquitos terminal is small, but it still was a wonder to see an entirely empty airport.
Drill concluded, we got our bags, and went out to meet Jose, our Tahuampa Lodge rep and guide for our trek. I quickly decided that I liked Jose; he was happy, clearly competent, and spoke good English. He hailed a mototaxi, a 3 wheeled motorcycle with a covered bench in the back for riders, we got in and sped off into the hot humid Iquitos night. Iquitos was largely founded when the rubber barons came through last century, and has a lot of interesting architecture, including a metal building designed and constructed by the same goomer who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
After getting registered into Hotel Florentina (no hot water, minimal amenities, but clean and safe – $25/night, no tax) we raced off in another mototaxi – with the usual laissez faire approach to traffic laws – to the Parrilladas El Zorrito (Little Fox Barbeque) restaurant. Us gringos had been warned against eating food cooked on the street because our immune systems are WIMPS compared to the locals’, yet I quickly found myself sitting at table, 3 cold beers in front of me, and an eager server waiting for my order. I had no choice. I decided, finally, that my stomach was just going to have to ADAPT, or kill me. Either way, I was going to eat food cooked on a barbeque on the streets of Peru. Worry turned to delight as I saw, on the menu, my Bucket List esque opportunity and, unable to deny the irony, I ordered piranha.
The next day, we had another Peruvian Moment, when things that seem to be going in one direction suddenly and without advance warning, go another way. When we woke up for our trip 40km into the Amazon, trusting totally in those who were hosting us, Jose informed us that he would actually not be able to join us, but had arranged for another guide, Timo, to take us to what was beginning to look like our little version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My first gringo reaction was “uh-oh”, but then more Peruvian sensibilities took over and I thought, “why not?” I mean, we had just met Jose the night before, and dinner notwithstanding…maybe Timo would be a better guide anyway.
So off we went, with more high pitched mototaxis, ignoring more traffic laws, to meet Timo at the dock. He was there, smiling in the boat, the B.F. Alex Francisco, a 40 foot long wooden thing that looked mostly seaworthy. At least as floatable as any of the other boats tied alongside. Plus, if we DID take on water, it was a RIVER, right? Land was only half a piranha-infested kilometer away on either side. No worries.
We set off on a beautiful late morning, hot, humid on land, but cool and breezy on the river. The biggest surprise of the Amazon was how WIDE it was. About 1km from shore to shore, filled with churning brown water, huge chunks of bushes, that seemed like miniature islands, carried along by the fast moving current. The sky was huge (see a sample of cloud formations here) and the shoreline filled with deeply green vegetation. We stuck to the middle of the river on the downriver trip. Of all the places in Peru, the mountains of Machu Picchu and the Amazon River excited me the most. I learned that a tour boat from Iquitos to the Brazilian border takes about 12 hours downriver. I didn’t learn how long it takes from there to the Atlantic Ocean, but that trip – like the Trans-Siberian Railroad – has been added to my Bucket List. (anyone want to go?).
Along the way, we came across the Ruby Songo, a big ship that seemed completely out of place in the river next to all the long wooden boats and canoes. It was moored in the middle of the river, just sitting there. Turns out that the Ruby Songo had recently been impounded for carrying 500 kilos of cocaine, and wasn’t going anywhere soon. Made me remember, again, how much cocaine is produced in Peru. Coca leaves are completely legal, and are traditionally chewed like chewing tobacco. I was offered little Ziploc bags of coca leaves several times, mostly in Cusco, but never felt compelled to try them. Should have. Evidently, locals have been using them as a medicine for thousands of years. The Ruby Songo was evidence that the trade is alive and well here.
End of Part 1
In Part 2 we meet the Tahuampa Lodge, take a loooooonng walk through the Amazon Jungle, and meet the Yaguas people. Bonus: Dave gets a speculative offer of a bride!