Amazon by Boat
Note: I wrote this update in December, 1999 during my first tour in Peru. At that time I didn't imagine I would return to Peru over ten times in the next 6 years. The adventures I've experienced and the people I have met in Peru since this first trip have changed how I look at the world. The following story is how it all started.
Our trip to the Amazon Rain Forest started by flying from Chicago to Miami, Florida then on to Lima, Peru. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago had organized our tour. Our trip would emphasize the native culture in the upper Amazon River area and the smaller rivers that combined to make the largest river in the world. There were twnty six members in our group. Most of them were retired senior citizens from the Chicago area.
To get deep into the rain forest we left Lima Peru on our flight to Iquitos (say “ee-KEE-toes”), located on the other side of the Andes Mountains. We were going 500 miles northeast into the rain forest. After we crossed the mountains we began to see the endless green carpet of trees. From the base of western mountains, to the mouth of Amazon on the eastern shore of Brazil, the continent only drops 1,000 feet in 2,500 miles. The whole areas is bigger than Texas without a hill higher than twenty feet. Just marsh grass, rivers and trees.
In Iquitos we boarded our boat, the “La Turmalina”. It resembles a small Mississippi River style riverboat except it has a pointed bow and diesel driven propellers. This boat was built three years ago but it was constructed in a style that makes it look like it is from the turn of the century. Brown carved mahogany woodwork fill every room and railing. All the wood was sealed with thick shiny varnish.
At 8:30 PM the La Turmalina pulls away from the dock and into the main channel of the Amazon. Five minutes after leaving Iquitos the lights of the city disappear. There are no roads across the land so civilization stops at the last house in town. The night is black except for the reflection of our boat lights against the muddy river. The caption steers the boat by watching the currents and only occasionally turns on the overhead searchlight to see ahead. I stood by the railing on the upper deck for several hours, like I would do each night of the tour. Just watching the distant riverbanks lit by a partial moon and scattered stars.
They fed us three meals a day on the boat. They say French cooking is the best for flavor, Japanese is the best for presentation and Peruvian is a combination of both. All our meals had lots of steamed vegetables, rice, fish, beef, pork chops and sauces. After my second buffet meal on the boat I was concerned about gaining weight on the tour.
The Amazon at this point is about twice as wide as the Mississippi River near St. Louis. We were heading back up river toward the western mountains. Our destination was 250 miles away on one of the smaller tributaries in the Pacaya National Wildlife reserve. We would travel four rivers to get there. The Amazon to the Ucayali, then to the Puinahua, and finally up the Pacaya. Going up each river would be smaller than the previous one. Each one goes deeper into the rain forest and further from civilization as we know it. Our turn around point would be a 1941 Japanese scientific outpost that is now a Peruvian Forest Ranger station. We would return on the same rivers to Iquitos, traveling twice as fast with the current.
All these rivers had small villages along the bank. Most of these settlements were five to ten miles apart. Sometimes a thatched roof house was visible from our boat but most villages were tucked back in the trees several hundred yards from the river. The bigger villages had over 100 residents and they had a school made from wood planks or cement block. All the rest of the buildings were made from palm trees. These houses had open sides and were built on stilts four feet above the ground. An extended family shared the house with everyone sleeping on mats and hammocks. Most families of ten people shared a 600 square foot dwelling.
All the villagers we met were very friendly and excited to see the gray haired Americans. I joined in a soccer game of boys against girls. The kids play barefoot and are very good at soccer skills. Even the youngest toddlers would chase, kick and pass the ball. Soccer games are an important social event between villages. The entire village travels to an neighboring town by dugout canoes. They spend the day playing soccer then have a big party at night. This is when the teenage boys and girls get to meet someone new outside their village and is an important social time for them.
During our fourth night we docked along the overgrown banks of the jungle. Edgar is one of the crew who’s job is to tie up the boat and jump from the ship’s railing into the dense underbrush. I notice he scouts the ten foot leap for several minutes with his flashlight. He jumps away from the boat and lands relieved on solid ground. Another crew member throws Edgar a machete. He begins hacking the waist high underbrush down to below his knees. A path is cleared twenty feet back to a palm tree. Edgar wraps a thick white rope around the tree several times. The moths are thick in front of the boat’s spotlights. Edgar swats at them as he considers how to return to the ship. The railing is much higher than the river bank and too far from shore to jump. Another crew member lowers a lifeboat to use as a bridge. Finally everyone is back aboard and ready for bed after a long day.
Driving the boat is difficult in the current and even more challenging at night. The river is filled with debris. Branches, stumps, and even telephone pole size logs float with the muddy current. The banks of the river are very soft and made from black dirt and silt. There are no rocks in the rain forest. Not even a pebble big enough for a slingshot. The river is constantly cutting into the bank and forming a new path. New channels are cut and the old riverbed becomes a desolate oxbow lake. Large hunks of the bank fall into the rider like fragments of giant icebergs. With the dirt come live trees, grass and fallen timber.
At night the occasional splashing of dirt makes us think the camon (alligators) are diving off the back and swimming out to meet us. The boat’s searchlight reflects the orange eyes of owls and camon along the shore. One night we took the small motorboat out and patrolled the shore with flashlights. We spotted seventeen gators in three miles. The largest was fifteen feet long and weighed five hundred pounds. It swims without a splash or ripple and disappeared under our small boat without a trace. We are glad to get back on the main boat.
Our tour boat jerks as we hit another big log. The pilot tries another path through the floating maze of debris. There are four drivers of the boat. They work as teams and rotate every two hours, one person driving and the other person watching. The other two drivers are sleeping. Guiding the boat at night is tedious and dangerous. Most of the crew grew up in the rain forest and moved to Iquitos with their family when they were ten years old. They learned to play in dugout canoes in the river as soon as they could walk just like city kids learned to ride tricycles on the sidewalk. The crew knows how to drive the boat better than anyone.
We had heard reports about how bad the bugs would be in the rain forest. We brought long pants, shirts and repellent. The first night I saw a four inch Preying Mantis, a five inch Walking Stick and a huge moth. I was waiting to be carried away by mosquitoes. The next day we hiked to a village through the jungle. Insects were scarce. During the week we hiked some everyday and went sight seeing in the small boats back into the swamps. Actually I only received five mosquito bites all week. We stopped using repellent and wearing long sleeves. My worst bites came in one of the final village from the sand fleas. They itched for a few hours but were fine the next day. Overall I think the bugs are worse in Wisconsin during our backyard cookouts.
Another rain forest legend is the piranhas fish that will eat anything that falls in the water. They have razor sharp teeth that can nip chucks of flesh as easily as Jello. However they are not aggressive toward humans. Some of the members of our group proved that by swimming along one side of our boat while other members fed the piranhas popcorn from the other side. Fortunatly I was not on the boat at the time because I think I would still respect the piranhas and not go swimming. One morning we went fishing for piranhas with a fishing pole and bait. We caught about thirty of these five inch fish. The ship’s cook fried them up supper. They look just like bluegills and taste like monkey.
We saw lots of other wildlife. There are over 3,000 types of fish in that area compared to only 200 varieties in all of north America. The type of birds ranged from tiny finches to parrots, hawks and vultures. Large animals are rare but we saw many monkeys and sloths perched high in the tree tops. The distant roar of the Holler Monkey can be heard three miles at night. They sound like a cross between a lion’s growl and a jet engine.
The rain forest is changing and probably won’t be the same in ten years. The changes to culture and resources will be similar to what happened to the American west 150 years ago. There is too much potential in the rain forest for it not to be used. As one village said “don’t tell us about conservation while you have a full stomach”. It will be interesting to see how outside pressures will change the local people. I am glad I got to see it today. It will be different tomorrow.