Dawn on the Amazon
Trip Start Feb 16, 2013
48Trip End Ongoing
Our route took us from Santa Elena de Uairen in Venezuela through Boa Vista down to Manaus, a sprawling Amazonian hub in the middle of Brazil. From there, we took a seven day boat up river to the tri-border cities of Tabatinga (BRA), Leticia (COL), and Santa Rosa (PER), followed by a 12 hour fast boat to the Peruvian city of Iquitos, hung out for a while, then another slow boat for four days to Yurimaguas. Then we booked it into the mountains for some fresh air.
One thing that really struck us was the incredible differences in culture between the three countries mentioned
Our time in Manaus was spent walking around the city drinking exotic Amazonian fruit juices, eating large portions of meat at a Brazilian Churrasqueria, and getting prepared for the long boat trip. We had bought hammocks right before leaving Venezuela, but we still wanted to pick up some books in English (since we only have one kindle), drawing paper, needle and thread to fix all our clothes, and of course some snacks, fruit, and bug spray. We planned to spend a few days in Manaus, but the boats to Tabatinga only left on certain days of the week, and we were forced to leave days earlier than intended. Before committing to a boat, we paid a guy to take us out to where they were all anchored, to compare and decide for ourselves. One ship was large, clean, and seemingly organized with a fairly good guarantee of having less people aboard. The other was smaller, with more passengers, but the top deck was a bar/hang out spot where they blast music, and the crew was much friendlier and spoke a little Spanish. The choice was clear.
We boarded the Alfredo Zanys and strung our hammocks up as far away from the bathrooms, kitchen, and roar of the engine as possible
As days began to meld together, the only indication of time being the passage of the sun and the calling of meals, the sunrises and sunsets became a highlight. Each one unique, they were dramatic and put us in one of those peaceful contemplative moods. Especially at dawn, when the birds are waking up, the trees have a soft pink glow, the villagers lean in their windows and doorways greeting the morning as they likely do every day, and the reflection of oranges and pinks in the ripples of the water leave you mesmerized and grateful to be alive. Occasionally some river dolphins would sweeten the morning as well.
Our visit to Leticia, Colombia, was supposed to be very short, but we were reminded how much we enjoy Colombian beer, food, and culture, so we stayed for a few days. We met a couple friends and spent some time relaxing at our wonderful hostel (why we felt the need to relax after doing nothing for a week on a boat, I have no idea). We took care of our exit and entrance stamps, which required a shocking number of taxis and boats, officially leaving Brasil and entering Peru, though we were staying in Colombia. The two notable things we did in Leticia were an amazon jungle trek, and watching the birds fly into the main square at dusk. Our two jungle guides belonged to local Amazonian tribes and were able to show us many trees and plants with medicinal purposes, pluck new exotic fruits for us to try, and explain their way of life to us
Having at least three more days of long, slow river travel, we decided to take the fast boat into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. We left in the middle of the night and twelve hours later were in the sprawling, dirty, noisy city of Iquitos, which we visited three years ago. The difference between then and now is only our perspective on the place. Last time, the smelly, hot city flooded with the roars of mototaxis and the poor district of BelÚn, with the biggest traditional market in the Peruvian Amazon, were well beyond our level of comfort. We spent most of our time at the ex-pat establishments and stuck to the touristy areas. This time, we wanted to get deeper. We took public transportation, wandered around the market (making sure to wear shoes and hold our breath discreetly), hired a local to take us into the town of Belem, and were much better at bargaining. The difference that being able to speak the language makes was enormous and we found ourselves really appreciating the gritty jungle town and all its quirks. The zoo, called Quistacocha, was impressive, and we saw jaguars, capibara, tapirs (they're huge!), friendly monkeys, anaconda and river boas, paiche (the biggest Amazonian fish), crocodiles, and ocelots
From Iquitos we took a four day boat to Yurimaguas, which turned out to be much different from our Brazil boat. Brazilians, as it turns out, are very hygienic. They line up to brush their teeth as soon as they wake up and after meals, they shower every day, and always smell and look good. A crew member swept and mopped the deck each day, there was always toilet paper in the bathrooms and soap at the sinks, the food was bottomless and they provided us with cold drinking water and coffee at all times. The cooks even offered to clean and fry up the two gorgeous catfish that Mike bought from a fisherman - for free! None of these things would even be considered on the Peruvian boat.
The Peruvian boat, Eduardo II, was not pretty, nor did it seem to be very clean. But we slung our hammocks up and tried to take up a lot of space so others wouldn't crowd us too badly. It didn't work. There were approximately 170 people at any given time on the boat, though people left at each port and others came on. Vendors would also board at each stop, selling soda, fish, ice cream, and balls of rice with indistinguishable chicken parts inside wrapped in banana leaves
The Amazon was initially the most intimidating portion of our trip, and yet the part we looked forward to the most. It's gritty, hot, and buggy, but not without charm (and lots of mototaxis), and you quickly learn the only way to get through it is to go with the flow. The Amazonian culture is very different from what we've seen on the coasts and in the mountains, and we appreciate the opportunity to be able to immerse ourselves in each. It was interesting to compare the riverside villages on the Brazilian side with the Peruvian, and the differences in the food, hygiene, and apparent social and educational level of the two boats was drastic. We read many books, ate plenty of new fruits, played with kids, learned some basic Portuguese, and intensely enjoyed laying in hammocks all day long. When you add the clear, starry night skies and the incredible sunrises and sunsets, I'd say we found a little slice of slow-moving heaven.