Off on the African Queen

Trip Start Sep 30, 2011
Trip End Dec 13, 2011

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Where I stayed
Flying Dog Hostel Iquitos

Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, November 13, 2011

We started our jungle adventure from the city of Iquitos. This is the world's largest city (population 500,000) inaccessible by roads.  To get there you either take a five day barge on the Amazon or you fly.  It is a city with very few cars, not because people walk, but because everyone drives tuk-tuks.  These are three wheeled motorcycles with an extra bench seat in the back.  You would be surprised how many South Americans can fit on one tuk-tuk.  I’ve seen at least eight people on one tuk-tuk, in fact a family of four can fit on one two wheeled motorcycle.  It looks something like this, the dad usually drives with a baby on his lap, while the mom hangs onto the back with a toddler sandwiched in-between.  It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a mini skirt and six inch stilettos, ANYONE can ride on a motorbike when you’re in the jungle. 

The city is not only home to thousands of tuk-tuks, but it also has one of the craziest markets in South America.  Allegedly there are live endangered species sold in the cramped stalls of the market.  Although we didn’t find any of those critters when we visited, we did see some crazy stuff.  When you walk down the stinky, blood smeared isles of the meat market you literally can find any part of every animal imaginable.  We found everything from cow rumen and pig heads to sloth and monkey meat.  They also had spiritual and ceremonial items like Toucan heads and pelts form jungle cats.  If you’re in the market for hallucinogenic drugs or secrete potions that cure all, then you’re in luck because they sell them too.  These markets also tend to be one of the more dangerous places in South America.  The stalls are really close together with goods packed precariously to the rough of a drooping tarp just low enough to whack me in the head as I walk by.  There are so many people wondering the streets that you always have someone bumping into you.  Being the "careful" kids that we are, Jessie and I never carried money in our pockets and were always extremely cautious about valuables.  We knew all about the no jewelry rules, but Jessie had this cheap watch that looked like a designer CZ white watch.  Some guy must have thought it looked expensive because he raced past her and ripped it off her wrist.  Just like in the movies a mob of local guys chased off after him tackling him in the street.   Jessie ended up getting her five dollar watch back, but it was a bit traumatic and rather exciting. 

It was from this crazy weird city that we started our Amazon adventure.  We hooked up with another traveler, Fraser from New Zealand, making our posy a jolly four.  Next we found an agency who sounded like they would give us a great time and we would still have a decent chance at surviving through the week.  We set off for our adventure from the small town of Nauta (the only extended road in the area runs between Iquitos to Nauta) in a large wooden canoe hooked up to an outboard motor with a really long prop-shaft for navigating in muddy river channels.  The amazon as can be expected was HUGE!  I can only really compare it to the Mississippi, and it makes that southern river look like my backyard creek.  It is also extremely turbid and almost looks like the glacial rivers in Alaska.  The only noticeable difference, instead of fisherman in powerboats and trappers with fir filled canoes there are banana farmers bringing their produce to market in dugouts and loggers floating their timber on huge rafts.  As we powered downstream it wasn’t uncommon to see a family sitting in their dugout washing their clothes or filing their canoe with suds for their bath.  We passed many little villages along the way.  Houses were all on stilts and one or two bedrooms either completely open to the outdoors or with half walls and mosquito netting the rest of the way to keep out the bugs.  Most villages have a one room elementary school, but nothing for older kids (who have to boat to a bigger village or attend boarding school once they hit high school).  We had the opportunity to hang out with the kids from one of these village schools.  It was a beautiful experience!  Fraser had the foresight to bring bags of dumdums, which helped us to break the ice and make lots of friends.  The boys played soccer while Jessie and I hung out with the girls and their awesome teacher.  They were such sweet kids and were entertained with using our cameras to take hundreds of pictures of themselves, their friends and us.  I was sad when it was time to leave our young friends.  Maybe someday we will have the opportunity to return!      

We stayed at two different lodges both along the Napo River.  They were both beautiful places with picturesque jungle huts and hammocks swinging from the rafters while birds sang from the surrounding forests.  Our days were filled with jungle treks and piranha fishing excursions.   We saw all kinds of interesting things.  One of my favorite experiences was swimming in the Amazon, something I’ve always dreamed of doing.  As I said before the Amazon and its tributaries are all very muddy and it is impossible to see more than an inch or two through the water.  Near our lodge there was a submerged dock that we thought made for a perfect diving spot.  As we walked out on the dock we felt something nibbling on our toes.  Turns out there are little fish that eat off the dead skin on your feet.  In places like Buenos Aires they actually use these fish in fancy salons as a callous removal method for pedicures.  It really was a strange, unnerving feeling to sit there and let something eat your skin.  However, it was amazing to relax in the warm waters with tropical parrots flying overhead and egrets wadding in the shallows nearby. 

Another favorite memory was Piranha fishing.  We went the old-fashioned way.  No rod, no reel, just a stick and line with raw chicken scraps on a rusty hook.  I’ve never been a huge fan of fishing as I find it a bit boring especially when I’m pulling in giant salmon every other cast.  However, I didn’t mind it this time.  Our technique took very little effort or technique.  Drop line in lake.  Splash raw chicken.  Wait.  Bite.  Pull in Piranha.  None of this casting business that takes patience and technique (I’ve always been the girl sitting on the rock casting every thirty minutes thus constantly hooking submerged logs).  We all caught a couple of Piranhas and went back to our lodge where we were served fried fish for dinner.  Not much meat, but pretty tasty! 

Some of the other highlights of the trip were seeing the Pink River Dolphins, an endangered freshwater dolphin endemic to the amazon.  We also saw a sloth and tons of monkeys including the pygmy marmoset which is the smallest monkey in the world (only 5 inches tall).  Our only deadly encounters (except for half a dozen poisonous plants) came in the form of two ferdelance, an extremely venomous snake occurring throughout the tropical lowlands of South America.  Perhaps our closest encounters with the wildlife occurred inside the walls of our lodge.  During our five nights in the Amazon we found many animals in our cabin.  There was Freddy the frog, Tommy the tarantula, Cluad, Charlie and Caroline the giant cockroaches (although there ended up being too many cockroaches to count so the rest were named C1, C2, C3…), Beatrice, Betty and Beyoncé the bats and many other little flying insects.  For the most part we allowed these creatures to coexist in our rooms with us.  However, there was one unnamed tennis ball sized spider with a huge egg sack that we had removed.  No one wants thousands of Amazon spiders taking up residents in their backpacks (we did hear of this happening to another traveler), not fun!  
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