Carry on up the Amazon

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Friday, March 25, 2011

"Against boredom even the gods contend in vain."
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, section 48 (1888)
We took a double-take when we looked at the passenger list that GAP had posted in the hotel. The normal for the Amazon riverboat tour is 20, this one was for 25, 11 of which were all one Swedish family. The patriarch, matriarch, their daughter and 8 of their grandkids. At least, we breathed a sigh of relief, they weren't Swiss. 15 people bitching because something wasn't happening with clockwork precision (in South America) would have been too much. There was of course an obligatory Swiss chap on the boat trip and naturally he was a little strange but less than some we've encountered.

As it turned out there were also 7 Canadians, 5 Brits (inc. Claire and I) and one rather quiet Aussie chap (but as he was a Physics teacher it was to be expected). Trying to hold the tour together was our guide, a verbose and stocky chap armed with binoculars with his side kick.

The trip was billed as a chance to "Gain a rare glimpse of how life 'on the river' is lived and experience the magic of the Amazon on this once-in-a-lifetime riverboat adventure" Now, it maybe that Claire and I are getting a bit jaded by our travels after eight months or so and perhaps our previous trip around Puerto Maldonado and the Rio Tambopata had already introduced us to 'how life on the river is lived' but for whatever reason this trip didn’t quite live up to its expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a good way to spend a week and the people we met were lovely but for me the main guide was frequently infuriating and there were times when I wished he'd just stop talking for a few moments.

After leaving Lima we flew to Iquitos. Iquitos is quite a large city (for Peru) and grew during the rubber-boom of the late 1800’s, a boom that was cut short when the English smuggled some rubber tree seeds out of Peru and to Malaysia where the trees flourished and we (the English) developed our own source of rubber and cut the heart out of Peru’s virtual monopoly of the industry. These days Iquitos is known as one of the largest cities in the world that has no real road access. To get to Iquitos you either have to fly or go by boat.

On arriving we boarded the bus and drove towards Iquitos. There our guide set the tone for the trip ahead. Each time he opened his mouth he’d start with "My friends..." and then would drone on about the subject until the eyes of all 25 people had glazed over and then he’d carry on some more. So in Iquitos we were given a lecture about how the city had grown during the rubber-boom. Then a lecture about the markets we were about to visit. And then a lecture about the transport people used (wooden buses, mopeds and tuk-tuks if you’re interested; it gives the place a bit of a Hanoi feel to it) and then finally we were taken to one of the little markets where we were allowed about 20 minutes to buy something if we wished. 

Afterwards we went into Iquitos proper where our guide led a snaking line of 25 people around the food markets as tuk-tuks beeped and inched past us. Nothing new, for us at least, to see but for many in group this was probably a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the people.

We boarded our boat, the Arapaima. Our rooms were small but were spotlessly clean, had air-con and hot-water. The boat itself looked a bit battered and old but for the purpose of the trip was plenty good enough.

After lunch the guide went thru our itinerary and in this respect I have to say he was very thorough and always gave us more than enough information in terms of what we’d need to take for trips away from the boat – basically bring camera, mossie repellent, sun-screen, water-proof and so on.

Our daily schedule was generally listed as wake-up call at 5:30 (oh how I loved that!), river trip in the skiff at 6:00; back for breakfast at 8:00; another activity at 11:00; lunch at 12:30, free-time until 3:00 when there’d be another activity and dinner at 7:00. Not really relaxing and not really that adventurous either.

The early morning trips out on the Amazon or the Rio Maraņon (the river that becomes the Amazon when it joins with the Rio Ucayali just south of Iquitos) were for wildlife spotting. And these were always pretty good. Our two guides were good spotters and saw things that we’d have otherwise missed.  I’ve posted some of the pictures of some of the animals and birds we spotted. But there were plenty of times we could only see creatures thru’ binoculars and not get a photo – and it’s to my regret that I didn’t take a longer lens – which is why there’s no photo of the Sloths we saw, nor the Squirrel Monkeys nor other monkeys we spotted. Even with a noisy, excitable and verbose commentary, "Look, look, look, look there, there’s a XXX", the early morning spotting trips were worth getting up for with the highlights being the Gray Dolphins and the Pink River dolphins, which really are pink, even if the photo doesn't quite show that.

Of the other trips off the boat that Claire and/or I took three stand out. The first was Piranha fishing. Having done this a couple of weeks earlier I had an idea of what to expect but even I was surprised by the haul we landed. I managed to catch 3 Red Piranha and overall we caught over 25. They were cooked up that evening and I have to report that they didn’t taste too bad altho’ they were a bit bony. 

The second excursion was to a village along the banks of the Rio Maraņon. Memorable because instead of spending some time with the locals asking them about their lives and aspirations we were subjected to a 20 minute lecture by our guide on how to grow Yucca. But we then had 20 minutes in the local primary school – for most kids this is all the education they’ll get before starting work at the age of 12 or 13 – listening to them singing for us and trying to teach us some Spanish for bits of the body. In return the Swedish contingent sang them a Swedish nursery rhyme, which naturally left the kids bewildered but laughing.  I don’t generally like these little 'poor-ism’ excursions. Sometimes they’re not much more than a chance to see how the poor live and enable us to feel grateful that life is so comfortable for us with our 24x7 electricity, running clean water and so on. This wasn’t that much of an exception and it was perhaps a little fortunate that I missed one of the other guests remarking how pleasant and "stress-free" the villagers life were otherwise I probably would have had a bit of a rant about their relative poverty, the denial of opportunities in life, the reduced life-spans and lack of available healthcare and the general patronising attitude that comments like that reveal.

The third standout trip was a rain-forest walk. Having done rainforest walks before (in Rio Tambopata and in Borneo) we know that standing still for too long is an invitation to be eaten alive by mossies and other biting things. We’d skipped one walk and the feedback we’d got from a couple of the other guests was that a noisy verbose guide slowly leading 23 people thru’ the forest was a guarantee to see nothing – at least in terms of birds and mammals. But we decided to go on the 2nd walk as it involved a number of rope-bridges up in the canopy of the trees, which we thought might be quite exciting. And they were. What weren't so exciting were the lectures about rubber trees and ‘walking’ trees and I can’t recall what else as the guide stopped and droned on and on whilst all the time the army of hungry mossies grew around us. It was only about a 2 mile walk but it took nearly 2hrs. Claire and I were so bored during one lecture we stood away from the group and kicked a few seed pods back and forth to each other. For this sign of rebellion I was later told off by the guide!

I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t enjoy this trip along the Amazon, I did, it just could have been better. For me the guide the guide talked too much; a little less talk could have made a huge difference. The people we shared the boat with where great. The Swedish family, despite their numbers, didn’t dominate the trip and were all really nice. The Canadians also were fab people to travel with, as were the Brits. The Peruvian crew worked so hard to make the trip work – the food was good, the rooms spotless and they even cleaned muddy boots.

A trip on the Amazon and the two rivers that flow into it is a wonderful experience. Travelling along the small tributaries that flow into the Maraņon is a special way to spend the day. The noises of the forest is extraordinary, the colours of the birds is breathtaking. The mixing of the ‘black’ waters of the tributaries as they flow into the brown of the Maraņon absorbing. We saw an amazing number of birds and watching dolphins peek out of the water and chase after fish is captivating. 

Our final night on the boat was moored up in Iquitos, next to a transporter barge that was being loaded up with thousands of bottles of beer. The loading went on all night and into the morning when we had last boat trip – this time around the floating district of Iquitos called Belen. 

Belen is essentially the poor quarter of Iquitos (not that Iquitos is ‘rich’; it’s all relative) where the ‘River’ people who’ve migrated to Iquitos in search of jobs and money settled on finding that neither were readily available.  The wooden shacks with their palm leaf or corrugated-tin roofs are built either on high stilts or float like barges to cope with the Amazon which can rise by several feet during the wet season.  We skimmed around the area in the skiff, taking pictures, whilst our guide shouted out the bleeding obvious – “Look, look, there’s a young boy in a boat”.

The ‘Poor-ism’ trip over we headed back to the boat to pick up our stuff and made our way to the airport and back to Lima.

We’ve got a few nights in Peru’s capital so we’ll probably do a few day trips, relax and try to ready ourselves for our final tour, a six-week trip that’ll take us thru’ Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, leaving us in Rio de Janeiro. 

It really does feel like the clock is now counting down on this trip...

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Andy Howell on

Blimey, that's a bit brave openning with Nietzsche. Another corking entry, mainly for the terrrific Neil, I'm quite surprised you were so restrained and didn't end up using him for Piranha bait. I hadn't heard the term 'poorism' but I couldn't agree more having been through some similar excruciating experiences.

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