When we left off, before a couple of detour posts that called out to be written, our band of adventurers (AKA: my family) were leaving the wedding of our dear friend and guide extraordinaire, Edgard. They hoped to get a few hours of sleep and leave the Andes, for the second half of their adventure (Cue suspenseful music, for a kick: on a second screen, while reading this. Try it.)… in the Amazon. Honestly, the reality was much less suspenseful than that. We were tired; Prinicipessa was starving (as on observant Jew, she was certainly not eating the heaping plate of pork that we were served for dinner) and so was Middle Man (as a vegetarian, he was certainly not eating the heaping plate of pork we were served for dinner); we had a flight fairly early the next morning, and we were all wondering if perhaps we might want to just stay another week in the mountains and skip the Amazon all together. I can hear you now: skip the Amazon!?! (Mixed punctuation and all) Who in their right minds would skip the Amazon? Well, that my friends is just how fantastic the trekking and mountain part of our trip was. Truly. (If you haven’t read the 4-5 previous posts about it, go back and do that now). We didn’t want to leave.
We had such an amazing time in the mountains; we all felt so utterly thrilled with the adventure, the physical challenges, the friends we’d met and the fun we’d had, and we were so taken with the city of Cuzco and the area around it, that we really could imagine just continuing our adventure right where we were and skipping the Amazon portion. We’d adjusted to altitude; there were places we still wanted to see, and suddenly the idea of leaving our comfy hotel and great adventure for a place that we’d heard had tons of mosquitoes, (snakes), malaria, (snakes), crawly things, giant spiders, (snakes), no Edgard, (snakes), heat with no air conditioning… and I happen to hate snakes. Hate. Them. The idea of snakes was enough to make the Amazon sound less and less appealing and another trek much more inviting. The only snakes I’d seen in the mountains were those carved into Incan ruins, nothing live and moving. So, while the others were not worried about snakes (they’d want you to know that, for the record), we were all happy enough with our adventure in the Andes, to at least chat about the idea of wishing we were staying.
However, we are pragmatic for the most part, so we got up, packed our stuff and waited to go back to the airport. It was not lost on me that I’d set out on this trip feeling anxious and wary of the mountain portion of the trip, and much more invested in the Amazon portion, only to find out that I had a bit more mojo than I’d thought, and would happily continue on in the mountains. None of this was anticipated when I arrived, when I’d been pretty sure that the altitude and trekking were bound to lay me low. Instead, as we left for the airport, we all felt a bit sad to leave and little of the excited anticipation I’d imagined we’d feel, going to the Amazon. That put me 2 for 2 in the getting it wrong category, for this vacation.
Once again, we found ourselves spending a brief time in Lima, before heading on to the Amazon. I’d love to say that Lima is an amazing city, and we were all glad to have some time there… but I can’t. From about April to October, Lima is a gray city that is highlighted by dabs of color in it’s colonial buildings. The sky is gray, the sea looks gray, the beaches en route to Mira Flores are brown, and it’s a city. While I do love cities more than some, when I travel I am not a fan of the big city experiences. In fairness, it could be that we saw Lima sandwiched between Cuzco/Andes and the Amazon, and it couldn’t possibly stand up to either (for me), but I’m also inclined to believe it’s because Lima is just not that spectacular. Some of the architecture, the Spanish history (this was where Francisco Pizarro established the capital of Peru, after visiting in early January, when skies are blue and weather is perfect), the culture and food are certainly worth note. The catacombs of San Francisco Monastary, deep below the surface of the city, were pretty
claustrophobically creepy fascinating, though the idea that we might be trapped down there were there an earthquake, distracted me throughout our tour. The 5’6″ high ceilings didn’t help, nor the dank smell and approximately 70,000 skeletons. It was however, one of the highlights of Lima that I would recommend. The other highlight would be the ceviche, which alone is worth a visit to Lima. However, aside from a few things, there is little in Lima that held our interest.
We were grateful to board yet another plane (For the record, we spent a lot of time in airports! Much of it in Lima) and leave for Iquitos, the gateway to the Amazon. Iquitos is the biggest city in the world, that has no roads in or out of the city proper, with a population of nearly 500,000. There are roads within and around Iquitos, but the only way to get there is by boat or plane. As you fly into Iquitos, the population is not evident and I got the distinct impression of arriving somewhere out of one of the many documentaries I’ve watched, about jungle towns… where men with machetes and wild things, wait to ambush you. The runway sprang out of the tall grasses and bush and just before landing, Little Man and I got our first glimpse of the mighty river, The Amazon, as it formed a perfect snake in the sea of dense jungle. Admittedly, it gave me chills.
Stepping off the plane reminded me again that we’d left the mountains, as the hot, humid air hit me and the ease of breathing at sea level returned. My hair began to curl immediately and would provide entertainment for my family for days to come, as it found new ways to coil tighter and tighter. The team from Explorama Lodge rounded us up with the other guests who would be traveling there, and we were all herded into a rickety old school bus with no windows, with our luggage piled precariously in every empty spot, for the thirty minute ride to the river.
Iquitos is not like any city I’ve ever been to, and yet it reminded me a bit of India in it’s chaotic beauty. The dusty streets were crowded with thousands, thousands, of colorful motorcycles (not scooters) zipping along in every direction. There were virtually no cars, but every one and their mother was riding a motorcycle. Families of 4-5 all piled on one bike, businessmen and women in nice clothing and even heels, vendors with goods, two men with a mattress, and everyone in-between navigate the city on sleek motorcycles. Even the taxis are comprised of a cab with 1-2 benches, fashioned onto a converted motorcycle. As I watched out my missing window people noticed and smiled or waved. Young children dared each other to wave at us, or excitedly waved and waited for me to wave back. There are still few enough tourists in Iquitos that our foreign faces elicited lots of reaction and excitement, adding to the thrill of being in such a uniquely different place.
We made our way through the city of colorful colonial remnants and “modern” tropical architecture, palm fringed streets and squares, more dogs, fruit carts and interesting shops, with glimpses of the river down each side street, until we stopped at the boat terminal. There we waited in the open air station while our luggage was loaded and guides assigned. Our guide, Luis, introduced himself to us and made sure our bags made it, and we all boarded the a large boat right out of Huck Finn, called the Amazon Queen. Luis shared that he was born in the jungle, his family “River people.” His father was the village Shaman and his mother the midwife. As a child and young man he had hunted wildlife in the jungle and lived entirely away from development until he was in his twenties, when he eventually married and moved to Iquitos. Over our three days together we would learn that Luis could spot a small spider from 50 feet, see birds that we could only make out with binoculars and track, spot, name or share things that we had only seen on T.V. A quiet man who is passionate about the beautiful place he lives, we were very lucky to have Luis show us the Amazon.
As we motored down the main inlet out of Iquitos, the buildings thinned and signs of extensive deforestation reached to the edge of town. I remembered watching Fern Gully with my kids so many years ago, and the shock of the turned earth and massive felled trees settled on me. Luis joined us as the boat began to turn away from shore and said: “Welcome to the Amazon,” as we crossed into a rich brown water that stretched far across and onward. It was stunning! So much more than all the documentaries we’ve watched, or anything I’d imagined.
Iquitos disappeared quickly and was replaced by small homesteads and parcels of farmed land. Each house looked much the same with tin or thatched roofs, open air living areas with a small enclosed sleeping room, and up on stilts to protect it from the rising river each season and wild life. I was immediately struck again, as I have been each trip to India and in Africa, by how little people can live with compared the plenty we take for granted. Women washed the family laundry in the brown water, men and young boys fished with fine nets in dug out canoes, while small children raced along the shore waving at us or swam close to shore. Most of the homes were not much bigger than my kitchen and I felt humbled, again, by the reminder.
About another 2 hours up river we stopped to switch to a smaller, faster boat, for the final hour+ of travel. A lazy tapir searched through the garbage near the dock as we boarded, and our adventure got even more exotic. The second boat sat much lower in the water and I dragged my hand in the warm dark water, as we started out, but then became worried that there might be something in there. As I held my hand out the window, just above the water, it splashed gently over my skin and the shore and wake of the boat cast its spell. I listened to my iPod, and as it so often happens the perfect song came on. Peter Gabriel’s Washing of the Water seemed almost a hymn to the place and
moment. My thoughts and breathing slowed down as the trees and jungle sped by and the water stretched around me. It was hard to think, as thoughts floated in and out of my consciousness and I gazed at the shore. I felt myself lost in the beauty around me and sensation of the air and water, hypnotized by the Amazon. (Views from the boat, before my brain stopped working: Where the rainbow ends; typical (nice) Amazon house, laundry time and Ceiba tree)
Eventually the boat slowed and turned into a narrower waterway, the Napo river, and then into an even smaller tributary. The water instantly turned darker and quieter, the jungle crowded in, and sound seemed amplified. A small village hugged the shore as we slowed down and we saw the lodge come into view: a series of simple buildings set up on high stilts and surrounded by thick jungle. We docked and stepped into another world. The bird sounds were nothing like the ones at home, the smell of the river and the air was floral and yet earthy, like decomposing leaves and biomass. My senses were on overload, while my head still struggled to process anything. I stumbled out of the boat and made my way up the dock and up the boardwalk to the lodge, taking it all in, my legs unsteady. The others on our boat seemed to be abuzz upon our arrival, while I struggled to form coherent words or walk properly.
Explorama consists of several lodges, all constructed with jungle woods, thatched roofs, with screens only in the dining area. The bedrooms and other areas have walls that are open to the air at the top. Rustic would be generous at home, but somehow in the jungle it all came off as exotic. As I entered the dining hall, where our lunch was waiting, I tried to pull myself out of my fog. People smiled at me and said hello but I continued to move in slow motion, as I made my way to the pit toilets near the jungle’s edge. It took much of lunch for my brain to spring back into action and my kids watched me as I tried to operate as if things were normal, when I felt anything but. It kept occurring to me that I felt much like Alice, dropped down a hole into a world of wonder and enchantment.
Towards the end of lunch we all heard loud screeching and people hurried to the doors and out onto one of the boardwalks, connecting the buildings. The staff had set out an enormous bunch of bananas and small titi monkeys had come from all over to fight for them. They leapt from the branches and flipped from branch to ground and back, as we all took photos, and my thoughts were forced back into action. I took in my surroundings: the Napo river, still and dark by the docks, the boats sitting still and the jungle all around. The trees surrounded us; the branches a mass of twisted green, and
the lodge stood like a small oasis in the lushness. One open area had several large hammocks, another a small bar and seating. The rooms were all set along a single boardwalk, everything up on high stilts. We were given two hours to settle in and enjoy the lodge before our first of what would be several daily adventures. I grabbed a hammock and sunk into the magical place we’d landed.
**In part two of the Amazon adventure, we head into the jungle at night and during the day. We fish for piranha, see some creepy, crawly, colorful, amazing, and beguiling things, a climb to the top of the canopy and snakes. Join me for the next post.
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