Iquitos and the Heart of the Amazon Basin

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
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Trip End Sep 12, 2010


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Monday, June 21, 2010

Traveling from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru involved two flights covering a distance of 1,350 miles, and took all day. We left foggy Guayaquil before dawn, and stepped off the plane in the heart of the Amazon jungle after night fall. We were met at the airport by Evy, the Peruvian co-owner, with her American husband, of Otorongo Expeditions Jungle Lodge, 100 kilometers up river, where we had a booking for five nights. Evy whisked us to our hotel in the center of Iquitos and we arranged to meet our guide in the lobby early next morning. We then walked into the center of town and found its dimly lit streets alive with music, platoons of tuk tuks spewing exhaust fumes, comedores filled with local diners, and packs of teenagers gathered outside of dance clubs. We returned to the hotel where, despite traffic sounds and the thumping bass from the disco across the street, we collapsed in our beds and fell immediately to sleep.  
Next morning, before journeying up the Amazon River to the jungle lodge, we met our guide, Naysar, for a walking tour of town. Iquitos, like many port cities, is raucous, colorful and a little seedy. It is a major supplier of seafood, cane and jungle fruits to the rest of Peru. Logging, despite international objections, continues to thrive.
Tourists have been coming to Iquitos to see the "real" Amazon in large numbers for the last 30 years. As the world's largest city without a road leading to it  everyone comes by plane or river boat. These days, visitors arrive by the plane load twice daily. 
Seeing the Amazon River for the first time is an unforgettable, even life-altering, moment. In much the same way as movie stars look bigger in person, the Amazon dwarfs everything it touches. Looking every bit the life blood of the planet, the river rushes past, roiling, muddy and in a hurry to complete its 4,200 mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean.
Continuing our tour with Naysar, we checked out the curious Iron House. Iquitos'  most renown landmark is a restaurant made entirely of iron, built by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. We continued to the river and followed a walkway that took us to Belen, at the edge of town. Here, floating on rafts of balsa, is Pueblo Libre, Belen's shantytown, and the government's disgrace, described in a government report as "the horror of Peru". The report goes on to say that "high population density, unemployment, lack of clean water and sanitation, and inadequate housing, health care and educational services create a setting where family and community violence, alcoholism, malnutrition, HIV, teen pregnancy, prostitution, child sexual exploitation...are rife." When the river subsides in dry season, Belen rests on a bed of mosquito infested swampland. It's hard to comprehend how this humanitarian disaster can exist in Peru, under the same government that prettifies its colonial cities and Incan sites for tourists. 
Next, we ventured into Belen's huge outdoor market and joined a tide of humanity funneling into a warren of narrow streets lined with stalls.We were immediately met with a sensual pot pourri of sights, smells and sounds. We perused snake oil (literally), herbs and spices, many varieties of tropical fruits and mysterious dried, jarred and powdered shamanistic remedies. We viewed river fish of all sizes and types. Table after table groaned with piles of freshly caught fish. It struck us that to sell everything on offer before it spoiled in the jungle heat has to be impossible, and wondered how can this bounty taken daily from the river is sustainable. We were outraged at the sight of bound and upside down live turtles, being sold at the princely sum of US10 to make turtle soup, a Peruvian delicacy. The cagey turtle vendor eyed us keenly as Oliver begged to buy one to set free. We reluctantly refrained on the advice of Naysar, who explained that doing so would only encourage sellers to catch even more turtles, to sell to humane-minded tourists such as ourselves. Feeling like "bleeding heart" liberal gringos who send money to World Wildlife Fund, but have no clue about animal protection issues, we tried to turn a blind eye to live turtles, ocelot skins, bush meat and dismembered animal parts. After a while, we decided we'd seen enough and, leaving the fisherman, farmers, witches, hustlers, turtles and barefoot children behind, we made our escape to the relative peace of downtown Iquitos. 
Before embarking on our journey upstream to the jungle lodge, we were joined by Cathy and Phil, friendly and erudite Australians, who rounded out our tour of five. Traveling in a small, narrow wooden boat with an outboard motor, we traveled 100 kilometers in about two and half hours. This included a stop at a small factory that processed sugar cane into rum and molasses. The outdoor factory used crudely constructed wooden pressers and distillers, and seemed abandoned. Incredibly, it is still in daily use. We trooped into the "tasting room", a shack on stilts to try the different concoctions on offer. One sip of the strong stuff made Michael's eyes water!
We chose Otorongo Lodge for its glowing reviews on Tripadvisor and in Lonely Planet.Our "last minute" booking again paid off, with a 30% discount on listed prices, as add-ons with the Australians. The lodge is rustic yet homey.Of course there is no hot water, but guests are welcome to bathe in the river with the crocodiles and piranhas if they so wish. Anthony, co-owner, and Evy's husband, does this every day. In fact, Michael and Oliver did go swimming in a shallow place near a bend in the river, while Annet waded in (thinking about those crocodiles and piranha!). The water was surprisingly warm. The sun set behind us (see picture) and the experience in that moment took on a surreal dimension. We felt very far from home, in more ways than one. 
Anthony is a jungle version of Dr. Dolittle, and Otorongo's grounds resemble a wildlife rescue center. Tropical birds and hawks, victims of the animal trade, wander freely or on tethers. An enclosed pond contains toothsome crocodiles and mot turtles. Various creatures come and go; injured animals or those saved from poachers are brought by locals for Anthony to care for. A white-throated toucan, Juan, was everyone's favorite. A lively, social bird, "Juanito" hopped around (his wings were clipped) squawking for attention. Juan allowed Oliver to pick him up (by the beak!) and stroke his soft feathers. Soon Oliver had a friend in Juan and they became inseparable. It was heart-breaking to see these wild creatures hobbled forever by poachers.On the other hand, they are survivors, and were fortunate to end up in the lap of luxury at Otorongo Lodge! Anthony is a natural raconteur who kept guests entertained with tales of capturing giant eels, close-calls with dangerous snakes and spiders, and run-ins with the locals over illegal fishing, etc. He never ran out of fantastic stories of life in the Amazon. We came back with our own story after our first night hike, when we ran into, literally, a deadly fer de lance snake. A bite from this dreaded serpent is fatal in 20 minutes. Our guide, who narrowly escaped stepping on the snake, motioned us to gingerly step back, and we observed this frightening creature from a safe distance. Needless to say, the hike came to an abrupt end as we made a hasty retreat back to the lodge. 
We recommend Otorongo Expeditions. The lodge accommodations, food and service are all top notch. Best of all, there is a warm, family vibe that makes this place very comfortable.
Almost all the animals we came across were benign and beautiful. Pink River Dolphins performed a perfectly synchronized ballet for our benefit at dusk. We played a challenging game on the river called "spot the sloth". We observed families of spider, capuchin and squirrel monkeys. But the most interesting monkey we were fortunate to see was the rare Pygmy Marmoset, the world's smallest primate. We encountered many types of frogs, including the poisonous dart frog, and saw some scary spiders: the pink toed tarantula (harmless) and the poisonous Wolf Spider. As this furry spider reared up for attack, we could see venom dripping from its ready maw! Bird life in this area was not as rich that of Madidi Park in Bolivia (or possibly birds were harder to spot here). We did see some incredible birds; among them Trogans, Mannequins, Kingfishers, Tyrants, Herons, Hawks, Macaws, Parakeets and Toucans (Juan, plus a few in the wild). All were as beautiful as they were difficult to photograph.
We had hoped, and expected, to find that a mostly pristine jungle still exists here in the heart of Amazonia. The reports from this end are mixed. There is an enormous wellspring of resources here and we saw plenty of natural habitat and animals living as nature intended. These seem to be unaffected, as yet, by pollution and loss of habitat. On the down side, the river banks are populated with villages the entire 100 kilometer distance between Iquitos and Otorongo Lodge, and these all grow domestic crops, including corn, sugar cane and rice. Cattle graze in grassland that is home to jaguars, ocelots, capybara, storks, turtles, river otters and many other animals. 
Logging continues to be a major industry. In our five days on the river, we regularly saw huge barges loaded with freshly cut trees traveling downstream to Iquitos' port. The old growth forest here is almost completely gone. One hike took us to one of the last giant trees in this part of the jungle, which locals are hoping to preserve from loggers as a tourist attraction. The metallic clang of chain saws can be heard almost continuously.
Sadly, Iquitos is also hub for the thriving illegal animal trade. Poachers, in combination with habitat loss, are depleting the Amazon basin of its exotic animals. These are captured and smuggled into wealthy countries through as a series of bribes. Many die in transit. As with drugs, once the demand or tropical birds and reptiles stops, so will the smuggling. 
There are private expeditions that venture deep into untouched jungle; by all accounts very tough travel, but probably a good bet for getting a glimpse of the REAL real Amazon. 
Despite witnessing some disturbing truths, we enjoyed our hot, sticky, sometimes scary, time in the Amazon. As a natural setting, the Amazon is in its own category. The river holds 40% of the world's fresh water, and the wildly divergent species of animal and plant life is truly amazing. We hope the Amazon's delicate ecosystems are able to survive, even flourish, and that a viable balance between man and nature will be attained before it's too late.
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Comments

Therese on

Dearest Michael, Annet, and Oliver, Your pictures provoke huge curiosity = ) A seven foot snake? Harmless? Good grief . . . . pink toed tarantulas? Stunning, incredible, phenomenal are just a few words that pop into my head as I view your journal . . . . Hugs from the very domestic and tamed great Pacific Northwest .....

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