Tourist First

Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

Peru: Cruising the Amazon (and more)

     A highlight of our fall trip to Peru was a week spent aboard International Expedition's Estrella Amazonica (click HERE for website) crusing upstream from Iquitos, the world's largest city (pop. 500,000+) that cannot be reached by road -- only water (it's 2,400 miles up the Amazon from the Atlantic) or air.
The shaman, Maestro Juan, 71,
 in the village of San Jose.
     Above Iquitos, the Amazon is formed when the Ucayalli and Maranon rivers converge. We went 320 miles upstream from Iquitos to a ranger station on Rio Pacaya, a small tributary of the Ucayalli River, then back down the Ucayalli to the convergence and up the Maranon River to near the community 9 de Octubre, before returning to Iquitos.  La Estrella Amazonica traveled 680 miles on this cruise -- but we traveled more miles thanks to daily excursions up and down little tributaries on skiffs. We also visited jungle villages, were invited inside a home, and met a shaman. We learned about the shaman's extensive and difficult training, his regular use of a hallucinogenic drug, his knowledge of jungle-plant drugs, and we each received a blessing from him that involved his blowing tobacco smoke onto our hands and heads.
     Jane and I were at a disadvantage on this trip because we had brought lousy binoculars and a camera that isn't good for photographing wildlife at a distance, and most of the wildlife that we saw was far away: sloths in distant trees, toucans a few hundred yards away, iguanas hidden on high branches, etc. A new friend, Dick Greenberg of Fort Collins, Colorado, was smart enough to bring a really good camera, has a really good eye, and made a really good video of the trip.  You can see Dick's video by clicking HERE.  The music on Dick's video was played by La Estrella's band, made up of crew members. Most nights the band played during cocktail hour and by the end of the trip had everyone but the most curmudgeonly old men dancing.

Note: Since this post was written, La Estrella Amazonica has been renamed Amazon Star. The name was changed after a cabin fire that killed two passengers. For my post on that topic, click HERE.

    I heartily recommend International Expeditions and La Estrella Amazonica to anyone interested in visiting Peru's Amazonian region. La Estrella, one year old when we were there, is the newest of the dozen or so such boats on the river and the only one providing private balconies to all passengers. The naturalists are first rate and fearless in reaching into the water to grab caimen so passengers can get a close look.  All meals in the large dining room were buffet-style and quite good; although some fish dish was a constant, there was a good bit of variety, including excellent ice creams. The cabins were relatively spacious with room to slide all luggage under the bed, and the shower always had good pressure and hot water.  The bartender, Vincente, made a solid pisco sour. One tip: get a cabin on the second deck as far forward as possible.  The boat motored all night for several nights and the engine noise made sleep a challenge in our cabin, which was at the rear of the second deck. We assume it was even worse on the first deck, which is closer to the boat's large Caterpillar diesel engines.
     Despite my trouble photographing wildlife, I did get a few decent snapshots that give some idea of what the experience was like. Here are some.
La Estrella Amazonica.  This was taken from one of the boat's two skiffs.  Passengers are boarding the other skiff.
 
View from the bed in our cabin. All cabins have balconies.
During a visit to a jungle village's one-room school, some of us danced with the children.
Kitchen in a jungle village house. A wooden box is filled with dirt and the fire is built on top.
Dugout canoes are still being made and used along the rivers.


A fisherman tosses walking catfish from his boat into
 a floating fish pen.  Later the entire pen and thousands of live
catfish will be floated downstream to market.

A motorized dugout canoe transports firewood. Note the "long tail" propeller.

Riverfront houses near Nauta, a market town on the Maranon River.
We hiked a bit to see these giant lily pads on a jungle pond.
This immature woodpecker had apparently fallen from its nest into the river.
One of our naturalists picked it up and put it on a branch to recover.
The Amazon basin is full of life -- and death, creating a plentiful food
 supply for black vultures such as these. Among the many kinds of vultures
were the same turkey vultures common in the eastern U.S.

Up one of the Ucayalli's many tributaries. Rain gear is essential
 but it won't keep you dry during an Amazon downpour.
We went fishing for piranha and this is the first one I caught.
 We used raw beef as bait. The fish were cleaned and  fried for dinner
 back on La Estrella.  Mostly skin, very little meat, but tasty enough.

Here's one of our naturalists taunting Jane with a bird-eating spider.
An unexpected treat was a ride (four passengers at a time) aboard a float
 plane to see the confluence of the Ucayalli and Maranon rivers
 and the beginning of the Amazon.

The Ucayalli (upper left) and the Maranon (upper right) unite here
 to create the Amazon.  Note the clouds. We were the first group to fly.
 The last group flew (and transferred between the plane
and a skiff and then to La Estrella) in a heavy rain.