After six months, and an extra week to see the Independence Day celebrations (which other than a parade, there pretty much weren’t any), my time in Colombia was done. My next destination was technically Peru, but I had decided I did not want to go there directly. Instead, I flew to Manaus, Brazil, where I could then get on a river boat going up the Amazon River to Iquitos, Peru. I gave myself about 2 weeks for this river trip so that I would have some contingency days as well as possibly do some side treks along the Amazon.
As it turned out, I used one of those contingency days right away. Upon arriving at the airport, I was not allowed to board my flight due to a visa issue as I was supposed to connect through Venezuela. After some last-minute travel bookings, I had a new flight going through Panama, but it was going to cost me a day. However, on the positive side, the layover in Panama City was close to 20 hours, which allowed me to spend about half a day exploring Panama City and the Panama Canal, a nice unexpected side trip.
Finally, after my one-day delay, I arrived in Manaus in the evening, and the next day had a tour of the river around Manus. This was a good introduction to the Amazon region, even if we really didn’t go into the forest. Among other things, I was able to see the “meeting of the waters”, where two rivers meet with different temperatures, currents, and compositions. Because of the differences, it takes a while for them to truly join into one river, so for a few kilometers, there is dark blue water and muddy brown water side by side. I also saw the pirarucu, a giant fish of the Amazon river, and some monkeys climbing the trees above us at one of our stopping points. I was also able to swim with pink river dolphins. I was a little concerned about this part, because I did not know how it would be set up: if the animals would be penned in or maltreated or something to that effect. Luckily, I found out that the operators were conscientious of the animals. The site was simply on the side of the river, with no pens or anything. The dolphins simply come there of their own volition because they know they will be getting some free fish. But I was more impressed that they only do this a few days out of the week, so that the dolphins do not become dependent upon the people for food.
The other interesting part of this trip was getting to visit an indigenous village. At the village, I was able to hold a baby sloth, taste some jungle food (like grubs and other bugs) and witness a traditional dance (and even join in for part of it). Talking to the guide, I learned that this tribe had moved closer to Manaus because it was safer and more reliable than living further in the jungle. The government takes care of the people, providing necessary health care and other services and allows the people to maintain their way of life, provided that they allow and participate in tours such as what I was doing.
I mentioned it being safer for the indigenous to be closer to Manaus. Only a couple of weeks after I visited Manaus, I saw news of a tragic event in the Brazilian Amazon. An entire indigenous village had been massacred by illegal loggers and miners. The only reason it came to light was because someone overheard some of the perpetrators talking about it in a bar, and this person then alerted the authorities. What is even worse, some experts believe this actually happens somewhat regularly because of the combination of the remote and wild Amazon jungle, the lack of information about many Indigenous peoples in the depths of the jungle (especially the uncontacted tribes), and the large number of illegal timber, mining, drug, and other such operations. Because of these combined circumstances, it is relatively easy for these illegal operators to come across native people, slaughter them, use their land, and no one ever finds about it.
Link to news story on this event:
The next day I headed to the riverside again to take the slow boat up the river. I received my paperwork, and soon I was on a small dinghy to board the ferry that would be my home for the next week. As luck would have it, I happened to be on the dinghy with a girl that spoke English. She was from France, but had been in Brazil for about six months so spoke Portuguese rather well. It was extremely fortunate to have met someone right away that could help translate for me in case of any issues on the boat.
The first step was finding an open spot to hang the hammock that I had bought along with the boat passage. There were two open air decks on the ship where people would hang a hammock, keep their belongings under it, and then that would be their accommodation for the duration of the trip. While a hammock sounds relaxing in theory, I have learned during the course of this trip that actually spending multiple nights in a hammock is not the most pleasant of experiences.
Fortunate smiled upon me again the next morning. At breakfast, I noticed that two young men sitting across the long dining table were speaking in English. I began talking with them and learned that one was from Portugal and the other was from Spain. They had met during their travels in South America, and were on their way to Leticia, the Colombian city in the tri-border region.
Early in the week, I found an excellent spot on the boat, where I spent much time, including at night where I could write in my journal or prepare a blog post. Going down to the main cargo deck, it was possible get to the bow of the boat, where almost no one ever went. It allowed for an almost unobstructed view of the Amazon River stretching out in front of us. One day, while I was sitting in the bow yet again, I noticed the white puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, and the green forest lining the river banks. We were at a such distance from the river bank, that it wasn’t possible to really distinguish the types of trees on the bank, just the solid green presence of tree life. The combination formed a scene that reminded me of the lakes in northwest Wisconsin. If I looked at a picture of the two scenes, I doubt that I could distinguish between the two without close analysis. That familiarity made me think of the interconnectedness of the world. While reading about the Amazon in preparation for the trip, I learned that the Amazon Rainforest is fertilized by dust from the Sahara Desert that is blown across the Atlantic Ocean. I also remembered that the Amazon supplies more than 20% of the world’s oxygen. It is easy to focus only on our own little corner of the world, but we must remember that we are part of a bigger world that is in constant interaction.
As we made our way upriver, in the latter half of the week, we would occasionally stop at a small town on the river to drop off cargo and passengers, as well as take on new ones. It is important to note that the Amazon River and its tributaries basically serve as the highway system for this region, with transportation of people and goods happening on these boats. This was not some tour that I was on, this was everyday life for the people of the region. Often at these stops, my new friends and I would walk around the town and try to find a place to get some snacks and drinks. While having a few beers at a makeshift dockside bar, the Spaniard pointed out to me his frustration with the amount of trash in the river, on the river banks, and the casualness with which people would toss garbage off of the boat. I had noticed the litter, especially when we arrived in each little town. It seemed there was garbage all along the river banks. The Spaniard and I could not understand how people were so willing to throw trash into the river, since most of them likely lived alongside of it. I realize that this is a European/American way of looking at the environment. However, he was truly frustrated by the state of affairs we were witnessing. And I have to agree with him. While I am not an environmentalist, I greatly appreciate the natural environment and hate to see what was happening to such an amazing place.
Eventually, we made it to Tabatinga. As a group, we went to the immigration offices, and then crossed into Leticia, Colombia. The fellow from Portugal was going to be working as a translator for one of the local tour groups. We arrived at their offices, and began to say our goodbyes. He actually was scheduled to go out on a tour that afternoon. I spoke to the tour operator for a bit and then decided to go on that tour. I hadn’t really gotten into the jungle yet, and I had time, since I had decided I was not doing the slow boat anymore to Iquitos, and the fast boat would only be about 10 hours as opposed to 3-4 days. Thanks to my fortunate meeting on the slow boat from Manaus, I was now on my way into the Amazon jungle for a 4-day tour.
Again, there were amazing experiences had in the Amazonian jungle. Both day and night treks into the jungle including looking for sloths in the wild, a night trip on the river to look for caimans (basically, Amazonian crocodiles), fishing for piranha (and swimming with them as well!). For the first and last night, we stayed in Puerto Nariño. This is an amazing town that is fairly new, it was only established in the past 50 years or so. It is also extremely eco-friendly. There are no cars, it is extremely clean and well-maintained, and the townspeople are almost all descended from one of the local indigenous tribes. Actually, I had noticed in general that the Amazon region in Colombia, and the towns of Puero Nariño and Leticia, was much cleaner than Tabatinga and the rest of the Brazilian Amazon.
The middle night, we stayed further upriver in an indigenous village. It was another great opportunity to learn more about the culture there. The community has a soccer league with about two dozen nearby river villages. There was supposed to have been a game that day, but it was cancelled for some reason, so we were treated to an impromptu soccer scrimmage as the sun set over the river and the piranha we had caught that day were prepared for dinner. Walking around the village, and hearing from the guides, I was amazed at how resourceful and perseverant these people were. The houses were on stilts due to the seasonal flooding of the river basin. We learned that a few years ago, it was an extremely high river, and the entire village (about 7-8 families) had to stay in one village building because many of the houses were flooded and full of caimans and snakes.
We also heard some of the darker tales. While in the mirador (viewpoint tower) of Puerto Nariño, overlooking the town and the jungle and river beyond, our guide told us how rampant alcoholism, drugs, and violence can be among some of the indigenous communities, especially at the hands of others. He told the story about how one of his grandparents was the result of the rape of an indigenous woman. These are the types of struggles people in these communities often still deal with to this day, and we hear so little about.
Upon returning to Leticia, I dealt with immigration yet again and then got on a small motor boat, along with an older gentleman and his dog, to cross the river to Santa Rosa, Peru. I had quite a bit of time to kill as my boat was not leaving for Iquitos until almost 5 AM. The town had no cars and no real streets to speak of either. Just one main road that was mostly dirt, except for a few stretches that were wooden. I walked up and down that main road just to get a sense of the small town. The people of the town were amongst the most friendly and welcoming I had yet met I South America. Multiple people saw my bags, asked where I was from, if I needed anything, and just chatted for a short time. Then, I decided to get a drink and dinner at a small restaurant that was blaring music onto the street. While there, I overheard a couple speaking English, and struggling with their Spanish, so I began talking to them. They sat with me and we shared some drinks, and soon another two people joined us, these from Portugal. We were all going to Iquitos and therefore had a night to spend before our boat left. After dinner, we made our way to another bar that seemed to be the only one open. Even though it was a Monday night, and we were the only ones there (aside from the workers, and the waitress from the restaurant we just came from), they stayed open until almost 2 AM for us. When we left, there was not even a light on anywhere in the town, so we pulled out flashlights and made our way to the small dock to wait a couple of hours to for our boat to leave.
In the pre-dawn hours, our boats arrived (it turned out that we were taking two different boats, departing about 45 minutes apart from each other), and the crowds boarded the boats. For the next 12 hours, I sat on a boat heading up the Peruvian Amazon, with a seat layout similar to that of a standard bus. That evening, I arrived in Iquitos, had dinner with the English and Portuguese friends, and then walked around the town that evening by myself, doing a little bit of exploring. There were almost no cars in the city center where I was staying, instead, mototaxis were the prevalent mode of transportation around the town. It was an interesting, but very loud scene, as the mototaxis had an unmuffled engines and hundreds of them were driving around the center square. Overall, I found Iquitos to be an amazingly quaint city, with a wonderful riverfront, shops, even a small coffeeshop/art-gallery that was open late. I truly wish I had more time to spend there, but alas, the next morning, I repacked my bags, and headed to the airport to fly to Lima, my two weeks exploring the Amazonian region of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru at an end.
I realize this is cliché but the Amazon truly is a wondrous place with so many different aspects to it, and I saw just a fleeting glimpse. But even with that quick view, I witnessed how fragile and in danger the area is. And I never even saw many of the true dangers that are threatening the more remote areas of the Amazon rainforest and its people. As I said earlier, I am not a tree-hugging environmentalist by any means, but I try to be acutely aware of what is happening, and there are many good and bad things happening in the Amazon. Hopefully, we can help support those good things happening to overcome the bad.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Here are some links to sites that have more information and organizations that are working to protect the Amazon rainforest and its native peoples.
http://www.coica.org.ec/ – A collective organization, based in Ecuador, for Amazonian native peoples
http://amazonwatch.org/ – An organization that promotes welfare of the Amazon, both its environment and its people. It works primarily with local indigenous groups, but also environmental causes as well.
http://www.goodnet.org/articles/4-nonprofits-ideas-on-how-to-save-amazon – An article highlighting groups fighting for the Amazon (Amazon Watch is the first one listed).