Amazon Adventure on La Turmalina: The excursions
From the time we arrived at the airport in Iquitos and were taken to our coach for the ride to Nauta, we were in the capable and highly organized hands of the naturalist team who were leading our Amazon explorations. In my professional career I have encountered many people who were experts in their field, but Juan-Carlos Palomino and Robinson Rodriguez have made an indelible impression on me that I will never forget. How they could spot a tiny black dot high in a tree as we were speeding down river in our motorized skiff, and instantly identify the type of bird, simply blew my mind. Specially when our skiff driver, Darwin, would stop the boat so we could see the bird. Even through my very powerful binoculars I could often barely make out the shape of the black dot- which now just looked like a big bird-like blob to me. But they could point in the bird guide to the exact type of bird. And then when I zeroed in on the image captured (usually by Robinson, for me) on my camera, and zoomed in on the image - there it was. No longer a black blob.
Before supper each night, we were entertained on the upper deck by the ship’s band of whom the mainstays were brothers, Oscar and Edgar Rachi, and Blumer Arica, all of whom sang as well as playing multiple musical instruments. We danced lots of salsa and merengue with the occasional rumba for variation. It was quite a surreal experience to be dancing on a river boat in the Amazon jungle!
But I digress from the objective of this post. Rather than writing up this journey chronologically as I usually try to do, I will use this map drawn up by these two men, to list the numerous excursion we took from our 'mother-ship" into small tributaries and rivers off the main rivers. And then in different posts I will describe some of the flora, fauna and foods we encountered.
So these are the excursions or events to which the numbers correspond.
1. Flight from Lima to Iquitos
2. Embarked on La Turmalina in Nauta
3. First afternoon excursion
4. Morning excursion up Blackwater /Yanallaquillo Creek
5. Catamaran trip up into the lagoon
6. Nahuapa River - Pacama Village
7. Catamaran to the jump off spot for the hike to the Kapok Camp and
8. Overnight in Kapok Camp
9. Lunch at La Posada
10. Pucate River Night Excursion
11. Pucate River
12. At the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayalli Rivers we saw the giant water lilies
13. Piranha fishing off the Yarapa River
14. Nauta town tour and "rickshaw" ride
On our coach ride from Iquitos to Nauta, we stopped briefly at a stand where the guides brought several fruits from the area for us to sample. My favorite was sapporte which tastes somewhat like a mango but more buttery. We also tasted sugar cane and a Peruvian tangerine.
2. Embarked in Nauta: We took the skiff across the river to La Turmalina. As we passed by one of the streets we could hear singing and see dancing – the remnants of the carnival celebrations. We settled into our cabins and then we had an “emergency drill” to tell us about the life jackets and how to evacuate the boat. A little less formal than the major cruise ship productions but then there were only about 16 of us altogether.
3. Our first excursion on the river was later that afternoon. We went out for about an hour in the skiff. And that’s when I got my first view of how incredible RG and J-C are at spotting birds high among the leafy trees. See if you can spot the tiny speck on the top of the tree that in the next picture becomes slightly more obviously a bird!
4. The first full day on board we were supposed to go out really early in the morning but the rain was pelting down and the guide team decided to delay the excursions till later. At 9:30 Juan-Carlos gave a short lecture to describe where we were and talk about the energies and resources of the rain forest. My numbers are open to correction but I think he said that jungle occupies about 60% of the territory of Peru and that 32% of the oxygen of our planet is generated in the Amazon region. Also that there are 80,000 different plant species in the Amazon and medicinal and toxicological facts are known about only 20% of them. And finally that 900 of the 1000 known bird species in South America are found in the Amazon jungle.
Morning excursion up Blackwater /Yanallaquillo Creek for two hours.
We saw how the different soils, sediments and tannins from tree barks tinted the river water. The black colouring comes from an excess of tannins that literally turns the water black; quite a contrast to the muddy brown colour of the main river water.
On this excursion we saw a small cayman (a South American reptile of the alligator/crocodile family) basking in the sun on a branch. I think RG said it feeds on snails. We also saw squirrel monkeys, and 5 long nosed bats on a tree trunk. So well camouflaged they just looked like blobs on the tree and it was only when they were startled and flew off en masse that I realized what they were.
They pointed out a green iguana clinging to a branch. I have posted my original photo and the zoomed version to give you an idea of how hard it was for me to spot these creatures.
5. Catamaran trip into the lagoon. Later that afternoon we took the skiff to another area of the river bank and walked a short distance over muddy terrain to get into two catamarans and paddle into the lagoon area. We passed an area marked off for catfish farming and also saw two of the wardens of the reserve, who keep an eye out for poachers. We also saw hundreds of little fish jumping out of the water and feeding on either ants or termites dropping from the hanging nests.
6. Nahuapa River - Pacama Village
The following morning we were scheduled to visit a village where some of the local riberenos of the Pacama tribe live. There are several of these villages along the way and they try to schedule visits to different ones for the various expeditions. La Turmalina cruised slowly along, quite close to the river banks till we reached the village to which our visit had been arranged. Unfortunately it was again pouring with rain. The ground was very muddy and despite my unwieldy poncho I got very wet. As it was also hot, it was a bit like being inside a steam room. Hot and steamy.
The huts were all built up on stilts to prevent flooding when the river is high. We were told that over the course of a year the level of the river may differ as much as 40 feet. We were visiting when the river was rising and was about midway to its highest point. As we cruised along we could often make out the high water marks on the trunks of the trees lining the river banks.
The villagers had made special preparations for our visit. We paid a visit to the aged chief of the village where we listened via translation to some Amazonian tall tales. Typical stories included tales of beautiful women encountered on a solitary walk, who would vanish suddenly and in their place would be an iguana or a frog or some such mystical event.
Then we walked across the field to the school building where there were about 100 or more children assembled. There Robinson led them in singing and playing games that introduced them and their visitors, and let them compete to answer questions and win some of the small prizes J-C and R-P had bought with the money we donated. Following this event we had an opportunity to purchase some of the local crafts before returning to the ship.
7 and 8. Kapok Camp and suspension bridges. Following lunch we were told that we would be leaving around 4 for a hike through the jungle to the start of the suspension bridges that would take to our overnight sojourn in the Kapok Camp. For most of the hike through the jungle we actually followed a log trail but there were many patches where we were wading through seas of mud. My new boots from Mountain Equipment were actually amazingly comfortable and though the outside got filthy, my feet remained cozy and dry. We were all given leather waders to wrap around our calves as protection. I guess they did not want us to succumb to bites from snakes and other nasty creatures.
I wrote the story of the Kapok Camp as two separate posts (Kapok Camp Hike and Suspension Bridge system) and ( My Night in the Kapok Camp). The link to the video of Robert eating the grubs is in the first story. Kapok by the way refers to the trees - the Kapok trees.
9. Jungle hike and lunch at La Posada – with “our” band providing some excellent entertainment. After an early morning coffee and breakfast we set off on a hike literally through the jungle. Not on a log trail, our guides had machetes and slashed their way through the undergrowth. Fortunately we did not encounter any snakes or anything else scary.
Later we made our way to the jungle-expedition’s La Posada where our crew supplemented by a couple of others, had laid out a nice buffet. Our band/crew from the ship entertained us with a range of music from different regions of Peru.
After lunch we returned to La Turmalina. We agreed later that it was interesting to see how our perspectives had changed after the night in the huts at the Kapok Camp. Our small air-conditioned cabins seemed positively luxurious in comparison.
As we climbed out of the skiff and onto La Turmalina we were asked to take off our damp, mud encrusted boots and leave them to be cleaned. I was amazed later to have my boots returned to me. Dry and almost looking as if they had just come out of the shoe box. Another amazing service to chalk up to the crew.
10. Pucate River Night Excursion. Later that evening after dinner, we were taken out for a night ride up the Pucate River. The night sounds, frogs, cicadas, were amazing and we saw a few varieties of frogs plus a large bird that looked like an owl.
11. Early morning excursion along the Pucate River with picnic breakfast. The next morning we went out early for a ride along the Pucate River, before breakfast and our wonderful crew served us up a boxed breakfast complete with coffee. This was followed by several hours cruisin' along so a jungle pit-stop was indicated for all the coffee drinkers. Since a couple of the ladies balked at squatting in the presence of nasty insects or other slithering creatures, the crew set up a makeshift "jungle-baño"- which a few brave souls used.
The smiling girls are the "sisterhood of the jungle- baño".
12. At the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayalli Rivers we visited a lagoon area to see the giant water lilies. It was at times a rather hair-raising trip through thick water weeds that fouled up the motor of the skiff but the sight of the water lilies was worth it. At least it was for the passengers who did not have to get into the water to slash away the growth so the boat could move on. There are apparently only three known varieties of these water lilies - originally from India. It is the only known plant on this planet that has only one leaf. Pollinated by beetles they take about 4 weeks to grow to this size.
13. Piranha fishing off the Yarapa River. One of the highlights of this trip, frequently referred to by our guides, was the opportunity to go fishing for piranhas. Finally the time arrived. Now I confess I am not a fisher girl! I hate watching the fish thrash around gasping for air and as for pulling hooks out of them. Ugh! So though I held my rod and cast into the water diligently, I confess I was secretly rather glad that I did not actually catch and bring in a fish.
But luckily since piranha was on the supper menu, the gang as a whole brought in a good haul. Brian, our tour director, helped by young Shams, caught about 7 or 8. This species of piranha are apparently “vegetarian” but although they are small they have incredibly sharp jaws.
Despite the fact that we were supposed to be fishing, I enjoyed a very pleasant morning on the water under the shade of the trees overhanging the pools where we were anchored.
But as we emerged from the densely overgrown tributary and entered the main river to return to the boat the heavens literally opened and the rain pelted down. At first it was somewhat funny as we struggled into the already wet ponchos that the crew hauled out but as we got wetter and wetter and water flowed under the ponchos , down our necks, and soaked us thoroughly, you could feel the energy level drop as people put their heads down and shrank into their sodden ponchos. Back at the boat we left out our boots and wet hats and knapsacks for the crew to perform another of their drying miracles.
14. Back to Nauta for a town tour and "rickshaw" ride.
For our last afternoon we were taken across the water in the skiff for a brief walk through the harbor front area of the village. Then we had time to explore on our own.
As we wandered by an open door we heard dance music and peered inside. It was a bar, and one of our guides was enjoying a beer with friends. We were invited in to join them, but knowing this was his free time, we did not stay long. Just long enough to dance a rumba, much to the raucous appreciation of a couple of the other patrons. So now I can say that I have danced on the Amazon River and in a tiny pub in a village in northern Peru.
We walked through the street market as well as as an indoor market where mainly vegetables and some flowers were on display. Then we met up with the others for a walk through the centre of the village to an area where we saw turtles and very large fish. Later we piled into a number of cheroots and were taken on a ride to see other parts of the village. We crossed a large covered bridge which for some bizarre reason, maybe just the concept, kept making me think about the movie “The Bridges of Madison County”.
For our final dinner on La Turmalina the crew outdid themselves. The entire crew came out to be introduced and thanked by us all, and each of the guests was presented with a certificate showing that we had completed our week on the Amazon River.
As Robert and I had an 8:30 flight from Iquitos to Lima to connect with a 12:50 PM flight to Buenos Aires, we had to leave the ship by 5:30 am for the long drive from Nauta to Iquitos. I had set my alarm for 4 am so I could shower and organize last minute packing. When I went into the dining room I was surprised to find coffee and a light breakfast prepared for us, but as well to see several of the ship’s crew had actually got up at that time to say goodbye.
A fitting ending to a once-in-a-lifetime experience.