About Me

I ramble about a number of things - but travel experiences, movies and music feature prominently. See my label cloud for a better idea. All comnments and opinions on this blog are my own, and do not in any way reflect the opinions/position of my employer (past/current/future).

26 January 2008

Fast boat to Manaus

Tabatinga is over 1000 Km away from Manaus ... and the fast boat covers the distance, including a few stops in about 28 hours. For the speed, the money is definitely well spent, and it is a fairly comfortable ride, with much better food than the normal boat. However, in terms of overall comfort, the hammock was actually much better option - there is a lot more space to move around, and there is also the fact that you can actually lie on the hammock to sleep which is a lot better than a reclining seat.

The main problem with boats, especially when you do not speak the lingo is boredom. The fast boat had a constant rotation of B grade movies (dubbed and subtitled in Portuguese) and music videos (which were a lot more interesting), but one can only stare at a small screen for so long.

The fast boat is a bit too fast to really appreciate the scenery - but the sizable increase in deforestation (compared to Peru) is hard to miss regardless. The rivers is also a lot wider, almost stretching into the horizon from one side!

Edit: I forgot to add this ...

The most and only exciting part of the trip was when the boat was stopped by the Police about 2 hours down river from Tabatinga. Identity documents were scrutinised, bags were thoroughly searched (surprisingly, no dogs though) and two people were yanked (with their luggage) for further questioning. One person came back, and then the boat left. With my crudest Spanish and Portuguese, I managed to learn from one of the passengers (who had decided to take a smoke on the docks) that the yanked passenger had 2 Kilos of cocaine strapped to his thighs.

This also reminds me about the extra scrutiny I got at Peru (see last post). I learnt later from the guide that many South Africans pass through the tri-border area; and most of them carry false papers, and are involved in the drug trade.

The boat was very prepared for the search: all the bags were left on the aisle and only after the police check were they placed in the hold. Clearly, it is a regular occurrence - I just wonder how the police conduct searches on the bigger riverboats - esp with cargo and passengers and no dogs ...

25 January 2008

Pevas to the Tri-Border, and plans forward

The 24 hour trip from Pevas to Santa Rosa, a small island on the river was more of the same in many respects. The river boat was less crowded (compared to Iquitos to Pevas and Yurimaguas to Iquitos journeys) which certainly made the journey more comfortable. The food was worse than the Yurimaguas to Iquitos trip, but since there were only 3 meals, this was not too big a deal. This was the first trip in quite a while where I am back traveling alone, and I must say boredom does become a factor - especially when we are talking of such long journeys (in terms of time). Not speaking much Spanish was a hindrance, but I did manage to converse briefly with some of my fellow passengers. I did spend a bit longer speaking to the seemingly only English speaking person on board, Mario, an engineer in the Peruvian navy, who was with an evangelical church group going towards the border. One thing I have noticed is that it is not only the Americans (as from USA) who think of Africa as one big country ... much of the conversation I have had with locals has been on ho big Africa really is (yes, much bigger than South America, let alone Brazil) and the various differences between the Amazon and African savannahs.

Santa Rosa is where all passport formalities for Peru is done, and it took considerably longer than it took to enter the country. It could be to do with my slightly disheveled look (slight beard, longer hair than normal), could be to do with my slightly disheveled passport (after being in pockets and hidden pockets) ... don't know ... it took a while.

At Santa Rosa, an English speaking Peruvian guide offered his services - well offered is the wrong term, he decided to tag along, and I decided that having someone to translate between Spanish, Portuguese and English for the officialdom and boat tickets would be worthwhile. After concluding passport formalities in Tabatinga (Brazil), we crossed over to Leticia (Columbia) to change money (there are no formal border checks or formalities) before heading back to buy the boat ticket. The normal river boat (much better than the Peruvian ones) to Manaus, the first major stop for me, is 4 days and leaves in two days time and I am tired of hammocks so was looking for a cabin. The cabin costs only slightly less than a speedboat - which seems quite luxurious and will get me to Manaus in 36 hours. For me it is a no brainer - this way, I have a chance to get to Belém for Carnaval ... let's see what happens.

For the record, neither Leticia nor Tabatinga, are delightful places to be at. I am here only because the first boat out happens to be tomorrow. Neither towns are very attractive, nor are they very touristy ... they just get the job done I suppose.

23 January 2008

At Play in the Fields of the Lord

No, I have not turned religious. When I was in high school I watched a movie, and later read the book, which is set in the Peruvian Amazon (back then I preferred the movie because there is a lot of sex and violence ... I think I would still prefer the movie :p). After 4 days (more on why not 5 later) in the jungle, I think it is a rather apt title for this post ...

Downriver from Iquitos

Most tours from Iquitos operate up the river, and getting a company willing to do a tour down the river (towards Brazil) was difficult. Luckily, I was wanting to do a proper jungle trip, and not stay in lodges - past 20 or 30 Km from Iquitos, such facilities simply do not exist. This is a pity in some respect, because this is a very nice part of the country. It is brilliant in other respects - less tourists mean that the experience is more real, not staged.

The trip "officially" started (and would end) in Pevas, on old Amazon frontier town about 190 Km down the river from Iquitos. From there, we still had another 2 hour trip in motorised canoe, up the Ampiyacu River, to Nueva Esperanza, a village of the Ocaina tribe. Nueva Esperanza would be our "base" camp for the trip.

The Guide(s)

Initially I was looking to contract a freelance guide directly, but searches on the Internet revealed that the two freelance guides I did know off, both had rather bad reputations. So, eventually, I settled for an agency, Amazon Adventure Expeditions, owned and operated by one of the most experienced guides in Iquitos, Moises Torres Monteluis. The deal was organised with Moises directly, and my guide from the agency was Moises' brother Israel.

Israel (nick name Commando) speaks English quite well which the primary reason he was assigned to me. He has been guiding in the jungle, mostly trips similar to mine for about 10 years, which is a long time when one considers he is turning 28 next month. I got on quite well with Israel, which is an important issue when one considers the fact that it is only him, his "assistant" and myself for most of the trip.

Israel (left) does know the jungle quite well - both the fauna and the flora. He had a good eye in spotting birds amongst the trees, but he was not as good, in my opinion, as his assistant, René (right), a local resident of Nueva Esperanza. René is a pastor as well as the radio operator for the town. Israel and René were actually in the army together 12 years ago (when army service was compulsory) and René trained as a radio operator in the army.

The Village

While there are a few tribes in the Amazon who still wear only reeds and hunt with bows and arrows, the large majority of the Amazon tribes have had a touch of western civilisation infused in their lives. According to Israel, the western influence has probably gone too far - young children no longer learn their mother tongue, and thus Ren's generation will probably the last who can speak their mother tongue.

The village is relatively small - about 100 persons including the children (who make up a large percentage of the population). Although hunting still takes place (in fact a wild pig was hunted on the day we arrived), fishing and farming are the real activities of the village. Contrary to my expectations, there does not seem to be any gender defined divisions of labour: both men and women were working together to make new roofs for the village houses, I saw both men and women making baskets, rowing boats, cooking and going to gather fruits from the forest.

The village is very open - people do close their doors, but more to prevent dogs and other animals from coming in that to prevent people from coming in. Children seem to drift in and out of the houses all the time, and while there is a definite parental upbringing, there is also a community upbringing aspect to their life. The villagers were very friendly and very hospitable. As I explained earlier, not many tourists come to this area, and at least from Israel's point of view, I was the first in years. I really enjoyed my time in the village, and the time I spent in the village has been one of the most relaxing in a long, long time.

Ask, and the Jungle will Provide

It is widely promoted that the seeds of the Andean cultures lie in the jungle - and the concept of duality - the balance - the yin and yang if you prefer - is so applicable. While the forest can harm (insects, disease) it can also heal. The forest provides nourishment, but the forest floor is a massive pile of decaying plant matter.

I had a number of walks in the jungle, and Israel pointed out many of the plants that are used by the Indian communities for various purposes: from building material, to nourishment, to medicinal, to creating souvenirs. One of the amusing examples was a tree whose sap can be used to cure vaginal cancer (according to Israel, although I think he probably means cervical cancer, which I know is curable) which has branches shaped like penises ... rather apt in a way, one would think.

While the jungle does provide, more and more villages have created resorted to slash and burn to clear the forest and farm. While, in this part of Peru, they are still farming native plants that grow in the jungle, I wonder how sustainable this venture will be. I have also come to realise that living in the jungle entails living ecologically is a myth. Villagers take what they need - and sometimes this can be very wasteful. For example, one palm's edible portion is only the top part between the trunk and the leaves (which Israel described as jungle spaghetti). Thus to get that portion, an entire tree needs to be pulled down.

We went fishing one of the afternoons, and René managed to catch 6 fish for 4 different species, unfortunately no piranhas. Israel managed to catch 2 (cat fish, which were also caught by René) and I managed a grand total of 0 ...

Animal and Bird Life

Ironically, the most fertile time of the year for the fauna - the wet season (now) is also the worst season to go to the jungle to watch fauna. Because there is so much rain, animals do not have to come to the river looking for water. Furthermore, when it rains, the animals stay put - thus making it harder to find them. Both these factors together meant that I did not see much wildlife in the forest. I certainly did not expect to see the two big animals of the jungle, which are rare to spot anyway: the jaguar and the anaconda - but apart from monkeys, two snakes in the water I did not see animals in the jungle.

That said, I did see a lot of varieties of birds, and with the exception of the parrots and macaws, all them quite close (close being around 15m max from me) which helped since I did not have any binoculars. The Amazon is a bird watchers paradise, and sunrise and sunset makes it a very picturesque place for bird watching.


We spent two nights camping in the forest, and that was an experience in itself that I will not forget anytime soon - just the noise of birds chirping at sunset to insects and frogs through the night to the birds chirping at sunrise ... not quite an orchestra but close. The camping system was funky too - a hammock, surrounded by a hammock mosquito net, covered with a plastic sheet for rain protection. On the first day, there was a massive rain downpour, and I was quite amazed at how quickly Israel and René managed to start a fire with wet wood.

Mosquitoes and Ants

Not only is the wet season bad time for finding animals, it is also high season for mosquitoes. It is a good thing that I have been taking anti-malaria tablets and have had my yellow fever inoculation. It is said that prevention is better than cure - but I am wondering if there is any such thing as sure bet prevention of mosquito bites. You see, insect repellents (at least Tabard) simply does not work effectively. Firstly, there is the fact that it has to be really applied thickly to have any real effect. Secondly, after an hour or so of walking, and sweating it has all run off anyway, so it needs to be reapplied. Lastly, I noticed that it needs to stored at 25 degrees Celsius ... please find me a fucking area with insects where the temperature is below 25 degrees ... what were they thinking? I also have a hand sanitizer with a "natural" insect repellent which I can also testify does not really work. And for the record, Israel's jungle mosquito repellent also does not seem to have any long lasting effect.

Ants are a more interesting proposition. Israel claims that in his experience, he has never had anything similar to what we experienced. Simply put, we were attacked by ants - not the humans directly, but rather my mosquito net on the first night and Ren's t-shirt the next night. Ants have also more or less destroyed my rain jacket - which has served me well for a long time now - Cape Town rain and wind to snow in Hungary and Germany.

Concluding Thoughts

This was definitely one of the most interesting experiences I have ever had. Because it was a solo experience, it cost a lot, and on that front maybe it was not the best value for money - after all I did not see much wild life. But it was also a lot more than just an experience in the jungle, and for that maybe it was worth the expense. In the end, I had to cut my stay by effectively half a day - there was a boat from Pevas to Santa Rosa (at the border with Brazil and Columbia) on Wednesday, and the next boat would be on Saturday. Taking into account all the additional time for waiting around in both Pevas and then in Tabatinga (border town in Brazil) it was just not worth waiting around.

I am very much a city boy - and this trip has taught me, how much I depend on modern conveniences to survive. If civilisation were to destroy itself (not necessarily unrealistic IMO), surviving would be difficult for me. There is an interesting byline to this however ... I did manage to teach Ren on how to use the programmable features of his radio ... the manual was only in English, and was a horribly written manual at that ... I actually just played around with various combinations of buttons to work out how it worked :p

I would definitely recommend taking a jungle tour, and recommend Israel as a guide. If I do come back to Peru, I would like to do a longer jungle trip - only this time it would be in the summer. And hopefully, there will be someone else to share the burden of the costs ...