Travels with Lois and Jason

Amazon Rain Forest and the Galapagos Islands

an adventure in contrasts

December 22, 2011 - January 8, 2012

Our Amazon Experience

Click here for our Galapagos Experience

Diary entry for first morning on the Amazon:  This river is huge.  It is at least a mile across and the water is chocolate brown, turbulent, and moving fast.  Every few minutes a single log or a raft of  logs goes whizzing by. muddy

What comes to mind when you imagine the Amazon River Rain forest?  A river.  Lots of rain.  A jungle.  Strange and exotic birds and animals. Natives in loin cloths spear fishing.  We had watched videos, done some reading, but nothing prepared us for what we actually saw, which is extremely challenging to describe.

We live in Southern California, essentially a desert where our rainfall is measured in inches (and we feel lucky to have a foot of rain in a year).  We visited an area of the Amazon River with rainfall measured in yards (as in 10 yards of rain a year, or 30 feet, or 360 inches).  We will try to give this a little perspective.  

We went to the "Birthplace Of The Amazon," where the Ucayali and Maranon Rivers converge near Nauta, Peru.  Each of these tributaries is over 1000 miles long and it is another 2400 miles from this point to the Atlantic Ocean.   The Amazon River is the largest river in the world in terms of volume of water.  The Amazon Basin, or the area of land which feeds the Amazon River (the green area on the map), is almost the size of the lower-48 of the United States.  The change in elevation from Nauta to the Atlantic is less than 1000 feet.  That is, imagine an area of land about the size of the United States that is completely flat, no mountains and some occasional rolling hills. 

As shown on the map, we traveled a couple of hundred miles up stream from Iquitos, Peru to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve (a National Park), exploring some large and some very small tributaries.  We saw the jungle.  We saw the exotic birds and animals.  We saw the river.  We experienced only two rainy days (out of 8).  We saw the natives in their homes and fishing in the river.  But what was overwhelming and incomprehensible was to be told over and over again that the water level had come up about 20 feet already, and had another 10 feet to go.  The water lines on the trees verified these remarks. Everywhere we went we saw villages of stilted houses with the floors easily ten feet higher than the current water level.

muddy amazon .house muddy amazon
Water line on trees
Still dry out-front...
but water is rising

And the source of this water?   About half comes from the Andes with its myriad of twenty-thousand foot peaks and glaciers, and the rest from rainfall.  Eight of the world's ten largest rivers (as measured by volume of water) are tributaries of the Amazon.  How do you comprehend water in such quantity?

In our short visit during the transition period between high and low water levels, we had a peek at a world totally adapted to an annual thirty foot change in water level.  Towering trees a hundred feet above our heads had a canopy full of monkeys, sloughs, and birds.  We knew they were there because our guides told us so (and we occasionally actually saw and heard them).  We saw lots of toucans and other birds scurrying through the middle level of the trees,  lots of egrets and other waterfowl along the waters edge, and our guides found snakes and other reptiles hiding in the water or grasses. 

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Common Squirrel Monkey
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Great Egret

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Cane Toad
Common Anaconda -- caught by fisherman
 Short nosed lizard snake
Speckled Caiman

Touring Around

We went out two or three times each day touring on a skiff (motorized canoe).  We encountered log-jams and plant-jams on many outings, having to turn back or hack our way through on different occasions.

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(E-ticket) Jungle Boat Ride on a skiff Log jam
Lilly pad jam

We saw black water rivers and brown water rivers.  The brown water rivers originate as snow and ice high in the Andes.  As they cascade to the flat lands, they carry tremendous amounts of silt and dirt, making the water appear brown.  The origin of a black water river is rain water which has fallen in a forested swamp or wetland.  (Remember there are yards of rain each year and the land is very flat!)  As the  vegetation decays in the water, tannins are leached out making the water appear black.  The points of convergence of these different rivers (the meeting of the waters) is quite amazing.  At one point our skiff ran along the convergence for at least a mile with brown water on one side of the skiff and black water on the other side.

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Mixing of brown and black water in tributary
Demarcation line of black and brown waters

Our guides and native village life

There were four extremely knowledgeable guides for the 32 passengers.  Each was a man who had grown up in one of the native villages along the river.  The couple we got to know had similar stories of their transition from native life to educated tour guide.  The Peruvian government sends teachers to the remote villages for a couple of years as a way of paying back their college education.  For one of our guides, his teacher recognized his intellect and then encouraged and arranged for him to move to Iquitos (THE city for the entire region) where he completed his education and training.  Another told us that his father arrived as a teacher but fell in love with a local girl, married her and then years later sent him (his son) to Iquitos to continue his education and training.

Our guides explained that the natives lead a very hard life, but no one in the village goes hungry.  There is always fish and cassava (starchy root) to eat.  There was a village every few miles along all the large waterways.  Each village consists of about a dozen houses, all in a row facing the water.  We were told that during the low water season the villagers plant corn and cassava along the beach area in front of their houses.  At high water they use canoes to move between houses.  We saw fish cages floating in the river in front of the villages.  These cages were net enclosures where the natives kept extra fish that they caught to keep it fresh (since there was no electricity or refrigeration).  


thacting thacting thacting
Thatching a roof

Doing laundry
Visiting with the village children
Harvesting cassava root

Our hiking experiences

During our visit we were only able to go for two hikes. Both required the use of rubber boots as water levels were such that the ground was very soggy.  Our guides said that in another couple of weeks we would not have been able to go on these hikes at all.  (On the other hand, if we had visited six month later, we could not have gone up any of the small tributaries “ which were consistently more interesting and beautiful than the larger rivers “ as they would all be dry land.)

Our first hike had a couple of shocks:  at one point our guide showed us a swollen area on a downed tree and said this was a termite nest.  He reached down and put his hand in the midst of the nest and when he lifted his hand out it was swarming with termites.  He said that the termite oils were good mosquito repellents and proceeded to lick his hand clean.  (He said it tasted great and was also a source of protein.)   As we continued hiking our guide was looking for a palm nut.  He found one and used his machete to cut it in two.  He showed us the seeds inside and was quite excited as one seed wasn't a plant seed, but a grub.  He proceeded to pull it out and eat it.  He said it was a delicacy and a source of protein.  Needless to say this is something you need to grow up with and not an acquired taste!

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First hike (of only two);  forest not yet completely under water
Eating termites -- natural mosquito repellent
Eating grub found in palm nut (in right hand) -- a local delicacy

Some miscellaneous adventures

We went fishing and each caught a piranha.  They are a small fish, from 4 to 8 inches, with a red belly, and nasty bite.  muddy amazon
muddy amazon We saw the Amazon Lilly Pad, three to four feet in diameter, and we saw spider webs that were 10 to 12 feet across with zillions of tiny (about 1/2 inch) spiders. 
A Red Howler Monkey jumped from tree to tree across a stream DIRECTLY over our heads.  (Picture taken by one of our shipmates.)
muddy amazon
muddy amazon We went to a manatee rescue center and got to bottle feed some manatees.  The center does an education program with the natives when reintroducing these beautiful mammals into the wild to help them survive.  (We also went to a rescue center where they were breeding turtles and 8 foot long "lung" fish.  When mature, they are reintroduced to areas where they have been over fished.)

We came to appreciate why there are no large land animals in the Amazon:  small and nimble are needed to survive where the vegetation is so dense and the land so swampy.   On the other hand, manatees, pink dolphins, and lung fish all evolved in the nutrient rich waters of the Amazon.

We went to the floating city of Belen (a suburb of Iquitos) were everyone lives on floating houses, goes to floating churches and floating discos.  

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              amazon muddy amazon
Floating house with outhouse on left Boy on log "boat," house in background Washing dishes at a floating house A street with houses on stilts

sky reflection

This has been an amazing trip.  We really didn't know what to expect, and we were definitely not disappointed.   The diversity of the trees and flowers with their many colors including every possible shade of green, reflected in the still water of a black stream, or seen across the wide expanse of brown water, against a backdrop of blue, gray, clear or cloudy sky, was astoundingly beautiful!  Riding in a skiff at six in the morning, hearing the jungle songs, watching the reflection of the sky in the water, oh what a wonderful trip!

Click here for our Galapagos Experience

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April 11, 2012