Amazon: floating in inland waters

Alexander gets into the boat. These are long and narrow and sit rather low in the water.

The Cumacebe Lodge, located in the Amazon Jungle, also had a large pond. We took at least 2 trips around the pond. Once was at night, in the rain. Interesting, but I didn’t want to risk my camera! On the last day, we took an hour long float around the water, just to see what we might find.

The surface of the pond was covered in water lettuce and some water hyacinth. There were also lily pads in the shallow sections.
Birds were able to walk across the vegetation and pick out the insects and small frogs.
This pond was not particularly deep, but the water level varied widely because of rain. It was very hot and humid and the sun had begun to come out–so I had trouble with my camera lens fogging up. I was soaking with sweat long before we finished.
I saw so many beautiful birds, but it’s very difficult to get good photos without an extremely long len. These birds are the Wattled Jacana. In the Amazon River, I also saw the Anhinga (called the snake bird, a type of cormorant), herons, Plum Throated Cotinga (a small blue bird), Oropendolas (which make long hanging nests from the branches of trees), Kingfisher and eagles. I also saw the backs of both pink and gray river dolphin as they jumped from the water. These species specially adapted to fresh water.
The vegetation was so thick it was hard to paddle.
Water lettuce

There’s a toucan in the tree. Can you see it?
Can you find the toucan now?

These prehistoric birds are hard to spot and ever more difficult to get a photo of. Hoatzin live at the edge of stagnant water like this, among the spiny palm trees.

Interesting to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here!

Amazon: Hunting for spiders

This is the underside of the thatched roof of our entry “bridge” to the lodge. Honestly, I’d never spent much time looking up. Here you’ll see some of the termite “roads” on the upper supports. I often saw leaf cutter ants using the supports as a road. But that’s not all that lives here. Honestly, if I’d known how many spiders there were in this canopy, I’d have spent much less time walking here!

On our last night, Sergio said he was taking us on a very simple walk to see some spiders. We didn’t even need to put on our boots, since we weren’t going into the jungle. It turned out that we only walked to the front of the lodge and took a stroll, with flashlights, along the entrance corridor bridge, which takes you over a particularly swampy section.

First was a frog–perhaps the size of my hand. This is a large species of tree frog. The Amazon is home to the poison dart frog–colorful, tiny and deadly. I had really hoped to see a few, but didn’t.
Within 2 minutes, we saw this tarantula. Eeek! Sergio referred to him as a baby since he had a diameter of perhaps only 5 inches.
This spider was slightly smaller–perhaps 4 inches in diameter, but somehow seemed more menacing than the tarantula. We probably saw almost a dozen spiders in all, half tarantulas.
This guy was the largest–half a foot in diameter and he looked positioned to jump! I did not like him at all.
This one, our guide, Sergio, decided to knock down from the roof using this metal pole, so we could get a closer look.
He then got the spider to crawl onto his hand. You don’t grab them, since you’d get the irritating hairs to come off their body and embed in your skin.
You can really see the hairs and pink toes!

Right after I snapped this photo, the spider jumped onto my stomach! AAAhhhhggg! OK, I didn’t actually scream like a little girl, but I really, really wanted to. I stood still which Sergio removed it. Then shivered and planned a long shower.
Alexander was much braver than I!
In fact, He seemed to kind of like the little guy!
The final animal on our walk was this scorpion. I’ve seen several before, and this one was probably only 2 inches in length. Still, much larger than the ones my cats used to bring in when I lived in Texas.

First walk around the Cumacebe Lodge, Amazon

Our first outing started with monkey feeding. Here, one of the kitchen staff brings small bananas out to the monkey feeding station. The very fat chickens seemed to spend a lot of time here as well.

Almost as soon as we arrived at the Cumaceba Lodge (the name is a type of rain forest tree), we started doing excursions. The initial activity was just a walk around the area of the lodge to orient ourselves to the grounds and introduce us to some of the wonders of the Amazon Jungle. Our guide, Sergio, was also called Jungle Boy (Nino de la Selva) as he’d grown up in one of the small villages nearby, speaking Quechua (the primary native language of Peru and much of the Andes) until he attended primary school, where he learned Spanish. He was in college before learning English.

While there are a half dozen different types of monkeys, these squirrel monkeys were typical around the lodge. They are small, fast and not very aggressive.
Almost immediately a half dozen monkeys appeared from nowhere to grab bananas. They usually didn’t sit and eat them on the platform, but ran up the tree to devour the fruit.
They were fast! Only slightly larger than a squirrel, too.

Squirrel monkeys live in the tropical forests of Central and South America in the canopy layer. The common squirrel monkey is captured for the pet trade and for medical research but it is not threatened. Two squirrel monkey species are threatened: the Central American squirrel monkey and the black squirrel monkey are listed as vulnerable.

BTW, Miss Baker, an ‘astronaut’ squirrel monkey, rode into space as part of the United States space program, and returned safely.

I really enjoyed the two hammock platforms, but learned that if I wanted a space, I’d best grab one quickly. Hammocks were popular napping spots.
Here, Sergio shows us a tree that grows large, gourd-like fruit. It’s not good to eat, but it’s easy to carve.
Carving one of the tree fruits.
Bromeliads were everywhere and there were often small frogs and (sometimes large) spiders inside them.
A strangler fig will eventually kill the tree it surrounds.
I quickly was convinced NOT to touch anything. The underside of this leaf had a few hundred tiny wasps clumped together, right at face height. I’d hate to think what would have happen if I’d touched them! Other trees or vines have spikes or biting ants patrolling them. We also saw many long processions of leaf-cutter ants, waving a green umbrella, three times their size, cut from high up in the tree canopy.
Much of the “temporary” forest looks like this, with spiky palm trees that grow tall in a single season. These trees lined the small lake near the lodge. The odd Hoatzin bird lived in them. I was never able to get a good photo of one, but they are an almost pre-historic bird and not far removed from a feathered reptile. Their chicks still have small claws on their wing joint. Like the cormorant, they have no oil on their feathers, so spend much of their time drying themselves. When wet, they can’t fly. Unlike the cormorant, they eat plants.

This is a termite colony and they are EVERYWHERE in the rain forest. Most of the wooden, outdoor supporting posts had long termite tunnels on them, too.
The dock to our small, stagnant lake. On the first evening we took a boat paddle around the lake, starting well after dark. In the pouring rain, I decided not to take my expensive camera. By flashlight, we could see the eyes of caiman, half submerged along the edge of the water. Spooky! We also saw lots of bats, who ate the bugs attracted to our flashlight beams. Though we heard hundreds of frogs, I only saw one tiny green one, tucked into a floating head of water lettuce. I’m glad I went, but we were wet and miserable by the time we got back to our rooms. Even with a rain poncho, you get drenched–if not by rain, then by sweat.
Jungle Boy swings on a liana vine, like Tarzan!

Creepers, vines, and lianas (woody vines) are abundant in the canopy and make up a significant proportion of the vegetation in tropical rain forests. There are over 2,500 species. Some giant lianas are as thick as trees and seem to hang in the middle of the forest, independently. Some of the larger woody vines may exceed 3,000 feet in length. Rattan, a liana, is well known for its use in furniture and ropes. Rattan also produces large, edible fruits—a favorite of primates. Lianas are also a good source for clean water when you’re lost in the forest.

Cumaceba Amazon Lodge

This is the view of the port entrance to the Cumeceba Lodge from the water. It’s only accessible by boat–no roads at all. You can tell by the tall trees that this land is relatively permanent. I stress “relatively” permanent, however. Just a couple years ago, the area flooded and the entire lodge had to be re-built.

I’m usually big on research before I travel, but I didn’t do ANY before coming here. I just chose a Travel Agency I’ve booked day tours through in Arequipa, and let them arrange the entire excursion. So, I feel pretty lucky that everything worked out!

I took a 5 day package with the Cumeceba Lodge. It included one night in Iquitos and 4 nights at the Amazon Lodge. After flying to Iquitos, which took most of the first day, I stayed the night in the Garden House in Iquitos. The next morning, I got a walking tour of the city, then was taken to the port where I met the other English speaking members of my group. Together, we took a 1 hour boat ride to the lodge.

The port of Iquitos is on the Nanay River, which joins the Amazon. Notice the floating houses. This city is only accessible by plane or boat with few roads.
Our group included two Israelis from Tel Aviv (who were perhaps the most interesting people I’ve met in a LONG time), two Spaniards from Barcelona and me. We were briefly joined by two girls from France as well.
Pulling away from port of Iquitos on the Nanay River. Notice the mud colored water. You can’t see into it more than a couple inches because it carries so much sediment. When we actually joined the Amazon a couple miles away, it was even dirtier.
Even the gas station is floating.
I’m pretty sure this lodge wasn’t as rustic as the one I stayed at.
Most of the boats along the Amazon are long and narrow. Those for passengers often have a covering. These boats are called pequepeque (Pronounced: pekay-pekay, roughly the sound the motor makes).
Most excursions required a boat driver (conductir), who typically spoke no English. They were rather laid back, mostly young, men. We even ran out of gas on one trip and the driver had to use a long pole, like a Venice gondolier, to propel us the final 200 yards to the dock.

There are at least a half dozen lodges you can stay in outside of Iquitos. Mine was probably the most rustic–no internet, no pool, no air conditioning. The only electricity in my room was a weak overhead light, not even a fan (which I really would have liked). We could only charge our electronics twice a day, during 2-hour periods that overlapped with lunch and dinner. But since there was no internet and I didn’t have phone service, that didn’t matter so much. The food was great and very healthy. Meals were (very roughly) at 7:30am, 1pm and 7:30pm. (Time is a fluid concept in all of Latin America.) There was always a serving of meat (usually fire roasted chicken) or fish (fried), baked plantains, boiled yucca, a salad of either spiral cut heart of palm (referred to as jungle spaghetti) or cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes and bread. There were no pastries, only fruit for dessert, usually bananas or papaya. I may have even lost weight!

As we arrived at the Cumacebe dock, one of the men was fishing and had just caught this one. There’s a huge variety of fish here, including piranha, just off our pier. Many went swimming after lunch each day and no one was bitten!
There’s swimming and fishing off the pier, despite the huge turtles, snakes and piranha.
My guide, Sergio, is in the middle. He had excellent English speaking skills. He also spoke Spanish and Quechua (Ke chu wa). To the right is Tito, who kindly proposed to me during the trip, despite not sharing a language with me. He was easy going, kind and hard working. I could do much worse! Phew! I was worried I wasn’t going to get a marriage proposal while in Peru!

Other “amenities” included coffee, tea and “cold” (OK, room temperature) filtered water 24 hours a day, a small bar, two decks of hammocks and lots of (very needed) mosquito netting covering the entire top of each cabana. All the windows were screened, patrolled by house geckos that snacked on any bug that landed. One tiny lizard even fell from the mosquito netting ceiling, landing on top of my hand as I brushed my teeth. He narrowly escaped being pushed into my mouth on the handle of my toothbrush!

The squirrel monkeys hung out at the lodge, since they were fed bananas 2-4 times a day!

The housekeeping left something to be desired, however. I finally had to ask for a fresh towel after the third day. It took more than one request to get. Since nothing ever dries in the high humidity, my damp towel was beginning to grow mushrooms. My room was never swept, nor my trash emptied in 5 days. I wouldn’t have minded so much if there’s been a broom around or a bin to dump my trash into, but there simply wasn’t. The water was solar heated, so was only warm starting about mid-morning. For me, this isn’t a big issue, since I’ve often lived with solar heated water. I’ve learned to take a shower before dinner (often my second of the day, depending on the day’s activities), so a morning shower isn’t needed. There was no ice for drinks, but the beer at the bar was cold.

If you come here, bring a flashlight and rain gear. When they offer to rent you mud boots, pay the 10 soles immediately. You’ll need them.

Two or three times a day we’d climb this hill up and down from the pier to get to the main lodge building. Since it rained often, the path was usually slick and muddy. The “bridge” over the water to the floating pier was adjusted daily due to wide fluctuations in water depth, depending on rain.
There’s a long covered “bridge” from the port to the lodge–necessary since it’s quite a muddy patch between the two. The last night, we took a “tarantula walk” down this path. Turns out the ceiling had more than a dozen large spiders crawling up there, as well as frogs and scorpions. Eeek!

There’s little to do at the lodge, but the guide keeps you busy with excursions after breakfast and another after lunch. Many days we also had excursions before breakfast and after dinner, too. There’s lots to see and do if you have a guide to show you around. My guide was Sergio and he was simply fantastic. Without him, the trip wouldn’t have been interesting at all. He took me fishing for piranha. We had several walks in the jungle and boat rides in a small, stagnant lake to identify plants and animals. We took trips down the Amazon to nearby villages. We saw native Indians and some fish that were almost as long as I am tall. There were lots of caiman and birds. I had three baby monkeys crawl onto me (which I enjoyed) at a rescue center and a tarantula jump onto my stomach (which I did not enjoy). It was an adventure!

Prayer for Tourists, in the small lodge bar.

Between excursions, I slept. I can’t explain it, but even with the heat and high humidity, I slept very well. In fact, if I wasn’t moving, my body wanted to fall unconscious. The Amazon seems to be the cure for insomnia, at least for me. The environment also–briefly–cured my scaly, dry skin. Arequipa is at an altitude of over 7,000ft with no rain this time of year, typically no cloud cover, and a relative humidity that’s almost always below 20%. The Amazon is near sea level and the relative humidity is almost 100%. It also rained every single day I was there, sometimes for 8-10 hours at a stretch. My dry skin simply sloughed off during my first two showers (both taken within my first 10 hours there). My dry hair also came back to life. Briefly.

Exterior of the cabanas. The roofed area to the left had a central post that supported a half dozen hammocks.
The main dining room where all meals were served and all excursions met.
The raised hallway to the cabanas was only marginally lit at night. You needed a flashlight to find your room.
This was my “home” for 5 days–#19. The thatched roof was actually separate and hung above the walls. The ceiling and windows of the cabana was covered in mosquito netting. Inside was just a double bed, bookcase and bathroom. No frills.

I learned a LOT and plan to return, someday, to the area to volunteer at the butterfly farm, the manatee rescue center and the monkey rescue center.

Amazon River, locating Iquitos and the Cumaceba Lodge.

The Amazon: Iquitos

Every former Spanish colony has a central square called the Plaza de Armas. Iquitos is no exception.

It’s nice being a lady of leisure. But it’s also a tad boring. I’ve walked miles here in Arequipa (training for my upcoming Nepal hike) and while it’s a great city, I was getting restless to see something new. One morning it hit me hard. I was missing something really important while I’m here in Peru: The Amazon. I walked to my favorite tourist agency in the Plaza de Armas and rectified that problem. I booked 5 days in the wet, sticky Amazon area, with one night in Iquitos and 4 additional nights in the rustic Cumaceba Lodge. An adventure!

To get to Iquitos, I took an early flight from Arequipa to Lima, then a connecting flight to get to my destination. So far, every flight I’ve taken out of Lima has been delayed. Fortunately, there was someone at the airport to meet me and take me to my hotel.

The Amazon has been the stuff of legends for me since childhood. I read that the Amazons were a fierce tribe of women warriors, almost unimaginable in my patriarchal family. While I didn’t see any women wielding bows and arrows, I am convinced that living in the Amazon jungle takes a tremendous amount of strength and ingenuity. I really enjoyed my stay, but it’s safe to say I won’t be building a summer cottage here.

Iquitos has a boardwalk. It was beginning to get dark, but I went for a stroll before bed.

Iquitos, also known as Iquitos City, is the capital city of Peru’s Maynas Province and Loreto Region. It is known as the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon.” The city is located in the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin, at the confluence of the Nanay and Itaya rivers. Iquitos is the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon, east of the Andes and the sixth most populous city of Peru. If you want an Amazonian adventure, this is a good place to start. It’s also the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – it is accessible only by river and air.

The boardwalk is colorful and had a lot of tourists. This is a common spot for excursions in the Amazon. You can take day trips from here, or, move onto an Amazon Lodge, as I did.

While long inhabited by indigenous people, the founding date of the European city is uncertain. Spanish historical documents state that it was set up around 1757, about 200 years following the conquest.

My first view of the Amazon–or so I thought. Turns out the river moved a few years ago, but Iquitos is still at the confluence of two rivers, both tributaries of the Amazon.

The architecture and historical treasures reflect the colonial and early 20th-century European period, attracting an increased tourist trade in the 21st century after the airport was expanded for international flights. Iquitos is a center of ecological tourism. It has become a major cosmopolitan city with strong roots in the Amazon, featuring a complex history and cuisine, Amazonian landscapes, nightlife, and a growing cultural movement.

Plaza de Armas, located just 2 blocks from my hotel.

In 2012, a quarter of a million tourists started their adventure vacations to the Amazon here. The Historic Center of Iquitos has several structures designated as part of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation: the Cathedral of Iquitos, the Iron House, the Old Hotel Palace, Cohen House, and more than 70 other buildings. Other landmarks are the Plaza de Armas (which I saw); Jiron Prospero, a shopping and historical area; and the lively neighborhood of Belén, often dubbed the “Amazon Venice” for its many waterways (neither of which I saw). The city is also home to the Amazon Library, one of the two most important in Latin America.

I stopped for dinner and got the Criola special (a general term for a Chinese-Peruvian fusion dish). The yellow “circle” in the middle is a causa, which means the main ingredient is potatoes. This one also had shredded chicken. Trust me, there will always be potatoes on the menu in Peru–and often starch yucca or boiled plantains.

Most people travel within the city via bus, motorcycle, or the ubiquitous auto rickshaw (mototaxi, motocarro or motocar). This is a modified motorcycle with a cabin behind supported by two wheels, seating up to three (very thin) people. Transportation to nearby towns often requires a river trip via boat, a pequepeque (Pronounced: PEH kay-PEH kay, an onamonapia–the name is roughly the sound the motor makes).

The Garden House was a more upscale hotel than I usually stay in, but then, I have pretty low standards for lodging. I often stay in hostels, but had been warned against the ones in this city. After seeing the filthy residents emerge from the backpacker hostel across the street, I believe the hotel was worth the extra money. The Garden House was clean and well located. The door to the room had recently been stained and sealed, and I imagine it will take more than a week to dry in this humidity. They were supposed to serve breakfast, but there was a power outage just as I sat down to order. Fortunately, the coffee was already made. They did give me bread and jam, though.
My hotel, The Garden House, was just two blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It was also my last night with air conditioning for awhile.
This artist’s shop has an entrance from the boardwalk. During the rainy season, the water will rise almost to the bottom of the building.
The boardwalk includes an old steam boat, which is dry docked now, but floating during the rainy season.

These houses are in the river’s flood plain, but are designed to float when the water rises.
Boardwalk of Iquitos. The next morning, I got a walking tour of Iquitos from my new guide, Sergio.
This (rather uneven) soccer field will be under water soon.

The  Iron House (on the left) was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

Tourism is one of the most vital industries in Iquitos, due to its location just off the banks of the Amazon River. The river is often described as “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.” By my count there must be at least a hundred “Natural Wonders of the World.” Must be the New Math? Iquitos receives a considerable amount of foreigners, and has adequate infrastructure to accommodate tourists from all levels, from pricey 5-star hotels to backpacker hostels.

This shows the major forms of transportation in Iquitos: The body of the orange public bus is made of wood, and only costs 1 sole for a ride. There are lots of bicycles, motorcycles and scooters (often with 2-3 passengers). The ubiquitous transportation, however, is the mototaxi–a modified motorcycle that will carry two or three passengers, plus luggage. It’s similar to the tuk-tuk in Thailand.
The streets of Iquitos are dominated by more than 25,000 auto rickshaws or motokars, known in the rest of Peru under the name of mototaxi. They are mostly used by foreigners to provide taxi service. The buses are large vehicles made of wood with direct routes. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, so crossing the street is dangerous!
Those may look like electrical poles, but these floating houses don’t have any electricity. Or plumbing.
It’s a very trashy area. Notice the turkey vulture picking through the rubbish for a late breakfast. The numerous stray dogs do the same.
Iquitos cathedral, across from the Plaza de Armas. The Iglesia San Juan Bautista (church of Saint John the Baptist) is characterized by its Gothic Revival style and Swiss clock. It is considered one of the urban symbols of the city.

The St. John the Baptist Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral San Juan Bautista, Catedral Metropolitana de Iquitos) also called Iquitos Cathedral is the main Catholic church, in neo-Gothic style, in the city of Iquitos in Peru. It is located in Iquitos Center at the intersection of Arica and Putumayo streets. The property of the Catholic Church, it was declared a Cultural Heritage of the Nation of Peru in 1996, and is considered an urban icon in Iquitos.

Currently, it is the tallest religious temple, also notable for including a crypt–unusual in a place with annual flooding. Construction of the cathedral began in 1911 after the demolition of the ancient temple. It was inaugurated on March 16, 1919, though the tower wasn’t finished until 1924.

Interior, cathedral
Interior, cathedral
Altar. Interior, cathedral
This is the port of Iquitos and men are unloading ships and climbing the almost vertical stairway (to the far left) with backbreaking loads. This is the low water mark since it was the dry season and there had been no rain for 2 weeks. It rained every day I was here, however, so I’m sure the level rose a few feet. The area is strewn with trash from the river. This is the port we left from to reach the Amazon River and then our rustic lodge.
In this heat and humidity, unloading ship’s cargo is a tough job.
This is not my ideal place for a summer cabin, even in the dry (winter) season. On the up side, since this is “temporary” ground, these floating houses pay no rent or property taxes. They also have no electricity, running water or even screens on the openings from the bugs. Wonder what are the levels of Yellow Fever or other mosquito borne illnesses?
Another photo of the port.
A map of the area. This is the headquarters of my tour company in Iquitos. We took a boat for about an hour to Cumaceba Lodge (the word is a name for a type of local tree). If I go back, I’ll check out the Mariposario–the butterfly farm.