Goodbye Amazon!

I had only five precious days in the Amazon jungle of Peru and the time just flew by! I’m going to come back, though. I’ve earmarked some volunteer adventures I plan to return to.

These are photos from the boat trip back to Iquitos and the airport. The sky was particularly amazing, so I wanted to capture the ride.

Also saw the backs of pink and grey dolphins, rising from the water.

And I’m not yet leaving Peru. I still have a few more days in Arequipa as well as a Grand Tour of Peru: Machu Picchu, Lima, Cuzco, The Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon, Condors, Lake Titicaca…..and so much more.

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.