Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 27 – JOURNEY ALONG THE AMAZON

Jungle trip

Our first stop was essentially a caiman farm although I thought it would be a lagoon with caiman in. I was wrong and this was one of the less weird places that we visited on this jungle trip. The couple that lived there had essentially filled a pool full of caiman, I’m not sure whether they had fed them or caught them but there they were. I recently had a similar experience in The Gambia and visited a crocodile pool which the villagers had essentially made themselves. One particularly aggressive specimen tried to attack my boyfriend which was a bit terrifying and there is one that they encourage you to stroke which is purely for the photo opportunities. Needless to say, I declined.

The great thing about caiman in the Amazon is that they are not difficult to see and if you look around the peripheries of the rivers and on the banks, you will see them. They are largely nocturnal so if you go on a boat trip at night you can see them in action.

Caiman and alligators are both from the same subfamily of alligatorid and the difference between them is that caiman has its osteoderms or boney plates buried on their underside. The physical differences between the two are that you can see the dagger-like teeth on the caiman and the inside of its mouth is orange. In contrast, alligators have conical shaped teeth and the inside of their mouth is beige in colour.

In contrast to the round nosed caiman and alligator, crocodiles are distinctive by their triangular faces and their bottom teeth stick up at the sides of their snout. Geographical location is, of course, the major factor in identification except in Florida which is the only place where alligators and crocodiles side by side.

Caiman are very useful for environmental management as they eat capybaras which consume a lot of vegetation, as well as piranhas which can attack cattle whilst they drink. Just like sea turtles the temperature of their nests determines the gender of the babies. Their system works in the exact opposite way to the sea turtle whereby higher temperatures mean males and lower temperatures mean females. They can lay up to 65 eggs the female guards her nest mound for 6 weeks until they hatch.

We visited a kind of unofficial zoo, which was a man’s house full of random animals. The man tried to sell us a potent aphrodisiac from the jungle that would make a man ‘go all night’. We politely declined. The woman then tried to sell me the baby kinkajou as she, in her own words ‘had loads of them’. I desperately wanted to rescue the baby but my better judgement prevailed. I dreaded to think what conditions her ‘excess kinkajous’ were living in.

After this, we visited a monkey island which was a much more salubrious establishment than the self-proclaimed ‘kinkajou farm’. Unlike some of the other outfits that I visited, the monkey island does have a website, which while not entirely compelling in itself, it is at least on the right track. It is one of several outfits in the area surrounding Iquitos, all trying to keep up with the constant flow of wildlife confiscated by officials as well as abandoned pets.

This particular sanctuary was donated by the Peruvian government and various monkey friendly trees have been planted over the 450-hectare site. There are 200 monkeys that live free on the island. After we arrived one of the owners showed me around the kitchen and showed me all the various powders and things they use to treat the monkeys. I now wish that I had paid more attention, as wildlife rehabilitation has continued to be a part of my life.

Some of the monkeys were unbelievably cute, and they were roaming free including the babies that were still being fed. There was a baby howler monkey that I particularly fell in love with that looked like a little ginger baby. They had five different species including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, titi monkeys, woolly monkeys and saddleback tamarins. We had a woolly monkey at the rescue centre where I worked but I hadn’t interacted with the other species before. Luckily they didn’t have any capuchin monkeys tearing the place up like the ‘monkey garden’ we visited in Ecuador.

We stayed in a tourist lodge that had been built and then for reasons of which I am not sure of, it was abandoned. The locals were convinced it was haunted which freaked me out a bit when I was there at night. The shower is outside in the darkness and whilst I washed I wondered what was down there in the wilderness.

Outside the tourist hut, they had a small bog where they kept an electric eel, presumably to show tourists. You can see why the numbers of creatures in the rivers and forests are dwindling as such vast numbers are imprisoned. We gave them a small fee for them to catch it which of course I would not do now. They caught it inelegantly as they were afraid of being electrocuted and it lay there in its net, we looked at it and then they released it back into the bog. It just looked like a large black slimy-looking catfish without fins.

In fairness, you can never appreciate the true majesty of an aquatic animal when it is out of the water. Electric eels are not actually eels as they are related to carp and catfish. They can produce electricity because their organs contain specialised cells called electrocytes. These act like batteries and they can all discharge at once in order to stun its prey or evade a predator. They can produce 600 volts which is about five times that of a standard plug socket. Their poor eyesight means they can even use a low-level charge like radar in order to locate prey in the murky Amazonian tributaries. They eat mainly fish but will take reptiles, mammals and birds. Although they are not usually a threat to humans, they can emit multiple shocks which can lead to respiratory failure and drowning.

As we were travelling down the Amazon river we cut the engine in the middle and I immediately jumped out and went for a swim. It was very freeing to swim in the middle of such a ginormous river despite its brown and muddy appearance. Daniel followed me, annoyed that he hadn’t been first. I loved it was surprisingly unfazed by all the beasties that lurked beneath.

The next day we were met at the edge of the Momon river by the Yagua Indian tribe. This area is also the home of the Bora Bora tribe who are also open to travellers. I think this sounds more much edgy and hardcore than it was in reality. They had the air that they met plenty of tourists and they took you through a set of activities that I imagine they do for everyone.

First of all, they take you spear throwing and they show you how to throw a big spear at a target and then they take you to a straw hut for some dancing and drumming. Visiting this tribe was our last stop before returning to the madness of Iquitos.

Iquitos again

When we got back I helped Daniel to sort out his trip to go and live with a tribe and ‘be a man’. I wasn’t planning on going with him as he clearly wanted to go alone and I was heading to Brazil. I booked the flight for him as he didn’t have a credit card and he paid me back. He could have taken a boat there if he really wanted an authentic experience of the Amazon so I thought flying was a bit of a cop-out.

He asked the guy who worked at our hostel to take us to a guy outside town who had ‘tribal connections’ in Central Peru. We all hopped on motorbike taxis and when to a fairly nice camp on the outskirts. The fact that he needed two of us to help him showed how co-dependent and self-absorbed he was but I didn’t see that then. He was young though so it was good that we facilitated his dream.

Whilst he spoke with the head of the camp I found some caged animals including a female woolly monkey in a tiny cage with the most despondent look in her eyes. I held her hand that was dropped through the bars and she let me. I gave her a bit of company and I apologised on behalf of the human race. I barely got a reaction from her, not even fear which I took as a sign of abject depression and misery. Keeping captive primates doesn’t strike me as very fucking shamanistic and I was glad to leave. It was time to leave Daniel, the caged animals and the Iquitos brand of madness behind.

I was sad to leave Iquitos as it had been so nice to have company and to often bump into people I knew in the street as it was such a small place. Luckily this was a short journey of two days as I was the only non-local on the boat and at the time I felt slightly intimidated by that. I also had to carry my valuables with me everywhere including when I had a shower as I had nobody to watch my bags.

It seems silly now as loads of people travel when they are the only foreigner and I imagine being an immigrant or a refugee alone without knowing the language must be far more frightening. One of the boat’s hostesses who bought the food round for us all was a transvestite. This was the first and only transgender person I saw on the entire trip. Iquitos really does beat to the rhythm of its own drum in terms of acceptance of members of the LGBTQ community. It was also the only place where I was hit on by a woman on a night out with our guide but I didn’t go for it.

Colombia/Brazil – Tabatinga/Leticia

When the boat got to Tabatinga, I then had to get on a rowing boat over to Santa Rosa to get my exit stamp for Peru. They didn’t really want to take me over but they weren’t getting rid of me so they agreed. I knocked on the door and waited a while for the border guard to emerge which he did eventually. I got another rowboat back and at the Tabatinga dock was a guy who worked at a backpackers who offered me a room and to walk me to the border office so off we went.

Tabatinga is part of a tri-border with Peru and Colombia so naturally, it is where cocaine enters Brazil. In the 17th century, it served as a Portuguese military outpost. 

I got my stamp and then we went back to the hostel which was called ‘Bagpackers’. I must have been tired as I agreed to go on a tour with them after they showed me a video. I said that I would but I got the exchange rate wrong and I thought it was cheaper than it was. 

That afternoon I went over to Leticia, the Colombian side of the border which is probably the prettier side that tourists choose to spend time on. A guide took me to a bizarre ‘snake sanctuary’ which was basically someone’s house where they had put cages in their garden and filled them with random reptiles that they’d caught in the forest. We drove past a natural swimming pool which was full of families having fun. The idea of having a natural swimming pool in the forest to play in is such a dream!  When I was back in Leticia I wanted to go to their museum which has the lovely lily pads outside but unfortunately, it was closed.

The interesting thing about Leticia is that nobody knows where the current name comes from, in the 18th century it was known as San Antonio. It was also a drug smuggling hub that was apparently ‘cleaned up’ in the 1970s.

Another interesting piece of history was the war between Colombia and Peru in 1932 over this area that the League of Nations managed to end in 1933. The war was over expensive sugar tax and started with civil conflict in Peru. Peru underestimated the patriotism of Colombia and when they blocked trade from entering Leticia, Colombia took notice. The Colombians sent boats and planes to fight, as did Peru. Peruvian bombing attempts were unsuccessful but Colombia’s leader, President Sanchez was assassinated. His successor, Óscar Benavides, then allowed the LON to get involved and negotiate a peace deal.

Back at the hostel I met a sixty-odd-year-old British guy who had come to SA with his wife, she didn’t have a good time and they separated during the trip. Despite looking like Gollum, this guy had been sleeping his way through SA and totally put me to shame. He was a nice man but I cannot overstate how lacking he was in the looks department.

He had some beers so we sat on the balcony and drank them. He worked for the egg council and he said that whilst people in the UK worry about the size of cages for hens for animal rights purposes, in South America they don’t care as they just want to feed people. 

We chatted more and I discovered that Gerald, as I will call him had met a Colombian girl on a night out in Tabatinga with a Guyanese guy. He had been sleeping with this girl who had a child with an Israeli guy who had previously frequently the area. Gerald and I went to the dock to buy our tickets to Manaus and I was pleased that I wouldn’t be alone on this boat journey! In the meantime, I had an awkward conversation with the guys at the hostel and I wanted to cancel my jungle tour with them, as by this point I just thought they were dodgy. I managed to get most of my money back but it was awkward for the rest of the time I was there. Luckily Gerald was there to back me up so at least I had a friend.

We were set to depart the next day and Gerald decided to invite his girlfriend. She was stressed out and managed to get the boat at the last minute. We all had our hammocks swinging together but I soon moved apart from them. Gerald said that it was awkward to have conversations in the daytime as her English and his Spanish was poor.

We went to the top deck to have a drink in the café area but it was super awkward as she thought that I was competition and I was after him also. I spent most of my time alone after that, occasionally having a cigarette with Gerald. I spent time writing my journal and he claimed to have seen a pod of pink dolphins so I was jealous of that. Swinging in a hammock on a boat is certainly an enjoyable way to spend time. The water was very high due to the flooding and it was even worse from Manaus onward. Just another climate change news story that was ignored. When we got to Manaus after 3 days I almost felt like I could have spent more time on the water.

Brazil again – Manaus

Two million people live in Manaus described by the LP as an ‘incongruous pocket of urbanity’. It used to be called the Cidade da Barra do Rio Negro, which is Portuguese for ‘The City of the Margins of the Black River’. It is now rightly named after the Manaós people.

As Manaus was at the centre of the rubber boom, it was crazy extravagant time and this is why there are so many opulent (or formerly opulent) buildings. The Teatro Amazonas Opera House was actually used in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. It was out of action for 90 years and now live operas are performed there once again.

Something that often features on Natural History programmes about the Amazon is the ‘meeting of the waters’ phenomenon. This is where the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the much paler brown water of the Rio Solimões and they flow side by side in a most poetic fashion. This inability to mix seems to be caused by the speed, volume and densities of the waters. RN goes at 1.2mph and RS is much faster at 2.5 to 3.7 mph. They also have different temperatures and acidity levels.

In 2014 Manaus competed with Belem to host the 2014 World Cup, the streets were repaved and ‘cleaned up’ and they improved wifi throughout the city.

I stayed in the YHA hostel which had a roof of hammocks, a great place to chill and read. Gerald paid for the taxi so that was kind of him. His GF started to get her bags out too whilst he waved his arms to indicate they weren’t staying here. A bit more awkwardness before we parted ways. 

I bumped into them both a few days later in the bank as I was trying to find an ATM that dispensed dollars that I could use in Venezuela. She had vaguely warmed to me by now and he told me that they’d been to one of the riverside beaches and he’d seen more thongs and bums than he’d ever seen in his life. Good luck to them.

I met a guy at my hostel who was such a hardcore traveller that he’d been drinking tap water – it made him sick at first but he got used to it. I also met a guy who was also going to Venezuela so we bought our tickets from the hostel and shared a taxi to the bus station. He was heading to Isla Margarita and I was off to Merida, somewhere I’d been dreaming about for a long while on this trip.

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