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Lima/ Punta Hermosa

I headed back to Peru two days ahead of Jacinta to take advantage of some limited time to catch up with friends. Staying at “Sombra’s” house in Barranco with his family and seeing Michelle Wall again was a highlight of my trip. We didn’t do a great deal except drink, eat, catch up and wander the streets meeting Michelle and Sombra’s friends. Couldn’t have wanted for more.

Punta Hermosa was a similar story but sadly a little rushed. It was great to see Jose, Ito and the Gomez family though, and catch up on the town gossip. It was also great to introduce Jacinta to the small town where I lived for 5 months. As it was we were probably fortunate to find “Jarita” in a hung over state, preventing him from leading us astray, after a hectic stay in Lima.

 

Iquitos

We flew into the jungle town and took a late afternoon mototaxi to our hostel. The first evening we spent wandering in the central area and taking trips out to two of the ports to organise our departure towards the Columbian border the following day. We ate at a pontoon restaurant on the Amazon, looking back towards the city. It seemed like a fitting way to get our bearings in our new location –  or maybe just a good excuse for a meal in a classy restaurant.

The following morning our first chore was to find comfortable hammocks for the 11 days of river travel that was to come. We ended up in the Belem Saturday markets. This was a massive conglomeration of diverse makeshift stalls selling everything from hammocks to fresh fish and to natural medicines from the jungle. It sprawled out through the streets just above the rundown suburb of Belem on the banks of the Amazon. A highlight was the fake sincerity with which a lady, brandishing a jar containing a small anaconda, implored us to drink some of the liquid inside the jar to remain young and vital all our lives. Given that we emerged from the markets after purchasing only hammocks, rope, very bony fish and a few eggs, it appears we are destined to remain trudging along that long road to old age and senility.

Iquitos buzzes constantly with the hum of motorbikes and mototaxis. It is only accessible by air and water and so there are few cars.  The city has an unkempt, rough edged, old world majesty. Some buildings lend the city a colonial feel and many more are adorned with hand-painted Portuguese tiles that were shipped up the Amazon centuries ago. It also has great ice cream with more tropical fruit flavours than possibly imaginable.

We boarded the ferry early and strung up our hammocks on the breezy top deck to await departure.  Some delicious chilli banana chips and beer, in addition to a fun Scottish backpacker, made the wait seem minimal.  Once we were away, we settled into life on the river – which basically consisted of reading/writing/drinking/socialising/playing cards/ scenery or sunset gazing while lazing on the deck or in your hammock.  We took to rising at 5am for sunrises and sleeping through the hot hours in the middle of the day. We also took to dolphin spotting, having heard of the beautiful pink Amazonian variety. Only grey ones were spotted on this boat and after a similar experience in the quest to see a pink dolphin on a previous trip, I decided that they were myth.

 

Leticia

We arrived at the borders of Columbia/Brazil and Peru around 2 and a half days after departure. Initially we stumbled a long way with heavy packs in searing heat around bush tracks near the river in search of customs huts. And yes, it was exactly as good as that sounds. Finally, we found a room in town and collapsed.

Leticia didn’t quite have the jungle town charm of Rurrenabaque or hustling vitality of Iquitos, but it was quite a pleasant place to find our land legs again in between boat trips. For one thing, it was brilliant to be back in Columbia and get decent coffee and “huevos pericos” for breakfast again. Incidentally, the main plaza in Leticia is home to one of the best ice cream stores and breakfast venues on the continent. The river levels around Leticia were at record lows. As such, the high stilted community with raised walkways served to make an interesting ambience rather than fulfilling any other immediate duty. Actually, many of the locals were very concerned about a consistent reduction in water levels and some even implored us to make a documentary about the problem.

We crossed into Brazil and then had the joyful experience of dealing with Brazilian officials drunk on power in the 2 hour long boarding process. I figured they would be paranoid about Cocaine at the border, so luckily I snorted the last of ours en route to the port.

The Brazilian boat was slicker with much better food and much much much louder music. The top deck was transformed into a 24 hour party zone which lent itself to slightly more hammock time.  We were versed in the art of Dominoes by some lovely Canadians and met an array of companions for the onward journey up the river. One was a Brazilian guy called Luis. The Irish couple Ian and Susan (actually she was more Italian) were also a good crack as they say in the Emerald Isles.  After 3 more days and nights of drifting along, we arrived in the old rubber capital of Amazonia.

Manous

There was faint horror upon arrival as our enquiries disclosed that no boats parted the next day. At first blush this seems unfair to the jungle city of Manous, but we had a flight to catch from Belem and we preferred spend more time further down the river. Just to sweeten the deal, the reason no boats departed (the only day in 4 years) was because there were national elections taking place (for the record, Brazil ushered in its first female leader that day- Dilma, the protege of Lula Da Silva who could not run for another term despite his soaring popularity)- everything was shut and no drinking was allowed after 6pm the day before poll day.

The Irish (and to a lesser extent myself) were petrified about this and so saw fit to explore a few street bars and diners just before the ban kicked in. What followed was an enjoyable Saturday night wandering the lively streets of the jungle metropolis. The sense of location was nowhere near as acute as in Iquitos; mainly because there were plenty of cars and a major road that connects Manous to the rest of the country and not the ceaseless buzzing of motos/mototaxis.

Understandably, the next day was a mellow affair. We wandered the quiet streets for awhile, found a bbq lunch by the kilo (a popular option in Brazil), and had another cheap street meal with the others.

We slept on the boat that night to save cash, waiting for the supposed departure time of midday the next day. At 10pm the next night, we were still watching bags of onions being unloaded from the hull, one by one (four observers, one worker, Australian roadwork style).  It would have been a great slow motion comedy act except for the fact that three different port information officers had given us the same wrong information (in three different languages!) about the non-existence of any other boat (there was in fact another one, that left at 12 but was originally scheduled to go at 10pm!). Plus, we had to get to Saatarem as soon as possible to give us a chance of making the flight from Belem. Finally, we were near an old Australian guy with a particularly boring bout of verbal diarrhoea, the staff constantly outdid each other for rudeness… and it was my birthday.

The boat ride itself ended up being only a day and a half with good scenery and even a spot to escape from the loud music and engine to play some guitar.

Saatarem/ Alter do chao

We weren’t so keen to spend much time in Saatarem itself, but had heard brilliant things about the small town of Alter do chao nearby. Upon our arrival we found that the following day was a public holiday, suspending the daily schedule of boats to Belem. The good news from that scenario is we got to spend longer in Alter do chao then would have otherwise been possible. The bad news was that we had finally been defeated in our quest to make it to our flight and consequently had to pay too much to change it.

Alter do chao was more than worth it. It is a stunning, quiet little town with a long sandy spit that stretches out to split the river.  Coconuts, beer and caipirinhas were all cheap and the setting was impeccable. The jungle stretched out on all sides of the two enclosed bays making for very rewarding sunset and sunrise strolls. And then we relaxed.

 

Belem

We had one night back in Saatarem before getting on our final boat to travel the 2 days to Belem. We were set to arrive the morning of the biggest party of the year for the city- A religious festival in honour of another Virgin. The celebrations are founded on a legend that a small statue of the Virgin was found in the river by a fisherman but, no matter where she was taken, the Virgin would always place herself back at a specific site. Thus, there was clearly religious hokery pokery involved, they built a very large church near the Virgin’s preferred site and paraded a replica of the original Virgin Statue (mounted in a regal box) from the river bank to the church each year. Cue food, beer, massive crowds cramming the streets, and many religious rituals with the highpoint being a glimpse of the Virginal box, and you have yourselves a party.

Anyway, we got a bit ahead of ourselves. The two-day boat journey to Belem followed many smaller subsidiaries off the main river, taking us much closer to the jungle’s edge. Watching kids paddle out to our boat from their tiny villages provided great entertainment- particularly when they managed to hook their boats on the side, clamber on and sell prawns or cheap snacks.  And….not only did we see PINK dolphins but we kind of sort of nearly managed to get one on camera.  We arrived at Belem very content that we’d decided to go the entire way to the Atlantic ocean by boat rather than flying from Manous.

We arrived early in the morning and walked to Luis’ place without too many dramas. He had flown to Belem from Manous with the Irish who were still in his spare room, so it was a fun reunion. They were all a little strung out after attending an all night church party where large amounts of Iawasca were consumed in a mounting evangelic fervour. As Ian said, ordinarily he would have quite enjoyed tripping out on that stuff, but in that atmosphere it was far too weird and hectic- NO ESCAPE!

After a quick breakfast we wandered into the town centre to embrace the mayhem. It was great to have a local guide. After seeing the Virgin arrive safely at the church, we headed off for the day’s real highlight – a big feast (of Christmas proportions) with Luis’ extended family. During the afternoon we went to his grandparents’ places on both sides where we were fed a delicious array of traditional dishes. At around sunset, Jacinta and I escaped the revelry for a walk around the old Port. It certainly had its own charm: coloured buildings, fading and peeling, beset on all sides by seagulls, market stalls- many selling the ever popular acai (a thick purple jungle fruit renowned for it’s super dose of vitamins) and tall-mast boats swaying at the dock.

We had to leave Belem all too soon on a 2am flight.

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2 Comments

  1. Beautiful photos… I guess we’ll hear about Africa in real life, see you soon!

  2. I was very happy to hear that pink dolphins are not a myth after all. Marie


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