The Amazon, Part 1: The Riverboat and the Hoatzin Birds
Overwhelmed by thousands of images and impressions, I could not find enough words to describe the five days I spent in the Amazon. Words could not paint the picture of the vastness of the Amazon River, the changing color of the sky, the thousand trees and plants, and the sounds from secret places I had never known. This trip made me understand the true meaning of the Asian proverb I read in the frontispiece of Patricia Schultz’s book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” –Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.
It was raining when our plane touched down at CF Secada Vignetta Airport in Iquitos, the heart of the Amazon jungle. The rusting plane sitting off the runway caught my eye. The rain and the rusting plane were a subtle reminder we were in the Amazon jungle indeed – a rugged place. Our naturalist-guide, named Vics, was waiting for us at the airport. He did not give us a formal introduction and welcome until we got on the bus for another two-hour ride to the port in Nauta where we were to embark for our cruise into the Amazon River. “Welcome to my country – the Amazon!” He said with great pride as if the Amazon was a country and the most beautiful in the world. Born in the Amazon, he grew up there and had a lot of experience as a naturalist guide. On our way into Nauta, Vics gave us some information about Iquitos. Farming and tourism were the main industry. He talked about the man who became multi-millionaire from raising chickens alone. We saw the alternating white-colored sand and red clay soil on the side of the road.
An overcast sky greeted us as we arrived at the port in Nauta. When we got to the port, our naturalist-guide gestured out for us to hop into an open boat that would take us to our riverboat (La Amatista). I was so ready to take pictures of the beautiful, glossy, mahogany- colored wooden riverboat (La Amatista) I saw in the travel brochure, but when the open boat came to stop, I did not see the riverboat named in our itinerary. What I saw was an old, ugly riverboat. Vics said, “This is your new home for the next five days. The Turmalina, a hand-made wooden riverboat, named after the jewel tourmaline.” The captain, a man of about 75, greeted us. He had a ‘godfather-like’ demeanor. (I found out later that his employees treated him with reverence like a 'Godfather'). He was the owner of the boat and the resort property nearby. I learned that the Turmalina was a sister ship of La Amatista. Built in the 19th-century riverboat- style, it was made of ironwood and could take up to 24 passengers.
There were two cabin decks. Our cabin was on deck 2. Each cabin had a private bathroom with shower and toilet, with hot and cold water. The dining area was on the middle passenger deck, and an open bar area and observation area were on the top deck. Understanding that I was not on a luxury cruise, but an expedition riverboat, I got to terms with our new home for the next five days.
There were 12 of us on this cruise, including a couple from San Diego, a couple from Atlanta, a couple from Florida and a couple from Alabama and their two friends.
After lunch, we set off in a small open boat for our first excursion. I was sitting across Mark from San Diego, a man in his late 60s. His eyes welled-up and said, “This is a dream come true for me, to sail the Amazon River.” It was then I realized I did not have a real reason for my trip to the Amazon. It was a last minute decision to include the Amazon cruise while in Peru. I questioned whether I should be there at all. [Over dinner one night, I asked Vics about the impact of tourism on the Rainforest. Vics did not give me a direct answer. Barb who was sitting on our table said, “It brings awareness and the money the tourists bring, helps the community.”]
Vics warned us as we head up into the Nauta Caño river/jungle area, “This is not a zoo, we might see some animals or not.” As our boat slipped its way along the Marañon River, we heard a high-pitched call of a flock of birds. I heard the words, “look up there”, “one o’clock”, “twelve o’clock”, “nine o’clock” a number of times as Vics announced where we’re supposed to look. We saw sloths, squirrel monkeys and a variety of birds: swallows, parrots, caracara, sparrows, and egrets.
“Oh look what’s up there” called out Vics in an excited voice, pointing to the tall trees from a small opening in the side of the riverbed. He signaled the boat driver to slow down. As we drew closer, we saw two beautiful birds. “Hoatzin birds …they look like pre-historic birds,” said Vics. “This is not National Geographic, this is the Discovery Channel guys” as Vics would like to say, “You guys are lucky, hoatzins are rare to find these days. Keep up the positive energy.”
Overhead the sky was gray with menacing clouds. Vics announced that the captain was summoning us to return to the big boat because of an impending storm. We transferred to the Turmalina and sailed for a mile to where it was supposed to dock for the night.
Everybody was tired from the day’s activities that the only activity left was to gather for dinner as night fell into darkness. As I entered the dining room, I noticed a thousand whitish and pinkish bugs stuck to the panoramic glass windows and appeared like paintings. They were live bugs. “These bugs have a very short life-span. They lay a thousand eggs, become fully developed at the end of the day and die the next day” according to Vics. The food was just the right quantity and served buffet style. Nothing like the sumptuous buffet served at luxury cruises. After dinner, Vics announced the next day’s schedule and activities. It was also during this time that he announced that we no longer had to pay for any bar items (free Pisco sours and sodas); our laundry would also be done free of charge. After dinner, I retreated to our cabin that had a monastic feel, no radio, no TV. The setting was surreal with our riverboat docked and tied to a tree. I fell asleep to the pitch-blackness of the evening and cacophony of noises I heard from the Nauta Caño jungle.