Plaza de Armas, Iquitos
Saturday morning my taxi picked me up bright and early and I was off on my journey to the Amazon basin and the worlds only city which cannot be reached by road, Iquitos. A short hour and a half flight later courtesy of LAN Peru and I was there, the sticky heat was quite a change from the chilly winter sneaking into Lima. I loved Iquitos from the word go, it was so dramatically different to everywhere else that I'd been in Peru, all of the tuk-tuks and motorbikes reminded me of Asia and it had the requisite jungle feel to the place.
After negotiating a taxi from the airport into the city I arrived at my hostel with every part of me crossed that my reservation that I'd sent over the net had been picked up, luckily it had been as La Pascana, I'd been both told and read, was a popular place with a small amount of rooms. The family that ran the place were so friendly and helpful and even though it was a little basic I really didn't mind; I had a room to myself off the quiet inner courtyard, a bathroom and a fan and everything was spotlessly clean, what more could I want? The only thing that did bug me about where I was staying was that the place seemed to be filled with missionaries coming over to try and convert the tribes people to Christianity - so much for respecting other people's religions and beliefs, hypocrites! If there is an afterlife these people deserve to come back as dung beetles or something equally as unpleasant!
My one main goal was to sort out my jungle trip as I still hadn't decided on who I was going to use or settled on how many days I was going for, I'd figured on somewhere between 4-6 days depending on the cost so I started off by exploring Iquitos and talking to a few companies.
I'd already had a few hints and tips off a few friends who'd been up here already that I'd met on my travels, also I'd done some internet research as well as reading up on the various options in Lonely Planet (I think I should get some kind of discount for these guys as I plug them so much). I was in two minds about what kind of adventure I wanted, something a bit more basic like camping or with a bit more comfort in a lodge with bungalows. The only thing dissuading me from the idea of camping was protection from mosquitoes as from past experience I knew how much they'd be dining on my flesh and I didn't want the whole experience to be ruined by being disgruntled and itchy, basic comforts I can do without but protection from mosquitoes I didn't want to forgo.
Before embarking on making my way round the various companies I needed to attend to the grumbling of my stomach and ended up stumbling (well you can't miss it really) across the local institution that is Ari's Burger. Sitting on the corner of Napo and Ramondi facing the Plaza de Armas, the place was filled with locals and gringos alike all watching the football; here I came into contact with Freddie, a local guy who spoke fluent English and who used to work as a guide in the Amazon. Freddie claimed to have assisted the BBC in a documentary where he acting as guide along with a famous English actress (whose name I forget he said), he told me that if I didn't believe him I would be able to find it on the internet. We also chatted about my trip to the jungle and he advised me that by employing a guide direct I'd be able to save a hell of a lot of money compared to how much I'd get ripped off by the lodges, the only problem was that I'd need to try and organise a group of people to make it worth the guide while, fair enough I thought but I wasn't confident that this was going to happen both due to my limited time frame and also as there didn't seem too many gringos about.
Beautiful blue tiles from Portugal decorate some of the buildings
I'd heard about hiring a guide through a couple in Lima and they'd had a really good experience and saved a packet. Whilst saving money was high on my list so too was my safety and practicalities such as they standard of the equipment. Also Freddie himself wouldn't be the guide he'd be recommending one of his friends who he said couldn't speak English as he could, my inner alarm went off at the thought of being deep in the jungle and there being a problem and not being able to speak Spanish well enough to communicate properly. I had to admit I was skeptical about the whole thing and as my Dad always says 'if something sounds too good to be true then it usually is', so I asked Freddie what was in it for him, he said nothing and that he was a believer in karma i.
e. that if you do something nice for someone then they in turn will respond with kindness or something good will happen. Now I've met people when travelling who have been some of the most lovely people I've come across who do simply want an exchange of cultures, will act as guides for free or for a drink, a little food or a chance to try and show off some of their talents such as their artwork in the hope that can sell you a piece or two (I will never knock a good entrepreneur), all of which I have found highly rewarding experiences that have proved both unique and memorable. I think though being from a Western does unfortunately make you more cynical and combine that with my experience of fending off the touts and rip off merchants in India it does make me think about who I should trust but as a result of this thinking you can miss out on potentially amazing experiences.
In the end I told Freddie I'd think about it ad check out his story online. He also asked what I'd got planned while I was in Iquitos and told him I wanted to visit Pilpintuwasi Butterfly farm and animal sanctuary and he offered to take me down to the village of Bellavista-Nanay to show me where to get the boat after I'd checked out a couple of tour companies. I bid goodbye to Freddie and arranged to meet him later, off I went to gain some insight into my jungle experience. As I mentioned I've been hassled by touts before but some of these guys in Iquitos were good at the old hard sell, Putumayo particularly is one street that is full of tour companies and you can't walk a meter or so before they're trying to get you to visit their office. I started off by going to Muyuna lodge as I'd had them recommended to me by an Aussie girl I'd met in Bolivia and had found a stack of rave reviews about them on line, their set up certainly was impressive but the price was a putting me off, I wanted to stretch to five days but if I went with these guys I'd have to settle for four instead.
Mad Mick's house...dear god help us all!
I think I managed to fit a few more places in, one of which put me right off when the guy spent most of the time chatting me up than telling me about the lodge - not a very professional start! I still wasn't any clearer what I wanted to do when I met Freddie but decided I'd think about it later after our little trip. As I got onto the back of his motorbike I remember thinking 'I must be nuts' and what kind of situation was I putting myself in but I quietened my inner cynical self and decided to go with it. Thankfully everything was fine; Freddie didn't drive like a maniac and it was a fun way to get to the village in the sticky Amazon heat. As we reached the bustling village we passed food stalls and street sellers (the food looked incredible) until finally we had to hop off the bike and park up.
We then made our way down to the port itself so Freddie could show me where I needed to catch the boat then it was back on the bike and away we went. It was a really great thing of him to do, he didn't ask for any money except a few coins to pay the kids who watched his bike which was more than fair as I wouldn't have minded if he had asked me for some money to cover his petrol as he was going out of his way to be helpful. I went back to La Pascana to drop off my stuff and take a shower before going out to dinner. The main center of Iquitos was easy to navigate and I'd memorized the name of the street where the restaurant I'd chosen was. I'd felt like some a bit simple and that was a known quantity so had picked a place called Antica that was described as the best Italian in town and was known for its wood fired pizzas.
The Bellavista-Nanay local
It was a bit early to head out for dinner and so the place was hardly busy when I got there (most people in there were gringos), annoyingly on a large table opposite were a table of missionaries from the hostel, so much for a peaceful dinner... these guys were loud and being particularly obnoxious towards their Peruvian companions, treating them as lesser mortals. With my blood boiling I had to resist the urge to go over and stab one of the grossly overweight morons with a fork in the hope that he'd whizz off like a balloon. While I was thinking more devilish thoughts of asking the waitress to stuff the guy in the pizza oven so we could all got some peace and quiet they thankfully paid up and left and everyone else got to enjoy their food in peace, it was nice to people watch from the balcony and listen to the sounds of Iquitos life.
The food hit the spot and with a feeling of contentment I went back to La Pascana and hoped that I'd avoid the missionaries when I got back. Luck was in and after collecting my room key and saying hello to the ever-cheerful Victor, one of the owners, I retreated to the comfort of my fan and the pages of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. As I discovered the missionaries liked to eat breakfast in the hostel I went back to Ari's, also partly to get a seat for the England match. About 15 minutes into the match fellow English voice asked if she could join my table as the place was now heaving, we then endured the tortuous affair together and got chatting afterwards. Lucy and I got chatting over her plans for the day and decided to head to the butterfly farm together.
One of the cheeky Macaws
As I now knew where I was going and how much a tuk-tuk should cost, getting to the port of Nanay was a breeze. Then came the trickier part, negotiating with the boat captain to make sure we didn't get scammed. We'd seen a boat just as we'd made it down to the dock so would have to wait around for about half an hour, basically for the next boat to fill up. The going rate for a standard fare one-way was about s./ 2-3 each, if we wanted to leave that instant it would be s./15 total, we decided on the later as time was already pressing and we had to walk to get to the farm when we got to the village. Negotiations complete off we went and before long we were weaving in and out of the reeds down the channels of the Amazon, before long we seemed to have hit a dead-end of reeds, Lucy and I looked at each other as if to say "what have we let ourselves in for?" but then the boat captain advised us we'd reached our destination.
Luigi the squirrel monkey
As we got off the boat we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere with no discernible route to reach the village or farm, after looking at each other bemused one of the boat crew finally pointed us in the right direction and after a short walk we stumbled on the butterfly farm, at the back entrance as it turns out. We were greeted by two cheeky Macaws and the owner, an Austrian lady whose name was Gudrun I think, who had lived in Peru for almost 20 years. She'd only initially intended to set up a butterfly farm but soon she had people bringing her animals and so the animal sanctuary was born. Caring for the animals though is a huge expense and she mostly survives on the charity of others (an American lady kindly donated the money to pay for the Jaguars enclosure).
The resident Pixote
As we walked through the jungle canopy to the main section of camp we spotted all the monkeys hanging out in yhe trees, wed get to see more of these guys later except thr little squirrel monkey called Luigi who appeared a little shyer than the rest. Gudrun then proceeded to give us a guided tour along with two other English girls and got to meet a few of the animals first; Harri the Ocelot, who if it weren't for her markings could pass for a domestic cat, Panco the Capybara, a Pixote, three Cappuchin monkies, an adult male and adult female and a little baby. The monkeys unfortunately aren't allowed to roam freely around the farm anymore as besides being expert pickpockets now get too aggressive towards humans as they have become too desensitized to human prescence.
The expert tea-leaves
We then got to see Gudrin feed Pedro Bello her resident jaguar, Pedro is a magificent big cat and I'd love to see one of these guys in the wild, maybe not too up close and personal though! Pedro however can never be realeased back into the wild as his over familarity with humans would mean that he would likely wander into local villages and end up getting shot :-(
We then visited the butterfly enclosure and hatchery where we were shown butterflies at different stages of their life cycle, some of the butterflies had incredible colouring as well as being rather large. Gudrun left us after that to wander round on our own and we spent some time hanging out with the red-faced Huacary and Howler monkeys who were just so cute and so incredibly human.
Harri the Ocelot
These guys and girls get the freedom to swing around the sanctuary and will quite happily let you give them a bit of stroke. I could have happily spent all day there enjoying the company of the animals but there was only half an hour or so before they closed so we went to try and make our way back through the village.
Gudrun pointed us in the right direction and we set off towards the village of Padre Cocha. It was interesting to see how the local people lived, basic timber and reed thatched houses, those which had electricity also possessed a television and groups of people were huddled round watching the world cup, barely batting an eye lid as we walked past. The children who were carrying food to the houses to sell took more notice and smiled and laughed as we went bye and engaged in conversation.
Pedro the Jaguar
There seemed to be a few pathways criss-crossing the village and on more than one occassion we had to ask directions to the dock. Finally though we made and after the boat was sufficiently full to the captains liking we were on our way back to Nanay. A tuk-tuk ride later we dropped off our stuff at our respective residencies and headed out for dinner. We picked a place called Nuevo Meson on the Malecon over looking the amazon river as it was reknowned for it's local specialities, a succulent dinner later (I recommend the venison stew) and we decided a few drinks were in order and went and parked ourselves at one of the busy bars further down. Although the Malceon is a little touristy there were certaintly enough locals around to redress the balance.
As there was a week long festival a lot of people were out with their families with street performers and hawkers lining the promenade. We were then treated to a different kind of entertainment when two groups of street performers decided to kick off, one set had been slowly drinking themselves into a stupor next to us and the reason for the altercation didn't seem that apparent. The general public rather than being horrified by the spectacle made sure their kids were out of harms way and settled in to watch the action as the police descended, pretty soon three chumps were led away in handcuffs and normal life resumed. After that bit of excitement we called it a night as we'd agreed to meet outside of Ari's Burger bright and early at 6.
Caterpillar's that would soon become beautiful butterflies
45am. The reason for the early start was to try and get down to the floating markets for an hour or so as Lucy had a meeting later that morning. It was a bit of chore getting up so early but I'd heard the markets were at their best first thing in the morning so knew it'd be worth it. Jumping in a tuk-tuk it was no more than a ten minute ride but to our dismay the market was closed, we were deliberating waiting around for a little longer and perhaps going for a walk when our driver advised against it as he told us it was dangerous (I'd already been advised not to take any valuables by locals and a small amount of cash), dejected we headed back. I arranged to meet Lucy again later that day after her meeting and went back for a few hours shut eye instead.
Huge!...and oh so pretty
After getting up for the second time my main priority was to arrange my jungle trip for the next day. I tried to find a few more agencies to speak to, but either they didn't offer me the kind of trip I was looking for or some of the companies seemed to no longer exist. After waiting for my head to stop spinning I got my act together and decided to go with one of the two places that I had recommended to me, Cumaceba Lodge (the cheaper option) or the more expensive Muyuna Lodge. I went to Cumaceba first in the hope that I'd like what they had to say so that I could save a bit of money to be honest, I didn't however even get into the main part of the conversation ad they told me they were full at the lodge I wanted to go to.
Dejected I decided to pay Mad Mick the resident Englishman a visit at his shop to see if he had any pearls of wisdom. Mick as it turns out is a Brummie who writes the local paper and has lived here for about 20 years as he said his pension from the UK stretches a little further out here than it would at home! Mick told me that he recommended Muyuna as thats where he sends all of his family and friends when then come over from the UK, he did however share his offices with another company and if I'd like I could speak to them. I thought I had nothing to lose and so sat down with the owner, their price was reasonable and i liked what the guy was saying until he said that the guides would go and get a sloth down from a tree if I wanted to see one, now I know that most wild animals are terrified of human beings and that some of them can actually get scared to death so I wasn't particularly enamoured at that point, then he further shot himself in the foot by starting to bad mouth some of the competition, not a good move in my book - if you can't generate business by just by saying how great you are and have to diss the opposition instead it doesn't say much about how good the company is in the first place.
One of the Howler monkeys, this guy was my favourite.
I made up some half truth about needing to go to the bank and sloped off to have a drink and mull things over, I just listened to what my gut was telling me that although I'd only have 4 days in the jungle I'd rather pay the extra to do that and know I was almost certain to have a great experience, these things are once in a lifetime opportunities and I didn't want to be disappointed. I felt like I had to practically sneak into Muyuna's offices as they were right next door to Mad Mick's, as soon as I'd booked my trip I knew it was the right decision.
By the time I met Lucy for dinner later I was a basket case having spent the rest of the afternoon avoiding Mad Mick's jungle buddy who seemed to have been stalking me around Iquitos to ask me why I hadn't come back to the office, I did actually run into the guy and again I had to employ my fibbing skills and told him that my friend might now be coming with me and that I was waiting to speak to her (total hog wash of course), why I couldn't just tell him I'd booked with someone else I don't know, to be honest he probably would have benefited from why I had decided not to go with is company so that he didn't put his foot in it again with other customers.
A red-faced Huacary monkey
Lucy and I once more headed down to the Malecon (it was almost starting to feel like a regular haunt after even a few days) and had dinner at Fitzcarraldo which was right on corner of Napo. I tried more local fare, crocodile this time (which I learned is actually Caiman and you shouldn't each them - ooops!) - which was amazing, a little different to what I'd eaten previously in Oz but still good. Then it was more drinks and our usual evening floor show of the local hawkers scrapping, this time one of the nutters decided to take on a cop and got a right shoeing..silly bugger. After all that excitement and some rocket fuel cocktails it was time to head home and prepare for my Amazon adventure - I was so so excited!