Cruise Review: Upper Amazon

Linda Androlia, President of Sunstone Tours & Cruises, recent had the opportunity to preview the upcoming Upper Amazon itinerary from Lindblad Expeditions, in partnership with National Geographic. What follows is a summary of that trip.

June 7, 2010 – Iquitos, Nauta & the Maranon River

We have arrived! At last after so many years (the last trip of the Polaris up the Amazon River was back in 1996), Lindblad has returned with guests to the largest rainforest on earth.

On landing in Iquitos airport, we were met by the natural history staff of the Delfin II in the airport, and soon enough we were off to the village of Nauta on the banks of the Marañon River. By driving to Nauta from Iquitos we saved ourselves time and the ship a long sail. By the time we boarded the Delfin II, we were only a hop, skip and a jump from the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. We were anxious to get started, so in the afternoon we put on our rubber boots and went for a walk in the Amazon.

The walk took place on “terra firme,” which refers to land that never gets flooded. The annual floods occur when the snow melts in the Andes and the water rushes down carrying silt and sedimentation which later covers the forest floor with new nutrients. This walk through a rainforest was a first for many, and the humidity, greenery and lushness of vegetation was an eye-opener. Liana vines hung down, eerie calls came through from above, squirrel monkeys moved branches in mysterious ways, and mosquitoes occasionally whined near our ears.

We came out near the community of San Fransisco after having seen the iodine tree useful for cleaning cuts, leaf-cutter ants carrying leaf pieces and crossing log bridges over muddy lowlands. Passing by the first raised hut, a woman was working hard on separating the fiber from the palm leaf, to be used later when dry as the tough material woven into bags and baskets.

This community was large enough to warrant a big water pump for a tall tower, a paved sidewalk through “main street,” matching blue out-houses and a town “mirador,” or “look out” on the high bank overlooking the river.

Those who didn’t shop (or not for long) ended up playing with the town kids, who had a riotous game going of “chase the shotgun pellets” until we came along and captured their interest with our cameras and their instant-satisfaction ability to playback and see the resulting photos (see my photo below).

Back on board in time for sunset, we enjoyed our cocktails at the junction of the Marañon River with the Ucayali River and where the mighty Amazon River finally takes her official name.

June 8, 2010 – Dorado River, Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve

The Pacaya–Samiria National Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Peru with an area of more than 2 million hectares (7,700 ml², 20,800 km² or the equivalent of the state of New Jersey!). It is also the largest protected seasonal flooded forest in South America. This Peruvian reserve is made up of three hydrographical basins: the Samiria River drainage, the Pacaya River drainage and the Yanayacu-Pucate drainage.

Two big rivers delimit the borders of the reserve: the Marañon River to the north and the Ucayali River in the South. At the junction of these two mighty rivers, the easternmost corner of the reserve, the Amazon River is finally born and baptized, and as she grows with each additional tributary, makes hers journey (starting at 340 feet / 04 meters above sea level) for another 1,926 miles (3,100kms) to the Atlantic Ocean.

As everyone has heard, the Amazon rainforest is renowned for its biodiversity. Just within the Reserve, research so far has found that the reserve harbors over 500 species of birds (which makes up almost 64% of the total birds recorded for Peru and includes five of the eight species of macaw and the primitive-looking hoatzin), 132 species of mammals (this includes the pink and gray river dolphins, several monkey species and giant river otters), 240 species of reptiles (including the giant anaconda and black caiman), 58 species of amphibians, 259 species of fish (includes the famous giant “paiche” and armored catfish) and well over 1,200 species of plants with more being described every day, many of medicinal significance.

We saw just a fraction of this today, and even so, it is almost overwhelming. An early pre-breakfast outing and our later post-breakfast expedition up Belludo Cano added greatly to our wildlife list: Monk saki monkeys, pink river dolphins, squirrel monkeys, blue and yellow macaws, crimson tanagers, great black-hawk, all kinds of kingfishers. Bromeliads were flowering, some trees are seeding, the kapok red seed pods prominent (one tree had several eaten out by parakeets for both food and a very comfortable nesting place).

One encounter with a small boat manned by a fisherman allowed a close look at the famous armoured catfish of the Amazon. It is practically a staple of all who fish in the area, and as the river levels lower, the living quarters of the catfish in the banks are exposed in the form of numerous holes.

Another family was transporting a dugout up-river in a motorized vessel. Traffic can get busy in some of the smaller tributaries!

That afternoon we repositioned to the Dorado River and travelled even deeper into the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. Hoatzins, those seemingly primitive birds we found deep along one shore of lagoon. The horned screamers were making their booming and far-ranging calls from the tops of the canopy. Cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, and many others were spotted, and later in the dark, spectacled caimans and Great Potoos were found as well as fishing bats, the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross with attending Centauris.

June 9, 2010 – Jatun Poza & Pacaya River

The highlight of the morning during our dawn, early birdwatching excursion was without a doubt the time spent watching a troop of squirrel monkeys forage along the banks of a lagoon. They were in low trees, close to eye-level, for about fifteen minutes, and we watched in complete silence. Massive leaps from branch to branch and small hands stuffed mouths full with berries or insects (hard to tell); it was mesmerizing.

After breakfast we landed by skiff nearby to visit the small community known as Jatun Poza, made up of perhaps 20 families at the very most. The modest homes on stilts were surrounded by fruit trees, medicinal plants and other food products. To hear about and see their lifestyle, be able to ask questions via our ship’s staff, photograph and learn about these “riverside” people (“Riberenios”), was so very valuable a lesson.

Of course the fun really started when we were invited into the one-room schoolhouse. All fifteen students were introduced to us, and soon the visit turned into a “sing-off”, where the children, ages 5 through 12, sang a song for us, whereupon we were expected to reciprocate! After their rendition of La Charapita (the little turtle), we managed a decent rendition of “row, row, row your boat” in a two-part round for our first attempt. Their second song of “Como están amigos, como están” (requiring an appropriate response from us as part of the chorus), was then followed by “Old MacDonald had a Farm” with cows, pigs and ducks. Unfortunately, I think farm animals make different sounds in Spanish, and as a result, we were stared at in incomprehension for the duration of this song. But yo-yos, balloons and funny-bands were easily understood and graciously received before departure.

Before returning to the ship, the skiffs headed up-river until we found a quiet bit of shady bankside. Here, our simple canes with fishing line, hook and raw meat were prepared. Immediately, everyone’s preconceived ideas of the ferocity and plenitude of piranhas in the rivers of the Amazon were dashed to bits. It took my boat two more locations before we finally saw success, and then it came fast and furious! Squeals of excitement sounded when the piranhas started falling for the bait, and their red bellies marked them as “red piranhas”. After the obligatory photo, they were released, of course. They were much too small to be worth keeping for eating, although they are known as a tasty white meat. No fingers were lost to this late morning activity.

The afternoon was spent travelling up the Pacaya River into the furthest reaches of the Reserve we could manage. “Sloth River” could be a new name for the trip up, but the biggest treat was arriving into a huge, still lagoon and finding the pink river dolphins. It took very little time for those of us prepared to strip down and jump in, and soon enough the puffs of air and breaths were heard of dolphins coming to investigate the commotion in the middle of the lagoon. Staying in the warm top two feet was the challenge, but really it was quite comfortable. Only reluctantly did the last swimmers climb up the ladder back on board to start our return journey back home to the Delfin II waiting patiently for us at the entrance to the Reserve.

As we returned to the ship down the Pacaya River and the sky darkened, I was amazed to see pin-point lights on in the forest. I realized there were lightning bugs of many, many species throughout the forest and at all levels. It was enchanting.

June 10, 2010 – Pto. Miguel & Nauta

Our brief excursion into the Peruvian Amazon was coming to an end, but there were a few delights still ahead of us before we would have to disembark in Nauta and continue onto Iquitos and the airport.

As usual there were the hard-core early risers who left at dawn to cruise a nearby river for wildlife. We succeeded with numerous beautiful bird species, some at this point quite familiar such as the black-collared hawk.

We returned to the ship for breakfast and then disembarked yet one more time to visit the small village of Puerto Miguel. These people have become very adept at woven handicrafts, and so we finally got to meet the folks who had made the decorations for each and every table setting. Using the seeds from the calla lily and other tropical flora, the fiber from palms and the dyes from a variety of plants, they produce unusual and beautiful designs.

By chance, one of the naturalists found out a family had found a young three-toed sloth in the woods nearby, too young to survive on its own, and so brought it back to the village. Found at two weeks, it was now three months old and seemingly doing well. Around a year old it will be returned to the forest, hopefully to disappear quickly into the treetops and live a normal sloth life for the next 15 years.

Too quickly all has come to an end with this abbreviated expedition up the Ucayali, Maranon and Amazon Rivers. Come August we have our first week-long expedition…and I can barely wait!

Interested in this Amazon expedition? Visit our new website dedicated to the Upper Amazon.

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