Iquitos & The Amazon – Hunting Pink Dolphins
The journey didn’t start off well. We had just sat down on the bus to Lima where we were due to catch our plane to Iquitos, an Amazonian city inaccessible by road. We were revelling in our first luxury-class bus of South America when, immediately upon being served my steaming hot cuppa tea, I upended it all over my lap. Toby, in his frantic efforts to help me preserve my skin (“owwwww, it’s BURRRRNNNIIIING!”) then upended his tea over himself. Eight more hours to go with wet, cold trousers and (for me) reddening skin on abdomen and thighs. But at least we were on our way to experience firsthand the Amazon River and its attendant monkeys, parrots, piranhas, and – with any luck – pink dolphins. Memories of what is now known as the “tea incident” would shortly be overwhelmed by incredible sights and sounds.
The Amazon river: The subject of so many literary and real-life dramas, documentaries, and at least one bad movie (I’m talking about you, Anaconda!). We were going to see it in person, boat on it, even swim in it. But first, we spent a couple of days and nights acclimating to the sweltering humidity and trying – though not always successfully – to avoid the hammering rain of Iquitos, the starting point for our Amazon River adventure.
What a tremendous contrast. The last 15 minutes of our flight to Iquitos revealed miles upon miles of dark green forest and a wide, lighter green, sparkly river snaking its way through. It all looked so pure, clean, fresh. Aahhhhhh, the lungs of the planet, as they say. Then we landed and, now aboard our hotel’s transport, we were immediately thrust into exhaust-spewing traffic – consisting mostly of motorcycles (some with families of 4 aboard!) and mototaxis – weaving and honking this way and that. What the….? THIS is the Amazon??
Iquitos is a city comparable in population to New Orleans (USA), but set smack dab in the middle of the rainforest. The architecture is a melange of slum, colonial, and late-1800s millionaire styles, the latter owing to the influx of fortune-seekers during the heyday of the “rubber boom” (which itself sprung from the world’s new demand for car tires). Strangely, there is a building in Iquitos designed by Gustave Eiffel, he of the famous tower in Paris. It is called the Casa de Fierro or House of Iron because it is made of…yep….iron. Actually, it is really quite beautiful, especially when the sun is out.
The riverfront walk is the only place where you get a sense that you are definitely not in Kansas anymore, as there in front of you is an expansive river and – beyond that – trees as far as the eye can see. Oh yeah, we’re in the Amazon! The riverfront is also where local teenagers hang out to flirt and canoodle, traveling hippies congregate to sell their wares (usually handmade jewelry), dogs come to sniff each other and beg for food (they spot me – the sucker that I am – a mile away), and the area where hungry/thirsty people with money to spend go to satiate their appetites.
It is in the vicinity of the riverfront that Toby and I discovered the Coca Sour, a rather “peppy” variant of the Pisco Sour. I’m afraid those of you outside Peru and Bolivia will not be able to make or partake of this drink yourself, given the illegality of one of the ingredients, but if you are ever in Iquitos, we can recommend happy hour at Karma Cafe as the best source of these yummy refreshments. After 1 or 2 of these, the fact that we had to run back to our hotel under a shower of heavy, soaking rain did little to dampen our spirits as much as it did our shoes and clothes. 8-D
Our Amazon Adventure
The start of our Amazon tour proper began inauspiciously as well. We had arranged to stay in a community-run lodge a 2-hour drive + 3-hour boat-ride outside of Iquitos. The rain started pouring and the wind picked up approximately 20 minutes before we stepped foot into our little water vessel. Even with the wooden roof, we both felt compelled to secure our raincoats as tightly as possible around our upper bodies, leaving only a small face-hole allowing us to peek at our surroundings as our little boat bent its motor against the wind and rocked to and fro with the river’s waves. Every once in a while we had to change position in the boat to avoid the incoming rain or to help scoop out water from the boat’s floor. As visions of sinking in the Amazon came to mind, I recall asking Hay Anacondas acqui? (Are there Anacondas here?). Si, pero no vemos frequentamente. (Yes, but we don’t see them often.) Oh-kayyyy. Are we there yet??
I am pleased to report that shortly before arrival at our lodge the rain ceased and we did not see it again until our return to Iquitos. So far, the weather dogs have been relatively kind to us throughout our travels (with the outstanding exception of our visit to Tikal, Guatemala).
The lodge itself appeared to be floating on the river, but this was because it was the wet season and it was actually built on stilts; presumably people need a ladder to get into their cabins during the dry season. The accommodations were basic but liveable. We ostensibly had a cabin to ourselves, however at night we’re pretty sure we heard a creature of some variety scrambling in the roofspace overhead. And whatever it was even stole our bar of soap next to the shower. A super-clean monkey (I hope)? I also spotted little suction-toed frogs in the bathroom and on one occasion…ugh…a gigantic, hairy spider on the threshold to the bathroom. I did not get up for a late-night pee that particular evening.
The four days + three nights of our tour were to be filled with activities such as daytime searches by boat for river dolphins (of the pink and gray varieties), monkeys, parrots, sloths, etc., and night-time searches for caiman and tarantulas. We were also due to hike through the jungle on a small island and swim in the river. The whole tour was a wildlife lover’s dream. Mind you, the Amazon is huge and most animals relatively tiny, so – this being real life and not a David Attenborough documentary – many wildlife sightings are from a fair distance and/or fleeting. Still, after having volunteered with animals in captivity, it was wonderful to see them exactly where they are supposed to be: in the wild. Well, most of them at least (as you’ll note in the pictures below).
Here is just a small sample of our sightings and activities:
And we made a short video too, starting with the rainy boat ride and including a gang of mismatched monkeys boarding our vessel:
See any pink dolphins anywhere in there? Well, we hardly saw them either. Actually, we did see dorsal fins or nostrils pop up here and there during several of our boat excursions, but each sighting was just perhaps a millisecond or less. Blink and you missed it! Suffice it to say that our cameras only caught the resulting ripples in the water’s surface. Bummer!
Hooray for Manatees! And an Exuberant Chichico
I can never spend enough time with animals, so after returning to Iquitos for a final day in the Amazon we made our way to a nearby Manatee rescue center. If you’ve never seen one, manatees are like swimming sausages: pure fat wrapped tightly in a shiny, gray casing! And they are vegetarian to boot. What’s not to love? Anyway….they are in need of centers such as this due to illegal hunting, habitat destruction, and the illegal trade of young manatees for pets (which usually results in the death of the manatees because of improper nutrition).
Rehabilitation of the manatees takes as long as 3+ years, as the center will wean the babies on very expensive milk in a small tank over the course of a year, then move them to a larger tank where they can interact with other manatees and learn to eat the right food (mostly aquatic grasses), after which they are moved off site to a larger pond where they have little-to-no interaction with humans and have to learn how to fend for themselves before they are ultimately released back into the wild.
The tour of the manatee rescue center showed us the first two stages of rehabilitation, so we saw baby manatees in the weaning tanks and “adolescent” manatees in the larger tank; the latter we were allowed to feed and pet too, which was so cool! Their skin is incredibly smooth and taut and their muzzles fleshy, supple, and whiskery. We were given the chance to kiss the manatees, but even I thought that was a step too far, so no manatee smooches for me. [I do slightly regret having missed this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but who knows what sort of diseases I could have given them.]
As I was coming down from the experience of interacting with the manatees, our tourguide led us to an area where they keep monkeys, parrots, turtles and other animals that they have rescued as well (usually from the illegal pet trade). Next thing I know, a “free-range” chichico monkey – a species I met and fell in love with during our volunteer stint at ZooRefugio Tarqui in Ecuador (see highlights here) – appeared in a nearby tree. He ran toward the tourguide, who bent down and patted the wee monkey, saying how he was always coming up to play and – nodding at me – he especially liked rubia (blonde) women; compared to most South Americans, I suppose I qualify (at least at the time; my hair color tends to change with my whims). As the tourguide moved on, I stayed behind to converse with the tiny monkey, who had returned to the tree. The next thing I knew, he leapt from the tree and scrambled onto my lap, where he turned over so I could tickle him. Apparently, in addition to the dog grapevine, word has spread through the South American Chichico grapevine that I am a sucker. And so I sat communing with the Chichico until Toby called out to remind me that I was on a tour and ought to move along. Party pooper.
We may not have caught more than the briefest of glimpses of the elusive pink dolphin let alone any pictures of it, but we encountered a great variety of wildlife, more shades of green than we’ve ever seen, and a new favorite cocktail. A successful trip all around, I’d say! Flying back out over the Amazon and its expansive forest of trees and winding river, I reflected on my first impressions and discovered that – now that I knew at least some of what was in there – it was even more fascinating. And somehow it now made sense that there was a sizeable city in the middle of it all. I hope to return one day to discover more of the Amazon’s secrets. And to get a proper look at those cotton-picking dolphins.
You can be sure, however, that on our bus ride out of Lima to Paracas (our subsequent destination), I held onto my tea much more tightly. There are some experiences I’d rather not repeat.