What a crazy contrast to go from deep in the jungle to the 3rd largest city in Peru. Iquitos is a city of about half a million people. It is the largest city in the world not accessible by road. The city is very hectic and loud! There are almost no cars here. Everyone gets around by “motokar”. A “motokar” is a motorcycle with a buggy attached to it; it has 3 wheels. Imagine a big city with roaring motorcycles everywhere. There are not many traffic lights or stop signs and no one seems interested in a specific lane. This morning, Oliver begged us to walk to the town center rather than take a motokar because they are so scary. The problem is that crossing the street is even more scary that riding in the motokar!
Another interesting aspect of being in the city is that we need to continue to walk around like we are in the jungle. When walking in the jungle, you have to look at your feet and watch every step you take to keep from misstepping. You have to stop walking in order to look around at the wildlife. It the same in this city! There are gaping holes in the sidewalk and other unexpected obstacles that make you focus on your footsteps.
Iquitos grew rapidly with the rubber industry. Then, it sort of flailed and experienced another boom with oil. It is a bizarre city. There are a number of historic sites that they boast about, but they are all in disrepair and used for things such as convenience stores. For example, Gustav Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) built an iron mansion here that now houses a pharmacy.
Even though we are only spending a couple of days here, we are having a very interesting time. Because of the abundance of wildlife in the jungle, Iquitos hosts many wildlife rehab centers. Yesterday, we visited a small animal rescue center. We were able to hold several wooly monkeys, sloths, toucans, a scarlet macaw, and an anaconda. Earlier today, we visited the Iquitos museum, then we went to a manatee rescue center and got to pet and hand feed manatees.
Day one in the Amazon Jungle in Peru: WOW. Really wow! This is incredible! It is really hot and humid here and the mosquitoes remind me of that “OFF” commercial from when I was a kid. The one where a guy puts his hand and arm into a clear box full of mosquitoes. But, it is also simply amazing. There is so much life here.
What a day! Today, we saw (Audrey and Oliver held) poison dart frogs.Audrey and Oliver both put their hands into a termite nest to rub the swarming termites together to use as insect repellant.
Our guide, Dustin, cleared an area in the jungle so that Audrey and Oliver could swing on vines. They both climbed through a giant fallen hollowed tree used as a bat cave (including vampire bats). We saw gorgeous beetles and butterflies and birds. Then, on our way back from terra ferma (solid ground), a couple of wooly monkeys climbed into our boat to get some snacks. They are wild, but used to getting snacks from the boat. They climbed on us while they ate. Just beautiful.
We are all wet all over. But, very excited and happy!
Day 2: After dinner last night, we took a “night hike”. It was so crazy. The jungle is difficult to negotiate in daylight. In the dark, we were quite lucky to get back with only one incident where Oliver stepped into a hole and water gushed into his rubber boots.
On the hike, we saw a really beautiful large tree frog. We also saw several different types and sizes of tarantulas.
But the most fabulous thing we saw was something that Oliver has been talking about for over a year now…a wandering spider. It is the most deadly spider in the world; it is both poisonous and venomous. Oliver had wanted us to go to Brazil on this trip specifically to see a wandering spider because they are most commonly found there. The spider we saw was about the size of my hand. Our guide stimulated it with a twig and it sprayed poison out a few inches. Not everybody gets to see that!
This morning we took a boat trip and Corey and the kids swam with the pink dolphins. The commotion in the water drew curious grey dolphins to join them. The dolphins never got closer than about 30 feet to them. But the grey ones were jumping. It was pretty cool.
On the boat to and from the dolphins, we saw all kinds of birds again. I forgot to mention that we saw flocks of parrots in flight yesterday. We did today too. We also saw 2 macaws in flight and 2 toucans in flight. We never would have recognized the macaws or toucans if our guides hadn’t told us what they were. They were not close enough for us to see their colors.
We also saw pigmy marmosets (the smallest primates in the world) and a couple of 3-toed sloths.
Our room is beautiful, in a rustic way. Our beds have canopies to keep the mosquitoes out at night. The food is wonderful. We had a picnic lunch during our outing yesterday. It included table cloth, plates, flatware, the whole works. The guides built a fire and made a stewed chicken dish with rice and veggies. They also had a couple of different kinds of salads and fruit for us.
Day 3: This morning we went fishing. We used something akin to a cane-pole. They use pieces of beef for bait and when that ran out, they cut up a small piranha we had caught and used that. We all caught piranha. After I caught a piranha, I stopped fishing and just helped the kids. In addition to piranha, Oliver caught a large lisa-fish. Audrey caught the biggest fish, a large peacock bass. Corey caught the most impressive fish (as far as I am concerned), a barracuda. The teeth on that thing make the piranha look like sissies. Oliver helped clean the fish (by that time they were really dead; so, he wasn’t upset). The whole time we were fishing, Audrey and Oliver talked about how much they love fishing with their Granddad.
We had a zip-line adventure yesterday that turned out to be good for wild life viewing. We saw another pigmy marmoset and 3 owl monkeys. Amazingly, when we were up at the top of the canopy, a couple of blue and gold macaws flew right past us and landed in a tree nearby. This time, we could see their colors well, flashing brilliantly as they cruised above the canopy.
Last night, one of the staff here caught a juvenile boa constrictor in the ceiling of the game room (the place Oliver plays foosball everyday!). So, we all got to touch it. He would straighten it out and then it would coil back up around his hand. It was about 2 1/2 feet long.
Today is the first day of real sun and it is blazing hot! We are as wet from sweat as we have been from the rain. Who ever thought that I would be hoping it rained? It would sure cool things off though.
Day 5: Jungle Fever – for real! I spent most of yesterday and today in bed with one of the highest fevers I have ever had. I was going to volunteer at a village clinic but couldn’t because I was sick with a stomach flu.
Audrey, Oliver and Corey spent yesterday morning fishing again. In the afternoon, Corey and Oliver went with our guide to collect items from the jungle to make a blow-gun, darts, spears, and a bow and arrow. They also had a small lesson on plants. They brought back some iodine from the iodine tree to treat a fungal skin infection that Audrey has gotten. And, they brought back a pod of fresh paprika. Fresh paprika is moist and has many uses other than cooking. While I was taking a fever-induced nap, Oliver and Audrey painted my fingernails and toenails with it. It looked like my fingers and toes were bleeding. Audrey used the paprika as lip balm while Oliver used it as war paint.
Day 7: We are now up river from the lodge, staying at the Amazon Research Center (ARC). It is more remote here (hard to imagine more remote than where we were!)
Yesterday morning, before we left the lodge, we went to the craft market at the village nearby. All of the goods are made by hand with natural materials found in the jungle. You wouldn’t believe how colorful and beautiful the jewelry and baskets made from palm leaves and seeds are. As soon as we were getting ready to leave, they all packed up their goods. Had I realized that the market was just for us (and the other 4 people staying at the lodge), I would have made more purchases. The prices were unbelievable! If we get that chance again, I will make better use of it.
We had an afternoon canoeing trip further up the river yesterday after we arrived at the ARC. It was the first time either Oliver or Audrey had been canoeing. It was pretty funny. Another guide had to join us so we could actually make it away from the dock. We have been traveling everywhere by river, in small motor boats; but, it was very different to travel so quietly and slowly, like the ribeñeros (the villagers who live along the river). These low slung canoes, carved from a single log, barely rise above their water line, and seem to hold only two people. But we saw them carrying families — very well balanced families with ample reserves of core strength!
This morning, we did a 6am hike to see monkeys. They are most active in the morning. We saw a group of saddleback tamarin monkeys. After breakfast, we canoed down river to a couple of lakes, including a fairly recently formed ox bow lake (still barely in contact with the river it has broken from) that we canoed into and out of though dense bushes. We saw monkeys, blue and yellow macaws, and toucans.
We have a tree full of yellow-rumped caciques and oropendolas right outside our room. Our room is made of screen instead of walls; so we can see and hear them very well. We are trying to make a recording of the oropendola call. It is one of our favorite jungle sounds. It sounds like water dropping. You should try to google oropendola call to see if you can hear it!
Day 9: The spear fishing yesterday evening was a big hit with Oliver and Corey. Not so much with Audrey. And, I just went along for the ride. We are planning a jungle survival camping trip tomorrow. After exploring options for getting food from the jungle, our guide decided that spear fishing would be the easiest. I must admit that I was skeptical that spear fishing would be easy. But, I was wrong. In case you don’t know (I sure didn’t), you go spear fishing at night, because that is when the fish are sleeping. We were walking around in shallow water wearing high rubber boots. We would shine a flashlight into the water, see a fish and spear it.
Audrey was the first one to get a fish. She felt terrible afterwards saying that it wasn’t fair, the poor fish was asleep. So, she didn’t fish any more after that. Oliver however, loved it. Corey got a couple of fish, but the night belonged to Oliver. Our guide got what we estimate to be a 5 lb peacock bass. That was pretty awesome.
Today, we had a big adventure that pushed the kids to their limit. We took about a 20 minute boat ride to the start of a hike up to a lake. About 30 minutes into the hike, both kids were dragging and saying they were too tired to go on. The hike was arduous to say the least. I believe doing anything in 100 degree weather and 100% humidity would be very difficult. But, add in the constant onslaught of mosquitoes, hiking in rubber boots in deep mud, much of the time balancing on slippery logs, for 2 hours just to get to the lake, and you have the stuff to begin a real adventure. We did stop along the way for Corey and Oliver to have a little snack of grubs!
The big draw for this hike is that hoatzins hang out there. The hoatzin is a prehistoric bird that is related to the cuckoo. It is considered an arboreal cow because it feeds on leaves which are then digested in 2 stomachs. When we arrived at the lake, I swear it seemed like they were there for us like a welcoming party. There were several of them sitting low in a tree right next to where our trail met the lake. Unfortunately, Corey was a bit behind the rest of us (and had the camera) and didn’t get as good of a view as the rest of us because the birds moved further up into the tree by the time he joined us.
At the lake, Oliver began collecting sticks to make a raft. Our guide told him that he was using the wrong kind of sticks. So, he took Oliver and cut down some balsa trees. Then, they made a little raft. Dustin thought it unsafe for Oliver to be out on the lake alone (there is a mama caiman living there). So, we made a bigger raft that could support the weight of an adult along with a child. We did a little rafting. I ended up losing my balance and falling in. Imagine the hike I have described above in wet clothes, especially the socks in the rubber boots! Cause, I had to do the whole hike back that way. By the time we were going back to the boat, we had missed lunch. We were all pretty wiped out. Audrey and Oliver were exhausted, but did a great job. The boat ride back was delightfully breezy and the chef had our lunch ready for us as soon as we washed our hands.
Day 11: Today is the official start of the rainy season here. The “dry” season ended yesterday with one of the biggest deluges I have ever witnessed. So, we spent the day at the Research Center watching the rain. It cooled the temperature by about 25 degrees and was quite pleasant. But, we decided not to camp in the bucket loads of rain.
We set out on a hike at 6am this morning and saw some more tamarin monkeys. We saw blue and yellow macaws at pretty close range. We also saw leaches and an olive whip-snake (4-5 feet long).
We went canoeing before lunch. It started raining again. So, we had a blast canoeing in the rain. Finally, the rain has stopped and Corey, Audrey and Oliver have set off with 2 guides for a night of survival camping. Being a vegetarian, I have no interest in surviving by catching and roasting frogs, eating grubs, or spear fishing; and fruit is not plentiful this time of year.
Our last day in the jungle: They survived!! Survival camping in the amazon jungle was exciting. The guides taught them how to build their own shelter. They enjoyed a dinner of fresh grilled fish (spear-caught) and plantains. Unfortunately, ants were able to get into their tents and they all suffered significant ant bites. They made it back to the ARC for breakfast.
Our time in the jungle was truly incredible. It was beautiful beyond description. We learned so much about so many things. One of the most interesting lessons we learned has to do with dangerous and deadly creatures. All they really want to do is live their lives. They aren’t interested in us at all. It takes persistant provocation to illicit a dangerous or deadly response. However, it is best to be aware of what is going on around you. I never want to be in the jungle without a seasoned guide!
The tourism motto for Ecuador is “All You Need is Ecuador” and I certainly agree! Ecuador is a country about the size of the state of Colorado. Here, you can spend time at the beach (or the Galapagos), the mountains, and the jungle. Being on the equator, the weather is mild year-round (not hot!).
Panama was a good first stop for our trip. While Spanish is the main language in Panama, many people speak English and you can find information in English. Not so much in Ecuador. So, Panama was sort of a gentle introduction for us. While our Spanish is improving, we are far from competent. After my parents joined us in the Galapagos, I realized that I had been introducing them as “mi papas” (my potatoes) instead of “mi padres” (my parents).
We stayed in Guayacuil on our way to and from the Galapagos and on our way to Peru. It is an ugly city. It is a bunch of dirty concrete buildings. But, it is a wonderful city! I really like the vibe. It is lively and the people we met there are very kind and generous.
When our plane from Guayacuil landed in the Andes, I was nearly brought to tears with how beautiful it is. We landed in a tiny town near Loja. The town was so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave it. But, we had heard so many wonderful things about Loja that I thought it might be even more lovely than where we were.
Loja is beautiful…in a way. But it is much, much bigger than we had imagined. So, after spending one night there, we moved on to Vilcabamba – “the valley of longevity”. We stayed in an incredible placed called Hosteria Izhcayluma. The views were stunning; the food was fantastic; the buildings were beautifully designed and incorporated into the landscape. We had yoga classes everyday (including some aerial yoga) on an open air platform with wide open views of the Andes. We did some hiking and horseback riding. I can’t remember when I have felt so good!
After spending a couple of weeks in Vilcabamba, we lucked out again when we visited Cuenca. Cuenca is in the middle of the country. It is the 2nd largest city in Ecuador and has a beautiful “old town” with colonial architecture. We arrived in Cuenca on Halloween. Halloween is not widely celebrated in Ecuador, but All Saint’s Day and the Day of the Deceased is hugely celebrated. All weekend long, there were parades, music, and festivals. We were also there for Cuenca’s founders’ day celebrations.
We found out that “Panama Hats” are really from Ecuador. In Cuenca, we visited a “Panama Hat”/toquilla straw hat museum/factory. The hats are made from leaves of a palm-like plant and are woven by hand. There are various conflicting stories of why toquilla straw hats are known as Panama Hats.
One of the most popular versions has to do with a widely publicized visit by US President Teddy Roosevelt wearing a Panama Hat while visiting Panama during the construction of the canal. If you ever see a Panama Hat that was not made in Ecuador, it is not the “real” thing.
Near the end of our time in Ecuador, we visited volcanic hot baths. There is an area of the country known as Volcano Ally. Cuenca is just south of Volcano Ally and hot springs originating from Volcanos run through the area. The spring water is over 130 degrees and has to be cooled down for human use. The water is a cloudy grey color and did not have an odor. Interestingly, everyone had to use a swim cap to be in the water. If you didn’t have one, you had to buy one. I am not sure of the reason for the caps. They were cloth and did not keep your hair from getting wet or prevent your hair-germs from getting into the water. One thing they did do was make everyone look equally silly. So, that was fun.
We were all pretty sad to be leaving Ecuador. But, we were all eagerly anticipating visiting the jungle in Peru!
The idea of a blog is great. But, when you don’t have reliable internet access, you tend to not keep it up-to-date. So, here we are, 4 months into our trip and we are now finally able to add posts from earlier. Adding these posts now makes it seem like we are there right now. For context, this is where we have been and when: Panama from September 1st – 15th, the Galapagos from September 16th – October 14th, mainland Ecuador from October 14th – November 5th, Peru November 5th – 19th, Martinique November 20th – 29th. We spent a few days in Paris beginning November 30th before heading to the Swiss Alps where we are spending the Holidays. We will be heading to Rome the last week of January before going to South Africa. We hope you enjoy hearing about our adventures belatedly!
The boat headed right into some bushes, the thorny type. The thorns grabbed on to the boat and scraped along. Shrieky, high pitched, just like all the sounds I can’t handle. I covered my ears just as we got through the bushes. I didn’t have time to recover before we banged right into a tree. “Back up!” Dustin yelled, “Back up!” Then crash. The propeller hit the bottom. We were too shallow. We turned off the motor and paddled the rest of the way.
Finally we broke out onto the lake. Crystal clear water five meters deep. Hot on the surface and warm for about two feet down. After that the water was cool. The lake was surrounded by jungle and bird-calls echoed in every direction. The sky was clear, a perfect robin’s egg blue. The sun was scorching. Absolutely perfect. Except for when you look at the fact that the lake was infested with piranha and caiman. I was the only one who appeared worried by this (common sense people, jeez). Dustin dove in followed by everyone. Except me. “Don’t worry. The piranhas won’t bite you unless you are bleeding!” Dustin called. Wow, really reassuring. “And if you do bleed it is not just piranhas, there are tons of other carnivorous fish!” Oh goody. Finally when no one got mauled I slowly got in. It turned out to be lots of fun. We swam for a few hours and took turns trying to pull the boat along as we swam. When we left everyone was worn out, but content.
Today was one of the hardest travel days we have had so far. Our flight left from Guayaquil at 5:50 in the morning, which meant being at the airport at 4:00. Our hotel gave us a wake up call at 3:00 and we left in a taxi at 3:45. We were at the airport at about 4:00 and got checked in very quickly. It was a good thing too because our flight boarded at 4:50, an hour before the flight left. We got a quick Cinnabon breakfast and headed to the gate. We headed to what we thought was going to be the plane and ended up getting on a bus instead. We drove for a few minutes and then were dropped off at our plane. We had a two hour flight to Lima, Peru. We were told on the plane that our bags would go to Lima where we would pick them up and re-check them for our connecting flight. When we got there our bags could not be found and we were told that they went to Iquitos directly. Dad went to check with an official and as we were leaving our bags came out onto the conveyor belt.
Next we headed to the Amazonian Region of Peru in Iquitos. After disembarking and making it all the way to baggage claim I realized that I left my pillow on the plane. I was very worried and upset that it would not be found. But it was and it is still with me. Next we met our guide Dustin and the other guides for other families. We took a short bus ride and listened to a presentation by a guide named Christian. Then we stretched out and waited for the boat to be ready (yes, after almost 8 hours of travel we had a boat ride). We hoped it would be comfortable (did I mention that it was a 4 hour boat ride?). Then we rode up the Amazon river to our lodge which was located on the Tahuayo river.
The first thing we saw against the skyline was an array of skyscrapers, the buildings seemed artistic and modern. Some twisted and curved, the windows reflecting the city a million times. There were tall stylish apartment complexes with colorful balconies, each at a different angle. A huge Jumbo-Tron played commercials in the main city square. This was Panama City.
For the next week we stayed in the “old city,” Casco Viejo. We took Spanish lessons, found “the most amazing caramel ice cream in the world” and ate great food. Casco was fantastic. Everyone was friendly and the city was very beautiful. Most days were leisurely (and sweltering hot). Our Spanish improved vastly. We went from not knowing one word to being able to ask questions, order food or ask where something was.
One exciting thing was finding an aerial dance studio right next to our Spanish lessons. We went to one fabric lesson and learned two new poses and a climb. We were also able to teach the other students a few moves that we knew.
For our second week in Panama we went on a road trip to a beach town called Santa Catalina and then up into the mountains.
Our first morning in Santa Catalina we got up, and before breakfast headed to the beach. My brother and I body surfed and splashed around for a while. The water was warm and we had no problem jumping in. That afternoon my brother and I went horseback riding for an hour. We rode along the beach for about 15 minutes and then went up into the jungle. Ollie got clothes-lined and had and incredibly slow horse. The guide was not willing to wait for Oliver at all so Ollie was pretty much left behind.
The next day we went on an awesome snorkeling adventure where we saw a ton of wildlife. There were dolphins jumping by the boat for a while and then one humpback whale surfaced before we landed on the small island where we snorkeled for about an hour. We saw multiple sea turtles, sea stars, parrot fish (and a lot of other tropical fish), and a lobster. On the way to the next island (Coiba, of Coiba Marine Reserve) we saw two more humpbacks, a mom and her baby! When we got to Coiba Island we took a break for lunch and then hiked around a little. We saw the cutest little monkey (whom I dubbed “Jonathan”) on our way up to a look out point. He apparently was pretty used to people giving him food because that is just what he expected us to do.