Ucayali River trip towards Iquitos

The view from top bunk cabin 1 Tuky III

Reading the guidebooks as we motored down the Ucayali towards Iquitos, (or up, since we were going generally north!) I learned that more than half the land of Peru is spread out flat to the east of the Andes, and it contains more than ten percent of the entire “Amazon rain forest”. (Brazil has the most.)
 But only five percent of Peru’s population lives there.
It’s said to be an area of extreme biodiversity, with many species of birds, mammals, butterflies, orchids and more (all this via Wikipedia). I must have had some expectations about what I’d see in a rainforest jungle because I was surprised (and a little disappointed, silly me!) several times that the view from the Tuky III  wasn’t heavily wooded, with big trees full of monkeys and snakes. No butterflies or orchids visible from the river! Just muddy banks, scrubby cecropia (trees), and the illusion of something mysterious, perhaps,  beyond. Doug took a ‘float’ trip down the Mississippi one time, and reported something similar; that you’d look up at the banks and wonder what was beyond them!

Purple marks the Ucayali River; Iquitos is where
it joins the Amazon proper.

Looking out of our cabin, I learned a few more things. The land is not entirely flat, as illustrated by this chain of cloud-topped hills. In fact we were still 300 to 400 feet above sea level, said the iPhone’s GPS, and we were traveling with sometimes a knot or two of current. There are a lot more people living on this branch of the river than I had imagined. And plenty of logging is taking place – we saw several shore encampments and more logging barges by far than any other kind of boat on the river.

It’s not all either “jungle” or “river” either. There are big sandbanks  throughout. We were traveling at the end of the dry season. Low water uncovers beaches  which are used to grow food, squash, watermelons, tomatoes, and lots of rice. As the river was just beginning to rise with rains, it was time to harvest. Scattered solitary lean-to or tent-style shelters were inhabited by people looking after the crops, and trying to chase birds off, I was told. Or perhaps they were fishing, then drying or smoking their catch. Hard to imagine what it will be like with another 20 or 30 feet of water in a couple months from now.

Topiary is a popular art form in Contamana and elsewhere.

Between the hubs of Pucallpa and Iquitos, there are quite a number of settlements along the Ucayali. The big ones, Contamana and Requena, may have at least 10,000 people each, plus cell towers, schools, and hospitals or clinics. These towns have old Catholic missionary churches from colonial times (1800s), and other buildings from the rubber boom era (late 1800s) so some development isn’t recent. Settlements behind the bluff can be recognized by the river landing steps cut into the bank, and by the fact that Tuky nosed up to the shore and dozens of people would appear, or a  lancha would zoom out, at any hour of the day or night.

Also, at each settlement we came to, at least during daylight, we were met by vendors, usually women and children, selling consumables, like soda, breads and some fruits. Quickest (best)sellers were the fried fish, but there weren’t many sellers of those. And in one bigger place, people came aboard with a wireless phone-calling device I’d never seen before. But we usually got off the boat for a quick peek at wherever, so I missed the details on that technology.

More interesting to me was that no one I asked could really describe just where the people in these settlements did come from. They clearly weren’t indigenous people. Some were displaced by the Sendero Luminoso activity of the last generation, some displaced by poverty in their native areas; maybe it’s just a better place to live than where they were before. There are lots of pueblos called Nuevo Something.

We crossed paths with several other freight boats, and with carriers of ‘combustibles’. But what we saw even more of were these log carriers, by the dozen, not counting what passed  while I wasn’t awake and watching.  Several fellow passengers told us that this logging was illegal, and a big problem, that the trees came from far inland, three or four days by truck. Of course a road needs to be made for the truck, and they need machinery for loading. It’s a big issue – maybe I can address it later. Every Peruvian we were able to chat with repeated that “the trees are the lungs of the world”, a saying we also saw on several billboards throughout the country.

Every town had waterfront sawmills and big piles of sawdust and scrap.  And lots of wooden houses of course.

Tuky III at the dock at Contamara.

Tuky, by the way, is short for Toucan, third of the family. We met Tuky II at Iquitos – they came out to free Tuky III from a hard grounding (our second) just outside the Iquitos harbor entrance, but couldn’t. Eventually all the passengers, including us, but excluding those few with business and commerce items to look after, jumped ship. We went back to the dock later with a photo of the boat to give to the captain. They were gone three days later.

  There wasn’t much biodiversity aboard the Tuky III, but there was some! Here a woman carries a baby (something) monkey in her hair. We had a handful of hens, and a basket of roosters on the cargo deck for a couple days. And huge crates of oranges, the cargo of our neighbors in cabin 3.

There was a young man whose job it was to sweep  the boat continuously from end to end, and he did dispatch a large number of black beetles the size of a penny in the first day or two, but mostly he was after tracked-in dirt and food scraps.

I made sure to bring mosquito coils, but these were about the only insects I saw.

As you can see, most of the passengers made little compounds on the floor and in their hammocks.One smart woman had a carpet. The kids had a great time making friends, racing around and playing games. Sometimes they would come and stare at the gringos reading their books, or lying down.

The number of hammocks ebbed and flowed, but we never had more than one ‘layer’, and folks had room to sleep arms akimbo, which I gather is sometimes not true aboard other vessels. There is no other way to get to Iquitos save by boat or by plane (tickets were a bit more than $100 per person, I learned when we flew out of Iquitos back to Tarapoto) so that may account for the predominance of young families as passengers.

Still, I think we had it pretty good on the Tuky III compared to some of the other and larger and older vessels we saw. 

I cannot begin to list all of the things that were being carried aboard these river vessels. Everything. It all comes by sea, except in Iquitos where there is an airport and you can fly anything you can afford to, I guess.

This post is getting too long (again!) so I’ll cut the part about what you might like to know if you’re planning a similar trip, and post it shortly, with more photos. Stay tuned!

River Trip

Just as happens on ocean passages, on this trip down the river Ucayali from Pucallpa to Iquitos Peru, the days flowed into each other, demarcated only by nightfall and sunrise. So it’s hard now to remember just how long it actually took, but I think it was five days. That’s not counting the day it rained and the cement bag loading had to be postponed, then cancelled. Also not counting the day the officials came aboard late, delaying departure. Or maybe there was another reason, not evident to ‘los gringos’ in Cabin 1. There was a lot of speculation and precious little hard information up in our corner of the passenger deck, and that’s not a bad thing.

Tuky III revealed itself to be 75 meters long, ten meters wide, and no one cares how tall, because there are no bridges to pass beneath. How critical the draft (how deep in the water) would be was revealed almost before breakfast on day one, when we ran hard aground and stayed pressed firmly to a shoal totally invisible in the 2-knot stream of dilute mud that constitutes the Ucayali.

The 440-horsepower Volvo Penta roared to little effect. Out came the depth sounder, a freshly-cut sapling with paint marks every foot of its ten foot length. Then the captain zoomed off in his aluminum skiff. As a result of the visit he made, a passing tug nudged its barge into the shore, tied it to a tree, and came to push us free of the sandbar. I can’t imagine that happening on Delaware Bay!
On we went, doing a do-see-do around the outside of each bend in this very curvy river, then cutting across to the other side. We the gringos ‘navigated’ with an iPhone app, not much detail, but our dot was always in the river. There was no chart of any kind in the wheelhouse, and no electronics other than engine control, light switches and two horns, and some kind of radio we never heard in use. Instead, the appearance of cell phones in many hands was a sure indicator of an approaching settlement.

Breakfast: sweet watered ?oatmeal? and bread made dry on purpose

 The food bell rang. The passengers gathered their various plastic containers and shuffled before the cook and her ladle. We had misunderstood about bringing dishes and had none, so we were parked at our own little table in front of the TV, which displayed boring old music videos and World Wide Wrestling. The food was well-prepared but it was economy food, obscure cuts of obscure meats flavoring the eternal starch triangle of rice, potato and yuca.

Well, there’s lots more, but the connection is too slow, the line growing behind me, and my patience, frankly wearing thin. And we’re leaving for our ‘jungle excursion’ tomorrow, so I’ll have to hope for time and opportunity to do a better job later on.

A River Boat Trip

Along the Ucayali River from Pucallpa towards Iquitos aboard the Tuky III is where we’re headed, maybe today, or whenever the cargo is loaded. The deck still has space, but the hold, accessed through the small hatches outboard, has been absorbing toilet paper, pasta, sugar, soda, wine, cooking oil and much more esoteric stuff beyond accounting. I´ve even seen corrugated boxes labelled butter  – surely it´s canned?

Stevedore lines snake from trailer trucks backed as far down the hill as practicable. It’s blazing hot. There is action everywhere: a  fleet of Henry (a company with 8 in their fleet ) boats are being loaded at the foot of the street 2 blocks up, and at the sawmills next door appear a steady stream of barges bearing big rainforest logs.
It’s depressing to think about all the places where all those trees used to be. But I can’t deny being excited by all the other activity on the waterfront, and I’m looking forward to this four- or five- day voyage of discovery (on somebody else’s boat!).

We’re on the Tuky III because of its clean and orderly aspect, because it’s smaller than the vessels of the Henry fleet, and because one of its four cabins was available for us. Otherwise we’d be swinging with a hundred  hammocks on the covered second deck.In fact, we also have some budget hammocks, for a place to sit. As it is we still share the six toilets and three showers. The cabin is a small steel box with two bunks (clean mattress covers), a metal door that closes, and a ventilation grill, but it is all the way forward on the second deck and we’re hoping for a breeze as long as the boat moves. We’ve brought drinking water, fruit and juices, toilet paper, chocolate, oh, and some mosquito coils. Can’t wait to find out what else we should have known!

And, we just learned one important thing : Tuky III looks good now because it´s straight from the shipyard. We´re on the maiden cargo voyage! Also,  Google Earth for this  area is a revelation, as always.

I Ate a Guinea Pig!

In Peru, guinea pigs are a local delicacy, hence it seemed they should be  part of our Peru experience. So we made lab rats of ourselves by ordering ´cuy al horno´ (baked in a pizza style oven) in a cuyeria the other day.

They´re served with the head and articulated little feet attached, mouth agape, rodent teeth front and center top and bottom, and don´t forget those ears. Once we had verified their identity and admired the presentation, the man with the big knife whacked ours into more manageable pieces. Then we were left us in relative peace, aside from the cultural burden of eating a childhood pet.
Chewy, crispy, fatty skin: Doug liked that. Not too meaty, a bit of gnawing bones at times. Not quite red meat, rather, pinkish and mild tasting. The gut cavity had been stuffed with mint or something like it, which gave a nice flavor and left me thinking of lamb more than anything else.
Some interior ‘corazonita‘ had been stuffed with potato hash and ??? and was served separately, like turkey dressing, or mini-haggis. And that´s about it for the eating experience. Maybe more than you wanted to know.
But wait! There´s more! We found our cuyeria in a cluster of about eight along the highway near an archaelogical site we were visiting (Tipon). Why so many right here? we enquired, but the answer was unsatisfactory: ´a special zone´. So where are all the guinea pigs now, I asked, thinking maybe they were in a giant cage or barn like chickens, but no, they were just ‘in another house’ to keep the restaurant clean and free of flies.

Many families keep their own guinea pigs – we´ve often seen them loose on the kitchen floor in rural areas (sleeping cozily under the oven they´ll be cooked in). They make a compact and economical source of protein in the cities too.  Even at the very elegant Santa Catalina nunnery in Arequipa they had a back room for cuy. And there´s always some campesina along the street selling alfalfa or other grass to feed them. They also eat fruit and vegetable scraps.

 To kill a cuy for dinner, the preferred method is ‘estrangulo‘, with a wringing-the-neck graphic. Sounds like what grandma used to do with the chicken. The fur is pulled off with the help of warm water. The guts and later the scraps go to the pigs. Yes, that´s what she said. The rest is ‘basura‘, trash, hence the flies.
Also I´ve read that the currently available species, which is native to Peru, has been so thoroughly domesticated that it no longer survives in the wild; that the domesticators, the Incas, also used the animals in medical treatments and diagnosis (you could say we do the same today). And, there´s a movement afoot to bring them to the US as food. They´re tasty enough, but probably the fourth-graders who have one as a classroom mascot won’t want to eat them.

As I was digesting my cuy experience, I was wondering if I could or would or should eat a dog. Perhaps, somewhere in southeast Asia, I already have. It´s more likely, however, that I´ll move, if not fully toward vegetarianism, at least away from such ‘charismatic’ species. Wax moth grubs, anyone?

A little about gold mining

Looking at this landscape you’d wonder what could possibly sustain life here. Well, William and Marcos were two taxi/guides who showed us around the desert areas of southwestern Peru and they both had interesting stories to tell. William’s family was one of countless driven out of the Andean highlands in the vicinity of Ayacucho by Sendero Luminoso activity, and the counter-revolutionary crossfire,  a generation ago. The guerrillas have been mostly tamed, but many of the displaced campesinos have made new lives in the desert, and in the cities, where their cobbled-together dwellings rise up the hillsides.

William’s older brothers have gone back to their ancestral village ‘where the air is clean and the vegetables and water are natural’ but William is reasonably pleased with his present life and contagiously enthusiastic about Peru. This despite, to my mind, the rather grimy nature of his hometown, Ica. But what stories are behind the dusty gates and ramshackle doors!

One place William took us  to see was a ´gold factory’. We were wary of an awkward tourist stop,  wherein the driver presents the ´walking wallet´ (us!) to his friend for evisceration. Well, there was a bit of that, but also, a pretty interesting story about how the small people of this world make their best effort to survive.

Turns out that the mountains behind the desert, indeed the country, are loaded with minerals (fifty percent of the GDP of Peru is from mining). In the vicinity of Ica, there is gold, and silver, copper and other ores too, and there are men willing to dig for it with picks and shovels, carry out out on their backs, and deliver it to people like William´s friend.

We learned that gold is easy enough to separate out from the rest, if you have mercury, and a  ‘mixer’. That´s what’s happening here. The miners’ families stand on the board on top of this rock, and see-saw to and fro for hours at a time, chatting and texting as the ore is crushed and mixed with mercury to precipitate the gold. How exactly it happens I can´t quite explain, but at some point some of the liquid in the cesspit is drained, and eventually there is some gold, and some recovered mercury. (Yes they know how dangerous mercury is, and attempt to recuperate it, according to some government regulations posted on the wall.)
It is much harder to recover the other minerals, so the remaining ore is sold to ´the big company’.´Somewhere I read that ten or fifteen percent of the world´s gold production is mined in this or similar ‘artesanal’ fashion.*

Marcos had the rest of the story.  He and his brothers and cousins had actually been miners. They went way back into the mountains, with dynamite to make the big holes in the hard rock, and picks and shovels for more delicate work. Weeks later they might have enough product to carry away.

 I had a mental image of  prospectors in old Western movies, but there is much more to it, How many  donkeys might be needed to carry  supplies, like water of which there is absolutely none, food, tools. Was there a road or any truck access?  Some of the men brought their families; some of their wives worked there too. Their children certainly breathed the dust and didn´t get much schooling. But still, it was an income when there were few other resources. However Marcos had put in three years of study for his tour guide license and hoped he’d never go mining again.

 And here´s a picture of my new necklace, the first actual piece of gold jewelry I can ever recall having bought. It´s the monkey copied from the Nasca lines,designed centuries ago and crafted by in the back room of the ‘gold factory.’ Aren’t I a good tourist?!
* Actually this particular form of artesanal mining seems almost harmless compared to what I just read about  in the February 2012 Smithsonian magazine.