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Archive for Sunday, July 5, 1998

THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF THE AMAZON

July 5, 1998

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A journey to the Amazon River and the Andes provides a glimpse into some of the world's most unique vegetation and peoples.

The Amazon is the earth's largest river and the wildlife of the Amazon Basin is the most biologically diverse. This is difficult to understand until you have experienced the amazing Amazon for yourself. A group of Lawrence residents had the experience over the New Year of 1997. We enjoyed it so much that we are returning to celebrate the 1999 New Year on the Amazon River.

In the past, visiting the Iquitos, Peru Amazon area involved staying in primitive lodges along the Rio Napo branch of the Amazon. Lodge accommodations are open cabin rooms, mosquito netting over the beds, pit toilets and cold water showers. Although this allows a close encounter with nature, sometimes too close, it lacks creature comforts.

Our group chartered the newly built 91-foot riverboat, La Tourmalina, for our Amazon experience. The boat is a joint effort of International Expeditions and the former Minister of Tourism for Peru. It was floating luxury. Air-conditioned staterooms, room refrigerators, private baths with hot showers and a panoramic view of the river from the dining salon.

Journey begins

on the Peruvian Amazon. At 2,300 miles from the mouth of the Amazon, it is the most inland port city on earth. We board La Tourmalina immediately on arrival in Iquitos and cruise upriver toward the Amazon's remote beginnings the Ucayali and Maranon rivers. I glanced up at a sky filled with both the Northern and Southern constellations.

The next morning we met our guides, Reny and Alfredo. Residents of this part of the Amazon, our guides excelled in sharing their love and knowledge of the area. Here where there are innumerable plants and over a third of the world's bird species, much would be overlooked without the guide's talents. Our boat was often accompanied by grey and pink Amazon River dolphins. The dolphins are protected by legend and myth and are not hunted.

Throughout the trip we board comfortable launches to reach the remote tributaries and see elusive wildlife. A highlight of the trip was seeing the only nocturnal monkey in the Western Hemisphere, the owl monkey.

Reny and Alfredo helped us see more than 120 species of birds. These included hoatzins, cotingas and macaws. On night excursions, in the launches, we saw caiman up close and personal. Herschel Lewis fished from La Tourmalina at every opportunity and caught some unusual fish. The guides arranged a piranha fishing expedition to Mono Coche Lake. Mono Coche is a true blackwater lake. Actually, the water is clear but deeply stained a dark reddish brown by tannin that has leeched out of tree roots, bark and leaves. Catching piranha was a lot of fun and involved making noise to attract the fish. Red, white and black piranha were caught and Dave Brzoska caught the largest. The chef cooked them for dinner and they were delicious.

The Ucayali and Maranon River area is sparsely populated. Our visits to the small river family groups and villages of Riberenos were unforgettable experiences. We were privileged to watch a Shaman treat two patients, saw men gathering tropical fish for export and got an intimate look at the simplicity of their homes. Their meals and lifestyles are much simpler than ours. Riberenos live in open palm log homes that are about 8 to 11 feet off the ground to allow for the rise and fall of the Amazon. The only furniture is a table and perhaps some log chairs. Sleeping is done in hammocks and simple meals are cooked over an open fire in the kitchen area. One thing remains the same is the love families have for their children, who were shy and polite in our presence. We left school supplies when we visited.

Leaving the water

After seven days and a New Year's Eve party on La Tourmalina we were reluctant to leave the boat. Normally, tourists go directly from the boat to the Andes extension. I had arranged a special trip by Rapido boat down the Rio Napo to ACEER. The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research was established in 1991 with the help of International Expeditions. We spent one night at ACEER, which gave us an intimate jungle experience.

The Canopy Walkway, which resembles a suspension bridge at 150 feet high top areas. Although the swaying walkway can be intimidating, Dave Reavis led the way and saw howler monkeys. On a night hike, led by our guide Edgar, we saw poison arrow frogs and an amazing fluorescent fungus. Edgar wore a Jayhawk cap, he has been to KU twice to speak about the Amazon.

On the return trip by Rapido boat to Iquitos we stopped at a one-man rum factory. Don Carlos was happy to show us his entire operation. He aged the rum in an old dugout canoe and old whiskey bottles were utilized during the bottling process. He ladled the rum into the old bottle from an open barrel, corked the bottle with a hand corker and put his label over the old label.

Going to the Andes

Upon our return to Iquitos, we enjoyed a gala dinner and retired early for our next day flight to the Andes.

Our early morning flight took us from Iquitos and the winding Amazon across the snowcapped Andes Mountains and to the heart of the Inca Empire. Cusco, at 11,000 feet, is surrounded by Andean Peaks. Washington and Marco, our Andean guides, met the plane and took us to drink coco matte tea. This tea which is made from coco leaves prevents altitude sickness. This remedy worked as no one in our group suffered from altitude sickness.

Machu Picchu was our main destination but we enjoyed our trip through the beautiful Urubamba Valley. We had a side trip to Pisac and the remote Willoq Community. The Willoq have remained unchanged in social structure, dress and language from pre-Inca times. We took white bread to the Willoq village as a treat for them allowing us to photograph their community. This has been an agricultural area from Inca times and the Willoq still grow potatoes and corn on the same Inca terraces. They cannot grow wheat at the high altitude.

Ollanta to Putucusi train through spectacular scenery and ended with a mini-bus ride up 2,000 feet to the most memorable Inca site in the world. Machu Picchu, known as the ``lost city,'' was breathtaking. Washington pointed out the significance of the various structures and discussed the mystery of the site. Much about Machu Picchu's purpose remains unknown.

The setting, in the mist and mountains, makes for great photographs. The Pueblo Hotels proximity to the ruins allowed those who wished to linger at the ruins, after the tourists left for the day, or to return early the next day. This allowed Janet Riley and her nephew Michael Reitz to climb to the top of Machu Picchu. They were the only ones in our group to do so and we all cheered them on. Lucy Price returned early to the ruins and got some beautiful photographs with few tourists present.

Wildlife was also present. Marcos led some of our group to observe the rare Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. The sight of this bright orange bird was a once in a lifetime experience for Mary McCoy, who was on the railroad tracks when she saw the bird and a train was in sight also. Other birds seen in the Andes were Torrent Ducks and Andean Gulls.

On our return to Cusco, we stopped at Sacsahuamen at 12,000 feet. Here the Inca built high structures using massive stones, zigzagging across the side of a mountain. Washington discussed the theories of how these stones were moved into place. We were surprised at this structure with a complimentary group photograph.

When we returned to Cusco, we explored the cathedral, which rivals any in Europe. Shopping was easy to do. Street vendors vied for our tourist dollars at every step. Intricate carved gourds for $4-5 each and Alpaca sweaters for $11 to $20 each were difficult to ignore. Joel Reavis was the only person in our group to sample the disco nightlife. After dinner, which included a performance by a folkloric troupe, the rest of us retired early.

On our return flight to Miami we compared notes and souvenirs. We cannot wait to return to Peru and some of us will return on Dec. 26 of this year. We will again get to celebrate New Year's Eve on the Amazon and start the 1999 New Year at Machu Picchu.

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