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Drifting Down the Amazon

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Landing in Iquitos, the Peruvian port at the upper end of the navigable Amazon, was like taking a trip backwards on a time machine. We had arranged for a car to pick us up for the rather long drive from the airport into town and, in view of the sauna-like heat and humidity, were pleased to see a smiling Peruvian of generous proportions holding up a cardboard sign with our name scrawled on it.

Picking up our two heavy bags as if they were filled with feathers, he led us to an ancient 30 passenger bus and signaled us on board. "You will be very comfortable, SeŅor" he said, a broad smile spreading under his huge mustache, "zees bus is aircondition." From the wooden bench that was our seat we saw that he was right. No window glass graced any side or back windows, and the windscreen was hinged at the top, a piece of wood holding it open to maximize the airflow while we were driving. The whole thing was straight out of Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana."

As we drove in to the town center, the driver, anxious to practice his English, gave us his version of the history of the town. Our reading had told us that in the years around the turn of the century, Iquitos boomed as the world clamored for the Amazon Basin's rubber. Fortunes were made overnight and bars, hotels and bordellos lined the streets. Shops were filled with English china and French clothes and fabrics. Immigrants flowed in from coastal Peru, and other South American countries, as well as North America and Europe. Travelers passed through Iquitos on their way to the jungle in search of rubber trees to tap. "Many," he explained,"zey never come back!"

When the Malay Peninsula became the world center for latex production, the Amazonian rubber boom died as quickly as it was born, and Iquitos reverted to its backwater role. In more recent years, the discovery of petroleum and natural gas has revitalized the area, with tourism slowly starting to make its presence felt again.

Once in the town itself, we spent half a day looking at the sights. On the Plaza de Armas, we saw an iron building that was a classic example of the rubber boom days. One of the newly-rich rubber barons had purchased the building, which had been designed by Eiffel (creator of the famous tower) for the Paris exhibition of 1898. It was then disassembled, to be re-constructed in its new South American home. Eiffel also designed the town's bandstand. Today Iquitos looks sad and abandoned, but those who saw the marvelous German movie "Fitzcarraldo" made on location on the Amazon will be able to imagine this town in its heyday.

The town tour took us through old turn-of-the-century buildings and the river frontages that ring Iquitos on three sides. Everything, we were told, comes in by air or ship as the nearest road from Lima ends at Pucalba, 900 km (563 miles) up river, the rest of the way must be covered by ship or barge. The population of Iquitos is just under half a million: 15% are European and the rest Incan, a small number of Amazonian Indians who have settled in the town and a smattering of now intermarried Chinese whose forebears came here to work during the rubber boom. Our overnight stay was at the spotlessly clean and surprisingly pleasant Acosta II Hotel on Ricardo Palma Street, reputed to be the best hostelry in town.

Lunching at the waterfront Maloka Restaurant overlooking the river brought home the enormous rise and fall of the Upper Amazon. It was the dry season and the water level was some 35 feet below the high water mark. Although the Amazon only drops an amazingly small number of feet from Iquitos to the Atlantic, the seasonal variation in water level is quite amazing and, we were to learn later, causes the flooding that brings life to the whole Basin area.

Then it was boarding time. The taxi we had called had the most incredibly bare tires -- stripped right down to the fabric showing through the most worn-away rubber I had ever seen. It was a minor miracle that we made it to the dock. There, awaiting us, was the Polaris, the ship that was to be both home and transportation for the two weeks to follow.

On boarding, we were immediately welcomed by the officers and crew. The Polaris is a most unusual ship. Originally built in the 1960's as a Scandinavian car and passenger ferry, she has a specially reinforced double hull ideally suited for trips to the Arctic and other adventure travel destinations. After being purchased by the Lindblads, the vessel was totally refitted and reconfigured for adventure travel.

The Polaris has Scandinavian officers and a Filipino crew. She has 40 comfortable cabins which accommodate a maximum of 80 guests. She also carries half a dozen regional specialists and researchers as guest lecturers. The service, cuisine and lecture standard on this trip was nothing short of outstanding. The air-conditioning system made a brave effort at keeping passengers cool in the 40ƒC/104ƒF midday heat of the Amazon.

This is an amazing river. With its headwaters fed by the melting snow of the Peruvian Andes, it flows through an area of high temperature and high humidity where rain is a daily occurrence. The hot, moist air, blocked by the Andes, rises and drops its moisture in the form of constant rains. With all this water flowing in through tributaries, the river widens quickly, becoming navigable around Pucalba and then flowing another 5,000 km/3125 miles or so to the Atlantic.

The floods during rainy season do not kill the trees, for in the millions of years that this cycle has been occurring, they have adapted to the annual flood cycle. And the Amazon Basin, which is home to two thousand varieties of fish and four thousand varieties of butterflies, fine-tunes its amazing ecology to this yearly event.

Our first day on the river set the pattern for the whole journey. We had left Iquitos just after midnight and, with two highly experienced Peruvian pilots on board, had made our way down the Amazon. At dinner the previous evening, our cruise director had explained that the most active time for birds and animals in the jungle is between sunrise and 10 a.m.. Then, because of the heat, the wild-life goes to sleep or to rest, again becoming active as the day gets cooler, around 5 p.m.

Consequently, we were expecting our 5:30 a.m. wake up call. Bleary-eyed, we followed the instructions to slip into our casual "expedition" clothes, head for the lounge for a cup of wake-up tea, coffee or hot chocolate (with freshly baked Danish pastry for those feeling hunger pangs) and line up for the trip into the jungle.

Lifevests on our backs, cameras in waterproof backpacks and hats on our heads, we lined up in the corridor. The ship was dropping anchor in mid-Amazon and the first glimmer of morning light was drawing a faint pale orange pencil line across the still black horizon. On the floodlit deck above us, there was feverish activity as eight inflatable Zodiac boats were hoisted, one at a time, down the side of the ship, each with a botanist or Amazonian wildlife expert at the controls of the outboard motor.

As each Zodiac touched the water, its motor roared into life. The "captain" unhooked the umbilical cord (the cables on which the boat had been lowered) and steered the inflatable to the lowered platform from which we were about to board. As each boat headed for the open water, the next one nosed in to load its new compliment. Only minutes later a string of eight Zodiacs was heading into a tributary of the Amazon that might not have seen a foreigner for decades. Our trip of exploration had begun.

Traveling up these tributaries as daylight slowly dawns is an amazing experience that was to delight us day after day. Parrots flew overhead in pairs, their distinctive squawks piercing the jungle air. At this time of the morning birds were plentiful and before the day was out we would see an incredible eighty-eight species.

Among the species were tinamous, herons, vultures, swifts, kingfishers, ibis, ospreys, kites, hawks, sandpipers, terns, pigeons, anis, woodpeckers, cotingas, flycatchers and many, many more. To me, the two most exciting birds seen on this day or any other were the marvelous red, blue and green macaws (magnificent large parrots that mate for life) and the toucans (their beaks almost as long as their bodies), a species that had totally eluded me on a previous trip down the Amazon from Manaus to the coast.

Once off the main river we had been allowed to remove our lifevests, a real blessing because it permitted us to feel much cooler. We would not have to put these on again until we were returning to the main section of the Amazon where the Polaris was anchored.

As we went exploring up the tributary and then into even narrower waterways, a wall of tropical vegetation lined each side of the river. By now we all seemed to have binoculars glued to our eyes, and were scanning each tree for unusual flowers or wildlife.

That day our boat was under the control of Carl Ferraris (each day we would be with another naturalist lecturer) whose specialty is the geological history of the Amazonian rainforest fishes and the significance of annual rainy season floods to the health of the forest. Carl knew a great deal about the plants and animals of this region, and as we slowly made our way upstream, everyone was fascinated by the tales he told about the region's ecology.

Until then we had seen no other humans. But now, rounding a corner, we sighted a primitive dug-out canoe heading towards us. It was made from one solid log, and contained a family of Amazonian Indians who were clearly even more surprised at seeing us on the water. "No other ships come into this area" Carl explained, "and these people will only see a foreigner, perhaps once every year or two, when they went to Iquitos or to Leticia in Colombia." Later in the morning we passed a village and saw more dug out canoes, including very small ones manned by children around five years old. Their great delight was to try to surf in our wake. "Think about it," said Carl, "the river is always dead calm in these sheltered backwaters, and to ride the wake of an outboard is a real thrill for these kids." By about 8:30 a.m. the sky had become overcast and the temperature had started to soar, so we turned around and headed back towards the ship.

As we chugged to the Polaris, we compared notes with our fellow passengers. Most were middle aged professionals and senior executives, with some retired from such careers. Ages varied from the forties to the seventies and many had been on Special Expedition trips before, some even taking this type of trip annually. Clearly this was Adventure Travel with a difference -- a way of seeing the world's most fascinating areas in safety and with an amazing degree of comfort. And just as important, this was a true learning experience under the guidance of people who had made lifetime studies of the areas.

In the last decade or two a new breed of well educated, well-to-do and discerning Americans led the world in their search for trips that would be more than just fun and sun. Trips that would be interesting, educational and enriching, and would take their participants to fabulous off-the-beaten-track destinations. Scandinavian-born Sven-Olaf Lindblad was a pioneer in this field and Special Expeditions, now run by his son, is carrying on the tradition. This company's exploration vessel, the Polaris, is one of only two ships that annually make this fabulous journey.

By the time we reached the side of the Polaris the temperature had risen to around 100ƒF, and we were all happy to get back on board, shed our early-morning outfits and get under a marvelous shower.

Refreshed and glad of the ship's air-conditioning, we were now ravenously hungry, so the call to breakfast in the dining room was more than welcome. And breakfast, like all meals on the Polaris, was indeed something to which we looked forward.

If, like us, you've been on megaliners where you feel like a computer number, regimented into one seat at one time and often with people you can't stand, you will appreciate the luxury of an open-sitting dining room where you can sit where you like and with whom you like.

Not only that, but instead of meals being a stampede, disconcertingly reminiscent of pigs feeding at the trough, dining on the Polaris was a relaxing, comfortable and pleasant experience. The high standard of the food was nothing short of amazing. Wonderful fruit, superb muesli, fresh yogurts and everything from fish to eggs, to hash browns, to freshly baked breads -- it was all there. If you wanted anything special cooked to order, or were on a specific diet, one word to the waiter was all it took to have a special breakfast prepared for you.

It was hard to come to terms with all this luxury and pampering in the middle of one of the most isolated spots on earth. Granted, they had a top-notch chef, a brilliant Austrian pastrycook and baker and an outstanding wine cellar on this relatively small ship, but how could they offer such marvelous and obviously fresh produce? Later I found the reason for this: fresh vegetables, fish and tropical fruit were taken on at the different river ports. Most of the other foodstuffs such as wines, frozen meats, cereals, etc. had been flown to Iquitos on the same charter flight that had brought most of the cruise participants from U.S.A.

During the next fortnight's cruise we had some fantastic theme dinners that varied from a Scandinavian banquet (Aquavit, reindeer steak and six options of some of the best varieties of herring I've eaten) to a Filipino banquet that was quite outstanding. Italian nights, German nights and other great meals never ceased to surprise us.

In the hours when the outside temperature was uncomfortably hot we would have lectures and slide shows by our naturalist experts. During these talks we were taught about the fish in the Amazon, the sex life of Amazonian plants (a hilarious presentation of a quite serious subject) and details about the weather pattern of the Amazon region. We learned about the bird life, the animals and the fish species that lived in the Amazon Basin, and had a fascinating lecture on river dolphins.

Did you know that three of the world's great rivers (the Amazon, the Yangtze and the Ganges) had substantial numbers of dolphins living in them? Sadly, the ones in the Ganges and Yangtze are now either extinct or on the brink of disappearing. In the Amazon they still seem to be thriving. The species there, Inia Geoffresis, are pink instead of gray, and have developed with a spinal cord different from their ocean-going cousins. Consequently, they cannot leap out of the water.

Lunch on board was a gourmet affair followed by further optional lectures and then a rest until around 5:00 p.m. when the day again started to cool. Then it was time to get back into our exploration gear, board the Zodiacs and head into the jungle once more, returning to the ship at around 8:30 p.m. for a clean up.

Some nights we had early dinner and went on spotlight expeditions. It is quite amazing to what extent it is possible to locate animals through the reflection of their eyes. Snakes, frogs and the South American crocodile known as a cayman, birds and monkeys -- all were given away by the reflections. This meant our naturalists could pick up caymans and snakes for a closer look. The frogs eluded us by plopping back into the water at the last moment. The cayman, two pythons and a smaller snake that we found were subsequently returned to the same spot where our light had located them. They slithered back into the undergrowth, no worse for the experience.

Other days we would go fishing, our group leader throwing out casting nets and catching everything from armored catfish to piranhas. Several keen fishermen felt frustrated that the Polaris carried no fishing equipment for them. If you plan to fish the Amazon, it is essential to bring your own nylon lines, with the last six feet or so before the hook being stainless steel wire (piranhas will bite straight through anything else). If you do catch your own, these fish make an outstanding dinner (the chef will be happy to cook them for you) and taste very much like red snapper.

On one occasion we went to visit an Indian village that is only visited by non-Indians once a year -- and that is by the people on our ship. The Indian village has one Portuguese-speaking person (the school teacher) and it was through our Brazilian tour leader that we communicated. It was an amazing experience to invite the village chief, his relatives and the teacher on board our anchored Polaris. Through our interpreter we were invited to ask all sorts of questions about their lifestyle and they answered these honestly and to the best of their ability.

Then it was their turn to ask questions. "How is it" asked the chief "that you older ones don't have any children, and that you live on this ship and come back year after year? Don't you have any families to go home to?" The chief had really believed that it was always the same people on board (all Europeans look alike) and that our total compliment of passengers and crew were doomed to sail rivers and seas forever!

We stopped in tiny hamlets, admiring the Capybara. These animals are the size of an alsatian, but look somewhat like a huge guinea-pig and yet very docile and friendly. Later we were told that the Capybara, the world's largest rodent, is a wild native of the Amazon region, and is so widely hunted for food that it is almost an endangered species. On about the third day out we saw our first sloth, an animal that has an amazing lifecycle and is host to its own variety of moths and moss in its fur.

Another landfall was at Leticia in the corner of Columbia that reaches down to the Amazon. This was reputed to have been a hotbed of drug smuggling until recently, and I had the impression that this activity was still alive and well, but simply underground. In Leticia we bought some photographs of an anaconda snake that was about forty feet in length and had been caught and killed not long after swallowing a boy. Judging by the bulge, it was more likely to have been a goat or calf.

There were other landfalls. Manaus, famous for its rubber barons and its boomtime opera house, has a fish market that sells hundreds of varieties of Amazonian fish and was located in a building that was prefabricated in France and was an exact copy of the old market of Les Halles in Paris.

Our day in Manaus was a highlight. The Polaris docked at 7:00 a.m. and after an early breakfast buses took us to the fish market. Here we could see the true variety of the Amazon's edible fishes. One, the huge paiche, is a primitive looking fruit-eater that has scales so large and rough that Amazonian Indians use them as files and tongues that have a bony surface and are used as a rasp. Paiche (also known as Arapaima gigas) our naturalist guide explained, were an air-breathing fish and the average specimen at the market weighed 50-60 pounds. Sadly, this variety is now being over-fished as the population of the Amazonian basin is growing.

Manaus and its surroundings now have a population of two million people and is a thriving river harbor as well as the major destination on the highway from the south. We were impressed by the vast number of river vessels of all shapes and sizes that ply their way from here to every township up and down this great river. Manaus is also the furthest point along the Amazon's deep-water channel which allows huge ocean liners to come the 2,000 km/1,250 miles upstream from the Atlantic. The pity is, however, that while these big ships can safely make their way to Manaus, they do not, like our specially built exploration vessel, have the ability to disembark passengers on the way. Consequently, people on these big liners really have no opportunity to get a "hands-on feel" of the Amazon Basin itself.

From the riverside Manaus market we headed for Funai, a Government-run store that markets genuine artifacts made by Amazonian Indians living along the river. Then it was time to visit the newly restored Manaus opera house. When we had been here some years ago, the monumental job of restoring this national treasure was just beginning. Now it is finished, and the opera house is truly back to its former glory. While we were there, a baritone was practicing for his concert that evening. Manaus can no longer afford full operas, but everything from orchestral evenings to jazz concerts are regularly staged here.

Then it was time to go to the Museum of the Amazon. Funded by Japanese interests, this is a visit not to be missed. The Museum features a fabulous collection of butterflies from the Amazonian region, but its great strength is its exhibit of Amazonian fishes. Our guide Carl told us that the Amazon deposits two million tons of silt in the ocean every day. In many places 60 to 100 species of different fish could be found within 8,000 square meters/2 square acres of this great river, although there might only be one fish of a particular variety in that count.

As we went through the Museum he also told us that the sixty pound Paiche we had seen at the market were small compared to some of the really big ones which had been recorded, two and half meters/eight feet long and weighing nearly 182 k/400 pounds. Sailing at 4:00 p.m., we soon reached the place known as the "meeting of the waters" where the silt laden brown water of the upper Amazon mixes with the relatively clear, tea colored waters of the Rio Negro. We also disembarked at Santarem, a port of 250,000 people mainly occupied in the timber, goldmining and fishing industries. From here we drove to the nearby national park where we were one of the first groups to be allowed to hike through the tropical rainforest.

As we approached the Delta at the mouth of the Amazon, it was clear that the population density was increasing. Yet, the vegetation was remarkably resilient. Though some of the important furniture timbers were taking a long time to grow back, the Government was making a concerted effort to re-plant some of these varieties in the jungle. Where palm trees were being cut down to harvest shoots for canning as "hearts of palm" the Government was handing out free seedlings to encourage people to re-plant.

Our cruise ended at Belem, the town at the Atlantic end of the Amazon. Here we stayed at the best hotel in town, the Belem Hilton, where we talked to the Hotel Manager, Sebastiao Nunes about the ecology of the Amazon.

"I know that there are problems, but I don't think people realize how resilient the Amazon basin is. I was Manager of the Hilton in Sao Paulo, and there it was very easy to handle the hotel maintenance. Here the situation is very different. We paint the hotel and it looks like new. A week later a bird flying overhead leaves a dropping containing a seed on our hotel. Within weeks we have all kinds of vegetation growing on the roof that has been planted this way. And take the trans-Amazon highway. When it was first opened everyone was horrified because they thought it would ruin the forest. But I can take you to sections where the four lane highway has been squeezed by the surrounding jungle to such an extent that in some places the highway is down to one lane. As fast as one clears this area, the jungle grows back, though not necessarily with the exact species that were there before."

What we had seen seemed to bear him out. Land that had been cleared, and then abandoned 10 years ago was well in the process of being re-forested with thick vegetation. Admittedly, the fast-growing plants are not the magnificent trees that were harvested to make furniture, but regeneration definitely does take place. This is the one great hope for the future.

The ecology of the Amazon is indeed a wondrous thing, and with the world becoming more ecologically aware of what is needed to stem the damage, there is still time to address the problems. Hopefully the regulations and safeguards that are being put in place will be strengthened and enforced to the point where the wildlife and environment of the Amazon basin will continue to play its part in maintaining the world's ecological balance.

In the meantime, a cruise down this mighty river will be a highlight for those who have a true love of nature and can afford the outlay. A trip down the Amazon on the Polaris will give them an understanding of the region that few people in this world are privileged to share.

Companies Offering Amazon River Tours

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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