The greatest animal

There are only two lodges in the Mamiraua Reserve. One, named after the red-faced Uakari monkey that’s endemic here, has the reputation of being one of the best ecolodges in the Amazon. I lusted to stay in it, but beside being very expensive, guests have to stay for either three or four days, with the stay starting only on certain days of the week. In the end, I couldn’t make the times work with our schedule.

I knew that the only other lodge, the Pousada Casa do Caboclo, would be a more trying experience. It was started three years ago by a local Amazonian couple, and though less expensive, it’s much more rustic. I was prepared for that, but somehow I still felt dismayed upon arrival. The main two-level structure is built on stilts out of planks and 2-by-4s cut from some rock-hard jungle tree, but all so crudely put together that Steve exclaimed, “It looks like something I would build!”

Our room was cramped, containing only 2 cots, a table, and a few (too few) nails driven in the wall to serve as hooks. With the other guests, we shared three mosquito-infested bathrooms down the hall. I wondered what other creatures might join us in the night; plenty of openings in our room’s floor and walls looked tailor-made for admitting creepy-crawlies. Only one of the two beds had a mosquito net above it. Steve graciously ceded that one to me.Whenever anyone walked down the hall outside our door, the whole building trembled. That made me uneasy. And it wasn’t the only thing that made me think the folks running this place were unacquainted with the Rules of Safety with which all Americans, even Baby Boomers like me, grew up. On the top floor, next to to the communal dining room, one section of the corridor had no railing or barrier of any sort between the edge and the 20-foot drop to the ground below. What may have protected any fool who drank too much at dinner was that drinking too much at dinner was not possible; the lodge neither served nor sold alcohol of any sort. (Steve and I wondered if the evangelical Christian church next door had anything to do with this.)

We were irritable that first night; whispered to ourselves about where in our travels we had ever stayed in any place so primitive. (We could think of two or three, but not many.) It wasn’t until the second afternoon that our attitudes began to change.

When we arrived, we met Alan, the sunny, 30-year-old English-speaking (sort of) Amazonas native who lives with his family next door to the lodge. At 3:30 that first afternoon, he took us out in a motorized dugout canoe that was leaking so badly he had to bail water from it periodically. He drove Steve and me through channels in the forest to a big lake, and over the course of two hours, we spotted monkeys (spider, capuchin, and howler), a sloth sleeping near the top of one of the gigantic trees, and countless birds. We saw no alligators, but when Alan emitted a low-pitched exclamatory call, answering calls echoed all around us — baby caimans, the guide explained, making the noise that they make when their moms call. It was adorable.

The next morning Alan took us out in a bigger skiff to look for the freshwater dolphins for which the Amazon is famous. We saw lots of the little gray species but only glimpses of the larger, flamboyantly pink ones. (We think we’ll see more as we continue down the river.)

By noon another pair of English-speaking tourists had arrived at the lodge: Frank and Jessica, a middle-aged Dutch couple now living in New Zealand. Thursday afternoon, Alan and another guide took the four of us on an adventure that you could only have in this astonishing ecosystem, at this time of year, in the company of a pair of young guys who grew up here and were completely unschooled in euro-norteamericano Rules of Safety.

What’s astonishing about the varzea ecosystem is that every May and June, after the months with the heaviest rains, the river system swells enough to flood the rainforest — in places the water can be 40 feet deep. All the plants and animals have adapted to this annual phenomenon. Creatures that normally live move on the land, like jaguars and tarantulas, move into the trees temporarily. Humans build their houses on stilts, and tourists who can hike along the forest trails in September instead must travel everywhere in boats.

In the flood season, grasses and giant water lilies and beautiful little velvet-leaved floating plants proliferate, making sections of the channels and lakes look like Midwestern fields. (You can’t see that everything is floating.) After passing areas like this, Alan and his assistant first pointed our craft into the ghostly flooded forest, where the light is shadowy and tangles of branches sometimes stretched just inches over our heads. It’s a weird, unearthly experience to know you’re seeing everything from a vantage point maybe 15 feet above the “ground.”

We emerged from the eerie gloom in one place to face a barrier of floating grasses so thick it reminded me of a cornfield. I thought we were trapped. But Alan gave a signal, and his assistant revved up the motor. The skiff leapt forward and rammed into the grass wall. All four of us gringoes were saucer-eyed.

We did this over and over during the next hour or so. Each time the grass would part and then completely encircle our boat, which struggled forward and usually broke through to another clear channel. Sometimes we got stuck, but the two guides always managed to free us (though not without some suspense.) Every time we smashed into the grasses, it triggered an explosion of insects and other little creatures, some of whom wound up in the boat. It felt a little like joyriding through the neighborhood with no regard to where the roads were; it gave a whole new meaning to the term “bushwhacking.”

Our outing the final morning was less rowdy, but it felt no less joyous. Alan and his helper motored the four of us through a brief section of flooded forest to another channel, one we hadn’t yet visited. Open to the sky, it was relatively narrow (i.e. bigger than most California rivers but downright intimate, compared to the Amazon’s major tributaries). Alan shut off the motor and picked up a paddle. Liberated from the buzzsaw of noise, we could hear the wondrous variety of bird calls, the soft splash of the oar, the ghostly moaning chorus of distant howler monkeys.

The sun was out but filtered and tempered by passing clouds. Riots of morning glories (or their close relatives) tumbled down trees and other footholds along the shore.

At one point, we paused to watch Alan pull out a thin wooden stick to which a hook and line had been attached. With a few quick casts he hooked a beautiful little river fish that he identified as a pacu. In less than a minute, he caught another.

We glided along; saw more animals, including my first wild toucan. I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t see more. It seemed that the greatest, wildest creature was ever-present: the jungle itself. It is beautiful and incomprehensible, and the part of it that we were seeing hasn’t changed in any significant way since humans appeared on the planet. I felt depthless gratitude for everything that made it possible for me to be there, not least of which included our rickety little guesthouse.

Into the hammock and off the boat

We were wrong about hammocks! When we tried our friend’s last year, we spent only a minute or two in it, climbed out, and concluded we could never get any rest in one. But on our second afternoon on the Monteiro, we strung up the one we bought in Leticia, and I committed myself to a longer confinement. I had slept badly our first night in the “suite,” not because there was anything wrong with its bed. Rather, my imagination plagued me with blood-curdling thoughts of what would happen if the Monteiro were to capsize in this trackless wilderness. So by the afternoon of the next day, I was drowsy, and I found that I could wriggle into several different positions in the hammock — all of which were comfy!

I dozed but didn’t quite sleep, pleased by the glimpses of the river beyond the ship’s railings; amused by the lively salsa lessons being given by a skinny Colombian guy to the two curvaceous redheads who had the hammocks to my left. I felt more awake after a while and found I could hoist myself up almost upright, supporting my back with my little inflatable pillow. I read for a while, felt lazy and dozed some more, and began to imagine how I could spend a day or two this way. Steve insisted he didn’t want to try it, but I finally persuaded him, and when I returned a half-hour later, he sheepishly confessed that he had napped.

We spent more time with our fellow traveler, Jen, last night at dinner. Upon boarding, she set up her hammock in the thick of the crowd on the second-level deck. After 24 hours, she’d learned enough to discourse to us about hammock life. She’d concluded that her cheap one was inferior to those of the natives. Rough to the touch, it was much smaller than her neighbors’. With a big enough hammock, one could stretch out at an angle, she’d observed, achieving something close to horizontality. Families tied their hammocks next to each other, creating a pendant microvillage. But even with her inferior rig and unfamiliarity with hammock customs, Jen claimed to have slept well both nights.

It makes Steve and me think that if necessary, we could tolerate sleeping in hammocks on the second of our upcoming boat journeys, the one bound for Manaus. We had hoped to secure tickets for another cabin immediately after disembarking from the Monteiro. We had thought we knew what that disembarcation would entail. We had no clue.

Our plan had been to take the ship from Tabatinga to Alvaraes, the closest village to the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve. Lonely Planet describes this reserve as Brazil’s largest section of a unique forest ecosystem (the varzea) defined by seasonal flooding by sediment-rich “white water” rivers.It was said to offer visitors “pristine rainforest, abundant animal life, and fairly easy access.” It seemed worth seeing. Via email, we had reserved a room in a lodge in the reserve for two nights, and Choca, the owner, had promised to pick us up in Alvaraes in his speedboat.

In Tabatinga, we had bought passage to Alvaraes. “ALVARAES” was clearly written on our ticket. But what I knew — ONLY because I had read about it in a blog — was that the slow boats don’t stop at Alvaraes. I’d read about one unfortunate couple who didn’t realize this until well after their ship had steamed beyond the town. They hadn’t informed the captain they wanted to be dropped off, so their predicament was their fault, according to the crew, and couldn’t be reversed.

Wanting to avoid a similar fate, I had started telling various ship’s personnel on Wednesday that we would need to be let off the next day at Alvaraes. Each one seemed a little surprised to hear this, but each indicated we could do it. In the end I probably told a half-dozen folks, including the captain and pilot in the wheelhouse, where I barged in this morning. The times when everyone predicted we would arrive conflicted — but we’ve grown jaded about that. More surprising was the news that we would get to Alvaraes by taking a “lanche” from the Monteiro.

We assumed our informants were talking about the long, narrow, motorized wooden boat hanging off the back of the ship.Steve had pointed it out to me, joking that I needn’t worry about the Monteiro sinking because the captain would just lower it, get in, and putt-putt off to find someone to rescue us.

By noon on Thursday, it seemed clear we must be approaching Alvaraes. Jen’s map showed the town, and when Steve and I descended to the lowest deck, a strapping Brazilian guy soon joined us. “Are you going to Alvaraes too?” I asked him in Portuguese. He assented, which reassured me that the riverboat wasn’t about to pass the town without stopping.

But no one made any move to lower the launch from the back of the riverboat. Instead, two scruffy guys driving even scruffier looking crafts approached from the land. Aha! We realized THESE were the means by which we would get to shore.

That’s when things got ugly. The burly Brazilian elbowed his way to where the boat’s railing had been opened. He hefted a huge sack crammed with Brazil nuts down into the bobbing motorized canoe which was about 5 feet below our feet. With aggressive determination, he grabbed another huge bag, and another, while not one soul made a move to help me and my suitcase and backpack from the deck down into the increasingly overladen little vessel. As it sank lower and lower, my temper flared. Swearing and pushing my way forward, I dropped my suitcase into the boat then descended (backpack and purse strapped to my body). Steve followed, and by the time he took his thwart, the middle of the boat rode just inches above the cafe-au-lait-colored river. (No life preservers added to the load. There were none.) Steve shot the following photo, testimony to the fact that at least our adventure amused many of the Monteiro’s passengers.Here’s what the view from our craft looked like:

Jen shot video during the most comedic moments and sent me a clip. Although I don’t usually try to insert video, I will give this a shot (and fix it at home if it’s unviewable now.)

In this fashion, we zoomed toward the town and arrived about 5 minutes later, where Choca awaited. So it all turned out fine, except we were too rattled to press Choca to help us buy our onward tickets. We hope to accomplish this soon. In the meantime, we’re in one of the strangest places we’ve ever visited. We expect to see a lot more of it tomorrow.

Aboard the M. Monteiro II

Our ship had literal gangplanks. I captured this image of Steve as he was going aboard.

I just strolled around the ship and counted the hammocks. Passengers can string them up from sturdy hooks that stud the ceiling on two of the Monteiro’s three decks.

The middle deck is most popular, maybe because it’s more protected from the wind, maybe because it’s the deck that also contains the ship’s little dining room. Just now I noted about 75 hammocks hanging there, with another two dozen on the deck above. But the count changes as the ship docks at towns along the way. Since we departed about 20 hours ago, we’ve made four stops.

To our mutual surprise, there is one other American on board, an Asian-American named Jen. She spotted us early and introduced herself. Retired from a programming job in the Bay Area, she’s chatty and intrepid. She’s been traveling in South America for several weeks and wanted to save money, so booked hammock passage rather than a cabin. This morning she said she slept okay but woke when we docked at the tiny village of Sao Pablo de Olivenca around 1 am. It was pouring then, she told us, but a bunch of the passengers disembarked, while more, silent as mice, got on, strung up their hammocks, and climbed in them to sleep.

In contrast, Steve and I are enjoying what feels like outrageous luxury. Our little “suite” has a firm double bed, covered in a fresh floral-printed sheet.

We have an air conditioner and even a working refrigerator, lots of electrical outlets, and a private bathroom that includes a shower head.

What we love most is our own little private deck space where we can move our table and chairs and write or take in the passing riverscape.

None of these fixtures are luxurious by US or European standards, but the place feels fairly clean and bug-free, and it’s great to have all the light and privacy we want, whenever we want it. It’s also nice not to have to worry about guarding our stuff. On the other hand, Steve and I hate looking or acting like rich, pampered Americans, and we’re missing out on more interaction with the locals than we would have had, were we traveling with them. We made the choice we did because we doubted we could sleep in hammocks.

Still, we bought one (for $12) in Leticia. This afternoon we plan to string it up and take turns trying it out.

How we got up the river without a paddle

Two days into this adventure, Steve and I feel ecstatic. But it’s also already clear this would not be everyone’s cup of tea. What got us here, in the deep psychological sense, was that we share a love of rivers; to us the great rivers of the world are grandly romantic. We’ve never cruised any European waterways (we’re saving that for our dotage), but we’ve sailed down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. We took boats on the Mekong River from Vietnam to Phnom Penh, then on to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. On our trip to Peru in 2003, we flew to the southern (Peruvian) reaches of the Amazon watershed, and that wondrous experience made us want to see the mother river herself. This spring seemed like the right time to do it.

A bit of research confirmed that plenty of tourists want to spend some time on the Amazon. But I learned that the vast majority of them do this by flying into Manaus (the metropolis in the middle of the region), then taking cruise ships that range from plain to luxurious and sailing around for a few days, often staying at jungle lodges before returning to Manaus to fly onward. This sounded okay to us, but not so exciting (having had our jungle-lodge experience in Peru). What excited us was the idea of using this greatest waterway as a transport artery. Local folks have done that for millenia and do it still. Almost no roads have been built through the region. The very first bridge across one of the Amazon’s tributaries (the Rio Negro) opened less than 10 years ago. There aren’t more mainly because there are no roads to connect the bridges.

The latest Lonely Planet guidebook to Brazil devotes 2 of its 734 pages to riverboat travel, and I eventually also found a half-dozen descriptions written by bloggers who’ve journeyed this way. From these accounts, it seemed clear to me it must be possible to travel the full length of the Amazon River across Brazil on ferry boats. I learned that the big slow ferries have decks where most travelers string up their hammocks, but that the boats usually also are equipped with a few private cabins. To assess whether we could stand the hammock option, we borrowed one from a friend last fall, strung it up on our pool deck, and climbed aboard.

Although swinging in it looked languid and inviting, it tormented both our backs, so we rejected that option. Bloggers said it wasn’t necessary to book the ferry tickets more than a day or so in advance. But most of the writer/travelers were on the road for open-ended amounts of time. Steve and I may be retired, but we still have responsibilities at home that make us book return tickets. To be comfortable, I wanted to book our ferry cabins in advance.

We finally decided we wanted to break up the cross-country river journey into four parts, stopping along the way to participate in different activities. And I eventually found agents in two of the big cities we would pass through toward the latter half of our journey who were able to book the cabins on two of the four segments for us (Manaus to Santarem and Santarem to Belem). I was astounded, however, by the dearth of options for booking cabins on the first two segments. I emailed the owner of the lodge in the reserve where we will stay two days from now and asked if he would help me. He was friendly but replied that it was normally not possible to make such a booking in advance.

For Tabatinga (on the Colombian border) where we would start our journey, I found no travel agents online, no boat companies nor hotels that appeared to offer this service. So we arrived Sunday afternoon with little more than the hope we would be able to figure out how to get ourselves to Alvaroes (the gateway to the reserve) by Thursday morning.

This is how our gamble played out: We got to our B&B too late Sunday afternoon to begin the search (Leticia and Tabatinga are tiny, scruffy South American border towns, so riddled by narcotics trafficking that the US State Department says Americans shouldn’t go near them. Now that we’ve seen them, they don’t seem bad at all, but we also didn’t want to go wandering around the docks around sundown alone.) We were on the hunt bright and early yesterday (Monday) morning, however. I thought I knew where to go. I’d read a blog post written by a guy in 2016 who traveled from Leticia to Iquitos in Peru by boat, and he detailed the street where all the boat ticket vendors were located.

We walked out in search of a tuk-tuk (one of the motorcycle taxis ubiquitous in poor parts of the world). But we saw few and asked our receptionist to call one. Minutes later, a stout, middle-aged Colombian matron wearing a Beatles t-shirt pulled up in her growling little vehicle. Her name was Xiomara. I told her what we needed (she spoke no English, but my Spanish worked well enough and she seemed to have some grasp of Portuguese.) She said the street mentioned by the blogger was only for boats to Peru. Instead, she knew where we needed to go in Tabatinga. And so, yielding to Xiomara’s obvious competence, we put-putted south.

We had to ask her to point out when we were crossing the border; few obvious signs mark it. At the Brazilian boat docks, to our delight, we learned that a boat (the M. Monteira II) was departing the next day and was scheduled to reach Alvaroes on Thursday morning! A cabin was available for 1200 reales (about $338, which would include the two night’s lodging, boat fare, and all our meals and purified water.) Xiomara drove us to an ATM machine and then to money-changers who traded us Brazilian reales for Colombian pesos and dollars. She drove us back to the docks to buy our tickets (now that we had the necessary cash) then on to a Colombian immigration office (to get stamped out of Colombia)…

…and a Brazilian one (to have our visas inspected and secure our stamps for Brazil). We were done with it all by 10:30 am, then Xiomara drove us to an eco-park 7 kilometers out of town so we could take a hike through the jungle and learn a bit about the indigenous culture. Then she took us to a roadside restaurant for delicious grilled river fish.

She returned to our hotel to pick us up this morning and deposited us back at the boat dock by 9 am.

I think she probably should have known we didn’t need to be there that early (even though the boat folks said we did.) It took no more than 5 minutes to get our tickets stamped and passports inspected by the Brazilian police official. Then we had to wait until 10:30 before the line of passengers moved to board. Still, the wait was entertaining, and the payoff was rich. I’ll report more on that in my next post.

Hello Leticia, Adios Leticia

I’ve blogged from the foot of Mt. Everest. I’ve blogged from a walled Arab city near the border of Somalia, where wild hyenas roam the town at night. But Steve and I have never been in a city more isolated than Leticia (Colombia), and its sister town across the Brazilian border, Tabatinga. There is no road to this place from the outside world. We’re surrounded by vast impenetrable jungle. You can only get here by flying in (as we did Sunday afternoon) or by boat, as we expect to do in a few hours, for the first section of our journey down the Amazon River across Brazil to the Atlantic. 

The only way the Internet could be slower here is if it didn’t work at all. It’s as slow as the pace of the rubber oozing from the tree we saw on a walk through the jungle yesterday. It’s way too slow for me to hope to upload any blog posts with photos. 

Hence, my plan is to write as I normally would, almost daily describing our experience on the boat. But it may be almost a week before I can upload anything (in Manaus). I will try to upload this now. If it appears on my website, I succeeded! (I will also try to send photos via Twitter, which seems to work a bit better.)

To the Amazon!

My friends often laugh at me because I pack so early, often weeks in advance. For at least one or two trips, I’ve been known to have all my clothes stuffed into my little roller bag two months ahead of time. This makes me feel calmer, knowing that at least this task can be crossed off my To Do list. I also like being able to refine my choices as we draw closer to departure.


For our current trip, however, to Brazil, I only loaded my gear in the suitcase on Thursday. That’s because we will spend most of our time in and around the Amazon River, a notoriously buggy place. We wanted to spray all of our apparel with Permethrin (an insect repellant), close to the departure date. Above you see almost everything I’m taking, hanging in the closet to dry. (Steve nobly sprayed it all outdoors, as it’s not great to breathe.)

Now we’re in Dallas, waiting to board our flight to Bogota in Colombia, where we’ll sleep tonight. Tomorrow afternoon we’ll fly south to the jungle town of Leticia. There the real adventure will begin.