Monday, September 24, 2007

Peru: Iquitos to Nauta

Monday, September 24, 2007
Our early morning flight from Lima took us to Iquitos, a city in the mostly roadless rainforest surrounding the Amazon River in northeastern Peru. Iquitos, which can only be reached by plane or boat, became a bona fide city during the rubber boom of the early 20th century. The movie Fitzcarraldo (about a rubber-boom baron) was filmed here.

We did not linger long in this boomtown. Stepping out into the tropical heat already in the 90s at 7 am, we gathered our luggage and staggered over to a small bus. Black caracaras and an assortment of vultures cut across the horizon and fork-tailed palm swifts sliced the air above us. Welcome to the tropics, amigo.

THE road from Iquitos to Nauta.

There is one road that leaves Iquitos, going south about 62 miles to Nauta, also on the Amazon river system. We took this road about 45 km to a relatively new nature preserve that protects a very special habitat. The Pacaya-Samira National Reserve encompasses more than 8,000 square miles of Amazonian rainforest habitat, including the white sand forest habitat where we went for a morning hike, looking for special endemic Peruvian birds.
Breakfast in the white sand forest of Pacaya-Samira Presrve.

We hiked into the jungle on a single track path, visions of fer-de-lances and bushmasters dancing through our sleep-deprived heads. The morning haze lifted just in time for the heat to settle down on us. The air, thick as pancake batter, was moved only by the singing of hidden birds and droning insects. We stopped halfway into the jungle for a breakfast hauled in for us in coolers. They even had cold camu-camu juice a local fruit juice very high in vitamin C. Then it was back on the trail...

Our guides were two of Peru's most avid and knowledgeable birder/ornithologists: Noam Shamy, an expatriate Israeli who co-authored along with Jim Clements, the current Birds of Peru field guide, and Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, a Spaniard who had come to Peru as a missionary, but left the church to pursue birds and conservation. Pepe has, in recent years, discovered five new bird species in Peru! All of them endemic species in very specialized habitats.

Between the two we would see or hear more than 300 species of birds in the coming week. Here in the white sand forest it was mostly hearing birds rather than seeing them. We did manage good looks at one of the habitat's special endemics, the ancient antwren. And we saw a few other glimpses of becards, flycatchers, manakins, woodcreepers, and fruitcrows. But it was a bit late in the day for the best bird activity, and we still had a river boat to catch.

Ancient antwren a white sand forest endemic.

After a two-hour hike, it was decided that the heat was sending the birds to their siestas, so we trudged back out to the road. There at the bus we were greeted with cold waters and--salvation in cotton--rolled-up frozen washcloths. What a clever way to get your core temperature back down below 200 degrees F!

Cooling off with frozen washcloths.

While we were cooling off, one of our party spotted a zone-tailed hawk swooping amid a kettle of vultures--both black vultures and lesser yellow-headed vultures.

The zone-tailed hawk mimics a vulture in shape, coloration, and flight style. After all, what living creature has anything to fear from a carrion-eating vulture? Surprise! I'm a HAWK! Not a vulture. This bird had already snatched a lizard and was eating it on the wing.

Our best look at a bird so far--not a lifer for me, but definitely a tropical birding scenario.

Three views of a zone-tailed hawk eating on the wing.

Yum! Crunchy green lizard.

Among our group I was happy to see my old friend Chris Harbard, formerly of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in England, now a freelance journalist and columnist for BirdWatch Magazine in the UK. Chris had a good friend and super birder along, Steve Rooke of Sunbird Tours in the UK. Between the two of them they spotted nearly all the good birds we were to see on the trip. I felt lucky to have them along. And they bought me a beer or two, too.

Chris Harbard (left) and Steve Rooke--top-flight British birders.

Weighing chickens at a roadside market outside Nauta.

Soon we were back in the bus, driving to the end of the highway and Nauta, where we'd board an Amazon river boat. Along the way we saw small villages, roadside shops, and families sitting in the shade, watching the day go by.

Emerging from the bus into the scorching sun at Nauta, we saw the Marañon River, one of the tributaries of the upper Amazon. It was brown--the color of coffee and the buzz of outboard motors alerted us to the main mode of transport here--small boats. Chestnut-bellied seedeaters played in the grass on the riverbank. LIFER! Yellow-headed caracara! LIFER!

"Time to get on the skiffs, amigos!"
"But wait--there are birds here!"
"You'll see more birds soon, don't worry!"

We boarded two skiffs, our luggage boarded another, and we were shuttled to our main craft, El Delfin, a recently refitted, three-tiered river boat catering to tourists coming to see the Amazon in Peru.

Nauta, as we left on the skiffs to board El Delfin.

As we left Nauta, we left behind the signs of permanent settlement for the next several days. We cruised up the Marañon to the Rio Ucayali, past the mouth of the Amazon, and into the wild .
El Delfin, our floating home for four days of cruising the Upper Amazon tributaries.

We were welcomed aboard with yet another pisco sour, given our keys and assigned our roommates. We dumped our gear in our cabins and headed back to the uppermost deck, an open-air floor with a thatched roof. A library area up in the bow, just behind the captain's pilot house, a bar at the stern, and in between comfortable chairs beckoning us to sit and watch the olive-green jungle drifting past us.

The riverboat reminded us all of the African Queen, and the setting was not that much different from the movie--except that Bogie and Kate Hepburn were not aboard. Periodically I felt the urge to shout out "Ohhh Cholllly!" just like Ms. Hepburn.

Already the sun was dropping lower and I was reminded that days in the tropics have sunlight only from 6 to 6. When it starts to get dark, it gets dark fast.

With the cooling river breeze, the air full of smells of the water, mud, wood smoke, and tropical musky-ness, I began to relax. A cold beer helped me cool down further. I scanned the tree tops with my binocs--the birds were becoming active again.
Top deck of El Delfin.

After years of dreaming and wondering, I was finally in the Amazon.

I thought to myself, "I could get used to this!"


On September 24, 2007 at 10:17 PM stay at home mom said...

This is like food and drink for me, B. I'm finding out about your trip just like everyone else. Sad but true. But what a wonderful way to experience it. Keep on bloggin'.

On September 24, 2007 at 10:22 PM KatDoc said...

The Zone-tailed Hawk dining on the wing is truly awesome, but the heat, the humidity, the snakes, the bugs (which you haven't mentioned, but which I'll bet are there in spades) would be too much for delicate little me. I'd bird by boat, though - sit back, drink refreshing tropical drinks with a cool cloth on the back of my neck and shade overhead - Ahhhh. Sweet!

~Kathi, happy for vicarious birding trips

On September 24, 2007 at 11:47 PM Susan Gets Native said...

Yum. Lizard. Good with ketchup.

I am so envious of your trips. Darn it.

On September 24, 2007 at 11:54 PM Anonymous said...

I am sweating just reading about it.

On September 25, 2007 at 2:26 AM Trixie said...

Did you see "A Burden of Dreams" to go along with "Fitzcaraldo"? If not, it would be a hoot now that you have traveled some of the river. Werner Herzog has this great confession that goes something like "I love zee jungle. Zee stangulation, zee fornication. I love zee jungle."

Now, on the boat, all you needed was a mandolin.

On September 25, 2007 at 6:44 AM Jayne said...

Ahhhh... frozen washcloths. Blisssss. What an adventure thus far! It's like a novel or something... ready for the next chapter.

On September 25, 2007 at 8:27 AM Anonymous said...

Does the El Delfin have any freeboard? That picture looks like one more person at the stern will put it under.

On September 25, 2007 at 8:51 AM Bill of the Birds said...

Re: El Delfin and freeboard, that shot shows it with the bow up on the muddy bank a bit.

The was some Free Bird aboard, after we'd had a few cervezas and started a singalong.

"If I leeeeve here tomorrowwwww...."

On September 25, 2007 at 8:59 AM Mary said...

Jayne and I should freeze some washcloths for ourselves. Excellent idea!

I'm in the Amazon if only for a few minutes this morning. Your words & photos are terrific. (Poor lizard...)

I'll be back for the next chapter!

On September 25, 2007 at 9:24 AM Anonymous said...

This is not on-topic, but congratulations on your blog's plug in yesterday's Wall Street Journal!

On September 25, 2007 at 12:37 PM Patrick Belardo said...

So %&#%^&#%^ jealous!!!!! I can't wait for more BOTB.

On September 25, 2007 at 1:07 PM Heron said...

Imagine the movie remake, call it the "Amazon Queen" with BOTB as Charlie Alnut and JZ as Rose ! Seems that Julie does resemble the young Hepburn. It would be fabulous !

On September 25, 2007 at 5:43 PM Anonymous said...

I am suspended, breathless, waiting for the next chapter in a fascinating read.

On September 25, 2007 at 7:40 PM anne said...

Sounds like it could be one of my dream vacations. What a great trip. Can't wait to read more!

On July 19, 2009 at 1:51 AM Anonymous said...

Dear Bill:

Thank you very much for including us in your blog as a part of your experience in the Amazon.

I am developing a blog about all the beautiful things that you can see in the Peruvian Amazon.

I have added you as a friend. You can add us as well in order to keep in touch and enhance our friendship.

We are glad to know you enjoyed your trip with us


Maykkel Helmut
Delfin Amazon Cruises

On October 18, 2009 at 12:25 AM Eduardo Dantas said...

Congratulations for your blog!

On September 2, 2011 at 6:11 PM Bill B. 2011 said...

I'll be there soon!

On January 17, 2016 at 6:00 AM bghuyndhrj said...

When you travel to Peru you will likely arrive in Lima the capital city. From Lima you have a variety of options to which other places you would be interested in traveling to Peru. Cusco for example is one of the most frequented destinations when tourists travel o Peru, It is the access point to many Andes treks and tours, it is also where you must go when planning to visit the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.tour a iquitos desde lima

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