Arrived in Iquitos late at night, so grabbed a moto-taxi (essentially a weird 3 wheeled motobike taxi) and headed over to my hostel for the night. The moto-taxi was driven by a Peruvian guy named Johnny who decided to take a massive tiki tour around town before taking me to my hostel which was not greatly appreciated seeing as the delay meant we caught a tropical downpour getting some of my stuff wet along the way.
Johnny's delay was largely due to his insistence that we visit his friend along the way to find out about jungle tours. I wasn't keen but had little choice as he was driving. Luckily his mate wasn't in, although Johnny managed to stalk me for the remainder of my stay in Iquitos, approaching me several times and generally being annoying.
As I was to find out the next day, Johnny wasn't the only jungle tour hawker in town - I was literally mobbed by hawkers as I tried to have a look around town - including one guy who kept flashing me his military intelligence ID in an attempt to convince me to go with him. Speaking of the military, Iquitos's proximity to the Columbian, Ecudorian and Brazilian borders meant that a relatively heavy military presence was felt.
I had intended to go on a Jungle Tour, and eventually decided on the strangely named 'Loving Light' lodge 3.5 hours upriver from Iquitos. I was to find out later that the lodge was named by its American owner after a vision that he had whilst taking various hallucinogenic roots with the locals.
I thought it might be interesting to take a look around Iquitos - the largest city in the world not to be linked to any other by road. To deter the hawkers I hired a guy from the Loving Lodge to act as my guide for the day, and usefully, he also had a motor scooter. The tour started by cruising down to the port area, past various saw mills churning Amazon trees into boards and sawdust for export. We then went to a local zoo, which was to be as close as I would come to many of the animals I had come to see - e.g. Monkeys, various big cats, parrots etc.
After the zoo we headed over to the floating city of Belen. Belen is essentially a slum area set around a big market. The streets flood seasonally, meaning that houses are built on huge poles. Essentially when the streets flood, the houses float as their floors are made of huge slabs of balsa wood, and they rise on the poles. Well that's the theory anyway - I saw plenty that had started to sink in places! The residents then navigate the streets via canoe. It was interesting to note that shipments come in from the river (e.g. fish, timber etc) and are then broken down into smaller lots by a series of middle men before ending in small stalls in the market. The market itself had just about every conceivable concoction of animals, plants and spices from the jungle. Unfortunately, it looked (and smelled) like most had been sitting out in the sun for a few days, so trying any was definately off the agenda.
I had heard that Belen could be dangerous after dark for tourists, so about this time we decided to head back into Iquitos. Overall, the floating city of Belen was a poor suburb in a poor city in a poor country, so the level of poverty was one that I had not seen previously on this trip. That said, my guide pointed out that water, food and shelter were relatively plentiful from the jungle, meaning that the standard of living was above many areas of Peru - particularly those in arid desert regions in the North.
LOVING LIGHT LODGE - AMAZON JUNGLE
The next day I headed into the jungle for my tour. I had heard that the lodges closer to Iquitos were not as good, as animals tended to shy away from human presence. As it turns out, the Amazon and its tributories are pretty much highways used by hundreds of small villages along the shores of these waterways, meaning that human presence was obvious even at the Loving Light Lodge.
Overall, this meant that my preconception of the Amazon was completely incorrect. Although we saw monkeys, caiman, slothes, a boa constrictor, anaconda, a capavera and piranha, many of these were either in the top reaches of trees miles away, or had been captured by local villages to show to the tourists. What there were plenty of was insects. Added to the millions of mosquitos were tarantulas, other spiders and various other creepy crawlies.
Apparently we had managed to come at the end of the rainy season, when the rivers had started to fall causing ideal breeding conditions for these insects. As a consequence any trip outside the mesh confines of the Lodge were conducted under full waterproofs - and even then, everyone managed to get a range of irritating bites. Generally, any activity outside of the Lodge was very uncomfortable due to the combination of heat, insects and covering up.
This combination of factors also limited hiking activities (due to overheating) and all but eliminated the possibility of camping in the jungle. I had expected the ground to be wet, but much of the ground was actually covered by 2-3 metres of swamp land at this time of the year (which also contributed to mammals heading deeper into the jungle at this time of the year).
The guides tried really hard to make the best of the situation, and knew an amazing amount about the plants and animals of the jungle (some money to be made here for someone that can put their herbal remedies through efficacy trials...), but overall it was not a pleasant situation.
Luckily we had a good group at the Lodge. There were two british couples, and american, a canadian and myself. Apparently the Lodge can take a total of 30, meaning that the lodge was far from full. According to the guides the Lodge used to take more people with an additional three bungalows, but 3 burned down - disconcerting when kerosene lamps are used each night!
Nightly entertainment eventually revolved around cards and Peruvian checkers - which was pretty much the same as normal except kings can move pretty much anywhere on the diagonal. I tried to take on one of the kids who helped at the camp and managed to get smashed 5-6 games in a row before managing to beat one of the guides. Then I decided it was time to retire!
With 1 night to go, the other guests were scheduled to leave meaning that I would spend 1 night by myself (which I wasn't looking forward to!). As it happens the boat did not turn up and the office was not answering the radio - so for 2 days we were stranded in the Amazon, and it looked as though it may have been much longer at one point. Very suspicious as the Lodge had tried to convince Claire and James (one of the british couples) to stay an extra night so that they would not have to send out the boat. The conclusion was that the office had decided it was to expensive to send the boat out twice, so just said that it was broken and left the guides to panic and wonder what the hell was going on. Pretty damn slack and not the best way to finish my trip to Peru!
So ends my time in Peru - now off to Chile. Have heard that Peruvians are not to fond of Chileans for selling arms to Ecudor in the Peru-Ecudor war, so will be interesting to see the difference in cultures...