Heading to Columbia
14.02.2011 - 18.02.2011 34 °C
Because of the potential for less than perfect weather we decided to postpone visiting Huaraz until our next South American junket and headed straight for the Columbian border via the Rio Amazonas. As we had already done a wetlands tour in Brazil we were not planning to explore the jungle further. However, by taking the indirect route we would avoid the cost of an international flight and at the same time get to see something a bit different. The first stop was Lima where we would be able to catch a flight to Iquitos.
Lima doesn't have a great reputation as a tourist destination and Jess and I arrived expecting it to be a little dirty and unpleasant. While that might hold true for parts of Lima, we stayed in an upmarket area known as Miraflores and found that to be very cosmopolitan and actually a pretty nice place to spend a couple of days doing some admin (posting our warm clothes home) and organising our flights to Iquitos.
Iquitos is deep in the Amazon and accessible only by air or riverboat which makes it somewhat unique for a city of 400,000 people. Other than the heat and humidity the first thing that you notice is that there are motorised rickshaws (moto-taxis) everywhere and the the air is filled with the melodious sounds of two-stroke engines. These things cost about $1 to go anywhere in the central city and made getting around something of a novelty. The second thing that you notice is that you have been surrounded by 4 – 5 purported jungle guides, all who are trying to sell you their services as a guide, their brothers services and any jewellery or tacky souvenirs that they happen to have to hand.
Jess and I had no expectations when we arrived and due to a combination of warm weather, decent food and a nice vibe, ended up really liking the place despite the hawkers. We spent two nights there and so we pretty much had one free day. In the morning we headed to the local markets in Belen, a shanty town down near the river where the streets become completely submerged in the rainy season (apparently the poor South America cousin of Venice) and you have to travel between houses by canoe. As the rainy season had yet to arrive the town itself was not yet underwater, however we did hire a local to take us up and down the nearby river in his canoe to get a better view of some of the houses, which are either high up on stilts or built on balsa wood platforms which float on the surface of the river.
The market was the highlight of the town, by far and away the best local market we have been to on our trip, it had all sorts of strange produce on offer, from the more pedestrian cat fish to strange grubs, turtle meat, alligators and live monkeys.
That afternoon we jumped on another local ferry and headed across the river to visit a Butterfly farm and animal sanctuary. The butterflies were impressive but the best part were the rescued animals which included, among others, plenty of monkeys, an ocelot and a jaguar.
The next day we jumped aboard our speedboat which would take us down the river to the Columbia border. The trip wasn't quite what I had expected, I guess when I think of the Amazon I imagine a sluggish tepid river snaking through towering jungle, strange vines dropping down into the water and hundreds of fascinating and deadly animals assaulting you on all sides as you frantically try to fend them off with your oar.
The reality, at least on the main body of river is very different. Being the biggest river in the world the river itself is very wide, the river banks and jungle are well removed from any passenger vessels on the river and even when you do get closer to the side you find that it is much more developed than you would have thought, with villages and dwellings at fairly regular intervals. If it does exist, the virgin jungle of my imagination can probably only be found on foot or by heading into one of the National Parques and then up one of the smaller tributaries.
While the boat trip was a success in that it got us to the desired destination of the Columbian border, I was a little disappointed that it didn't give as a better taste of the Amazon. Still, that's what you get when you take a public mode of transport, rather than forking out the money for a private tour or cruise.
The next entry will detail another exciting border crossing and Bogota, the capital of Columbia.