An adventure along the Amazon

 
LA Times | Travel
 

As summer looms and you're in a panic about what to do with the kids (an all-too-familiar scenario at my house), allow me to throw out an idea: Instead of sending them off for expensive weeks away, consider taking them, and yourself, to the greatest science camp on Earth -- the Amazon. That's ...

By Amanda Jones // 04.10.09
 

As summer looms and you're in a panic about what to do with the kids (an all-too-familiar scenario at my house), allow me to throw out an idea: Instead of sending them off for expensive weeks away, consider taking them, and yourself, to the greatest science camp on Earth -- the Amazon.

That's what I did last summer with Indigo, my 10-year-old daughter, and it was a roaring success. I'd been agonizing over how to keep her occupied during the summer when I received an International Expeditions catalog in the mail. It pictured a three-story rubber baron-style boat gliding down a mirror-calm river and children merrily traipsing through a jungle; it showed butterflies flapping their turquoise wings, extravagant birds and that crazy evolutionary aberration, the sloth.

Indigo is an exotic animal fanatic, so I jumped at a trip to the Amazon, an area I had not been. The cruises, the catalog said, are family-friendly, with built-in natural science programs for kids.

In mid-August, we met the rest of our group in Lima, Peru, then flew north to Iquitos, a place that was once a moneyed rubber town built on the banks of the Amazon. After Charles Goodyear invented vulcanization and the world clamored for all things rubberized, Iquitos transformed itself into a sophisticated and prosperous trade center.


THE BEST WAY TO PERU'S AMAZON

From LAX, nonstop service is available to Lima in price on LAN, direct service (stop, no change of plane) on Aeroméxico and connecting service (change of plane) on American, Continental, LAN, Delta and Copa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $416.

THE TRIP

International Expeditions, (800) 633-4734, www.ietravel.com, is the company we used. The regular price for the Amazon excursion is $3,048 per adult and $2,898 per child (Price varies depending on cabin.) It includes Lima hotels, city tour, boat, food, excursions and all guides.

This summer, there will be special deals on two departure dates: For the June 26 and July 17 voyages, kids ages 7 to 16 are half off (making their price $1,449) and parents get free internal airfare (worth $300).


Although it was the farthest inland seaport on the Amazon -- 2,117 miles from the Atlantic, its abundance of trees wept liquid money in the form of rubber sap. It also had cheap labor (some say slave labor) to tap them. Nowadays, the old quarter is reminiscent of a faded New Orleans, with elaborate ironwork, plazas and fountains.

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As the sun faded quietly into the jungle, we caught our first sight of the Amazon, vast in girth and brown from plant tannins, weaving through thick jungle. And there floated our 127-foot-long boat, La Amatista. The 14-cabin craft can hold 29 passengers and 16 staff. Our cabin was about 170 square feet -- small, but not as small as some cruise ship cabins -- but it was air conditioned, and its twin beds and tiny en suite bathroom made it serviceable.

Upstairs were an open-air bar and a wood-paneled dining room with windows on all sides. The vessel was a little long in the tooth; a new, environmentally friendly boat is planned, I was told.

Among the passengers were eight children, and by the time the engines fired up, they had broken off into age- and gender-appropriate pods. As is always the case, there were a variety of characters on board: the silent father with his vivacious wife and two gorgeous college-age daughters; a couple from the Bronx who had brought their niece; the upstate New York family that was there for the same reason we were; the Los Angeles mother and her two squabbling teenagers; and the Israeli couple who came to fulfill their 7-year-old grandson's fantasy.

Hernando Vallenas, the trip's family director, was responsible for keeping the kids in check and entertaining them with crafts, movies and dance lessons. Roland Balaezo and Victor Ramirez, the naturalists on board, were locals and had degrees in natural biology and had studied specifically the quirks and comportment of the fish, bird and mammals that throng the Peruvian Amazon.

Within a day of motoring upriver, we had -- technically speaking -- left the Amazon. Academics still disagree about whether the Nile or the Amazon is the longer river. Most sources give the Nile the edge, although actual measurements differ. But on volume, the Amazon trumps, carrying more water than the next eight largest rivers combined.

It would be a slam dunk in length too if it didn't split into two rivers 78 miles out of Iquitos. Here, technically speaking, the Amazon ceases to exist and forks into the Marañón and the Ucayali rivers. There are those who hold that the Amazon should be measured from its source, a glacial stream 18,000 feet up in the Andes, hence the debate. Regardless, it is one very long river, stretching about 4,000 miles.

We were headed up the Marañón and into the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, 5.1 million acres of preserved rain forests, with no legal hunting, no deforestation and fewer tourists than the Brazilian Amazon. One of the richest places left on Earth for wildlife, Pacaya Samiria boasts species that are rarely found elsewhere. That explains International Expeditions' desire to operate here. Sporting an all-Peruvian crew, the company has government permission to navigate within the reserve, a privilege that few get.

And we had ringside seats.

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We were right below the equator. The heat -- it was 90 to 95 degrees -- bore down on us, and the 95% humidity hung over us like wet wool. This meant the days had to be well planned. We took early morning and late afternoon excursions into the forest or up small tributaries on skiffs that enabled us to negotiate shallow areas.

The best news of the whole trip was that we could swim in the river, particularly in the clean waters of remote tributaries. Despite movie depictions and Internet myths, piranhas do not attack healthy humans. In fact, one moment, we'd be catching piranha with a bait of raw meat; the next, we'd be motoring a little way upstream to ensure the piranha did not confuse us with the beef, and then leaping off the side of the skiff, no questions asked.

Piranhas are pathetically gullible when it comes to being caught -- much to the delight of the children, who fished with small cubes of meat on rods each made of a stripped branch, a line and a rudimentary hook. The danger with piranhas comes in landing them. If you're going to lose a chunk of flesh to a piranha, it will probably be in the boat, not in the water.

"Never unhook a piranha on your own!" Victor told us repeatedly.

"Listen up, kids," I said. "That there is a metaphor for life."

With 16 people in each of the two skiffs, we would catch 80 or so piranha in 30 minutes and the cook would fry them for dinner. They make great eating and are a staple for the local Ribereños.

Ribereños are "people of the river," whose ancestry is a mix of Amazonian Indians and Spaniards. They live in traditional villages on the riverbanks, subsisting on farming and fishing. The highlight of the trip for me was when we stopped at these villages, and the children spilled out of their houses or school to welcome us, singing songs and dragging our kids onto the soccer field for a rousing game in which the barefooted Ribereños, some as young as 6, always thrashed their young visitors.

The village women would see us coming and spread out handmade wares and crafts on woven mats. Victor was amazed at the universal female ability to shop, even in the heart of the jungle.

Ribereños live as people do in villages all over the world -- thatched huts, hammocks to sleep in, cooking fires, no electricity. Each village had about 200 people and its cast of characters: a town drunk, honey-eyed children, laughing women, free-roaming pigs and a share of emaciated-looking dogs. And yet in every one was a cinder-block schoolhouse stuffed with boys and girls, a wonderful sight that's not seen the world over.

One evening after dinner, we went ashore for a night walk and were asked to tread silently so not to scare off nocturnal animals. Alas, all hope of this was dashed by the groups' two teenage boys, John and Johnny, who crashed through the jungle like a pair of Sasquatches. At one point, Roland, our guide, asked us to turn off our headlamps and stand still. He began to talk of the spirits that his people believe inhabit the forest and of the life force given off by trees around us. It was pitch dark and the air was brilliantly fresh. It was quiet and peaceful and for a moment all seemed right in the world, until John and Johnny began making fart noises.

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It took us three days to reach the Pacaya Samiria reserve. Once there, we spent a day in the skiff exploring the Pacaya River. The increase in wildlife was immediate. Pink dolphins played around our skiffs, brilliant plumed birds swooped in the canopy, capuchin monkeys infested the trees, howler monkeys let fly with their terrible, belching cries and sloths hung motionless 50 feet above the jungle floor.

Indigo adores sloths and was jumping up and down with excitement in hopes of seeing one, even if it were only at a great distance. For this we can probably thank Sid, the hapless hero of the "Ice Age" movies; he has so influenced her impression that it was important for her to learn a few facts about the creatures.

This herbivore, Victor told us, lives at the top of the canopy and moves only when absolutely necessary, with a top speed of 15 feet per minute. They behave this way, the theory goes, to discourage predators. A jaguar, for example, might wonder about that hairy brown blob in the tree but assume that if it isn't moving, it isn't alive. Sloths descend from the canopy only once a week to relieve themselves, and if chased will plunge into the river, where they swim away at an impressive clip.

Amazonian pink dolphins are also extraordinary creatures. Like the gray dolphin, they were forced to adapt to freshwater when the Andes rose up, separating the Pacific coast and the Amazon Basin and causing the Amazon River to change direction and flow toward the Atlantic thousands of miles away. They adapted quickly and have a close relationship with the humans that live on the river. The river people do not hunt them; they believe their children will be born deformed if they harm one.

In the week we were on the boat, we covered 800 miles, including our skiff adventures. Much of La Amatista's motoring was done at night or in the very early morning. In the evenings, we would gather in the bar to drink pisco sours and listen to the crew play Peruvian music on traditional instruments. Each night, crew members would enlist the kids to play maracas and an huiro, the latter a gourd with ridges carved into it and a hand-held stick.

The members of the crew had great senses of humor and strong national pride, sweeping the children along with their enthusiasm. The kids learned a lot about Peruvian culture and life, between playing soccer, weaving baskets, fishing, swimming, dancing, attending talks by the naturalists, checking species off the spotting list and madly snapping photos of every sloth we passed.

Now it's that dreaded summer camp time again, and our Amazon voyage has set the bar very high. Currently stacked on Indigo's bedside table are all the adventure travel catalogs that have so conveniently arrived in the mail.