A Trip Up the Peruvian Amazon

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We flew from Lima to Iquitos, a city of 500,000 in the Peruvian Amazon. It was founded on the rubber trade, then lumber. During World War II it was the center of kapok production (a cotton substitute for life vests and mattress stuffing). It is now the center of oil, gas production and eco-tourism. The city is flourishing. The old part of the city is late colonial. The exterior of many of the downtown buildings are clad with imported glazed terra cotta tiles.

In Iquitos we joined the boat Aqua for a guided cruise up to the Amazon and one of its major tributaries. The Amazon is the world's largest and greatest rivers. It drains the water from the highlands of most of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. According to a survey done by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1980s, the headwaters of the Amazon originate high on the slopes of a Peruvian volcano more than four thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean. In Brazil the Amazon is river is more than 2120 miles wide.  Over 16,000 cubic kilometers of rain per year fall on the watershed. Of this, about 40 percent reaches the sea (the rest evaporates). About 15-16% of all fresh water flowing into the world's oceans comes from the mouth of the Amazon. The fore of the exit is so great that it pushes the salt water far out to sea. Surfers ride the permanent waves that break when the river hits the sea.

Before the collision of the Nazca and South America tectonic plates, much of the Amazon basin was submerged as part of the Caribbean. Before the great uplift that created the alto plano and the high Andes, the continent tilted toward the pacific so most river ran east to west. I estimate that about 70-80% of all the water that falls on the continent eventually flows into the Amazon, the rest flowing either down the mountains west to the Pacific, North to the Caribbean (the rivers of Colombia and the Orinoco of Venezuela, and several south through Argentina.

According to the Brazilians, the Amazon proper begins near Manaus at the junction of the Solimoes, that flows west draining the waters of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Southern Brazil and the Rio negro originating in Colombia and Venezuela. Peruvians believe the Amazon begins upriver in Peru proper, and the junction of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers. Our boat trip took us Southwest from Iquitos to the Peruvian origin of the Amazon near the town of Napo.

The Aqua is a modern boat which began service in 2007. It has 12 large cabins and a crew of 20. After two consecutive piracy incidents last year, Aqua is now accompanied by six armed guards as well. Three skiffs, each with its own naturalist as a guide, take guests of river. The guides are well-educated and personable. The food is regional and very good. Each day we took excursions in motor launches, each with its own naturalist and navigator.

We traveled through a very special type of rain forest. Three to four months of the year, the entire forest is flooded. The water rises 25-40 feet submerging the surrounding countryside. All the plant and animal life must adapt to the annual floods. We visited during the beginning of the dry season, when the waters had already dropped 20 feet or more. The high water mark was clearly visible on all the trees. Villagers that live along the shore build their houses on stilts. At high water the only way to travel from house to house is by boat.

As a consequence of the floods, all the animals, including termites and ants, must be arboreal. Another consequence is that all the rivers are so called black waters. They decaying leaves acidify (about ph 3.2) and color the waters black with tannin. The annual floods mean that the land is difficult to cultivate.  Not all the Amazon basin is flooded. In Brazil much of the rainforest is dry all year round. Hence it can be used to raise cattle or to grow soybeans and other crops.

The people that live along the banks of the river are thoroughly mixed in origin. They are only partly Indian. The primary language is Spanish. Most speak no other language except perhaps a little English. We visited one village I which several people spoke one of the Indian languages as well as Spanish, but this is the exception. The Indians of Peru live much further inland, away from the major rivers.

Our daily trips took us along the main rivers and then into the small backwaters. It was on these trips that we saw most of the birds and other animals.

We passed several "Eco-lodges on the way. These are camps along the river, usually in the back waters. They are very simple and don't use electricity. They have candle or kerosene lamps only. The most elaborate one we passed is called "Palo Verde".

The guides were very good a spotting birds, monkeys, sloths and other small animals that live -- for the most part -- high in the trees. The most remarkable animals are the fresh water dolphins. They live mostly in the main rivers and the back water. There are two species, pink and grey. Pink dolphins are really pink. I call their color "bubble gum pink". Manatees also live in the back waters, gazing on water lettuce. Most of the animals we saw were at some distance. Because of the annual floods, people and their livestock are really the only fully terrestrial animals. The others live high in the trees. Good binoculars and a high powered telephoto lens (which I did not have) are really a must on this trip. A partial list of animals and plants we identified follows:

MAMMALS
Monkeys
Squirrel monkeys
Pygmy marmosets
Dusky Titi monkeys
Brown capuchins
Bats
Fish eating bats. These are large with about a 12-inch wingspan. In the evening they swoop low over the water. Evidently they locate the fish by bouncing their sonar off the water and picking up ripples. We saw them catch fish.
Sloths
Three-toed sloth. We saw one with a young baby clutched to her stomach. They eat kapok fruits and leaves.
Dolphins
Pink dolphins
Grey dolphins
Manatee: We did not see these although we looked for them midst the water hyacinth.
Opossum
Common opossum
Weasel
Tyra: an arboreal omnivore
Birds:
Parrot family
Blue and Gold Macaws
Orange winged parrots
White eyed parakeet
Blue winged parolets
Canary winged parakeets
Mealy Parrot
Water birds:
Yellow billed tern
Large billed tern
Ringed Kingfisher
Amazon Kingfisher (green)
Jacana (Jesus Christ bird) or wattled jacan) Yellow winged cormorants
Muscovy Ducks
Swallows
Swallows from Capistrano
White winged swallows
Fly catchers
Boat billed fly catcher
Kisskadee: flycatcher black head white banded crown brown speckled back, 11 inches, yellow breast
Vultures:
Turkey Vultures
Lesser yellowed headed vulture
King Vulture 7 feet wing span Condor Amazonia
Hawks:
Black collared hawk
Great black hawk
Slate colored hawk
Road side hawk
Black Caracara hawk (face)
Fish eating hawk
Yellow headed caracara
Herons:
Blue Capped Heron
Cocoi Heron
Striated Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Great Agami Heron
Puma Heron
Snowy Egret
Other Birds:
Striated Horn Screamer (big)
Plumbous Kite
White capped cardinal
Oriole (black bird)
Tinamou (whistle woo, woo, wooo woo)
Toucan (ardicari chestnut eared)
Black capped donnacobius
Great Putoo
Leather tailed night jar
Hoatzins (large crested birds)

Amphibians:
Buffo Marinas (giant cane toad)
Jungle smoky toad
Gladiator tree fog

Reptiles:
Black Cayman: We saw a few during the day and many at night, located by the red reelection of their eyes.
Anaconda (we looked for them but did not see them).

Fish:
According to our guides and the books, over 4,000 species of fish live in the waters of the Amazon. We saw very few, only those we or others caught, or those that jumped into our boat as we cruised in the skiffs during the evening. We caught red bellied and spotted piranhas, "talking catfish" and zebra fish.

Plants
Wild grass: very tall used for harpoons, fishing poles.
Erytrina: the flowers are red.
Mistletoe: Grows on lime trees. It is used to heal broken bones.
Cocoa: a member of the solenacae. The fruit juice plant is used for diabetes and cholesterol control.
Punishment tree: this tree has a symbiotic relationship with as species of ants, the Azteca or warrior ant. The ants inhabit the hollow center. As a punishment, people were tied to the tree for twenty minutes. The bites are painful and itch for 20 days.
Camucamu tree: The very sour fruit, which are a rich purple color and the size of a grape, are very rich in Vitamin C.
Many species of Acacia: For example that which produces the inga bean, a long bean-sometimes called the "ice cream bean" which holds 2 inch long seeds that are very sweet.
Aintrita cauca
Ficus Benjamin
Water hyacinth: a light purple (lavender) color.

Insects:
Our guides told us that there are over 4,000 species of butterflies in the Amazon. We saw about five or six different species.
Mosquitoes: We were not bothered by them except once, when we stopped at dusk in the middle of the river. I was bitten only twice in the three days we were on the river. The guides said here was no malaria in the area. Neither people nor a sensitive primate, the brown capuchin, contract the disease here. Nonetheless I took malarone.

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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