A Trip Up the Peruvian Amazon

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.

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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