Sunday, 29 November 2009


Where the Rio Maranon flows past Nauta, just before merging with the Amazon, we had a sudden change of plans.

We overheard that the group of American kids who were onboard with us were going ashore here, to get a bus to Iquitos. Instead of staying on the boat for another 8 hours or more, they hoped to reach Iquitos by land in less than two.

That sounded pretty appealing to us too. After being stuck for so long in Yurimaguas we still feel the urge to move rapidly when possible...

So, Ewelina and I quickly packed our belongings, finishing just as the Eduardo V reached the river bank. Five minutes later we were zooming along the streets of Nauta in a mototaxi, half an hour later we held onto our seats as a rickety old Chinese bus lurched out onto the shiny new road, us inside and our luggage just barely not falling off the roof.

Two hours later, we were in Iquitos!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Pacaya Samiria reserve

The Pacaya Samira reserve is the largest in Peru. This GPS point is the farthest we went into the reserve, a lake inhabited by seven Amazonian dolphins.

Hoping to explore a little piece of this huge reserve, we booked a 4 day tour with Manuel Rojas on our first day in Lagunas. We paid 100 soles per person, per day, for having two guides paddle us around, feed us and show us the animals. The park entry fee was another 20 soles per person, per day. All told, about 60€ per day for the both of us. Not too bad - quite a bit cheaper than the prices quoted in our Lonely Planet.

Our trip into the jungle began with a manic mototaxi-ride: 6 people, packs, paddles and provisions bouncing for about an hour along the muddy streets of Lagunas and the narrow dirt road to the reserve. Along the way we got stuck a couple of times, and near the end we got a flat tire and had to walk a bit... but we made it!

Our guides, Esteban and Nilo, moved our stuff from the taxi to a roughly 6m long dug-out canoe while we paid the park entrance fee. Then we took our seats, Ewelina and I in the middle of the boat, our guides at both ends. And off we went.

Paddling around the jungle is a very relaxing, quiet way to travel, at least if you don't have to do the paddling yourself. The river itself made almost no sound, and the guides paddled as quietly as they could so as not to frighten any animals we might encounter. When we spoke, rarely, we instinctively kept our voices down to match.

Our first encounter was a family of small, grey monkeys in the trees above, climbing and leaping from tree to tree, making a surprising amount of noise as they foraged for food. It was amazing to be so close to these animals, and so nice to see them free and wild, not confined in some zoo.

Our next encounter was some large spiders under a half submerged tree-trunck, our third some sleeping vampire bats on another tree. Esteban woke them up and sent them flying with a splash of water.

We saw birds: herons and tucans and parrots and hawks, and many others I cannot name.

We saw so many insects: dragonflies dive-bombing the river surface, cascades of jumping water bugs pouring from tree roots to the water, buzzing giant bees, beautiful butterflies, large and small in all the colors of the rainbow, many kinds of ants, flies, wasps, mantises, spiders. Sometimes we saw the mosquitos before they bit us, sometimes not.

Mammals: In addition to the monkeys of the first day, we saw 2 other species up close, and we saw a sloth in a tree from a distance. We saw dolphins and Esteban somewhat rudely roused a lobo (an otter? a beaver?) from its lair by cutting a hole in the den's wall with his paddle... one of two inhabitants snorted angrily, hit the water with a thump and then watched us from 20m downriver, while the other stubbornly kept snorting from deeper underground.

On our first night at the cabin we met a Danish couple and re-encountered the German engineer who had shared our moto-taxi into the jungle. We ended up chatting for a couple of hours that evening, mostly about travel. It was a lot of fun, so much so that we forgot about the evening's planned expidition to look for crocodiles, until one of the locals showed up with a flashlight tied to his head and a small crocodile in his arms. We held it, posed for photos and then it was (we assume) set free again.

The jungle wasn't all fun and exotic animals though - our luxurious mode of transport had two drawbacks: sun and monotony.

Most of the time we were completely exposed to the sunlight, with only the occasional tree leaning out far enough to provide shade. On our first couple of days there was no cloud cover, so it became very hot in the canoe. Also, to my surprise, I got sunburnt on the backs of my hands for the first time in my life - it seems our antimalarials' side-effect of increasing sensitivity to sunlight outweighed both the factor 50 sunblock and the acclimatization and tan I've built up over the past months. Weird, and uncomfortable.

Then, there was the monotony. In spite of the impressive roster of animals we ended up seeing, most of the time we sailed along the river in silence, with impenetrable walls of green on either side and the same three or four species of insects for company. We couldn't talk because that would scare the animals, and we couldn't sleep because we'd burn and miss the animals... so we just sat idle, waiting and hoping for something, anything interesting to happen. At first it was relaxing, but after a few hours we had to admit that we were actually quite bored.

Ewelina was also very itchy and uncomfortable due to over a hundred mosquito bites on her legs. So, suspecting that the drawbacks of the first day would only dominate our experience even more as the days passed, on the second morning we decided to shorten our tour to three days instead of four. Our guides took this all in stride, once we had reassured them we weren't looking for a refund they happily adjusted their plans.

We didn't regret our decision; the second day did indeed have the same problems as the first: my burns got worse, Ewelina's bites itched and the jungle was just a little more familiar and a little less exciting.

Our third, final, day was better. We were paddling back upstream, our broad backed guides working hard against the current. It was cloudy and... it rained! It rained torrentially for a while, as it must in a rainforest. Ewelina used our green umbrella and I peered out from under a sheet of plastic provided by our guides. Esteban and Nilo just wetly paddled onward, and when I asked if they didn't mind the rain, Esteban said he preferred it: it was refreshing, fresco.

Our last day was also the day we saw most monkeys and the sloth, and the day when right after lunch we saw the rain coming up the river toward us like a wall of water, and the day I found a dead, beheaded snake floating in the river. It was a good day.

But an hour or so before we reached our destination, the sun came out again and the heat with it, ensuring that we were glad to leave the little boat and didn't regret shortening our stay.

Visiting the jungle was an amazing experience, but for us, still sick of the heat and restless after being stuck with Typhoid in Yurimaguas, three days was just the right amount.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


We arrived in Lagunas around 4am, welcomed by a light drizzle. People scrambled off the boat up the muddy bank of the river, about 2m high, carefully balancing their loads and weaving between the new passengers who scrambled down the same path, eager to get on board. Miraculously, no one ended up in the river.

We had been told there would be no electricity, but this turned out to be incorrect, there were dim street lights piercing the darkness, lighting up the muddy streets and rough, unpainted wooden houses with straw roofs. Lively music could be heard everywhere, emanating from homes, or bars, or nightclubs, we could not tell.

Later we found out that most inhabitants of Lagunas get up at around 4am to visit the market, have a stiff drink or three, and then leave town to work their fields. So, supposedly, we actually arrived at a relatively busy time. We also found out that they do switch off the electricity, but only during the day when everyone is out in the field anyway.

Maybe that is why there were only two mototaxis waiting at the docks, maybe the others were all busy ferrying locals... or maybe the drivers were all partying?

Whatever the reason, by the time we had gotten our bearings, both taxis had disappeared inland, not to return. They had both followed the same mud street, which seemed marginally more important than others we could see, due to having a paved sidewalk. So after waiting half an hour or so, we gathered up our stuff and started walking, trailing some other passengers, along the only strip of concrete in sight.

We walked, and we walked, and marvelled at how large the town was. It took us about half an hour and the escort of an elderly, booze scented local to find the guesthouse mentioned in our guidebook, Miraflores. It was very basic, but we didn't care, we just took the first room offered and curled up together on one of the tiny beds.

The next day we enjoyed a cold shower, eggs and instant coffee, and went out to explore. We found the large, barren central square, found the tiny market, chatted with the daughter of Klever (the most frequently mentioned tour operator) and chatted with one of their competitors, Rojas. We met Leo, the handsome dutch boy who had fallen in love with the town and bought some land. Leo introduced us to Esteban, the guide for Rojas who ended up taking us into the jungle. Esteban gave us a small hand-carved wooden paddle. We let little girls play with our camera and ate tasty chicken at the only eatery on the main square.

Overall, Lagunas was nice, cheap, friendly, and in the end, a bit dull. Ewelina quite liked it though, I guess she is less addicted to variety and electricity than I am.

Our biggest problem in Lagunas, was Ewelina's sudden popularity with local insects. We don't know if it was mosquitos or bed-bugs in the damp, saggy mattress in Miraflores, but each of her legs got bitten in dozens of places. At one point I stopped counting after 40, on just one leg.

Leo had assured us there was neither Dengue nor Malaria in Lagunas, so the attack didn't frighten us much, but it did put a damper on our enthusiasm once we reached the jungle, and was one of the reasons we ended up shortening our tour.

When we returned after 3 days of paddling around the reserve, we added a little fair on the main square, a juice bar, a beer bar and the shipping company offices at the port to our knowledge of the town. We bought a ticket to Iquitos (50 soles each) and spent hours and hours being bored and sleepy while waiting for our boat.

The Eduardo V was scheduled to arrive between 1 and 2am, the lady at the desk told us to be at the office by midnight in case it was early, and it finally arrived at 3am. We were not impressed, but we were happy to be on our way again.

And at least it was a bigger, nicer boat than the Eduardo VII.

On a boat!

So, we made it, we managed to leave Yurimaguas. We got up at around seven, had breakfast and took a mototaxi to the port, confirmed there was a boat later in the day.

Many hours later, we sit in our hammocks on ther Eduardo VII, my GPS telling me that what we had hoped would be a 10 hour trip, arriving around midnight in Lagunas, will almost certainly take 14 or more. It is nine-thirty and we're barely halfway there.

Slow, slow boat.

The experience has been interesting though. We hung our first hammocks, here on the blue-painted upper deck. People above, animals and engines and cargo below. When we had a look this morning, it was just a big, empty space. Now it is full of hammocks, two overlapping rows of them in all the colors of the market. Dozens of people suspended from the ceiling, their luggage and shoes on the floor, little space for walking. As I take my Ciproflax, killing my Typhoid one pill at a time, I listen to the guy cough four hammocks down and it occurs to me that this might be a good place to get that famous flu that has been going around...

We arrived late enough to end up at the very rear, by the dining table, the toilets, the rumbling engine below and now, after dark, the poker game. Not the best place to sleep, but we hadn't expected to need to. Ah well.

We have endured the curiosity and the antics of the children onboard. We have taken some pictures, of them and our surroundings. We have learned why, before we left shore, there were ladies offering tupperware for sale: because you need your own container for the food served onboard. They also sold spoons.

The food itself was simple and tasty: rice, a slice of a huge boiled potato, a piece of chicken.

I have learned a lot about Soviet spies, I just finished reading an entire book about them, one that Ewelina picked up in the hostal in Baños. Meanwhile, Ewelina has expanded her vocabulary and her mind, reading the copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I picked up in Cuenca.

And now I guess it is time to catch some sleep, my first nap on a hammock on a boat on a river in the Amazon basin. How very strange!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Typhoid in Yurimaguas

Leaving Yurimaguas has turned out to be surprisingly difficult. On our second day here, I came down with a cold, or so I thought. Not wanting to be ill in the jungle, days away from medical help, we decided to stick around for a couple of days, until I was better.

A couple of days passed, and although I did feel a bit better, our brand new thermometer told us that I still had a low fever (37.5C). So we waited some more.

After 6 nights, although I still had a slight fever (37.2C) we went to the port at nine, to confirm that our boat was still sailing at 12. Nope! Postponed until 15.00. I chatted with the captain, who said we should return by 13.00. Ok...

So right after noon we checked out of the lovely Hostal Naranjo, loaded our bags onto a mototaxi and off we went! But only to the port; upon arrival we saw that the word "hoy" had been erased from our boat's blackboard and in its place was written "mañana". 9am, supposedly. We debated sleeping on the boat, but in the end went back to the Naranjo and checked back in.

After the morning's disappointment we decided it was time to have some fun in this town. We grabbed our souvineer chess set (made in China most likely, bought in Otavalo, Ecuador) and took a mototaxi to the square where we were told the young people went to party. We took seats at a bar which hosts cock-fights on the weekends, and before we could even start our first game we were joined by a 19 year old musician; guitar and 11 year old neice in tow.

This was followed by a chess lesson, multiple beers, some dancing and some watching of awful videos starring our friend and young ladies who apparently wanted nothing more than to french kiss the artist in front of the camera. After listening, watching and finally being presented with a DVD, a printed biography and original artwork (a pencil-sketch of a unicorn), we came to the conclusion that his talent fell quite a bit short of matching his opinion of himself.

This adventure was followed by Chinese food. I wasn't very hungry, but I had noticed a very hungry looking boy, 8 or 9 years old, lurking outside and stealing leftovers from tables when people left. So I got a takeaway box for my noodles and Ewelina's leftover meat, and handed it to the little boy, along with half a Coke, as we left. He disappeared immediately, and we went home to bed.

To crown an already busy day, I got very little sleep that night - I constantly had to visit the bathroom and I was cold, my fever clearly on the rise. When I tiredly took my temperature the next morning, it was up to 38.7C, a whole degree higher than the highest it had been the preceding week. Time to see a doctor.

As luck would have it, there is a "Virgin de las Nieves" clinic on the same street as the Naranjo, just two blocks away. So around 10.30 we were sitting across from a nurse, explaining symptoms in broken Spanish - when we asked for someone who spoke English, she just laughed kindly and shook her head. She took my blood pressure (100/70), weighed me (75kg with shoes, lightest I've been since leaving Iceland!), and filled out a form. A few minutes later we were ushered to a doctor's office and got to repeat our story for him, and show him my little yellow vaccination booklet.

His verdict: Typhoid or Dengue Fever, only tests could tell. So they took some blood, and then I was sent to a bathroom with a plastic cup in a bag, a little glass vial and toilet paper. They wanted a little bit of everything...

Ewelina and I returned to the clinic around 2pm and waited about half an hour for my results: Typhoid and some nasty stomach bug too.

Apparently the Typhoid vaccine we got in Dublin is only 50-80% effective, but it is probably thanks to it that my case has been so mild. My doctor prescribed many things: two pills for my stomach and Ciproflax for the Typhoid itself. All in all, a 10 day course. And, more frighteningly, 3 different injections he wanted me to get immediately.

Unnerved, but not about to argue, we went back to the nurse. There, for the first time I can remember, I had one of those tubes stuck in my arm, which the nurse used to inject three gigantic syringes full of diluted medication into my bloodstream. As my blood was diluted, or maybe as the pressure in my veins went up, I became nauseous, dizzy and my hands felt like they were vibrating like crazy. The nurse again laughed kindly and moved me from my seat to a bed, injecting all the while. Ewelina stroked my forehead.

That was yesterday. Today I feel much better. I have no fever (was actually a bit under 37C this morning) and my stomach is, although not perfect, much quieter. So far the day has been spent surfing the internet, calling home, reading books and writing code. That is also the plan for tomorrow and Sunday - the doctor said we should stay in town at least two more days and we know there are no boats on Sundays.

After I've finished the drugs (a 10 day course) he wants me to visit a clinic to get checked again. Hopefully, that checkup will take place somewhere else, either in Iquitos or Lima. But I can't make any promises, so far it seems Yurimaguas is a hard town to leave.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Lethargy in Yurimaguas

I feel how the drop slowly trickles downwards, marking its path with a wet trace. From the hair-line, between the eyebrows, along the nose, it finally falls to the table. I sweat relentlessly and everywhere: under my armpits, on my chin, under the trousers glued to my body. Having stayed in the mountains for the last two months, I have forgotten about the heat that seems now to attack me with an unbearable force. 40000 strong, Yurimaguas' ransom is a red face, sticky skin and vain attempts to cool myself with my own hot breath. It is also the first town in Peru that I like.

Getting here was easier than I had expected. From the very beginning, since crossing the border with Ecuador, this place in the Amazon Basin was our goal: a place from which boats disembark for Iquitos, the world's biggest town that cannot be reached by land. The bus from Loja (Ecuador) consumed eight hours of our lives and took us to Piura (Peru), where we spent an evening at the cinema in a shopping mall near our hostal. From Piura, we spent three hours on a desert road to Chiclayo: a night in Chiclayo involved getting to know a bottle of Peruvian wine in our hostal room, while watching a Tim Burton movie on my laptop. We left Chiclayo in the evening hours of the next day, setting out on a theoretically fourteen-hour-long bus trip to Tarapoto. In reality, the ride lasted 16 hours and was interrupted at 4 a.m. by a change of busses: apparently, the more luxurious one broke down, so almost-at-dawn at a station who-knows-where, due to a lack of seats on the second bus, we left four passengers (including a mother with a child) behind. Not being able to find a pool table in Tarapoto, we decided to spend only one night there: using my laptop I introduced Bjarni to one of my favourite movies: The Mission. In Tarapoto, based on what we had read in Lonely Planet, we prepared ourselves for a six-hour, tiring journey through muddy roads to Yurimaguas and were pleasantly disappointed the next day, covering the distance on a normal, paved road in only three hours. Thus, after thirty hours on buses and three nights in different hostals in Peru we reached our goal: a small, sweltering town where mototaxi drivers recognize you on the streets, calling you by your name.

There is a pool table here, and a swimming pool in our hostal, and smiling, friendly inhabitants, and a good Chinese restaurant. A security guard in a bank confiscates my camera - to take pictures of his female collegues. A woman on the street shows us a little monkey tied to her bag and asks for a photograph. Marcelo wants to give us a free mototaxi ride to a shop, so we could buy a plastic bottle of home-brewed wine. In the store they treat us to the following: an alcoholic beverage made of cacao, a purple, thick grape wine, a condensed coffee liquor. Here, for the first time in South America, I encounter a police officer without a gun: a female officer, ordering Chinese food, is armed with nothing but a bottle-opener. The local market has everything: rice for 1.30 PEN per kilo, rubber sandals for 12 PEN per pair, Adidas' trainers, dried fish, piranhas, turtles, parrots, hammocks, pineapples, chicken thighs, jeans, socks, bras, beetroots, batteries, skins of wild cats. In the small port cargo boats are loaded with bananas, cows, mototaxis, passengers and their hammocks. On the streets one barely sees any cars, but mototaxis are everywhere.

The fourth day of our stay in Yurimaguas is slowly passing. Bjarni has a bit of a fever, signs of a cold - we are waiting until he gets better before we disappear for a few days into the jungle. Avoiding the sun, that never stops burning, we spend the days in our room. We kill time by watching TV, checking web pages during those few moments when the internet actually works, inventing names for children we don't have yet. The Amazon Basin's sun seems to affect the brain in quite an unexpected way, I think, sitting in the stuffy restaurant of our hostal. The air is heavy, nature plainly begging for a bit of rain. The fan, pointed especially at me, doesn't help at all: another drop of sweat lands on the table..

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

In Peru

We are in Peru, at last. We got here two days ago by bus, crossing the border in Macara with no problems at all.

We left Ecuador rather unexpectedly, deciding that we'd been slogging around this country for too long now, and for that reason cutting our trip short. El tren del Diablo, sounding so interesting, disappointed me a bit - instead of a ride on the roof of a smokey machine, I was comfortably sitting in a bus on wheels, falling asleep from time to time. Then there was Cuenca, for three days: I was stopped on the street by young people, students of a local school who asked me for help with their homework. And so I stood there, in front of a camera, reciting words they had told me to memorize, while Bjarni dabbled in his unexpected duties as a camera operator. Finally, Loja, a night in a hostel by the bus station and an eight-hour bus ride towards the border.

Peru welcomed us with heat and desert landscapes. Mixed impressions: on one hand - shopping centres with shoes from Bata or Adidas, buses more luxurious than any I've ever seen before, with leather seats, reclining to become beds; on the other hand - chickens in the luggage compartment of those same buses, people transporting white, plastic garden chairs and tables that were falling apart, hundreds of little houses that barely hung together on the edge of town and vultures circling overhead, squeezing themselves through the windows of houses and resting on the street-lights.

News from Peru? Hmm, we started to take our anti-malarials. Yesterday's lodging cost us only 35 PEN (1 PEN = 1 PLN = 0.25 EUR). We found a place where for 10 PEN (total) we both ate soup, a main course and drank fresh pineapple juice. Oh, and now we're sitting in a quite nice restaurant, using the internet, while the waiters handle us with kid gloves. It's 3 p.m., in three hours we are leaving Chiclayo, going on a fourteen-hour bus ride to Tarapoto, closer to the jungle. Our adventures in Peru are about to begin.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Hiking and biking around Baños

Baños is very obviously all about the tourism, but so far, not necessarily in a bad way.

We arrived on Thursday afternoon, and were immediately offered a room by an enterprising young man. I had a look, but decided to head towards the center and check out the other options. Ewelina waited with the bags in the central park, and I explored hotels. Prices were all over the map, but more notably, this was the first place in our entire trip where it was common for places to want to charge higher rates for the weekend, and also more than half the places I checked were full for the weekend anyway and could only offer me one night, or in some cases two. And most of the rooms were very small.

We settled on the biggest room I found and the only one with Wifi in the room: in a hostel called Santa Cruz. It was on the more expensive end of the spectrum, at $19 per night for the two of us, but it was the nicest I saw and one of only a few that was actually available over the weekend.

The next day we went on our first expedition, ignoring the myriad tour operators and climbing a few hundred steps to the Mirador del Virgin, which offered an amazing view of the town. From there we took various twisty footpaths up into the hills, following the posted signs to the Mirador del Volcan. The views on the way were amazing, by the time we reached the viewpoint itself we had already been dazzled by the volcano and the most interesting thing was a great view of power lines spanning a small valley.

The next couple of days were rather lazy. We played pool, had nice meals and explored the baths the town is famous for. Ewelina wasn't too impressed by the baths, she correctly observed that they can't really begin to compare with the pools in Iceland. But they were chock full of Ecuadorians who seemed to be having a great time.

By this time the town had become incredibly busy, we were there for the Halloween weekend and, more importantly, the Day of the Dead which is a major holiday here. There was a carnival-like atmosphere in Baños, people everywhere. We went out dancing on Saturday night, and the street with all the clubs was packed with people - young couples mostly, holding hands and dancing.

On our last day in Baños we rented bicycles and went for a ride. Our Lonely Planet had mentioned a 61km mostly-downhill ride from Baños to a town named Puyo, right on the edge of the Amazon Basin. The thought of biking from the Andes to the Amazon was too cool to not at least give it a shot.

In the end we only made it about two thirds of the way, utterly exhausted from all the uphill bits between the fun races downhill. On the way we stopped a few time to admire waterfalls, of which there were many, including Ecuador's most popular, Pailon del Diablo. Seeing it required a short hike, followed by a careful walk across a suspension bridge which only allowed 5 people at once (this rule was consistently broken). After the bridge we scrambled up a crack in the rock behind the falls, to get as close as possible. I stood right under the falls for a moment, getting rather wet from the spray and watching the water raging overhead. Next Ewelina took my spat, but she was helped along by some friendly, grinning Ecuadorian ladies who pushed her right into the wettest spot so she got completely soaked. There was much laughter, and by the time we got back to the bikes she was almost dry again.

After waterfalls and bicycling, Ewelina and I hitched a ride on a very strange truck back up the mountains to Baños. Our bikes were strapped under the truck's platform and we rode up front with the driver and his little family of four. When we got to town he refused payment, in pleasant contrast to what our guidebook said was the norm. Nice people.

Our last evening in Baños was then spent treating ourselves to excellent French food at Le Petit Auberge and playing pool at the Leprechaun pub. The next morning we packed our things and got on a bus to Riobamba, seeking our next adventure: the Devil's Nose train ride.

The past!