“…we stopped at a pulperia, or drinking-shop. During the evening a great number of Gauchos came in to drink spirits and smoke cigars.” p.44

After a little more than a week in the lowland tropics of Perú I was completely thrown by the change of scenery upon my arrival in wintry, über-urban Buenos Aires.  Mike had invited me to crash for the next week at the San Telmo apartment he shares with Guille, Clyde, and Puti, and although I was determined to be a good guest it was hard–insurmountably hard–for me to pretend to enjoy being in the middle of a city.

Things started looking up when Mike and I put together plans to re-trace a little road trip from Buenos Aires to Santa Fe taken by Charles Darwin and documented in his book The Voyage of the Beagle.  In his journal entry for 27 September 1830 he writes, “In the evening I set out on an excursion to St. Fé, which is situated nearly three hundred English miles from Buenos Ayres, on the banks of the Parana.” His return to the capital in late October was impeded by a violent revolution for which rebels had blockaded the city–this was a problem for Darwin, because he needed to rendezvous with Fitzroy and the Beagle or else be left behind.

“I had now been several days without tasting anything besides meat: I did not at all dislike this new regimen; but I felt as if it would only have agreed with me with hard exercise. I have heard that patients in England, when desired to confine themselves exclusively to an animal diet, even with the hope of life before their eyes, have hardly been able to endure it. Yet the Gaucho in the Pampas, for months together, touches nothing but beef. But they eat, I observe, a very large proportion of fat, which is of a less animalised nature; and they particularly dislike dry meat, such as that of the Agouti.” p.123

Darwin made his trip on horseback and had to keep a wary eye out for hostile natives–his visit coincided with the height of a war between European settlers and several hostile factions of native Argentines. In contrast, Mike, Clyde, and I had the advantages of nice roads and a rented Peugot SUV, and we figured we could hit more than a few of the highlights from Darwin’s month-long trip in the span of a day and a half. 🙂

Lunch stop was at a parrilla/pulperia outside of Rosario. An assortment of meats are brought to the table on a mini-parrilla. Meaty. Argentina as I understand it has the highest per capita consumption of beef at 64.6 kg per person in 2009 (wikipedia). This is something that is not dramatically different from Darwin’s time, at least based on the account of his diet while in Argentina.

“Before arriving at Rozario, we crossed the Saladillo, a stream of fine clear running water, but too saline to drink.” p.132

Darwin noted that many of the rivers throughout this area (and even south of Buenos Aires) are salty. Later in our trip we would make a stop at a thermal/mineral springs spa in Victoria, Entre Rios, and the water there was intensely saline.   Problematic for agriculture as well as for livestock, Darwin noted: “All the small rivers became highly saline, and this caused the death of vast numbers in particular spots; for when an animal drinks of such water it does not recover.” (p.142)

“The cliffs are the most picturesque part; sometimes they are absolutely perpendicular, and of a red colour.” p.132

“I reached the place of our bivouac by sunset, and drinking much maté, and smoking several cigaritos, soon made up my bed for the night. The wind was very strong and cold, but I never slept more comfortably.” p.115

Darwin spent most of 1 October 1830 hunting for fossils in the exposed sedimentary rock near the Arroyo Saladillo. Among his findings on that one day were  two large skeletons, one of which was a mastodon, and the tooth of Toxodon, an extinct rhino-like mammal. The eroded sandstone cliffs that Darwin describes in The Voyage of the Beagle are still around, if substantially less inviting for fossil-hunters.  People living at the tops of the cliffs use the precipices as their personal garbage dumps. It’s pretty gross.

“In the morning we arrived at St. Fé. … I was confined for these two days to my bed by a headache. A good-natured old woman, who attended me, wished me to try many odd remedies. A common practice is, to bind an orange-leaf or a bit of black plaster to each temple: and a still more general plan is, to split a bean into halves, moisten them, and place one on each temple, where they will easily adhere.” p.134

Having read The Voyage a while ago, I recalled a few things that I could no longer find as I re-read the book in preparation for this trip. For example, I was sure that there was a passage in which Darwin assocates some positive attributes of Pampas-dwelling native Argentines (compared with the lackluster Fuegians, who didn’t impress Darwin at all) with their heavy consumption of yerba mate, a tea whose caffeine content could certainly account for the “strong work ethic”–or whatever positive character trait that Darwin was (in my memory) describing in his praise of the Pampas natives.  Today mate is drunk by almost all Argentines–and you see people everywhere carrying their mates, bombillas, and thermoses of hot water in specialized totes.  When we got to the city of Paraná (corresponding to the town known as Santa Fé Bajada in Darwin’s time?) we found a cool little shop with a gigantic mate over its storefront.  We bought some stuff, the owner engaged us in conversation for hours, and ultimately pointed us in the direction of a residencial where the three of us could hole up for the night.

“This river is also called the Saladillo, and it deserves the name, for the water is brackish. I stayed here the greater part of the day, searching for fossil bones. Besides a perfect tooth of the Toxodon, and many scattered bones, I found two immense skeletons near each other, projecting in bold relief from the perpendicular cliff of the Parana. They were, however, so completely decayed, that I could only bring away small fragments of one of the great molar teeth; but these are sufficient to show that the remains belonged to a Mastodon, probably to the same species with that which formerly must have inhabited the Cordillera in Upper Peru in such great numbers.” p.134

In the city of Santa Fé proper, there would be little that we could count on to connect with Darwin’s text. When it comes to human settlements things will have changed beyond recognition–several times–over the course of 180 years.  As sort of a joke I asked Mike to stop at a pharmacy, where I walked in and complained of a headache. The treatment I was recommended and sold was a bit more familiar than what Darwin received when he was here.

“We continued to ride over plains of the same character. At San Nicolas I first saw the noble river of the Parana.” p.133

I found it deeply disturbing that throughout this entire trip we found almost no form of commemoration of Darwin’s presence. We stopped at several points to ask locals if there was any kind of monument or statue of Darwin. In most cases we got directions to the only monuments of which they were aware–I think one was a memorial to the unknown meat-industry-worker in Rosario (but that might be a flaw in my interpretation of Spanish). I got the feeling that few here are even aware of who Darwin was, and those who recognize the name are surprised to find that this corner of Argentina figures significantly in one of his most well-received works.

So we were thrilled to find “Darwin” on a wall (it looked like a street name, though on a map the same street had a different name), near the Arroyo Saladillo.  This was the only vague glimmer of commemoration that we encountered in our trip. There are actually two Saladillos mentioned in The Voyage, and it’s likely the second one (which Darwin notes is also known as the Tercero) that was the site of his fossil findings. We crossed over an Arroyo Tercero as well, but this was well after dark and not a good time for us to pull off to look for Darwin souvenirs.

“At some future day this must be one of the richest countries of La Plata. The soil is varied and productive; and its almost insular form gives it two grand lines of communication by the rivers Parana and Uruguay.” p.135

“The wooded banks of the great rivers appear to be the favourite haunts of the jaguar; but south of the Plata, I was told that they frequented the reeds bordering lakes: wherever they are, they seem to require water.” p. 142

The Paraná is an immense river of almost the same scale as the Amazon. Its watershed includes most if not all of the nation of Paraguay as well as sizable portions of Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina.  When Sharkey and I went to Mato Grosso do Sul a few years ago, we swam in this same watershed, two countries away.

Darwin’s marvel at the economic potential of the Entre Rios–this area between the Paraná and the Río Uruguay (which is also the border with the nation of Uruguay) is clear from his words of praise in The Voyage.  Even today the area’s economy focuses on productivity of the land–however, things are changing dramatically.  The tradition of strictly free-range Argentine beef has been violated, and the use of US-style feedlots is growing rapidly. The vast acreage of what used to be pasture is being converted for the cultivation of soya. And in case you’re wondering, all of this soya is exported to Asia and not being made into high-quality Argentine tofu.

“Owing to bad weather we remained two days at our moorings. Our only amusement was catching fish for our dinner: there were several kinds, and all good eating. A fish called the “armado” (a Silurus) is remarkable from a harsh grating noise which it makes when caught by hook and line, and which can be distinctly heard when the fish is beneath the water. This same fish has the power of firmly catching hold of any object, such as the blade of an oar or the fishing-line, with the strong spine both of its pectoral and dorsal fin.” p.143-144

With the hopes of seeing some relatively undisturbed Paraná habitat, we targeted the Pre-Delta National Park, just outside of the town of Diamante.  At the time of our visit, the availability of activities here was truly bare-bones: two very short trails that would offer visitors a very short nature hike/bird watch opportunity.  The majority of the park’s acreage (which is really not large at all) was inaccessible.  Still Mike was able to exercise Clyde and we got to see some wildlife, including the small parrot that Darwin mentions in The Voyage.

Having explored this part of the Paraná, Darwin was supposed to sail/float back down to Río de la Plata and ultimately to Buenos Aires on a balandra, a single-masted vessel that was also carrying one hundred tons of unspecified cargo. But a spell of lousy weather combined with a wimpy captain–and Darwin suggested as much (“In the evening, the wind being not quite fair, as usual we immediately moored, and the next day, as it blew rather freshly, though with a favouring current, the master was much too indolent to think of starting.” p.148)–kept them from making a lot of progress back towards the capital and Darwin’s arranged meeting with Fitzroy. On the plus side, it gave Darwin a chance to do some fishing.

“A small green parrot (Conurus murinus), with a grey breast, appears to prefer the tall trees on the islands to any other situation for its building-place. A number of nests are placed so close together as to form one great mass of sticks.” p.146

It is truly unfair to my hosts that I have only this one blog entry for my enitre week in Argentina, compared with several posts for an approximately equal time spent in Perú. I greatly enjoyed the time spent with Mike and Guille. Their lives near the heart of a large capital city–we walked from the apartment to the Casa Rosada on my first afternoon there–is at once familiar (I grew up in one big city and endured another for grad school) and foreign. I suppose I could have made more of an effort to see the city through the eyes of someone who cares about the Museum of Whatever or the Cathedral of St. Yadda, or tangoing in the Plaza de Qualquier Cosa or strolling down the Avenida Muymuy Ancha (this stroll is, btw, something I actually did!).  Yes, I really should have made this effort.

“How different would have been the aspect of this river if English colonists had by good fortune first sailed up the Plata! What noble towns would now have occupied its shores!” p.147

But I came to Argentina to visit Mike, not Buenos Aires. We ate some beef and sipped some mate, which is exactly what I expected to happen. We’ve known each other since seventh grade, and our exchanges today are not appreciably different from the way we got along thirtysomething years ago. Making the acquaintances of Clyde, Guille, and Puti was also part of the plan, and that went well also.

“We then rode on to our sleeping-place, and had for supper ‘carne con cuero,’ or meat roasted with the skin on it. This is as superior to common beef as venison is to mutton.” p.199

The Darwin-themed trip was also sort of planned–it’s what I suggested to Mike as a possible “fun outing” in our email exchanges before I came.  Mostly, however, it was done in the same spur-of-the-moment, impulsive, hair-up-your-ass kind of mindset that I think Darwin had when he was here.  Keep in mind that it was a strapping young Charles who took the journey in 1830–not the ancient-looking bearded gentleman that comes up if you google “Darwin.”  The man was truly an epic badass. If you haven’t read The Voyage, I highly recommend it–even moreso than Origin.


Parade of fruit


clockwise from left: dale-dale, pan de árbol (in bag), granadilla, cacao, macambo seed, pan de árbol

[This is really a post-script to what is otherwise a completed blog series. Karen was our designated documenter-of-fruits, and I couldn’t post this without consulting with her–a bit difficult as she is presently in Massachusetts. After a couple of email exchanges, we’ve put this together as what will be the final post for my blog of South America 2011.]

As I saw it, nearly all vegetable matter we sampled (with the exception of citrus, banana, guava, and pineapple) would be unfamiliar to a typical norteamericano. Even some of the familiar items would turn out to offer surprises–I (embarrassingly) never actually ate a straight-up regular banana while I was there, figuring that it wouldn’t be appreciably different from the ones we buy in the states. Karen now tells me that they were way better and that she downed twelve of them just in the couple of days after I left.  Sheesh.

The parade of exotic fruit started from shortly after my arrival. Seth, having lived in Iquitos since October of 2010, knew what most things were, but we bought interesting produce all the time–usually something Karen or I couldn’t recognize at a market or on the stand of a street vendor. Other times–such as during one of the botanical tours–we would be shown a tree in someone’s huerta and if there was a ripe fruit available we could for a sol or two get one opened on the spot for an immediate sample.  Here’s a running list of the fruit, compiled from my notes and Karen’s.

camu camu on the property of the gentleman who sold us leva nearby to the River Itaya

Camu-camu. Myrciaria dubia in the Myrtaceae –we bought some from a street vendor and prepared and agua fresca back a the hostel. a very tart, small dark red fruit with a rather large seed. washed, then placed in a bowl submerged with water and crushed by hand, forming a chunky juice which was then strained; added  sugar to taste…very refreshing.  Making an agua fresca seems to be the principal way in which this fruit is consumed–I didn’t see any other preparations. The plants are tall bushes that grow on the riverbanks in the flooded zone, i.e., dry during the low-water period but under water when the river is high.  It turns out that I have a congener of this plant (Myrciaria cauliflora, the Jaboticaba) growing in my back yard–it’s a very slow-growing plant.

Mocambo. Theobroma bicolorin the Malvaceae–formerly classified within the Sterculiaceae (for the benefit of the geezers ;-)) – first, we enjoyed the creamy, flesh inside this large pod, then you remove the seeds and roast–slightly salted, they make a great snack!  This was definitely a favorite. We first encountered just the roasted seeds at a fruit stand, and they were so good that from then on they sort of became an obsession.

seed, right out of the fruit and covered by creamy, fragrant, sweet pulp

Compared with other items toasted mocambo seeds were a bit pricey, and when Karen found them in a supermarket in a packaged-food form, they were singly wrapped–little did we know at the time how labor-intensive their preparation was.  We also found them being roasted on skewers at the market in Bellavista Nanay.

endosperm after peeling away the seed coat. it looks like the germ got bitten off of this one

It wasn’t until Wilder opened up a whole fruit for us at Yanayacu (see video) that we got a full appreciation for the whole fruit.  The outer shell is very tough and can be dried hard for use in handicrafts (there was a goblet made from a mocambo shell at our hostel). The creamy pulp surrounding the seeds is fragrant–reminiscent of durian, though much less strong–and sweet.  And after eating off the fleshy part, the slimy remains are slippery and hard to hold as you’re trying to peel off the leathery seed coat to expose the edible endosperm and germ.  It’s a lot of work–pleasant work, though–to get just one of the seeds to fry or roast for a snack.  Between Wilder, Seth, Karen, and me, we peeled all twenty or so of the seeds that was in the fruit that Wilder opened.

the inflorescence of Artocarpus gives rise to a multifaceted globular compound fruit

Pan de árbol. Artocarpus camansi in the Moraceae. This was identified for us as “breadfruit,” but on further investigation (at home), the true breadfruit is not seeded and is a different species, A. altilis. This plant we saw and tasted was really the breadnut, which is closely related to breadfruit. Both breadnut and breadfruit are not native to Peru, originating in southeast Asia. We purchased the cooked seeds (which look like a small chestnut) from a roadside stand. starchy texture. I can sort of understand this as adding body and calories to a larger, more complex dish, but peeling these pistachio-sized chestnuts for a lump of bland foodstuff was not particularly inspiring.

some good stuff to take back to the hostel for later: that's a pineapple on the left (Karen's right) and a copazú, which Seth later turned into a lovely frullato

Copazú. Theobroma grandiflorum in the Malvaceae. Karen’s notes has this as having a very pungent aroma, though I remembering that it smelled kinda nice.  (Then again, I love the smell of skunks.) Although we bought a nice copoasú, neither Karen nor I were unable to document its opening and preparation, all because of Seth. 😀 This sneaky kid goes and opens the thing and makes an agua fresca when we weren’t looking. The drink was white-ish with a pale green tinge, kind of like what you might expect for a honeydew licuado.  The fragrance was not strong at all, and I remember thinking that it was good, though I can’t recall the flavor well enough to describe it.

Since the pic with Karen also shows a pineapple (Ananas comosus of the Bromeliaceae), I ought to mention that while this is grown as a cash crop in this area, it is not native to the Amazon basin (though it is native to South America).

dale-dale look and taste incredibly like potatoes, but peeled and eaten raw they have a crisper texture.

Dale-dale. Calathea allouia in the Marantaceae, which is the arrow-root family. The tubers look and taste remarkably like small potatoes (in the literal sense and not the metaphorical “small potatoes”). The texture of the dale-dale, which are peeled and eaten raw, is crisp and watery–more water-chestnut-like than potato-like. This is another crop native to this part of the world.

It appears there dozens of species of Calathea (and perhaps other genera of Marantaceae) that grow around here, and I should mention that the larger-leaved varieties are harvested for use in the preparation of juanes–the tamales made with rice instead of masa.

aguaje palm fruit for sale at the market in Bellavista Nanay. the labor-intensive part of peeling off the tough, red shell is done by skilled hands.

Aguaje. Mauritia flexuosa in the Arecaceae. The oval-shaped fruit of this palm–about the size of a large kiwi–are brownish red before peeling. Displays of the peeled fruits add brilliant color to every market we saw in Iquitos. The edible part is really just the thin layer of richly flavored (not sweet) orange pulp between the hard shell and a leathery seed coat, and a large, inedible seed makes up the bulk of what you buy. Two approaches to eating the thing are A) just scrape the orange stuff off with one’s incisors, and B) peel the seed coat off with the pulp and scrape the good stuff off like one does with artichoke leaves.  I liked the second approach much better. The orange pulp is also mixed with sugar and water to make a very nice beverage and also to make some yummy popsicles–which Seth loves–and are sold by street vendors.

yummy suri grubs--larvae of the giant palm weevil Rhynchophorus palmarum--are harvested from rotten aguaje palm trunks and stewed or roasted for a fine (if greasy) snack food

The aguaje fruits may be harvested by climbing mature trees and cutting off the infructescenses, but sometimes the trees are just cut.  The advantage to killing the tree is that it makes habitat for the suri grubs–large, edible larvae of what must be one big beetle.  The suri are therefore also kind of a “food product” from the aguaje palm, and they are truly delicious, either stewed or roasted.

the cashew nut is inside the little thingie on the left. the rest of the fruit is a seed-free mass of mildly sweet pulp (when ripe)

Cashú. Anacardium occidentale in the Anacardiaceae. What we all know as cashew nuts are just a part of the much larger fruit that we never see in our markets.  The large, seedless fruit to which the nut-sack attaches (sorry, that’s just what it is), is a mild-flavored pulpy fruit widely used throughout the tropics as the base of a fruit drink. We picked fresh from the tree, the one we sampled wasn’t quite ripe.

Another Spanish name for the cashew is marañón, which is also the name of the river we set sail from in Nauta–one of two rivers (the other being the Ucayali) that become the Amazon River in Perú.

Granadilla. Passiflora ligularis (I think) in the Passifloraceae. Compared with the P. edulis that I grow at home in California, this fruit has a softer, pulpier skin and sweeter (or at least less acid) juice.  I have had other varieties of maracujá elsewhere, and to me this was pleasant though not as good as the large, orange variety found in Brazil.

cacao pod, opened and showing the pulp-covered seeds. The pulp is the part you eat fresh

Cacao. Theobroma cacao in the Malvaceae. This was kind of an old friend for me–I’d had it a few times before (not counting in the form of chocolate). You open the shell to expose rows of seeds covered by a slimy, fragrant and very sweet pulp. Toss a couple in your mouth, suck the pulp off, and then spit out the seeds. Yum.

Sapote. Hmmm. another embarrassing gap in my records–no notes and no pics.  I do recall a pleasant, sweet flavor and a very sticky sap–particularly in the skin. Fruits known as “sapote” may come from either the Sapotaceae or the Rutaceae, and based on the stickiness I’m inclined to think that the green fruit we ate (on a couple of occasions) were in the former group.  But I’m not sure.

For my last couple of days in Peru, the plan is to keep things simple and relatively close to home. Seth has one more sample he needs to collect at a field site–a bioluminescent fungus that lives in the bark of one of his trees. After that he and Karen will be at work deciding which of his belongings are going to stay in long term storage at the IIAP station and either pitching or packing the rest. They will be leaving Peru and returning to the States, just a couple of days after I’m heading onwards to Argentina.

Seth’s sites are something like twenty kilometers farther down the Iquitos-to-Nauta highway. He probably doesn’t need more than a few minutes to do his collection at one of the sites but wants to show us a couple of different important habitats that we haven’t yet seen: varillal and chamisal, both growing on patches of white sand soils, which is nutrient-poor as compared with the red clay that is the more common soil type in the Amazon.

For most of the earth’s history the Amazon flowed in directions different from its present manifestation, initially draining the western half of the supercontinent of Gondwanaland before South America split off from Africa. With the South American plate moving westward and into/over the Nazca plate, the resulting orogeny gave rise to the Andes on the western edge of the continent like a geologic beaver dam, blocking the great river’s access to the Pacific. In the ensuing epochs, enormous inland seas form and drain. There’s a period where the basin drains northward into the Caribbean, but that stops after uplift of the the northwestern edge of the South American plate extends eastward across Venezuela. An inland sea forms again until finally a path out and into the Atlantic opens up, and that’s my oversimplified paleo-hydrological understanding of how things got to the way they are today. The Amazon drains the largest and one of the most rainy (15-25 meters of rain per year) watersheds in the world. That comes to something close to 300,000 cubic meters of water per second during high-flow periods. The size of the river is unimaginable until it is seen.

embiopterids are easily located by the shield of silk that covers them on the trunk of a tree

But let’s get back to Seth and his scientific focus. Given that the Amazon basin has never had much opportunity for uplift, it is very flat. And given its history, the soils tend to be the fine-grained stuff–silt and clay eroded from outlying highlands and deposited as lake bottom. There’s hardly a rock to be found around here. Different sediments from different sources vary in their quality–the silts washed off of the Andes most recently is very fertile while the patches of white sand–eroded from who-knows-where but it is much older stuff–is comparatively devoid of nutrients. This low-lying part of the Peruvian Amazon is especially patchy in soil type, and when you add the fact that parts of the forest become flooded during high-water periods and some areas drain nicely and others stay mucky, this adds yet another dimension of diversity of the “physical environment.” If you were to strip away all the life from this area, you’d still be looking at a lot of variation despite the fact that topologically it’s a relatively flat and featureless landscape.

"huffing" the crushed leaflet from a volatile Protium

Instead of being the classic “highly diverse rain forest” you might associate with upland tropical forest, this area is characterized as a mosaic of diverse kinds of forest with no one type having great numbers of species (low alpha diversity) but having an impressive level of biodiversity when taken on a larger scale that incorporates the different habitats (high beta diversity).  People studying biodiversity in these parts gravitate towards questions about how the soil heterogeneity may or may not contribute to overall diversity in an evolutionary way–i.e., did new species originate within this area because of the patchy nature of soil types. I think Seth’s doc advisor is one of these people.

Well, that’s making a short story long. The point of it all is that after nearly a week in Peru we still hadn’t seen the reason for Seth’s being here. And as things turned out, we wouldn’t get to–not this time, anyways.  Up to this point our trip had been perfectly free of unforeseen delays–we had been able to cram our activities and new experiences in one after another, pausing only at the end of the day when I could scarcely muster up the energy before crashing to put some words into these blog entries to make the framework for what could be later be completed into the posts you’re seeing here. But now. A chubasco struck, making the prospect of a 26 km mototaxi ride less than appealing (but giving me time to write in my room at the hostel, which was good I suppose). With the weather clearing later in the morning, Seth headed out to the IIAP station to make the solution he uses for collection. By the time Karen and I met up with him there it was time for a very late lunch, leaving us with not nearly enough time to make it to the distant field sites.

an as-yet-undescribed species of Protium. we know at least that this is one of the volatile forms

We opted instead for a visit to a site just past Zungarococha, a community where Seth is considering making a home when he comes back to Peru next June. Though it’s not far from the IIAP Quistococha station, the road there is unpaved and badly rutted, and our mototaxi’s front tire was already low at the outset but was completely flat before too long And so we had to walk the rest of the way–which we all wanted to do anyway since the mototaxi ride was both painfully bumpy and painfully slow.

Seth finally got a chance to show us some Protium, the funny little plants that claim part of his fascination–at least the part that he’s obliged to show in order to keep his doc advisor pleased with him. Protium’s family, the Burseraceae, is the source of both frankincense and myrrh, and we had found some copal (local frankincense, the solidified resin of Protium copal) for sale in the market at Belen.  The Protium of the Amazon are basically divided into three kinds: sap with highly volatile aromatics, sap with latex, and clear sap.  The volatile ones actually spew out a little hydrocarbon-y aerosol when a leaflet is broken off from the rachis. They’re like living butane canisters and should come with signs cautioning people to not smoke nearby.

found throughout the neotropics, Paraponera is called the "bullet ant" after the way it hurts if you get bitten and stung (more like two bullets)

After having a bit of a survey of three or four species of Protium and a good number of Protium look-alikes, other plants and arthropods, it was time to return to the city.  We walked most of the way back to the highway, past an agricultural station of the university, a swimming hole (located near a pig farm and it smelled a bit, too), Zungarococha, and then we caught a mototaxi to take us back to the station.

Later back at the hostel we had a beer-tasting for my final night in Iquitos–actually Karen and I had already decided that Cusqueña was hands-down the best option (though not an Amazonian brew), and we were just trying to determine the runner-up.

Cusqueña (the blond one, not the dark one in this pic), was easily the most drinkable of the beers we tried

We theoretically could have made it out to see the chamisal the next day (same day as my departure), we never did-the weather in the morning was again not especially cooperative. Instead, we went through our photos from the trip, taking a few notes to help jar our memories when it came time to catalog and document.  After I left Karen and Seth spent the remaining time–two days–just packing and cleaning. Yeah, I pretty much just stayed through the fun part and when there was work to do I was gone already. Upon returning to the states Seth was headed first to a wedding, then to Woods Hole for a summer course, then on to Berkeley for the regular grad student-y stuff (like teaching undergrads). Karen will be in New England, near her family home, for a while.

My next stop will be in Argentina, on a visit to my good friend Mike who lives in Buenos Aires.

Wilder, the guide


Wilder could identify most plants to species and also place them within their taxonomic families

Wilder is 33 years old and a native of San Juan de Yanayacu. His home is one of the dozen or so huts lining the river, all built on stilts to stay relatively dry when the river crests at a high water mark that predictably will reach to a few inches below the floor–and if it gets any higher the families just retreat back into the forest until the water drops. All together the residents of San Juan de Yanayacu number somewhere around forty adults, and all of their names are written on a chalkboard as you enter the village.

Wilder’s mother died only six months after he was born, and he lost his father during the cholera epidemic of the early 1990s. Thus from the age of ten, he and his older brother brought themselves up in their home village. Wilder served in the army, and after returning from war (I think Peru was at war with Ecuador at around the time he was soldier-age) he got a job with the tour company that we used, and eventually this led to his job as ecotourism guide, a profession that perfectly fits the person he is.

He speaks effusively and with great animation in a way that allows a listener with only a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish to understand pretty well. Although he knows the names of almost all the life in the forest by their names in Spanish, English, Quechua (a local dialect deriving from a blend of Spanish and a language of Andean origin), and Latin, Wilder speaks only Spanish and Quechua. If his English were better, he might be wooed away from this tour company by higher salaries that could be paid by companies catering specifically to visitors from non-Latin countries. I’m not sure guides for those companies actually are paid more, but you’d think they would be, given that some of those tours are costing ten times what we paid. In any case Wilder feels a strong loyalty to this tour agency, and if I were in the management I’d want to make sure to keep Wilder happy.

When he’s not away shepherding visitors into, out of, and around the reserve, Wilder lives with his wife and six kids in a house built on stilts overlooking the Yanayacu. Entering from a stairway you come into one of the structure’s two main rooms. The first room has a couple of spare pequi-pequi engines on the floor as well as half a dozen nesting hens. There’s also a wooden strongbox closed off by a hasp and padlock–I’m imagining this is where all valuable possessions would go, since the open nature of homes here–no door or complete walls anywhere in the house except for the strongbox–provides little security against theft.

Wilder's home is the one with the balcony.

The second room has a steel basin for wood-fueled cooking fires. All water comes directly from the river and is boiled to sanitize prior to drinking. As an off-topic note I watched once as Wilder took a long drink from the river directly, though he said that by no means should we follow him in that particular example. For our canteen refills the lodge supplied purified water from Iquitos.

There was also a small balcony extending off the front of the house facing the river. Every time our pequi-pequi passed the village Wilder waved to his kids who were watching and waving back from the balcony. It was a bit unsettling to see four or more little kiddies perched on a small platform some fifteen feet off the ground, but Wilder laughed and said that the only time they get concerned about kids on the balcony is when the river is high, because because being farther out into the river, the water would be flowing faster under the balcony compared with the flow underneath the floors of their house, and at these times they do keep a much more watchful eye over the niños.

being a good guide doesn't mean taking yourself seriously all the time

The account I’ve written so far is based either on what Wilder told us about himself or what I have observed directly. I’m now going to extend more speculatively on the bigger question of what Wilder is all about, and why he so deeply impressed Seth, Karen, and me as a sort of beacon of the hope that we all should have for the continued preservation of the exquisite beauty of the Peruvian Amazon.

sky and treetops on the Yanayacu reserve

From our discussions with even urban Iquiteños, it was clear that people are aware of how human exploitation has eroded the quality of habitat. It’s too damned easy to make the case that pollution and overfishing have not been sustainable activities on, say, the River Itaya. Anyone older than ten can reminisce about times when the water was cleaner and fish more abundant. No one, however, is old enough to remember when the Itaya had anything close to the abundance of life seen in places like the river around Wilder’s home. So splitting time between his home and Iquitos Wilder more than anyone has the awareness of what has been lost, and in his job he demonstrates a strong sense of pride in not only the marvels that a relatively pristine Amazon habitat offers but also the way in which his village can maintain that habitat through sustainable land use and a community effort, which is in certain ways better than protection through governmental fiat. Yes, the government can establish an immense national park and restrict development and exploitation within the park boundaries, and logistically speaking it is a gargantuan or impossible task to oversee enforcement of sustainable practices in a national park the size of Pacaya-Samiria. At Madre de Dios, another huge national park in the south of Peru, illegal gold mining by tens of thousands of people has destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary forest and dumps something like 40,000 kg of mercury into the environment annually. It’s just crazy stupid, stupid shit. When sustainable practices are imposed from the outside there’s not going be any real buy-in on the part of the people.  Contrast that with situations where the reserve is manageably sized and if the impetus for preservation and the enforcement of sustainability is generated by the residents–this is the ideal described by Wilder of his “home reserve” on the Yanayacu.

clean, trash-free water with tons of fish, abundant animals, and primary forest are the key attractions of protected areas in Peru

Wilder is also a naturally-gifted educator and a leader. If there’s ever a need for passionate advocacy for continuation and further growth of the Yanayacu reserve, I can see Wilder being right there, speaking to the way that the quality of life in the village is directly proportional to the quality of habitat and size of the reserve–both from the standpoint of revenue from ecotourist visitors as well as the availability of wild foods–fish in particular.

Wilder's favorite hat

the leaves of this mature Victoria amazonica were approximately 1.60 meters in diameter

Wilder came to our hut to wake us up at 2:05am (and yes, we asked him to do this since none of us had alarm clocks). By 2:30 we were heading downriver on a pequi-pequi with 12-year old Danilo as boatman. There would be no stops along the way as our destination was quite distant–about an hour and a half away. We went down the Yanayacu almost to its mouth with the Amazon and followed one of its tributaries to one of the lagunas pantanales–floodplain lakes adjacent to the Amazon.

Victoria amazonica flower

Our objective was to see a natural stand of Victoria amazonica, the giant water lily that I had seen only in botanical gardens–most recently in Japan at one of the hells of Beppu. Easily recognized by its enormous round leaves that look kinda like gigantic pizza pans, there is enough buoyancy to support a small child. Just seeing this plant under any circumstance (especially for the first time) is a mesmerizing experience. Seeing it in nature is sort of a biologist’s dream–at least for this biologist. Seeing it flower was just a geeky, over-the-edge thing i thought I’d ask for, and when Wilder agreed to do take us out on a nocturnal flower-watching trip I was just blown away. My most excellent traveling companions Seth and Karen were down, and this is how we ended up on an Amazonian lake well before sunrise. During the daytime the flowers look more or less like purple-ish tennis balls just below or just above the water’s surface. At night the flowers open and attract beetle pollinators.

the beetle seen here had been trapped by the petals of the flower--part of the pollination mechanism

I had seen Victoria a few times before, but I was still struck by the size of the leaves in this stand. We estimated the largest leaves to be over 160 cm in diameter. The open flower was a spectacular spray of magnolia-like mostly-white petals (I think they start out purple, though) and as large around at its base as a dinner plate. We saw a few cane toads hanging out on the enormous pads (maybe taking advantage of the beetle traffic into and out of the flowers?).

el amanecer

For the next hour or so–as we waited to witness an Amazon sunrise–Wilder entertained us with some pretty weird stories that blended his village’s history with traditional folklore. Danilo slept curled up on one of the boat’s seats using my backpack for a pillow.

ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis sp. This is one of three plants revered throughout the Amazon as a gift to the Amazonian people from the great anaconda god at the beginning of time. (The other two were manioc and coca.)

Once the sun was well up it was time for us to return to the lodge to pack for the trip back to Nauta. Looking back on our time at the Yanayacu lodge, we really did a lot in a very short time. I could see myself coming to know the plants, fish, and birds much better with a few more days or weeks in a place like this. Seth was actually considering buying his own spot along the river in the village. All he would need is a boat and a place to hang his hammock (and mosquitero!).

Psychotria, source of a key ingredient in the ayahuasca mixture

chacruna, apparently a mint, also used in the ayahuasca mixture--perhaps to mitigate its horrible flavor

tobacco (the small plant with only a couple of leaves at the top, and a chopping block for ayahuasca bark

We had a little delay at the village–the lodge manager had forgotten an important bit of luggage and had to make a run back to pick it up before we could push onwards towards Nauta. I took this advantage to press Wilder for one more little tour focusing on the ayahuasca plant that he had told us he knew about in the forest near the village. A short hike over some sloppy terrain brought us to the promised Banisteriopsis, which turned out to be a rather young plant and more of a vine than a liana. Nearby was a shaman’s hut where the resident shaman performed the ayahuasca ceremony. Wilder showed us the other plants involved in the mixture, which involves boiling down an aqueous extract of several plants into a small volume that is drunk by both the shaman and his “patient.” The ensuing effects typically involves a lot of vomiting and psychedelic visions of becoming an animal–the anaconda and jaguar figure heavily in one version of a trip, while another common result is being attacked by alien robots (or so I’m told).  The active ingredient of ayahuasca is a beta-carboline which tends to be degraded by monoamine oxidases in the gut–no good if the psychotropic chemical gets broken down before it can have its effect (all that vomiting and no robots–that would suck). This is why mixing ayahuasca with another plant, specifically the tryptamine-containing Psychotria, is important. Tryptamines serve two purposes. First they inhibit the monoamine oxidases, thus allowing the ayahuasca chemical to stick around for long enough to get absorbed. Second, they are psychotropic in their own right, so you end up getting a double-whammy of mind-warping fun (or so I’m told). The other plant agents that are added to the mixture–Wilder said that a mint-like chacruna, forest tobacco, and highly caffeinated yoco plant were also essential in the ayahuasca potion–vary substantially in different parts of the Amazon.

ajo-sacha, which means (in Quechua) "like garlic"--indeed the wood of this liana smelled exactly like garlic

I was a bit disappointed to see the set-up here. The Banisteriopsis was really just a sapling and appeared to be planted for the purpose of adding credibility to having a resident shaman who could perform the ayahuasca ceremony for the benefit of tourists.

pink river dolphin. according to Quechua legend the river dolphins transform into young men to seduce village women by their most excellent dance moves.

On trip back we made a short stop for a swim at a sandy beach on the Amazon frequented by dolphins. Getting back under way, the bright, sunny weather we enjoyed at the beach was replaced by a violent chubasco, through which Wilder had to stand watch at the prow to alert the boatman in the back to floating logs and other water hazards.

On returning to Iquitos we had dinner at el Zorrito–a favored eatery among Iquiteños–to celebrate the completion of an unforgettably splendid excursion. This wasn’t a first choice for us, and we were probably lucky with Seth’s slightly random decision to walk into the tour office that we did. I strongly suspect that the quality of experience offered by companies varies widely. If anyone wants the specifics of the tour operator that we went with, just ask.

Yanayacu, part 2


Apart from getting eaten alive by zancudos last evening’s hike was fun–not too ambitious, as there was little daylight left. It turned out to be a before-dinner thing, and after dinner Wilder took us out on a pequi-pequi to look for caiman.

many trees are protected by herbivore- and climbing- deterrent thorns

sap of the Hura tree is toxic and causes skin burns

Of all the scary things lurking in the forest, one of the nastiest is Hura, a tree that flows with highly toxic sap that also causes serious skin burns. I might insert here a story about the hapless dude who shimmies up one of these bad boys with spurred tree-climbing boots and ends up in the hospital with chemical burns over most of his body. Wilder demonstrated respect for the tree’s toxic potential with the way he stood at a distance from the trunk while poking it with a machete and then stepping quickly back. The pressure was great enough for the sap to squirt out and then flow freely from the tiny wound.

four bats huddled in the hollow of a tree

We saw some mammal life— group of four bats huddled in the overhang of a partly hollowed tree, a family of night monkeys watched us from a high tree, an arboreal rodent peeked out from its tree-hole. Wilder showed us a cannonball fruit and explained how if we heard any loud wood-on-wood knocking sounds from the forest, it would probably be the black capuchin monkeys breaking these fruit open by slamming them against a tree trunk. Underneath the hard, heavy shell is a purple meat that is pungent and sour and is used by the monkeys as a purgative treatment for parasites.

The caiman hunt was our first encounter with Danilo, a twelve-year old whom I had seen chopping wood for the lodge’s kitchen. The strategy was a familiar one–use a flashlight to spot the animals by the red reflected back by their eyes. Caiman here hide out for the whole day coming out to hunt by night. We were advised that while it’s mostly safe to swim in the river during the day, swimming at night was a very bad idea because of the caiman and also a good abundance of electric eel, another nocturnal threat.

note the red eyes and mosquito-covered back and legs on this smoky jungle frog

bespectacled Seth, spectacled caiman, bespectacled Karen. the guy wearing contacts does not belong in this picture

On spotting a caiman Wilder would direct Danilo to guide the boat towards the animal and using bankside trees and vines to pull us towards the animal. Where the tangles of vegetation were too thick to penetrate, Wilder went on foot and with just a bit of effort came back to the bpat first with a small black caiman in one hand and a large frog (Leptodactylus? Rana?) in the other. Not long after that, Wilder missed at an attempt at a larger spectacled caiman but managed to find it again. Apparently they don’t always swim away after being attacked. On a brief stop on the bank we spotted a red-eyed frog that was covered by feeding mosquitos. The whole time we were on the water fishing bats swooped around, occasionally we could see one touch the water briefly but I didn’t get to see a fish taken. There were plenty of fish to be had–it’s easy to see how even random skimming of the water is likely to pay off with all the fish a bat could eat. In the course of paddling or motoring through the river, it’s not unusual to have several fish jump into the boat.

one of a few of the fishies that jumped into the boat

Things we heard but did not see included river dolphin, which make a loud, low, resonant grunt as they surface to breathe I didn’t hear when we saw dolphin during the day–possibly because the noise of the pequi-pequi drowned it out. Another loud voice of the forest that I never got to put with a face was that of the horned screamer, which is described as a sort of jungle turkey though it sounds like an angry monkey 😉

not a bird, but the one animal that we could get a good pic of while birding. this is a large freshwater snail called "churro"

Early the next morning we took a paddle-only birding excursion for about a kilometer down from the lodge. Several species of wading birds, of course. The largest of these was a white heron–I don’t recall seeing any storks, though. Raptors included the mama vieja (black-collared hawk), a black caracara and a golden caracara. Another spectacular sighting that is common in this part of the Amazon is the kingfisher known locally as catalán and is the largest of five kingfisher species native to this area. We saw a large woodpecker which I think is the Guayaquil species and looks like the Ivory-billed woodpecker that I doubt I’ll ever see. Several passerines, too–there’s the kiskadee named after what it seems to be saying with its call, “Victor Dias” according to Wilder, though I remember deciding in Costa Rica that bird was really saying, “Mira a los gringos!” Small parrots called “paraquitos” flocked above the treetops, and larger parrots like green and red macaws flew in and out of view. Chestnut-cheeked aracaris were the only toucans I saw. Not being much of a birder, I still managed to get a good look and listen at species that would be “holy crap” moments most anywhere else.

what started out as a whole sardina was attacked mercilessly by carnivorous piraña

After breakfast we took a pequi-pequi with Wilder and Danilo to do a little fishing in one of the lakes adjacent to the river. Using tackle that’s a bit more primitive than what I’m used to (stick, line, swivel, hook) and chicken skin for bait, we caught sardina, sábalo, piraña, and pacú (the “vegetarian piraña”). Kept a few of the bigger ones for dinner.

looks like a sábalo and a pacú on the bottom of the boat

After lunch, we had time for a quick swim in the river before the whole group was heading over to the village–Canadians to play friendly soccer match with the local kids and for us there would be botanical/cultural tour. For me the swim would be the one opportunity I had to wash some of the stench off my shirt–I just swam a few meters with the shirt on before wringing it out and hanging it to dry. Once the shirt was off and I was about twenty meters downstream I learned that human in the water here is just another thing for the fish to gnaw at. I was being pecked at–and rather aggressively–and that image of the cow being skeletonized in a piranha-themed horror film burgled into my consciousness. It didn’t help knowing that there were most certainly carnivorous piranha in the Yanaycu (as well as caiman, stingrays, and electric eels), and the effect was unsettling enough for me to not want to stay in the water for very long.

the stove in Wilder's house makes use of a real wood cooking fire

The list of fish I either caught or ate in Peru would go something like this: sardina, corvina, pacu (aka “vegetarian piranha”), sábalo, piranha (the carnivorous one), donzella (a large spotted catfish that I didn’t make note of as a whole fish but we ate some at the Yanayacu lodge). In addition, we saw plenty of the tiny mojarrita in the water–I had experienced these little biters in Brazil and I’d guess that they were taking part when I was the main dish in the feeding frenzy. Locals love an armored catfish that is common in these waters. The staff at the lodge had some in their canoe, and I saw them being roasted by a street vendor in Nauta. Plenty of others I saw on grills and in the market that I didn’t have time to try–for me that’s a good enough reason to come back for another trip.

the macambo seeds we helped prepare earlier in the day. sauteed by the lodge cook

On the botanical tour the plants Wilder showed us were mostly the useful plants that he kept in his huerta for food and for medicine. Wilder also showed us his home–I’ll do a short post on this later. This was also where I spent 60 soles on tchotchkes handmade locally and entirely from forest products–truly beautiful stuff, and I really wish I had more than 60 soles in my pocket. We bought a macambo and dismantled it on a bench near Wilder’s house, eating the sweet, creamy, and aromatic pulp off the seeds and then peeling the seed coat off and saving the endosperm for dinner. And yes, we actually did get to eat some of the fish we caught as well as the macambo as a very special “second dinner” after we had polished off the meal that was served to everyone. Food at the lodge was generally excellent.

After a full day we are retiring early, as tomorrow will start with a 2:30 am wake-up. Wilder has agreed to take us to view the flowering of the giant water lily, Victoria amazonica.

Yanayacu, day 1


llegando a Nauta en la carretera Iquitos-Nauta, the highway that should never have been built

The quick part: we were picked up from the hostel a bit earlier than the agreed-upon 6am and had an uneventful overland trip to Nauta city, the other terminal of the Iquitos-Nauta highway.

piranha asada. for breakfast at the central market of Nauta

I took breakfast at the market–piranha, rice,and beans–while Seth and Karen were off buying bottled water. The group we will be sharing the lodge with are “los canadienses,” who turn out to be six twenty-something medical students from U of British Columbia, and they seem pretty road-worn after their already-completed travel through southern Peru and Bolivia. All six of them have suffered some degree of GI distress at least once, and a couple of them are feeling poorly, but hey–I figure that with their collective talent and education (and what sounds like a nice stash of pharmaceuticals in tow) they can treat themselves.

Nauta port on the Rio Marañon

Nauta city is on the Rio Marañon about three or four kilometers upstream of where it joins with the Ucayali and “becomes” the Amazon.

one of the impressive things about the Amazon is how it receives the flow of several tributaries that would be enormous rivers on their own--many of them are bigger than the Mississippi

We’ll need to travel down the Marañon and then down the Amazon, and then make a right turn (south, approximately) into a tributary system that includes the River Yanayacu. Along the way, we dodge many logs and other flotsam (and we hit others). We make a brief pause to see some river dolphins. Most were gray dolphins, but both Karen and I saw a pink dolphin as well. They are maddening to photograph–I tried but never got one on a still photo.

the color of the Yanayacu is decidedly darker than the Amazon. Blackwater rivers are stained from the organic material in the forests that they drain

The part of the Yanayacu closest to the Amazon flows through a pantanal area–wet grassland and lake area that is completely under water during high-river times. Pantanal gives way to early successional and secondary forest, which then gives way to primary forest in some areas. Unlike red- or white-water rivers like the Amazon or the Marañon, the Yanayacu is a blackwater river–low nutrient, low sediment loads water that is stained dark by the tannins in the rotting leaves on the floor of the forest that the river is draining.

the level of the river from the high-water period can be seen in the forest

Like most of the area’s other rivers, the Yanayacu had dropped substantially over the past few weeks, and the high-water mark that could be clearly seen on the riverside forests showed us how much lower the river was now compared with where it was just a month ago–about a twelve foot drop, I estimated.

a pantanal area of the Yanayacu

This pantana is sort of an Amazonian version of the intertidal. Because the Amazon and the Marañon run a reddish café con leche color, rich with young, nutrient-rich material eroded from the Andes, the sediments deposited during high water offer an annually renewed bank of fertile, weed-free soil. As the water recedes, rice is planted. A lot–perhaps most or all–of it will be consumed locally. Here as in much of Latin America rice, yuca (including yuca brava, in the form of fariña), and plantain are the important starchy staples.

a stop at the village was required for all visitors to the reserve

In the fields and on the table I saw very little corn, and the consumption of wheat-based products is limited–some cakes but little bread and there it’s only the soft, white stuff, i.e., not so tasty but serviceable for toast or sandwiches.

Wilder's home, as seen from the river. Pretty much anyone moving up or down river will be witnessed by someone in this village

The village of San Juan de Yanayacu is the gateway to the reserve. In order to offer visitors an Amazon experience that includes more animals than just mosquitoes, the local human population of this drainage has agreed to refrain from hunting and other forest-destructive activities and to police the use of the land by others, including its visitors. All passengers in our boat–nine travelers and five of the tour company/lodge’s staff–had to disembark here.  Travelers pay a land-use fee that helps support the village.

our lodge on the Yanayacu

Apart from wanting to make sure no visitor is allowed to slip in without paying, I suspect it is the norm for river folk to keep track of who is upriver of them. It’s probably a habit the has developed out of necessity living in a place so remote and relatively untraveled. Every noisy pequi-pequi and perhaps even every nearly-silent canoe will be witnessed at least one pair of eyes.

large trees characteristic of primary forest, seen from the River Yanayacu

On the wall of the Centro de Vigilancia–which is one of two semiserious-looking buildings, the other being the schoolhouse–there’s a blackboard with the names of all village residents. I asked Wilder which one was the teacher, and he said the teacher doesn´t live in the village but is rather someone that the government sends out to stay and conduct lessons for about three days each week. Sometimes the teacher shows and sometimes not. There have been periods of weeks where the teacher is a total no-show. Some of this gap is filled by NGOs who I suspect infuse a little education with a whole lot of fostering stupidity–there’s a long history of infestation by religious ideas from Europe of various stripes, starting with the catholics who took enough of a head start to claim the vast majority of brains here and across South America.

hard at work writing this blog

From the village we headed upriver further to the lodge, which is also the last human outpost on the Yanayacu. just a bit upstream from the lodge, the river is choked with water hyacinth so all of our exploration over the next couple of days will be either around the lodge or downstream.  Right now, I’m blogging from a hammock on the balcony outside our room to the sound of Canadians trying to spear fish in the river below. Later there will be an evening nature walk with Wilder, our guide. Tomorrow we have another appointment with Wilder for early morning birdwatching.

one of the activities offered by the lodge is fishing, which can be done by hook and line or by spear.

butterfly (a Heliconius, I think) in the butterfly enclosure, where adults fly around, feed, mate, and lay eggs, which are then collected and taken to the nursery

a luxury cruise vessel with glass walls on the cabins. passengers get to watch the Amazon go by from the comfort of their beds

Spent a good part of the morning contemplating what to do for a longer excursion from Iquitos. Seth’s initial ideas of heading out to a field station were looking less attractive now. Porvenir, which is way up the River Nanay, was not out of the question but the station was being occupied and thus there would be a good chance for some awkwardness about where people are sleeping. On top of that, the fast boat we’d need to get to the station would be up there and not down here. No bueno. Genaro-Herrera was still a serious possibility. It’s an IIAP field station up the River Ucayali, and it retains the services of a local guide named Nixon who is by all accounts a fabulous botanist. The downsides are a relative paucity of animal life and a fairly substantial level of human impact. To get to Genaro-Herrera in a slow boat would mean departing in the evening from Iquitos and sleeping on the boat. The stop for Genaro-Herrera was something like 4 am, and if we were to. miss our stop it would mean that we would end up stranded somewhere upriver with nothing to do while we waited for a boat going back our way. That would suck.

a glass-winged butterfly

not really a butterfly, but still a colorful character. this one was selling gum in the streets of Iquitos

Choice number two. Just before my arrival in Iquitos, Karen and Seth were approached by a tour operator front man who offered to take us into Pacaya-Samiria, a national park where there’s famously a lot of cool stuff, and Seth has never been there but has been wanting to go. It sounded great based on the front man’s sale pitch, but a quick look at their flier betrayed a strong possibility of something less than a genuine commitment to sustainable ecotourism–there seemed to be a preponderance of photos of twentysomething gringos wearing facial paint and Witoto garb–in the water and pretending to wrestle anacondas that they didn’t catch.

I don´t remember the name of this jungle turkey lookalike 😦

We found later that Pacaya-Samiria really should be out of the question for a three- or four-day trip. It is quite remote and would require a full day of travel just to get to the park’s boundaries and perhaps another full day from there to the park’s more spectacular sites. The recommended time allotment should be more like seventeen to twenty days.

similar to what we saw in Belen, boatmen jostle to offer rides to people headed up the Nanay

As kind of a long shot and based on a gut feeling by Seth we pulled into a tour operator office on the same street as our hostel and took in their spiel. They run a lodge in a community reserve on a blackwater tributary flowing into the Amazon from the south, not too far downstream from the point of confluence of the Marañon and the Ucayali. As it happened a group of Canadians would be heading up to the lodge the next day, and we could get the same student price if we jumped in with them–360 soles per person for land and water transport, two nights lodging, meals and guides. In and around the reserve we could see primary forest, plenty of animals, and also Victoria amazonica, the giant waterlily that I was hoping to see flowering. Sounded good and doable, so we signed up and put down a deposit. As I write, the plan requires that we be ready for pick up tomorrow morning at 6.

Seth on the Rio Nanay

That settled we now could proceed to the other part of what we had programmed for the day, a trip up the River Nanay to the community of Padrecocha and the Pilpintuwasi butterfly farm. Took a mototaxi to the port of Bellavista Nanay on the other end of town–Iquitos is the tip of a peninsula forming between two Amazon tributaries, yesterday’s Itaya and the Nanay.

lesser anteater, Tamandua tetradactyla. this guy is arboreal and has four toes

the chrysalis board. sorted by species. some of the butterflies have come out but have not yet hardened their exoskeletons to the point they can fly

The basic story behind Pilpintuwasi is that an Austrian named Gudrun decided to set up a butterfly breeding center in Padrecocha with the intention of exporting larva and chrysalis to Europe and elsewhere for use as living displays of Amazonian butterflies. There was some maddening bureaucratic stuff with the Peruvian government not facilitating the plan by issuing the necessary permits for exporting the live animals, and somewhere along the line she decided to go ahead and breed the butterflies mostly for display on site, with many being simply released, as they are all natives of the local forests. She purchased a sizable bit of land in Padrecocha–just a short pequi-pequi ride up the River Nanay from Iquitos and opened the Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm.

in the juveniles room at Pipiltuasi. host plant is collected in the forest and provided to the babies. after forming a coccoon or chrysalis, the pupae get pinned to the board

To anyone who is going to be spending an extended amount of time around here, finding a place “just upriver of Iquitos” has got to be a viable and very attractive option for long-term living quarters. Out of earshot from the city’s enormous noise pollution problem are communities of varying sizes where a bit of land and a rustic shack could be bought for the equivalent of a few hundred USD. More on this later.

white capuchin monkey female, trained as a thief (they make you remove all grabbable jewelry before entering the area with animals) and later abandoned

So back to Gudrun. During the failed process for acquiring permits, some of the biologists noted that she could care for and exhibit confiscated or orphaned wildlife (that might otherwise have to be destroyed) and they started dropping off animals.

Pedro Bello, the jaguar eats four kilograms of meat per day. his cage is rather spacious, and oh yes--he made it perfectly clear that he would kill me if he had the chance.

About nine years ago she was brought a baby male jaguar orphaned by (illegal) hunters. With the addition of Pedro Bello (the jaguar), visitors increased dramatically and not long thereafter Gudrun was given a sizable donation from an English visitor to build a large and secure enclosure for Pedro. There are now–in addition to the butterfly farm–several enclosures housing captive rescued animals of the forest. Some, like Pedro, were orphaned, others were confiscated from illegal traders. One of the capuchin monkeys had been trained as a pickpocket/thief but was later abandoned and then brought to Gudrun. Lacking survival skills that would have come from growing up in the forest, none of them are candidates for release into the wild.

blue morpho, fresh out if its chrysalis

Perhaps most people (and particularly those with kids) come to see the orphaned/confiscated animals that–unlike at the Iquitos Zoo– are quite well cared-for and healthy. Walking in we saw the anteater enclosure. There was one lesser anteater, which is arboreal, and one greater anteater that doesn’t climb. These two are allowed to feed themselves from forest ants during long walks in the care of a boy hired from the village.  In the short time we were there, we saw the ocelot and the sloth being exercized by one of the voluteers, an Australian named Kimberly. Gudrun is also doing a good job of keeping a steady flow of cheap or free help from both locals and volunteers.

The River Nanay, a low-nutrient blackwater river, is the source of water for the entire city of Iquitos. It, too, has a sawmill and plenty of people using the river upstream, but compared with the Itaya, the River Nanay is practically crystalline-pure. Had Porvenir been available, we would be motoring a fast boat several hours up this river to a tiny settlement where Seth’s dissertation advisor keeps a little field station. A little ways upriver from Iquitos there’s a white sand beach where Seth goes swimming from time to time.

fried stuff (no onion) dipped in forest honey

lagarto asado--grilled caiman. these are almost certainly juveniles

The market adjacent to the port of Bellavista Nanay was really nice. Upon returning from Padrecocha we bought and ate fried dough dipped in natural honey collected from wild bees (it’s very dark), macambo seeds on skewers, tacacho (a balled-up mass of plátano embedded with a small chunk of fatty pork gristle, fried and then kept hot on the parilla), and aguaje fruit that make up bright orange street displays at the front of the market and all over Iquitos. The edible part of aguaje fruit is a thin orange layer on a leathery aril between a large seed and a very tough outer shell. The labor-intensive peeling of the outer shell to expose the edible part (which then must be scraped off the leathery part) is deftly done by the women who sell them. I also bought an icy glass of aguaje juice–or rather a licuado made from spinning aguaje pulp with sugar and water in a blender.

aguaje palm fruits, peeled and ready to eat.

We also bought a nice

on the parrilla: macambo seeds on the skewers and tacacho on the banana leaf

palometa–a pacú-like characid–right off the grill of the seller who seemed least interested in gouging us. This fish went MIA for a worrisome period back at the hostel, but we finally managed to find it and we ate it with the last of the dale-dale we had left over–which were still okay from a couple of days earlier unlike the breadfruit that had molded out–and a sugar-free (only because we had no sugar) camu-camu juice, which we learned must be pressed from the fruit rather than blended with the seeds and subsequently strained (which is what Seth attempted to do).

the remains of our palometa

I’m turning in early, because we need to be ready to roll by 6 am tomorrow morning.

Belen, River Itaya


It’s late in the evening and I’m pretty overwhelmed–to the point where it’s difficult even to write from under the burden of the impressions taken in over the experiences of today.

Guillermo. Belen resident and our tour guide

desayuno at la casa de Guillermo, served by his wife and consumed at the same little table in the space beneath their stilted home in Belen

sardina, beans, rice, egg, and plátano. a really, really good breakfast for well under a buck.

When we started out I was under the general understanding that we would be touring Belen and the lower portion of the River Itaya, which is one of the two rivers framing the city of Iquitos. Belen represents most of where the city touches the Itaya and it includes Iquitos’ floating slums, made iconic in the great old Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo–yeah that one with Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale. By midmorning, however, it was clear that this would be no avenue-of-the-stars tour of a movie site but rather a procession of human encounters that would leave me both exhausted and enlightened.

people build their homes to allow them to adjust with changes in the level of the river.

Our guide for the day–pre-arranged by Seth–was Guillermo, a diligent if somewhat laconic man of around fifty who is also a resident of Belen. Guillermo picked us up at the hotel with his motokar (the noisy, chimaeric half-buggy/half-motorcycle that carries everybody everywhere in Iquitos). After getting under way, we asked him to make a stop for breakfast. He took us to his home, which is in the part of Belen that actually becomes dry land during the low water period. As it was three weeks after the peak of high water season and the water was receding fast, we were able to get there easily in Guillermo’s mototaxi. His wife makes a little extra money by cooking a large pot of food and offering sit-down breakfasts at a little table in the space below their home. The meal was simple–rice and beans, an egg, plátanos–your choice of maduros or verdes (the equivalent of Cuban tostones)–and I had a fish known locally as a sardina, which was not the Clupeoform sardine familiar to coastal peoples. Extra flavor comes from the addition of a universally-present criolla, a light salsa made from finely chopped red onions, salt, charapita peppers (a small, round, yellow, and very hot chile), water and lime juice.

it's perfectly normal for a house to have no walls

pequi-pequi boats. all-purpose mid-sized transport throughout the area (and perhaps throughout the Amazon)

As I found later on our visit to the mercado, smaller fish and particularly the Cypriniforms and Characids (?) are typically prepared by making dozens of neatly parallel gashes on each side of the fish, cutting to but not through the vertebrae. This has the effect of allowing the salt to penetrate and flavor the flesh while it also renders the smaller bones that extend laterally from the vertebrae edible once the fish is cooked. The sardine was excellent. I’m planning to dedicate a whole post to the fishes later, so I won’t talk more about them now.

Guillermo said that these larger transports carried workers from Iquitos to pineapple fields in outlying areas

I want to make it clear that this neighborhood where Guillermo and his family and a few thousand others live is seasonally either on the shore of the River Itaya or in the River Itaya, depending on the water level. All houses here are built on stilts, and just three weeks before my arrival the river crested so high that many residents had to retreat, living in the streets until the water receded to the point where they could occupy their homes again. The little nook where we ate breakfast would have been eight feet or more under water.

this particular transport nearly rammed our pequi-pequi!

From Guillermo’s house we walked about 100m to the river just below the market area, where several boatmen jostle to offer riverine taxi rides to locals as well as touristic passages to folks wanting to see more of the floating city. With the latter of these offering an opportunity to make abundantly more than the former, non-Peruvians are descended upon somewhat aggressively as they appear on the scene. Our guide either had pre-arranged to go with Eduardo “el Colorado,” or picked him on the spot–I’m not clear on that part, but in either case we hopped onto his pequi-pequi (as these boats are called locally, named after the noise made by the two-stroke motors they use) and made our way to see the floating part of Belen. Throughout the morning hours there is a steady flow of labor out of Belen on much larger pequi-pequi boats to agricultural jobs, e.g., at pineapple fields on the Amazon, and there’s also a steady flow of produce in. We saw plátanos. Lots of plátanos being carried in and unloaded at the base of the market.

close by to each floating house is a floating outhouse (no es una casita para el perro!)

Just across the river’s main channel is the “floating ghetto,” unlike Guillermo’s neighborhood, this part of Belen never dries out. Houses here are built on balsa wood pontoons that must somehow be moored to the shore or bottom in a way that can withstand the currents during periods of high flow on the River Itaya. Crappers are cute–doghouse-sized outbuildings with a very simple plumbing system–a hole cut into the floor.

the floating homes of Belen are built atop balsawood pontoons (rather than stilts)

to facilitate milling, logs are identified to their kind of wood by the letters painted onto their ends

The River Itaya is obviously far from pristine anywhere close to Belen, but the gross-out element diminishes albeit gradually as you move upstream. The floating houses and their shitters disappear and are replaced by huge rafts of logs that come to the Itaya’s lumber mills–relatively little of it comes from upstream on the River Itaya, which has been heavily exploited and there are not that many marketable trees. Most of the logs come on large rafts that are somehow kept all together as they are floated down from drainages higher on the Amazon and then amazingly pulled/pushed upstream from the mouth of the Itaya by teams of men in tiny pequi-pequi tugs. Some logs also arrive by ship.

lower-density wood floats relatively high in the water

higher-density wood needs to be "helped" in order to stay afloat

Our guide noted that the quality of timber is generally proportional to its density. He pointed out a raft of high-floating logs as “bad wood,” and another raft was “excellent” wood because the logs had to be lashed to balsa logs so they wouldn’t sink. Given that Guiillermo built his home out of local woods in the stilt-born part of Belen, this method of assessing wood quality is understandable for purely practical reasons–you would want the strongest and most rot-resistant material, which is more likely true of dense woods. I wonder if someone from the floating part of the city would have the same criteria for grading timber.

this dude in a blue hat came out of his cane fields to yell at us for disturbing his fruit trees. he was happier with us once he sold us leva and took us on a tour of his property (for a small fee)

The best of the sawn lumber is exported to markets in Europe and Asia, and the rest stays in South America. The scraps that aren’t saleable at all are piled in a huge riverside heap and made available for free to locals needing to build/upgrade/maintain their property. I’m guessing that the need for home repair materials is pretty great around here generally but especially in districts like Belen.

cutting sections of peeled cane for sampling by the tourists. yellow cane was softer and better for fresh eating. black cane was much more fibrous but had richer flavor (and it's also the one he uses for his leva)

this is the press used for converting cane into raw juice, which is then allowed to ferment to become leva

Upstream from the mills is the military installation and a few riverbends beyond that we pulled up to the bank to look for a place that was rumored to produce aguardiente–the locally-distilled trago or hard liquor. It turned out that this colorful toothless dude’s “product” was actually leva–the fermented raw cane juice, pressed on site from sugar cane grown on site. Very sweet, gently carbonated and the color of bilge water, and apart from appearance it was no worse than most lambrusco or white zins that I have had.

the dude sold two versions of leva: a milder, sweeter one (in the blue bucket) and a more alcoholic and more pungent one (in the white bucket)

juanes are made like tamales--wrapped in the leaves of a plant from the Maranthaceae--but with rice. the filling is some kind of meat (this one is chicken) and you can sort of see the olive

A bit farther upstream we visited what I later found to be typical for riverside communities: a location on the river off the main channel where boats can land and goods loaded/unloaded, a square grassy “plaza” large enough to accommodate a regulation soccer field and surrounded by some number of small protestant or pentecostal churches, wide and straight avenues with concrete walkways just wide enough to accommodate motokar traffic with plenty of space on either side for you to get out of the way when such vehicles are coming through.

the Itaya is polluted and overexploited by Iquiteño standards, and yet fishing can still provide an enhancement to the evening's dinner.

government-provided concrete walkways in riverine communities are typically nice and straight

On the way back Eduardo’s motor died and wouldn’t start back up. Guillermo was being a hero by paddling us back towards Iquitos with the boat’s only oar–and he was moving us along at a good clip–when we got an assist from another pequi-pequi the rest of the way back to Belen.

standard watercraft for one or two people is still the dugout canoe, crafted from a single log. the process for hollowing out the canoe involves burning, chipping and scraping with various adzes and hatchets

fish for sale in the market of Belen

some good stuff to take back to the hostel for later: that's a pineapple on the left (Karen's right) and a copazú, which Seth later turned into a lovely frullato

Last adventure of the day was negotiating the market in Belen. I bought some rubber boots. Seth got some copal–the frankincense-and-myrrh-like resin from one of his beloved Protium trees–and some natural honey for Seth’s girlfriend in Michigan. A one point I was stopped by some of the merchants from whom we had made purchases, and they warned me to guard my camera very carefully because they had seen someone watching me with the intent to steal it. They only allowed me to proceed once they saw that the camera was zipped into my pocket.

suri, the grubs that grow in the core of cut aguaje palms. they are sold stewed or grilled, and they taste a bit like the fatty part of pork ribs

Your average Iquiteño has very little material wealth and even the grimiest, shoddily-dressed tourist will make himself a target just for flashing a portable digital camera from Costco. The consensus regarding crime in Peru is that it is nearly exclusively directed against property. Theft is somewhat rampant, but violent crime is rare. That said, you never know if a perp is drugged out, so if you are accosted the only smart thing to do is to hand over the goods and then get the hell out. Possessions can be replaced.

suri on a stick. they really were pretty good, though I think the stewed ones were tastier

By US standards, costs here are very modest. Full breakfast for three in Belen was 6 soles. A juane or a tacacho from a street vendor–either one of these being a very substantial snack or lunch– is 2 soles. At the time of my travel one US dollar exchanges for about 2.75 soles. Do the math.

I think people here are aware that currency exchange rates grossly favoring visitors from most of the rest of the world, your typical tourist–even one from Lima–could easily afford to pay more than what would be a fair price for Iquiteños. Some try to take advantage of this by asking higher prices from tourists. If you’re aware of what locals pay, you can usually negotiate down if you are quoted an inflated price. But let’s face it–if you’re in your first week in Peru, even an avariciously inflated price could seem like a bargain.

This already ridiculously long post could be extended in different directions, but it’s already ridiculously long. Period.

our return to Belen

This is Seth.

Seth was a student of mine a while back. Okay quite a while back–probably something like 1997 or 1998. Since leaving our little two year college he’s gone on to a lot greater things: a baccalaureate from Davis, a few years of science-focused traveling and coursework, and now doctoral research at Berkeley. Needless to say that I’m quite proud to have been a part of this. So when Karen–Seth’s mom–told me that she was planning to visit her son in Perú where he is doing the field portion of his dissertation work, naturally I just invited myself to join in the role of intrepid naturalist tag-along.

And this is Karen.

Karen is an extraordinarily delightful person whose acquaintance I have enjoyed for almost as long as I’ve known her son. And no, she is not my spouse, but she is a traveling companion over the next week. Adri is with the boyz doing their idea of fun stuff in the old world, and not one of them would have any motivation to take a trip like this or be sufficiently badass to endure the discomforts of being on the road in tropical Latin America. Karen is exactly that motivated badass, and I will be posting pics that will include my traveling companions, one of whom is an attractive female of approximately my age. Get used to it. I have Adri’s blessing (and frequent flier miles!) to take this trip, and that should be good enough for anyone.

Seth K., jungle scientist, outside his dormitory at IIAP-Quistococha

First stop after landing Iquitos was the Instituto de Investigaciones en la Amazonia Peruana, or IIAP (pronounced “yap”). There are actually a handful of stations operated by the IIAP, some like Genaro-Herrera are pretty remote. This one is just a couple of kilometers down from the airport on the Iquitos-Nauta highway. Given its proximity to a significant urban center, this is probably one of the principal sites. Several buildings, including living quarters for resident researchers, labs, offices and everything else. Seth had a shade house built here for the rearing and isolation of various seedlings in soils with varying degrees of fungal abundance and diversity.

DNA extraction room

room with minus-twenty freezers for sample storage

In addition to offices, living quarters, some pretty decent lab facilities IIAP Quistococha also has a pretty extensive array of fish ponds, as one of the major objectives of the IIAP is the support of applied research, i.e., stuff that is intentionally directed towards benefitting the human condition. IIAP’s focus on sustainable aquaculture in historically poor areas of the world is thus of key political importance when it comes to self promotion. That and the baby manatees. Yes, this is also a riverine mammal rescue center, which means that every time a nursing momma manatee gets killed and the orphan recovered, it comes to the IIAP. And the soles put onto the donation pot by an increasing flow of tourists who come to see and bottle-feed the babies is proving to be a significant source of revenue.

feeding the rescued baby manatees is one of the touristy activities offered at IIAP Quistococha

Unlike in Florida where manatees mostly die as speed bumps under the hulls and rudders of high-speed watercraft, manatee mortality here is mostly the result of hunting for “carne del monte” i.e. bushmeat, and apparently manatee tastes a lot like pork. So basically it’s a Disney script–Mom gets killed and baby goes on its adventure, finally ending up somewhere like this if it’s lucky (but more likely that it won’t be so lucky and will end up on a parrilla somewhere). Ultimately the plan for the reared-out juveniles is release into the wild somewhere that is sufficiently remote or otherwise protected that they would have a decent chance of surviving.

Cauchero bar offers only one beer, Amazonica.

Seth’s “cheap ‘n’ lovely” lodging selection turned out to be the hostel Casa Samantha on the seventh block of (Calle) Nauta. It’s a nice, central location from which it’s a short walk or motokar ride to practically anywhere in Iquitos. Good thing Seth pre-arranged our stay because the place is filled up–mostly with hippie kids traveling across South America on the cheap. Water quality from the tap is awful–a nasty color and smelling of sulfur and rust, which according to Seth is uncharacteristic of the city water generally and that it’s probably more a plumbing problem isolated to the building. Iquitos municipal water supply is probably not too safe to drink (though he knows people who drink water straight from the tap), but it doesn’t usually look or smell this bad. Showers are cold–I’m told there’s no hot water anywhere in the city–and for us it’s not really a shower either, because there’s no shower head that would get continually clogged by all the grunge in the water.

mototaxis are the main way of getting around in a city that can't be driven to from the rest of the road-connected world. All terrestrial vehicles have to arrive here by ship.

None of this is really a problem, though. A person stays healthy and clean by drinking purified water, which is sold be street vendors in five-gallon plastic bottles. The stinky water is adequate for washing and rinsing.

Muchas buenas noches, amigos.