Aboard La Amatista
keep unturned "the last unwritten page of Genesis," as
Portuguese historian Euclides da Cunha dubbed the great
Amazon River basin? More than 100,000 plants flourish
in what's left of this paradise, with 30,000 varieties
of flowers and 25,000 types of trees hosting two million
species of insects. There are more families of fish here
(2,400 of them) than in the Atlantic Ocean. Above it,
fly 4,000 species of butterflies and 1,170 types of birds.
With its 4,200 miles, the Amazon is the longest and largest
river on earth. It drains slightly less than half of South
America, carrying 2,829 millions of liquid per second.
With its 1,100 tributaries, 50,000 miles of waterways
up the most remote of them that we cruise aboard the La
Amatista, a 28-passenger replica of the riverboats
owned by the Amazon's wealthy rubber barons of the 1900s.
Fortunately, the Peruvian Amazon is mostly intact. Therefore,
this is where the Amazon must be seen—and of course
kept that way. We come to contemplate the richness of
this overwhelming trough of nature on a voyage in natural—and
possibly supernatural, thanks to the shamans—history.
only takes four hours from Miami, Florida, to reach Iquitos,
a frontier town that is 2,200 miles up the Amazon River
Ocean-going vessels can dock in Iquitos, but there are
no roads or rails leading here, which perhaps explains
the area's authenticity. Because of its inaccessibility,
the Peruvian Amazon has been spared the devastation that
affects Brazil. So far, it retains its pristine character
all the more because of protective government policies
and a smaller population. In the Peruvian Amazon, there
is less uncontrolled agriculture and logging. Furthermore,
the absence of gold keeps adventurers away.
few miles up the river from Iquitos, we discover the Amazon
as it was 10,000 years ago. The night drops its velvety
curtain with a thousand noises of the jungle. Under the
stars of both hemispheres, we sail upstream and across
prehistoric times. We are filled progressively with a
soothing feeling of plenitude. As the sun rises, we gaze
upon the tumultuous union of the Maranon and Ucayali rivers,
which makes the Amazon even more mighty. The thatched
roofs of a small village lost in the shining greenery
of the banks are the sole fragile traces of the human
condition. The dwellings are wide open to let the air
flow through and they are perched on stilts, for in the
rainy season the Amazon will lap against their floors,
and they will be accessible only by dugout canoe.
the Amazon Burning?
the Garden of Eden under siege? Large areas of Brazil
have vanished in smoke, and scientists predict that
we will all bear the consequences. The wild deforestation
may bring the fauna and flora to extinction. The chemicals
used for gold extraction are polluting the waters.
The Indians continue to be persecuted and slaughtered.
All this has to be told, for the Amazon is the lung
and the reservoir of the earth, and its oxygen and
its water are vital to all of us.
a Pintu Llacta" reads a sign. Indeed, timid children race
to welcome us as we set foot on the bank. Their faces
are serious, and it takes awhile before they start to
smile and play like kids of their age. Wearing clean clothes,
they do not beg or ask for anything. Chickens, ducks and
black pigs feed on the grass and insects around the habitations.
Our arrival does not stir a half-slumbering man in his
hammock. Some villagers enjoy being photographed, especially
if it includes receiving Polaroid shots of themselves.
Others complain that the generator, which is supposed
to electrify the village, has been out of order for two
years. Still, these "riberenos" (people of the river)
seem happy, rather healthy and well fed.
of the "riberenos" here are "mestisos" (of mixed Spanish
and Indian ancestry), and they are wise farmers. They clear
only what they need of the forest to plant bananas, manioc
and rice; after a few harvests they return the land to
its former state. Perhaps surprisingly, the earth is not
very fertile because the repetitive flooding washes away
its nutrients. Intensive cultivation would only sterilize
it further. We will remember the lesson learned in Pintu
Llacta-moderation and quiet acceptation as a recipe for
wisdom and happiness.
we progress deeper into the Amazon rain forest, up such
small tributaries as the Tapiche River, we no longer observe
any evidence of man. The only living creatures are the
shy pink and gray dolphins cavorting around our boat,
innumerable birds-blue and yellow macaws, jabiru storks,
parakeets, yellow headed vultures, black collared hawks-squirrel
and capuchin monkeys, and two and three-toed sloths. Perhaps,
hidden in the foliage, a jaguar roams in the relative
coolness of dawn.
boats take us closer to the banks and finally ashore to
experience this exuberant environment first hand. It's
fascinating to discover how animals and plants have learned
to survive: The flowers of the giant water lilies, for
instance, embrace beetles for the whole night and will
not release them until they are coated with the pollen
needed to assure the reproduction of this aquatic species.
In the black waters of an inlet of the Tapiche River,
darkened by the tannin washed from trees, in contrast
to the muddy Amazon, we fish for the infamous piranhas.
The voracious little fish flash silver in the water, as
pretty as they are speedy in escaping the hook.
we return to La Amatista, bewildered by thousands
of images and impressions, and bushed by our equatorial
jungle exploration, the crew awaits us with towels and
water buckets to clean our walking shoes. What a delight
it is to revive ourselves with a hot shower in our air-conditioned
cabin. Later, in the dining room, done in a "fin de siecle"
style with wood carvings and picture windows revealing
the constantly changing scenery, we sup on healthful,
appetizing food: The vegetables, fish, poultry and fruit
aboard La Amatista are produced on a model farm
near Iquitos created by Roberto Rotundo, who also built
the ship. The dishes are prepared with simplicity and
good taste, befitting the philosophy of such an enterprise.
our cruise aboard La Amatista, ecology and ecotourism
are the key words. But is ecotourism aboard such a comfortable
wood-paneled air-conditioned boat a contradiction in terms?
The Amazon rain forest is as dangerous as it is fascinating,
yet we believe that it should not be reserved only for
sturdy explorers. La Amatista and her sister-ships
make it possible for all curious minds to explore this
fascinating area, regardless of their capability for physical
endurance. Those who do may well feel closer, as we did,
to fathoming—or at least appreciating--the mysterious
notions of infinity and eternity. To sit on the upper
deck of La Amatista at dusk and watch the wedding
of the glorious elements of earth, air and water in their
pristine virginity, is a spectacle we will not soon forget.
It is an experience that belongs to the commonwealth of
the educated world.
Amazon Voyage aboard La Amatista was created by International
Specialists in nature travel, International Expeditions
since 1980 has spearheaded the concept of ecotourism
by developing travel programs with a strong educational,
environmental purpose. It operates a fleet of riverboats
(La Esmeralda, La Turmalina, La Amatista and La Turquesa),
which offer weekly cruises on the Amazon River and
its tributaries from Iquitos, Peru.
(Updated: 01/19/09 KR)