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Amazing Amazon!

Cruising Aboard La Amatista

by André Gayot

Can we 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 are navigable.

It's 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.

It only takes four hours from Miami, Florida, to reach Iquitos, a frontier town that is 2,200 miles up the Amazon River in Peru. 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.

A 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.
 

Is the Amazon Burning?

Is 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.

"Bienvenidos 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.

Most 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.

As 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.

Small 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.

When 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.

During 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.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP
The Amazon Voyage aboard La Amatista was created by International Expeditions, www.ietravel.com. 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.



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(Updated: 01/19/09 KR)


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