Amazon Things That Go Bump in the Night

Friday evening, January 25, 2019

The late afternoon excursion was an evening hike in the Dorado Flood Forest, to look for creepy-crawlies. Both of the photography experts accompanied us on this excursion, and I was fortunate enough to pick up a few pointers from them that improved the quality of the photos I got tonight (at least I think so).

We boarded our skiff and traveled about 50 feet to our destination. It was probably too muddy to walk. We were fitted with tall rubber boots before heading out.

Among the millions of mosquitoes (many of which bit me through my permethrin-treated clothing), we found bats, grasshoppers, katydids, frogs, and butterflies. A highlight was watching a butterfly lay its eggs on a leaf!

We were getting so distracted by all of the beauty of the Peruvian night that our expedition coordinator had to come and remind us to return to the skiff so the crew could get to bed before midnight! If it weren’t for the mosquitoes, I could have stayed for hours. By the way, the worst place to get bitten is on the palm of the hand. Every time you move your fingers, it starts to burn and itch all over again.

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Swimming in the Amazon

Friday morning, January 25, 2019

As usual, we started out on the skiffs before breakfast, this time with a beautiful rainbow above. Did I mention this is the rainy season? I need to get a waterproof backpack and a strong rain poncho.

We passed by some more giant lily pads on our way to register at the local ranger station for the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. The reserve is home to two species of endangered aquatic turtles: Charapa and Taricaya. Reserve staff gather the eggs that are laid along the banks of rivers between July and December, then incubate them and return the little turtles when they are better able to survive.

The guides had forgotten to bring our tickets, so they took one of the three skiffs and returned to the boat, while we did some exploring on the Pucate River. We were treated to the sight of a couple of Hoatzin Birds, one of the most unusual species in the Amazon, in that it is only species in its family. Closely related to Cuckoos, the Hoatzin is the size of a turkey, and looks almost prehistoric, with its long tail, feathery crest and bright eyes surrounded by vivid blue feathers. They like to hide in the foliage, making it difficult to see them. The Hoatzin has a claw on its wing, which aids it in climbing. When Hoatzin babies are threatened, they drop to the water below, then use the wing claw to climb back to the nest.

There were Neotropic Cormorants, Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, more White-eared Jacamars, and Red Howler Monkeys. The Red Howler is the only monkey that can see color, helping it to locate the fruits it wants to eat.

We had breakfast on the skiffs, quite an elegant affair, then headed down a shortcut to our destination. The rising water creates many shortcuts, allowing us to explore areas that aren’t accessible during the dry season. Dry season means only 6 inches of rain per month versus 12 in the rainy season. This shortcut proved fortuitous since the normal route was blocked by vegetation (it was open only a week ago.) The vegetation grows quickly, and rises as the water level rises.

A little while later, we stopped to use the toilet facilities as a ranger station. It was a bit primitive – to flush the toilet, we filled a bucket from a barrel and dumped it into the toilet. This made us appreciate our Totos at home! While there, we managed to spy a toad and some type of racer lizard while waiting there.

Our destination was a black water lake on the Pacaya River, where most of us took a dip in water that was about 85 degrees. Pink dolphins were swimming nearby. Too soon, we had to return to the boat. When we arrived at 11:30, it was hard to believe we’d been out for five hours, as we had experienced so much in that short time.

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Searching for Caimans

Thursday afternoon, January 24, 2019

Our afternoon excursion occurred later than normal, so we could search for caimans and other nocturnal critters. We took the skiff up the Dorado River, stopping at a local village to visit with some children who were showing off the fish they had caught. They actually catch many of the fish by hand. One young girl tried to demonstrate the skill, jumping into the water, clothing and all, but wasn’t successful.

The Dorado River is a black water river near the middle of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. The water is dark (black) because of the minerals given off by decaying foliage. The pH value of the water is about 4.5, and there are low concentrations of electrolytes. Often when black water meets white water, you can find both Gray and Pink Dolphins swimming. The water churns where black and white join, bringing more fish close to the surface. Large-billed Terns joined in the fishing, dropping quickly to the surface of the water to grab their meals.

On our way, before the sun set, we were fortunate to see a White-throated Toucan, some Common Squirrel Monkeys, Red Howler Monkeys, scampering Shadowback Tamarins and a couple of Three-toed Sloths. One female sloth was sitting near the top of a tree with a baby in her lap.

The sunset over the water was stunning tonight, like fire and gold reflecting on the water. The only thing that spoiled the sunset was the emergence of the mosquitoes and other biting insects. They dined well tonight.

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After dark, our guide began shining his lamp on the water, swinging it from side to side, to find caimans. We were told to look for red, shiny eyes. It took a while, and we did not see any adult caimans. However, the baby Spectacled Caimans we saw were worth the trip. We did manage to spy a Common Potoo, but it’s as difficult to see at night as it is in the day.

We returned to our ship in the dark. It has a new beauty when lit up at night.

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Although we didn’t see any Black Caimans, which are less common than the Spectacled Caimans, there is a local legend about them as well. There was a shaman named Icaro, who when nearing the end of his life, gathered his family around and told them to bury him at the mouth where the Great Amazon River starts, where the Marañón and Ucayali Rivers meet, creating a whirlpool. He instructed his family to sink him there in his dugout canoe, as it was the only way his spirit could enter the next world. When Icaro died, his family found a slug sitting in Icaro’s right arm, which they buried with him. At Icaro’s burial, the sun wept a blazing red, then went orange and then black. As Icaro slipped into the water, the sky went dark. His family returned home, all but the youngest son who waited and saw two caimans circling the area where Icaro was put into the river. The son left and returned the next morning, where he saw an enormous caiman come onto the river bank. This caiman had a slug on his tongue, so the boy knew it was his father, Icaro. The local name for the Black Caiman is Icaro.

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Macaws! Beautiful Amazon Birds

Thursday morning, January 24, 2019

Again, we got up at 5:30am, and it was totally worth it. Almost immediately, we saw several macaws, both the Blue and Yellow and the Red Bellied. The largest parrots, macaws like to nest in dead palms, using holes made by woodpeckers. They mate for life (we did see one couple mating at the top of a tree branch), and can live up to 80 years in captivity. We could hear them everywhere, and see them flying overhead.

An Inca origin legend holds that the Inca peoples are descended from macaws. Two brothers, who lived on a mountain, were being plagued by an unknown visitor who was coming to their home and using their kitchen to make meals. One day, the brothers pretended to leave, then hid and watched to see who would come. It was two macaws! The brothers jumped up and shut the door to their home, trapping the birds, a male and a female, inside. The male managed to escape, but the female was captured, and the brothers made her their wife. She bore them six sons and daughters; who became the first parents of the Incas. A lovely story.

We also were treated to the sight of Black-tailed Trogons, Yellow-headed Parrots, Short-tailed Parrots, Orange-winged Parrots, a Peregrine Falcon, and a magnificent young hawk drying its wings. The feather pattern was wonderful to see.

We also found some giant lily pads. Some of the largest ones can hold several pounds, enough to rest an infant on while the mother is working in the water.

Later in the morning, we went out on a kayak in Belluda Creek. This ride gave us another view of the river. We spotted two different types of Kingfisher: Ringed and Amazon. They are so beautiful. We saw a Muscovy Duck, a Yellow-headed Caracara, a few butterflies, and a pair of Yellow-rumped Caciques building a nest. Mostly, though, we paddled and got wet. Thank goodness for clothing that dries quickly.

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Traveling from Colca to Puno

Friday, February 1, 2019

With all of the rain, the Colca River is rising rapidly, and roiling past the lodge and the hot pools. Some local hot pools are already flooded. Those at the lodge are still about one foot abovethe water level. If it rises enough to flood them, the lodge will have to shut them down until the river goes down, then clean and refill them.

Dry creeks fill up, new creeks are created, and they flow where they will, without regard to the inconvenience they may cause, like washouts for instance.

Each year in August, everyone celebrates and honors Pachamama all month, at the beginning of the sowing season. Pachamama is a fertility goddess of the indigenous people, and is identified with the Virgin Mary. During August, all of the people in the villages come together for a week to clean the canals and reservoirs. Each family also cleans their terraces. The people make sacrifices to Pachamama (food, figurines, small animals) to guarantee good soil for the coming year. Harvest starts in February. Potatoes are dried for storage – they can keep for many years. Other crops are stored as well for consumption in the winter. The name Colca means “storage.”

The sun was shining today – a lovely surprise! We have a 5-6 hour drive in high altitude. We hope it doesn’t rain or snow while on the route, or it will take longer. When we reached the volcano view at 16,000 feet, we could actually see some of them.

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Before leaving, Jaimie’s mother stopped to give her something to deliver to her sister in Arequipa. From her hat, we can see that she is Collahua, and that Jaimie gets her beauty from her mother.

On the drive, we saw more ranches, and stopped at one where we spied some flamingos across the road! Until today, I thought flamingos were only tropical, but the Andean Flamingo lives at 15,000 feet. They are the rarest flamingos in the world. There was also a pretty duck with a blue bill, the silver teal, near the ranch. At another ranch, a veterinarian was vaccinating alpaca. There is water here, but plants do not grow very high. I found some lovely blue flowers that are about .25 inch in diameter.

 

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At a shop we stopped at along the way, Mark spotted the tiniest frog we’ve ever seen. What an eye he has! The tiny frog must have been less than a half inch long. I got down on my hands and knees to get a shot of it.

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Much of our route today goes through high dessert plateau, looking much like New Mexico or Wyoming. We made a stop at Lake Lagunillas, at an elevation of 13,000 feet, often called the “Baby Titicaca,” where I purchased my second hat, alpaca fur. This beautiful lake is surrounded by hills of green and brown. Families who live around this lake make their living from trout fishing.

Puno is located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and is the capital city of the Puno Region, at an elevation of 12,600 feet. We drove by a new soccer stadium that’s being built by the city. The city is applying to be accepted by FIFA, which might be a challenge because of the altitude. However, that could be an advantage for the local team. Our guide said that many soccer players actually want to train at altitude to give them more stamina.

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Most of the Puno District is mountain, and the rest jungle. Almost 70% of the world’s quinoa is produced here, as well as 50% of the alpaca and llamas. Recently, a very large lode of lithium was found near here, which is expected to be an economic boon.

We are staying at Hotel Sonesta, right on the lake, between two peninsulas. They make use of a couple alpaca to keep the grass short. There are also several guinea pigs running around, both mature and babies. They are delightful to watch. I do hope they’re safe from the cooking pot!

 

The hotel offers an unusual amenity to its customers – oxygen! Mark had been suffering from a cold for the past couple of days, so was especially susceptible to altitude sickness. We requested oxygen, and the staff brought a 5’ tank to the room for Mark to breathe from for ten minutes. He wasn’t completely cured, but he definitely felt better. I kind of wished I’d asked for a hit as well.

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Floating Islands of Uros

Saturday morning, February 2, 2019

At an elevation of 12,500 feet, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake. There are a few lakes at higher altitudes, some formed by melting glaciers, others inside volcanic craters, but none are considered navigable by large vessels. The name Titicaca means “mount of the puma.” This may be because the lake’s shape is similar to that of a puma. The Inca considered Lake Titicaca to be the birthplace of their people.

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca (Lago Titikaka) is the second largest lake in South America, covering 3,200 square miles. It’s 120 miles long, 50 miles wide at its widest point, and 920 feet deep at its deepest spot. The lake never freezes, the temperature stays around 57 degrees year round.

DBD66DA4-52D3-4130-9191-236C41BF8B39Besides the natural islands, there are the Uros Floating Islands created by the Uros people. When the Incas came to the area, the Uros people retreated to the lake. Initially, they lived on boats, but over time, started building the islands that they currently occupy. The largest of the islands holds a watchtower that is constructed almost entirely of reeds.

The Uru or Uros, descended from the original settlers 4,000 years ago, consider themselves the owners of the lake and the water. They used to say that they had black blood because they did not feel the cold. Historically, they called themselves Lupihaques, or Sons of the Sun. Approximately 4,000 people live on these floating islands. They speak Aymara, a language borrowed from people they intermarried and traded with from the mainland. This language is even older than Quechua.

The islands are made of totora reeds which grow in Lake Titicaca. There are about 74,000 acres of reeds in the lake. The reed’s dense, interweaving, roots form a natural layer, 3-6 feet thick, that supports the islands, which are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. New reeds are added to the top to replace the bottom ones as they rot away. An island lasts about 25 years, then a new one must be built. Each island supports 4-5 families. Each island has a lookout tower, which was used in the past, not only to watch for danger, but to communicate with other islands. Now they communicate with cell phones.

The bottom of the reeds is a source of iodine, and is also used to treat hangovers. The reeds are also a primary food source for the Uru people, and can be bartered for other foods, plus they fish and hunt birds.

The children attend school on the islands from kindergarten through grade school, then attend high school on the mainland. To get to school, they row themselves each day on reed boats. Also on the islands are a soccer field, medical clinic, and town hall.

We paid a visit to two of the islands. At the first one, Isla Kontiki, we enjoyed some demonstrations by a young man who lives on the island with his wife and daughter. The base of each island is about three feet of root, formed with blocks of roots that have been cut and then tied together. Several layers of reeds are place on top of this base, at least another three feet.

Besides fishing, the Uros hunt birds and ducks. They get many of their staples from the mainland. We did, however, see at least one potato plant on the island.

We visited the home of one family, that of the young man who did the demonstrations, along with his wife and 2 year old daughter. He speaks English, so was able to answer some of our questions. His wife makes beautiful tapestries, as shown below. One of them went home with me. The houses are not large, just one room. All cooking is done outside at a communal kitchen. Pots are placed on a large stone slab to prevent starting a fire on the floor. The islands have solar panels leased from the government to provide power. They make use of some current technology, like cell phones, while trying to maintain their ancient culture.

When we left the island, a few of the women sang to us. We boarded a reed boat to be rowed to the next island, which is more like a shopping center, with cafes and shops. The same young man we visited rowed along with another man. His young daughter came along for the ride. Puno residents often come here to enjoy a ride on the water and a meal on the island.

 

 

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Fruits of the Amazon

Wednesday afternoon, January 23, 2019

One of our guides, Ricardo, conducted a class on the fruits of the Amazon. We’ve had the opportunity to try many of them already, in juices and sauces, as well as fresh. Some of the fruits featured were (please forgive any misspellings): Granadilla (good for cholesterol), Mouriche palm fruit (also called Aguaje), Ivory Palm (Tagua), Fava Beans (enjoyed by monkeys), Kapok palm fruit (blood thinner, high in Vitamin A and Beta Carotene), Peach Palm (used to make fire water, or for hearts of palm), Cocona or yellow tomato (very tart, good in sauces), Charapita (tiny berry that is very hot), Cacao, and Copoazu (rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium), Macambo (also called monkey brain because of the pattern on the seed), and Anacardicia (related to the cashew).

The Tagua nut is also called vegetable ivory. There is a liquid inside the seed pod that, when left to dry for a few months, becomes hard enough to carve into jewelry and small sculptures. It also takes dye quite easily, and is very light weight and sturdy – a good replacement for plastic. I have several necklaces and earrings made from Tagua, and they are practically indestructible.

The Mouriche Palm fruit, Aguaje, is good as a juice, with vitamins A, B & E, but it has an even greater value as an oil, used in soaps, in massage, cosmetics and even as mosquito repellant. A quart of this oil can fetch $200 in the market. It’s also a favorite food for Macaws.

In our afternoon skiff ride on Lake Calvert, we were greeted by some Gray as well as Pink Dolphins. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get any photos, maybe another time. We observed a Green Iguana basking in a tree overhead, then stopped to watch some foraging Spider Monkeys, but we were on the lookout for the smallest monkey in the world – the Pygmy Marmoset. Luckily, we found a few out looking for food. The Pygmy Marmoset’s body is only about 5 inches long, with a tail equally as long. Rather than having fingernails like other monkeys, the marmoset has long claws which allows it to gouge out pits in tree bark and access the sap.

We also saw a small Yellow-crowned Brushtail Rat in a tree hole. It has a head like a guinea pig, really cute, and is mostly nocturnal. We spied a mature male sloth sitting in a tree. It has a distinctive yellow/orange stripe which differentiates it from the female.

No rain this afternoon, but the surrounding thunderheads contributed to a gorgeous sunset. It was another good day in the Amazon.

We have been dining on gourmet meals all week, probably gaining 20 pounds. We have fresh fruits and vegetables every day. We frequently have freshly caught fish. Fresh juices, local cheeses and meats all come from this region. The homemade ice creams are usually sweet and tart, so refreshing. The pastry chef creates bread sculptures each day, iguanas, turtles, caimans and more. The kitchen crew has been very responsive to people’s dietary needs. One couple is vegan, and their dishes were among the prettiest I’ve ever seen – makes me consider switching to vegan myself. Mark and I hate cilantro (tastes and smells like soap or turpentine), so our meals were prepared without cilantro for the most part. To all of you cilantro lovers, it isn’t that we dislike the flavor that you get from the cilantro, it’s that we, along with about 20% of the population, have an enzyme that interprets the flavor in an obnoxious way. We can eat the cardamom berry without detecting a soapy flavor, it’s just the leaves that are an issue.

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