About 25 years ago, I was given “an offer I couldn’t refuse.” A friend called to see if I wanted to be the sixth in a group of local men taking a one-week boat trip down (and up) the Amazon River. After hearing the details, I agreed. I was single at the time, owned my own business, and loved to travel.
Two weeks later we all boarded a plane for Miami, where we caught our flight to Lima, Peru. The following afternoon, after a delightful day exploring Lima, we boarded a small jet to the town of Iquitos, where several small rivers converge to form the eastern-most navigable port of the Amazon.
It was dark when we reached the dock area to board our boat, scheduled to depart at midnight. We were dropped off high above the wharf and had to descend about 100 wooden steps to reach the dock. As we neared the bottom, I saw a beautiful pure white yacht tied up, waiting for us, I thought. I was quickly disabused of this after we climbed on board and were directed to a gangplank laid across its bow leading us to a second, and then a third boat, all tied together. The third was ours — a dark gray iron, 100-year-old coal tender that had been converted to a 24-passenger and freight carrier.
After boarding and claiming our luggage, we were led to our cabins. Inside were upper and lower bunks, a dresser and a small table with a lamp (the only light) and about a three-foot walkway beside the bunks. To the left was the bathroom consisting of a toilet, a washbasin and a rather large open shower. A primitive shock came when we were told that the shower water was pumped in directly from the Amazon — unheated. Actually, it was first pumped into a large tank in the belly of the boat (not “ship” since a ship has more than one deck) where most of the debris (but not the color) settled to the bottom of the tank.
Surprisingly, the food was excellent. We had full breakfasts, sandwich lunches and delightful dinners with either meat, fish or chicken plus a salad, potatoes or “yuca” and fresh vegetables, delivered to the boat each day via native dugouts. On my first tour of the boat, I found the galley which consisted of a large propane stove and oven, a large sink and a large work table. All meals were prepared by one cook and one helper!
We traveled at night, guided by a large searchlight, and spent our days exploring the jungle and visiting native Indian villages where the women hand-made and bartered various craft items, ranging from jewelry and beads to baskets, masks and poison dart guns. I say “bartered” as they had little, if any, use for money. We had been told before we left Phoenix to go to a dollar store and stock up on combs, mirrors, lipsticks, etc. to use for purchases, and the native women loved them, especially the lipsticks.
On our excursions through the jungle, we saw all manner of birds and animals including three-toed sloths and leaf-cutter ants, one solid line of ants going for food and another line of ants each going back with a full leaf in its mandibles. Our guide used his machete to cut a one-inch thick vine from which poured a drink of fresh water.
One evening, we traveled up a tributary of the Amazon in canoes and fished for piranha. We brought a number of these small fish back to the boat and the cook prepared a delicious piranha dinner the next night. The fish were small and bony, but the flesh was tender and tasty. One of the crew cleaned all the flesh off the skulls and sold them to us as souvenirs for fifty cents each.
On several of our stops, we were obliged to walk down (and back up) a narrow, bouncy and rail-less gangplank — several passengers did it on their hands and knees.
Peru, Columbia and Brazil all border on the Amazon, so we visited all three countries. After three days we turned around and headed upstream near the opposite bank. At this point, the river is so wide that one is unable to see the opposite bank. That day we encountered a pod of the Amazon’s famed pink dolphins, and it was a thrill to watch them cavorting in the river.
Our weather had been sunny, warm and humid, but we were awakened during the first night of our return trip by loud thuds on the bow of our metal boat. It was raining, but far upstream there was a fierce thunderstorm that was washing brush, large dead tree limbs and other debris downstream. Suddenly I was delighted that our elderly boat was made of iron plates.
On the seventh day, we arrived back in Iquitos, where four of our group returned to Phoenix, while my friend and I flew to Cuzco, Peru (11,000 feet altitude) for a three-day visit followed by a two-day visit to Machu Picchu’s ruins — but that’s a story for another day.