by Larry & Judi Fenson

Photos by Judi Fenson

June 2005
In January 2004 we spent 6 days on a riverboat, traveling down the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru to the border with Brazil and Columbia and back. The trip was outstanding and we had decided to return to Iquitos this year for another of the river trips offered by Amazon Tours and Cruises. This one would be to Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the largest and most pristine jungle reserve in Peru. Our plan was to fly from San Diego to Lima to Iquitos, the embarkation site. The river trip would end several hundred kilometers upstream at Yurimaguas. We had arranged shuttle transport from there to Tarapoto, the nearest town with an airport. We had scheduled 3 days in Tarapoto (said to be a nice town) before flying to Lima and on to San Diego.

Three weeks before we were to depart, we received a message from Amazon Tours that they were canceling the river trip, as we were the only ones who had signed up. As an alternative we considered Tambopata, a highly praised jungle reserve in a different region of the Peruvian Amazon. However, we would have had to modify our frequent flyer reservations (made 8 months earlier). That proved to be impossible at this late date.

Then Judi discovered that a new lodge had been build near the reserve (Pacaya-Samiria Amazon Lodge). Judi talked at length to an agent (Dave) who was quite knowledgeable about the region. It became apparent that the lodge (called the PSAL) would serve as an excellent replacement for our river voyage. The lodge package included transportation from Iquitos to the lodge and back. We were able to keep our original air tickets intact and had only to add a flight on TANS from Iquitos to Tarapoto at the conclusion of our jungle stay.

Traveling through Lima is a pain. Flights from the US always seem to arrive and depart around midnight. Many continuation flights to destinations within Peru are scheduled for early morning departures. By the time you exit customs and make your way to a hotel (30-45 minutes from the airport) you hardly have time to sleep before returning. With afternoon flights or evening connections, you have to add an unwanted day to your schedule. Lima is a large city and distances between points of interest can be substantial. Taxi rides are expensive and time-consuming. For most visitors to Peru, however, arriving at your final destination is worth the bother. So it was for us.

Iquitos is a bustling frontier town perched right on the Amazon River. On our first stay last year we found Iquitos to be a likable place and we had decided to spend two nights there on this trip before departing for our jungle lodge, partly as a cushion against flight delays -- a very common occurrence in Peru. We checked in at the Victoria Regia, a very nice hotel located just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas. One of the owners of the PSAL (Cesar) met us at the hotel the following day to brief us on our transport to the lodge and provide us with more details on our itinerary.

Reaching the Lodge
A recently built road makes it possible to travel upstream by land part of the way. The 1.75 hr. minibus trip from Iquitos to Nauta is followed by a motorboat ride of about 45 minutes on the Marañon River, a major tributary of the Amazon.

The Pacaya-Samiria Amazon Lodge
The lodge is beautifully set on a slope overlooking the Marañon. There are 8 or 10 individual cabins and an expansive structure with a dining room, kitchen, lounge, and outdoor terrace (with hammocks). We could see the Marañon River from our rooms. Elevated walkways connect all of the buildings. The entire complex is constructed of native woods and each unit is topped with a conical thatched roof. We had electricity, thanks to a generator, from 6 - 10 pm -- handy for recharging camera batteries.

Like most jungle lodges, the PSAL offers fixed but flexible itineraries of different lengths, to be shared with other guests. We had chosen a 5-day 4-night plan with one night camping in the jungle -- hmmmmm. We had the pleasure of sharing our adventure with Aartie and Neel, a couple who currently live and work in New York City. The four of us had the entire lodge to ourselves.

Meals at the lodge were quite good and varied. We had some type of fresh fruit juice every meal. Breakfast was usually eggs, meat and fruit. Lunch and dinner was usually fish or chicken with salad, vegetables, rice or pasta, fried bananas, and dessert. Coffee, tea, water and juice were available all day.

We arrive at the lodge about noon. We meet our guide Oscar, have lunch, settle in, and prepare for a late afternoon jungle walk of about 2 hours. We learn, sadly, that individual forest dwellers who hold title to parcels of the land often sell the tallest trees (150-200 years old giants) to lumber companies for a mere pittance -- about $25 each. Taking out a large tree creates a path of destruction that kills as many as 200 surrounding trees. We hear the ugly sound of one tree falling and envision the collateral damage…

After an early breakfast, we board our motorboat and head into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. We are required to switch from a 65 to a 15 horsepower motor (the limit within the reserve). All parties entering the reserve must be accompanied by a park ranger. The government has worked out an arrangement whereby members of the native groups who live in Pacaya-Samiria serve this role as well as other monitoring functions. In return they are given limited hunting privileges.

We proceed into the reserve via the Yanayacu River. Yanayacu means black water. The color, produced by the tannic acid formed from tree leaves along the riverbanks, creates a nearly perfect reflective surface. The lime green reflections of the trees and other vegetation lining the shores, especially beautiful in the sunlight, accompany us for much of our river journey. We have barely pulled away from the entrance station when a welcoming party of pink river dolphins surface no more than 50 to 75 ft. away.

Minutes later we spot saddle back tamarind monkeys frolicking in the trees and then squirrel monkeys. By this hour (8:30 am) the temperature has reached 86 degrees but we are cool in the breeze on the boat. Our guide, boat driver, and park ranger have an amazing ability to spot wildlife.
Over the course of the day we see a rich diversity of birdlife including large white herons, toucans, turkey vultures (their grace belying their name), black collared hawks, cormorants, kingfishers, hoatzin, darting white winged swallows, blue and yellow macaws, red and green macaws, white-eyed green parakeets, capped herons (with their blue beaks and tassels), and horned screamers. In the late afternoon we come across many hundreds of egrets and herons and they take to the air as we approach. It looks as if we're in an IMAX movie. This drama repeats itself over and over for several miles up the river. (We later learn from Oscar that these large flocks of egrets and herons spend only 2-3 days passing through this area in late May or early June so we have been very lucky).

In addition to birds we see giant river otters, gray and pink river dolphins, iguanas, 3-toed sloths, red howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, caiman, a boa swimming across the river, and turtles.

The dramatic vegetation along the riverbank also vies for our attention. The banks are lined with orchids and bromeliads and many other colorful blossoming plants and trees. The kapok trees with large red pods are especially striking.

Our first stop around noon is at Yarina Village where we have some rudimentary sandwiches and pick up several villagers who will assist in meal and campsite preparations. We arrive at the campsite at 5 PM, unload our gear, drop off our support people, and head on upstream in search of caiman.

By this time the sun is setting and everyone has on long sleeves or jackets. We veer off into a narrow channel that opens into a remarkably beautiful cove filled with water lettuce. The birds have become very active and very noisy as evening approaches. Several varieties of frogs are also dramatically announcing their presence. Dolphins splash nearby. Then a horned screamer comes into view. Now there's an imposing name. Judi snaps some photos of the sunset reflecting on the water. It is clear to all of us that this is a special time of day in a special place. It is not an easy place to reach and getting here requires the support of a number of people, but we suspect few would deny it is worth the effort.

As darkness begins to prevail, we come to a dead stop, cut the motor and look around in silence under the blaze of stars. Oscar points out the Southern Cross. The nightly riverbank symphony is building to a crescendo. We hear the remarkable melody of the xylophone frog and see fireflies in the air and glow worms in vegetation along the banks. We are reluctant to leave but the progressive assault of mosquitoes settles the issue. We use flashlights to hunt for caiman on our way back. We spot the red eyes of at least a dozen and Oscar manages to snatch one about 30 inches long out of the water for us to become acquainted with. We return to a candlelight dinner of soup, salad, pasta with beef medallions and fruit (no caiman).

Two person tents have been set up for us on the raised platform that serves as a park ranger lookout station during the day. Members of our support staff have hung hammocks on the platform and wrap mosquito netting around the hammocks for sleeping. We fall asleep to exotic sounds of the jungle.

We awake early to the sound of howler monkeys and we leave camp at 5:45 for an early morning bird-watching expedition. We immediately see jungle life beginning with a monksaki monkey, then a beautiful flight of cormorants and a seldom-seen Jabiru heron. Oscar says this is only the second time he has spotted a Jabiru in his 15 years as an Amazon guide. We get an up close view of a hoatzin, a dramatic prehistoric looking bird. The river once again has a glassy black appearance. Dolphins splash nearby. We soon hear more howlers. We enter an impossibly beautiful and tranquil lagoon. Judi spots a toucan and it cooperates for a photo. Fish jump out of the water and a dolphin surfaces just beyond our boat. Overhead, flights of cormorants, parrots, and other species are almost continuous.

The Amazon has a magical quality at dawn. Birds of many species seemingly compete with one another to produce the most dramatic calls with their whistling, rasping, cooing, chirping, warbling, squawking, whipporwilling, tweeting, screeching, hooting and mostly just beautifully melodic singing. Fernando cuts the engine and we float silently for half an hour, transfixed by the sights and sounds. The reflections in the black surface assume a stain glass appearance as the boat ripples the water.

We return to our campsite at 8:30 to a hot breakfast of eggs and coffee, pick up our support people, get all the gear loaded into the boat and head back downstream. The temperature gauge reads 84° but it is cloudy and with the breeze on the river, we all don long sleeves or jackets for the next hour.

En route to the lodge, we hit rainsqualls 4 different times. Each time, Oscar distributes ponchos and we cover up for a few minutes until the rains stop. We arrive at Yarina village early in the afternoon where a simple hot lunch is served. Later in the afternoon the sun becomes brilliant, creating even more spectacular lime green mirror images on the water -- the most impressive of the trip. We cannot stop snapping photos. We reach the lodge before dark.

This is our one leisurely day at the lodge. We have time to enjoy the veranda and watch the changing conditions as a cooling rain shower passes by in the early afternoon, dropping the temperature from 89° to 82° in a 30-minute span. Our only activities are a morning visit to a nearby village and school and a late afternoon river expedition on which Fernando somehow spots a very well camouflaged tree iguana. We also see black capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys. We are treated to another beautiful sunset as we return to the lodge. After dinner, we are entertained by a high school-age group of musicians and dancers from the nearby village. Their teacher works with the students to preserve the traditional dances and music.

It is very foggy in the early morning. After breakfast we head out for one last river excursion. We spot a beautiful brightly colored water iguana. There are many pink dolphins about. After lunch we take our boat to Nauta, say our goodbyes, and board a taxi back to Iquitos. Once back in Iquitos, we hear rumors about an impending strike, due to begin at midnight that will block the road to the airport. Uh oh…

First thing in the morning, we locate the TANS office and discover that all flights have been cancelled for the day (we had a flight to Tarapoto). We are advised to return at 9 am the following day.

Iquitos is generally not considered a destination per se. It is viewed, rather, as the departure point for jungle lodges and river trips. Yet Iquitos has its own distinctive flavor and a certain amount of charm. The city extends for more than a mile along the Amazon River and a rather elegant walkway (the Malecón) covers most of this length. At the far end is Belén, the poor but picturesque shantytown built on stilts right on the water. Visitors and residents alike stroll along the Malecón toward evening, enjoying the cooler temperatures and the sunset. Vendors set up makeshift food stands and children play sidewalk games. Parents push babies in strollers. Midway along the Malecón and two blocks inland is an old fashioned central plaza. Several hotels and a number of restaurants line the square.

We must add that this tranquility is interrupted by the motocar, the principal mode of transport in Iquitos. Motocars are three wheeled motor bikes configured with cushioned seats for two passengers beneath a decorative canopy. The streets are filled with these mufflerless vehicles that buzz about the town like swarming insects. We find it easy to while away time in Iquitos. Good thing as we end up being marooned here for two additional days due to the strike.

The strikers disrupt transportation by setting fires in major intersections but there is no violence. There are no motocars about, most stores are closed and it is unusually quiet. We make another trip to the TANS office and this time they rewrite our ticket to Tarapoto for the following day. Do they know something we don't? We meet Aartie and Neel (also stranded by the strike) for brunch (and for dinner) at the Yellow Rose of Texas, a very popular restaurant with a huge, varied menu run by an expatriate from Texas. The owner, Gerald, a very congenial fellow, knows everyone in Iquitos. He is also a good source for updates on the airport situation. We learn that soldiers have been flown in from Lima to take control of the airport because the strikers have threatened to invade the premises. Late in the afternoon there is a small parade through town by the strikers. Each marcher carries a large wooden club and they do not appear to be in a very good mood.

We awaken to the raucous sound of motocars and the streets are bustling with people. This is a very good sign and, in fact, we learn the strike is over. Our flight is not until 5 pm but we decide to leave very early for the airport in case we encounter problems. But there are none. Police and soldiers blanket the airport but appear to be pulling out. Our flight departs on schedule. We see a beautiful sunset enroute to Tarapoto. A short taxi ride brings us to the very pleasant Hotel Lily, built around a courtyard and conveniently located 4 short blocks from the Plaza de Armas. As soon as we check in we head for the plaza in search of the Posada Inn which several guidebooks list as a good place to arrange day tours. With the help of an English-speaking guest at the Posada, we are able to convey our desire to visit Lamas the next day. Minutes later, Martin, a most engaging English-speaking tour guide arrives and we arrange to meet the next morning for a half-day tour of Lamas. At our request, Martin shows us the way to a highly recommended restaurant. It is situated upstairs on a charming cobblestone street lined with outdoor cafes and twinkling lights. La Patarashca lives up to expectations. Judi has a local specialty, juane de chonta camarones (heart of palm, rice and shrimp cooked in a big leaf), and Larry has fruit and yogurt.

Tarapoto is a very friendly town -- with almost no English spoken; motocars are used here but, in contrast to Iquitos, they are equipped with mufflers that greatly reduce their decibel level. The town lies in a verdant green region 2400 feet above sea level. The favorable climate supports the growing of a wide variety of products: bananas, yuca, papaya, coconuts, sugar cane, corn, bread fruit, and rice. Mountains can be seen beyond the countryside.

Day 9
Martin picks us up at 9 am in his van and drives us to the isolated village of Lamas. Lamas is at a higher elevation (3600 ft.) and offers very scenic vistas. A relatively culturally intact group of people (called lamistas) lives in one half of the village. They are believed to have come from the highlands and settled in this jungle-like setting, still retaining their Andean customs.

That evening we fly to Lima and begin the long international check-in process. This is one airport where the 3-hour check in for international flights is really needed.

Reservations at the Pacaya-Samiria Amazon Lodge can be booked in the US through World Class Travel Services ( or on the lodge website


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