A Day on the Rio Amazonas

Going on jungle trips in the Amazon was a lot harder to organize than I´d imagined. As a solo traveller, it was near impossible to arrange anything and even if I had, I would have paid far, far more than what I could afford. It was very frustrating, but I decided to invest my money in a day trip which promised to take me up and down the River to almost all of the points I was interested in. I would have loved to have stayed in a jungle lodge overnight, but sometimes you just have to admit defeat. I guess it´s just a motivating factor to come back to the Amazon one day!

It was an early start, and our group walked down to the Leticia Port, where we hopped in our boat for the day and put on our bright blue lifejackets. Our first stop was the Isla de Flores, where giant Victoria Regis water lilies spread out all over the water and where we got to see PARROTS and have them on our shoulder!! (Read the last blog to understand my love affair with the best birds in the world)

We also saw a monkey named Shakira and a pink dolphin statue with a giant appendage. Pink dolphins populate the Amazon, and are used as a symbol of the region, just like kiwis in New Zealand. I can only speculate that a man from the region designed the appendage statute with some macho pride in mind.

Next, we motored up the river to Macedonia, an indigenous village. This was the first negative experience of the tour, although sadly not the only one. I was aware before I came to South America that travelling around less developed areas entails coming into contact with the less savoury side of tourism, and it was on fully display in Macedonia. Tour group after tour group came through, and a group of indigenous women would do the same dance number in their costumes, pulling up people from the group.

After the dancing, the tourists would push and pull them to take photo opportunities, ordering them how to stand and pose, and draping their hands around the ladies who were obviously not comfortable with the physical contact. Because the arrivals were chaotic, I saw this happen three times and it made me super uncomfortable and unhappy to be associated with what was happening. To make up for it, I bought a pair of earrings. Not really a massive contribution, but at least it meant I was away from the prodding and pulling, and made a tiny economic gesture.

Off we went to Parque Nacional Amacayacu, with me incredibly relieved to leave the touristy nature of the indigenous village behind. We walked through the jungle, sadly not in the mud with knee high gumboots like I had hoped. I very  much enjoyed watching the Brazilian woman in my group attempting and failing at walking properly in kitten heels. WHO wears kitten heels for a Amazonian jungle walk? Apparently this Brazilian woman does.

Kitten heels – DEFINITELY the most appropriate form of footwear in the Amazon

Sadly, it is not the season for pink dolphins in the Amazon, so although we waited for awhile in the famed Lago Tarpoto, we left the spotting site without any spotting ourselves. It was very pretty though, and it came all right when at the very end of the day we were treated to a showcase of dolphins sailing through the air. Stopping for a much needed lunch, we wandered around Puerto Narino, a eco village with no cars and which is populated mostly by indigenous people, which was very serene and nice. If I could have, I would have liked to have stayed there for the night.

While motorboating our way down the river towards the Isla de Micos, we saw an incredible Double Rainbow! I have never seen one before, apart from the very famous You Tube clip, so it was very exciting and utterly beautiful. It was a nice moment to enjoy the sight in front of me – the boat sticking up in the air with the wind whizzing past, on the River Amazon and gazing at a double rainbow.

It was nice to have that happy nature moment, because when we got to the Isla de Micos, it wasn’t quite what I had been expecting. I had imagined the Isla de Micos and its promise of monkeys coming up to you as fun and charming. Instead, I found it a bit disgusting – you walk into the jungle, and all of a sudden dozens of furry, rat like creatures are crawling up your leg or grasping your head. I have a strong dislike of rodents, and it kind of felt like a million rodents were running all over my body, with no warning of when another four or five would jump onto you from behind. Not quite what I had been expecting, and it was all a bit too much for me, particuarly when they started scratching my eyes. I had pictured myself with cute little monkeys nuzzling in my arms but the reality was underwhelming. Never mind, my monkey fantasy was all a bit too cutesy for my liking anyway.

Attack of the Monkeys

The last bit of the afternoon was an uncomfortable end to the day. When we were in Puerto Narino, the guide and a bunch of the Colombians in the group had bought large packets of biscuits. Confused (a constant state of mind in South America) I just assumed they really liked biscuits. It wasn’t until we got to Puerto Algeria, Peru that it all clicked. The guide had announced we would go meet the locals and see Peru! which sounded nice and a good way to end the day. Sadly no. We clambered up the mud banks and were greeted by the entire town, standing around looking dispirited and clutching a variety of exotic animals. Confused, I couldn’t understand why women were holding crocodiles, teenage girls were bouncing sloths up and down and tiny little children holding birds on popsticle sticks. It then became evident that Amazon tours stop at Puerto Algeria, a tiny, impoverished village which is basically a collection of basic houses on mud and all the tourists get out and have fun taking photos with all the exotic animals and handing out biscuits to the local kids, as if they were big, fancy benefactors.

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The face of poverty (I know that by even taking this photo I am in the wrong, but it puts a human face to the whole experience)

There was so much wrong with this that I felt incredibly uncomfortable the entire stay. Whilst everyone else in my group enthusiastically went off to pose with the exotic cat tied up with much too tight nylon wire who was desperately trying to escape, or with the sloths that were being joshed about as if they were inanimate objects, I stood to the side and watched unethical tourism in action. I know I sound very sanctimonous, but after spending 3 years at uni as a Development Studies major, it was kind of an example of everything I had been taught was wrong. (Development Studies is a different subject to explain, but its basically an interdisciplinary subject which looks at history, economics, politics and culture to see why different countries are in a different state of development and all the flaws and complexities that come with the idea of ‘developing’ a country)

All these tiny little kids, waddling up to me with their birds on popsticle sticks, or hopefully holding turtles, with a clear ranking system – the more exotic your animal, the more money you get from the tourists. My ‘favourite’ bit was when the tour guide got all the local kids in a big circle, telling them to be quiet and pushing them into order so that my group members could walk around, handing out sugary biscuit shit. How NOT to conduct Sustainable Tourism 101. I may sound all up myself with my wanky development speech, and I did think about the fact that my 1000 mil notes (about 20 NZ cents) would be much more appreciated by the locals than me, but it was all so wrong, I couldn’t make myself do it. How many exotic animals have been torn away from their natural habitats, how many kids are growing up with the idea that rich tourists coming in for 20 minutes of petting and photos is the way to getting enough money to live off, how long can it continue? It may be a small gesture which may not mean much at all, and I knew the guide was laughing at my quiet aversion to it all, but by not taking part in it at all, I felt I was doing my small bit in protesting the exploitation of both the animals and the people.

Anyway, at the very end of this uncomfortable and unpleasant experience as I was standing away from it all, I saw the pink dolphins flitting up and down in the water, jumping in the sun. It was a nice juxtaposition of horribleness and wonderfulness. We finally left Puerto Algeria, and ended the day watching the sunset at Isla de Flores. It was gorgeous, beautiful, to the point it almost made me forget my first hand experience with bad ethics moments before.

Sunset on the Amazon

All in all, it was an day of mixed emotions. I found that the natural bits of the journey were nice, whilst all the encounters with people had more than a hint of desperation and exploitation attached to it. I had heard a lot about the questionable nature of ecotourism in South America before this, and this confirmed that there is a long way to go. I don’t have any big, fancy answers to the questions that I had from both the indigenous village and Puerto Algeria experiences, but all I know is that it isn’t right. It was my first real experience as an adult with questionable tourism, and my strong reaction to it still lingers, 3 or so weeks on.