Another great, if somewhat touristy and at times disturbing, day with Jade! We did the Leticia to Puerto Nariño, a daylong boat trip up the Amazon River, stopping along the way at indigenous villages on both the Peruvian and Colombian sides of the Amazon, Isla de los Monos (Monkey Island), and Lago Tatatopo, seeing pink dolphins along the way.
So here are the details of the day:
We took advantage of our wait for the boat to fill up to check out the nearby central market. I am always fascinated by markets and their insights into local life and this one did not disappoint – an abundance of colorful exotic fruit and huge fish! On the way to the port, we also managed to get our first glimpse of Mojojoy, a local delicacy of huge plump tree larvae. They are eaten live – yum! We saw them on the menu last night and wondered what they were. Now we know!
We made it back to the port in time to cram ourselves in with twenty other passengers into a rickety speed boat and we were off on our journey up the mighty Amazon River. Our first stop was at Puerto Alegria, an indigenous settlement on the Peruvian side of the river. The highlight here was a petting zoo of exotic animals – sloth monkeys to cuddle with, cobras to hang around the neck, turtles to lift (very heavy!), regular monkeys to feed from a bottle, colorful parrots with clipped wings, even an alligator which seemed to enjoy its meal. I have to confess that we enjoyed seeing the animals. I especially enjoyed holding the sloth monkeys which are like cuddly babies. But I did feel quite guilty afterwards. Thanks to tourists like us, these animals are kidnapped from their native habitats in the jungle and forced to live in captivity. Very sad!
Our second stop was Isla de los Micos. Started as a rehabilitation center for maltreated monkeys, the island has become a major attraction on the tourist circuit. Getting off the boat, we were greeted by indigenous people selling souvenirs and more disturbingly, children dressed up as “indigenous people in grass skirts” so that tourists would pay them to take a picture. We proceeded to hike onto the island, where we were handed bananas which attracted the monkeys to come and jump all over us, eating the bananas off our hands. Again, good fun in a contrived sort of way and the monkeys were free to do their thing so this stop did not bother my conscience much.
Our third stop was another indigenous settlement, this time on the Colombia side of the river. Again, the locals had many souvenir stands lined up with some beautiful woodwork for sale. We were then seated in a circle and told about a local custom for girls’ coming of age. Around the age of 12 or 13, girls are sequestered from the rest of the community for three month. During this time, they are taught about men, sex and household duties. At the end of the three months, they are painted in celebratory colors and a big celebration is held. It all sounds great, but here is the not so great part (at least for those of us who don’t fully understand the deep meaning behind it all) – after the celebration, the older women in the community gather and pull out all of the girl’s hair until she is completely bold. If she passes out from the pain, they just stop and wait until she regains consciousness in order to resume the hair pulling. Ouch!
After the story (during which my daughter was surely glad that she is not a member of this particular tribe), the ladies of the tribe danced for us while a little boy ran around them in circle rubbing a fake penis. There was some significance to this act, which was explained to us, however neither Jade nor I really understood what it was and did not feel compelled to ask for another explanation.
Our fourth stop was a quick look at Lago Taratopo, a peaceful and pretty lake. The highlight was seeing pink river dolphins frolicking in the water on the way to the lake. Enough said.
Our fifth and last stop was Puerto Nariño, a vehicle-free ecologically advanced town. It is very cute and pleasant with lots of greenery (as one might expect in the Amazon) and organized streets. We had a decent buffet lunch at a local restaurant and headed to Puerto Nariño’s highest point, a tower with spectacular views of the river, the lakes and the surrounding jungle. It was really hot and we debated for a couple of minutes before climbing up the tower, but I am glad that we did. The views were truly a highlight of the day.
We ended the day with a breezy ride down the river back to Leticia. The colors of the sky as the sun set over the Amazon were truly magical!
A note to travelers who maybe reading this: while we had a good time, I would not recommend this trip for other travelers. At about $75 per person, it is overpriced and as you got from my writing, very touristy. I recommend taking a regular passenger boat to Puerto Nariño and enjoying the Amazon River and interacting with locals at a fraction of the price.