Lima: La Parte Uno The following day I had another early morning flight to the third country on my itinerary, Peru. Having prepared my bags, etc, the previous night, I set the wakeup time for 4:30 which would allow me enough time to shower and such and meet the 5am pickup time (once again having to forfeit breakfast). As soon I roused myself and start to get ready, the phone rang, it was reception, the transfer driver was already here, 30 minutes early! I told reception he had to wait. Either he or the local Chimu reps had got it wrong again! When I came down, just after 5, I could see that the Argentinian taxi driver was fuming, you could cut his seething anger with a gaucho knife. I reiterated what I had told reception, he was at fault coming half-an-hour early. This seem to propel him into an even bigger rage, responding with belligerence and rudeness. Once we were in the taxi, the intemperate oaf proceeded to drive like a coke-fuelled maniac at breakneck speed to the airport (fortunately there was very few cars of the freeway at that time). It was a very frosty trip with both of us seriously pissed off at that stage. I was glad to get to the airport in one piece. At least I didn’t have to deliberate over whether to give the turkey a monetary gratificación for his service(?).
The Flight to Lima was largely uneventful. Coming out of the Arrivals, I checked the cambio rates as I had no Peruvian sols but was still holding a surplus of Australian dollars. They were offering around 2.70 to the US dollar, which was not bad, but only 1.50 to the Aussie dollar. Considering that Australia was 1.05 or 1.06 to the US$ at the time, this was a rip-off of a deal. I put my Australian dollars away & withdrew sols from the Airport ATM instead. As I was leaving for Amazonia the next morning, The tour agent had booked me in to the nearest hotel 50 metres from the Arrivals gate, Costa Del Sol. This was the first modern hotel I had encountered on the tour! I had a complementary pisco sour at the bar. Notwithstanding my initial reservations I was starting to warm to this quintessentially South American drink. As it was still only mid-afternoon I decided to head into the city. Tossing up whether to go back to Jorge Chávez to get a Green Taxi or the convenience of booking one there at the hotel reception, I went for the convenience (and an extra 15 sols). Despite the reception guy saying it would there in a moment, 15 minutes of moments passed & still no sign of the cab! I walked out into the airport street and hailed one straight away. The drowsy old codger with a rundown taxi charged me 45 sols and then proceeded to drive like someone possessed, zigzagging between cars all the way into the centro. I hadn’t been prepared for such an unnervingly hairy ride from such a senior driver. But, based on my later cab experiences in the Peruvian capital, such dangerously wayward motoring is the norm for everyone. Lima, at least the part I saw on my first day, was very grimy, dirty and faded. There were some grand colonial buildings in the city, but all of them aside from those in Plaza San Martin, were in dire need of a clean and a fresh paint job. There appeared to be hardly any gardens or green areas to speak of in the central region. Of course there was the obligatory protest against the authorities going on in the Plaza, it was typically noisy, very musical with everyone apparently enjoying themselves! In the limited amount of exploring I did, the one street that raised a little bit of interest on my part was Jr Pierola in the downtown area. This curious street was composed largely of small ‘backyard’ printing presses, stretching one after another for blocks. I had thought it strange at the time that there could be a need for this many printing shops in Lima. I didn’t find out until much later that Lima was the counterfeit banknote capital of the world! it now made more sense. Unaware of the back story, I had been thinking only in terms of legitimate, domestic demand!
I walked down to the end of the street full of old technology printing businesses onto the main link road where I saw, not for the last time in Peru, an odd kind of religious ceremony. Outside of this big church, there was this line of about 20 priests standing outside the church entrance. They were all wearing a distinctive rope knot around their necks (I later dubbed them “the Order of the White Knotted Rope”). Watching the spectacle for several minutes I got the impression that I was observing some kind of phenomenon of celebrity priests. Clusters of people were standing in the street outside the cathedral (all with the devotional Catholic parishioner look about them) craning their necks and earnestly trying to get a glimpse of the “sacerdotal heavyweights”. And the priests themselves seemed to relish being the centre of attention, lapping up all the unconditional adoration like the strutting peacocks they seemed to be. Central to this spectacle was the priest in purple (rather than the standard black) who arrived late, making a rather grand entrance with quite a theatrical flourish (I didn’t actually notice if his white knotted rope was larger than the others). So, picture the scene, a cabal of monk celebrities being lavishly feted by the pious crowd, to a noisy backdrop of roving street vendors, women and girls, shrilly trying to peddle a range of religious icons, relics & souvenirs to the faithful. I felt the need to move on quickly. I tried to hail a taxi to take me back to the airport hotel but every single driver I stopped on the main avenue, shook their heads vigorously and sped off when I disclosed my intended destination. This left me perplexed, I couldn’t work out
why were they disinterested in my fare, passing up a chance to rip off another gullible tourist. I walked back in the direction of the church to try a different street for cabs. I passed a very brightly-lit up shop selling something called ‘San Jose turrones’. These were rectangular slabs of biscuit topped with multi-coloured lollies in a gooey base, which despite being very unappetising-looking were very popular with the local customers. Curious about these delicacies I googled them later, the manufacturers themselves don’t describe these turrones as food or biscuits, but as “edible products of Peruvian traditional custom!” Back home, I consulted a work colleague who comes from Peru on the turrones, his opinion was that the most distinctive aspect of these delicacies was their rock-like hardness. Looks like I saved my teeth some wear and tear there. I asked a young Peruvian couple also trying to hail a cab why the taxis wouldn’t take me. The guy informed me that many of the city taxi drivers did not have a permit to enter the airport. He managed to engage a taxi whose driver had the permit and was prepared to take me. This was very considerate of him, but then, when I was getting into the cab, the young fellow, astoundingly, paid the fare for me (which he had negotiated at 40 sols). My protests at such generosity were deflected by the Good Samaritan. It was all I could do to slip a 20 sol note, I had in my pocket, into his reluctant hands. I must say that I was quite blown away by the kindness of this stranger! Twenty minutes later, I was having serious misgivings about having got in this particular taxi. We’d gone about 3-4km when suddenly a traffic policewoman pulls our taxi over. She speaks curtly to the driver (who is already looking quite contrite and sorry for himself) and then she starts writing a ticket. I hadn’t been paying much attention so I was not certain of his misdemeanour, but I suspect he had run a red light. After the policewoman had issued the ticket and moved away to catch some other unalert transgressors, the driver remained sitting there in the cab, crestfallen, motionless for several minutes, reading the infringement notice, then placing it on the dashboard, picking it up again, re-reading it, reading it in minute detail as if not believing the words contained on it. Seemingly stunned by his misfortune, he appeared to have completely forgotten about me in the back, the passenger! Finally, he snaps out of his torpor and slowly put the notice in the glove box, and having regained some composure, restarted the engine and drove on. Our route to the airport, circuitously down various dark backstreets, was very different to the one taken by the ageing speedhog who had brought me into town, and it took a tortuously long time to return to the airport. Finally, outside of what looked like the entrance to the airport, he came to a halt, pointed vaguely in the direction of some amorphous building in the mid distance. I was a bit dubious at about exactly where I was. The driver’s motives for abandoning me outside the airport were not hard to fathom. I figured that he was trying to recoup some of his losses (the ticket still dominating his thinking), by not entering the aeropuerto precinct he was saving money on the permit usage. Whatever! I was still a good seven to eight minutes walking from the hotel but I didn’t care. After the ordeal of the long, long journey I was glad just to get out of the taxi. The next morning I was woken up at 6am by what sounded like a Tijuana brass band playing in an unrestrained fashion. Forty metres from my hotel window a collection of musicians were loudly welcoming a returning local Lima football team. When I got to the airport to catch my flight to the next destination, Puerto Maldonado, I found there were huge queues at the domestic airline check-in, and LAN had one line only open. After 15 minutes in the queue, the line had hardly moved, so I switched to the next line (also LAN) which had only a handful of passengers in it. After some time in this line, a LAN staff person came up and ejected me from the line, because apparently this was for ‘special’ check-ins. I remonstrated loudly with the staff, saying that LAN should have more than one lane open to cope with the overflow of passengers, but they would not budge, so I found myself relegated to the end of a now much longer queue. After three-quarters of an hour and little progress, it was pretty apparent that I would miss my flight. And I would have done so, had not a savvy American traveller I was talking with alerted LAN to my plight. The LAN staff person OK’d me to go straight to the departures gate carting my luggage with me. The sudden spike in passenger numbers at the airport was down to the school holidayers starting their trips, which underlined just how inept LAN was in planning for this annual occurrence. The plane flew first to Cusco for a stopover before going on to the Amazonia region. The Cusco trip turned into a wild salsa party, courtesy of the Latinos on board raucously singing, bumping and grinding their hips to the cabin music most of the way. Even some of the LAN cabin staff were getting into the action, turning up the volume on the music and dancing enthusiastically to the rhythm. I for one was relieved when most of these out-of-control Peruvian 20-somethings danced their way off the plane when it landed at Cusco! On the onward trip to Maldonado, the normal and more subdued in-flight entertainment replaced the passenger-generated entertainment. We were collected by a bus at the less than impressive Puerto Maldonaldo Aeropuerto. The posada lodgers gathering together in the bus were a very mixed group, nationality-wise. I had a nice conversation with two friendly American guys on the bus (not the typical loud, boastful type). On the advice of Lizbeth (our guide) to travel light, we unloaded all of the baggage not needed for the three-day trip to Amazonia in a secure storage holding (at least I was hoping it would be secure). At the river (Rio Tambopata), we took the long boat trip to the resorts (the bus group were going to three different lodges), fortunately ours’ was the closest.
As we chugged down the Tambopata, I enquired “Are we in Amazonia yet?” Lizbeth replied in the affirmative, so, suppressing my instinctive reflex to say “If that’s so, where is the Amazon River then?”, I instead asked “Is this a tributary of the Amazon?” Lizbeth ‘s halting response was that it was a tributary of another river which was a tributary of the Amazon. A tributary of a tributary? Someone else asked the obvious question, “How far are we from the Amazon River itself?” The guide hesitatingly replied that it was 4,000 kilometres away! The other questioner was incredulous and thought she meant 400 kilometres, and corrected her, which under pressure she eventually agreed to in an appeasing gesture. I checked later, it was 4,000km away! Not to mention several tributaries of tributaries away … through eastern Peru, across Bolivia and of course deep into Brazil. All of my tour group were caught off-guard by this revelation! Before coming to Peru we had thought along these lines: the itinerary says we were going to the Amazonas region of Peru, given we know that the Amazon River itself flows through part of Peru, ergo we will actually be on the Amazon River! Not so apparently! (I discovered later that the Peruvian part of Rio Amazon flows much farther north in the area around Iquitos).
We pulled over to the mooring for the Posada Amazonas and walked up the track a short distance to the rainforest lodge. After a welcome session in the restaurant/bar, my group settled into our rooms which were hobbled together with wood, bamboo, palm fronds, adobe mud and clay, nonetheless the rooms appeared solid enough. They were not however soundproof as all rooms were open at the top, nor were they secure as the verandahs were windowless, opening out to a view of the close-by jungle. Needless to say guests at the lodge would have been foolhardy not to use the room safety deposit boxes.
My room had a grand, four-poster bed with a (essential) mosquito net, reminding me of the room I had once stayed in at Livingstone in Zambia alongside the Zambesi River. The hammock in the corner seemed an over the top “Jungle Jim” cliche (and it didn’t come with a mosquito net!). In the afternoon we did an exploratory walk thorough the Amazonas jungle, climbing a 37 metre-high scaffolding canopy tower to get a view of the native bird life. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of anything of the avian family. Lizbeth, our guide, claimed she got a glimpse of a toucan in the canopy from about 500 metres away but I couldn’t see for sure that it was a toucan! The meal in the Posada that night comprised a set menu and was excellent. Variety was provided with a good rotation of dishes each night, and breakfast and lunch were of a similar quality. Not so ideal was the electricity supply, a couple of times each day the lodge turned on the generator for an hour to allow guests to recharge their batteries, phones and cameras. The problem with this was that the generator’s availability tended to coincide with our boat excursions, so this made it difficult to keep our devices charged up. The electricity also was cut off each night at 9pm, usually ensuring an early night for most. Still, we were deep in the jungle and should have expected to forego the usual urban conveniences and rough it to some extent to give the experience more of an authentic flavour. The next day we pulled on the black wellies supplied by the lodge (most of the trails were permanently muddy in the tropical wild) and crossed the Rio Tambopata by boat to an oxbow lake called Tres Chimbadas, where we circled round the lake in a catamaran. We were on the lookout for caiman and hoatzin (could find any) and giant river otters, which we did see. I asked why we didn’t see any pirañas in the lake. Lizbeth reckoned it was because the otters love to hunt them. We moved to a different part of the river where Lizbeth supplied us with wooden branches fashioned into primitive fishing rods. This time pirañas were plentiful and quite a number were caught by the group, mainly by a Gippsland farmer’s wife (none by me!). The pirañas were surprisingly small (given their fearsome reputation), but any feelings of complacency we might have had were dismissed when Lizbeth demonstrated the razor-sharpness of their teeth in effortlessly cutting through a leaf! I was reminded of this several weeks after the trip when I heard a report of how a host of pirañas had attacked swimmers at a beach in Argentina.
After lunch we went to a nearby Collpa (salted soils) on the river bank. Here at the Clay Licks, neotropic birds ingest the clay from the side of the river bank. Lizbeth had forewarned us that macaws might not be present at the parrot clay licks and we may only see parrots and parakeets, but we were in luck as scarlet macaws were there on mass. From a elevated screen cover constructed next to the clay lick we were able to observe the normally shy macaws feeding on the clay. Without the cover we wouldn’t have been to get that close to the timid but spectacular red, yellow and blue macaws.
Later we did a short boat ride downriver to the Infierno native community’s ethnobotanical centre (Centro Ñape). We were escorted around the ‘medicinal’ garden by an Indian medicine-man who showed us the plants that were used by the community for treating different ailments and conditions. At the end of the tour the shaman invited us to sample some of the concoctions which he claimed could treat everything from cancer to diabetics to arthritis to impotence! No one else was game but I tried a couple of the fawn to darkish brownish-coloured drinks which had a taste somewhere between sour whiskey and cough medicine. I didn’t notice any benefits but fortunately I didn’t experience any adverse after-effects either.
At night after dinner we did a hike in the dark and the rain looking for jungle organisms which are more nocturnal in their activity. The night patrol turned out to be a bit of a meaningless wander as we only managed to glimpse the occasional frog, a few unexciting insects and one well-camouflaged monkey in the trees. In the morning the Amazonia adventure at an end, I said goodbye to Lizbeth who implored me to give a very good report on the tour evaluation sheet. Her earnest entreaties were of such a magnitude, as if a life or death outcome rested on my favourable response, so I was only too happy to oblige her request. In my jungle room each night when retiring, I had gone to obsessively lengths to ensure that the moissie net covered my body 100 per cent, so intent was I to try to escape the dreaded bite of the Amazonian mosquito. But just as I was leaving, they had finally got a piece of me, causing my skin to become increasingly sensitive and itchy as the day wore on.
After a 45 minute boat ride and a final photo or two of the Tambopata, we returned to the port and the Maldonado storage depot. After the bus was unloaded, I discovered that my baggage from the lodge had not been brought back. I had been a bit apprehensive that they might have missed my bag because my room was at the far end of the lodge. Indeed I had actually gone back just prior to departure time to make sure that it was still not outside the room. It had been taken so I was (deceptively) reassured. The depot staff were all relaxed about it when I reported it missing (typical Latino insouciance) and the supervisor told me not to be concerned, “no te preocupes señor“, on the next bus no problem. Frustrated, I was left to cool my heels, thinking that I should not have trusted the inept fuckers and instead carried the bag myself. I was less than amused to find out that the porters had placed my bag with another group of bags in error. Fortunately I was running early for the flight back to Cusco, so the lodge’s cockup wasn’t costly. Puerto Maldonado Aeropuerto was about as threadbare and lacking infrastructure as any airport I could imagine in South America, befitting I guess a remote jungle outpost! There was no air con and not much in the way of snacks or refreshments in the cafe. There was very few seats in the terminal and woefully few in the Departures area. This was not a place you want to get stuck in for a long time, the boredom factor would probably kick in pretty swiftly. Interestingly, the electronic detector at the baggage point seemed to be activated only by footwear! Waiting in the Departures lounge I looked round for something to distract me and find it in the shape of an odd sign on the wall. The notice lists a number of points, including a warning to passengers of their potential criminal liability in the event of flights being delayed by wild birds coming in contact with the aircraft (not sure how this could be attributed to a passenger?!?), something about passengers ingesting drugs and then being apprehended, and then later it turns out that they didn’t actually ingest any drugs and so are allowed to stay on the flight after all (I’ve no idea what this means!!!), and a statement indicating the possibility of a bomb being discovered at the airport or on board (no mention of what procedure would follow the discovery – just that there could be a bomb and folks you should know this!). El bizarro! I sighed heavily and was just happy to see the LAN jet appear on the tarmac soon afterwards.