Text and Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez
Three countries, three cities, three ports, three Copa Airlines destinations, and one of the planet´s natural wonders: the Amazon, a fresh water sea that has never been bridged. It is a bewitching river of a thousand legends, the widest, largest, and most bio-diverse in the world. These three cities are celebrating its recognition by the Swiss foundation New Seven Wonders, as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The award recognizes the biological wealth, diversity, and unrivalled natural beauty of the Amazon.
When I checked-in online for my flight to Iquitos (Perú) I chose a window seat so I could watch the wonderful landscape below, which looks very much like an enormous, broccoli crown, furrowed with multicolored rivers large and small. Iquitos, Perú´s sixth largest city, is bordered by the Napo, Marañón, Ucayali, and Nanay rivers. It looks like a small white dot in the middle of a thick tropical rainforest that covers almost three million square miles, an area approximately the size of the entire European continent. This lung of the world supplies almost half of the oxygen used by the Earth’s seven billion inhabitants.
Iquitos is celebrating; its regional government, which first nominated the river for this distinction, carried out campaigns and held events to raise awareness of the importance of this valuable world resource. In fact, a 1996 multinational expedition led by Polish explorer, Jacek Palkiewicz, and endorsed by the Geographic Society of Lima, discovered the origin of the Amazon River in the Andes of southern Perú; specifically in the Apacheta stream on the edge of the Quehuisha mountains in the department of Arequipa, 16,896 feet up. At a length of 4,388 miles, with this discover the Amazon took the Nile‘s place as the largest river in the world.
After reading the bronze plaque officially acknowledging the Amazon River as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, I head to the place where the river gets its name. I take the seventy-five minute trip to the traditional forest town of Nauta in a collective car. I pay a twenty-one dollar boat fee to Robinson, a Peruvian as calm as a caiman, who will take us to the observation deck where the Ucayali and Marañón rivers join and the river takes the name the Amazon.
We sailed down the Marañón River to the kingdom of the unmovable; the trip is slow, the breeze is cool. The pilot jolts us out of our lethargy by announcing our arrival at the Miguel Grau indigenous community, where we climb the ten-story, 114 foot observation deck. From this perspective we get to admire almost 1,500 tributary rivers, twenty-five of which are more than 621 miles long. We are on the river that provides a fifth of all the fresh water runoff (rain water that flows on terrain) in the world and releases 60 million gallons of water per second to the Atlantic Ocean. During the return trip, Lourdes, an elegant and exotic beauty from Lima, talks non-stop, gushing about her love for the Amazon.
Our next destination is Leticia, a Colombian port city on the Amazon. As I leave the plane I meet humanitarian Manuel Rigoberto Leal, a city notary and friend with whom I taught at university. He suggests that after my visit to the Isla de los Micos (Island of the Monkeys, Colombia) and an afternoon at the Tabatinga Pier (Brazil), I should go to the Marasha Natural Reserve (Perú). “This is an area where three countries coincide. There are no borders; the river and the jungle unite us,” says Manuel.
Six tourists and I take a rainy boat trip to Marasha and hike 2.17 miles up a jungle trail to our accommodations. The hike is strenuous and makes me think about Gonzalo Pizarro’s 1541 discovery expedition from Quito that included 220 Spaniards, 4,000 Indians, 4,000 llamas, 2,000 pigs, 2,000 hunting dogs and one hundred horses. The expedition was ordered by his brother, Francisco, who was obsessed with finding the Country of Cinnamon. After countless woes, Francisco de Orellana joined the travelers and over a year later they reached the estuary in the Atlantic.
Once we are in the reserve we start on our adventurous hike along a wide trail in front of a beautiful lake formed by the river´s bends and turns. Life is everywhere, all at once in the many sounds and shades of green that make us feel irrelevant in the face of such a vibrant explosion. This is the home of 2.5 million species of insects and around 2,000 birds and mammals; just 0.39 sq. miles here can host 75,000 types of trees and 150,000 species of plants (about 90,000 tons of vegetable biomass). A true miracle of biodiversity!
Looking over the soothing lake, our native guide tells us about the Yarí Tucano, Zacambú reserves (Perú), and Palmarí and Heliconia reserves (Brazil) and their longhouses, restaurants, and small lakes where tourists fish and watch piranhas destroy artisan hooks tightly set on the fishing poles. And thus I finish this “no borders” trip and prepare to start a new one.
Manaus (Mother of the Gods, in the local tongue) is the largest port on the Amazon and the capital of the State of Amazonas (Brazil). It is a city that takes visitors back to the opulence of rubber fever. From 1890 to 1920 Manaus was the most progressive city in Brazil and one of the wealthiest in the world; it was the only city in the country with electricity, drinking water, and a sewer system. It boasted an electric tram, avenues built over swamps, and imposing and ornate buildings like the Government Palace, Municipal Market, Customs Building, and the majestic Opera Theatre –a Renaissance style architectural jewel that was built in 1896. The guide mentions that everything was imported from Europe: the Louis XV furniture was brought from Paris, the marble from Italy, the steel from England, and the lamps from Murano in Venice. The same can be said of the houses built for the rubber barons, which are now museums. The extravagance and lavishness of Manaus earned it the nickname “the Paris of the Tropics.” It is now part of Brazil’s legacy.
A visit to Manaus must also include a trip to the place where the waters join; a mythical site where the Rio Negro (Black River) contributes its waters to the Amazon without actually mixing, running alongside for several miles, split into two colors: yellow and black, a unique natural show.
Manaus offers many adventure and ecotourism opportunities and the most sophisticated ways to enjoy them. There are cruises going up and down the Amazon, water sports, and helicopter and light aircraft tours over the jungle. I decide on the Ariaú Amazon Towers, situated at the junction of the Rio Negro and the archipelago of Anavilhanas, an amazing and comfortable hotel complex consisting of eight platforms built on stilts in the middle of the jungle (this native building technique is an example of environmentally friendly architecture).
A yacht takes us twenty-one miles up the river to the hotel where a flock of wild parrots noisily welcome us. At night, a canoe takes our group crocodile watching; our young guide, Vinicio, tells us about the river as we tune into the different sounds: toads, cicadas, lizards…Suddenly a two bright spots appear: they are actually a pair of eyes attached to a small caiman. Victor immediately jumps into the water and comes up with the animal in his arms, all the while sharing his knowledge of the biological wealth of the Amazon and its frailty. After the trip we meet in a bar to swap stories and plan the next day´s activities.
I wake up to the jungle’s morning symphony and an al fresco breakfast next to a group of green parrots fighting over fruit. It´s a cool morning and I put my photographer’s cap on and set off on a three mile hanging trail. I am amused by friendly monkeys and birds, sloths on trees, macaws flying through the skies, and turtles sunbathing on a tree trunk.
The next day is dedicated to the pink dolphins. We sail the Rio Negro with a group of travel agents until we reach a platform where a shy native throws fish into the huge river while waiting for our arrival. After a little while, the dolphins arrive and in silence we eagerly climb the platform. We get to hold up sardines and wait for the dolphins to jump up and catch them. The activity is thrilling and brings laughter as we quietly dive into the water to swim with these mythical pink animals.
The biodiversity of the Amazon and its tributary rivers is such that famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once said that the Amazon carries more species of fish than the Atlantic Ocean. This is the abundant and diverse life of three cities, in three countries, showered by the blessed water of the river of all rivers.