Amazon Adventures

Amongst my various travels, I have made two trips to the Amazon in Peru, to collect tropical fish. I made the first in 1995 and then returned in 2003, with a group of friends from Bermuda. Both trips entailed living on a river boat for a week or so, travelling on the Amazon and its tributaries, in search of fish. In this post, I am sharing information about both trips. The first trip report is primarily text, but there are many photos from the second trip.

First Trip in 1995

After my first Amazon experience, I wrote an article about the trip for our aquarium society newsletter. That article provided a daily record of the trip, and is being used here as the framework for this 1995 report. Whilst I took over 700 photographic images on that first trip, they were all slides, so that I could give a presentation to our members. I no longer have those slides, and only have this single photograph from the trip (but I have many photos for the second trip).

I started keeping tropical fish as a hobby in 1988. By 1989, I had formed the Bermuda Fry-Angle Aquarium Society, and in 1990, I travelled to my first overseas tropical fish event – the annual convention of the American Cichlid Association. The conventions include presentations by speakers on a variety of topics, some of which included collecting fish in the wild. My hobby had taken off quickly, so perhaps a fish collecting adventure of my own was the next logical step.

During 1994, I had seen an advertisement in a tropical fish magazine, from a company called Margarita Tours in Florida, that advertised fish collecting tours to Peru. As soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to participate in such a trip.  I wrote to the company and was sent some literature in the mail (remember those days?).  The descriptive itineraries had me salivating, so I booked a place on a trip for 21st – 28th January, 1995. In the months leading up to the trip, I ensured that I had the necessary vaccinations and that I obtained the various items suggested by the company.

The expedition began on a Saturday at the Miami International Airport, where the various participants in the adventure met for the first time.  Ours was quite an international group, with two of us from Bermuda, one from Canada, one from Scotland and the other five from the U.S.  The experience level ranged from professional importer to short-term hobbyist.  We had all been advised to take a 48 quart cooler with us to hold our fish on the return leg, so it wasn’t difficult to spot the other group members.  We must have looked like a group of alcoholics to the un-initiated, because another traveler approached me with the observation “I see you are taking care of the beers” as he nodded towards my cooler.  Another group was gathered in the waiting area – they were also headed to Peru but they would be accompanied by a shaman and would be indulging in hallucinogenic mushrooms for the week!

We were booked on the once-a-week Faucett Peruvian flight to Iquitos. The wide-bodied jet took about 4 hours to reach Iquitos from Miami.  During the flight, all passengers were invited to participate in a game of mile-high bingo.  That was a unique experience for me, but with two prizes of $100 cash up for grabs, it was worth having a go.  As it turned out, members of our group won prizes on the outward and homeward flights.  The bingo was followed by a meal and a movie before we landed in the dark at Iquitos.

As a group of dancers entertained us on the tarmac, we encountered a slight delay as the sole Immigration officer had forgotten his briefcase containing the passport stamps.  Meanwhile, in anticipation of a generous tip, a bunch of young guys were hustling about, gathering suitcases for the incoming tourists.  Once the passports were checked and stamped it was on to the Customs check and finally out of the airport and into a rain-storm that had descended whilst we were inside.  Albert (our boat captain for the trip), had been “in country” for a week getting things ready, and was at the airport to greet us.  Whilst the Margarita staff got our luggage into a truck, we boarded a mini-bus and were driven through the wet streets to the offices of Margarita Tours.

We entered a door off the street, passed through the office and came out on the other side – next to the Amazon River.  A couple of flights of steps took us down to the Amazon Explorer, a double-decker Amazon riverboat that was to be our home for the next week.  With cabin allocation out of the way, we were given a short guided tour of the boat and we gathered in the dining room for a briefing.  The lower deck consisted of 8 cabins and a communal area which we would use as our “fish room”.  The upper deck consisted of the bridge, a dining room/bar area and a sun-deck/patio area at the rear.  The cabins each had a pair of bunk-beds and an air-conditioner! The crew quarters were in the engine room, in the bowels of the boat below the lower deck.

The on-board expert for the trip was the effervescent Dr. Dave Schlesser, a.k.a. “Dr. Fish”, from the Dallas Aquarium.  Dave had led many of these trips and his knowledge of the Peruvian Amazon was amazing.  He had an almost child-like enthusiasm and a fascination for all flora and fauna.  His enthusiasm was so infectious that, before long, many of us fish-nuts found ourselves spending some of the evening hunting down insects on the boat, so that Dave could catch them and identify them.  We were experiencing an appreciation for the beauty of all of the creatures of the Amazon.

As we slept through that first night aboard, our river boat motored down the Amazon River and by the morning we had made the turn up the Napo River.  Most of the first day was spent heading up the Napo and by afternoon we had reached the town of Mazan.  This riverside town was the major trading and market centre for the area.  At the time of our visit there was a large beach party taking place on the opposite bank, complete with loud-hailer and children’s foot-races.  We spent some time looking around the town and visiting the stores and market.  This was our first of many encounters with the children of the area, who were very keen to receive the candies we had taken with us.  We left Mazan and continued upstream.

About one hour before dark we got our first taste of tropical fish collecting, when we stopped and collected in a small creek near to the village of Salvador.  Using a seine net, we were able to catch about 20 species of fish, including Brochis splendens, woodcats, small doradid catfish, hatchetfish, freshwater flounder and piranha.  Piranhas were found in most of the collecting locations but, contrary to the impression created by movies, they are not generally a danger to humans when other prey are available.  We were far more aware of the potential danger from electric eels and freshwater stingrays.  The creek was a “white-water” habitat, the water being silt-laden, running from the Andes. The pH was 6.0 with 35 ppm hardness.

Once night fell, Dave set up his “black light” and the insect-watch began.  Meanwhile, hook and line fishing from the back of the stationary boat resulted in a number of Cetopsid catfish being caught.  These peculiar catfish were previously nick-named “Procto-Cats” by Dr. Loiselle due to their peculiar habit of swimming up the anal passage of larger fish and eating them from the inside out.  I can assure you that all thoughts of  “skinny-dipping” were quickly dismissed!

Monday’s first light was about 5.00 am, and the Explorer continued its journey upstream.  After breakfast we left the Explorer in an aluminium skiff fitted with an outboard and we moved ahead of the larger boat to seek out collecting sites.  During the morning we collected at two sites – a small pond at Oro Blanco and the larger Lake Avaho.  The second site was by far the more productive and provided us with our exercise for the day.  The banks and bed of the lake were very muddy and we soon found ourselves sunk past our knees in the mud.  Walking in these conditions is difficult, so dragging a seine net through the water demanded a different approach.  We discovered that we sank less when we were on our knees, and that is how we seined the lake.  Amongst others, the seine produced juvenile shovelnose catfish, striped Raphael cats, knife-fish, silver dollars and the ever-present Wolf-fish and Piranha.  Meanwhile, one of the crew members threw a cast-net over a sunken log and, with his hands, he was able to locate a number of Loricariid and Ancistris catfish.  As each catfish was located, the crew member hurled them through the air to the muddy bank, where they were then collected and placed in a bucket.  Those of us who handle our fish with the greatest of care were quite surprised at how well these fish survived, after what must have been their first attempt at flight.  A number of sites were checked after lunch but many of them proved to be mainly rainwater with little fish life.  We moved further upstream and by night-fall we had reached the village of Bagazan, below Zapota Cocha.

During the evening the men from Bagazan invited us to visit their village to see a Jaguar that they had hunted down and killed, because it had been killing the village’s pigs and other livestock.  The jaguar had been killed by one of the villagers armed with a shot-gun and it’s skin and head were proudly displayed.  It was a sad thing to see, but it was also easy to understand why the villagers had to protect their livestock and themselves – they say that Jaguars have been known to take small children.

On Tuesday we attempted to gain access to Zapota Cocha and Papaya Cocha as both of these areas had been productive collecting sites on previous trips.  Unfortunately, the water level of the Napo was unusually low for the time of year and we were unable to get to these lakes in our skiff.

By early afternoon we stopped at a village on the south bank of the Napo, just before the Tacshacuraray River.  The village is home to a tropical fish collecting station – the first stop for tropical fish after they have been collected by locals.  The fish are held in wooden boxes lined with plastic sheeting, with no filtration whatsoever.  Water changes are achieved by carrying water up from the river.  At the time of our visit, the station had a variety of Corydoras catfish, Raphaels, Banjo catfish, Leaf-fish and others.

We left the village behind as we continued up the Napo.  When we turned onto the narrower Tacshacuraray River we noticed a subtle change in the scenery – the river bank was not as steep and the trees seemed to be taller.  Our first collecting site off this river was at Paivaa Cocha, which we had to reach by walking through the jungle.  This was a beautiful area and provided us with some different species.  There was an abundant supply of January tetras, some small hatchets, festivum, Heros and some very nice, large scalare angelfish.  We also collected an interesting trumpet-nosed knife fish and some small Satanoperca jurapari.  We were still in white water and the pH was 5.8 with 50 ppm hardness.

On Tuesday night we went on our only night hike of the trip, as we entered the forest in search of interesting creatures.  Unfortunately, there were not as many creatures as was expected, but we did locate a frog, some stick-insects and small spiders.

Wednesday was our fourth day on the water and it brought us our first opportunity to collect in “black-water”.  This moment had been eagerly anticipated by some of us, as we were hoping to find dwarf cichlids in the Apistogramma genus – we were not to be disappointed.  After breakfast we traveled by skiff and on foot to reach Lata Cocha, a black water lake.  The shoreline was made up of leaf-litter, as was the bed of the small streams that fed the lake.  We fished the small streams using fine-meshed dip-nets.  The nets were pushed into the shoreline, under the leaf litter, and then lifted up.  Next, all of the leaves were picked out of the net to reveal an assortment of fish.  The area was awash with Apistogrammas – all bitaeniata – and we were having great fun catching them.  This was what the cichlid lovers amongst us had been waiting for.  Each scoop of the net would result in about five Apistos, together with Pyrrulina sp. splashing tetras and some pencilfish.   A single Neon Tetra was caught in one of the streams – the only Neon to be caught on the whole trip. We were totally oblivious to the cast-netting that was taking place in the lake itself, but we later discovered that the cast-net pulled in a couple of species of Corydoras, spotted headstanders and others.  The water in this spot had the typical tea-like appearance of “black-water”.  The pH was 5.8 with 50 ppm hardness.  Curiously, the nearby white-water Tacshacururay River had a pH of 5.5 and zero hardness.

After lunch, we reached the furthest point of our expedition – Urcu Cocha.  This lake produced some Pulcher tetras and a couple of festivum.  A single Leaf-fish was caught using a dip net at the shoreline.  We commenced the return leg of our journey and again collected Apistos in the Paivaa Cocha area, before continuing on to the village with the collecting station.  Unfortunately, most of the fish had been transported downstream the previous day, but I was still able to trade a spool of fishing line for five leaf fish.  There was also an opportunity for us to trade T-shirts for fishing-spears and paddles prior to the Explorer continuing downstream on the Napo for the last hour of daylight.

The main objective on Thursday was to get as far down the Napo as possible.  However, Albert graciously allowed a brief stop to collect again at the village of Salvador, as one of the group was hoping to get more hatchetfish.  The area had been loaded with hatchets a few days before, but now they were all gone, illustrating the ever changing nature of the Amazon waterways.  After the brief stop, we continued downstream and some of the group took the opportunity to begin bagging fish, ready for the flight home.  There was a brief stop at the town of Mazan and then, about 5.30 pm, Albert pulled the boat into shore so that we could visit a riverside village.  One of the villagers graciously invited this strange bunch of strangers into his home and showed us around. Most of the children of the village had followed us to the house and sat in the building, quietly watching us.  Of course, they were given lots of candy and the householder received a few gifts before we left.

The food throughout the trip was excellent.  It was varied, well prepared and in plentiful supply.  We enjoyed Dorado catfish, chicken, pot-roast, heart-of-palm salad, and freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices, to name just some of the delicious offerings.  However, on this, our final night aboard we were to be given a special treat.  The pre-planned menu included T-bone steak, which was delicious, but the special treat had been obtained that morning from a young boy in a dug-out canoe near Salvador.  Three large fish (two large Oscars and a Prochilodus) had been baked and were served as an optional addition to the menu.  I believe that everyone sampled the Oscars and before long there were only bones left in the pan.  They were absolutely delicious – the culinary highlight of the trip!

After dinner we enjoyed a very nice sunset and a couple of beers before turning in for our final night on the Explorer.

The final fish-count for the trip showed that we had caught 55 species of characins, 14 cichlid species, 34 catfish species, 3 species of gymnotids and 4 species from other groups.  This adds up to a grand total of 110 different species of fish. The vast majority of fish were returned to their habitats, after being identified in the nets. Only the fish that we intended to take home were transferred onto the boat.

During our week on the water, our group remained virtually unscathed and suffered no attacks by fish or wild animals.  One of the group was bitten twice by a piranha – twice by the same fish – but this was only because he kept picking it up from its bucket on board the Explorer.  Whilst a small amount of insect bites were inevitable, the area was surprisingly free of mosquitoes and other nuisances.

We tied up for the night close to the Amazon and by early morning we were motoring up river on the Amazon, heading for Iquitos.  Along the way we could see many of the local people gathered by the river bank, waiting for the various ferry boats to collect them and their produce and take them into Iquitos.  We reached Iquitos be early afternoon and we were soon transferred to the Hotel Acostas II for the night.

After the siesta period we walked to a tropical fish exporting facility.  This is where permits were issued for the fish we had collected.  We also had the opportunity to purchase additional fish from the exporter – provided they could all fit in our 48 quart coolers.

With all of the fish business taken care of, we had time for souvenir shopping and a guided tour of the city.  The final event of the trip was the Captain’s Dinner, hosted by Albert at one of the city’s restaurants. 

The following morning we departed the hotel early and headed to the airport for the flight back home.  Margarita Tours ensured that all of the required documentation was in place so that flying into the US with tropical fish was not a problem.  We were soon through Customs and on our various ways home.

It was an amazing trip and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being in the Amazon region. I would subsequently participate in a fish collecting trip to Mexico and a fish-related trip to Lake Malawi, one of Africa’s great rift lakes. Then, in 2003, I headed back to Peru.

Back to Peru in 2003

In contrast to my first visit, I have plenty of photographs of the second trip, but no longer have records of the various collecting locations or the species that we collected.

Members of our Bermuda club were well aware of my previous collecting trips and several expressed an interest in undertaking such an adventure themselves. I consider the boat-based trips in the Amazon to be the best introduction to fish collecting, and I agreed to organise a group trip for July 2003. Again, it was with Margarita Tours, which was now under the ownership and management of Devon Graham. Seven of us from Bermuda signed up for the trip, so that we could have a boat to ourselves. However, before the departure, Devon informed us that four other people wished to join the tour and asked if we would mind. We were told that the other four would be on a separate boat, so we happily agreed. There were other changes to the trip I had taken eight years earlier.

The direct flight from Miami to Iquitos no longer existed – so no in-flight bingo! Instead, we had to fly to Lima and overnight there. It was late evening when we arrived and as the taxi drove us through the dark to our hotel, it seemed to be a very sketchy neighbourhood. We got some sleep and headed straight to the airport the next morning, seeing virtually nothing of Lima. Once in Iquitos, we were met and taken to our hotel for the first night, located next to one of the main plazas in town. Our early arrival allowed us time to explore the town and visit the souvenir shops that sold some lovely carvings in ‘blood wood’. In the evening, we watched some dancers performing the ‘Anaconda Dance’ with a live snake, and then headed to a restaurant for a group dinner. Dave Schlesser was again present as a guide and onboard expert, along with Devon Graham.

The following morning, we transferred from our hotel to the boat that would be home for the week. Unlike the Amazon Explorer in 1995, the Tucunare didn’t have air-conditioning or individual cabins. Instead, the bunks were lined along both sides of the hull, in the rear-most two-thirds of the lower deck of the boat, with only curtains to provide any privacy. Towards the front of the lower deck was a dining area, where we would have our group meals. There was an open upper deck to the rear of the boat, for socialising and for keeping our fish catches. The crew controlled the boat from a cabin at the front of the upper deck. A bathroom with a shower and toilet was at the very back of the boat – the shower utilised unfiltered river water that was stored in tanks above! As promised, the other four participants slept on a second boat. However, once we were underway, that boat was lashed to ours and they remained attached for most of the trip. The other four passengers also ate with us and spent most of the leisure hours on the upper deck of our boat. So it got a bit cramped, and there were times when we would have appreciated the opportunity to put some distance between us and one of the other four, due to his annoying personality. Quite frankly, there were several times when we regretted agreeing to the others joining our tour!

Once we were aboard the Tucunare, we sorted out who would get which bunks and familiarised ourselves with the layout of the vessel. As we headed down the Amazon River, we observed the activity along the river bank. It was disconcerting to see piles of logged trees stacked on the bank of the river – evidence of a thriving logging industry. At one point, after leaving Iquitos behind, we pulled into the bank and paid a visit to a small family liquor making operation. There was a ox-powered press for crushing the sugar cane and a wood-fired still. A small shop counter sold bottles of the finished product, so some were bought for consumption on board.

On that first day onboard, we got to do some fish collecting, using a seine net that was pulled up to the muddy river bank, where we could all rummage through the catch, to see what was there. Any fish that we wanted to keep were placed in buckets and taken onboard the boat, where they were transferred to plastic bowls for the duration of the boat journey – with regular water changes being conducted along the way.

The following morning, we got to try our skills at dip-netting. We collected in shallow water, amongst many plants, which was not suited to dragging a long seine net. So each of us collected individually, with dip nets in one hand and a bucket for the fish in another. In addition to fish, our nets also captured a few frogs. After returning to the boat for lunch and a rest, we passed small riverside villages and locals making their way along the river in dugout canoes. We were even ‘mooned’ by one of them (see photo in the group below). We were visited by a group of children in their canoes and also saw some of the fish that were being caught in the river, which included piranha. Our boat staff helped out a local fisherman, who had inadvertently caught an electric eel on his line. The eel was brought onto our boat in a net, so that we could see it – but we were sure to maintain a safe distance from it. Once we had a look at it, it was released back into the river. In the afternoon, we set out to do some more collecting. This time, we dip-netted in a section of flooded forest.

One day, we visited a local village, where we interacted with several of the children. One of them had a pet sloth and another had a tiny marmoset clinging to her hair. The villagers set out an assortment of goods for trade, including home-made paddles and fishing spears. My friend Nyon had taken a football as a gift. After he gave it to the villagers, they put together an impromptu football game, which was quite entertaining. Some of the villagers played barefoot and some had football boots. I recall that a couple of guys shared a pair of boots – one wore the left boot and the other had the right one. Again, the kids were happy to receive some free candy. We also took the opportunity to pull a seine net at the river bank next to the village, so see what fish we could find.

One night was spent moored next to the Madre Selva Biological Station, a field station operated by Project Amazonas, and located on the Rio Orosa, about 125km from Iquitos. The organisation has title of use for 192 ha (~474 acres) of land and, through agreement with the Yagua Indian community of Comandancia, also utilises ~500 ha (~1235 acres) of adjacent land. I recall that we went for a night hike through the adjacent rainforest. They had a skull from a large caiman at the centre. In the photos below, Dave Schlesser compares the size of the jaws with his head. I’m glad that we didn’t encounter any of these whilst we were in the river.

The following morning, whilst still moored next to Madre Selva, a few of us took the opportunity to try our hands at paddling a dug-out canoe, as well as a fibreglass kayak. It was raining, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm or enjoyment of the moment.

I think we were at this same location when Nyon and I decided to ‘have a bath’ in the river, rather than wait in line for the onboard shower. We soaped up whilst standing on a wooden boat and then jumped into the river to rinse off. It worked well – apart from feeling small fish nipping at hairs and moles on my body!

After leaving leaving Madre Selva, we began the boat journey back to Iquitos, enjoying the river views as we cruised on by. It was also an opportunity to do some final water changes for the fish and to begin transferring them to plastic bags. When we reached the confluence of the Oroso and the Amazon rivers, we were treated to a sighting of the pink Amazon dolphins. They are not the easiest creatures to photograph, as they only breach the surface briefly, before disappearing again but I was fortunate enough to be able to get a couple of reasonable shots.

As we drew nearer to Iquitos, there was time to get a photo of the crew and our Bermuda contingent. We also had our final meal onboard. The food on the boat had been varied and tasty, so we were kept well fed. The crew had been excellent throughout. They operated the boat, as well as a small skiff to take us to collecting sites. They helped with the fish collecting. They cooked and prepared the food. They even cleaned our muddy shoes and clothing after each visit to a collecting site.

After docking in Iquitos, we transferred to a hotel for one more night and then went to a tropical fish exporting facility. In 1995, we had been permitted to transport our fish home with us in coolers but, by 2003, the regulations had changed. We were required to have the fish shipped home by the exporter. Whilst there was a shipping cost involved, in some respects it was a better option. It relieved us of the trouble of packing the fish bags into coolers, getting them processed through Customs in Miami and Bermuda, and having to deal with them as soon as we arrived home. By having them shipped, we could get home and prepare tanks in advance of the fish arriving. Whilst at the exporters, we also had the option of buying additional fish species from them, if they had something that we hadn’t been able to catch. That evening, we all went to a local restaurant for a final dinner of local specialities. The food included a variety of fish as well as yellow-footed tortoise and a member of the rodent family (possibly Capybara). I think there might also have been caiman on the menu. It was all delicious. We were entertained by local musicians, with Nyon joining them for a while on the drum.

The next morning, I headed out to visit the Belem Market and was joined by a couple of the Americans who had joined our tour – a father and son (neither being the guy who annoyed us). I found it interesting to see the items that were offered for sale in the market. Of course, there was a lot of fish, some of which we see for sale as aquarium fish, such as Oscars, Pacu and Shovelnose Catfish. Piranha were also widely available. There was also a variety of grubs – either live or prepared to eat, as well as chickens, turtles and an assortment of other items.

Whilst we were walking around the market, we were approached by a young boy who offered to give us a boat tour of the neighbouring floating village where he lived. I’m always keen to explore off the beaten track, but my two American friends were rather nervous. It probably didn’t help that we had been warned about the risk of pickpockets in the market. They were afraid that the boy was going to lure us into an ambush and that we would be robbed, so they headed back to the hotel. Unperturbed, I followed the boy through the run-down streets, between homes on stilts, to the riverside, where he had a wooden boat waiting. He then paddled me out to the floating village, whilst I took photos and generally enjoyed seeing a different part of Iquitos. A whole community was living in these wooden houses, some of which were floating and others were raised on stilts. I did wonder about the quality of the fish in the market when I saw men in boats, fishing with nets just a few metres away from makeshift toilets, where human excrement fell directly into the river. My young guide pulled his boat up alongside a floating house and he took me inside to meet his parents. Then we tied up the boat and went on foot briefly, so that he could point out the school that he was supposed to be attending. I had to admire this youngsters entrepreneurial spirit, even if he was skipping school. When the tour was completed, I gave him a nice cash tip that brought a big smile to his face. It had been an unexpected and enjoyable detour.

Later that day, we checked out of the hotel and headed home. The flight connections were better on the return leg, so there was no need to overnight in Lima. Our fish shipments arrived safely a few days after we got to Bermuda, rounding out an exciting Amazon adventure.

With the rate of deforestation that has been taking place in the Amazon in recent years, the whole ecosystem is at risk of collapsing. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to explore a small part of the Amazon twice in my lifetime. I hope that sufficient action is taken to preserve it for benefit of the Earth’s climate and for future generations to enjoy.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for these wonderful stories. When I read that Nyon brought a “football “ I was a bit bewildered until I realized that what an English person would call a football an American would call a soccer ball!

  2. Thanks Joe. Of course, football is called football in every country of the world – except the USA, who chose to create the name soccer, so as not to confuse it with the its own game where almost all contact with the ball is by hand, not foot. Haha. Just teasing you.

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