So we’ve arrived, day 5 is here. Today is the last of the Amazonian adventure we’ve been on for nearly a week now. But we’ve made tons of furry friends and life-long memories. Today was no exception!
We started off the day with a visit to the Belen Market. This is something we tried to do the first day with the 6 of us but all the locals outside advised us against going in alone. So today we came back prepared with a guide.
It was about 8:30am or PRIME TIME in the market. Most people were there to buy ingredients for lunch. They knew which stand they wanted to visit and they walked with purpose. Whereas we just strolled through the isles observing the people and their products, occasionally talking with a local business owner or two.
As we walked, the smell of raw fish and meats was overwhelming. It was a hot, humid day like most days in Iquitos but still early enough that the market hadn’t been taken over by flies and birds yet (as we were told happens in the afternoons).
There were stands three rows of stands, all selling some type of food products; either raw or prepared. You had the woman selling fish while her small child oversaw her work, the young girl frying banana balls in pork fat to make tacachos, a local snack. We passed another women who was selling humitas and juanes, both special treats wrapped and boiled in banana leaves. We saw a woman whipping a strange mixture, pouring it into a glass and serving it with a spoon. When we asked our guide what it was he told us that she literally just whipped egg whites until they became a fluffy-like substance and this serves as breakfast for many of the inhabitants of Iquitos. We decided to pass on this local delicacy.
As we passed further into the market, we stumbled upon a whole section of household items and homemade liquors. There had to be at least 10 stands like the one pictures selling their homemade concoctions. Some were in beautiful displays, names marked with labels. Others were anonymously in recycled plastic bottles.
We happened to be in the market for such liquor. We wanted to take some back from the Amazon to give to our friends upon return. A nice lady invited us to a tasting and we tried everything from “21 Roots” to “Raise the Dead Bird” (the second has supposedly includes aphrodisiacs).
After our tasting, we made a few quick purchases. I needed a basket to help me carry back some of the artisan works I had bought in the jungle onto the plane. We got some spicy chilies to take back to our friends who had left earlier on in the week. To quench on thirst we scoped out the most hygienic looking stand to buy a juice which we slurped down right away.
We decided to make our way to the mototaxi so we could head into our next activity. As we were waiting for our guide to get his mototaxi, we made some local friends and exchanged smiles and giggles.
Mid-morning we made our way to the manatee sanctuary which actually ended up being about a 30 minute moto-taxi ride from the city center, even passing the airport. Finally we made it and waited for more people to join the group before we started a tour.
Once the tour began, one of the first things we learned was that the Amazonian Manatee Rescue has a strong interest in teaching future generations about the animals in its care, Peru’s current environment, and the dangers of the animal trade black market. Throughout the complex they had little learning areas for school groups and they mentioned all the “dynamicas” (interactive activities) they use to keep the kids interested, something a Peace Corps volunteer could really appreciate.
We passed many varieties of monkeys but unlike the monkeys we had seen on Monkey Island or at the Animal rescue on our tour in the jungle, these animals were in small cages and demonstrated signs of distress such as pacing throughout the cages. For this reason, I do not have many photos of those animals.
We learned throughout the tour about some of the harsh realities Peru faces in terms of Animal rescue and rehabilitation. They shared with us that in order to re-release animals into the wild, the rescuing organization must release them to the exact locations they were captured. Because many of these animals are rescued from markets or homes, it is hard (maybe even impossible) to know exactly where they come from. So although there are hopes to release the animals into the wild, there obviously are barriers in some cases.
When we got to the manatee tanks, we saw they were places in pairs in each tank. Many were sleeping, something they spend up to 50% of their time doing. Although manatees are generally known to be solidary animals, it seemed the pairs had all formed special bonds. We even saw two apparently kissing! The guide told us that the two were inseparable.
On the furthest tank in the row another sleeping manatee was showing his belly scars where he had been stabbed various time with a harpoon. Although these animals are well taken care of, it hurt me to see them in their cages because it felt more like a zoo than a sanctuary. However, meeting this manatee helped me understand that these animals could never survive on their own in the wild.
Towards the end of the tour we were able to buy some greens, the main staple of a manatee diet, and feed them to the majestic creatures. They were so sweet and gentle. They swam right up to us when they smelled the lettuce leafs and opened their mouths wide.
We finished exploring the Amazonian Manatee Rescue around 1:30pm and headed straight to the other side of Iquitos to make it to the Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage and Butterfly Farm for their last tour at 245pm.
The mototaxi drove us to the Mercado Nanay and we coordinated for him to pick us up there when we were done. Before the driver headed off he helped us identify a local boat driver whom would take us to the farm. Once we negotiated a price, we jumped on in and enjoyed the ride. We passed a few abandoned boats and I became a bit worried about our rushed decision to take the privately contracted boat but in the end it all turned out fine.
We arrived to the farm at 2:45pm exactly and headed up the long pathway to reception with the boat committing to wait for us until we were done.
Once inside, we joined with another tour already going on and began exploring the farm and animal orphanage. We learned that the butterfly farm was originally started as a project to help rebuild the dwindling butterfly populations.
The natural life cycle of these summer generations of butterflies is anywhere from 2-5 weeks, once hatched. However, only about 5% of cocoons hatch into butterflies in the wild. In this protected habitat, they are able to reach a rate of about 20%.
The butterfly farm was the first of the projects of Australian founder Gudrun Sperrer. Later, the Amazon Animal Orphanage was recognized by the Peruvian Government in 2004 and began accepting orphaned animals confiscated from the illegal animal trade usually in markets, airports, and households. The Orphanage is home to many animal now, including an Ocelot, sloths, many varieties of birds and monkeys, a panther, and a tamandua – an anteater type animal.
Again at the Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage, the goal is always to rehabilitate the animals back to their natural habitat when possible. However, many times this is not the case and the staff and volunteers try to make the animals as comfortable as possible while they live out the rest of their lives at the rescue center.
IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE PILPINTUWASI ANIMAL ORPHANAGE: More and more tourists think they are helping exotic animals by buying them from a random person on the street who claims to have “found it abandoned in the jungle.” While tourists mean well, purchasing such an animal anywhere in the world exacerbates the problem by creating a black market.
No animals leave offspring before they are able to survive on their own. Every animal being sold on the street is there because its parent was killed, perhaps by the person trying to sell it! And every animal being sold on the street is in ill health.
Should you purchase such an animal, albeit well-meaning, you are actually giving the seller a reason to kill another parent in order to sell its offspring, and you are putting yourself in jeopardy because the purchase of an exotic creature is illegal in all countries.
If the animals are lucky, they are brought to a center such as the Amazon Animal Orphanage. But that will not stop the problem. Only you can help stop this problem. Do not buy animals from street vendors. Report them to local authorities.
When we arrive back to the village Nanay, where we took the private boat from, we search the stands for some food. At this point it’s been hours since we’ve last ate and we are starving! We find some delicious looking Tacachos (the mashed and fried banana balls) and then stumble upon another local delicacy, Surrey.
We end up buying a stick of 3 and splitting them among ourselves. The worms, an excellent source of nutrients, are fried on a grill and taste almost like chicken. I was skeptical at first but I must admit my more adventurous travel companions were able to talk me into make good life decisions once again on this trip. The verdict? Definitely good, something I would recommend to other travelers.
After dallying around at the market, we realized the time and made a quick run past our hotel to grab our bags and head to the airport. But we couldn’t leave town without visiting another artisan market first!
The San Juan Artisan Market appeared to be the perfect chose as it was located so close to the airport and there were many artisans all in one place, ready to sell their products at a fair and reasonable price.
We checked out the baskets, hammocks, rain sticks, key chains and paintings before making our last-minute purchases.
And just as quickly as our adventure had started, here we are on the 5th and final day, about to head back to our other semi-permanent lives in site. This trip has helped me realize that all good things come to an end eventually, whether we are ready or not. Facing the end of our two-year service in Peru, coming like a speeding train towards the station, we are forced with the truth that this wonderful adventure we have been on will, too, eventually come to a close.