Napo River, Amazon, Peru
The finale to our trip in Peru in 2006 was a few days stay in the Amazon near Iquitos. I had previously visited the EcoAmazonian Lodge in Puerto Maldonado some years ago and had high expectations for the Explorama Napo Lodge.
If you are considering booking with Explorama please do so after you read this post! A full image set and slideshow can be found here.
We arrived at Iquitos just pass midnight. The humid tropical weather is the first thing at hits you. Secondly there is an air of an untamed civilisation. Iquitos is one of the very few cities in the world which is only readily accessible via air. There are no major roads to Iquitos and riverboat is the only other option. The atmosphere is similar to that described in Alex Garland's The Tesseract set in Manila.
We decided to make our trip into the Amazon with Explorama Lodges. This company is one of the largest operators in the Lareto province founded many many years ago by American Peter Jenson. He had emailed us, "On arrival in Iquitos please look for your guide in the luggage claim area of the Iquitos airport, wearing a white t-shirt with bright orange EXPLORAMA LODGES on his chest, and carrying a sign with your name."
The guy who greeted us barely spoke English and did not wear the logo bearing T-shirt, but he did have my name on a scrappy piece of A4 paper. He insisted taking our backpacks even though they both had a combined weight of over 30kgs! We followed him through the throng outside the airport building towards a bank of small minibuses. On approaching the transfer bus we were hassled by a man who was indistinguishable from the other lodge/taxi touts outside the airport. We continued to follow our bags until this guy called my name. It was only then I realised that he was our guide! He briefly introduced himself as we boarded the mini bus and demanded we tip the porter 20 soles. The only small denomination note we had was a 10 sol note and we gave it to this porter. We didn't expect this welcome and this was certainly not the best start to our trip. Sound a little like our friendly Egyptian guide from my previous post?
The trip to the El Dorado hotel took us through Iquitos nightlife. There was definitely a sense of unpredictability as we sped past people drinking beer on the streets and shops poorly lit by flickering fluorescent tubes. Our guide checked us into our hotel and departed.
Iquitos Times Headline: Giant Anaconda Attacks American Explorer!
The next morning we arrived at the lobby to find our guide reading a newspaper and he seemed very relaxed. As we waited for our pick-up bus he quizzed us on how much we paid for our trip with Explorama. He also explained how expensive everything was in Iquitos as most products had to be transported into the city by air. Onions and other vegetables were very expensive whereas a large hand of bananas may only command a few dollars. He had laid the foundations for his tipping-drive. In Egypt they simply ask you outright for a tip. "Baksheesh!"
Explorama's twin engined passenger transporters.
There is no doubt that Explorama is not a cowboy outfit. They were very well equipped and their administration seemed to run on rails. The transfer to the lodge was smooth in their twin engined speed boats. The lodge facilities cannot be faulted. The buildings were raised on stilts, typical of all buildings in the rainforests. Each bed had it's own mosquito netting, drinking water was readily available, lamps lit up the rooms and walkways in the evening.
A lone sleeping bat.
The food served in the main dinning room of the Napo Lodge was certainly hearty American sized and tasty! The dinning room was adorned with wooden plaques created by previous guests. Each depicted some Amazonian animal, others with messages of thanks. The majority seemed to be created by the OAT tour group.
2m wide Lily pads.
During the trip at Napo Lodge we felt that our guide in general was not as enthusiastic as the others at Napo. He had boasted that he had over 10 years guiding experience. It showed. He lacked that enthusiasm we had come to expect. We had to pump for information regarding our activities and schedules! On the day excursions, he was not very approachable and seemed very disconnected. For example, on all walks he was racing ahead, sometimes dozens of metres or so ahead of us. At junctions, often, we would not be able to see him but would eventually hear a voice shouting "Left!" or "Right!".
We found it difficult to ask questions about the plant life and insects that we had encountered as often, he was not with us. When did get the opportunity to ask about the plant life or the animals, he was very abrupt and certainly did not explain things at a scientific level. We felt we had to constantly ask questions to get the guide to interact with us. For the ACTS canopy walk, we had no interaction with our guide and received no information on the plant life along the way as he was way ahead of us. Maybe he already knew that there was nothing of interest on the canopy?
The ACTS canopy consisted of a series of suspended walkways spanning from platform to tree platform, designed by a Malayasian research group. The highest platform was 36.8m above the ground. DEET was not permitted on the canopy as the compound would gradually weaken the polyvinyl chloride ropes. This excursion was definitely an experience but don't go expecting to see primates swinging from tree to tree or birds nesting! The canopy's very existence and frequent use by tourists and researchers were probably the reasons why the canopy was almost devoid of any visible wildlife. Our guide provided us with a pair of binoculars on request - one minute we had had to rent it the next we only had to tip him or the owner.
Over the four days with Explorama we had experienced the torrential rains whilst on the Napo River, we had seen the three-toe sloths high in the trees, heard groups of distant monkeys, spotted Hoatzins, Kingfishers amongst other birds and greeted the world's largest rodent (Capybara) at the lodge. We had also visited a local tribe from whom we bought a blow dart. We came across various Marmosets and even spotted a brown salamander. We had caught piranhas using cane poles in the black waters of Lake Lorenzo. The trip was definitely packed. We had even glimpsed the surfacing of pink river dolphins (Inia geoffrensis)!
But contrary to what the Explorama website's mention of caiman spotting in the evening - our guide was very forthright in informing us that there were no caimans in the area as the local people have hunted them so that numbers were almost non-existent! The night ride on the small Napo tributaries revealed sleeping Kingfishers, large Fishing spiders, lone sleeping bats and Owl butterflies. It certainly reminded me of the tranquil moonlit paddle boat trip on the Madre de Dios six years ago near Puerto Maldonado with EcoAmazonia Lodge. We did, however, see hundreds of caiman eyes reflecting back at us on the Madre de Dios River.
Three-toed Sloth in action!
We left Explorama with mixed feelings. The Amazon was an amazing place. Did we have impossibly high expectations? I don't think so. The staff at Explorama were excellent. Even with the mini drama of a blown engine on our transfer back to Iquitos, we were rescued by one of their many twin-engined speed boats. Our e-tickets back to Lima were confirmed and our boarding passes were printed by Explorama's admin team. The Explorama facilities exceeded our expectations. However, we were disappointed with our guide who seemed to be professionally rude. I would hesitate in recommending the trip from this experience. If you do book a "not-so-cheap" trip with Explorama be sure to contact Peter Jenson first and ask about the quality of his guides. We did contact Peter Jenson regarding our experience. His apology came after 2 months:
"We have talked at length to [your guide]. He, naturally, claims that he provided the service to you that he always provides to the guests with whom he is entrusted. We told him that it is obvious that this was not the case, as it is the first time we have had a complaint about his guiding - and the complaint was very detailed and complete. In short, we told him that we believed that he had not provided the service."
This confirmed that our guide was not having an "off-day". A guide who makes you feel uncomfortable or appearing to constantly suggest that we should tip is not someone I would pay to spend time with. As one of 18 guides at Explorama your experience should be better! Guide roulette anyone?
The vicious village pet.
A fine example of excellent service is covered in my next post: Lapland Wilderness Tours provided an unforgettable recent trip into the arctic circle.