The more we see and do in Peru, the more we’re in awe by the magic and mystery that can be found around every corner. It seems like just about every place we visit has some new enchantment to offer, be it the colourful designs covering the traditional clothing, the continuing belief in traditional spiritual and medicinal practices, or the archaeological remains of ancient civilizations. Nazca is certainly no exception to this, with an unmistakable air of archaeological mystery surrounding the city.
Near the southern coast of Peru and surrounded by a Martian desert landscape, at first glance there really wouldn’t be anything special about the place. Speeding by along the Southern Pan-American Highway, you’d only really feel compelled to stop to refill or gas or for food. Hiking atop the nearby hills or flying overhead, however, you’d quickly realize that there’s much more to Nazca than meets the ground-level eye: covering an area of almost a hundred square kilometers of the desert plateau to the west of Nazca are a collection of lines, figures, and shapes drawn into the sand as if by a giant finger into the dust of a giant windshield. Created by the Nazca people between 400 and 650 A.D., some of these shapes represent animals common to the area (spiders, monkeys, fish, birds) – others, however, are simply massive geometric figures that have no apparent meaning, though there are a few theories floating around…
Of all the mystery surrounding the Nazca lines, the “how” is actually quite easy. A thin layer of reddish-brown pebbles covers most of the plateau – by removing this layer (typically between 10 and 15cm worth of debris) the much whiter layer of clay beneath is exposed. All you’d need is a few assertive mathematicians and enough strong backs to do the work, and presto – Nazca lines. The bigger question here is obviously, “Why?”. Why dedicate so much time and effort into creating something that can’t truly be appreciated by any of the people responsible for creating it?
After a fun-filled week in Quito we decided it was time to make our way into the jungle. After spending a day preparing for the trip, we hopped on a bus to Coca. The bus left late in the evening and arrived around 5:00am, which is usually too early to find a place to sleep so we chilled/napped at the bus terminal for a couple of hours. After the sun was up and things started moving outside we grabbed a cab to Hotel Florida ($12) near the river. It was without a doubt the filthiest place we've stayed yet, but it was at least a place to take a nap, shower and keep our stuff while we wandered around town looking for options to get to Nuevo Rocafuerte (NR). Coca is quite large and busy, and definitely not a tourist destination. We eventually found a couple of tourist offices and asked for information about tours and/or boats heading down the river. Tours into Yasuni National Park are expensive ($300 per person for 3 days) so we quickly ruled that out and decided to see if we could find a more affordable guide ourselves once we arrived in NR. We found that there was a boat through one of the transportation co-ops by the port due to head to NR the next morning (perfect!) and was only $15 each (though we later saw that some of the locals had paid as little as $4 each... we'd been Gringo’d again… but what can ya do).
Right after talking with the tourist office and buying our boat tickets, we decided to head back to the hotel and rest. We had just started down the street when a creepy looking guy on a motorcycle, who had been parked on a curb beside the tourist office, started his motor and began following very closely behind us. When I looked back it was super obvious that he had his sights set on us (though, as usual, we weren't carrying anything valuable along with us - just a small backpack with our Lonely Planet and Mandrew's slimy handkerchiefs). Before long, we noticed a little shop across the street with two big guys stocking the display, and we quickly crossed to duck inside. We pretended to look around for a few minutes but when we looked outside he was still there, staring at us maliciously. I smiled back as if to say “ok, we are on to you, it’s not going to happen so move on!” but he just stared back. I went back inside and told the store guys what was going on - they agreed we should stay in the store, and found us a place to wait where we couldn’t be seen from the street. We ended up having to wait over 20 minutes before the guy finally gave up! It was brutal how obvious he was - what the hell was his game? The storeowner said he was shocked by it, especially in this part of town, but we had been feeling a bit of an unfriendly vibe since we arrived. For the rest of the day we left the backpack at the hotel and stuck to busy streets.
Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte
The next morning at 7:00am we departed on a CRAZY packed lancha (like a really big canoe) to NR. We were told the trip would take 10 hours, so we arrived early and scored some seats near the front of the boat, maybe better for sightseeing. At first there weren’t too many people or things aboard, but as we waited to depart we realized that the massive crowd of people on the street above, as well as the mountain of stuff piled on the dock, was meant for our boat. To say the very least, it was insanely packed! And the boat wasn’t all that big. There were probably 30 or 40 women with newborn babies scattered in the crowd as well, and it seemed that no matter where you looked there was someone breastfeeding openly.
Yes they are real, and we have seen them! There is a story for the more manly in here too, don't worry. It involves criminals and crocodiles... !
During our trip along the Rio Napo from Coca to Iquitos our first stop was in a tiny town called Nuevo Rocafuerte, the place to find a local guide to take you on a trip into Yasuni National Park (without having to pay the crazy prices quoted by travel agencies in Coca).
Yasuni National Park
We met Roni Cox while walking around Nuevo Rocafuerte (NR) after only ten minutes. He pulled his motorcycle over to us and asked (in Spanish, of course) if we wanted a guide (himself) to Yasuni National Park. While that is exactly what we were looking for and he seemed super cool, we weren’t too quick to accept. We had been reading a few too many horror stories about people going into the jungle with fake “guides” who essentially take people down the river to their friend’s place and rob and/or murder them. I don’t think any of these stories came directly from NR, but after the weirdo motorbike robber encounter in Coca, we've been a bit more on our toes. We told him that we were actually looking for Frederico (a guide that a Park Ranger recommended to us) but we would consider his offer and come by his house later that day to let him know. We knew that there was a College in town (down the only street) that trains guides so we went there and asked if they knew Roni. They sure did and said that he was great.
Within a few hours we managed to meet a couple of solo travellers, María-José from Chile and Rodrigo from Argentina, who were also looking to go into the park and after some consideration the four of us decided to go for it!
Roni turned out to be a great guide, very enthusiastic and funny. The four of us had a blast riding in the smaller lancha (boat with outboard motor) through the Yasuni River and into a large lagoon called Jatuncocha (Quecha for "large lake"). We spent 3 days and 2 nights in the park, hiking for a few hours each day, learning about the plants and birds, watching the pink river dolphins breaching in the river (SO COOL!!), and fishing for piranhas before dark. After eating dinner and playing a couple rounds of cards (ninety-nine, or noventa y nueve en Español), we took the lancha out to do some caiman watching! We really didn’t have too much chill time, always on the go and keeping watch for some rare creatures! Mandrew had a great time snapping photos of birds as we passed by - he said it was a lot like the video game "Pokemon Snap" or something ... On the last day we did end up seeing the giant river otters, which was a great bonus!
When we got back to NR we parted ways with María-José and Rodrigo, sadly as they were a lot of fun, and started looking into plans to get further down the river, eventually to Iquitos in Peru which we have been told can take anywhere from 3-11 days on a barca (cargo boat). We had been hearing rumours that there would be one leaving from Pantoja (the first small town on the Peruvian side of the border) on Saturday or Sunday (it was Wednesday at this point). It's always a bit hard to tell with this kind of info in these small, isolated towns - we actually thought near the end that we may have somehow started this rumour ourselves - so really weren’t too confident. At any rate, we'd had enough of NR and decided to make our way across the border and into Pantoja to try our luck.
Rio Aguarico - Crocodile hunting