Author: Ed Young
Since I was around 30 years old, I had always dreamed of going collecting tropical fish in South America and swore by my 50th birthday I would do this. Well I turn 50 in January of 2006 and on August 13, 2005 I went on the vacation of a lifetime! I always read articles in magazines and online, sit through speakers talking about their collecting trips and watch their slide shows. I was very intrigued by this and really wanted to go.
About 2 years ago Luis Morales came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in going collecting in Peru. He was at the beginning stages of putting the trip together and would email information on further details to me. A few months later he sent an email with all the prices and locations where we would collect. There was a tour on the first week of the trip to the Visit Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire and principal city of the Spanish colonial era. The second week would be for collecting with another week to follow for collecting in different locations. I chose the first fish collecting week. According to the itinerary, we would board a boat on the Amazon at Iquitos & stop at various creeks, lakes, & streams along the way heading north or travel up the Amazon.
Well for the next 6 months I bugged Luis with emails monthly asking when I could send in my deposit. Finally, in January of 2005 it was due. I think I was the first deposit paid. I sent it into Margarita Tours, Inc., and so my quest began to collect Tropical Fish.
Luis had a website with a lot of helpful hints on preparing for the trip. Margarita Tours also had a website with a document center that gives you everything you need to know.
Preparing for the Expedition
The first thing I needed to do was to obtain was a passport. Next, I went to a travel medicine doctor for shots. It was great how prepared the doctors were. When I made the appointment, they asked where I was going. Even though I knew what I needed for my appointment they had a list of required medications printed out from websites. I received shots for yellow fever and tetanus and pills for malaria and typhoid fever. Hepatitis shots are also required but I already had all of them.
Next I started gathering things I needed on my lists. Dip nets are a must item and even though I could have borrowed them, I ordered online from the Sterling Company. Gathering everything took quite a while and I procrastinated until the last couple weeks for a few items such as boots, hats, long pants, shorts, batteries, flashlights, etc. I never realized how much stuff was needed until I had collected it all.
I was driven by my fiancée (now wife) Marianne (Fishwife’s Fishroom) for the 40-minute ride to Philadelphia airport. I checked my luggage through, and my flight departed Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. for a 2.5-hour flight to Miami. After arriving in Miami, I had about an hour 45 minutes until my next flight at 12 midnight. I retrieved my luggage but did not notice that the automated catwalk was upstairs. I ended up walking the whole way carrying my entire luggage. It was about a mile walk! As I walked down the hallway there were signs saying 30 minutes from here, 22 minutes from here, etc. It wasn’t that bad of a walk and I arrived in plenty of time for my midnight flight. The flight from Miami left on time and took 5.5 hours to Lima, Peru. I tried to sleep but my anticipation to collect fish kept me awake most of the flight.
When the plane arrived around 5:30 a.m. we had to go through Customs. The line was really long and no one spoke English well. When I got to the counter they told me I needed to get another form to fill out. After this I was finally cleared through Customs. I then rushed to make my next flight that was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m. When I got up to the counter, they told me my flight to Iquitos was delayed and to wait off to the side with a woman while they searched for more info on it. I spoke to her and she told me she was going on a nature sightseeing tour from Iquitos.
The airline representative told us that the flight would be delayed until 1:00pm and that they would put us up in a hotel until 12:30 p.m. At this point I think my heart stopped beating and I wondered how I was going to make the first day of collecting since the boat was leaving at 10:30 a.m. I remembered that I brought the instructions from the website and found a number to call Margarita Tours in Peru. Of course, I got a voicemail and left the name of the hotel and when we would arrive in Iquitos.
The hotel was nice but again I could not sleep. I did however get a shower and freshen up. At 12:30 p.m. a taxi picked us up and brought us back to the airport. When we arrived at the counter again, they told us the flight was delayed due to engine trouble but would depart at 4:30 p.m. They gave both the woman and me calling cards, one local and one international. They also gave us vouchers for the food court in the airport. We found an internet café where, for about 2 bucks an hour, we could send emails and surf the web. Also, in the café there were phones where we could use the calling cards. I used the local card and called Margarita Tours and again got the voicemail. I told them our next tentative arrival time. Then I used the international card to call my fiancée back home in Pennsylvania. I expressed my nervousness to her in not knowing what to do if they weren’t there to meet me when my flight arrived in Iquitos.
Time went quickly, and our flight finally took off at 4:30 p.m. We arrived at 6:15 p.m. It was kind of weird getting off the plane and walking onto the tarmac. When I went inside to get my luggage, I noticed a guy with a sign with my name on it. Whew! I was relieved to see him! When we walked outside there was Devon (Owner of Margarita) & his driver. We loaded my luggage onto the VW bus and off we went through town.
The road was paved but covered with dust. Everyone drives very fast and pedestrians had no right of way. There were lots of small cars, motorcycles and 3 wheeled tricycles that were used as taxis. We passed many shacks, huts, tiny stores, & houses along the way. There were several trinket shops located in the center of the city. We stopped off at Devon’s apartment so he could run in and pick up a photo tank that he borrowed. He told me it was another few minutes ride to the water where we would get on a speed boat and head upriver to catch up with the tour boat.
I was amazed at how far the tour boat had already traveled. Devon told me it would take us 1.5 hours to catch up. I loaded myself and the luggage into a 25’ long and about 7’ wide speed boat equipped a 145 hp engine. Finally, here! I was on the Amazon in pitch black darkness with only the moon for light. Occasionally the driver’s son would shine a spotlight onto the water so we could avoid debris.
We arrived at the tour boat at 8:30 p.m.! I was greeted by John Luckshire, Jaap-Jan de Greef & son Willem, Marilyn Weitzman, Claudia Dickinson, Scott Jacobson, Dr. David Schleser, Warren van Varick, Luis Morales, along with 5 crew members. The boat was 75’ long and 20’ wide. It had upper and lower decks. There was a canopy covering the seating area and it had a Captains bunk. The lower level had 2 bathrooms with showers, a kitchen, bunk area and a dining room. I was told the bunk under John Luckshire’s bed was open and that I could have it. I unpacked and was called into the galley where they held dinner for Devon and me. My first meal was catfish (Delrado steaks) with rice and it was tasty. After dinner I went up to the deck to relax and drank an ice-cold beer. I was told that I missed a day of collecting but I could take anything I wanted from the community tank. I fished out a few apisto’s and Loricaria and went for another beer. It was great to sit out on the deck under the moonlight. It was a cool night and there were very few mosquitoes. Once I sprayed OFF on my arms and legs even, they went away. So, there I was finally at my destination, throwing back a few beers and relaxing on the Amazon.
I woke up early at 5:30 a.m. so I decided to take a shower. I quickly learned to take a shower in the evening. The water was ice cold and took my breath away. The water came from a storage tank that sits on the top of the boat. It warms during the day and really cools off at night.
We drove upriver to the Yanamona distillery. The man working there makes rum and molasses the old fashion way. He had a donkey attached to a pole and walked in a circle as he fed the sugar cane through a tube that squeezed all the juice out of it. Then he took the filled container and dumped it into a vat over a fire. The vapors went up a tube and into a bottle where the purest rum came out. He made 4 different brands of rum by adding molasses and other ingredients. I purchased 2 bottles of molasses from him.
Next we drove one hour up the Amazon and docked at the mouth of a small Cocha and stream. We grabbed our buckets and nets, walked down a path and came upon the village of Atun Cocha. Sezar spoke to the locals in Spanish and one of them took us down by the stream and showed us homemade boxes (3” high and 15” square) that were lined with plastic and filled with water. They contained lots of cories, catfish & tetras! Then we walked behind the village and followed a path that led to the Atun Cocha Lake. I was very cautious when we arrived at the lake and followed everyone’s lead into the water. About 3’ from shore one sank in the mud up to about 6” and sank to about 1’ of mud once you got near the water. This was difficult to get used to; especially not knowing what was going into your boots. I had hard soled dive boots on that worked out quite well. Hardly anything got inside of them for the whole trip and they dried out nicely too. Once past the mud, I saw a lot of water lettuce floating in front of me. I shoved my dip net under them and came up with some tetras and apisto’s! I moved on to a spot by myself where I found a sunken log in the water and a bank of leaves and sticks on the bottom. It was a lot easier to stand and I didn’t sink in the mud too much. When I lifted the log up I was able to catch a Raphael cat, 2 large ancistrus, 2 hoplo cats, and a Farlowella cat! Then I went closer to the shore and dug my dip net under the leaf litter and found Apisto heaven! Every time I pulled up my net I had a ton of Apistogramma cacatuoides. After collecting enough fish, I decided to take a few pictures, with my new digital camera, of everyone who was still collecting. Additionally, I took some great shots of butterflies and weird shaped trees. One tree looked like someone tied it in a knot. Then I got back in the water to help with seining. After 2 pulls we had enough fish! Along with the fish I mentioned previously, we also caught piranhas, tetras, hatchet fish, Leporinus, headstanders, knife fish, wood cats, pimelodus cats, Hoplosternum cats, Cichlasoma Amazonarum, Aequidens tetramerus, & green severums.
The catches were brought back to the boat. Everyone kept what they wanted and placed the extras in the community tank. Any unwanted fish were released back into the Amazon. We then ate lunch while the boat headed up to the village of Apayacu. After docking, the group got into the skiff boat and headed up the Apayacu creek which was about 20’ wide and 4’ or so deep. We went about a couple of hundred yards down the creek and dropped out of the boat into the water. We all grabbed hold of the seine and let the weighted end go to the bottom. The seine was dragged to shore where the mud was so deep that we all sunk past our knees! Again, it was scary not knowing what was in the water. We worked through it and after pulling up a couple of seines we caught tetras, characins, hatchet fish, wolf fish, gracillis, headstander, doridadae cats, pimelodid cats, hoplos, large Loricaria, ancistrus, freshwater puffers and drums. Devon and one of the guides, Segoundo, went down a semi-dried up stream to see if it was worth collecting. However, it was dried up and they found no fish. On their trek back to the boat Segoundo sunk up to his hips in the mud. Devon took full advantage of the situation by scooping up a pile of mud and dumping it onto Segoundo’s head. This turned into one big mud fight between the two of them! Once back at the main boat I kept the fish I wanted and placed unwanted ones in the community tank. Then I took a shower and a nap.
When darkness arrived after dinner, we got back into the skiff and headed up the Apayacu creek with our flashlights looking for caiman and other night creatures. I was surprised that my large flashlight that I bought at Home Depot was the brightest! As we crawled along on the creek, we would all shine our lights along the banks and trees hoping to catch a glimpse of something alive. The first thing we saw was a pair of red eyes looking back at us so headed for shore right at it. Segoundo was hanging off the front of the boat and reached out and grabbed it. It was a caiman, about 15”. The crew put it in a container so we could get some pics of it during daylight. Next, he saw an Owl but it flew away just as he crept up to grab it. A few feet away I noticed more red eyes shining from my light. Segoundo went and tackled the largest bull frog I had ever seen. The colors on him were incredible. I was glad to have brought my camera along. We saw many other exciting creatures such as spiders and birds but unfortunately, we could not get too close. We did however bring back a large moth & a tree frog to photograph.
The group went up a few creeks near the village of Yanayacu. The first creek was mostly dried up with only a few rivulus and apisto’s found. The next stream had a lot of characins, Apistogramma agassizii fry and small adults. While I was collecting in the stream, I heard Devon yell “Whoa!” He was about 20 feet from me I rushed out of the stream because he said he saw a large electric eel. He picked the 5’ eel with up a big stick and lifted it out of the water. Sezar went back to the boat for the seine on which they loaded the eel to carry it upstream. By the time we were ready to leave the eel had swam back down to the spot we caught him! We also collected Cichlasoma Amazonarum, knifefish and a few woodcats. We returned to the main boat and ate lunch while heading to Pevas. At the mouth of the Rio Apayacu there were quite a few freshwater bottlenose dolphins and I got a few pics of them.
Upon arrival at Pevas we visited one of the largest houses in the city. It belongs to artist Francisco Gripa who is also well known in the states. They told us that Sean Connery has over 30 of his paintings. Mr. Gripa was very hospitable and gave us beer and soda and invited us to stay the night in his house. We thanked him for his offer but decided to stay on the boat. As it was getting dark, we left his house and headed up to the center of town. There had to be at least 30 steps we had to climb to get to the center of the town and groups of children followed us everywhere, running up to touch us then running away. After the walk we went back to the boat for dinner. We were joined by 2 female exchange students from England who were both interning to be doctors at the clinic in Pevas.
Following dinner we went, accompanied by the 2 internists, for a walk through the rainforest. We followed a path through the forest. It was very muggy and there was a light mist to the air. The first thing we found was a large brown tree frog attached to the side of as toilet. The toilet was not in use thankfully but set up like an ornament. We went up a hill and passed a bunch of small toads that were all over the grass. Next, we came upon a horn toad. It was really neat looking, and we took several pictures of it. Walking back, we took quite a few pictures of weird bugs, spiders, flowers, etc. It was a long hike up and down the hills and I was ready to go to bed when we got back.
We got up and walked behind Pevas to 3 small streams. There were only a few tetras, Loricaria, ancistrus, & the largest Apistogramma Pevas male I had ever seen. He was found in the first stream we came upon. The second stream held only a few fish and the third was clearest blackwater stream seen on the trip. It also was the emptiest as far as fish were concerned. We found about 5 Apistogramma pevas and not much else. Since I was feeling sick to my stomach all morning I decided to head back to the boat. Warren gave me some Pepto Bismal tablets and I decided to take a nap. The nap lasted until the next morning! While I slept some of the guys went seining at shores of the Rio Ampiyacu. They caught some chocolate cichlids, sting rays, a few apisto’s and a beautiful pair of 6” pike cichlids.
It rained hard from 3:00 a.m. to 6: a.m.! A few beds got wet and one of the crew gave up his bed for Marilyn since her mattress got wet. We drove downstream for 4 hours and pulled over to the shoreline. We all got into the skiff and stopped on the Amazon at the mouth of a small stream. Devon walked up along the banks while we setup the seine in front of the stream’s mouth where it empties into the Amazon. About 100’ upstream Devon picked up a large stick and entered the stream. He proceeded to bang the stick in the water while walking toward us. This frightened any fish right into the seine. We only found a few tetras and catfish. Next, we drove 100 yards downstream to a bunch of reeds growing out of the water. The area of reeds was approximately 15’x20’. We all got out and, while some people surrounded the reeds with the seine, the rest were on shore pulling all the reeds out one by one. We found quite a few tree frogs on the reeds. The reed removal took a little bit of work but was well worth it! We found 12” Farlowella cats, pimelodus cats, Raphael cats, ancistrus, tetras and wolf fish. The second pull of the seine brought up the big cats: a RedTail that was 2’ long and another 15” catfish. We stopped seining, got back in the skiff and headed back to the main boat. Warren held the two catfish in his arms while we took some great pics of them!
We drove down the Amazon for the next four hours. Along the way we saw a large red snake swimming in the water. It went under the boat and when it came up on the other side, Segoundo reached down and grabbed it out of the water. I can’t remember the species of snake, but it was about 6’ and red in color. Devon placed it in a pillow case so we could place it on dry land and take pictures. We arrived at the village of Aisana and Devon laid the snake in the grass. I was amazed that it curled up and stayed still for everyone to get some pictures.
After this we were met by Dave’s friend Adriano. He led us to a couple of creeks. The first one had nothing in it. The second one had the usual wolf fish plus some tetras, Leporinus, Brochis splendens, hoplo cats, porthole cats, Hopostomus, Apistogramma cacatuoides, angel fish, festivums, chocolate cichlids, & Apistogramma eunotus. Nice findings at our last collection station. I walked back before everyone else as I wanted to take some pictures of the setting sun. These were some of the best sunset pictures I have ever taken. I went back to the boat, ate dinner and relaxed on the deck before turning in for the night. My last night on the Amazon!