FLOTEL by Syd Blackwell
Our 2015 Bolivia tour was incredible. One segment was four days on a floating hotel exploring the Ibare and Mamoré rivers, Amazon tributaries. We taxied from the airport at Trinidad to the broad, brown Ibare. Across the water was Reina de Enín, our flotel.
A boat zipped towards us with a male and female passenger and a scruffy driver. The smiling man bid goodbye to the young woman, while the boat driver loaded our bags. The woman was Christine, who had paid for a single day of cruising. The departing man was the owner of the boat. The scruffy guy was our captain, Alvaro.
We were shown to our room, the largest and most forward on the boat. Soon, Alvaro returned for a tour. Surprisingly, we learned we were the only guests on a boat with a capacity of thirty-six and a crew of four! First, we met Fabi, the cook, then Bambino, who was at the helm, and lastly, Ariel, a young man with a perpetual smile. Reina de Enín has four levels. The bottom is a catamaran. Everything above is the original boat, lifted by crane and attached to the catamaran base. The lowest deck has guest rooms. The next deck, dining room, kitchen and crew rooms. On the top, the wheelhouse, hammock area, and rear viewing deck. We just knew we were going to be treated royally.
As soon as we were moving, we went to lunch. Fabi presented surubi, an Amazon fish, beef cooked in tomatoes and onions, rice, salad, and fried bananas. There was a jar of worm-like peppers in vinegar - very hot and delicious. Fabi´s food was fabulous!
After lunch, we went for a lagoon visit. As we sped ahead of our flotel, we had our first sightings of the plentiful pink river dolphins. Abruptly, we veered off into a small channel that was quickly clogged with aquatic plants. We plowed through, but Bambino had to reverse the outboard often to rid it of vegetation. Alvaro directed him from his perch in the prow. We saw ducks, cormorants, herons, hawks, eagles, and hundreds of tinier birds. Eventually, we broke through, crossed the lagoon, and climbed out onto mud flats. In the wet season, we would be under water.
Iridescent beetles scurried from cracks in the mud. Beyond were shorter and taller grasses, where the snakes and caimans lived. Behind were trees, above water level, even in the rainy season. Nearby, a pink spoonbill began its strange feeding motion. A tall white and gray heron watched.
When we returned, we could barely detect where we had passed just before. A great excursion! Then, a few more hours of cruising, passing small riverside chacras (farms), passing dug-outs and small boats, with frequent dolphin sightings, and the ever-present sounds of the Amazon - birds, animals, and insects. Awesome!
Dinner was fish, chicken, a fabulous cauliflower soufflé, potatoes, rice, juice and wine. After dinner, Christine departed at a village; a taxi waited. A short distance further, we tied up to the shore for the night.
When the generator was turned off at 21:00, on this overcast night, it was as though we were blind. There was absolutely no light from anywhere. We had no flashlight. We had to carefully navigate by feel our necessary bathroom trips.
Morning brought sun. We heard Ariel sweeping cobwebs that busy spiders had spun overnight. The jungle was awakening. Time for breakfast.
We ate banana, papaya, pineapple, bread, scrambled eggs, and ham. Coffee was a thick syrup you poured into your cup and added warm milk or hot water, and sugar, if desired.
By 9:00, we were again cruising the peaceful Ibare, now 50 to 100 meters wide, and totally jungle-lined. We passed chacras where bananas, yucca and sugar cane grew. Birds were everywhere. Pink dolphins were impossible to photograph. Monkeys climbed in the trees.
Frequently, Alvaro scouted ahead for larger approaching traffic. Maneuverability was limited and electronic communication non-existent. Sometimes we sat in the wheelhouse watching Bambino guide our slow passage. Mostly, we were on deck. It was so peaceful. There were no mosquitoes. River traffic passed. We were sure we could do this for a very long time.
At lunch, Gundy persuaded Fabi to join us and Alvaro. She shyly did. Fabi was single and had been the boat cook for five years. Lunch was chicken in a sauce, fish with limes, fried bananas, a beet, carrot, potato salad, noodles, and those wicked wormy chilies. Pink dolphins playfully broke the brown waters as we dined on this feast.
After lunch, a hammock siesta before the boat anchored at the confluence of the Ibare and larger Mamoré river. After siesta, we went up the Mamoré to fish for piraña amongst flooded trees. Again, Alvaro guided and Bambino drove. Ariel cut beef for bait for our simple poles. Soon we were fishing. Gundy caught the firstpiraña, a beautiful gold colour; she also caught the biggest, a red one. Bambino, Ariel and I also caught pirañas. Bigger pirañas bite hard, but smaller ones nibble. When we had enough for dinner, we went swimming in the same water as the pirañas!
Back on the Reina, we gave the pirañas to Fabi. Alvaro went swimming before washing some clothes in the river. Bambino and Ariel amused themselves unsuccessfully trying to fish with bow and arrow. Before dinner we enjoyed the sunset as the sky across the broad waters of the rivers, turned from gold to pink to red, framed in tropical fronds, images shimmering on dark waters.
The pirañas were served whole including tails, heads and sharp teeth, with cheesy rice, yucca, beef in mustard sauce, salad, fried eggplant, and wine.
On this clear night, there were stars - so many without the interference of lights! Bed comes early without electricity, but this night we had a flashlight.
And, we still had two more days in this special paradise.