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Tarapoto: on the Edge of the Amazon

19 February 2010

TARAPOTO—The screen on the back of the shows a plane tracing a line, shows our progress from Lima towards the Amazonian city of Tarapoto. It is, necessarily, much more modern and less Romantic than a DC3 or a Fokker Tri-Motor but doesn’t change the essential fact that we are flying over the Peruvian Andes to a city on the edge of the New World’s mightiest forest.

We descended through the featureless white of the clouds and below us is green, green covered mountains and fields interspersed with farm fields and houses, reminding me strongly of the approach to Honduras’ San Pedro Sula. The fields gave way to the sprawl of concentrated structures and we touched down onto a simple tarmac runway. The doors opened and a wave of heat and humidity entered the cabin along with the smell of vegetation, mud, food and life. The air was soft and fragrant and full of wetness.

We walked a short way to the small but modern terminal and collected our bags, secured a taxi and were soon going uphill over rutted dirt roads, vying for space amidst a swarm of Korean made moto-cabs. These vehicles consisted of the front half of a motorcycle attached to a covered bench resting over two wheels and were more numerous than any other conveyance. Of course some had passengers, but it seemed there was a vast superfluity of the things, far more than could possibly be needed to service the town’s transportation-for-hire needs and, given that any ride cost no more than two and four Nuevo Soles, it seemed impossible that the number of paying passengers in a day could pay for the same day’s gasoline. Then again, they also looked like a lot of fun to drive around and since one could justifiably call one’s aimless cruising around work I could certainly see the point in owning one.

In and Out of Tarapoto (This video shows the streets of Tarapoto from a cab entering, and a moto-taxi leaving the town)

Our cab took us to the door of Hotel Patarashca and we walked off the chaotic, busy street into a calm, plant, tree and hammock filled tile courtyard. We got a basic double room for 85 Nuevo Soles and found the hotel’s attached restaurant, a long, open-air, raised room with a high thatched roof. On the menu we found agouti, a jungle rodent and a few other exotic entrées and Krisitina got a whole river fish of some sort. I was feeling just the slightest bit out of sorts and settled on a bowl of chicken soup.

After lunch we explored around the center of town, walking up and down the hilly streets, sweating in the tropical air and dodging moto-taxis as clouds formed and swirled over the green mountains that formed a backdrop to Tarapoto. In the evening, both hungry after our light lunch, we set out for a recommended restaurant. Before dinner we found a bar called, La Alternativa. In the US, a similarly named place would probably feature ambiguous wait-staff, ironic music and a gothic clientel gathered to collectively hate their parents amidst sympathetic fellow travelers. Tarapoto’s LA Alternativa was brightly lit. There was no bar to speak of but, rather, a long, rough-hewn table behind which were shelf after shelf of dusty, irregular bottles filled with murky liquids. There were several tables but only two patrons: two average looking men of early middle age, both with glasses of dark fluid, quietly engaged in conversation. To our left, a door opened onto what was presumably the owner’s living room. A couple children paid us no mind as they faced a flickering television. A little unsure of how to proceed, we stood in front of the long table. There were a few bottles and jars of liquor on the board and I noticed the large one held a coiled snake. Some, behind the bar, clearly held fruit and in one I could make out the eight-legged figure of a tarantula suspended in liquid.

We didn’t wait long before the bartender came out, to our surprise a clean-cut boy of about 12, still dressed in his blue and white school uniform. “What would you like?” he asked politely in clear Spanish, placing both palms flat on the table. I really had no idea though it seemed a little early for snake. He suggested the Siete Raices (seven roots) and we tried that, splitting a shot. Then I had some ginger liquor figuring it would be good for my stomach and something called Pana Pana. I remembered that Blair had asked me to look for a special Ecuadorian variety of cinnamon called Ishpingo and thought the boy might know of it. He was unfamiliar with the word, however, though he had a plain old canela (cinnamon) liquor so we tried that too. Thinking that we were starting to feel oddly and abnormally giddy I decided we ought to get dinner before I ordered a beaker of snake and tonic. I asked how much I owed for our experimental tippling and he waved us off, “No, no,” he said.  Thinking I might have misunderstood I asked again and again he declined payment so, a little confused and bemused we walked into the night.

We found our restaurant and were again surprised. After La Alternativa (which was odd but not so odd given its location on the edge of the Amazon jungle) we walked into a courtyard filled with dimly lighted nooks, soft music, a profusion of plants and flowers, candles and walls tastefully decorated with antiques. The waiter seated us and brought menus and a wine list. I asked him about the Peruvian wines, being unfamiliar with any of the country’s vintages, and ordered the Intipalka, Valle Del Sol made with tannat, a somewhat uncommon grape of Southern France. An appetizer of steamed yucca soon arrived with three small dishes of salsa: one yellow and two different green varieties. It was our first experience of Peruvian salsas and every restaurant from then on seemed to have its own special recipe. Some were yellow, some red, some green. Some were spicy and obviously made of peppers though none were extremely hot. Often there were citrus and other fruits mixed in and some were made of chopped herbs and garlic or onion.

Kristina ordered the Bistek a la Pobre (Poorman’s beefsteak) and I the veal with fettucini al pesto. Kristina’s plate arrived, a heaping great mass of beef over potatoes, framed with grilled bananas and sliced avocado. Mine was truly a veal steak, the largest piece of grilled, pale baby cow flesh I have ever seen with a pile of fragrant and perfect pesto-drenched fettucini. I took a sip of the Intipalka tannat and a bite of the basil perfumed veal and found it hard to believe that Tarapoto-on-the-edge-of-the-Amazon was just outside.

After dinner we walked back through the dark streets as the night began to come to life. Music was playing from different bars and clubs and the air was pregnant with rain.  The Tarapotans seemed un-jaded by gringos—not as if we were the first they had ever seen but that perhaps the relatively few they came in contact with were of the good sort and rare enough to be interesting. Lightening flashed overhead and we got back to the Patarashca and found a table overlooking the street. It began to rain and the lightening flashed and the Latin disco music pounded and we talked late into the night of life and love and our pasts. It was good to feel that the trip had really begun, that we had stepped into the unknown and done well thus far, that we still had most of our three weeks to go. The rain began to fall harder, running in streams off the overhanging thatch, making the street a mirror that reflected the lights of the shops and bars. The noise seemed small, however, a protest against the wilderness at the edge of town. Wilderness. Wildness. I held her hand across the small wood table and was happy.

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