Up the Ucayali (March 1880)

Number 7 in a series. Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty–but also his cultural chauvinism (which, considering his era, was mild by comparison to other travel narratives). The following was printed in the July 9, 1880 edition of the New York World, four months after it was written and just three days after the publication of his previous column.

Iquitos, Peru, March 9–To the south of the old city of the Incas, Cuzco, rises the River Ucayali, the largest stream in Peru, excepting the Amazon. Its length is about 900 miles, and its average width half a mile. It is navigable for large steamers only between the months of December and June for a distance of 600 miles, but during the remainder of the year a steamer drawing more than three feet of water cannot enter the river. Connected by narrow channels with the river are a large number of lakes occupying what, I have no doubt, was once the bed of the river. In the dry season, from June to December, these lakes contain very little water, and are the resort of thousands of wild fowl. For a distance of 300 miles above the mouth of the river the land is very low, and as the annual rise is from 30 to 40 feet, the country during the wet season is flooded for miles.

On the morning of February 28 the steamer Pastasia [Pastaza] left Iquitos for the Ucayali. There was a great crowd on the bluff to see us off. It is only on the arrival or departure of a steamer that one has a chance to see all the inhabitants of Iquitos. We had but few passengers on board, all traders in salt pirarucu, the codfish of the Amazon. Every man of them was behindhand. Each came on board very neatly dressed, followed by an Indian servant who carried his baggage, often in the shape of a little tin trunk. Once on board they proceeded to divest themselves of their surplus jewelry, don a pair of slippers and smoke cigarettes. All Peruvians are confirmed smokers, and the baggage of the average Peruvian consists of two white shirts and four 1arge sticks of tobacco. A foreigner is sure to be asked innumerable questions concerning his home, his destination and his business, all of which, however, are put in such a polite manner that the stranger can take no offense. As I have been so often asked these questions by the Brazilians, who are the most inquisitive of people, I at once answer my fellow-passenger that I am on my way to the Upper Ucayali, where I propose to buy a large tract of land and raise green plantains (bananas) to supply the market at Iquitos. At first he seems staggered, but he bows and says, “Ha, capitalista,” (capitalist), and in a few moments I hear him revealing our conversation to the rest of the passengers.

The steamer Pastasia is commanded by Senor Banardo Coronel, a retired officer of the Peruvian navy. He is a strict disciplinarian, and preserves the utmost order and neatness on board. Coffee is served at 7, breakfast at 10, dinner at 5, and tea at 8. The table is well supplied with frosh beef, turtle and fowl and numerous vegetables. What surprised me most was that the meals were served in courses and by attentive servants, which is in marked contrast with the manner of doing things on board the steamers of the lower Amazon. To once more sit at a table and handle a knife and fork was a new sensation for one who for many months had had the ground for his table and fingers for his knife and fork, and had subsisted on salt fish and boiled green bananas. Yet to be obliged to wear a collar, coat and waistcoat with the thermometer at 98 degrees was very unpleasant and I longed for my old way of life.

Fifteen miles above Iquitos on the northern bank we pass two little villages called Omaguas. They contain about twenty houses each, all of which are occupied by Indians of the Omaguas tribe, a small but fine-looking race. The women show a great fondness for beads, and many of them had no lees than three pounds around their necks. The first place of any importance above Iquitos is Nauta [Puritania], situated on the northern bank three miles above the mouth of the river Ucayali and eighty from Iquitos. Nauta is the oldest village on the Upper Amazon. It formerly commanded the trade of the rivers Ucayali and Huallaga, and was a thriving place of some 2,000 inhabitants. Iquitos now has the trade and Nauta is fast falling into decay. We arrived at Nauta at 4 p.m. Here the steamer remained all night, as navigation of the Ucayali in the dark is attended with great risks, the river now being exceedingly high and full of floating logs. Immediately on anchoring, everybody in Nauta, saving the old or infirm, came on board. Accompanying the Governor was Mr. Hauxwell, an English collector of bird-skins, who has resided in this country forty-five years, and is hale and hearty.

Nauta now has a population of about seven hundred. There are a few tile houses, but most of the buildings are of palm, and now, as some enterprising fiend has introduced Chinese fire-crackers into the valley, the total destruction by fire of Nauta and Pevas is very likely close at hand, which in some respects would be a most excellent thing, for it would give the inhabitants employment for a couple of weeks and rid the villages of the most unsightly of all objects—the old palm hovels. This village manages to support two stores, a school and a priest, and from the number of hogs which roam through the streets and sleep in the open doorways one would suppose that the principal occupation of the inhabitants was stock-raising.

We left Nauta very early the next morning, and at daybreak entered the narrow mouth of the river Ucayali. The waters were exceedingly muddy, with a current of about five miles per hour. The banks were low and under water in many places for miles upon miles. The forest near the mouth is not lofty, and is wanting in palms and the other plants which give life and beauty to a tropical forest. A few orchids and tillandsias are occasionally seen. At noon we stopped at a small cane distillery near the mouth of the river Tapichy [Tapiche–on modern maps the Tapiche is near, but does not enter, the Ucayali], a sluggish black stream entering the Ucayali from the east. The banks of this stream are inhabited by a wild tribe of Indians called the Majeronas, who make repeated incursions along the banks of the Ucayali. But a few days before our arrival several canoes filled with semi-civilized Shepibos [Shipibo] Indians had entered this river in search of the Majeronas, for war is constantly going on between the numerous Indian tribes along the Ucayali and its tributaries.

I had been told that the Ucayali was the headquarters for mosquitoes and other insect pests, but I had no idea of the terrible reality. Now slippers were laid aside and shoes put on, and the trousers tied closely around them. At meal times we suffered most. Two boys were stationed under the table to beat the passengers legs with towels, as a measure of protection. One passenger remarked that clothing was no obstacle to the mosquitoes and that sheet-iron benches should he substituted for the cane-bottomed chairs on which we were seated, as iron was the only substance through which a South American mosquito could not penetrate.

We spent the night at a wood station, which was two feet under water, taking on board 14,000
sticks of wood, worth from $6 to $8 per thousand sticks. On March 2 we arrived at the inlet of a large lake called Puca Cura. A desire to see the little settlement, a mile up the lake, having been expressed, the captain kindly lowered the boat and in a half an hour we arrived at the village of Puca Cura. The houses were only two feet above the water, but one of them was the best I had seen in Peru. It was surrounded by orange trees loaded with fruit, with cane-mill still and some ten thousand coffee trees. This lake is navigable for five days westward by canoe, and is never dry. This was all the Information I could obtain from the owner of the house, who had formed this little settlement ten years ago, but who had never been one day’s journey up the lake. The ignorance here concerning local geography is surprising.

From this point southward a great change takes place in the forest and the land which borders the river. The former becomes lofty and dense and the latter high and rolling. All the low land is covered with a heavy growth of tall bamboos, which are now in bloom and at a distance resemble large waving fields of broom-corn. Occasionally we pass a few palm houses with the roofs only above the water. A few miles above Puca Cura we see high hills in the west, which mark the boundary of a little river Catalina [near Boca de Catalina], a tributary of the Ucayali. At this point the Ucayali is separated by only a narrow strip of land, about forty-five miles in width, from the river Huallago, so that the journey between the two rivers can be made in a day and a half.

Four hours after passing the mouth of the Catalina, we see on the eastern bank the high broken hills of Canebabuayo. These hills do not run parallel with the river, but extend southeast to the river Javery, which is the boundary line between Peru and Brazil. This vast tract of land is inhabited only by wild Indians, and I have been told that gold has been found in the clear-water streams of these hills. They are from 600 to 800 feet in height and present a most pleasing appearance, stretching away in the distance with their dark green forests.

We now pass numerous houses of the peaceful Conibas [Shipibo-Conibo] Indians buried in the shade of banana trees, and in a few hours we arrive at the port of Sarayacu, formerly a large village and important missionary station of the Jesuits. The village has long since been abandoned by them and has fallen into decay, the only inhabitants being some filthy Piros Indians. A large convent and church still remain intact. The village is not on the river bank, but lies some five miles inland to the westward. Opposite our anchorage was the house of an Italian who was engaged in raising cacao and has some twelve thousand trees.

The upper Ucayali is especially a cacao-growing country. Its cultivation is far more profitable than that of coffee, as coffee on the Ucayali has no fixed season of ripening, and at all months of the year the white starry flower and the green and ripe berry can be seen on the trees. Although the tree bears well the berry is of a very poor quality. The seeds of the cacao which I here saw seemed to be better and contained more oil than those on the Lower Amazon in Brazil. The land is unusually rich. Cane, corn, rice, onions, cabbages and numerous vegetables are raised. The forests in the vicinity abound in copal (gum), copalba, sarsaparilla of three kinds and cauch, a poor quality of india-rubber. On the high hills a species of Peruvian bark is found. The principal woods are cedar, two varieties; towere; abuano, resembling our walnut; haneapu, a hard close-grained wood, and capirona, which is used for fuel. There are no beautiful timbers to be found on this river, as on the Amazon.

The climate is very healthy, and above Sarayacu there are comparatively few insects. From Sarayacu there is a wide path leading to Chasuta, on the Huallaga river, a two-days’ journey. Before leaving I obtained a list of some fifty words each in the dialects of the Conibas, Shepibos, Piros and Campas Indians, and numerous interesting facts relating to the Indian tribes of the Ucayali.

Leaving Sarayacu we pass in a few hours a collection of coffee orchards and four houses called Paca. A few miles above Paca is a bluff of stratified clays, red, white and yellow. I had no idea we should find this Amazonian formation five hundred miles up the Ucayali. On the morning of March 4 we saw another chain of high hills on the eastern bank, known as Canta-Moca. The river at this point narrows considerably and the hills approach the water. As we were passing them our Italian passenger, who had embarked at Sarayacu, brought on deck his accordion and played “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail Columbia,” and many other old tunes; but on our return voyage we heard nothing but “Babies on our Block,” which I had taught him, greatly to the delight of the crew of the steamer.

Near these hills we passed a large creek on whose banks is a missionary station of some four hundred Indians. The following day, after passing many little houses of the Conibas Indians, we arrived late at night at Rouboya [Roaboya], once an old village of the Jesuits and the end of our voyage, although the river is navigable at this season to the mouth of its large tributary stream, the Pachitea, where the captain and mate of the steamer Napo were killed and eaten by the Cashivos [Cashibo] Indians two years ago. The Upper Ucayali is inhabited only by wild Indians among whom the Jesuit missionaries labor. Our return voyage was made in five days. During the whole voyage we did not take on hoard one ton of freight. On the evening of March 9, we reached Iquitos, and my pleasant voyage on the Ucayali was over. I leave Iquitos in three days in a small steamer for the purpose of exploring the River Napo. –Ernest Morris

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