We missed the bus from Cuzco to Puerto Maldonado then checked into a Hostal. In the room the walls were made from big stones that looked climbable. Nika thought I was ridiculous for putting on my climbing shoes and trying it but what did that matter.
In the morning we tried to get a bus but the tickets were sold out. Guess we should have thought to buy them the night before when we missed the bus. Someone gave us a tip that you could hire a car to drive you to Mazuko and from Mazuko another car to Puerto Maldonado. There were four of us plus the driver in the shiny new Kia.
Crossing from Cuzco to Mazuko you reach a maximum height of 4,800 Meters above sea Level. Just sitting in the car doing nothing I felt short of breath and would have to inhale deeply every once while. We passed more of the little stone huts speckled along the mountain roads and a car with an unfortunate flat tire. Around the pass it started to rain then a bit higher it turned to a very light snow drift.
At the bottom of the mountain the horizon flattened and the road straightened and the temperature and humidity rose. In Mazuko Weronika and I piled into a roller-skate of a car with one other guy. There was hardly any conversation for the first hour but then Weronika got to asking about the legal and illegal gold mines we heard about from our Cuzco-Mazuko driver. A few Km Into the forest, alongside the newly built highway, there are mines where water and sand is pumped out and sifted for gold. The taxi driver gave her contact info and said we could ride with him the following morning at 3AM when he takes the Illegal miners to work. Though he warned to only take what is necessary like water and a snack, no cameras no valuables, which sent up a red flag.
It was now dark out and we still had about an hour until our destination. Along the road we passed villages on stilts, restaurants,shops, “discotecks”, which we think were part of the illegal sex trade, and these shops with blinding, flickering white blue light, where it looked like people were welding but I knew there couldn’t be that many broken metal things. It turns out that this is where people melt down the gold.
Finally in Puerto Maldonado, where three wheeled tuk-tuk taxis, and dirtbikes dominate the roads, we got checked into hotel Rey Port off of Avenida Velarde. It wasn’t the greatest, there was no wifi, no hot water and hardly water, the locking mechanism for the door was a nail driven in half way and looped around, where you could attach the pad lock [which comes into play in a later part of the Pto. Maldonado story] but our double room for 30 soles was manageable.
The following day we went walking towards the river and found a social services center where we Weronika asked about getting in touch with a woman for her project. Gladis was really friendly and spoke with passion. She pointed us to the CEM the Womens Emergency Center. Along the way we were asking about how to get to an indigenous community down river, without any community in mind. Someone in a lodge told us to try talking with the people at FRENAMAD, the Federation of Natives of the Madre de Dios River and tributaries, which fights for the rights of 33 Communities.
At FRENAMAD we were brushed off but we were persistent and came back later and found Alfredo Vargas who was really interested in having us go to a community but said that we would have to wait a few days for the community leaders to meet so that he could ask. In the mean time we went to the CEM and found that they contacted a woman who was interested in being filmed but she didn’t really fit the story so we abandoned it.
The town of Puerto Maldonado has been my favorite place so far. It is tropical the only thing missing is a beach; I keep expecting to find one but the only thing it can offer as far as water is the muddy river. The central plaza has a small clock tower and around it some women vending baked potatoes filled with cheese, empanadas, pastries, Chicha Morada, a purple corn based drink that is sweet with a hint of cinnamon.
In the Plaza I met a kid with juggling pins and asked to play with them. A few kids shyly approached, one of which didn’t speak Spanish but was not too shy after a few minutes. It turns out that he and his tattooed mom are from Hawaii and have been doing some volunteer work in Peru. The boy who was about 6 though was born in Costa Rica.
He wanted ice cream but his mom said no so he went in his backpack and got out his money; all Costa Rican coins and he counted out the money into my hand but I explained that it will only work in CR. After putting it away he grabbed me by the hand and said come on uncle, pulling me along as we ran around the little plaza. Thankfully the grey clouds finally let loose and we all went running our separate ways.
In our hostel we met a group of mostly cool police officers who were on special assignment from Lima but we couldn’t figure out what exactly we assumed it might be sex slavery or drug smuggling. One officer who we later came to call Padre Policia treated us as his children always offering us food, a 2 kilo bag of oranges, a plate of rice and lentils, a bowl of soup; it went on and on so much that we couldn’t finish the food from lunch before he would offer us dinner. Weronike pressed on about their reason for being in Puerto Maldonado. One of the officers cracked and said something about the gold mines. He said if we wanted to go with them we would need permission from the judge or some judiciary office and that we should look for Dr. Farfan. When we arrived he wasn’t in but we were given good word and asked to come back later.
Back at FRENAMAD we were told to be at a specific hotel at 630 in the morning, the following day to ride to Infierno, a village where we would spend the day with three of the Ese Eja communities [Infierno, Palma real and Sonene] leaders meeting.