Slow Travel

Now that we’re back safely in Buenos Aires, looking for work and generally getting back to “normal” (whatever that means) after 4 months on the move, one part of the trip stands out more than any other. I’ve already written about it, but now that I have all the photos and videos ready, I wanted to cover the whole experience in a little more detail.

We had flown from Bogota to Leticia, where we spent a week or so and from there travelled to Santa Rosa in Peru (a 15 minute ride across the Amazon) in order to catch a fast boat to Iquitos. We spent the night in the worst hostel I have ever stayed in but as the boat left at 4 in the morning, so the night was thankfully very short.

The boat to Iquitos was a very functional affair, 10 hours in a cabin, set up like a bus with not very much to see or do. Once in Iquitos we had two options for travelling onwards, plane or boat. I don’t think we even considered a plane – I had wanted to take a slow boat on the Amazon for many years, and here was my chance. [singlepic id=28 w=320 h=240 float=right] We spent 4 days in Iquitos and from asking around discovered that the boats to Pucallapa (where the roads started again) run by a line called Henry were generally considered to be the best and they left Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at around 4 in the afternoon.

So, Friday morning we got a mototaxi to take us to the port where we secured our accomodation which would be home for the next 4 days. We were given the option of either a cabin for $60 each or hammock space (bring your own hammock) for $15. We went for the cabin, neither of us had a hammock and we wanted the security of being able to lock everything up, rather than having to keep hold of valuables throughout the whole trip.

After being presented with the key to the cabin (well, the padlock on the door anyway) [singlepic id=29 w=320 h=240 float=left] we took the same mototaxi to a supermarket where we stocked up on supplies which we took straight back to the boat and stashed in the cabin.

At around 4 we made our way back with the rest of our gear ready for the off which we had been told would be at 5. We set the cabin up, made the beds (we’d bought sheets in Iquitos; the room came with no mod-cons, like bedding) and went upstairs to watch the loading finish and to wait for the off.

The boat, Henry III, was essentially a cargo boat, the entire bottom deck being devoted to cargo. This ranged from huge pallettes of stuff loaded by crane, to chickens, to motorbikes to huge iron pipes. The next deck up was simply an open space used for hammocks with the kitchens at one end. [singlepic id=30 w=320 h=240 float=right] Our deck was a mix of hammocks and 10 cabins and the top deck housed the cockpit. It was all made of metal which, of course turned the cabins into an oven. In fact it turned the whole boat into an oven.

But we didn’t really get to find this out until the next day when the sun hit us full-on. For the time being we had been waiting for the boat to leave for 3 hours and it was showing no sign of imminent departure. Eventually we moved away from the river’s edge, bumping and scraping the adjacent boats as we went, only to stop 400 metres downriver at another dock. Where we sat for an hour, before moving away and returning to the exact spot we’d started from. At this point it was nearly midnight so we went to bed.

What felt like not long afterward, but which in reality was 7 in the morning, [singlepic id=32 w=320 h=240 float=left] we were awakened by a thumping on the door, which was breakfast. Breakfast consisted of rice, chicken, beans and patacones (fried platano chips). As did lunch. As did dinner. Every day. For 4 days. Now, I like to think I’m open to new experiences, and I’m a pretty easy-going type of guy, but this got a little bit much, even for me. By dinner on day one, the majority of the food was going into the river. I think even the fish got a bit fed up after a while.

After the first couple of hours, the rest of the trip settled into a routine. [singlepic id=31 w=320 h=240 float=left]Well, if you can call nothing a routine. When we were moving we sat and watched the river slide past (for the majority of the journey we were actually on the river Ucayali, not the Amazon itself which starts somewhere around Iquitos – you’ve never heard of it but it’s 5 times longer than the Thames) . When we stopped to load or unload (which we did a lot) we watched. There wasn’t much else. The video below shows one of the stops, unloading dried leafy branches (used as roofing all over the Amazon) that they had spent over an hour loading the day before.

The one time of day that the routine was broken up was at dusk, when we would gather on the top of the boat to watch the sunset, which was stunning every time. It was an amazing feeling to be slowly making our way through the middle of nowhere, with jungle and water surrounding us everywhere we looked, watching the most incredible yellow and orange bursts of colour on the horizon.

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As an added bonus the first sunset we saw on the move also featured an all-star cast of thousands of parakeets which obviously flew in to this spot every evening in huge numbers. The video below shows some of the flocks flying overhead, and you can see the swarm of birds in the distance. The whole thing went on for 30 minutes, and when the parakeets had calmed down for the evening, they were replaced by hundreds of bats skimming across the water, starting their working day.

And so it went for four days. If you asked me what we did for four days, I couldn’t actually [singlepic id=35 w=320 h=240 float=right] tell you. We talked to some people, we stopped long enough at one place for us to get off, we watched the locals doing what they do. We visited the cargo deck where you had to watch out for the chickens, and you could buy turtles. Live turtles – we spoke to one lady who bought one every time she made this trip. She intended to eat it. Turtles live a long time so she believed that by eating it then she too would get to live a long time.

When I look back, I feel privileged to have been able to make such a unique trip. At times it was tough, the heat and the facilities didn’t make for a comfortable journey, but then this was no cruise, no tourist trip.

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The boat is the only contact tiny, isolated villages have with the outside world. What I found incredible were the places we stopped – there was no sign of life, just a small scrubby break in the trees and this huge boat would nose into shore, a plank laid down and men and boys would swarm from the [singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 float=right] trees carrying huge sacks on their shoulders to dump on the foredeck. This was repeated maybe 30 times during the day and night, with not a single sign of any record being made of who was doing what. Yet, as alien as this seems to my European eyes, as so often in South America, it just got done. Slowly and slightly chaotically, but it got done.

The same can be said of the journey from Iquitos to Pucallpa too. After more than 100 hot, sweaty and long hours we pulled into our port of call. We got off as soon as we could, away to the comfort of a hotel with a  real shower (no black river water showers here) and a real bed. As we left the port, I looked back and could see the crates just sitting there waiting to go to Iquitos. I didn’t envy them, but at least I now know how they get there.

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Old Rocks and Hills

This post was originally published in May 2009 Confused?
Many times on my travels I’ve found myself in a well-known place that I somehow never imagined I would get to. Uruguay, Tierra del Fuego, Rio and blow me if I haven’t added and crossed off another legendary place to my list. After Uyuni we headed north through La Paz, Lake Titicaca (another place on the list actually) and arrived at Cusco in Peru. Before coming here and meeting other travellers, pretty much the only thing I knew about Peru was that Paddington Bear came from the deepest and darkest part. Really couldn’t have told you much more about the place. Not so any longer. The home of Inca Kola (the wikipedia article describes it as yellowish-gold in colour, don’t believe them, it looks like bottled piss), pisco sour and baked guinea pig, is also home to one of the greatest tourist sites in South America, a place where everybody, and I mean everybody, you meet here has been.

I speak, of course, of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. Not lost anymore I can tell you, but still not that easy to get to. The main route is through Cusco, a very nice little place, once the capital of the Inca Empire, and from Cusco there are over 350 tour agencies ready to strip you of your gringo dollars and ship you up there in some form or another. We opted for the 4-day Inca Jungle trek (not to be confused with the Inca Trail which has limited numbers and is booked up for months in advance). This involved a 40km downhill bike ride (my kind of road), 2 days of walking to get to Aguas Calientes and then on day 4 the trip up the mountain to the big old pile of rocks itself.

Dawn, Machu Picchu

On the day in question, we were roused from our beds at some ungodly hour in order to get the first of the buses up the windy road to get there in time for dawn. At 0530 sharp a veritable army of buses turned up and filled with sleepy backpackers and set off for the entrance. They don’t miss much the good folks running Machu Picchu. In Bolivia I’d paid $7 to go from Villazon to Sucre, a (hellish, admittedly) bus ride of 13 hours, and here I was stumping up the same amount to be taken up the hill for 20 minutes. But buggered if I was walking.

So anyway, we all got in at around 6am, one of the first groups to get through and we basically had the place to ourselves for well over an hour. It being such a familiar sight (and site) I was prepared to be somewhat underwhelmed. For some reason I had an image of a South American Stonehenge in my mind with only one viewpoint (the one everybody knows), and barbed wire everywhere to keep the gum chewing hordes at bay.

All of it

Well, it was nothing like it. It was like a huge archeological playground, we were free to wander around, clamber over walls, steal rocks (only kidding folks) to our hearts content. I was blown away, seriously. It’s essentially stuck on top of a mountain itself sitting in a bowl of higher mountains. A highlight, not just of Peru or my trip, but one of the most amazing things I’ve seen and done in my life. I loved it.

More Peru pictures from the whole trip can be found here

Early Morning Shadows

All in a Name

One of the joys of travelling in a country where they don’t speak your language is that occasionally you’ll come across a name that has one meaning for the locals and another entirely for you. And you can take a picture and giggle at the crazy foreign names.

Moron, Salta

Spotted this one in Salta, Moron Firekillers (fire extinguishers). Quite a common one this, it’s also a town in Buenos Aires province.


A chain of chemists in Brasil. Saw this in the bus station in Sao Paulo which is not normally the sort of place I would recommend walking round with your camera, but I had to make an exception for Farto. Had already spotted it a couple of times, but had been unable to get a picture, so was very happy to catch this example. Kind of like trainspotting – patience and a little bit of luck. You even get a bonus shot of Laura with her backpack.

Barfy Burger

I purchased these fine burgers from my local supermarket here in Buenos Aires, based solely on the name, a mistake I will not be committing twice. Rarely have I come across a product that so ably Does Exactly What It Says on the Tin. God, they were awful.

Wanka Turismo

I was kind of at a loss with this one. Spotted on a tour of bodegas in Mendoza last year. Not my first Wanka spot – there was a poster in the street advertising a Peruvian music concert which featured this word heavily. Was unsure if it’s the music or the group. But again, Google comes to the rescue.

Fanny Tuna

Like the BarfyBurger, I bought this one simply for the name – it’s tinned tuna, it’s called Fanny. This is going to be funnier if you’re English more than if you’re American…

Close One?

Was watching the local news yesterday and was a little bit freaked out to see a brief item about a bus crash having killed 4 people here in Ecuador. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but what caught our attention was that the bus had come from the Peruvian border was travelling to Cuenca and belonged to the bus company CIFA. In other words the exact same bus we’d been on 5 days earlier.

I’ve already written about lively bus drivers and the ones in Peru and Ecuador are very much in the same mould as those in Colombia. In fact I didn´t particularly enjoy the ride from Mancora to Cuenca as the driver was notable in having 2 basic driving tactics. Either the accelerator was glued to the floor, or the brakes were being slammed on. He drove that bus HARD.

Now, I know that this post is going to produce a worried email from my mother, in fact most of what I do over here produces a worried email from my mother (my favourite so far is, make sure you don’t cuddle any monkeys when you’re in the jungle, not with your skin!). But, honestly what can you do about a lunatic bus driver (or your mother for that matter)?

I’ve seen a blog post written by a backpacker dealing with this issue as the bus he was on actually did crash and he has some advice in the light of this incident. I understand that the incident was highly traumatic and seriously unpleasant, however I do seriously question (and had a little chuckle trying to picture it!) the following advice

You could TELL the driver to SLOW DOWN (‘Despacio!’) if you feel they are driving too fast or if you feel uncomfortable with their driving in any way. If they do not slow down I would personally get off the bus at the next suitable stop (i.e. where I knew I would be safe and have somewhere to stay)

I can’t really see that one working, particularly if you shout it in English. And as for getting off at the next available opportunity, again worthy in its sentiments, just won’t work in the real world – how do you know where’s safe and has suitable places to stay? He does make a good point about choosing a decent (ie expensive) bus company and where possible I do make a point of that. I wasn’t actually surpised to discover halfway through the journey to Cuenca that CIFA is actually part of CIAL, but at that stage it was too late to do anything about it.

Realistically this is pretty rare stuff – I’ve travelled over 25,000 miles by bus in the last 16 months and have felt at risk maybe twice. Maybe it’s stupid fatalism but I really don’t see what you can do about it. Planes crash, cars crash, buses crash, trains crash, boats sink, but a traveller’s gotta travel, right?

A Wonderful Bird

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill can hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak,
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

Dixon Lanier Merritt

After the big city bustle of Lima we jumped onto a nice big comfortable bus and scooted 18 hours up the Peruvian coast to Mancora, which despite being Peru’s premier beach resort is infact little more than a main road lined with restaurants and bus offices, a few sunburned dazed looking gringos and a beach with big waves that totally disappears at high tide.

It does however, have pelicans and some very nice beachfront hotels, one of which we’re staying in. So I’ve spent the last few days watching the pelicans gliding gracefully past the hotel just inches from the waves in squadrons of 5 or 6 in perfect synchronisation. Beautiful.

And then yesterday we discovered the hotel’s little gang of resident iguanas. The gang is little, the iguanas are not, the biggest one is easily 3 feet long. They sprawl themselves next to the pool and occasionally venture down to have a drink from a puddle. Similar to what we’re doing in a way.

Something Fishy

So, after a most wonderful lunch at a place called Punto Azul here in Miraflores, I have decided that I should try and eat Ceviche every day between now and the day I leave Peru. I’d heard of it before coming here but never eaten it, when I was in Cusco last year I was too busy eating English Breakfasts. I won’t be making that mistake again. Ceviche is Peruvian dish of fish and seafood marinated in lime and lemon juice and served with a chili sauce (the wikipedia article gives more details – I particularly like the phrase “endless door” in the first paragrph.) . Now, I’m not the biggest hot food or fish fan in the world but after weeks of chicken and rice, I’m loving it.

On a side note we found out today that Ecuador no longer lets Colombians in. Laura rang the Ecuador Embassy and they confirmed this. She told them that she had Argentinian residency (which is a plus point) but was told that having been to Colombia recently would count against her and the official advice was that she would have to see how she got on with the Immigration Officer at the border. They couldn’t promise anymore than that. Brilliant.

Riding Shotgun

After all this time in South America it’s easy to become a little complacent in your expectations and you take a lot things in your stride. For example yesterday I saw a man crouched next to to a very wide and busy road having a poo in broad daylight. Didn’t bat an eyelid.

However a few days ago something happened that shocked even me. We were on the bus from Pucallpa to Huánuco, driving through some very beautiful scenery, mountains, gorges and rushing rivers. We were sat in the front row of the bus and as with most buses here there is a partition seperating the passengers from the driver so you can’t actually see out the front.

So it was a but of a shock when the door opened and a man dressed in unmarked fatigues carrying a very large shotgun appeared. The gun was slung nonchantly by his side as he made his way up the bus, the barrel knocking against people’s legs as he went.

Once he got to the middle of the bus he launched into a well-rehearsed spiel about how dangerous the road was, with lots of cars being stopped and the owners robbed (day and night), and his group of happy mercenaries were working with the police to make it safer. Except they weren’t getting paid, so if we could spare some loose change he would greatly appreciate it! And I won’t shoot you! OK, do he didn’t say that last bit but I can’t have been the only to think it.

So he collected his money and got off the bus, leaving us to the mercy of the bandits I was now imaging lining the road lying in wait for us.

About 4 hours later, just when I’d forgotten about the risks posed by these bandits, another man got on, carrying a very similarly sized shotgun and gave us the same speech. I spent the rest of the journey very unhappily clutching my valuables.

An interesting sidenote is that Laura told me this is how the Paramilitary groups in Colombia got started in the 1950’s – locals arming themselves to protect the rural population against bandits. Then they progressed to protecting small landowners rights and then it kinda went downhill from there..

A Capital Time

Talk about contrasts. Last week we’d just got off the boat from Hell and now we’re spending our days strolling along seaside clifftops past penthouse apartment blocks, watching the surfers below.

This is Lima. The centre is old and attractive and most definitely South America, but the area of Miraflores could easily be mistaken for California. Everything sparkles, the sun shines, the Pacific glistens. Another world indeed.

Rollin’! Rollin’! Rollin’ Down the River!

At 2am last Tuesday morning, the good ship Henry 3 arrived finally at the port of Pucallpa more than 100 hours after leaving Iquitos. This was not the happy moment I was expecting. It had taken nearly 4 days for me to be truly sick of the boat, the river, the food, my fellow passengers, the parrots, everything. I had reached rock bottom, I needed out. So you can imagine my despair when the boat actually docked and nothing actually happened. Nobody got off. No stream of vendors pushed their way on board screaming “Hay gaseosas! Hay panes!”. No procession of motortaxis arrived to spirit the happy passengers away. Nothing. Not a thing.

As noted before a bus is not an option to get of Iquitos, it’s plane or boat, so we thought we’d give the boat a try. We went to the dock Friday morning to pay for the cabin which was basic but clean, went shopping for supplies, got our rucksacks and at around 4:30 in the afternoon settled in, ready for the ride about an hour before it was due to leave.

4 hours later we finally set off, chugged 100 metres down the river, pulled up at another dock where a guy wearing a hard hat got on, got off and then we sat there for an hour. Eventually we set off again, only to return to the spot we’d started from where we sat for another hour. At this point we went to bed, before we’d even left.

I look back on the 4 and a bit days and honestly am unable to tell you how we passed the time. The boat had 4 decks, the bottom on with cargo and some hammocks. The 2nd one, a big open space FULL of hammocks. 3rd one up was open with hammocks and 10 cabins (one of them ours). 4th one was basically the roof with a little cockpit for the captain. That’s it. No bar, no TV lounge, no Observation lounge, in fact no seats of any kind.

The scenery was nice in a “I’m in the Jungle” kind of way, but it didn’t change (except for the sunsets, which were spectacular). The Amazon basin is flat, a bit like the Norfolk Broads but bigger and with trees and piranhas.

I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but I’m glad I did it, but I’m not gonna say I enjoyed it. The food consisted of chicken, platano, rice and beans for every single meal (including breakfast, served at 6:50 sharp every morning) and most of ours ended up feeding the fishies. It was just that little bit too “authentic”  to be truly enjoyable.

So, by the time we arrived, I really had had it. It felt like my entire life had been spent sweating on board this floating tin can. Luckily fate and an innovative mototaxi driver came to rescue, he came on board and asked if we needed a lift. Oh boy did we! So off we trotted, and in 15 minutes (which admittedly we both spent terrified of being stopped and robbed) we were safely tucked up in an air-conditioned room, back in civilisation again.