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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