Traveling the Peruvian Amazon

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January 19th 2011
Published: January 23rd 2011
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Accompaning pictures are near the bottom of this page

On the 19th of January I celebrated a landmark. I have been travelling for six months, I have been outside of my home country for six months, and I have been living in places where my mother-tongue is not spoken for six months. These and more are all firsts for me, and I have been in Peru for the majority of them.

On the flip side of things, this means that my six-month Peruvian visa is nearly spent. As exiting and re-entering with a new tourist visa is fairly tranquil, I really just had to choose a border and visit for a day or two. My priorities were to not take an airplane, to be in an interesting ecosystem, to have a non-stressful journey, and (hopefully) to return back to Yarnina for Mundialito Shipibo, a big fútbol match between teams from many different Shipibo villages. It´s in the first week of February. My host-brothers are playing, as well as neighbors, cousins, and friends.

I could have gone to Tumbes, Ecuador, but I had passed through there upon my entry to Peru and was not keen on visiting its rabid freneticism once again. Bolivia was an option, but it seems a shame to go through the hassle and cost of obtaining the neccessary visa because I am American, if I will just return to the Peruvian jungle to continue with my project after a day or two. I could have headed to Arica, Chile, but there is honestly not much that draws me to visit Chile, especially the dry and hot north.

So, I figured my most intruiging option would be to travel by river from Pucallpa to Iquitos, and then continue by river to the tri-frontier between Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. I have made trips in banana boats and peki-pekis and canoes, but was curious to learn about how people interract with the bigger river for longer distances.

So, I made it my business to go down to the port and find out how to get to Iquitos, the first leg of my journey. There is a specific port simply dedicated to the large-scale boats that are the primary form of transit between these two greatest cities in the Peruvian Amazon. The port and boats are all named ¨Henry¨, as in, ¨I took the Henry Seven boat from Puerto Henry last Saturday.¨

A friend gave me a lift to the port. There were two enormous, lit-up boats, each stacked at five levels, waiting. One was bustling with passengers and cargo. I could make out rows of hammocks hanging from each ceiling from where I stood afar. This one was obviously soon to depart. The other was empty, with just a few men sitting and chatting at the bow. I transversed the marshy bank, it´s muddiness covered with soggy reeds, and walked up a plank to join them on the latter boat.

Thus ensued a very polite conversation, and eventually I asked if I could speak to the captain. He was right there at hand, as I asked him about coming aboard for the journey to Iquitos. He said the boat would be leaving in a few days, any time from Saturday to Monday. I asked about the fare, and to see the boat. ¨The Muchacho¨, a 19-year-old Iquiteño named Leandro, gave me a tour.

The bottom layer is by far the largest, with the engine room, and a long forward extension for extra or large cargo. The second floor housed the kitchen, a long picnic table, some bathrooms, smace for hammocks and passengers, and the little store, where the crew would vend such things as soda and toilet paper during the journey. The third was slightly smaller, with bathrooms, a table, smace for hammocks, and a few cabins for passengers wanting extra ammenities (door, lock, personal bathroom, and their very own electrical plug-in). The fourth level was slightly smaller, with more cabins, space for hammocks, a row a toilets, and a table. On every floor there was about one electrical outlet, and many slide-open windows to let in the breeze. Fortunately, the boat´s design allowed for plenty of deckspace, handy while travelling along a beautiful river through a tropical rainforest. The top of the boat held a enclosed room wherein folks steered and navigated, space for cargo, and an immense orange, metal tank that pumped river water for all of the boat´s hydrological needs.

I was giggling, chasing Leandro up spiralling staircases to the tippy-top, where I could truly see the scope of the river we would be traveling. He asked me about living in Yarina, I asked him about living in Iquitos. A very agreeable way to meet the boat and it´s crew.

So, having been aquainted with the boat, and at least some of the crew, the captain told me to check-in Saturday but that it was more likely we would be departing Sunday or even Monday. Ok, if you say so. I walked back down the plank and over the miniature marsh and made my way back to Yarina.

Meanwhile, my host family was not excited for me to be leaving but happy that I would be coming back. Maria, my host-mom, offered that part of her family (in that blurred sense of the word that could mean sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces, etc.) would be traveling to Iquitos on the same boat. They were going to sell artesania, and she wanted me to introduce them in order for us to travel together.
A girl with wide eyes, black hair down to her butt, and a blissful smile was the first I met when she visited Maria´s house from the village of San Francisco. Her name is Cris and she´s thriteen, much like my host-sister. I told her I would look for her and how happy I was we could travel together.

I came home in the evening on Friday night, and Maria told me that Cris had told her the boat would be leaving at eight in the morning. Really?! On time!? What a concept. I woke up early Saturday morning, packed up everything, and trudged with my big ´ol backpack to hail a mototaxi to reach Pucallpa. Of course, there was no internet place open anywhere, and I scrambled to find a way to let my parents and everyone else know that I would indeed be travelling and out of contact for up to 6 days. No one from Maria (who had traveled to Iquitos previously to sell her textiles and jewelry), nor the crew of the Henry Seven, nor any of my friends could give me an accurate account of how long the journey actually would be. For this, I told my folks to wait up to 8 days before raising concern.

I reached the port, thanked the taxi driver for bearing with me through my errands (fresh fruits and vegetables, parental contact, and drinking water appreciated) and boarded the boat. It was chock-full with cargo, people rushing to and from the shore, vendors selling everything from medicines to toilet paper spoons to phonecalls. I searched for a familiar crew member in their first-floor makeshift office, and asked if there were any more cabins. There weren´t so I climbed the orange metal stairs up to the top habitable floor.

There, I proceeded to put up my hammock and meet my ¨neighbors¨, including a girl from Spain, an elderly woman with neon pink lipstick, and a family with a seven- year-old boy. Thankfully I ran into Cris, and she introduced me to her tía Angela, her tía Doris, and her cousins Sharon (10) and Katí (11). My hammock stood out a bit in the veritable web of cotton and netted ones slung every which way, as it has a built-in mosquito net. This proved handy while in the middle of the jungle, but unecessary for river travel on this scale. The picnic table, above which perched the sole electrical outlet on our floor, soon turned into the hub of activity, and turmoil erupted as a crew member tried to sling someone´s hammock over the table. There was no more room on the rod-like bars on the ceiling to put any more hammocks, and he hopped up onto the surface from where two young boys were lazily eating breakfast.

One woman, scandalized, shouted, ¨The table is sacred! You are taking away their right to eat!¨Apart from looking up at him once, the boys didn´t seem disturbed by this turn of events. Eventually, as folks started taking pictures with digital cameras and emphasizing the presence of myself, the Spanish girl, and other gathered foreigners who had cabins, he retreated. Humungous, leaking foam coolers were moved from within and put on the back deck, and folks swarmed to fill the open space with yet more hammocks.

Well, the boat definitely didn´t leave at eight in the morning. Or at noon. We ultimately left port in Pucallpa around 4 in the afternoon. And thus began three and a half peaceful days of travel. It would be impossible to account for all of it, as I lost track of time almost immediately. The boat didn´t rock, sway, or really respond to the water. If there weren´t a magnitude of windows or a dozen decks from which to take in the view (or the drone of the engine), we may as well not have been moving.

The majority of my time was spent chatting with folks, watching the river flow, listening to music, or napping. It didn´t get boring, because the shores aways offered glimpses into beautiful ecosystems or little villages. Here are some bits of the trip.

The Henry boats are not exactly green friendly- the boat´s raw sewage is dumped straight into the river, and this same water is pumped back up for showers, handwashing, and toilets (which were an ugly spectacle themselves). Not to mention most plastic wrappings or bottles from the humans aboard were dumped in as well. I saved my trash and recycling until Iquitos, but it doesn´t make me feel great that it will just go to a landfill here.
Thus went three days, and on the final day the boat was filled with speculations as to when we would arrive at the largest and final stop: Iquitos. I was awoken around midnight to the neighbors announcing we were there. I packed up my hammock, and hopped off the boat with the whole of Cris´family to seek out a place to sleep that night. Thus began mi aventura Iquiteña.
All in all, I loved the pace and community of travelling by boat. Preferable to the 45 minute flight from Pucallpa, for me. There were folks from international tourists to very poor families all sharing the boat, and I never heard of anything being robbed. I hope that my other boat trips are as tranquil and enjoyable. We shall see.


24th January 2011

This sounds like the most wonderful travel experience, and you highlight it so nicely!
11th February 2011

What a trip...
You must have had a wonderful time!!!
17th February 2011

I love the description
Sus, your descriptions of people and places are both vivid and humorous. I loved the "first brush with Argentinian men," among other parts. It is a wonderful image of you, the boat, and its other passengers that is in my head. Thank you.

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