At the boat terminal in Yurimaguas, the rain began again as a tout led me to the captain of Edouardo 2, who sold me an Iquitos ticket for 150 soles ($45).
I locked my bag to the cabin bed and hung a hammock near two Chilean bikers. Clearly the boat was going nowhere for some time as porters were hurriedly unloading trucks by hand, carrying huge loads over planks like leaf cutter ants to continue feeding the hold. They had been going since 5am, making under ten soles an hour.
As the boat pulled away in late evening we sat at the very front, barely two feet from the water and were discussing how disastrous it would be to fall off, get knocked out by the hull and shredded by the propeller, when a boatman suggested we didn’t sit there. By eleven I was sleeping, between the clanking of people walking the thin metal floor outside and telephone reggaeton.
Breakfast was two bread rolls and avena. In late morning we reached Lagunas. It was a hive of activity as the boat pulled up, with sellers all rushing to be first on and excitement at the cargo arriving. Already there was a great sense of being beyond the end of the road. There were several more stops during the day including one where ten bikes for kids were unloaded at a tiny village to the joyful recipients as they pulled them off the boat. At another, fifteen people pulled and pushed a moto-taxi up the steep riverside bank, caused by the low water level.
We got to Nauta the following afternoon where a bus on an isolated road reached Iquitos in an hour instead of eight by boat. A torrential downpour battered the area briefly but it was over before I got into a mototaxi to my chosen flophouse opposite Gustav Eiffel’s ramshackle Casa de Fierro, where a friendly German welcomed me with a tale of canoeing down the Napo river from Ecuador. On the Malecón, gringos sat at tables sipping overpriced beer while South American hippies juggled not that well around makeshift jewellery stalls set up on the ground. Locals occupied a mini-amphitheatre as comedians cracked jokes about each other and the audience, especially myself as the only gringo, all in good fun.
At the port in the morning, I found a boat for Pucallpa the next day. A cabin, or ‘caminote’ on Henry 9 would cost 300 soles.
Having met no other travellers heading on this route, hammock accommodation with nowhere to lock my gear away was not really an option. I would economise by not drinking beer on the trip. I celebrated with a Cusqueña Negra from the store and bar near the ticket office then left for town on a colourful open sided bus. There I visited a photo and art place, with two courtyards, paintings by local women and an exhibition of black and white photos detailing the rubber boom here, which caused 30,000 deaths among the local Putumayo Indians.
Departure on Henry 9 was delayed by another day. It was virtually empty when I boarded and my cabin key lost, so a couple of guys whacked off the lock with a sledgehammer. The cabin was bigger than the one from Yurimaguas and came with toilet and a shower which dripped river water constantly. But I didn’t care.
Two guys from the bar were on the boat. Oleg, Ukrainian, had been in Peru over twenty years, while his Russian friend Alex had also lived all over the world, including six months alone in the jungle catching his own food. I pitched my hammock where I could see the doors of the caminote and settled in to wait for departure. An endless procession of forty-kilo sugar bags was still being unloaded. The porters carried two each, every five minutes all day, with waiting each time for people to move and let them onto the flimsy plank leading to shore. Harsh.
The boat filled up in the evening, hammocks being squeezed into increasingly impossible spaces as the place became a floating dormitory for 200. It was by no means unfriendly though and by the time I bolted for the privacy of the cabin around 10pm I had chatted to several people, something which hadn’t really happened on the boat from Yurimaguas. Somehow the vibe was different, helped by my ability to charge telephones for people, store things safely and let them use the shower. I dropped off to sleep with the light on amidst all sorts of engine noises, clanking, clonking, chicks cheeping, kids howling, bad music on phones, video games, card games, gaseosa and hammock selling, the lot. The place had come alive. I hoped to wake up cruising upstream on the Amazon. It was a first world expectation.
There were all sorts of manoeuvrings during the night. The boat was moving, at least some of the time, but when I woke up properly I saw that we were still by the same dockside, while endless wood was being loaded. And the big sacks of sugar were still coming out of the hold. Oleg seemed to think it would be at least that evening, if not the following morning by the time we left. Finally around 10.30pm the boat pulled away, chock-full of cargo and a mass of humanity. But only for half a mile, then back again. I stared into space for a while then gave up and shut the door, though just before sleep I was aware of movement once again, this time more constant.
I woke early and went for breakfast, queuing twice for avena, after forgetting my ticket. There was a knock around eight when the cook handed me another breakfast, which was chicken. In fact he wanted to give me two, and repeated this twice during the day. Oleg and Alex had paid 300 between them for the cabin, so I had been charged for two places.
As we arrived at Jenara Herrera, I got talking to the only other non-locals onboard, apart from Oleg and Alex. Damian was Argentinian, with Eugenia from Lima, both dreads with guitars and the kit to make jewellery. I’d probably seen them on the Malecón in Iquitos. They’d had some money stolen already so I offered to store their gear for safekeeping and they brought it down with much appreciation.
In the afternoon I met Yordi and Dianitza. Yordi was a smiling bubbly one year old and his sister sixteen. We sat and talked for a while, mainly laughing at his antics. I agreed to let her charge telephones when my electricity came on in the evening. I was to meet their mother the following morning. At first we got quite a few looks while talking and one guy asked if Yordi was mine. The general feeling was one of friendliness: an older guy who was frosty at first would socialise later too, giving advice on things to do around the Cordillera Blanca and passing me a couple of papaya slices.
The passing scenery along the riverbanks was tremendous, with minor excitement at the many stops along the way, when people would wander towards the balconies for a look, or to buy snacks and gaseosa from the mobile traders swarming on.
In the morning Dianitza and Yordi appeared and he ate breakfast. Soon their mother arrived to feed him again. They were supposed to arrive at their destination that afternoon, but it was to end up being halfway through the following morning. Mum was clearly glad of the space in the cabin, at arms length of the mad throng outside the open door. Later I got into conversation with Oleg and Alex. As the boat pulled into a pueblito, Oleg went in search of turtle eggs, coming back with two bags. I was dubious and the smell under the soft shell was bad. To my relief the Russian found maggots in his egg and wouldn’t touch it. He replaced the eggs but the second batch were off as well. I was glad not have to admit later that I had eaten turtles eggs, as they could well be endangered.
With more stops, Henry 9 filled to bursting point. There were hammocks everywhere. Hardly another chicken could’ve been squeezed on. Kids were running wild and screaming, to my great amusement and there was all sorts of chaos going on. It was arroz con pollo for dinner again but this time the chicken was curried. I holed up in the cabin while the madness continued.
When I woke up we were stopping at Nuevo Liberat. I spoke to Dianitza for a while and she gave me a fan from Iquitos with two parrots on it to say goodbye. The boat emptied slightly through the day, but this was tempered by the news that our arrival at Pucallpa would take at least one extra day.
In the evening I bought mandarins at five for one sol, which were thrown across from another boat. There was chicken soup for dinner. In minutes I knew something was wrong. I passed mainly liquid twice in ten minutes, then at least another twice in the following half hour or so. I tried Imodium, but it made no difference. We stopped over two hours at Juancito. My stomach problems continued through the night. I blessed the private toilet and shower.
By the morning I was weak and tired, with a headache, I guessed from dehydration. Luckily there was fish for breakfast, bony but tasty with rice not sopa. The river water used to make that chicken soup had given me the runs, and from now on I would pour liquid food away. I popped another Imodium, then didn’t pass anything more for two days.
I re-commandered my hammock in the morning and started talking to another long termer, a guy called Freddie who was going all the way to Pucallpa. I was also passing time with a kid who’d been on since the start. To my surprise, he and his travelling companion turned out to be evangelical missionaries heading upriver to spread the word, and he asked a string of awkward questions about why I came from a Christian family but didn’t practise myself.
There was fish for lunch and I poured the soup away as planned. It was a waste but better than dysentery. After that I sneaked into the hammock again when I saw it empty, to read Jack London. We stopped at 2 de Mayo, which I later saw on the map at more than halfway to Pucallpa. I went down to the front of the boat to watch a stunning sunset with Damian and Eugenia, where it was more chilled, away from the crowds and the engine noise, close to the water. The lush green jungle set against the muddy banks and brown water of the river added to the drama in the sky, but the mozzies were fierce.
I spent the morning again at the front, sitting in a tuktuk in conversation with a shaman, heading for Lima. Later we reached Orellana, with a proper dock and a speaker system playing Spaghetti Western themes. Pucallpa would be 24 hours away once we started again, which happened early evening after I watched a worker from another boat pour five litres of used black oil straight into the river, to go with the constant rain of plastic bottles from the mass local obsession with gaseosa.
It felt strange that the riverboat routine was about to be broken. I’d even asked about onward travel upstream from Pucallpa, but was feeling the draw of the Cordillera Blanca. I chatted to another cool old guy in the morning and watched him disembark into a tiny canoe to cross for Yarinococha. The lights of Pucallpa finally came into view just after dark. The three of us agreed to leave together for the town, as the embarcadero is notorious after dark and many people were sleeping on the boat for safety rather than risk it. I got into a hotel room for 25 soles, while the others found one for just ten.
Riverboat adventures were over for now.
Written by Ian Saberton – “I saved hard from low pay for several years to escape the rat race in 2011 for travel, starting in Asia. It continued with a journey from Mexico to Argentina and Brazil lasting over a year then I spent six months in Southern Africa. Since the money ran out I have been active on workaway placements as a means of discovering more new places, while continuing to blog photos and pieces of writing at Hostile Yeti.