Picture yourself on a boat on a river

Iquitos, Peru


There’s a sense of quiet relief and a hint of smug in us today. Last night we arrived in Iquitos after travelling overland from Quito down the Rio Napo. Its not a well travelled path by tourists – to the best of my knowledge only 5 people, including ourselves, will have come down here in the last few weeks. When I asked a crew member on our boat if they see many gringos he replied only ‘de vez a vez’ – from time to time. Lonely Planet hardly mentions the region at all.

We wanted to come this way to continue the overland experience, and although a few marginally more travelled routes exist over the Andes and down the rivers in Peru, the journey beginning further north in Ecuador suited our route better and captured our imaginations more.

But there aren’t exactly many tourist facilities, or much transport.

We left Quito by bus and crossed the Andes for the last time – a 4100m pass and much beautiful scenery. We tried not to cry as we said our farewells – good friends, I hope we will see you again.

By morning we were in the ugly oil town of Coca. From there we reached the border in a motorised canoe – taking 11 hours. Nuevo Rocafuerte, the Ecuadorian border town, is a strange place. It has wide paved streets but not a single car. From there we took another boat the hour’s journey over the border into Peru. Although the Peruvian border town, Pantoja, has a military presence there’s no immigration post there, we haven’t been able to regularise our paperwork for a further 6 days until this morning.

In Pantoja we got stuck. This was an important moment. Without spending a day in a tiny village, miles from nowhere, with no idea when the next boat may come along, you would have no concept at all what living there is like.

There’s a community of about 300 in Pantoja. During the day people amble around. The pace is slow. These are settler communities – all established in the last 40 years, and (I suspect) funded and supported by the Peruvian government in a bit of nationalist, expansionist verve. One of the reasons the area is so untravelled is that the two countries only agreed the border and stopped fighting over territory in 1998.

You can’t help marvelling at these true pioneers – carving their future out of the bush. They are hardy, self reliant people. You can’t help also being dismayed by some of the implications, the amount of trash that ends off in the river, and the forests cleared. One guy explained the technique for catching turtles, and it didn’t sound enormously sustainable to me – they simply wait until they come up the beaches to lay their eggs, and then grab them before they can return to the water.

Pantoja has a single spring, with a communal bathhouse by the river. We took our showers there (clothed of course – Peruvians are pretty prudish).

There’s a shop and outside every night they light a fire and cook supper to which anyone is invited. For a couple of soles (30p) you can eat a plate of chicken rice and plantain, just don’t worry too much about the hygiene standards.

We had been told, but we were learning to be sceptical about the quality of information here, that a boat would be sailing the following day, and we would need to rise early to travel 5 more hours downstream to reach it. So we slung our hammocks up in the trees outside someone’s house, and stayed there.

In the morning a dozen locals joined us in another canoe – terrifyingly loaded low – and we left at dawn. The presence of so many others was a good omen – but the look of delight when the boat was waiting for us as promised showed that the local people here can take nothing for granted.

The trip on the ‘Victor’ was sublime and hideous in turns, as we loaded up with more and more stuff.

Take a space which seems full with 30 people in it. Then double the number of people, then double it again. Then leave to simmer in the 30+ heat for days. Every day hammocks would appear where previously there was none. By the end the journey to the (single) toilet involved crawling on your hands and knees on the floor below sleeping bodies.

The stops were frequent – the 5 muscley crew hands loading anything that wanted to be transported, day and night. The captain seemed fairly informal, often simply driving the boat firmly into the bank – so we stopped with a bump – when we needed to pick people up. We didn’t see a jetty all week – everyone had to scramble in and out over the muddy banks. The cook wore a permanent scowl, but the unbelievably camp deckhand and the resident icepop seller – a rural equivalent of the ice cream van (and hugely popular) kept everything light-hearted.

The smell, the noise and the heat were intense. When we stopped we couldn’t for a moment forget how many pigs were penned in the lower deck. Pity the passengers who boarded so late they had to sling their hammocks up down there.

Life doesn’t throw you many opportunities like this one – heaven and hell all rolled in to one. The sensations will be burnt very very deep in my memory.

After 4 nights, we were definitely ready to move on. The strange city of Iquitos is our respite. There aren’t many cars here – the noise of motorbikes and rickshaws turn every conversation into a shout. There’s a promenade in town like you’d find at the seaside, only the view over the balustrade is of the widest river you can imagine – with reeds growing in the middle and jungle on the far shore.

Tomorrow we head east – a fast boat this time, luxury. When we set out here we wanted to see two things, the river life of settlers, and the primary jungle of the indigenous people. We’ve immersed ourselves in the first, lets see if we can find the second.

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