Traveling on water roads

The Amazon Jungle, South America

Location No.: 107 – 115

Time spent there: 06/25/17 – 07/07/17

The road ended in Yurimaguas, a small busy town with a port on the Ucayali River. Cargo boats depart from here a few times a week once they have loaded enough cargo and passengers. We had been advised that the boat departure times could change by the hour and it’s common to spend a night or two waiting. We found a boat that was announced to leave in three hours, so after paying for our fare and setting up our rental hammocks on the top deck with other travelers, we rushed to buy enough water and food for the trip. However, we didn’t depart for another twenty four hours. Since we kept being told we were departing soon we couldn’t leave the boat and spent the rest of the day sweltering and roasting under the Amazonian sun while watching endless crates of beer, thousands of egg cartons, plantains, moto taxis, bags of rice and more, being loaded onto the lower level.

Our boat, Bruno, had three levels, the lower one for cargo, the middle and top deck for passengers. The middle deck also had bathrooms, showers and a small kitchen. Our fare included three very basic meals a day, featuring the locals’ favorite all over South America: rice and chicken and chicken and rice. The two cooks were male cross-dressers wearing some impressive makeup; apparently local belief is that they are better cooks than women so they often land these “chef” positions. They did a good job with what they had to work with except for breakfast. I’ve been raised to eat what is set before me giving thanks but I just couldn’t stomach the gray runny porridge which I suspect was cooked with river water. At meal times, the cooks would ring a bell and the 100+ passengers would obediently make a line, plastic bowls in hand. (Thomas bought a red bowl for a dollar before we boarded and I had a little bowl I unintentionally “borrowed” from a hostel. Thomas is holding on to his cheap tupperware and intends to bring it home). Locals and travelers alike looked like prisoners on a floating prison, hungry faces clutching on to the crumpled receipt that was absolutely necessary to get one’s meal.

Cargo boats are slow-moving and so were our days on Bruno. The hours drifted between card games, reading, sweating in our hammocks, chatting with other passengers, at least one shower with river water, more card games and then some more card games. A few times each day we would pull up to small towns and villages on the river banks where passengers and cargo would come and go. Vendors would also flood the boat during these stops selling bananas, jungle fruits, juanes (a rice ball wrapped in banana leaves) and fried fish. During the nights we fought relentless mosquitoes and hoped our backpacks were safe under our hammocks.

We spent the first day moving along the Marañón River until it merged with the Ucayali River, which is an interesting river on its own, beginning in southern Peru, crossing the Andes, reaching the Amazon Basin and eventually becoming a main tributary to the world-famous river. During the middle of the second night we creeped onto the Amazon River. Thomas kept waking up just so he could make a GPS pin at the exact location of the headwaters.

The first leg of our river travel ended at Iquitos, the largest city in the world that is accessible only by boat or airplane. It’s the Amazonian capital of Peru and a fascinating city where moto taxis and scooters rule the streets, people eat grilled suri worms, barbers cut hair on the sidewalks, ice cream is made with jungle fruits and where rubber barons once lived in luxury. A local couple whom we had played cards with invited us to stay at their home where we spent the next five days waiting for a boat to our next destination.

Our new vessel was smaller and faster, promising a speedy two days – 1 night delivery to Pantoja, the closest village to the Peruvian-Ecuadorian jungle border. Transportes Vichu carried passengers, some packages and also served as a mail system and school bus of sort in between villages on the Nanay and Napo Rivers. During one of our frequent stops we picked up a chicken in a woven cage to be delivered at a house a few hours up the river so it was placed on the front end of the speedboat, I don’t think the chicken enjoyed the ride. Another time we picked up two teen boys who were headed to school, since they live four hours away they stay at the school all week. When they were getting off the boat the driver reminded them to focus, to study hard and added, “so you can do something else than just drive a boat like me”. I thought of their family, standing by the river bank, waving as we pulled away.

The other passengers were military personnel traveling to the border military base, four other foreigners and a second driver. After ten hours we docked in Santa Clotilde for the night. This quiet jungle village comes to life once the sun goes down and the electricity allowance starts. From 8 to 11 pm, they crank the music up, charge their phones and stroll their one paved street in town. We heard that sometimes they party too hard on the weekends and use up their electricity allowance for the week. The kid who told us this said they don’t mind because the town parties were so much fun.

We repeat the same the next day but as we travel further away on this water road, the villages become smaller, the isolation feels bigger, we encounter less smiles and more stares. We deliver a box of medicine at the wrong place, a group of twenty some children surround one side of the boat and inspect us, pink river dolphins swim close to us, children brush their teeth in the river, families travel in small canoes, their sparse houses sit on stilts. I stare at the green lush jungle and tell two young dutch travelers about the uncontacted tribes who still live deep inside.

By 5 pm we reach Pantoja, the end of our second leg. The immigration office sits on top of a little hill next to the military base; we are informed that we can’t get our exit stamps until the next morning. Even though the first Ecuadorian town is only a few hours away by canoe, late evening and night travel has been prohibited in an attempt to control the movement of refugees from Haiti, Cuba and African countries and out of safety concerns for the few travelers who like us take this Amazonian route into Ecuador. It’s possible this is true and it’s also possible that it’s because some areas of the Amazon jungle are a hotbed for illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking. In that regards, we appreciated them making sure we weren’t on the river after dark.

A small canoe takes us across the border the next morning and drops us off at Nuevo Rocafuerte, a modest jungle town where Ecuador’s new president was born. Although it was mid morning, the immigration office was closed and a passerby suggested we go look for the officer who often hangs out at a government building on the other side of town. When we located the officer he told us he could stamp us into the country at 3 pm since he was “busy at the moment”. Jungle time, they move at another pace here. Our official entry to Ecuador consisted of registering our names in a notebook and stamping our passports (when we left the country six weeks later, the border officers couldn’t find our names in their computer system).

Our last boat departed the next morning at 5 am, it was a lancha rapida, a fast boat carrying fifty passengers on tight seating along two long benches. At the first stop, several heavily armed soldiers boarded the boat and asked us for our passports and questioned us about our plans in the country. Across from us sat two of the funniest people we met on this trip. These two girls were government employees who are stationed for one year in the Amazon jungle, working on programs to improve life conditions for the indigenous tribes. They laughed, sang and joked for the next nine hours while sharing their life stories, their tales about living in the jungle, they talked about their hometowns in Ecuador’s central region, the foods they craved, the phone operators that work in the jungle and life with little to no internet access. One of them explained how the government now requires employees like them to live in the jungle towns in an effort to integrate the Amazonian people with the rest of the country and vice versa and to foster more understanding of the needs of the indigenous people and their culture. She thought it was a good thing but she cried when she spoke about how much she misses her children and shared that her five year old son has asked her over the phone why she abandoned him. I asked her why she took this job since it seemed to be so hard on her and her family. She smiled and replied, “My husband and I want to take our kids to Disneyworld”.

It rained hard on the Napo River that day and temperatures dropped. People wrapped themselves in fleecy blankets and wore wool hats. I didn’t know it could get so cold in the jungle. The guy sitting next to me told me that Argentinean rock was his favorite music and he played it on his chinese speaker. We sang a few songs together and he proudly showed me how his bluetooth speaker also doubled as a radio, an external battery and a flashlight. His dream is to have a car of his own one day. I told him that his speaker was much better than mine and that made him smile. He wore a puffy jacket, I wished I had one too.

After thirteen days on water roads, our last boat arrived to San Francisco de Orellana, aka El Coca, here is where paved roads begin again.

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Bruno, the cargo boat and a busy port.
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The middle passenger level, less hot than the top level but noisier.
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There seemed to be some silent understanding that all foreigners were supposed to sleep on the top level. It got cold at night up there. Our hammocks were the two last ones to the left.
Small village on the Amazon River. The bananas took a while to load on the boat.
Sunset on the Ucayali River.
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Jungle town on the Amazon River.
GPS pin of the Amazon River’s headwaters.
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Moto taxis are the main transportation mode in Iquitos. There are barely any cars on the road. Honda has a factory in Iquitos and the most of the parts for assembly come from Brazil.
Gloria and Pablo, our friends and hosts in Iquitos. The park we were at was recently inaugurated after extensive renovations. It used to be a dark part of town used for prostitution and drug trade, now its bustling with families enjoying the cooler night temperatures.
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Grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves and plantains. A staple meal in Amazonian cuisine.
Nico, baby monkey who lives in a protected rescue farm but loves people.
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Two days on this boat. Note the basket on the front, that’s the chicken.
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Canoes, we saw women washing clothes in them.
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Thomas thinks it’s funny to take these photos. I enjoyed my nap.
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The people who live on these water roads.

PS: To cross the border between Peru and Ecuador through the Amazon rainforest, one must embark in a long journey combining a twenty hour bus ride, a two hour taxi colectivo, multiple moto taxis, three days on a cargo boat, two days on a speedboat, four hours on a canoe, nine hours on another speedboat and ten more hours on a bus.  It is not a journey for those looking for comfort or any level of luxury. It was tiring, hot and long but it was pretty darn cool.