From the “humid hustle” of Iquitos to the silent streets of Puerto Prado, this article recounts contributor Lola Sanchez-Carrion’s journey to a quiet corner of the Peruvian Amazon.
Land in Iquitos and it only takes a few minutes to find yourself immersed in the humid hustle.
Street vendors on the corners of plazas, open-air markets where river-caught fish are sold fresh in the morning, colorful rickshaws that dodge each other for passengers, and streets made for two lanes suddenly seem to fit five or six. You sit in the back of your mototaxi, clenching onto your bag so it doesn’t slide out on an abrupt turn.
Get on a two-hour bus ride from Iquitos to Nauta and upon your arrival, you’ll find a smaller-scale version of this same humid hustle. Yes, the houses are smaller and the markets less busy, but the commercial spirit still sits in the air. These are port cities, after all, places of commerce where thousands of charapos come to sell the crops they grow and fish they catch.
But for tourists, these hubs are merely gateways to the jungle, green havens that lie beyond the honking, yelling and the smell of fish being sold by the kilo.
Get on a thirty-minute boat ride from Nauta to Puerto Prado and time seems to stop. Silence overwhelms, distractions are far.
The boat pulls up to the village and you find a community of no more than twenty small wooden huts. It’s a community of people that, at first, seem timid; however, give them a few days and you’ll get to know these people that bask in their simplicity and appreciate a life deeply connected to one’s surroundings. They’ll begin to share the beauty in this world with you.
The history of Puerto Prado is tumultuous and complicated. The seventeen families that currently reside here are descendants of the Cocama-Cocamilla people, an indigenous community now practically extinct, that have inhabited the Marañón’s surrounding areas for centuries. But, when violence towards Amazonian communities became commonplace, thousands of Cocama-Cocamilla people were killed, and many of their traditions died with them.
Puerto Prado is one of the last communities of this ethnic group still standing, yet they are still victims of violence. Over the past hundred years, with neighboring communities attempting to occupy their territory and forcing them out, they have had to relocate their community three times. But despite a past of oppression and displacement, the people of Puerto Prado have established themselves and managed to become a self-sustaining community of farmers, fishermen, and educators.
Ema Tapullima is the leader of this community, a role that requires juggling many hats.
Part of her work involves being the spokesperson for Puerto Prado on a national and international scale. She’s traveled several times to Lima and Quito to fight for the rights of indigenous communities of the Amazon and remind public officials that places that seem to many as virtually off the map are very much alive and in dire need of stronger legislative support.
Additionally, she is the spokesperson for every person in the community itself – she resolves internal conflicts, distributes resources that come in from Nauta and Iquitos, and works with families to help rethatch their roofs and rebuild their homes.
During my five-day stay, I saw Ema’s juggling many jobs in action. She was interviewed by a local radio station that was investigating the effects of river pollution on the community’s agricultural production. She spent hours handing out medicine to community members that had been shipped from Nauta. She traveled to Nauta four times to buy fresh fish for a few families, and she wove a few baskets out of seeds and straw from the trees in her backyard. All I could do was follow her around in awe as she did the impossible to keep everything and everyone afloat.
Ema is also a mother to six children and a dedicated wife. During my stay, she cooked for me and indulged in long conversations that went on long after the day’s strong, sunny rays had set. As we talked, we sat, immersed in a world of bird sounds and bug chirps, stuffing our dimly lit faces with plátano y arroz.
Something unique to this community that Ema has helped instill, in collaboration with other community members, is a deep commitment to preserving the environment. A few years ago, they began collaborating with Conservamos Por Naturaleza, a Peruvian NGO that focuses on preserving Peru’s diverse ecosystems through active environmental stewardship. Among their many co-efforts is a reforestation campaign where people donate trees online that are then planted in Puerto Prado and its surrounding forests; el BONI, an outdoor playground built entirely by and for the children of Puerto Prado; and travel packages for tourists that teache them to reconnect with their environment through excursions like bird-watching, hiking, fishing, etc.
I think what stood out to me most during my visit was the community’s children.
They all carried an eager spirit inside them, hungry to explore and engage with the green world around them. But more importantly, they carried with them the innocence that arises when one is disconnected from the industrial world’s distractions, yet they were so in tune with the things that really matter.
Whether it was swimming in the Marañón River for hours, starting our own campfire, or playing tag in one of the elementary school classrooms, the children of Puerto Prado filled my visit with life and nudged me to rekindle a long-lost relationship with my inner child.
Like Puerto Prado, there are hundreds of other communities nestled in the Peruvian Amazon where the worries and chaos of industrial life don’t pervade or distract.
Communities where the highway is not a paved road but instead a flat river, one that bends and twirls for thousands of kilometers. Communities that know what it’s like to live in unison with nature. There is the feeling of time stopping in Puerto Prado precisely because of this interconnectedness between man and nature. The two unite to suppress the hastiness we are used to.
I left Puerto Prado, and back in Nauta and Iquitos I was reminded of the hustle I’m used to. I landed in Lima and felt that hustle on steroids.