Each to their own and I don’t want to belittle the sights, delights, culture and folk I have encountered amongst the highlands and even Lima and the coast, but there is a degree of warmth (not climate related) here that I haven’t experienced so far on my limited travels.
An epic boat trip through the Amazon from Pucallpa to Iquitos
Five nights in total and some 1500km on a cramped cargo boat to a bizarre city, cut off to the rest of the world by road – the largest of its kind in the world. We boarded the Baylon II on a Wednesday afternoon, eager to get a good spot to hang our hammocks. Departure times change frequently, so without the captain’s advice, rumored departure times would change depending on who was offering the information. So we stayed on board overnight in the dank and still port, intense heat and humidity making sure this was our first sleepless night of many to come. The anticipation of this unique trip kept spirits high at all times though.
Many false starts were to come but after 24 hours on a still boat, late on Thursday afternoon, all cargo was loaded. The roar of the huge diesel engines on this 32 ton river vessel brought relief and cheers from the 116 passengers cramped onboard (I was later surprised to hear it has a 250 person capacity, and we were side by side in our hammocks on 2 floors!)
The surreal feeling of setting off through the Amazon was coupled with a glorious breeze as the heaving vessel got up some speed. Immediately, the city of Pucallpa gave way to green jungle, and even though this route has been plied by so many before, a pioneering sense of adventure washed over me and would stay with me for the next four days.
Having spent four months in the brownest, driest of deserts in southern Peru followed by a short time in "loco" Lima, the lush green on both sides of the impressive Ucayali River (which later feeds into the Amazon River), and the still quiet never got boring. Actually, "still quiet" was only during times of no electricity. When the electricity was on for a few hours a day, ear shattering cumbia and reggaeton is belted out on both decks, sequestering all gringos (the two of us) to the roof of the boat for some peace!
I can honestly say with nothing to do for four days, I was never actually bored. Each bend in the river is taken the long way as the pilot steers the ship through deep water channels. The view changes slowly but it does change significantly. Small villages appear set back from the banks of the river. Dug-out canoes ply the huge system like twigs. You are in a dream-state, entranced for much of the trip, staring out at the majesty of the Amazon basin – trying to comprehend its enormity and importance to our world.
Making friends with the boys in the restaurant meant that the luke-warm beers, passed off to those that knew no better, were no longer suffered. "Bien helada" (we are talking from the freezer) became the expected norm and I was very happy. Beer in hand, this is the only way to travel!
Speaking of the galley…
Meals were surprisingly good aboard, and were provided as part of the ticket. Any more than 4 days though, and the various forms of chicken and rice (with obligatory fried bananas) may get tiring.
The brown water was full of debris from heavy rainfall in the mountains, heralding the start of the Andean wet season. This makes for some serious navigational issues for the captain and his men upstairs. Huge floating trees creak under the steel hull as engines are regularly stopped to navigate the larger ones. Nighttime on the front of the deck is eerie viewing as a huge spotlight extends out in the distance, tracking the riverbank and possible obstructions. Many a night was spent taking in the heavenly breeze and in a state of being transfixed on the illuminated river ahead.
After two days on the boat, my journal tells me I was still pinching myself, with pinch welts far out numbering mosquito bites at this stage. It seems I was still spinning out on exactly where I was in the world and how I was seeing it. We had a few stops at major ports along the way and there were also passengers alighting seemingly in the middle of nowhere. For these drop offs, a small support boat was tied to the side of the Baylon II. Sometimes late at night you would hear the support boat firing up its engines and disappearing off to the banks with some passengers.
Sleeping in a hammock was tough and it was never surprising to come back to your digs and find a new passenger had squeezed their hammock on top of yours. Personal space was a luxury not offered on this trip! Hammocks are a great way to relax but possibly not the greatest way to get a good night’s sleep. Lights were left on all night for security reasons. Peruvians’ love of music would extend to impromptu early morning (4am) displays from personal music devices…no one seemed to be bothered. So, you go with the flow and enjoy the cultural diversity, along with the natural wonder outside your window.
After 3 days on the boat I was starting to crave a wash. Expected tropical rain (and my natural shower) was not yet transpiring. The sunrises on the trip were the quietest and most stunning of my life. The sunsets, greeted by drunken, card playing passengers, loud music and folks milling for dinner is sometimes better spent on the top deck which is always deserted (surprisingly). From the top deck, I have never experienced the close of day in a better way.
My journal details my excitement 15 hours or so away from docking in Iquitos:
"The Ucayali will merge with the mighty Amazon in a few hours; looking forward to this spectacle." Well, predictions were off, and our meeting with the greatest of rivers came under the cover of darkness and I saw nothing.
Another post: "There are some big insects here and are all hopelessly attracted to the lights of the boat at night time. If it is light they love, we are it for quite a distance. They seem to be growing into the size of small birds the deeper we go into the jungle." My partner has a bit of a moth phobia and we regularly encounter those the size of your hand…literally her worst nightmare and good entertainment for me on a long trip.
A lengthy boat trip like this is an amazing way to stretch out the anticipation of arriving somewhere you have wished to visit for so long. It was a great way to gather my thoughts after 5 months of over-stimulation and effort in Peru. The trip itself is a visual and indeed emotional spinout. A sensual smorgasbord that keeps delivering when you expect to be growing tired of the same old fare. This trip is highly recommended to anyone with an adventurous spirit, a degree of patience and a love of unique and fascinating experiences.