Up the Amazon River: Peru to Ecuador
“Freedom means tremendous responsibility; you are on your own and alone.” ~ Osho, Freedom, Indian Mystic
To be free is an illusion of words and actions. I have learned that to be free for something is intrinsically different than to be free from something. Freedom, in the modern sense of the word, evokes the notion of free movement. Some would consider me free, because my movement for the last year and a half has been just that. But, it is not the freedom of movement that I look for. I search for another type of freedom, that makes all others seem like rusted chains. The purpose for freedom matters much more than what you are free from. I am free for a reason.
The Amazon. The very name conjures up a sense of wonder and images of adventure. People going into the unknown green madness with sweat stained backs as they endlessly swat mosquitos. They search of wild creatures, secluded tribes and medicinal herbs. It is the place where people go and never come back. They are taken hostage by the allure of rainforest. Some remain trapped mentally, others physically. I was certainly captivated by the majesty that is this massive piece of green flowing beauty.
To satisfy my hunger for adventure, I decided to step off the bicycle for some days and float down the Amazon on a series of boats to Ecuador. It is something I always wanted to do. The amazing vastness of the Amazon river and it’s tributaries cannot be full comprehended. It is huge; stretching across countries and landscapes. Here there are no more roads. The Amazon is the road and you must play by it’s rules. You give up all control to the river and the endless bends that lead the way home. This is where the adventure becomes real.
“We are the environment. The world is literally one biological process. The trees are our lungs. Look at the Amazon River system next to a human cardiovascular system, look at corals or trees and look at our lungs, you literally cannot tell the difference. They’re the same. So when we destroy our environment, we’re effectively destroying ourselves.” ~ Ian Somerhalder, Actor
My journey up the Amazon began in Pucallpa, Peru on the Ucayali River. I arrived at the loose sandy banks of the launches fairly early, after being told to get there to secure a comfortable spot on the boat. I had spent the previous day running around town getting extra food, water and a hammock. I boarded the boat and negotiated my way up to the third floor with my bike. It was almost empty at this point and I had my pick of places to string up my home for the next four (ended up being five) days to Iquitos. I had a great lookout alongside the window and settled in for the long haul north in my new hammock. This was to be my first and biggest boat of the trip, as well as the longest ride of my Amazon adventure.
My journey was off to a rocky start though. We departed to pick-up more cargo at a different dock and the boat caught on fire at the bow. It blazed up very quickly due to the dry wood crates surrounding the bellowing electrical fire. It is interesting to see the way people react in an emergency. A few rushed to save the boat from the blaze and others ran about, scared for their lives. Outside of mostly western countries, few people in our world learn to swim properly. I saw one man hoarding three of the very few life jackets around his neck and ready to jump. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that they were for his family, but I saw no family. I threw a few valuables into a waterproof bag and was confident with my hometown swimming lessons I could make it to shore if needed. The crew was busy tossing blazing cargo into the river and boats collected afterwards to scour the refuse like hungry vultures. Meanwhile, another firefighting ship arrived and saved the boat from the blaze. No one was hurt and we returned to shore. Pretty soon everyone was back to their laidback selves. It became clear very quickly we would not be leaving on time.
The loading continued for hours and into the night. Almost everything is loaded by hand. Hardened men sweat all day in the scorching sun, carrying loads that seem to be twice their weight. Men turned to mules. From my window, I watched the chaos as every imaginable item was loaded below and all around us. Chickens, potatoes, mattresses, dryers, refrigerators, sodas, snacks, tires, onions and the list goes on forever. In the distance I saw ships full of massive logs from the heart of the Amazon unloaded. They were sprayed with numbers and rumbled off ships with one last cry for help. The boat took on more passengers by the moment. My temporary oasis by the window was invaded by over two hundred people and their children. Hammocks were strung up like spider webs. Negotiating my way around immediately became difficult, between the crying babies and mess of people’s belongings.
Night came and went. In the morning we still hadn’t departed, when I woke up after a stagnant sweaty night. People were visibly agitated by the lack of knowledge about when we would leave and the rising heat of the day. I spoke to the laid back old salty captain, with a friendly demeanor, who assured me we would leave soon. He grinned a smile of capped gold teeth and also told me there would be no more fires. I don’t know if I could ever trust a man with gold teeth, but I had no real choice in this case. I returned to my hammock and sweat until the engine finally roared to life. I had already been on the boat for 28 hours before we even departed. The only thing that mattered was we were finally moving.
Once on route the mood of the ship picked up. I was happy to sit swinging by my windowsill and taking in the sights. Dinner was served as the typical meal of the voyage, rice and a tiny piece of chicken plucked from below the deck. We lined up like eager prisoners. The morning was usually some watery porridge gruel with bread. The rotation of food began. Luckily I brought some extra food with me and there were always people jumping onboard to sell fish, little snacks and drinks. On a cyclists appetite, the meals would not have been close to enough.
The first night I went up to the top deck and watched the stars light up the night sky. It was a beautiful showing with a full moon. As I looked off into space a shooting star blazed across the sky. I felt infinitely small at that moment, as the hum of the motor pulled us forward. I awoke the following morning in my hammock to the sun coming up over the canopy beyond the river. It was a stunning and welcome gift from mother nature. The days began early and finished the same with one lightbulb for the entire third floor. This was nice as the children would finally settle down to sleep in their hammocks or the floor that crawled with cockroaches.
There were many characters on my trip through to Iquitos. Some were more enjoyable than others. With only one other foreigner on board, everyone got to know me fairly quickly. I could focus on tons of people here, as I watched their personalities unfold during the course of the journey. But, because of time, I’ll just focus on one person: Angelo.
Angelo was a pouty little three year old boy that arrived with his baby brother, older sister and his Mom, just before departure. My arch-nemesis of the journey. They pitched up their hammocks next to mine and I knew we were in for a show immediately. Angelo was a very cute child, but it seemed that he and life in general did not agree throughout the journey. It was not ten minutes before he threw his first little tantrum over wanting some knock-off Peruvian Cola. Mom, of course, gave in to appease little Prince Angelo. As a Kindergarten teacher for two years, I found it hard not to step in at a few moments. It was hard to watch this poor overwhelmed mother deal with this child for five days of confinement. I often looked forward to Angelo’s naps and frowned deeply when I saw him guzzling piles of cola in between his sour poutings over nothing and river water baths. Looking back on the journey, it would not have been as memorable without him. Thank you Angelo.
On our second day we hummed along nicely all morning long. We were seemingly making great time until the ship came to a loud halt and everyone flung forward with the sudden stop. Angelo rolled to the floor like a bag of old potatoes. We had run aground on a hidden sandbar. No one was hurt. Though it is the rainy season in the Amazon, there has been a terrible drought this year. This has made the water incredible low and difficult to navigate. After some deliberation and a lot of coaxing the boat came unstuck. I could see in my mind the gold tooth captain grinning up at the helm when he got us free. It poured rain, thankfully, in the afternoon and we got stuck on another sandbar.
I spent most of my days window watching and writing in my journal. The view continued to show the wild side of the Amazon. At times the boat would stop and sometimes people would get off in the middle of a section of jungle with jeans and a sweater to walk inside. I presume that their homes are somewhere within the green reaches of the Amazon. I reflected back on my Grade 6 days, where a friend and I, used to write stories under the title of, ‘Adventures in the Amazon.’ We would present them every few weeks infront of the class. It was hard to believe I was actually here, though all the characters at play were much different than the ones my mind had created in my youth. There was always something to stay entertained with on the boat, as day dreams morphed into real-life.
“Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made.” ~ Robert N. Rose, Poet/Writer
At night a storm rolled in again and we battened down the hatches as rain leaked in from all sides. At night you could hear the creaking of the old rusted ship as it carried us further up the river towards the larger mouth of the Amazon. In the quiet of the night after the storm died and all the little ones were gone to sleep, I listened to the sounds of the evening. Under the low hum of the motor I could hear the heart of the jungle beating in the veins of the river. It is the force of life that gives the jungle it’s energy. All things begin and return to the river.
During the fourth night, Angelo and his family departed at some unknown stop. In the morning my area was surprisingly barren and quiet in comparison to the last few days. It was as if I was now missing something. Angelo had a rather unfortunate time on his last day aboard though. He dropped his toy car down a set of stairs and it bounced into the river, never to be seen again. It took him a moment to understand the implications of his mistake, but when he realized that toy car wasn’t coming back, the waterworks exploded to new levels. I felt bad for him at this point. Mom quickly poured him a big cup of Peru Cola and bought him some candy from a toothless lady on board. Angelo soon forgot about the car as he wired himself for another night of his favourite game to play on his mom, “Where’s Angelo?”
The following day there were far few people on the boat. I went downstairs to get a final serving of prison gruel porridge from the ships cooks. The food on board, though included in the price of the ticket, left something to be desired. I was excited one afternoon when there was a bit of carrot in my rice. I brought cans of tuna, limes, onions and other snacks to spice things up along the way. I rationing my food like it may be the end of the world. We finally sailed into Iquitos, our destination, on the banks of the Amazon. Iquitos is the largest city in the world, that is not accessible by any roads. You either have to take a long adventure boat ride or a plane, as most tourists do.
Iquitos emerges out of the jungle like a temporary hallucination. Out of nothing comes a city bustling with activity and all of the amenities of any Peruvian city. On our way in, I saw pink river dolphins playing in the shallow water. In the distance, a beautiful cruise boat lumbered by with tourists dining in an open air hall, complete with riverside balconies to every room. I looked around at my squalor and wouldn’t have wanted it any other ay. While rolling up my hammock I looked at the space which I called home for the last five days and said farewell with a smile at the adventure that was the first leg of my Amazonian experience. When we docked the sky opened up and poured rain. Fitting. I disembarked the boat to struggle up the muddy garbage filled banks with my bicycle and gear. I arrived at a quiet hostel and fell asleep in a proper bed.
“If man doesn’t learn to treat the oceans and the rainforest with respect, man will become extinct.” ~ Peter Benchley, Author
It was not all beautiful sunsets and flowing jungle water though. Maybe it is the sheer size of the Amazon Basin that causes people to mistreat it so willfully. The fact that it has always been there during their life, they think it will always be that way. Throughout my journey the garbage and destruction I saw was disheartening. People on the boat throwing styrofoam containers and plastics like it was their personal dumpster. All the waste not necessary, directly into the water. The same water they wash in moments later and expect to deliver them delicious fish. Out of sight and out of mind.
In the following days, I explored the hectic Belen market where I ate fried grubs and saw barbecue alligator and gutted armadillos for sale. I got a very overdue haircut and shave. The humidity of the jungle is not somewhere that a big beard is particularly enjoyable. What took four months to grow disappeared in a matter of seconds at the hands of a discontented barber. I left the moustache for a few days, just for a bit of fun. One night as I wandered around looking for a cheap meal I was hit by kids with water balloons and a lady poured a whole bucket of water on my head. I laughed a bit and was told they were getting ready for Carnival the following week.
In Iquitos, I went to the post office to mail some letters and a friendly security guard asked me where I was from. I told him Canada and he howled like a wolf and said, “Wolves!” I laughed, then replied there were big wolves and howled back at him. We fist pumped and I was on my way laughing. During this time I also prepared for the next stage of my riverboat experience that would take me to Ecuador. The plan, for those interested in such a backwater adventures, was to take a series of boats from Iquitos to Coca. This would be a completely different journey than my Henry boat float days before.
I packed up and made my way down to the docks. When I arrived, there was a massive and steep set of stairs to go down with my bike. It was crowded and busy. A man offered to help me for a small price and I agreed. We reached the bottom and loaded my bike on top of a junky boat that was headed for Mazan. After the man departed I realized I was missing something. My entire bag of bicycle tools, which I had carefully collected since the beginning of my trip, was gone. A new bottle of mosquito spray I had just bought, for the deep reaches of the jungle, was also stolen. I chased back up the stairs to try and find who had robbed me. I returned to the boat with no luck and wondered at the awful person who had my things. In twenty months on the road no one had taken anything from me or for that matter, ever during my travelling. Tools that are vital and difficult to replace, would serve little purpose in the life of a regular thief. I hoped he enjoyed the bit of money he procured from my tools as he munched on the stale bread he bought. I made a list of things that were stolen and have since slowly begun to recuperate what was lost.
Soon we were off down the river on a short two hour journey and I forgot about the days earlier events. I watched life on the Amazon float by. We arrived on the banks in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. I unloaded my bike and biked across a small isthmus to Mazan. In Mazan, I found a ‘fast boat’ that was to depart for Pantoja (Peruvian border) the following day.
There is no schedule in this part of the world, and no one really has any idea when things leave. If people in Iquitos tell you that you must hurry and a boat leaves soon, they are just making things up to hurry you onto their boat. No one really knows. I got lucky though on this one and the captain said every Wednesday he leaves from Mazan. I settled up the deal and cooked a pasta dinner on the banks of the river to a gathering crowd. I spent the night for free on the boat in my hammock. Once again I was clearly off the beat and track. At times it felt like the back end of the world as people returned with the bare essentials to the isolation of the jungle.
We left the following morning, as the captain had promised. Another adventure had begun. The boat was relatively empty for once. There seemed to be few people making the journey to the frontier of Peru. Along with one adventurous backpacker from Belgium, only one other man made the entire journey to Pantoja. He talked the entire time. He talked even if no one was listening. I called him the talking man. Even when I put my earplugs in at night, I could still hear the low hum of his voice continuing to talk to me as I watched him swat mosquitos in his hammock out of the corner of my eye.
Most people got off on the first day at different locations along the river. It seemed like we were abandoning them at times as they waved goodbye with their few belonging. There was usually a few people coming to meet them. I felt bad when we left the deaf man on his own with a massive sack of rice and bread. I watched as he approached his village to get someone to help him. I had a lot of time to contemplate the difficulties of his life as we motored onwards.
On one afternoon, we ate a ball of rice with meat inside called Juane. The rice is set inside leaves from the jungle and boiled in water. It was actually really good. Read about Juane and some other typical types of Amazonian food at http://authenticfoodquest.com/surprising-amazonian-food-from-peru/
The feeling in general was very peaceful and quiet. I had the Amazon to myself. These people must survive on the things they grow themselves or are able to find in the jungle. I had one fruit that grew on a tree and tasted exactly like a sweet potato. It was a very interesting life to ponder as the dual motors roared us along the Rio Napo. I saw boats that chugged along slowly like the one they used in the horribly awesome 90’s movie, Anaconda. Sadly, I didn’t see Ice Cube or Jennifer Lopez aboard any of the boats though.
We stopped at dusk on the banks of a tiny village. I put up my hammock once again and prepared for another night on the boat. We had some dinner and a storm rolled in as I went to sleep under the covered roof of the boat. Up early, we were off roaring just before 6am. The sunrise came over the horizon of endless greenery and little riverboats could be seen skirting along out for a morning fish. It was one of those travel moments you dream about and will cherish for as long as you live. The Amazon came to life as it shook off the cool of the night and a pink river dolphin jumped out of the water in the distance. Another day on my Amazon adventure had begun as our captain guided the driver down the shallow banks full of old trees stranded in the water. We sped by many whirlpools sucking debris down into the depths below.
During the day a storm came up and we lost some time docked on the edge of the river to wait it out. The boat got covered in water and everything was damp, but the air was much cooler. We pressed on after the storm passed. As night approached it became clear we would not make Pantoja. We docked near someone’s home. The captain arranged dinner for us to be cooked by the family living there. Hey loved isolated in the middle of the jungle. We were all welcomed into their simple home and made small talk as dinner was prepared. We had a basic Caldo de Gallina (chicken noodle soup, kind of) and I went into a sound sleep in my hammock. The next morning we were off roaring towards the border at first light.
We arrived at the Peruvian border frontier around 10am. The vibe in Pantoja was not very friendly at all. The border patrol was clearly bored and likely saw almost no tourists through here. They looked at every item in my four bags. I checked out of Peru and was off on a fast boat towards Ecuador. Arriving near dusk I was stamped in very quickly and let to go on my way. I found a cheap place to sleep. My last boat remained in the early morning to where the road began again in Coca. I woke at 4:30am to pouring rain and boarded an overloaded boat for eleven cramped hours of sleepy head-bobbing.
Finally arriving in Coca I had my first real taste of a new country and the end of my Amazon riverboat journey. It was a bittersweet moment at the port. It was some of the most introspective days I have ever had in my life. I don’t know if it was the beauty of the jungle or the life giving energy of river, but I felt alive. I felt like I had connected with a part of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I felt free of body and mind. I felt ready to get back on that bike and cycle the rest of the way home. I was ready.
*If you are truly interested in this once in a lifetime, do it yourself Amazon adventure please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will give direct details on prices paid, times of boats and what to expect. You wont find this trip in any guidebook and you will never regret it. It is one of the last great adventures of public transport available. Only necessity is patience and time. Time and patience.
**A big thank you goes out to Des & Judy McKenna, The Laidley Family, Edith Devlin, Shirley Kindellan and Queen Elizabeth School in Perth. They are all the recipients of personal thank you letters in the mail and have brought us up to 200 donors on my journey home. I am so blown away by this. Thank you to all the individual people, organizations and schools that have come together to help build a better future for kids around the world. I am currently heading towards Shuid, Ecuador and the site of the next schoolhouse. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
***To read more about the amazing force that is the Amazon River CLICK HERE.
Posted on February 10, 2016, in Adventure, Around the World, Charity, Cycling, Ecuador, Food, Free the Children, Inspiration, Motivation, Peru, The Amazon, Thoughts, Travel and tagged Adventure, Amazing, Amazon River, Amazon Travel Guide, Amazonia, Anaconda, Around the World, Beautiful, Bicycle, Boat Float, Challenge, change, Charity, Coca, Cycle Touring, Cycling, Cycling for Charity, Dreams, Ecuador, Excitement, Explore, fear, Food, Free the Children, Freedom, Fundraising, Goals, Hammock, happiness, Iquitos, Jungle, Kindness, Life, Mazan, Me to We, motivation, Mountains, nature, Oneadventureplease, Osho, Pantoja, People, Peru, Port, Pucallpa, Puerto, Rainforest, Relax, River, River Boat, Shoestring, Spanish, The Amazon, The Road, Thoughts, Transport, Travel, Travel Guide, Travel Photography, Travel Photos, travelogue, Travelpics, values. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.