There’s not much to do on a cargo boat. There’s no swimming pool, no bar, no shuffleboard on the Lido deck. The cabins are tiny and stifling hot, and while “rustic” may be the current trendy way to describe simple, ethnic dishes, it doesn’t even begin to describe the simplicity of beans, rice and lard. If we hadn’t brought our own wine aboard, our first night on the river, watching bats catch insects around the boat’s bright lights and listening to the cattle stagger about below, may have gone down as one of the most anticlimactic experiences of all time.
We had no idea how long it would take to reach our destination. Some accounts that we’d heard mentioned trips of as long as five days, especially during the dry season when boats can be stuck on sandbars for weeks. Maps can differ wildly, so we had little knowledge of what lay between Yurimaguas and Iquitos, but almost 250 miles of river can’t be completely desolate.
I woke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise which morphed into a brutally hot morning. The day wore on, and as the boat made her way downriver, lone houses and small villages slipped by. Without warning, we’d slow and stop at certain outposts, and villagers hustled to unload and load cargo, climb aboard to hawk fruit and fresh bread, a few girls tried desperately to sell baby caiman crammed into dirty two-liter bottles. Huge bundles of bananas were slung on board, and the local children frolicked and swam in the diesel infused water at the muddy banks.
That afternoon, we exchanged the Huallaga River for the mighty Marañón, once thought to be the source of the Amazon. The boat seemed to ride a little higher and pick up a little speed, as the distance between the banks widened significantly. Another magnificent sunset signalled an end to the day, amid rumors that we would arrive in Iquitos the next day. After clearing my cabin of a wayward bat, I fell asleep.
I woke the next day to noise, commotion and a crazy story. Will had slept in the hammock on the deck, and woke to the majority of the passengers preparing to disembark in the early light of dawn. As the boat made contact with the bank, a horde of people rushed the boat, clambering over the cattle in the their corral, crushing each other to climb the stairs, and, when that didn’t work, scaling the sides. This mass of people was there simply to vie for the opportunity to assist the passengers with their things in the hope of picking up a few neuvo soles in return.
The words amongst the staff that day was that we were making good time, and would reach Iquitos by mid afternoon. The villages became larger and more frequent. Despite the fact that this part of Peru is accessible only by water or air, these villages were vibrant and thriving, one even sporting massive oil tanks and a helipad.
Around noon, with little fuss and no warning, there it was, the Amazon. We made the smooth merge with the Ucayali River, and all of a sudden it was the Amazon. Virtually indistinguishable from the river we were on five minutes ago, but the Amazon nonetheless. Will, myself, and a lone Kiwi girl whose cabin was next to mine stood at the front of the boat to see it. No one else seemed to care.
This meant that we were nearing Iquitos, and the end of the line for us. The boat made one last stop on the outskirts of the city, where the majority of the local passengers got off, leaving the three white people and a group of Peruvian students from Chiclayo who were going to Iquitos for a dance festival. One of the luxury Amazon cruise boats passed us, complete with air conditioners and satellite dishes.Those passengers took pictures of our boat, the cattle and chickens crowding the stern. We must have looked rustic.
We reached the port of Iquitos and our dock, and the thing we’d all hoped to see during our entire trip appeared. A pod of pink Amazon River dolphins played at the mouth of a small tributary. My trip was complete.
Next time: I swear we’ll get to the crazy coke dealer, and all of the other weird things that happened in Iquitos!