River Cruise, Part II
Timeline: February 2006
Setting: Aboard a cargo/passenger boat cruising down the Amazon river from Leticia, Colombia to Manaus, Brazil
Characters: Lani and I
Plot: 2 months into a South American backpacking journey I was joined by a friend and we started our joint travels in the Colombian Amazon. As much for the experience as for mode of transportation, we took a 3 day/3 night boat ride down the Amazon and into Brazil. Tightly packed into a boat filled with all kinds of cargo and people we made our way down the river, sleeping in hammocks and watching the river life go by.
Epilogue: My parting thoughts: “I’ll never experience anything like that again.”
I was wrong.
Fast forward to Halloween, 2013. Once again, with a hammock in hand, I found myself boarding a similar vessel for a 3 day journey. For a long time I’ve had a lot of curiosity about the city of Iquitos and once I was assigned to my placement in the Peruvian jungle I knew I’d find a way to get to this hard-to-reach city. While there is a quick and inexpensive direct flight there is also the more traditional way to travel there – by boat. Most movement and transportation in the jungle and Amazon basin uses the vast web of rivers and for many people who live in remote areas, it’s the only way.
This time I made the journey with two of the gals who I met at in-country training in Lima and who are volunteering in Iquitos. They flew to Tarapoto a few days prior to check out the area and then I joined them in their return journey. Arriving at the port of Yurimaguas we found we were in luck. I’d heard repeatedly that the best line of boats are the “Manuels”. I’d called earlier in the week and had been told that there was a Manuel leaving on Wednesday and another on Saturday. We weren’t able to get to Yurimaguas until Thursday so we assumed we’d be taking another vessel. But, the Wednesday Manuel had gotten held up waiting for cargo and was now rescheduled for Thursday at 5:30pm. It was about noon when we boarded the boat and purchased our tickets for the upper level. After getting our hammocks situated and strung up and our water and snacks purchased we took turns going out to explore the port, have lunch and wander around.
The entire 5 hours that we were docked at port waiting to depart, we watched a family unload their fruit in a never-ending game of “papaya toss”. In the picture below you can kind of see them lined up moving the papayas from their boat up to a washing station and carefully arranged into a truck.
Only about 30-40 minutes passed the stated departure time, the Gilmer IV pulled back from the dock and off we went downriver towards the city of Iquitos. Given the hour the sun went down almost immediately and after eating the dinner they served on the boat we settled into our hammocks to read and an early night. Sleeping in a hammock is not really all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a cheap hammock that isn’t very wide or long. I remembered this lesson from the previous journey but it still didn’t make sense to spend a bunch of money on a hammock I was only going to use for 2 nights and I wasn’t able to find one to borrow, so once again it was a cheap and short hammock making it hard to get any kind of quality sleep. It was also incredibly cold at night, something I hadn’t expected. I thought it would cool down some and had brought a pair of socks and a love sleeved shirt but it was downright cold and after wrapping up in the small towel I’d brought and pretty much all the other clothes I had available, which were few, I had to just accept that I was going to be cold both nights.
During the day, I was perfectly content to just sit and watch the river life go by. We were lucky to have river dolphins escorting us at several points along the way and we passed numerous small villages and tucked away families that always came out to the shore to wave as we passed. The sunrise, sunset and cloud patterns were stunning and the activity of the commerce along the river, which I’ll write about in my next entry, was enough entertainment for me.
In my first boat journey in Brazil there was only 1 deck for hammocks, while this boat had two. The lower deck was much more crowded and was a few soles cheaper. I suspect however that it was a bit warmer at night. The upper deck, where we were started out pretty open although as we stopped along the way and picked up more passengers it filled up a bit. What we lacked in human neighbors we had in other creatures as we were accompanied on the upper deck by at least 1 chicken in a bag, a Tupperware full of baby turtles and a live monkey, also in a bag, which caused me a bit of anxiety.
The first day we sailed down the mighty Huallaga River, which is the same river that passes through Chazuta. At some point during the second day we flowed into the Marañon River. Reaching the town of Nauta around 7am on Saturday we reached the mack daddy of them all, the Amazon. Nauta is where the Amazon River is born and where it begins its hefty traverse of the continent all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. At this point we were very close to Iquitos and we could either hop off here and take a car the remaining 50 minutes or stay on the boat for another 8 hours as the river has a number of turns and snakes its way the remaining distance and therefore takes a lot longer on the river.
While tempted to stay onboard, I decided at the last minute to hop off in Nauta and join my friends who were heading to Iquitos so that I could begin to explore this famed city.
This time, I know better. I won’t say “never” because I’m certain that if given the opportunity, I’ll hop on another hammock boat somewhere in the Amazon once again.