After deciding that a trip to Peru must include a view of the Amazon River and the surrounding rainforest, part of the adventure was simply getting there. We chose the destination of Iquitos, a large city along the Amazon River in northern Peru, with many rainforest expedition guides and tour companies. Despite its large population (exceeding 300,000), Iquitos cannot be reached by road. Plane and boat are the only options, due to its location in the heart of the rainforest. Due to a lack of time, we booked a flight from Iquitos back to Lima, but we chose a more adventurous method for going to Iquitos.
Starting in Lima, we spent a week traveling north, stopping to enjoy the cities of Trujillo, Chiclayo, and Tarapoto. These cities are found north of Lima along the coastal desert, and hold several impressive sites of ruins from pre-Incan cultures. Bus travel is possible between these points. However, to move on from Tarapoto, the adventure began. Our next destination was Yurimaguas, a town along a tributary of the Amazon River. The only connection between Tarapoto and Yurimaguas is a narrow, winding dirt road that is impassable during much of the rainy season. Thanks to the previous days of dry weather, we were able to hire a taxi to drive us, although the driver insisted upon leaving at 5am to avoid the heat of the day. We left the desert area of Tarapoto while it was still dark, and by sunrise, we were already entering the outskirts of the Amazon basin. Note to travelers who are prone to carsickness: this "road" presents a great challenge. The dirt was washed out in many spots, resulting in huge holes, bumps, and perilously steep drop-offs. Despite the conditions, this drive presented some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever encountered. The trip was only about 70 miles, but took five hours, and we ended in the start of the rainforest in Yurimaguas.
As soon as the taxi stopped in the city, the car was surrounded by boat employees, shouting offers to take us up the river to Iquitos. The Spanish speaker in our group negotiated our passage on a large cargo boat that was scheduled to leave at 4pm that afternoon. We found our way to the harbor and located our boat. We shakily boarded via wooden planks and paid for spots on the upper deck of the three-level boat. By departure time, we had bought cloth hammocks from the captain and had set up a spot. The upper deck was about 50 feet by 100 feet, had a metal floor, and no other features except a wooden bench running along the open railing. One hammock would stretch half the width of the boat, and about 20 covered the length, resulting in 40 colorful hammocks swinging side by side in two long rows. For three days and two nights, this was our home. Despite the promised 4pm departure, we remained tightly docked until 11pm that night--just another glimpse of the "mañana, mañana" time orientation of South America. In the meantime, we had a good chance to examine our fellow travelers. The upper level, where we were stationed, was occupied almost entirely by Peruvians, leaving only two others who appeared to be tourists. The middle level was set up in the same fashion, although it lacked the luxury of the open sides that were found on the upper deck. Thus, the passengers who were unable or unwilling to pay the slightly higher price for the upper deck were stuck in the hot, overcrowded middle level, with the only fresh air coming through cracked windows. No human passengers stayed on the lower level, which was tightly packed with cattle and some additional cargo.
The ship finally departed, and sailing was smooth through the first night. Morning brought a magnificent sunrise and sufficient light for viewing our new surroundings. Although we were traveling only on a tributary of the Amazon, at times the river was so wide that we seemed to be floating on a large lake, with the sides visible far in the distance. We soon realized that there were two primary activities on this boat: lounging and dangling. Lounging consisted of staying in your hammock, and perhaps talking, reading, and mostly napping through the warm days. Dangling was conducted on the bench on the side of the boat, dangling one's feet over the edge and checking out the scenery, including jumping river dolphins and birds of every size and color.
Along with the passengers relaxing on the upper deck were about 15 chickens in a small cage. While I had naïvely assumed that these birds were simply additional cargo, I learned otherwise before lunchtime, when the cook came up and grabbed several squawking chickens by the necks and took them down to the kitchen to prepare the meal. Lacking refrigeration, all meat had to be kept alive until mealtime, a fact that made me pause before diving into my portion of chicken and rice, but did not begin to affect the other passengers.
Another eye-opening moment came on the second night, when the sky filled with clouds that brought a storm unlike any I had experienced before. Despite the crew's efforts to close the sides of the boat with plastic tarp, wind and rain rushed through the upper level. Buckets, plates, and all imaginable materials were used to scoop water back over the side. The ship stopped under the shelter of tall trees along the bank to ride out the storm, which was apparently commonplace during that season. When the clouds had shed their final drops, we were back to smooth sailing.
When the ship arrived in Iquitos, we took down our hammocks and prepared to get back onto dry land. In Iquitos, we set up an expedition to travel on the Amazon and spend the night in a hut in the rainforest, which was an amazing experience. Some of my best memories, though, are from our boat journey. Although such a trip will be found in few tourist guidebooks, the boat proved to be much more interesting than the fast, comfortable airplane we took to return to Lima - just another indication that budget travelers have all the fun!