Something was missing from my trip to South America. I had traveled from Caracas, Venezuela to Chile, where the Pan-American Highway ends. Now I was more than halfway back up again… Yet another Yo-Yo trip.
Relaxing on the roof terrace-come-menagerie that was the hotel without a name, just two blocks off the Plaza De Arms in Lima, Peru. Something was missing from my trip to South America. I had traveled from Caracas, Venezuela to Chiloe, where the Pan-American Highway ends in Chile. Now I was more than halfway back up again. Another Yo-Yo trip. Picking up bits and pieces I had left in various hotels on the way down to make my ruc sac lighter.
“Can I put this jacket in the store room? I’ll be back in a couple of months.”
Only one thing had gone missing so far. A blue fleece North Face jacket, gone to a worthy cause no doubt.
Then it came to me: a jungle trip. The Amazon River, that artery of life. You can see it from space, so I’m told. Only a few hundred kilometers away, I gots to see it. Must have been thinking out loud, as I’d already picked up a traveling companion. An Australian called Richard. Done his time on the building sites around London, hence his Aussie twang was punctuated with geezer this, geezer that. I blagged this, I blagged that. Very comical, we would get along just fine.
So we found ourselves boarding a very empty $50 internal flight for the short hop over the Cordillera Central peaks and into the sweatbox jungle that was Iquitos. This is Peru’s most easterly city and is actually on the Amazon. You can get a boat from here through Brazil to the Atlantic. We however wanted to go back the way we had just come, upstream, the Yo-Yo trip again. According to my map the Amazon splits up and another river, the Maranon goes a fair way back to the coast. Had our name all over it. We found our way to the port and figured out that boats go to a town called Yurimaguas. From there it was possible to get a bus back to the sanctuary of tarmac, the Pan-American and coastal heaven.
We split up and approached each of the seven or eight boats in turn, to find out where and when they were going.
“I’ve found a captain who may be of some use to us.”
“I’ve secured passage on this fine vessel.”
Two boats were going to Yurimaguas, but only one was leaving today, with a 5pm designated departure. The decision made, we left to buy hammocks – essential for Amazon travel.
Upon our return, nice and early for check-in and a good hour before departure, we ventured into the vessel. It was perhaps 20 or 30 meters long, with corrugated iron sheets up the side and some sort of basic roof, very badly painted. Make no mistake about it, it was the worst boat there. Trying to act like veteran boat commuters, we were the only foreigners and attracting quite some attention, we swung our hammocks in front of an opening on one side. Thinking of watching the world slowly go by. Ahhhhhhhhhh! With our territory staked out and nothing doing we returned to the bustle of the port.
The boat didn’t depart on time – not even close – and when we returned to our hammocks, the world and its wife was there, an intricate weave crisscrossing every which way.
“The geezers ‘ave blagged our space!” With pointy elbows we reclaimed our hammocks and gazed out over the muddy brown Amazon. It’s unbelievably wide. Even this far up, you can barely see the banks
In geological terms this part of the world is known as a rainforest. The thought had flickered briefly through my head why no one else wanted what was to all intensive purposes a window seat.
“They live here, seen it all before.” Would I want a window seat on the commuter train into London? The answer was a lot more obvious – there was no glass! So when it rains, as it did all night, you get very wet. To the amusement of our fellow passengers, we spent most of the night holding our hammocks out of the driving rain. The boat was so over-crowded, finding another space would have been impossible.
We had signed up for three nights, four days. It was one of those all-inclusive deals, just like the honeymoon breaks around the Caribbean. No need for money whilst on board; we queued up for breakfast, but the sweet coffee was all both of us could manage – we would be dieting on this trip. The very back of the boat was the kitchen, an open gas fire with a huge pot of broth boiling on it. Next to that was the toilet-come-shower. Through a hole in the floor, dinner went straight to the piranhas. A big drum full of muddy brown Amazon water provided washing-up and bucket showers. I spotted two turtles crawling around the cook, saw them again at lunchtime, at least bits of them. They were half-covered with rice.
We were scrutinized constantly, had them laughing a few times. Richard in brash Aussie bravado jumped into his hammock. The thing collapsed onto the sacks of foul-smelling fish we had been painstakingly avoiding. Once they conjured up hot chocolate for breakfast, we were straight back for seconds. Normally neither of us even moved when food was announced, being the first off the boat each time it made a stop. We always came back smiling, with a packet of out-of-date plain crackers and a beer or two.
We were already somewhere close to breaking point. Just wanted to get off and wait for something else, a boat going either way. Thick black diesel smoke choked us into life the next morning. The whole boat was full of it, and in panic everyone climbed onto the roof. Another boat was alongside. Its exhaust was gassing us as it eased us towards the bank. During the night we had been drifting without an engine until this lot had rescued us, or nearly killed us, depending on how you looked at it.
We waved goodbye to the maritime AA whilst the captain fended off questions. We were at a village, some halfway to Yurimaguas. Our boat, the captain said, was going to drift back to Iquitos for repairs. Two days maybe. We were welcome to join him – another Yo-Yo ride – or disembark and take our chances. The camp was split; half the passengers stayed, half got off. We got off.
The village was small; we walked around it in five minutes. It had one shop, and we each bought gaseosos, that you had to drink on the spot as they wouldn’t let you leave with the bottle – where was I going to go? Plus we found our old favorite, and the cornerstone of any nutritional meal: out-of-date plain crackers.
The passengers, some 10 or 15 of us, had set up camp in the football field grand stand, a covered bench area with a good view of the river. We all swung hammocks and made ourselves comfortable for the wait. No timetables in this place.
One enterprising household had spotted us all wondering around. A rough deal was struck to eat there, all of us. Unfortunately it never transpired, as another boat appeared, and one by one they watched us, along with our dinner money, leave. The whole interlude lasted four hours. I almost wanted to stay; I felt rude, like making a reservation and not showing.
This boat was pure luxury in comparison, like one of those deep-South Mississippi steamers, only without the big wheel at the back. You could actually walk about; it had two decks and a separate dining area, quality. It was one of the other boats we had seen in Iquitos. If only we had waited.
Mindful of the window seats, we swung our hammocks and awaited the delights of dinner.