The following is a description of our boat ride from the beginning of the Amazon River headwaters, into the main stem proper and on to the jungle city of Iquitos.
The logistics of potentially difficult travel were easy. Left our Moyobamba hotel after breakfast, walked two blocks with our luggage, and decided between three taxi drivers that were eager to put our luggage in their trunks. Drove at break-neck speed for two hours from Moyobamba to Tarapoto. In about the time it took to go to the bano, we were on our way for the two hour ride to Yurimaguas. The driver mostly kept the car on the road and took us over the last mountain pass separating the Andes from the Amazon jungle. At the port town, we were greeted by a moto-taxi driver who drove us to the dock.
Our hope was that we could find a berth on a cargo ship leaving the following day, Monday. It was three o’clock. Our understanding was that boats left about noon and none left on Sunday. Nonetheless we were greeted by several shipmates that showed me the boat while Dawn guarded the luggage. The accommodations were adequate. Consistent with our norm, we booked a cabin with a private bath, making us the only first-class passengers. Dawn went with one of the mates to get provisions in town while I rented two hammocks and bought bread and large, jugs of water.
I spoke with the Captain. He had 16 years of experience as captain. He said the recent rains had lifted the water levels enough that mud and sand bars were no longer an issue (as they were just the week before). He said about six years earlier, pirates boarded the boat and robbed all the tourists. The boat was about 160 feet long. The lower deck held the cargo. The second deck had passengers that did not have food as part of their passage. The upper deck passengers also slept in hammocks hung from the ceiling, but did receive meals. We were in one of about a dozen small cabins in the front near the captain’s quarters. We had a hammock on the upper deck to enjoy the breezes in the day and bunk beds in our cabin to sleep at night.
Within two hours, we set sail. The cabin was hot so we relaxed in our hammocks watching the shore pass by and waited for dinner. As first-class passengers, we were served our meals with plates and silverware while the other passengers lined up with their Tupperware containers.
Day 2–The River
I am lying in a hammock in the shade of the upper deck enjoying a gentle breeze from the downstream progress of the boat. This humid area carries the not unpleasant scent of rotting jungle vegetation. The water, a burnt-orange muddy brown, swirls with branches, trees, foam and plastic.
As we move down the river, local villagers flag us down by waving white T-shirts. Usually two sailors get in the skiff, fire up the outboard and go to the settlement and pick up bananas or a passenger. Sometimes long, dug-out canoes chase after the boat to deliver mounds of bananas. At larger towns, our boat slowly approaches land and the helmsman pushes the bow into the soft, muddy bank. While men quickly load and unload cargo, a procession of women parade around the boat selling fruit, fried fish and coconut sweets. At last, the captain yells, Abajaron mujeres, and applies reverse throttle while the locals scramble off the boat.
The river bank goes by, the sun shifts and we go on the other side of the boat, time passes, kilometers are ticked off, the boat goes on one side of the river and then the other to avoid floating trees and sandbars, the sun gets low on the horizon, the full moon show among the fog and low-lying clouds, distant heat lightning erupts in showy bolts and streaks.
Day 3–The Amazon
I awakened to the smell of engine sounds, petroleum odors, a long grinding sound, a solid bump, searchlights, and a lot of shouting. It was still dark, maybe 5 a.m. We had arrived at Naupa, where a road had recently be completed to Iquitos. Almost all of the passengers got off the boat, many of them carrying bunches of bananas on their heads. Our boat was alongside a boat of a similar size. A steady stream of passengers and possessions moved up the steep river bank to awaiting moto-kars, vans and taxis.
Within an hour, we were on our way again with only a half-dozen of the eight passengers remaining. By land, it takes maybe two hours; by river about eight hours. The saved time was of no interest to me. I took the boat to see the beginning of the mighty Amazon, not to get to Iquitos. After a couple of hours, I saw the spit of land that marked the confluence of the Rio Maranon and
And Rio Pucate and formed the mainstem of the Rio Amazons proper.
I first saw the Rio Maranon in the Andean town of Balsas, while traveling from Cajamarca to Leyemabamba. We had been steadily moving downstream for about fifty hours. The day passed much like the day before, but it was much quieter on deck. There were fewer stops and the settlements were larger. River traffic increased. We were invited to eat lunch at the table with the crew. By early evening, we arrived at the port town of Iquitos and after the captain completed some paperwork with the harbormaster, we disembarked.