I don’t know what it was which made me stir; the gentle drumming of rain on the tarps which hung rigidly on either side of the deck, keeping it dry, or the distant, muffled cries of the creatures lurking in the dark forest on the far banks of the river, or the gruff, hushed laughter of the boat’s captain which occasionally echoed in the silent night.
Or perhaps it was just my bladder begging to be emptied.
I stepped gingerly off the hammock, careful not to wake the girls who were blissfully wrapped in their sleeping bags in their hammocks. Who would have thought; it actually got pretty cold at night on the Amazon river (or Huallaga river to use the correct name). The bathroom were located at the stern of the ship. After using them, I stood there leaning against the railings for a few minutes. A yellow moon floated like an enormous balloon in the sky, its reflection laying deflated and wavering on the waters we left in our wake. There were no lights, no humans, and for a fleeting moment, the world appeared as it must have been before we came; untouched, unexplored, and ever-lasting.
I was on the Eduardo VI boat, travelling from Yurimaguas to Iquitos in northern Peru, accompanied by three recently graduated American girls; Hannah, Julia and Mikayla. I met them in Tarapoto, a small town 2 hours drive from Yurimaguas, and we decided to do the boat journet together. Located on the banks of the mighty Amazon, and surrounded by an impenetrable wall of rainforest, Iquitos is the largest continental city on the planet without a road connecting it to the outside world.
Insider Tips: Iquitos is accessible via only two methods; flying or catching a river boat. The boats leave from either Yurimaguas (2.5 days, Cost 100 Peruvian soles) or Pucallpa (4-5 days, 100 soles). The boat from Yurimaguas leaves on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 12 p.m. Arrive early. Tickets can be purchased on the ship. Hammocks can be rented for 20 soles and you are allowed to pitch your hammock and stay aboard the vessel if you arrive one day earlier at no extra cost.
Travellers tend to stereotype each other; heavy drinking Brits, the Israelis travelling in packs, the out-doorsy Scandinavians. And the loud, somewhat ignorant Americans. But during those few days, as we lazed in our hammocks and watched the rainforest, dotted with small villages parade past us, my travel companions changed my perceptions about Americans. Most of the locals resided on the lower deck of our vessel, which meant we had the upper deck to ourselves. Still, the girls made an effort to converse with the locals – two of them had lived in Latin American countries and thus were proficient in Spanish – They were passionate about women’s rights in developing countries, and well aware of global issues. I found it fascinating that I should have some of my most intriguing conversations during one of the most isolated legs of my trip.
Insider Tips: The boat ticket includes three meals a day, consisting mostly of rice, stews, oat-meal broth and bread are included on your ticket.
Items to bring;
- Drinking water (7 litres was enough for me)
- Utensils, Tupperware for meals
- Snacks, fresh fruits
- Books, playing cards for entertainment
- Warm clothing
Iquitos was not quite the quaint riverside community I had envisioned, but rather a jumble of concrete slabs and frantic activity. It felt ragged and dirty and lonesome, its only saving grace the river-front promenade, where old colonial-style buildings of white marble stood perishing slowly under the tropical sun and rain. The into the Amazon we went, looking for a reprieve.
“There are many communities scattered along the river banks.” said Juan Carlos, our local guide, pointing at yet another clutter of thatch-roofed huts appearing on the river bank as our old wooden boat motored on towards a stretch of the forest where intended to do a jungle walk. His skin had a deep tan, and he wore a golden tooth which flashed brilliantly every time he laughed at one of his own or our jokes. After working for a few years as a logger deep in the rainforest, he had given it up to become a guide, hoping to show the wonders of his hidden kingdom to foreign visitors.
“Many people from the communities come to this forest, catching and killing the animals. That’s why there are no animals left here.” He explained solemnly, as we followed him in a single file across the damp, mosquito-riddled jungle that day. There was a tinge of regret and shame in his voice, as if embarrassed that he couldn’t spot any wildlife during our 2-hours walk that day.
We left our jungle lodge after 4 days, having never felt like I was in the real Amazons. Perhaps I had not gone far enough. Or perhaps, the Amazon had left because we were there. Tourism, whether we admit it or not, comes at a high price. Iquitos grows as more and more money is injected into its economy, and the forests recede consequently as more people are drawn to the area.
My lack of Spanish language skills sadly robbed me of the opportunity to ask the locals what they really thought of their rainforest. But that trace of regret in Juan Carlos’ voice made me believe that the locals were well aware of their dilemma; development came at a high price to their surroundings.
On the last day of our tour, Juan Carlos offered to introduce us to his own family. We rode the old wooden boat half an hour upriver, and spent a few hours playing vollyball and football with the kids there.
“There are many communities living in the forest now…” I remembered him saying. His own family lived in a small community in that very same jungle.
Insider Tips: Help conserve the local wildlife. Stay at the Green Track hostel in Iquitos. One of the major threats to the local wildlife is the capture and imprisonment of animals. These animals are then transferred to the so-called animal parks where they are displayed for the benefit of the tourists. Green Track Hostel works closely with organisations and reserves which are against such practices. Please, make a commitment to see animals in their natural habitat, rather than have your photo taken with imprisoned wildlife -as cute as it may be.-