Cargo boat to Iquitos

23 Dec

We couldn’t imagine a more romantic notion than swinging in hammocks as we travelled by cargo boat along the mythical Amazon river in Peru for three days, from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. We dreamed of glorious sunsets and steamy evenings drinking dark rum whilst watching a lightning storm flickering far in the distance. We hoped for pristine, unspoiled rainforest and close encounters with monkeys, pink river dolphins and manatees. We wondered if indigenous tribes wearing loin cloths and with bones through their noses would wave as we passed from a sandy riverside spot. Despite our optimism, we knew that this trip wouldn’t be for the faint hearted and would test our patience to the very limits. Known for their very basic conditions, frequent lengthy delays and notoriously grumpy captains, cargo boats are not a luxury form of travel but they do represent one of the world’s last great leaders in river transport and offer those with adventurous spirits no end of rewards. We took the plunge and held our breath for the boat ride of our lives!

Day 1

We travelled from Chachapoyas to Yurimaguas on a bus which descended from Andean mountains to flat, steamy jungle. The journey offered no end of beautiful vistas but after driving for close to 10 hours on roads that wound one way and then the other, we were completely shattered. We’d been told by several people that boats depart every day at 12.00pm so we arrived in Yurimaguas at 10.00am, made a quick stop at the central market for vital supplies and headed to the port.

When you know you’re going to be out of contact with civilisation for a few days we find that a siege mentality takes over and bulk buying in quick succession is the only way to quell our fears. We couldn’t help feeling slightly embarrassed when we handed over our basket containing, amongst other things – 8 packets of biscuits, a family size bag of fizzy sweets, 12 cans of beer and a large bottle of dark rum with coke and limes. It all looked like more than two individuals who believed in the motto ‘everything in moderation’ would need but we knew the dirty truth was that it would all be gone within days!

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When we arrived we were accosted by eager tour guides, taxi drivers and boat crew who pulled at our luggage to get us on board their boats. The port was a crazy place and we were over come with the sights, sounds and smells in this hub of activity. One particularly persistent guy marched off with Dan’s bag so we hurriedly followed. As it the hard nature of cargo shipping, this guy was gruff, abrupt and very temperamental. We rented our hammocks from him but he took umbrage at our attempts to barter for a better price, calling us bad people and taking down the hammocks he’d just strung up and throwing them to the ground. We wanted to shout “ooooh!” but thought it might not go down too well. A few minutes later he was back with us again agreeing a price. We’d no sooner paid for our beds for the evening when our stroppy sailor friend wanted a tip for carrying Dan’s bag. We handed over some small change, making the point that we hadn’t actually asked for his help but rather he’d simply run away with our bag, but we deduced that he wasn’t happy with the amount as he walked away scowling and making a cut throat motion with his hands! A good start!

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Our next devastating discovery was that the boat may not depart until the following morning. We were in the hands of fate and luck so we tested out the hammocks and pulled open a good book. We discovered later that the boat would indeed leave at 8.30am the following morning so we had roughly 18 hours to kill before departure but that night on the boat would be for free.

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We explored our surroundings – two decks for hammocks and a few tiny two berth cabins, open at both sides with fabulous river views. There were basic bathroom facilities with metal toilets but no seats, which resembled the kind you may find in prison and in the same cubicles a metal pipe spurted cold water to shower under. There was an area on the first level, where three basic meals would be served and, praise the almighty, a small bar, which we guessed we’d be frequenting regularly. On each of the two levels around 20 hammocks were already strung up width ways in a haphazard fashion and it was due to get much busier before departure. The floors were made of metal and had rusted and been re-welded and repaired more than a hundred times.

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In places, we felt the floor bend as we stood on it and then pop back into place with a deep clunk. The lower levels of the boat were used for cargo and scores of men worked like trojans carrying all manner of good from lorries parked out front on to the boat. Three new motor bikes, furniture, hundreds of bags of cement and rice, giant water melons bigger than our heads, scrap metal, sacks of potatoes…you name it, it was being loaded on.

Unfortunately, the foremen on board making sure that everything ran smoothly, clearly had no awareness or desire to protect the environment as he threw plastic bottles, buckets of waste materials and even a large, blue tarpaulin overboard and into the river. Nevertheless, it looked like the river still teamed with wildlife as we saw giant catfish eating near the surface, tiny silver backs splashing in shoals next to the boat and unusual looking birds diving into the murky depths for dinner…but we feared it wouldn’t stay this way for long.

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Being terribly British, we made sure we had a decent supply of tea to brew on our stove and biscuits to dunk and in our times of need it was amazing how comforting they were! Our daily hot meals would not commence until the boat departed but we’d brought bread, cheese, avocado and tomato for lunch and we had instant noodles to cook on our trusty stove that evening.

The day passed reasonably quickly as we spent the time reading, writing, generally enjoying the goings on aboard the boat, drinking, eating and getting to know a young French couple who were our hammock neighbours and who, along with us, made up only half a dozen Westerners on board. A fresh wind and a down pour early on in the evening offered some respite from the baking hot, humid day we’d experienced.

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We settled down in our hammocks with thin sarongs covering us. Apart from some muffled chatter, some Peruvian music coming from a phone a few metres away and the hum of the generator, the top deck was peaceful and sleep came quickly.

Day 2

We woke feeling strangely refreshed. I’d stirred a couple of times during the night to find my toes, which had worked their way up the side of the hammock, had gone to sleep, but with some quick readjustment I quickly drifted off again.

The morning was overcast and for once we were actually pleased that the sun wasn’t around to bake us. The boat finally got underway at 10.20am, a full 22 hours after we had boarded. Dan and I smiled with relief to finally be on our way.

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The boat initially moved from side to side on the river to avoid large sandbanks. We passed small, tranquil settlements with houses built entirely from wood and some with thatched roofs. The abundance of fishermen casting their nets on the river informed us of what makes up a staple part of the diet here.

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The boat was now completely full with passengers and hammocks swung three rows deep – we agreed that earplugs and a heavy dose of our recently purchased rum may be needed to help us sleep that evening.

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A small motorised boat sped along next to ours with the driver shouting for assistance. It was carrying two passengers who had managed to miss the departure. They performed an impressive boat-to-boat transfer of luggage and people with such skill the stunt world would have been very proud. People already on the boat crowded on the upper deck to watch and thought the whole incident was very entertaining.

Lunch, which was served between 11.30am and 12.30pm and identified by the long ringing of a bell, was a revelation. We expected the type of slop that may be served up in jail but instead two young lads worked their creative magic in a small but perfectly formed kitchen stirring giant pots, adding salt, some spices, and trying not to sweat too much in the process. Plates and cutlery were not provided so most passengers had brought plastic Tupperware, a fork and a spoon from a wily old lady with a stall in the port who may well be on the way to millionaire status looking at her cue of customers. Dan and I used the two pots we carry around with us for camping and looked like complete pigs when we presented them to the kitchen to be filled. We were given rice, chicken, plantain (which looks like banana but has the consistency and taste of potato) and a gravy spiced with black pepper and cinnamon and bulked up with chunks of vegetable. It was delicious.

The sun had made an appearance during lunch and we started to sweat uncomfortably. It was well over 30 degrees and extremely humid. With full bellies we retreated to our hammocks and tried to keep our eyes open as we waited the world drift by.

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Not long after lunch the boat hit a sandbank and nearly became wedged. The summer months of August and September are when the river is at its lowest after a long, dry spell and before the rains come again in October and November. With a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we were free once again but the captain decided he wasn’t going to take any chances so reversed the boat for around a kilometre and put the old rust bucket into full throttle. The boat swayed as we felt its hull scraping through the sand but we’d picked up enough momentum to nudge us over and we heard a cheer go out from the crew on the bridge.

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The afternoon drifted by slowly with a smothering heat that drained our energy. We felt a little restless and we took it in turns to wander the boat whilst the other watched the bags. In the surrounding jungle, palm trees full with golden coconuts poked their heads out of the trees and green bananas sat piled on the shore ready to be transported up steam for sale.

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The heat hung around our bodies like an irritating fly we couldn’t swat away. Our clothes stuck to us and our hair felt damp around the top of our necks. Several dreamy hours drifted by, and then, out of nowhere, a fresh wind arrived, whistling through the open decks from the bow of the boat. The sky had turned grey and in the distance it was black. We felt like we were out at sea heading into the direct path of a cyclone. One of the crew started pulling down the plastic tarpaulins along the length of the two passenger decks. “Baton down the hatches!” The wind grew so strong at one point, five wooden crates were swept off the stern of the boat to distressed shouts from staff. We thought that a local fisherman would find that a splendid catch but two of the crew promptly jumped into a small motor boat and chased after the goods.

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The plastic tarpaulins were being frantically flung back and forth in the wind and the first big spots of rain fell on the deck – slowly and steadily at first and then with more power and determination until everyone was driven undercover. The boat was deluged with rain falling in waterfalls from the roof and water collecting in giant puddles. The normally calm river now had small white tips and the surface was distorted with ripples. Like a movie, all of a sudden, a number of birds sped past the boat looking for safety from the ensuing storm and probably thinking what a crazy bunch we were to be heading straight for it. The rain continued for several hours as the boat chugged on unphased by it all. We became slightly concerned that we may have to don our life jackets and abandon ship when a loud alarm sounded but our fears were soon put to rest when we realised it was simply dinner time.

Another pot full of rice, another plantain, a boiled potato and beef with more gravy graced our table and we knew we’d over dosed on carbs we the top button of our trousers needed to be loosened. We leaned over the back of the boat after dinner stretching our legs before bedtime. We’d poured ourselves a rather large cup of rum and added coke and a large squeeze of lime in each. We stared out into black nothingness. There were no stars and no moon to brighten up the night sky – just a thick blanket of cloud above us. The water looked dark and uninviting and we could no long make out the river bank. Still, there was something enjoyable about cruising through the calm, darkness and savouring the sweet taste of our homemade cocktail. Every now and again we heard a distant rumble of thunder as the storm slowly moved away to terrorise someone else.

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As we curled up in our hammocks a young guy played a few notes on his acoustic guitar. Where a couple of lights were still shining on board, huge bugs and moths danced in circles blindly captivated by the brightness. Our favourite bug was an unbalanced shiny black beetle the size of a bottle top which flew into things and tended to land upside down on its back, unable to right itself. At one point we looked at the deck and five of these beetles all had their legs in the air. Being soft touches with most animal life, as soon as we saw these poor fellows struggling we’d do our best to get them going again – it some times took us several attempts and at times it looked like the beetles were break dancing but we got there in the end. We slowly drifted from consciousness to sleep. Our night wasn’t as peaceful as the previous – with an impromptu ticket inspection at 10.30pm (did we have a stowaway?), more passengers boarding at Lugunas at 12.40am and noisily stringing their hammocks up right opposite ours and the kitchen staff banging and crashing pots and pans as they started to prepare breakfast at 5.30am.

Day 3

I awoke in not the best of moods feeling tired and irritable. I walked to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face to wash the sleep out of my eyes. The boat had stopped at a beautiful jungle village and my spirits lifted as I went to fetch the camera. A boat piled high with bananas and plantains was striking a deal with ours and transferring them in their masses. In the village the first signs of morning activity had started – people washed themselves in the river, clothes were being hung out to dry and animals milled around.

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The village was in two parts, built either side of a fresh water river which flowed into the Rio Maranon we sailed on. Where the confluence met we could see the different colours of the water which never seemed to mix. Much to my delight, and to remove any lingering early morning grumpiness, there were two river dolphins swimming near the shore line – their fins cutting through the smooth water, their blow holes surfacing for air. As our boat pulled away one of the dolphins followed for a little while in the bubbling white water the propellers kicked up and then returned to the cleaner waters. The breakfast bell sounded at 6.45am and we partook in white rolls with salami but not the unidentifiable, creamy soup that was also on offer!

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The small motorised boat which had sped off to collect the over board crates the day before, occasionally ferried passengers to the shore where they lived in tiny isolated communities where there were no road connections and the river was their life line. We sank into our hammocks once again and carried on reading our books. This was probably the longest period of downtime we’d had on our trip and it felt wonderfully indulgent to lay around admiring the passing scenery and enjoying a thought-provoking thriller.

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A little later we stopped at a larger village for 20 minutes. The locals had all lined up along the shore and some took photographs of the boat as we took photographs of them. Many of the villagers had food and drink to sell and they pushed and scrambled to board the boat so they could be the first to offer their wares. There were fizzy drinks and bottled water in abundance to buy but also some local delicacies such as dried fish with a spicy relish and a squeeze of lime, mashed banana with bacon (cacho), spicy fried sausage (calabresa) and baked plantains. The locals carried their good on their heads and shouted over and over the name of what they were selling. Serving plates ingeniously came in the form of banana leaves. Several purchases were made and sellers and passengers went happily on their way.

We’re not usually big spirit drinkers but we’d enjoyed our early evening tipple so much the night before, that we couldn’t resist pouring ourselves a small glass of rum at 1.45pm. We can now empathise with all of those sailors on log sea voyages who drank the stuff by the barrel full!!

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It was a much cooler day and the tarpaulins went up and down several time as people felt cold and hot again. The crew members worked hard keeping the boat in good condition sweeping the floors, scrubbing the toilets and changing the bins. For a small boat we make a lot of mess. Later in the day we stopped at another village where a clear, fresh water tributary fed into the Rio Maranon and we saw three more pink dolphins. They had extra-large noses and smooth, pale pink skin. As they surfaced great gasps of air was sucked in through their blow holes. They appeared on one side of the boat and then the other. Intelligently and inquisitively watching us. Locals who passed the dolphins on small boats didn’t bat an eye lid and we imagined that for them these enchanting creatures were as common as the dogs roaming the beach.

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Some of the crew had a few hours down time before dinner and a lively game of poker ensued on an upturned crate. The stakes seemed to be just a few coins but we thought they may really be gambling on who had toilet cleaning duty for the next week.

Dinner consisted of rice, a chunk of meat, white beans and gravy. By this point the lack of variety was wearing thin but we still ate a good portion. We laid back in our hammocks, which now seemed to be moulded to fit our bodies, and shared a beer. Both of us were on the final few chapters of our books and we were quick to settle down and get into them. Then, out of no-where a lady at the other end of our deck let out a deafening cry and silenced the boat. It transpired that a rather large bug had found its way into her hammock and she wasn’t too keen to spend the night with it. Everyone chuckled, including said lady, when she realised what a commotion she’d caused.

I was just drifting off into a peaceful sleep when I was shaken awake in the darkness by Dan – ‘Oh God, it must be something serious’ I though. Instead, Dan calmly pointed to the end of his hammock, eyebrows raised and eyes wide. We saw the flash of a torch, a Maglite perhaps…and then another, bright enough to dazzle. But it wasn’t a torch, it was a large insect switching himself on and off. Neither of us had experienced anything like this before. It was like a close encounter of the third kind. We watched the critter walk from where the hammock was tied to the roof to the point the fabric started and when it got too close for comfort Dan gently shook it off and it flew away. Even after all of the excitement, we were still asleep by 10.00pm in a deep and dream filled night – I dreamed of sloths clinging to trees and Indians in ceremonial dress dancing around a fire pit – the Amazon was starting to take hold of my imagination!

Day 4

We were woken with a start by a crew member shouting thirty minutes to the port of Nauta. We had previously learnt from fellow travellers that Nauta was linked to Iquitos by road and it was a one hour bus ride for just a few coins to reach the city. We’d arrived at this point sooner than anticipated and we weighed up what we should do.

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After much deliberation we concluded that our aim was to travel by boat to Iquitos…so we resisted the urge to get off and decided to see our journey through to the end. We were told we should arrive in Iquitos by around 4.00pm, some 10 hours later, so we decided to enjoy the day ahead taking in the scenery, reading, writing, drinking our remaining alcohol and savouring a last lunch cooked on board. Nauta was by far the biggest settlement we’d seen for two days. Trucks and moto-taxis (similar to tuk-tuk’s in Thailand) sped around the harbour-side. A small market where goods were sold from crates and blankets on the ground, was filled with bananas, water melons and fresh fish.

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The houses here looked more substantial than those further upstream and a multitude of supplies were readily available, but somehow, even with more modern comforts, life seemed less idyllic. Rubbish lined the shore and flotsam bobbed on the water’s surface. Bony looking dogs roamed freely looking for their next meal and neon lights flashed advertising the local bar. We weren’t completely convinced that the price of progress would equal a happier life. We spent an hour at the dock unloading various goods and letting off nearly three-quarters of the passengers.

Dan decided to brave the showers in the morning, which he said weren’t the worst he’d experienced, but despite the fabulous fresh smell he brought back with him, I wasn’t convinced enough to stand under the water which was tinged brown and took some wet wipes to the bathroom instead.

The weather was pretty dismal all morning and it switched between a fine, misty drizzle to absolute downpours. The river was becoming wider and at points it was difficult to full make out the landscape around us – the colours certainly looked monochrome.

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There was a buzz of excitement on board as we reached a point when the river we were travelling on (the Maranon) met another river (the Ucayali) and became one – the very starting point of the mighty Amazon river. There were no markers or banners announcing the fact and no visible changes in scenery, apart from the increased width and volume of the river, but the look on everyone’s faces on board expressed what a good feeling it was to now be cruising on the fabled Amazon itself.

As we drew closer to Iquitos, the signs of tourism, which is obviously a big part of the city’s economy, increased – we passed smart-looking jungle eco-lodges and paddle-boat steamers which probably offered dinner and jazz on the river.

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The weather brightened up at around 10.30am and we opened a beer to drink at the front of the boat watching the endless river and rainforest pass by. One beer turned into four and we felt nicely merry, even before we’d hit 12.00pm.

The distance between small settlements became shorter the closer we got to Iquitos. These people enjoyed a rural way of life but were close enough to the big city to be able to pick up anything they needed in the space of a day. We noticed that the river had become busier all of a sudden too, with long boats taxi-ing passengers around, slightly more commercial looking fishing enterprises, and we even saw a dug out canoe. We passed closely to the shore at times which enabled us to spot more wildlife. Giant butterflies fluttered on the breeze and a cunning bird flew back and forth hovering just above the river’s surface with the bottom part of his beak constantly scooping in the water. Several of the houses in different villages had a large painted rooster on them which we later found out was a symbol of the area.

Our final lunch of…you’ve guesssed it…chicken, rice and gravy was pretty good but we now craved a fresh salad, some spicy Mexican enchiladas and perhaps a side of chips.

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At about 3.00pm our first sighting of Iquitos was made. It looked like a huge metropolis carved into the jungle.

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Huge cargo boats carrying all manner of supplies like ours lined the shores and the smoke of industry hung above the city like a halo.

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The outer limits of the city were a jumble of rubbish dumps, rubber processing plants and dockyards and we hoped that the inner city would be more beautiful.

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Docking our boat in port took the best part of an hour due to a very disorderly parking system. Our boat pulled up close to another which was reversing and our captain refused to move. The reversing boat continued and we expected it to stop and readjust its position until it was nearly touching us and the…crash…like dodgems at the fairground.

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They bumped and ground and danced their way into the positions they wanted to be. Our captain then proceeded to try to squeeze our boat into a spot which was way too small – not seeming to realise that a round peg wouldn’t fit into a square hole.

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This was Peruvian driving at it’s best as the captain reversed for the sole purpose of having a good run up and then rammed the two boats either side full throttle. A lot of shouting and barging later, we’d managed to create just enough room to reach the shore and the engines were cut. Immediately the boat’s crew jumped into life and started lowering planks for secure walkways and unloading the precious cargo – because after all, time is money.

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We stepped onto dry land into a sea of chaos and slightly unsavoury characters. By the end of our journey we’d felt desperate to arrive in Iquitos but now we weren’t sure we wanted to leave the safety of the boat. Life on board had been simple and the toughest decision we’d had to make was if we’d like a chunk of lime in our rum and coke but now it was back to planning our own itinerary, finding a taxi for a good price and then deciding where exactly to lay our heads that evening.

3 Responses to “Cargo boat to Iquitos”

  1. The Wandering Nomads June 21, 2015 at 9:05 pm #

    Hello! This was a wonderful write up, I really enjoyed all the details. My boyfriend and I hope to complete this same trip, though in Yurimaguas we would love to buy our own dig out canoe and padel it down ourselves. After seeing the river yourselves, do you think this would be possible?

    • latinchattin June 24, 2015 at 1:01 am #

      Thanks for your positive comments Wandering Nomads. It was a fantastic trip down river from Yurimaguas and I’d highly recommend it. I imagine it would be possible to buy a dug out canoe and padel down the river yourselves but you’d need to be very well prepared and self sufficient. Large sections of river are uninhabited with nowhere to buy supplies so you’d need to be well stocked with food and water and also think about where you might sleep as often the jungle is thick and you may encounter wild animals on the river banks. I imagine it would take several weeks to cover that section by arm power alone. Having said all of that, what an adventure it would be, and I’d love to hear all about it if you decide to give it a go. Best of luck and happy travels!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Rio Amazonas by Cargo Boat | latin chattin' - March 28, 2015

    […]  Six months earlier we’d had our first taste of river travel down the Peruvian Amazon from Yurimaguas to Iquitos so we were under no romantic illusions about spending 72 hours on another packed boat departing from […]

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