Different Parts of Everywhere

#117: Taking the Ucayali River from Iquitos to Pucallpa

PERU, 24th September – 11th October 2019

Iquitos is the largest inland city in the world that is not accessible by road. You can only get to it by plane or by boat, or by hacking your way through the jungle, I suppose, if you’re into that. We’d taken boats of course, in case you’re not keeping up, down from Coca in Ecuador, and at some point we would be continuing south to Pucallpa where we could find a road again. We’d have to do this second leg of our river journey on one of the slow cargo boats, five days of non-stop heat and noise, crammed in with scores of other passengers, many of which, if the blogposts we’d read were anything to go by, would steal our stuff the second we dozed off. It didn’t sound all that appealing, so we settled in for a long stay in Iquitos. This was also a good way to stretch out our Amazon detour into a month off the bikes in order to give Dea’s wrist the time it needed to heal. Not that we felt much like we were in the Amazon once we were in Iquitos. It was certainly a city, and yet it was also one that had almost no cars whatsoever in it. Such a fact would ordinarily have me dancing a little jig of delight, but unfortunately in Iquitos instead of cars they have mototaxis. Thousands and thousands of them, all racing around looking for passengers with their very loud motorcycle engines revving, and the city as a consequence feels rather like it has been taken over by a biker gang.

The negatives of Iquitos were offset by having a great place to stay. Our friend Ciaran, the little Irish leprechaun you may remember us cycling with back in Mexico and Central America, had put us in touch with a friend of his, a Japanese girl named Lisa. She was presently living in Iquitos, studying to be a vet, and had a room in the apartment she shared with her Argentinian boyfriend, Ricardo, that she rented out through AirBnb, which was offered to us at a nicely discounted rate. Lisa and Ricardo were good company and the apartment was a good one, with air-con in our room and an oven in the kitchen (finally vegetarian lasagne was on the menu once again!) And there was even a rooftop gym that Dea and I went up to most nights to keep ourselves in shape during our long time off the bike and enjoy the cool night air while looking down over the city.

On our first full day in Iquitos we realised that another friend of ours from our time cycling in Central America, Tyler, was also in town, and we arranged to meet up for dinner. We knew that Tyler had sold his bicycle in Cuenca, southern Ecuador, in order to continue his trip down to the Chilean capital, Santiago, by hitch-hiking (from Santiago he plans to walk the rest of the way to Ushuaia along with his girlfriend). What exactly he was doing in Iquitos, which is certainly not on the direct route to Santiago, and, with its lack of road connections, not a natural stop for hitch-hikers, we didn’t know. But it wasn’t long before we got to find out as he walked into the Chinese restaurant we’d arranged to meet at with his big bushy beard and got straight down to explaining his story, with an unusually intense stare. It involved ayahuasca, the traditional indigenous psychedelic brew that is a pretty big factor in Iquitos’s increasing popularity with backpackers looking for spiritual awakening.

Tyler explained that he’d tried ayahuasca back in Cuenca, and had had a good experience. “Then I told my mum about it,” he said, “and she said she wanted to try it too. So she flew down to meet me here, and we went on a week-long ayahuasca retreat together.” It was at this point I realised that Tyler and I have very, very different mothers. I’m not entirely sure what my mum’s reaction would be to me telling her I’d been taking psychedelic drugs in South America, but I’m 99.9999% certain it wouldn’t be that. Anyway, Tyler’s mum had flown down to Iquitos and Tyler had diverted east to get here by boat to meet her, and then off they’d gone into the rainforest for some spiritual awakening. Alas, Tyler’s mum had been a little nervous to try the ayahuasca on the first day, and had elected simply to observe first. “She was going to try it on the third day, but the sight of all the people vomiting and being messed up put her off,” Tyler explained. “She had a good time though,” he insisted. I can only commend her on her commitment to spend time with her family.

We wondered if the relentless mountains of the Ecuadorian Andes had been the reason for Tyler changing his mode of transportation, as it had been for us, but he explained that it was actually because the roads were too dangerous. He didn’t feel safe risking his life on the roads on a bicycle anymore, he explained, before going on to tell us tales of getting stuck in the back of unroadworthy cars, hitch-hiking rides with crazy drink-drivers. But it was the transportation he was taking south to Pucallpa that was of most interest to us. He told us he was leaving Iquitos at three in the morning on a rapido, a fast boat, that would have him in Pucallpa a day and a half later. We had been under the impression that there were no fast boats through this section, that we would have no choice but to take the slow boat, but Tyler had found a better way of doing it, and we were certainly very interested in that.

The following day, the 26th of September, was my 35th birthday, and I celebrated getting older with a trip to Belem market with Lisa and Dea. At first I was a little disappointed by this birthday treat, for it seemed to be just like any other market. There were a lot of vegetables, and a lot of dead yellow chickens, and a lot of people, and a greater-than-normal need to hold tightly to your belongings. But the further we went, the more interesting it got, with enormous fish, and turtle eggs, and alligator heads. There were turtles, both dead and alive, and various drugs and potions, all of them medicinal of course. Grubs were available, either alive or roasted alive, and then we stumbled upon a dolphin penis, which isn’t something I’ve ever done before. As if that wasn’t enough, the very next stall had the special lady parts of an equally unfortunate dolphin. “Love potion!” explained a man who saw us gasp at it. Well, I am getting older, I thought, maybe that could come in handy. But no, of course I could never do that, poor dolphins, and I decided I would stick to Viagra, thanks very much. If I ever need anything like that. Which I don’t, by the way. Not yet.

Tyler had given us instructions on where we could buy tickets for the rapido to Pucallpa (-3.747130, -73.244910 if you’re ever in our position) and we went there to find out more. The lady there told us that we could indeed travel to Pucallpa, but that the boat would be leaving from Nauta, a town 100 kilometres south on an isolated Amazon road, and we would first travel there by bus. Of course we didn’t want to do that, and after a little discussion it was agreed that we could cycle ourselves to Nauta. But that would involve cycling, and so we delayed our departure a few more days to make sure Dea’s wrist was rested enough. It was a good excuse for another vegetarian lasagne.

Altogether the thirteen nights we spent in Iquitos were a great way for us to practice at living a more settled life in preparation for the end of our travels next year. One thing it did make us realise though, was that as well as having a nice place to live, we would need to have access to the outdoors, to green spaces where we could play and exercise. Iquitos is a pretty unpleasant place in that regard, with just a couple of parks that are usually too hot to sit in that are surrounded by roads and as a result feel like being in the middle of a go-kart track. So we were pretty happy when it was time for us to move on and get out into the countryside again, to go for a proper bike ride for the first time in three weeks. We’d also be able to get back to camping, but as we were packing up our things I noticed that the tent felt lighter than usual. The flysheet was missing. After a bit of thought we realised we must have left it behind in Pantoja when we’d packed away in the dark before our early morning boat ride, a result of us doing half of the packing of the tent each, and each of us thinking the flysheet was somewhere else, when in fact it was, and perhaps still is, lying on the grass in Pantoja.

There was nothing much to do about that, we’d just have to find a roof to camp under this night and find a more permanent solution in Pucallpa. Getting out of Iquitos was a more pressing issue, and for the first hour or so the roads were horribly busy with mototaxis. It was thoroughly unpleasant and I found myself hating the whole thing. Luckily a short while after clearing the city limits the road finally developed a shoulder, and the further we went the more the traffic thinned out. By the end of the first day the road was pretty quiet and I was enjoying cycling again. It felt good that we’d got the chance to cycle this section, where there was a road, that the only places we’d be taking boats were on the sections where no roads connected places, where the river was the only way. It was also a flat, paved road, which helped us ease into cycling, and by the end of the day Dea was feeling really happy because her wrist was giving her no trouble at all. But where would we sleep?

There was plenty of rainforest along the road but also quite a few homes, and we chose one that had a few different roofed areas on the property to ask at. Dea did a superb job of asking, and we were shown over to a roofed area where we could set up our tent for the night. Not long after we’d got the tent up it started to rain, and the flaw in our plan became apparent. It turned out that, because of the effect of wind, rain doesn’t always fall straight down to the ground, and some of it was being blown diagonally onto our tent. I ran around quickly and made a makeshift flysheet out of bin liners (god, I love bin liners), plastic bags, and my lovely green waterproof trousers. And as you can see, I did a fine job.

Luckily it didn’t rain too much, and we were up bright and early to ride the final 40 kilometres to Nauta. This was quite a pleasant cycle, and we arrived in town before midday and found a hotel, for our boat to Pucallpa wouldn’t be leaving until the following morning. We than had a walk around town, during which the most notable thing we saw was undoubtedly a series of murals along one wall that depicted the coming of the white people to the rainforest in stark terms. It made us feel a little uncomfortable, even though we weren’t the ones to bring all the mototaxis, and most of the current population appeared to have Spanish blood in them. Actually we had attracted surprisingly little attention during our river travels, presumably because of the increasing tourism in this area that meant we were far from the only foreigners in town.

The following morning we were awake in plenty of time to get our bikes down to the river where we found our boat waiting for us. We got the bags inside, but there wasn’t going to be space for the bikes, and the captain made the decision that the best place for them would be strapped to the outside, clinging onto the roof rack. I can’t say as I was entirely happy, but he did a pretty sound job of tying a loose piece of string around them to hold them on, and as long as we could make it through the next 36 hours without bumping into anything, they’d be fine. I added our locks around them to makes sure they couldn’t disappear in the night, and we hoped for the best.

The boat ride went very well, for the first couple of hours. It was fast and breezy and the seats were comfortable, just like the boats we’d taken north of Iquitos. But then one of the three people in charge of the boat decided to put some music on, very, very loudly. Dea and I had taken seats right below one of the speakers, and as a consequence we got to enjoy it especially loudly, lucky us. I had a look around the boat and noted that about 75% of the people were at that moment trying to sleep, and no one was looking very up for a party, but the music stayed on until the afternoon. When it finally relented it was replaced by a TV, which showed a fighting movie at a similar volume. Once again I don’t think anyone actually wanted it on, but we all had to listen to two hours of disturbing noises of people punching each other and screaming in pain, and the real-life sound of children sobbing in distress. I think we were all relieved when the end credits finally rolled, and we could go back to the loud music again.

Unlike the other boats we’d taken, this one was going basically non-stop through the night, with a plan to be in Pucallpa in 36 hours. The boat did make occasional stops at little settlements to pick up and drop off passengers, but never for very long and we were never able to get off and stretch our legs. Perhaps the longest stop came in the middle of the afternoon, but it was not a planned one. The men in charge seemed a little flustered that the engine was no longer operating as we drifted over to the side of the river, and the bad smell coming from the back of the boat indicated that something had indeed gone wrong. But luckily for us this breakdown had occurred at a location where there were pink river dolphins, and so we happily watched on as they leapt up out of the river nearby. A beautiful and special sight, for sure.

Somehow the men got the boat moving again and we continued on into the night. The music was finally turned off and us passengers all did our best to sleep, while those in charge continued to navigate the river by moonlight. This wasn’t the easiest thing for them to do, for this was the dry season and the water level was low, meaning they had to be careful in how they navigated the river to avoid sand banks and areas of shallow water. That wasn’t my problem though, and I drifted off to sleep. Then suddenly I was yanked back to reality by the sound of the bottom of the boat beneath us scraping loudly on the ground, our rate of forward motion rapidly diminishing, and a chorus of startled noises from those around me as we did the boaty equivalent of an emergency stop. I quickly realised that we must have run aground as I adjusted from being asleep to being awake. The men in charge tried to free us with long wooden poles, but it was obviously not working, and after a while one of them got into the river. The water was clearly very shallow as he was easily able to walk around the boat. Others followed him into the water and they began to try to rock the boat from side to side to get it free. Rather them than me, I thought, there’s piranhas in there! But their efforts were in vain, the boat wasn’t moving. We were stuck.

More and more of the male passengers began to jump into the river to help, and it quickly dawned on me that I was actually going to have to join them. It was really the only manly thing to do. So I pulled off my shoes and socks and leapt out of the window into the piranha infested waters. Waters which came halfway up my shins. The riverbed was sandy and mushy between my toes. Some fish nibbled at my ankles. Piranhas! I thought, and kicked at them furiously, hoping I still looked manly. What was I doing here, in this river in Peru, in the middle of the rainforest, in the middle of the night, a bright moon overhead, a beached boat in front of me? It really was one of those truly memorable travel experiences, the sort we’d come here for, I suppose.

A surprisingly high percentage of the other men had their backs to the boat and were peeing into the river, in what I could only guess was a coordinated attempt to raise the water levels enough to free the boat. I certainly wasn’t going to join them, having heard about that little fish that can swim upstream and lodge itself into one’s penis. Sure, it probably couldn’t swim upstream that far, but I wasn’t taking any chances, and I waited until everyone was ready to try and free the boat in more manly ways. We all got alongside the boat and tried pushing it back and forth to wriggle it free. I assumed, after all my working out in Iquitos, that with my help we would have no trouble getting the boat moving again, but alas it really was very stuck. We were able to move the boat from side to side at the front, and at the back, but a middle section was completely beached. I walked around the stricken vessel and at a certain point the water was no more than ankle deep, the boat absolutely stuck fast. Getting it off wasn’t going to be easy.

By now all of the men were in the water, save for one, who had reacted to the crisis by putting on a lifejacket and sitting nervously in his seat, an interesting course of action considering the one thing we certainly were not about to do was sink. A fair few of the women were also in the water to help out, though Dea’s wrist gave her a legitimate excuse not to join in. It was turning into quite the team-building exercise, as we tried different things to get the boat free. Eventually it was decided that we should all push on one side at the front of the boat, which caused it to go around in a 180 degree turn, and this must have helped to dislodge some of the sand beneath the beached part. A little after that we all heaved at the sides, trying to move the boat forwards, and it finally broke free, some two hours of effort rewarded. As the boat moved forward I found the level of the water increasing rather rapidly, and jumped aboard. With everyone (hopefully) back on the boat, the engines were started, and our journey could continue. Now there was a real jovial atmosphere on board, and we were all thanked for our efforts with a cup of Inca cola (a sugary yellow Peruvian alternative to coca-cola, as fine a testament to one of histories great civilizations as you can imagine).

A couple of hours later, with everyone having drifted off to sleep again, the boat ran aground again. Nobody got up this time.

Fortunately, that second incident wasn’t as serious as the first, and the men in charge managed to free the boat by themselves. Morning came around, and the loud music soon started up again. It was sure to be a long day. We made our own entertainment, reading, writing, playing solitaire. Perhaps the most exciting thing to occur during this second day was when I spotted a large spider hiding in one of the life jackets that were wedged under poles on the roof of the boat. While I don’t think it was a tarantula it was certainly as big as one, and I thought about how ironic it would have been had the man who didn’t want to get his feet wet had chosen that particular life jacket to keep him safe the night before. Much of the afternoon was then taken up by a new activity of keeping an eye on the giant spider to make sure it didn’t run into any of our stuff. We were following our progress on our phone’s GPS, and it was obvious we were not going to be in Pucallpa before dark, that all of our delays would mean a middle-of-the-night arrival. After the dodgy area of Iquitos we’d arrived into this seemed far from ideal, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. I lost track of the spider and fell into an exhausted sleep.

I awoke as the boat pulled up in Pucallpa. It was 2:20 a.m. and after 44 hours on board (well, 42 for me) and just eight hours behind schedule we had finally made it. To my relief we were landing at an unpopulated bank, which felt much safer than Iquitos had. All of the other passengers were long gone by the time our bikes were unloaded, having apparently survived the journey unscathed. We packed up our things and cycled sleepily into town to try and find a place to lay our heads. The streets were really empty, it was amazingly quiet, and actually somehow the very best time to arrive. Miraculously we stumbled upon a hotel with a 24-hour reception and moved in. We had made it! Our boat detour was complete, from here we would be back on our bikes. But not yet. First, we needed sleep.

One thought on “#117: Taking the Ucayali River from Iquitos to Pucallpa

  1. Daren Drew

    Nice read. You can’t beat a dodgy boat for a bit of an adventure. AND Inca Cola. I do love a drop of that

    Enjoy Peru


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