Pucallpa – Iquitos. On to the Amazon!

Imagine how happy I was to get back on the water after a three weeks delay in Pucallpa, Lima and Huánuco…

Out of the cities madness with its insensitive people and back to the simplicity of my days on the road/river.

In the late afternoon, I hear some music. I head over and am invited for a birthday party. I’m in Paris. As the streets are flooded, I can go around in a little canoe to get to know the village (it floods every year). A very different setting then the French capital!

I´m particularly happy to have my camera back!!!

After a day making friends I head for Tacshitea. I’m pretty surprised when i get to there as the river is claiming more and more land. The last part of the hospital is about to fall and people are dismantling their houses. Over the last few years, the river widened 200m in this curve, making half of the village move.

I can’t help myself (love construction work) and jump in to help taking of the roof of the family hosting me. People are really sweet and I’m not in a rush. I would stay for a week…

There’s the new hospital to be built and the school to be dismantled. Breakfast and lunch is prepared for the whole village in huge pots. We work half days.

It’s especially impressive to see the whole village join forces (women, men and children).

The other part of the day is spend reading, playing volleyball, chatting and drinking, fishing and wandering around to see the area.

I learned a lesson: don’t walk barefoot. There are small bugs that leave their eggs in your skin. I ended up having 15 of them.

Huge ship loaded with (illegally cut?) hardwood. Almost every day a boat like this would pass. Very sad. After two months in the jungle, I haven’t seen a single big tree standing

As usual after staying in a village for a week, it’s emotional to leave Tacshitea.

After a uneventful night in the small town of Tiruntan, I make it to Paoyan, another Shipibo community.

I was told it’s a touristic place, but I still get surprised when i suddenly see a group of twenty whites fellows. (Very few people come to visit this part of Perú.) They’re all here to take ayahuasca, a hallucinogen. (Something I’m unfamiliar with)

As usually I don’t have a plan, it always depends on the work I can help with.

One day is spent chatting and making friends. Then I go with Don Antonio and his son to the forest to get palm leaves to make a roof.

The trip up the narrow river is absolutely stunning. We leave the boat at a small beach and go get the leaves Antonio cut earlier. With a strap made out of tree bark on our forehead, we haul all of them to the port. I’ve never seen so many mosquitos together. We all had a swarm constantly following us (they do sting through a shirt. Another lesson learned: put on two layers.) Not the easiest job, but I much rather prefer this than doing nothing at all.

Last day is spend helping Antonio and his son finishing of their walls. Picture: all you need is a machete really.

During my time in the village, I camp next to the house of Elio, one of the authorities of the village. He also has to travel to Contamana, so I propose to take him in return to show me the shortcuts in the river. We stay with other members of his family in town.

His expectations of his foreign visitor are high though. First I pay him his return ticket to Paoyan. I buy food for the whole family in Contamana, for which I’m not thanked. Then I’m supposed to set up a business to sell their artworks. Then they want me to sponsor their oldest daughter entire college career.

I sleep on the ground with chickens and ants around and go to the toilet (read: hole in the ground) where mosquitos sting me in places I really don’t want them to (so incredibly itchy!). I’m tired. I leave. Getting a room just costs 2.5euro anyway, cheaper than staying with a family. It feels good to be just responsible for myself for a while.

Later I move out to go stay at the ‘aguas calientes’ natural reserve featuring multiple waterfalls, a hot water river (hence the name) and the ‘collpa de guacamayos’ (a rock where the big macaws come to eat the minerals). Sounds good!

I can camp for free under a big roof right at the ‘union’, where a hot water river joins a cold water river. I’ve been in hot springs before, but this is crazy! I literally step with one leg into the cold water and the other in the hot! It’s surreal. How is this possible? There definitely isn’t any volcano nearby.

With a guide I go to the hiding spot in the morning to see the birds, but it’s rainy and they don’t come. With the water level rising, we also can’t walk upstream.

The next days would be similar. I would spend another morning waiting/ hiding without success. It keeps raining, so i still couldn’t hike around much. But I did see some fresh big cat prints though! Pretty cool!

But it all doesn’t matter much. I’m in a beautiful and peaceful place and finally have the time to read. I started and finished Stephen Hawking’s book ‘a brief history of time’, learning about the universe and finished listening to my audiobook ‘on the road’, by Jack Kerouac (quite a dissapiontment: not much learned out of it, for me it’s just a modest narrative of hitchhikers).

On the second day, I meet a family while hiking. They are freezing, having brought nothing to protect them from the rain. I go back with them, borrowing them my towel and inner sleeping bag (worth more than 50eur) to keep their baby warm. They promise to leave it at the entrance of the park.

Having ran out of food, I’m pretty exhausted when i get back to the entrance the next day. I forget to ask if my stuff is there. So in the night I have to take a ‘motokar’ (motorbike with three wheels) back (10eur). They hadn’t left my stuff! Oh my… I don’t get it. I’m trying to help here and then you screw me over?

Early on in Perú, I learned a new word: ‘engañar’, meaning to decieve someone. The list of things that have happened, has become quite long by now! Thinking of the guy looking over my boat stealing my gasoline, the crooked technicians in Lima,… I’m not going to finish the list to not get too negative, but it’s tiring that I have to travel with such care.

I couldn’t wait to get back on the river. I realized Iquitos wasn’t getting much closer. I travelled for two days fast, passing one night in Orellana and getting to Tierra Blanca the next.

It`s a big village and I end up staying in a simple room for 2.5eur a night. Hence my stay would be different here. Paying for my food and accommodation, I don’t have to worry wether or not I’m taking advantage of a family. So days are spend getting to know the region, hanging out, reading,… instead of helping out in the field.

The interesting part of this village is that there are actually a ton of gringos living here. Since three years, many Mennonite families have arrived, dedicating themselves to agriculture. Their most common comparison are the Amish.

New friends are quickly made. We play volley, they teach me to fish and we fix my boat.

When I left Pucallpa, there was not a single drop of water coming in, but that had already changed. So we burned the pitch,  which is used to seal the seems between the different wooden boards. It’s pretty cool! You just pour gasoline on it and light it up. Better not to breath though! To finish it off, it got a pretty paint job, totally transforming my old boat.

The son of a friend of Tierra Blanca lived in San Cristobal, just two hours away and I decided to visit him and spend the night there.

I had also been told about Nancy, an American researcher, who had been living on and off in ‘Dos de mayo’ (a nearby village) for the last twenty years.. I met her and her husband Edgardo there and they invited me to stay a couple of days with them. Really sweet!

After helping half a day in San Cristobal cutting the grass of the football pitch, loading fish into a bigger boat and eating Cayman meat for the first time, I moved to the other village.

Nancy had first come here twenty years ago to make her thesis. They now coordinate an NGO (Vasi) that was founded by the local communities promoting sustainability in all senses.

Currently they were searching samples of wild cacao trees. Therefore I teamed up with a great local guide, Raul, to go hike and camp in the jungle. I was hoping to see animals and help out Nancy collecting the samples.

Hanging out with Raul was great, because he had been one of the local guides helping Ed Stafford walk the entire length of the Amazon river back in 2010 (something which took two years to complete!). Raul walked with him for six weeks, cutting themselves a way through the jungle for a big part and crossing the river from time to time in a packraft. Imagine all the stories to tell!

But it had been raining for the last few days and after only half an hour of walking we realised that a big part of the trail was flooded and that we better turned back. Bit of a bummer, I was quite excited to go out and see some animals at last and I also really wanted to help find native cacao trees.

But after staying a last day in the village, we made a new plan. I was to take Raul to Puca Panga, three hours down the river. There we would stay with Pelé, Raul’s cousin and Nancy’s assistant for a long time, who would show us native cacao trees.

Puca Panga was just an easy three hours away from Dos de Mayo. We were warmly greeted by Pelé and headed out the same afternoon to find native cacao trees.

Next morning was spend in another community work cutting the grass along the river with machete (pretty tough job! And of course everyone watches how the gringo does it). There was a small Boa found, which didn’t live much longer.

Raul went back home after another afternoon of getting samples. I stayed a few days more.

I really love helping out clearing a field with machete. You take breaks, you chat and laugh and learn from each other. The rain didn’t bother us. The engine didn’t want to turn on tough when we wanted to get back to the other side. Luckily I had my phone with me to call help. There were some bigger waves due to the bad weather. A nice little adventure!

Next I went hunting with Rambo (funny nickname for a skinny guy!). After rowing for an hour, we got to the lake and chased the ‘Cuchuris’ (black, half duck/half bird). There were literally thousands of them!

The community work for the afternoon was lifting up an entire roof between some 40 men to a two storey building. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an impressive feat of helping each other out? We’re all in this together peeps!

To finish off my stay here, there were three parties of which two by political candidates. After listening to some vague promises to subsidize agriculture there was another classic Cumbia party where people drank way too much. Still good fun though.

It was just an hour downstream to Juancito, so I finally took out my paddle once again and rowed down.

My only plan was to try to get a better map (which i didn`t find) of the river and spend one night there. As usual I met nice people straightaway. Nilo took me to a guesthouse which he turned out to run, after which he invited me for lunch.

I met William, a buyer of logs to make plywood, who invited me to join him for a day looking at logs. It was interesting to learn about all aspects about the (illegal) logging industry. We met Ibarra, a charismatic logger, who told me he had already cut 50.000 trees in his life (he’s 50 now) and doesn’t believe in climate change. He proofs his statement by showing how fast the weeds grow again after trampling it. But who am i to judge? Perú didn’t cause climate change, western countries did, of which I’m part. Although they probably recieve money from other countries to not cut their trees? Who knows more about this?

By now I had also made a plan with fellow cycle traveler Catz from Australia to join me and finish off my boat trip together! We had met more than one year ago in Uruguay and later in Buenos Aires and along the Ruta 40. Sharing this travel experience was going to be very sweet!


More friends are made playing volleyball and I end up staying a few more days. I’m not in a hurry. I don’t want to get to iquitos without Ben.

Nilo ended up charging me just five euro instead of twenty. What a legend!

I have a contact in Victoria and decide to wait there for Catz.

I stay with Roberto and his family and spend the days fishing by putting out nets between the weeds of lakes and collecting the fish half a day later.

I like it, I get to see different places. The first night, we head out late and end up wandering around the lake in the dark. We hear five small Caymans flee. Pretty special!

Roberto started fishing at the age of ten and hasn’t had the opportunity to progress since then. He’s already tired of it. I understand him, I’m already fed up with it after a couple of days. Definitely in winter (high water level) it’s not rewarding as there is little fish to catch. In summer they catch huge amounts of up to 200/300kg, but we barely get 10kg out now.

A very fun job was trying to get a huge Cedar log that was floating down the river to the shore so that Roberto can cut it up later. We have a small engine and barely manage. We later go to secure it more downstream and come back in the dark. I’ve never driven in the dark, it’s scary, definitely because the whole family is in the boat (three kids). Luckily I had my torch, but the battery was low. A tiny light on a lighter saves us. Another adventure with the Pilco family.

Three days later, Catz finally arrives! We spend one day catching up, sorting out our gear and planning our trip through the Pacaya Samiria national park.

It’s not possible normally to enter the park from here. But after a long chat, the rangers call the main office in Iquitos who give us a special permission to enter anyway. We are supposed to pay afterwards, which we will. Because if we don’t, no others will be allowed to enter there. It’s been about four years since the last tourists came in this way.

We now had five days to spend in the park. After three months of traveling through the jungle, I was hoping to finally see some big trees, birds and animals along the river!

We take Roberto with us for the trip as we are entering the park through a beautiful labyrinth of lakes.

Pic by catz

We make our way through narrow waterways connecting the lakes. “This is so much fun!”, I can’t stop thinking. The engine gets a hard time as we have to smash it around to get around the curves and through the thick weeds blocking the way.

A big storm approaches and we get soaking wet. It seems we’ll be spending the night in the boat as there is no land to camp. But we make it anyway to the first ranger station.

I’ll never forget that first day. I feel my boat trip is complete now. It was just so dreamy! For the first time, monkeys were seen next to the river and I finally got to admire the macaws (one of the biggest parrots in the world, blue and red) flying over. To not even mention the dolphins! Picture perfect.

Pic by Catz

We stay two nights with ranger Tulio and go out to see Caymans at night. Roberto doesn’t mind catching a little one with his bare hands!

The next three days are spent floating and driving down the Pacaya river, while staying in other ranger stations.

Pic by Catz (drone footage)

We get back to the Puinahua river (part of the Ucayali) and spend one night in Bretaña from where Roberto takes the cargo boat back to Victoria.

There luckily is a cargo boat passing Bretaña at 5 am to take Roberto (our guide for the national park) back to Victoria.

We soon head out to start making way towards Iquitos, which is now, after two months since leaving Pucallpa, getting closer and closer.

Just as we’re leaving, José, an electrical engineer connecting a nearby village to the wonders of electricity, asks us to take him to Requena, some seven hours away. We agree, he has to travel urgently and there’s no other boat. But we quickly regret it a bit as we now have the responsibility of taking care of a passenger. Luckily my phone works so I can follow the flow of the river with its bends on the MAPS.ME application.

But the engine has lost its power too. Luckily José isn’t used to travel with a small motor boat (peque peque) and doesn’t notices it.

We get the engine checked upon arriving in Requena and it turns out some gasket is broken. It’s an easy fix, and I soon walk out again with the engine…off a step…and into a hole. I twist my ankle pretty badly and can’t step on it. Luckily there’s Catz to help me out.
We end up staying a day to let it rest, putting ice on it.


I was thinking to get an xray, but everyone just told me to have it massaged in a special way. After limping around the market searching breakfast, I’m introduced to a lady who can do it.

It’s pure torture. Two people have to hold my leg. The lady pushes and pushes on it, using menthol balm, supposedly to get it back in place.

I luckily have my hat with me to hide my face in, as we’re sitting in the middle of the market and a little crowd gathers around to see what’s happening. A lady uses her plastic bag as an improvised fan, trying to cool me down as the pain makes me sweat.

Let’s hope it works. Won’t be doing that again!

We feel like making good progress, to try to get to Iquitos in two days.

Catz of the @theratbagnomads is actually a boat captain, so he’s a great travel buddy! He had instantly learned to drive the boat and we were now switching turns, making really good progress.

We help out Ernesto and José, who were traveling upstream in a 20m boat, but got stuck in a sand bank. With the four of us, it doesn’t take long to push it out.

They offer to pay us for our help. But I think that moments in life to help out others are quite rare, hence you have to take advantage of them and just help out. After all, what goes around, comes around.

We camp along the shore of the river. It’s a wet night, but I’ve finally pimped my (new!) tent with an extra sheet making it a bit more waterproof. And no, it’s not a cheap tent, it’s actually a 280euro North Face tent that I bought in Cusco. Unbelievable. It’s just leaking so badly!

My camping setup is quite basic these days. A leaking tent, a 6 year old sleeping bag which is smelling absolutely disgusting, a thermarest which is delaminating and then the inner liner that got stolen. Just part of a longer trip I guess.

Catz does a great job unloading and loading the boat. I hope I can walk normal again soon.

With a last big day (110km!), we manage to reach Iquitos.

After camping, we quickly reach the junction of the Marañon and Ucayali river (the one I’ve been traveling down for the last three months).

We were now traveling down the Amazon river.

“The amazon… THE AMAZON…. THE ÁMAZON!!!” I kept telling myself. I couldn’t believe it. We had made it. I got really emotional. Was it from relief of making it this far? Or from the realisation we were traveling down the almighty Amazon now? I don’t really know. All I know is that I’ll never forget that moment. Never. Ever. I mean the Amazon. The amazon! I felt so alive. So grateful.

Reaching the Amazon river made me think of all I’ve experienced during the last four months of traveling down the river, and I felt just so grateful for the opportunity to be able to learn so much. So many experiences, so many lessons and so many friends. What an amazing gift we’ve all received, this gift of life. Live your life!!!

Reaching Iquitos was a big deal. We had now made it to the upper North of Peru, to what some call the heart of the Amazon. Don’t imagine anything wild here, it’s actually the largest city in the world which is not accessible by road housing almost 500.000 people. Between 1880 and 1912, it was the centre of the rubberboom as well.

Its isolated position therefore meant that we still couldn’t get back on the road.

You can either go down the Amazon river to Brazil (and to the Atlantic ocean), or follow the Napo river upstream to Ecuador. Catz has his flight back from Lima in a month and i really want to get to know Ecuador and Colombia, so it was an easy choice.

Going upstream would mean that we were now going to fight Mother nature, in a struggle to fight the current. Therefore, I sold my little trusty motor of 6.5hp and we bought a huge 13hp one. It weighs a ton! Taking it for a first spin was so much fun! We now fly!

The Peruvian/Ecuadorian border is some 500km away. We are expecting to reach it in two or three weeks, after which we’ll see if they will let us cross the border with our paperless boat.

I did manage to get a stamp of the Navy, but most importantly, they let me take pictures of 34 highly detailed pages of the Napo river. We were just using maps.me before, showing the curves of the river, but not the villages. This was going to be a great change!

We were now basically waiting for my bike to arrive. I had left it in Pucallpa two months ago and a friend had put it on the cargo ship to Iquitos.

Bolognesi – Pucallpa: River trip part 3

As soon as I leave Bolognesi, I’m in Shipibo territory.

It’s a beautiful day. I’m happy I’m out of town. It’s the day i finally appreciate the type of boat/ raft i have. It’s so stable, that i can literally stand wherever i want.

From time to time, I turn of the engine and float down the river. While standing on the top of the boat, watching the jungle slide by, I find myself having a surreal and somewhat magical travel experience. (picture later taken by Jefferson)

Traveling by boat is so much fun!

To top it all up, i get to see my first dolphin. Yes that’s right! DOLPHINS! I didn’t knew i would see them here! Every day I was going to see some from there onwards.

I tried to follow them, but it’s difficult to go upstream with my boat (the logs on its side hit a lot of water). Just when leaving the site, two huge animals came from under my boat and grasp air some 6m away. What was that!?!!!

I hang out for an hour, admiring these super impressive (harmless) beasts of the river. There’s a bent where the river doesn’t run. It’s seems to be their home? Dolphins and beasts keep popping up around the boat.


I hope I’ll never forget to be grateful for being able to live moments like these!

I end up staying in Nazareth de Shahuaya. As always, i search the village chief. I feel truly welcome here. He later goes to the radio to talk through several speakers across the village, letting everyone know a foreign visitor has arrived.

People are sincere. Women more emancipated. I even get a kiss on the cheek. The language more easy to learn than Ashanika. I liked this place and stay a day.

The beasts turn out to be ‘Bufeos’, some 2 to 3 m long. Their body is supposed to be similar to that of people. They don’t eat them for some beliefs. But the chief also told me they are a food reserve. Sometimes situation got so critical even dogs were eaten.


As usual, people bath in their boats. Mosquitos aren’t out yet. A beautiful sunset makes the setting. A dolphin pops up a bit further. It sound idyllic, because it is.

It’s almost new year and not much is going on. I try to learn some language and walk around. People invite me to share their meal.

But i also think to myself to just spend a day in a village if I can help out in the field/work a bit. Don’t like to feel lazy.

six year old boy taking a stroll with his canoe

I planned to get to a bigger village to have some of a party. But after chatting to a family living next to the river, it started raining hard so they invited me to stay.

As many in the region, Junior and his companions cut trees of which they make a huge raft. They then float down to Pucallpa to sell the wood.

With no electricity, there was just the buzzing sound of the mosquitoes. We all got in our mosquito nets at 7pm. But the huge meal with fresh fish was pretty sweet!

Preparing the fish and serving the intestins to the chickens and cats


The party had to wait till Pucallpa.

I meet Jefferson (22yrs) in the river while asking him for directions (distances) to the next villages.

I buy a fat fish from him to not arrive with empty hands at the next family that’s going to host me.

We chat more and i end up hauling his canoe next to my boat till Curiaca, where his grandmother lives. Jefferson proposes to navigate.

He has problems, he says. He was working at a wood mill, but his boss got crushed between two huge logs, dying on the spot. He hadn’t received a pay check in seven months. All the workers were making their way back to their homes. Jefferson had traded some big fishes for his canoe, but didn’t have food with him. So i gave him bread, cassava flour, sugar and water.

We end up spending the night at his grandma’s house.

It doesn’t take much longer to reach Iparia, the only big village between Bolognesi and Pucallpa. I camp one night at the square and head on. I wasn’t able to withdraw money at the bank in Bolognesi, leaving me with 150 soles (40 euro) for some ten days or more.

The local government did help me out with providing a detailed map of their region. Very helpful! And of course i met people who invited me for lunch, this time Bendigno and his family.

Being somewhat short on money, i tried to make good progress after Bolognesi. It explains the lack of good photos (i have always thought you have to spend at least two days in a village to take some good shots.)

The family hosting me in Samaria though, is going to harvest mais the next day. A perfect opportunity to help out, not take advantage of their hospitality and spend a bit more time there.


I did cut my hand pretty deep with the very first piece of mais i wanted to cut off (the leaves are really sharp!). The gringo is learning!

And we went fishing… with spears! Pretty cool technique! But maybe not the most efficient one? We didn’t get any.

After an uneventful stay in Flor de Ucayali (where i could camp in an old house, next to an ants house (bad idea!), i have one last stop before getting to Pucallpa.

I feel truly welcome in Limogema. Last night i had to take all of my things out of my boat myself (quite a job), here everyone helps me out.


After a volleyball game, we all flee in our mosquito nets once again as the ‘zancudos’ (mosquitoes) are out in full.

 

January 7

I spent the last two hours floating towards Pucallpa with some people bringing wood to the city. For a change it´s not illegally cut wood, but Bolayna which they grew themselves. They indicate me where to leave my boat in the big port of Pucallpa (opposite the city, on the other side of the river).

I knew Pucallpa was going to be a huge stop on this boat trip.

I actually had no idea if i was going to travel down to iquitos by boat (at least one month away), or get back on the road with my beloved bike.

First, i went to the marine to get advice. They told me the river was calm (if there’s no wind) and that it was possible to travel down to Iquitos by wooden boat.

Sounded good! It would take some more reflecting, but in the end i started looking for a bigger boat and put up papers around the fisherman’s harbour to sell mine.

I found an eight meter boat of which i bargained the price down from 350 to 250 soles (65 euro). The test run was pretty cool! Without two big logs on its side, a boat is much faster. Being longer, the waves of passing boats also don’t affect it.

So it was quite obvious boats were cheap here and i knew i would loose some on mine.

The only people using such a small boat like mine, are fishermen who take it up a narrow river.

I got up at 3am, asking around in the harbour. But all i had to do in the end was bring my boat over. (It was at the other side of the river.) It was sold in 10 minutes for 150 (half of what i payed).

Bringing my boat over to the fishermans harbor


Next big questions were fixing my electronics. When my boat got filled with water about one month ago, the camera had died and my phone started malfunctioning.

I found good technicians, but there were no parts available. Only in Lima, i was told. Ok, let’s take the bus then. I thought it was just one night, but it turned out to be a 20 hour trip. Wasn’t looking forward to that!

I was truly lucky to meet Kely and Paul in Lima, friends of friends of friends, who offer to host me.

The Sunday I arrive, I can use their bicycle and cruise around the city, linking up the cycle paths and admire the Pacific once again. Not too bad!

But then I head to the ‘Malvinas’ to get my electronics fixed and the trouble starts. It goes smooth at first: i almost have everything fixed in one day. What happened in the next three days is too much to write down. They essentially like to screw you over.

Finally I got my money back and was about to sell my phone for parts when i realised they returned me another one with broken screen. Etc…

The lenses were cleaned. They body of the camera too damaged to be fixed, so for 200eur I bought a new one.

I had lost the tent poles of my new tent in the river and was lucky enough to get spares.

So all in all a good upgrade, but I was happy to get out of there. The traffic jams, the noise, the 1.5 hour commute each day to get to the ‘malvinas’,… It was quite a big change after the jungle.

I do find it very strange to cross such a big distance like Lima – Pucallpa during the night, not seeing anything of the surroundings. So I decided to have a couple of stops on the way back to Pucallpa.

I got a bus to Huánuco at 2000m altitude. By coincide, Paul who hosted me in Lima knew someone there. Javier came to pick me up and took me to his property at 20km from the city.

I thought to just stay one day, but that plan usually doesn’t work out that way. It became four.

Javier had lived all his life in Lima, but had changed the craziness of the city for the quietness of the mountains. Since some 15 years, he also started learning about agriculture and medicinal plants. By now, he was healing people by just proposing the right nutrition combined with some plants. Very fascinating to say the least.

 

His wise friend Taita Shanti was probably one of the most interesting people I could meet in entire Perú. At the age of 95, he’s bursting with energy to start a school where kids are taught about nature, the Inca customs, organic farming,… I joined their first meeting, and felt very humble among these inspirational people.

Calling nature

 

I helped Javier in his house, fixing doors and fixing the electricity (re-routing all the cables of solar system, changing plugs and adding lights/switches).

The last afternoon I went walking up the mountain. That’s why I was there. It really rejuvenated me. I met Agustin, a shepherd on the top after which I watched a beautiful sunset.

A successful stopover in the mountains!

At two hours from Huánuco lays Tingo María, where I had another stop to visit the Lechuzas cave, as part of the National Park there.

Then the last five hours back to Pucallpa to (finally) get ready to keep going down the Ucayali river.

I was really stoked to get my visa extension approved! I’ve got another 90 days now, so I can move on without being in a hurry.

Hitting the water on Sunday, 28th of January towards Iquitos.

Atalaya – Bolognesi: River trip part 2

Sunday December 21, leaving Atalaya.

The hard part about meeting a family that takes you in as one of their own is leaving them all behind again… I always cry.

Jaime has a floating house where he guards the boats and engines of the people arriving in Atalaya. He taught me how to handle the engine and helped adding the logs to my little boat.

For now he’s looking after my most precious possession, my bicycle, which he will send me when i get to Pucallpa.

I was 100% focused leaving the city. Although it’s not so difficult handling the engine, it’s still quite new to me.

After some two hours i saw a big white sign next to the river indicating a village and headed over. It turned out to be Montevideo. No, not the capital of Uruguay. As it turns out also a small ‘caserio’ (small village) close to Atalaya.

I ended up staying for four days…

First night, there was a party to celebrate the end of the school year. It’s always pretty akward to dance while everyone is looking at the gringo, but if you look at the floor, it’s ok 

After a while i was told that i was the first gringo to visit and stay there, which somehow explains the fascination for my dance moves (which are far from spectacular). This doesn’t mean people haven’t seen gringos before. Some Canadians had installed a water system here in 2010 for example.

Allan, the villagechief, was finishing his house, so i proposed him to help in return for some food. I didn’t spend a penny in those days, which was really nice after spending heaps in Atalaya.

This way i didn’t had to take advantage of their hospitality. Carlito (little Carlos) showed me around. Good guide for being 5 years old!

They found the logs too small, so helped to add some truly fat ones. (Which i didn’t think was necessary.)

Leaving the small port and looking back at my newmade friends, I realize this little boat trip is already a success. I’m so happy i went through with this! An amazing feeling of freedom also overwhelmes me. All i have to do is fire up the engine and off i go.

Next stop was going to be Nuevo Pozo. I had met Andrès, the brother of the village chief, in Atalaya and was eager to spend some time there.

 

I was quickly welcomed by the workers of the wood mill (who come from other villages) and invited for lunch.

The afternoon was spent drinking too much Masato (local drink from cassava which ferments over time) and listening them talking in Ashaninka. Of course people also speak Spanish and i ended up staying two nights to get a glimpse off village life here.

First night, while going to get my things from my boat, someone robbed me though. I had left my small bag with all my important things half an hour at Andres house. It being a small village where everyone knows everyone, one shouldn’t have to be careful about his belongings.

Some 30 euro were missing, but most importantly my memory cards (with the backup of all my pictures) and Spot messenger too.

I was told not to worry and promised i would have everything back in the morning.

Armando, the chief, came over in the morning with two 5 year old boys who were seen buying candy in the shop. They quickly confessed and went to get my things (which were spread all over the place). I was told they weren’t from this village.

With all my things and money recovered (just some change missing) we could move on.

They were going to clean a field, so i grabbed my machete and joined in. While learning about which plant produces something edible and which not, i was explained the concept of ‘minga’. It’s a community work for which you’re not paid. They say: “today for you, tomorrow for me”. So people make a team and together they work on eachother’s field.

After eating lunch, the afternoon is spent drinking masato.

People are poor here. Dinner is not served. Breakfast sometimes either. Instead, the cassava (called yuka here) in the masato has to do the job.

The only other white people they know, are from charity organisations. Again, I’m the first tourist here. It’s difficult to explain the concept of traveling to gain experience while not making money. Almost every family asks me for help. They aren’t shy. Even my engine is asked. It’s hard to form an answer. They understand that gifts wouldn’t help them, but agricultural development would.

In many ways, my experiences here bring me back to Congo, where i stayed in a small village for two weeks. There as well, the soil is rich, but the people are truly poor. It’s something that will keep me busy for quite some time to figure out.

At night, there’s the birthday party of one of Andrès daughters (he has 16 children with two wives. (Yes, that are many mouths to feed!)). The three year old girl burnt her bum pretty badly by falling in the hot coals used for cooking earlier that day and isn’t seen. But the party goes on anyway. There’s music fed with solar panels (project from the state) and more masato.

The mother goes round and round serving the drink. A woman which isn’t pregnant is a very rare sight here. Girls are urgently looking for a husband when they are 15. Numerous women ask me to marry their daughter, even if they aren’t born yet.

So far the glimpse of life here.

The new logs next to my boat aren’t cut right and it’s hard to go in a straight line. Luckily Don Segundo comes over with his chainsaw and fixes the problem.

After staying four days in Montevideo, i feel like traveling. It’s December 24th. I wonder where I’ll spend Christmas night?

 

I want to take a lunch break in Tahuarapa, but I feel welcome and decide to spent the night (Christmas eve) there.

Elias and his son helping me moving my boat to another ‘port’.

After being invited for lunch straightaway by Elias, i go to search the village chief to present myself. My authorisation letters are carefully read, proving that I’m a tourist. I can spend the night under a roof close to the port.

The chief also asks me to go see his little niece, stating that she’s not doing well. The poor little girl has a terrible skin infection that just doesn’t go away. Her eyes are almost completely closed. She’s crying, scared of getting an injection. With her little veil, she tries to cover her face in humiliation. I quickly ask to let her get back to rest and understand the severity of the situation.

They just came back from Atalaya to get her treatment, but there was no money to buy all the medication. As she has both parents, it’s hard to understand why they aren’t able to take good care of her. But that’s not the little girl’s fault, and i give 50 soles (13 euro) to get her more help.

It´s Christmas eve, but the Catholic people tell me they don´t have money to celebrate, so nothing is going on (although i don´t think it´s about being able to party or not). I don´t really mind. I´m tired from last night birthday party, and as many people in the region, my eyes hurt a little. There’s some sort of eye disease in the area and it was unavoidable to not get it.

In the morning a man in his fourties wakes me up asking for a gallon of petrol to bring his girl to hospital. I refuse, thinking that I can´t help everyone. I also think that he´s a bad father, not even being able to save up a bit for when his child is sick. It´s not an easy matter. I´m trying to get my head around it.

I try to leave early, but as usual the people invite me to chat and have breakfast. It´s good not to be in a hurry to travel here 

It´s a pretty village actually. Every wednesday everyone works together to clean the buildings and cut the grass with machetes.

Off I go. It’s Christmas day.

As a last stop before reaching Bolognesi, I end up in the community of Señor de los Milagros.

The chief lets me sleep in the community hall and over some cups of Masato, I´m told I´m the first gringo to ever enter into the village. No charity organisations, no nothing. Now that´s a pretty fascinating thing, knowing how many tourists visit Peru.

They ask me all about Belgium and are eager to share their knowledge. I like them a lot, they are really sweet people and no one asks for things. I wouldn´t know why I wouldn´t stay a bit longer?

I help out on another ´minga´, cleaning a field. There are several breaks during the work to drink masato and chat. I start learning about the history of the land (big land owners used to own everything and everybody) and they teach me several knots, among other things. As usual lunch is served afterwards with masato.

I especially appreciate talking to Don Esteban. His story is truly sad and remarkable.

As a young boy, his parents sold him to a ´patron´, one of these big land owners. He must have been around six years old. He was never allowed to study and had to work on the land. Everyone who didn´t listen, got beaten or even killed. Esteban describes it as slavery.

Police never intervened. They must have been super racist. Because if the workers (all native people), stood up to their boss, police was there to protect him.

Esteban not being able to read or write, made him unable to count his money, or try something on his own. By denying education to his workers, the boss successfully managed to own them. And he treated them as property. “Imagine how much he gained on our backs”, he tells me.

As he can´t count, he doesn´t even know how old he is. Luckily one day he was so fed up with everything that he didn´t care anymore about the threats, stood up to his boss and was able to leave.

Writing this down, I realize I was the first outsider to whom he told his story. A story that must be shared. I wished I had better journalistic skills.

I also realized that the recent colonisation occupying the land made the native people destabilize. They probably lived a good life before outsiders arrived.

I see similarities with the native people I met in Chile for example. They are told they are worth less, that they are uncivilised and bit by bit their identity, culture and knowledge dissapears.

Then when they regain their freedom (I´m told as these patrones died), they probably don´t really know from where to pick up their lives again.

Suddenly it makes sense to take a break whenever you want while working to chat to your friends and relatives while sharing masato.

I hope to find more information about the subject, but I´m afraid the cruelty that occured here was never recorded or talked about.

A couple of hours more and I make it to Bolognesi, the only bigger village between Atalaya and Pucallpa.

I try to stay just one day in this small town, cause there’s not much to do apart from spending money.

I meet Joaquin, originally from Ecuador, who moved to the Peruvian jungle as a young boy when his father took part in the ‘rubber boom’ between 1880 and 1918, extracting latex from numerous trees.

Joaquin later became one of these ‘patrones’. He tells me my journey is very dangerous and that the ‘wild’ native people will kill me. He goes on: “three times they tried to kill me”.

But who will try to kill someone without that person having harmed you in the first place?

Meanwhile we talk, there are some native Ashaninka people asking for work. The disrespectful way he threats them, makes me slowly realize that I’m looking at a bit of a devil.

Later i learn more about this rubber boom. Mestizo people (descendants of the Spanish) and foreigners came to inhabit the jungle to extract rubber. In order to have the sufficient workforce, these ‘caucheros’ armed and recruited the native Shipibos in this area to capture and enslave other native groups. Thousands were displaced, many killed.

I’m sure Joaquin had one hell of an example.

Sepahua – Atalaya: the beginning of my adventure by boat

So with the idea of getting a canoe to travel down to Atalaya, I was cycling around Sepahua while I met some kids at the river fishing.

While chatting to them, there suddenly was a dugout canoe floating down the river just in front of our eyes!!! The kids didn’t hesitate a moment and jumped right after it. With a big effort, they managed to get it on land.

It was in a pretty bad shape, but what a crazy coincidence! To be able to fix all the holes though, it had to dry (something which just isn’t going to happen in rainy season.)

So i kept searching but just found eight meter boats, which wouldn’t be easy to handle on my own, I thought.

A carpenter proposed to build me a five meter one and it was surprisingly cheap (80 euro). All right!!! Let’s do it!

As a carpenter myself, it was pretty cool to see it taking shape (chainsaw for the win!). And to my big surprise, it was ready in a day!

I called it: the Urubamba express 2. Vamos!!!

Lovely family offering me a lifejacket in Sepahua!

It ended up taking five days to get to Atalaya.

I totally loved the adventure.

First stop of the first day: It happened to be the birthday of this lady and shortly after meeting we were all dancing and drinking.

I asked her if the boys and girls were her children. “No, they are my great grandchildren.” She must be early in her fifties?

As usual, the men can’t really control themselves and lose their dignity long before the sun sets. (See the man resting out on the old boat floor.) Luckily one of them still could teach me some of their language (Jine).

In every village i was met with curiosity. Children sometimes ran away, scared of this strange creature, even though I’m definitely not the first white man here.

I was always offered fruit, cooked mais/cassava and ‘masato’ (local drink made of mais, cassava and sweet potato that ferments over the day) to continue my journey.

Cool host. He had recently moved to the jungle and had a nice filosophy: “we are the visitors here. Therefore we have to respect the animals. I`m the only one not shooting at the monkeys.” (still no monkeys seen)

Just once a lot of water came into the boat, making me loose some stuff. The camera got soaked and will take a long time to dry. My phone died. And the tent poles drifted away. These are probably one of the most inconvenient things to lose? Luckily it was a sunny day and I could dry everything out. I pitched my tent next to some fishermen that night using some sticks.

So, I had a lot to prepare in Atalaya. I bought big drums to keep my gear dry. A mosquito net to replace the tent for now. Etc.

My friends from Sepahua sended me my bike by boat.

I obviously wanted to keep traveling this way for some more time! So, I started planning the next stage to Pucallpa. The biggest change was that I wanted to add an engine. I had always thought my first motorized trip would be by motorbike, not with a boat!

First, there were some authorizations to gather. There are not many people visiting this area, and some white people have come here in the past to take much more than just photos. So i had to prove I’m just a visitor passing through. In the end, i got a letter from two different organizations representing the native people in the area, asking them to help me on my journey.

After the first test run with the engine, we realized my boat was too small to support the weight of it and the 60l fuel for the next few weeks.
My boat is 5m, people here use 8m ones or more. So, the carpenter who made my boat wasn’t that skilled after all. He told me to get an engine in Atalaya and that i could sell it here for 500 soles (i paid 300).

But people only use small boats here to race. And i didn’t find a buyer.

Of course, there’s always a solution for a problem. It took us a couple of tryouts, but in the end my little boat became a lot more stable and can carry much more weight by adding two logs on its side. I’ve started calling it ‘la balsa’ (the raft) …

Next stage was going to bring me to Pucallpa, some 3/4 days away, but I was hoping to spend some 2/3 weeks while staying a longer time in the villages on the way.

There people do use small boats, so I was hoping to sell it there and get a bigger one.

It was pretty cool to spent a long time in Atalaya. Me being the only foreigner in the whole ‘city’, makes me meet many people. Cycling through the streets, the “hola Walter/ amigo/ gringo!” shouts made me feel welcome.

And then there’re of course my two partners in crime, Jaime and Elisvan, to whom I owe a lot. They shared their knowledge, installed the engine, taught me to ‘drive’ and added the ‘stabilizers’. Pretty grateful!

Finishing off Bolivia and into Peru

After a rest day close to the Chilean/Bolivian border at the free campsite overlooking the Parinacota vulcano, we crossed back into Bolivia. I had just three days left on my visa (they give you 90 days a year), so we didn’t have time to fool around.

We were now on a tarred main road and making really good progress. After cycling on dirt road for ten days, it was a nice change! But main roads are always less eventful hence there are no particular stories to tell. We cycled 400 km in 4 days up to the Peruvian border.

We knew the route along the Northern side of the Titicaca lake is less busy, but my Brasilian cycling friends Veronica and Jay were in Puno, along the southern side, so we headed there. I had met them more than five times in Patagonia some six months ago, and was really looking forward to seeing them!

I overstayed my visa with just two days, for which I normally had to pay a 7 euro fine, but the officer didn’t bother counting my days so we crossed without any hassle.

We quickly realised the Peruvians drive like crazy! There was no hard shoulder like in Bolivia. We regretted our decision to come this way.

Camping along the Titicaca lake

But seeing my friends again made it worth it!

40 km away, we stayed in the casa de ciclistas in Juliaca for a night, meeting several other biketravelers. We were still on main road and making good progress towards Cusco.

Our first 4000m pass in Peru. We camped that night next to a hot spring. Great!

As usual, entering a big city is somewhat hectical. We had no idea what we were going to do there. There’s so much to see in the city (Inca capital) and its surroundings!

I bought a new tent, cause mine was about to die completely. The zippers had already be a problem for a long time, then the poles started showing some tear and the flysheet got very fragile. Appearantly a long exposure to strong UV rays, make it that way. While putting it up, it got a 20cm rip. Heading for the Peruvian mountains in rainy season, made me buy a new tent.

Free walking tour in Cusco

We headed out of town towards Pisac where we left the bikes in town and took a taxi up. The driver was pretty inventive! In order to avoid paying entrance fee, he hid us in the trunk of the car! Pretty scary thing to do though…

Pisac

After visiting the ‘salinas de maras’, where they have been extracting salt from a mountain stream for centuries, we didn’t really knew where to go.

We took a break next to the river. My sister was looking at the map and found out that this river (the Urubamba) was going all the way North… Would it be possible to follow it? Maybe with kayaks? Or with a raft?

Two hours of browsing taught us that there were some dangerous rapids awaiting us, so it wouldn’t be possible to start right away.
Google also shared a brilliant idea to make a raft: with big inner tubes from trucks/ tractors. Genious because that’s something you can get in every town. We had first been looking at each getting a kayak, which we didn’t found. Making a raft to float down a river sounds like a good idea, right?
To get past the rapids, we first had to climb to 4300m, something we both greatly enjoyed. Coming from 2800m, the 35 km climb was quite impressive. But how about the descent!!!
Let’s just say that all effort to get to the altiplano was worth it. Coming down from the ‘abra Malaga’ we had a whopping 3600m drop down to 700m. Woohoooo!!! A downhill that actually takes a couple of days! Unreal! We started at the top in cold, rainy weather and headed for the tropical heat of the jungle.
I personally loved being back in the jungle! The smell of the forest makes me think of Africa! Great memories…
We decided not to give in to the machu picchu hype, although it was pretty cool to camp INSIDE some smaller Inca ruins down the road.
Finally we bought eight inner tubes in Quillabamba, where the firefighters hosted us and helped us on our way with our rafting plan.
Then we cycled another 70 km to Palma Real. There we were happy to find a small beach where we could start building our raft. The locals were supportive (although they might have wondered why there was a gringo walking up and forth with huge inner tubes) and pointed out where we could cut some wood.
Most of the work was done in a day. Rufino, the local carpenter, helped us out with making some paddles.

We were planning to get to Atalya some 500 km away by following the rio Urubamba.

After an amazing two days floating down the river and managing some rapids (so much fun!!!), our adventure already came to an end though.

It started raining heavily during the second night making the water level rise rapidly. The river had turned itself into a mighty river so we made the wise decision to abandon ship.

We weren’t far from the road, but it still took two hours to reach it because we had to cut ourselves a way with the machete.

We then easily got a ride back to Kiteni, only 4 km away. We quickly found some fishermen who were willing to take us to our campsite with their boat to go get our things.

So far so good.

During all of this though, the water level had kept rising and by the time we got there, our bags were floating around in circles and the tent had 40cm of water in it.

We luckily didn’t loose to much of our gear.

We should have been wiser and moved our stuff higher up when we left camp. But we had looked at this and as our gear was still one meter higher than the river, we thought it would be fine. Also, when leaving, we didn’t thought to be away for so long as we we had left camp just to find a way and bring our stuff to the road. But then came the two hours of machete cutting…


Anyway, we are not grieving too much over the things we lost, but very grateful for the experience. We learned so much in just a couple of days! We had never constructed a raft so we needed to google how to make lashings etc. It’s good to leave your comfort zone sometimes.
We were ready for this. But made the good decision to stop before it became dangerous.

After spending almost an entire day drying and reorganizing our stuff, we headed out again.

Anne didn’t feel so well, so she got the bus to Ivochote. I cycled the 50 km and totally fell in love with smooth Peruvian dirt roads through the jungle…

In Ivochote, Anne and i embarked in a ‘lancha’ (12m boat) together with eight more people and some chickens…

The most remarkable part was passing ‘pongo de mainique’ where you don’t know if you have to look at the crazy rapids or the waterfalls.

After these rapids there is no road anymore. Just boats.

After six hours we got to Camisea where we spent just one night. Anne got quite sick a few days ago and couldn’t do more than rest out.

I had a pretty walk through the villages and jungle to meet the native people, to learn some of their language (machi llengua) and to try the local liquor.

Next day we spent another six hours cruising on the Rio Urubamba enjoying the jungle pass by (still no monkeys though).

After arriving in Sepahua, we didn’t really know what to do next. Atalaya was now just another six hours by boat away. From there, you can start traveling by road again and we were going to head to Huaraz and the cordillera blanca.

But Anne still didn’t feel well and was going to take the bus from Atalaya to the mountains, meaning we would split up.

Then, while walking around Sepahua, I saw this local guy arriving on his own on a small boat the size of a big canoe without engine. That looked really cool!

So while helping out to pull a boat ashore, I started asking about the possibilities to go downstream on my own by canoe.

I just couldn’t let go of the idea to travel down the river independently. I knew there was so much to learn here, that it didn’t made me feel good to just pass it in a couple of days in a passive way.

So we spent a day sorting our gear out (i made quite a spectacular downsize, getting rid of my huge 70l rear panniers and replacing them with my sisters 28l front panniers) and Anne took the boat to Atalaya.

Thanks for joining me sister! You’re always great company!