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…


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!