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.

One thought on “Pucallpa – Iquitos. On to the Amazon!

  1. Hallo Wouter,
    Mooi verhaal en mooie foto’s! De ervaringen die je opdoet zijn erg waardevol en rijk. Lees je verhaal met veel plezier en ook bewondering. Veel succes met je verdere tocht.
    Goede reis!

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