After squeezing out of the over-stuffed combi from Tarapoto, I found myself wandering through the river port town of Yurimaguas in north-central Perú. The combi, a minivan remodeled to hold 12 (very small Peruvian) passengers, had 16 of us sardined on top of each other careening down from the Highlands.
As the result of endorsements by friends, telling me how pleasant Tarapoto, the “City of Palms” was, I looked forward to getting there after my 4 month Lima sojourn. Facing either a 24hr bus ride or a 1hr flight, I took a taxi from the SAE/Lima clubhouse to the airport. It was a cost difference of about $60 and very much worth it; however Tarapoto wasn’t.
Perhaps I invested too many expectations into this small town, having read so many guide books laying around the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. Perhaps those friends who spoke so highly of Tarapoto aren’t really friends. Perhaps it was just me, unable to define what I was looking for to clear my mind of a city of 10 million. Whatever the cause or causes, Tarapoto disappointed. Perhaps it could have been the haircut.
My last one in Lima had grown out unevenly and I wanted to just comb my hair straight back and keep it simple for the jungle. The young lady who sat me down and snipped away had other ideas. Sadly, I have a feeling that she had failed to articulate those ideas down to her fingers and I ended up stumbling away with perhaps the worst chopping that I’ve ever had; certainly the worst in South America.
But she had recently moved to the “Big City” of Tarapoto from a small village bordering Ecuador and I was her very first Gringo! And the first gringo that she had ever talked to. This was a big day for her tiny shop. She was nervous and flirty and amazed that I could speak Spanish, so we had a thoroughly enjoyable time together talking about all sorts of things.
As part of a larger task, I am learning to forgive perceived injustices I’ve carried as resentments over the years. I have Balkan blood in my veins and it’s normal for a Serb to pass on a grudge through generations or even centuries. If you doubt this, simply ask a Croatian. The two cultures have been at each other’s throats for a millennia. Thus, I have some deep cultural teachings to overcome. It’s now 3 weeks after the haircut and wearing a hat is no longer mandatory. All is forgiven, Floricita. Pretty much.
What truly sealed the deal about my dislike for Tarapoto happened when I found out, after an hour’s walk in searing heat and a truly brutal sun, that the chocolate factory tours were shut down because of a remodeling project. That was it; I’m out of here! I was crammed into the combi the next morning, barreling on to Yurimaguas.
Smaller, dirtier, and far more humid than Tarapoto, Yurimaguas is a major shipping gateway to Iquitos and the Amazon. It is also the end of paved roads in this part of Perú, and even dirt roads end just outside of town. I enjoyed my stay and found it very pleasant. People and goods arrive from the mountains and the coast in Yurimaguas for transshipment down the Huallaga River to the larger, faster Marañón and finally down to Iquitos.
The other option for reaching Iquitos from within Perú by way of water, is to reach, by land or by air, the city of Pucallpa and board a similar type of vessel traveling down the Ucayali. I expect to be in Pucallpa next month for another, very different jungle experience. Just upstream of Iquitos, the distance changing with seasonal flooding and the variable nature of large rivers, both the Ucayali and the Marañón join to become the Amazon.
By any metric the Amazon is the largest river in the world. And even here, more than 2,000 miles from its delta on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, here where it first gets its name, IT’S A BIG RIVER. Certainly at this point the Amazon equals the breadth of the Mississippi at its fullest, and either of the Ucayali or Marañón flows would rival the Missouri or the Ohio. But at this juncture I’m downstream of where I want to be so let’s go back a few days.
Yurimaguas is where I had planned to board one of Eduardo’s Boats. But Eduardo is dead and his 2 sons are now rivals in the transport business, constantly fighting each other for commerce. What was once the shipper of choice, Eduardo’s Boats is now just one of a number of shippers vying for trade. After some consultation with hotel staff and folks on the street I chose another option to make my way downstream. I’m happy that I did.
The idea of fighting for hammock space crammed shoulder to shoulder with other passengers sounded less and less appealing. Without problems (when did that last happen?) the downstream voyage takes about 3 days of constant heat, humidity, and the farts, belches, and snores of scores of unwashed bodies. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to break up the trip into 2 segments, going ashore at the village of Lagunas about 1/3 of the way to Iquitos.
Instead of the large and very slow passenger/freighter, I boarded a 3am speedboat in Yurimaguas and came ashore at Lagunas 5 hours later. Standing at the top of the muddy bank, José was waiting to grab my bag and take me to his office. I had signed up for his tour, Huayruro, to take me into the Pacaya-Samiría Reserve. For several days José and his wife Emilia would be my hosts and guides. We floated and paddled downstream in a dugout canoe, staying at mosquito-netted camps along the way.
The 2 of them, members of the Cucama indigenous group, are people who can and do live off the land and the rivers with a fishing line, a skinny bamboo fishing spear, a box of matches, and of course the machete. Oh, and bottled water for the gringo. Along with a roll of toilet paper for the white guy as well.
They had never taken someone my age on a trip with them and to say that I was pampered doesn’t do their hospitality justice. I sat amidships in the canoe and was expected to document the journey with photos and witty conversation while the two of them did all the paddling. Spanish is also their 2nd language so we got along very well. But less than a week was more than enough for me.
Near one hundred degree temperatures competing with near one hundred percent humidity takes an ever increasing toll on me each year. The mosquitos, though less in numbers and less voracious than those attacking me in the Everglades years ago, are not my favorites either. But with the oppressive heat/humidity combination and just sitting in the canoe most of each day, I struggled mightily. Though not with food.
José, paddling from the front while his wife sat in the stern, for seemingly no apparent reason would randomly steer toward one bank or the other on the opaque brown river. He’d then reach back behind him to grab his spear and within seconds he had a fresh fish at his feet. After several of these he would slice off a piece of one of the fish and thread it on a hooked fishing line tied to another 1/2-inch thick bamboo pole.
Then he would slap the hook onto the water’s surface with a quick flip of the pole and literally in a second or two, one of 3 species of piranha swimming nearby would become the next course in our next meal. Emilia had only packed some salt, a few tomatoes and a bag of onions when we set out. And for the next few days I picked fishbones out of my teeth breakfast, lunch and dinner. Piranha, by the way, is supremely delicious.
We went caiman spotting at night and saw even more birds by day than I had seen in the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador last year. Parrots, Macaws, 3 kinds of Kingfishers, Egrets, Storks and many more took flight around each bend in the river. The Pacaya-Samiría Reserve is a national treasure and surely a place worth the struggle to reach for anyone visiting Perú. One can also visit the Reserve coming upriver from Iquitos, paying 3-5 times as much but with more pampering and fancier accommodations. Your call.
Eventually the torture ended, after the 3 of us each grabbed a paddle and fought our way upstream back to Lagunas. I was so truly taken with my guides that I left Emilia with a princely sum of 50 soles as a tip. That’s about $14.26, not a trivial amount in the jungle. But José was too wiley for me and when he dropped me off at the backpackers’ hostel, I found out that he had already paid for my night! I was humbled mightily.
Early the next morning, just after sunrise, I boarded another speedboat and zipped down the Huallaga. An hour into the trip and the river joined the Marañón, one of the major rivers in South America.
From there it was an uneventful 6hr ride to the port of Nauta where I got off in a driving thunderstorm for yet another crammed, sweaty combi ride, this time into Iquitos. I set aside 3 weeks for Iquitos, and like so many other places, 3 months would not have been enough for this amazing island in the jungle.
The largest landlocked city in the world (nearly 1/2 million population) without a road leading to it, Iquitos is worth a very long look. I’m doing just that.