Taking a Slow Boat Down the Amazon
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
With a craving for adventure, I drove my motorcycle aboard a dilapidated cargo ship and settled in for a boat trip through the jungle, from Iquitos to Pucallpa. It was a trip to remember, and here are some of the highlights.
Day 1: False start, still at the port
“Boom, and we’re off. This boat’s like a bullet, we’ll be flying to Pucallpa in no time,” said the captain when I approached the ship. “We’ll take off at two,” he told me.
I bought my ticket, rolled my motorcycle aboard, and then I made a quick dash to town in order to stock up on last-minute provisions.
Day 2: Another false start, why are we still at port?
Even though we were supposed to leave the day before, we're still in Iquitos, having spent most of the day bouncing between port to port to offload two-story-high stacks of lumber at various dumping grounds because, apparently, the captain didn't have papers in order to verify that his cargo wasn't illegally logged. According to most estimates, around 90 percent of lumber sourced from Peru makes its way across the world illegally.
Day 3: Initiating daily art classes with children
I’m glad that I stocked up on art supplies before boarding the ship, because there seem to be more children than there adults, and they are obsessed with the only gringo. I wield gadgets that some have obviously never seen before: a compact tablet that I stare at for hours daily reading books and write on, my charango, my solar panel charger, camera and lenses, my inflatable backpacking mattress, the portable water purifier, inflatable pillow.
But this isn’t what matters. When I pull out the markers and paper, the children know that it’s time to start making lots of art. And the parents on the ship seem relieved to be free of the responsibility of watching their children in the afternoons.
Day 4: Making friends with (everybody) along the way
We bounce from port to port in the boat. We make stops every two hours at a different community along the way. The ship’s laborers unload mounds of soft drinks. Villagers board the ship to load burlap sacks of dried fish, 30 in all, onto the ship. I watch while other cargo ships zoom past us.
Day 5: I make friends with the bridge crew
I sit through the evening with Juan “the owl,” who is the night watch spotlight guy. He sits on a wobbly bench just outside of the ship’s cockpit, occasionally telling the captain “slow slow down!” while he scans the diverging currents in order to sense where is the best channel. In one hand he holds the floodlight, and in the other he fiddles with the car battery which powers the light. Beside us at the edge of the ship, Javiar stands at his post as the depth checker, which he does by repeatedly throwing a weight into the water that’s attached by a string.
Day 6: This boat starts falling apart
During a deeper inspection of our boat, I realize the flaws. The tarp on the roof that should be sturdy against the inevitable daily rain is frailed with gaping holes. There are no life jackets. In the main cabin, the designated sleeping area where we hang our hammocks, there’s no way to escape the television on one side and the bone-rattling vibration of the engines directly below.
Day 7: One more day?
After the morning’s art class I hold with the children, I do what I do best, and wait patiently. I sit with my legs crossed in meditation on the far end of the ship’s top deck. I know I’ll need a lot more patience, because we just found out that our arrival to Pucallpa is delayed yet again, because one of the two engines broke, meaning that we’re now traveling at less than half-speed.
Day 8: Weren’t we supposed to be there by now?
Yesterday was their real promise that we’d arrive, but we didn’t arrive. And then they promised that today would be the real day, but the ship broke down again. Despite this, the captain has promised to all that we will arrive in Pucallpa by midnight.
Day 9: Total chaos, abandon ship.
I wake up and expect to see ourselves docked at Pucallpa’s port. Instead, we’re anchored along the side of the river in the middle of nowhere. With curiosity of why we haven’t gotten there yet, I head to the captain’s hut just when the boat’s crew are waking up.
“The waters are too shallow and it was too dangerous to pass at night. But don’t worry, we’re only three hours away,” said the captain who was in the middle of preparations for starting the ship. And right before turning the ship’s ignition, he added, “maybe we should have started calling this ship the “the never… never to arrive,” which brought chuckles from the other crew members at knowing what a disaster the trip had been.
And then he struck the ignition. All of a sudden, black thick smoke started billowing from underneath the ship. A load screeching sound erupted as well.
It turned out that the crew from the previous trip had emptied the engines’ oil but had forgotten to replace it.
As it was clear that our ship would be stranded for an unknown amount of time, I joined several other passengers in flagging down a passing motorized canoe in order to transport us on the final leg of our journey to Pucallpa