The Lonely Planet labels this part of my trip very much as "off the gringo trail". While Machu Picchu and the Incas have been very much a more recent fascination, sailing down the Amazon is an old dream ... and this is the start of what could be a very long trip down the river.
This is not a cruise trip down the river. Nor is it a speedboat down the river. In fact, much of the journey is not even on the actual Amazon ... which officially begins as a river much closer to Iquitos. It is a throwback to the stories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer - large cargo/passenger boats, slowly, almost drifting, down the river.
The Good Doctor
Asher and I arrived in Yurimaguas on a Sunday. Weekends are not really a great time to do anything in rural Peru - they seem to be all asleep. Regardless, the docks were somewhat busy, and there was a boat leaving for Iquitos at noon the following day (but we could stay overnight for free). We were in fact one of the first people that enquired about a ticket (and one of the only tourists). One of the earlier passengers was a retired British doctor, Tony, and his Peruvian girlfriend, and in many ways he has become a major figure in my trip in Peru.
Tony is an almost stereotypical cranky old man ... except for the fact that he is not really that old. He is 55, has been retired for 15 years, and runs a pro bono clinic in the jungle for 6 months of the year. The other 6 months of the year, he spends in the Canary Islands, and thus he speaks excellent Spanish. And for a man who is a doctor, and has apparently had 7 minor heart attacks and a heart bypass operation, takes numerous pills, he still chain smokes and drinks probably a lot more than he should. But as he correctly points out - for him, life is too short ... so he might as well live it the way he wants to.
In many ways, conversations with Tony is more of him ranting about some topic, and someone else listening. He is a bit paranoid, has a few too many conspiracy theories but is also knowledgeable in a lot of areas other than medicine. He worked as a forensic pathologist in the UK, and thus has lots of stories about crime and punishment. He has interests in photography, radio and apart from treating locals in the jungles, he is doing his own research into the medicines of the local shamans.
He has become a major figure, mainly because he has guided us, before the boat journey, during and even after in Iquitos. He does not really have to ... but he does and does not demand anything in return. Because he has been doing his volunteer work for over 5 years, he has a reputation which has helped us in return. He has definitely been one of the most interesting people I have come across during my trip so far.
There are basically three types of accommodation on the boats (launcha in Peruvian terms): cabins (140 Soles), upper deck (120 Soles) and lower deck (60 Soles) hammocks. Being the cheapskates we are, we bunked down with the locals in the lower deck hammocks - and in many ways, I think this must be what a sardine locked away in a tin can feels like.
The food, which is included in the price was interesting ... well it was edible, and fairly good ... but hardly food for the gods. The cabins got a lot better food, but that is to be expected. Since Tony was traveling in a cabin, he offered to allow us to put our backpacks in there, thus reducing the need to keep a constant eye on our bags.
Having limited Spanish knowledge was definitely a disadvantage in terms of keeping ourselves from being bored ... that said, one of the Peruvian passengers was quite keen to improve his English and was also quite helpful in his own way. I also managed to get a game of Rummy (cards) going with two other passengers.
The only real negative part of the journey was that I managed to lose my towel ... which, if you follow the Hitchhikers Guide, is a disaster. It is not really I lost it, but it was stolen - and I was not the only one who had their towel stolen ... oh well ... it was a good towel though.
It is only when you are on the river, that you realise how big it really is. For most of the journey, we were on the Marañon river, which only becomes the Amazon when it joins with the Ucayali River about 70 Km upstream from Iquitos. The river itself is very brown, a far cry from the clear mountain waters in the Andes that feed these rivers.
Since the boat sticks mainly to the middle of the river, it is not the best place for wildlife spotting. There are a lot of birds to be seen, although I cannot identify what I did see. But it is still an amazing experience to slowly drift down this massive river