From Yurimaguas, the rustic barge weaves its way for several days deep into the vast snakelike Amazon River until reaching Iquitos – “largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road”…
Before I explain the incredible experience on this stunning once-in-a-lifetime-trip into the jungle, a little housekeeping and free tips on travelling to the starting point of Yurimaguas first, and organising the barge to Iquitos.
Getting to Yurimaguas
Leaving Tarapoto, the minibus begins to swerve and weave at an alarming Formula 1 pace, around the twisting switchbacks of the Andes’ base. This short 2.5-hour journey is never-ending.
Relentless rain clears slightly creating a thick shroud of mist, which blankets the road and surrounds us along the way…
The scenery is stunning and definitely worth the teeth-clenching experience!
Reaching the very remote and small port town of Yurimaguas is a relief. This is the end of northern Peru’s roads – it feels like the last frontier but the best is yet to come…
Travelling deeper into the expansive Amazon’s steamy forest, heat envelops Yurimaguas creating a heavy and oppressive humid air – my T-shirt hangs with sweat after only a couple of hours.
Where to sleep
Hostal El Naranjo Yurimaguas provides a tranquil refuge from the stifling heat and is only a short walk to the port. A great location as we’re visiting this area each day to check on the barge’s departure date.
Excellent staff, private bathroom, and breakfast are included in the room’s price. If you can afford it, splash out on a room with an air-conditioner.
Strolling to the port – not really a typical port but a muddy bank with timber planks rising from the ground to awaiting vessels that ram ashore – we spot our barge the Eduardo IV.
Buying tickets from the man on the Eduardo IV feels as if we’re dishing money into a black hole as he advises that the barge usually leaves around 12:00pm, but is not sure of the actual day or time. Nothing runs to schedule in the Amazon.
The barge does not provide internet access but the scenery is rumoured to be spectacular.
The barge offers 3 types of accommodation:
- Top deck and second deck undercover spaces (80 Soles) – sling your hammock up and keep possessions beneath you. Includes 3 basic meals per day.
- Cell-like 2-berth coffin (280 Soles) – lockable and complete with man-eating cockroaches. Includes 3 better meals per day.
- Matrimonial (500 Soles) – larger room for 2 people behind the wheelhouse – noisy – linen is provided. Includes 3 good meals per day.
After checking out the basic tiny Galley (kitchen), I can’t see how three levels of meals will be prepared for serving at the same time. I’m sure that all passengers will be fed identical meals.
Tip: Take a plate and cutlery as these aren’t provided.
Back to waiting…
The hostel manager advises that the barges leave between 4 to 5pm, if full.
This is starting to sound like the long 6-night-wait for the ever-elusive Navimag ferry in Puerto Natales, Chile earlier this year.
After a few more days of waiting, many morning and afternoon walks back and forth to the Eduardo IV, and listening to reasons for ongoing cancelled departure – barge isn’t full enough – we finally leave today.
Passengers started moving in on the top deck yesterday, staking their hammock space as you’re allowed to sleep on the barge until it leaves.
The second deck is quite full now and feels more enclosed although there are no bulkheads…
Opting for the coffin-like cell, which comes with a sliver of grubby foam, sheets, no fan – we move in.
With barely enough room for our backpacks and day packs on this 3-day passage, life vests are provided. Nicking a small stool from the deck for a tiny table, the abode is complete.
On to the captivating Amazon journey!
Learning too late that this barge also carries livestock, I’m hoping that it’s not another awful southern Patagonian Fjords Navimag Ferry.
Delivering livestock to the barge…
…think these guys are going to a different barge.
Quite empty of goods but full enough with passengers, the Eduardo IV slides away from the swampy bank and we say goodbye to Yurimaguas.
It feels good to be finally moving and the gentle breeze cools the barge down, slightly.
The ever-changing scenery glides along the river and Selva (jungle) like still frames that resemble a hundred years’ ago.
Jungle life is frozen in time.
It’s not long before the first stop and the captain rams the barge into the bank whilst keeping the engine on full throttle to pick up more passengers, cargo, and livestock.
Food vendors ready themselves to board and sell Amazonian delights – homemade pastries, empanadas, and sweets at minimal prices.
Regardless of age, everyone has something to sell – homemade potato chips (papitas) are delicious.
These isolated villages without roads are basic, but it’s not uncommon to see huge Satellite dishes jutting out of a building or thatched hut.
Although we travel deeper into the jungle, locals still have mobile reception in villages and on the barge – more than I can say for back home in Brisbane (Australia) travelling an hour out of the city.
At every stop, a plethora of waiting villagers’ board with jungle fruit or sometimes hot coffee, which fills in the time between the basic but tasty meals on the barge. Bring your own snacks.
Some wait patiently for their turn to load produce…
…and then the worse animal cruelty confronts even the most hardened traveller.
It’s pitiful to see pigs dragged down the bank and thrown roughly onto the barge. The squealing is intolerable.
Women are content to pass the heat away chatting with laundry in the murky river waters…
…children sit and watch our barge slip past.
Some villages are so close to the bank that you can almost knock on their door.
Beautiful Amazonian Amelia – wanting her photo taken throughout the 3 days – befriends me calling me ‘La Gringa’ (female foreigner).
Passengers wait patiently for the journey to end. I’m sure they’ve done this trip hundreds of times.
The lure of pink river dolphins and manatees are no longer interesting to some – sadly, these river creatures are illusive on this trip.
Dusk is gorgeous on the Amazon.
Mornings are full of activity once more…
River life is incredibly fascinating and have to pinch myself – I’m really drifting down the Amazon – a dream come true!
Night on the barge is a tad scary as it’s not equipped with navigation or steering lights.
The captain uses a searchlight to watch the river’s current and sweep back and forth across the bank to steer towards it, but not close enough to run aground – Russian Roulette – it’s pitch black out here in the jungle.
Morning arrives without an incident.
As we near a larger village…
…it’s time to offload once more.
Everyone comes out to pick up supplies and more passengers leave the barge.
Some locals are inquisitive of the gringos looking down from the 3-storey barge.
As there are no roads, any form of canoe or boat is crucial.
Children are used to this type of transport and jump in and out of boats with ease.
During the 3 days, babysitting also keeps us busy whilst mothers scarper and sleep in their hammocks all day – not sure how this happened, but it’s fun.
Watching the never-ending hype of activity over the few days is engrossing, whilst the romantic beauty of the jungle seduces your mind.
This short video from See The World taken a few months after our visit at the end of 2011, gives you a taste of just how secluded these Amazon villages are and also an idea of the scenery along the river.
Port of Iquitos
Nearing the Port of Iquitos – Peru’s most remote city – another barge is in our spot unloading cargo and there’s no room to dock.
Moving further down the river for another half-hour, the captain finds a small spot along the bank to unload. Two long thin planks are thrown out from the barge to the bank.
Walking the plank
I managed to walk the plank in Yurimaguas without losing my 30-kilos of backpacks, but the planks were substantial. Iquitos is harder. The flimsy timber planks are narrower and the muddy bank is much steeper.
Visions of falling in slow motion into the cloudy Amazonian waters, dragged to the bottom of the river under the weight of my packs, and swiftly devoured by hundreds of ravenous flesh-eating Piranhas cross my mind.
Luckily, no such thing happens.
Instead, I walk gingerly and slowly on the springy steep plank laden with my heavy load, down to terra firma, without a splash. After 3 days on the barge, passengers are in a hurry to get off and annoyed at my lack of speed, but I stand my ground (plank)!
The tiny slippery trail back up the bank is also challenging and I almost slide with my gear, but manage to get to the top unscathed.
With hundreds of people milling around and bedlam, we head out of the port to find a mototaxi for the hostel.
Speedboat to the Tri-border
The plan now is to take another boat deeper into the jungle to the the tri-border where three countries meet: Letitia in Colombia, Santa Rosa in Peru, and Tabatinga in Brazil.
This shady region is said to be like the last frontier and doesn’t boast a great reputation…