Cargo ship of­fers leisurely trip through jun­gle

In­stead of fly­ing to a re­mote Peru­vian city, Emily Gille­spie took a me­an­der­ing cruise down the Ama­zon — on a cargo ship.

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As the boat glided down the Ama­zon River, I swung from a ham­mock and watched the seem­ingly end­less jun­gle pass by. I was en­tranced; I’d never seen so many shades of green in one place. I had come to wit­ness the Ama­zon rain­for­est first­hand, and it was al­ready putting on an amaz­ing show.

Com­mand­ing 2.3 mil­lion square miles, the rain­for­est is one of the most bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse places on the planet, home to mil­lions of species of plants, an­i­mals and in­sects, many of which have yet to be iden­ti­fied by sci­en­tists.

Thanks in part to the rub­ber boom of the late 1800s, it’s ac­ces­si­ble to vis­i­tors through a hand­ful of port towns that dot the edges of a few of the thou­sands of rivers that weave through the jun­gle. One of the best of those towns for bas­ing a visit to the Ama­zon is Iquitos, Peru — which, at more than 400,000 peo­ple, is ac­tu­ally a city. Aside from one high­way that runs be­tween it and a smaller nearby port town, there are no roads con­nect­ing Iquitos to the out­side world. The only way into and out of the city is by plane or boat.

While most peo­ple opt for the un­der-two-hour flight from Lima or a day­long speed­boat ride from a town reach­able by car, I de­cided on a more un­com­mon ap­proach: a three-day cruise via cargo ship.

I learned that cargo ships were an Ama­zon River basin trans­porta­tion op­tion from a Ger­man cou­ple I met while trav­el­ling in South Amer­ica with my hus­band. It sounded so ro­man­tic. We’d find a boat with room for us and spend a few days drift­ing along two trib­u­tary rivers be­fore meet­ing up with the world-fa­mous Ama­zon River. Flanked by wild jun­gle, I would take in the first sights and sounds at a slow, re­laxed pace.

Thank­fully, we’re flex­i­ble trav­ellers and were on a leisurely sched­ule, be­cause you can’t book these trips in ad­vance, and sched­ules are un­cer­tain. Just trav­el­ling from the north­west­ern city of Tru­jillo, where we’d en­joyed some beach time, to Yurimaguas, the Peru­vian river-port town from which the cargo ships de­part, re­quired a 20-hour-plus bus ride fol­lowed by a two-hour ride in a colec­tivo — es­sen­tially, a shared taxi.

When my hus­band and I ar­rived in Yurimaguas, we went straight to the cen­tral mar­ket to buy sup­plies for the cruise: ham­mocks and mos­quito nets; bowls for our meals aboard the ship; lots of bot­tled wa­ter; and snacks to get us by should the food look dodgy.

Then we headed for the port in the north­east corner of town, which our mo­to­taxi driver called Enapu. The small dock, which could more ac­cu­rately be de­scribed as a slab of flat shore­line that abuts the river, had enough space for a hand­ful of boats. Us­ing

slats of wood as ramps from the muddy ground, men car­ried arm­fuls of wa­ter­mel­ons, bags of rice, fur­ni­ture, elec­tron­ics and live an­i­mals onto two docked cargo ships.

Af­ter talk­ing to a man in an au­thor­i­ta­tive-look­ing or­ange vest, I dis­cov­ered that only one boat, the Kiara I, would wel­come us aboard.

In be­tween the ac­tiv­ity, we slipped onto the Kiara I and strung up our ham­mocks be­tween rusty holes in the ceil­ing of the open-air deck at the stern of the boat.

Once we got sit­u­ated, we waited. While cargo boats in the area reg­u­larly al­low trav­ellers pas­sage for a fee (we paid the equiv­a­lent of about $30 apiece, which in­cluded meals), the cargo is the pri­or­ity and the boat would only leave once the 200-foot ship was full. That, how­ever, was a dif­fi­cult thing to de­ter­mine.

To pass the time, I chat­ted with our ham­mock-mates. Of the roughly 50 pas­sen­gers, about 10 were in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers like us, and the rest were lo­cals. Through my con­ver­sa­tional Span­ish, I learned that some of the lo­cals were re­lated to the crew and oth­ers were just go­ing be­tween towns af­ter do­ing busi­ness or vis­it­ing fam­ily.

Sim­ply sit­ting on the docked boat was sur­pris­ingly en­joy­able. At one point, a pod of dol­phins splashed around our ship for a few hours.

Some were the pink dol­phins that are fa­mous in the Ama­zon, which prompted “awws” from all the non-peruvians.

By the time the boat fi­nally left, we’d spent a to­tal of 36 hours on the docked ship. But once we got go­ing, any frus­tra­tion over the de­lay dis­si­pated. The gen­tle, warm breezes and the sights and sounds of the Ama­zon made for a tran­quil ex­pe­ri­ence. Over the low rum­ble of the ship’s en­gine, I heard a choir of birds chirp­ing and the sound of crick­ets screech­ing. Trees thick with vines were so dense that there was no way to see much far­ther than the wa­ter’s edge.

Ev­ery so of­ten, the green of the for­est was bro­ken up by stilted thatched houses. As the boat slowly passed, I cap­tured glimpses into the lives of those who called the Ama­zon home: a young woman wash­ing clothes, boys play­ing soc­cer in a field, young men load­ing ba­nanas onto a long wooden boat.

The ac­com­mo­da­tions were about what you’d ex­pect from a cargo ship; wa­ter pooled in parts of the rusty deck, and spi­ders came out in droves at night. At one point, I spot­ted a fat, sev­eral-inch-long black bee­tle that sent me run­ning.

The bath­rooms were aw­ful. The toi­let had no seat and didn’t flush, so waste had to be washed down with a bucket and seem­ingly flowed into the river. A pipe hang­ing from the ceil­ing in the mid­dle of the room was used to fill the bucket. It also dou­bled as a shower, which I couldn’t bring my­self to use. Thank­fully, I had thought to pack baby wipes, which I used ev­ery day. Even so, I was grimy.

Be­tween watch­ing the scenery go by and chat­ting with other pas­sen­gers, I also filled the days ly­ing in my ham­mock read­ing. Each night on board, the in­ter­na­tional pas­sen­gers crowded around a small head­lamp and played var­i­ous games. I had packed a bot­tle of rum, which got passed around, and that, along with some trans­la­tion-in­duced hi­lar­ity, had us laugh­ing into the night.

By the end of the sec­ond day, our boat reached Nauta, the small town that con­nects to Iquitos by road. Here, a lot of lo­cals got off. A bus to Iquitos would take only about two hours, rather than the eight hours left to go via boat. Hav­ing gone four days with­out show­er­ing, the idea of get­ting to my des­ti­na­tion more quickly was pretty ap­peal­ing. But, af­ter buy­ing some beer and snacks, all the in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers got back on the boat. We just weren’t done with our jour­ney.

Sur­rounded by stranger­sturned-friends, I watched as the blue sky faded to or­anges and pinks that deep­ened as the sun set. A feel­ing of con­tent­ment washed over me. The small­est mo­ments and sim­plest ob­ser­va­tions were en­joyed in full be­cause we had nowhere else to be.

Early the next morn­ing, we drifted into the port at Iquitos. Groggy but ex­cited to have fi­nally made it, we ex­changed con­tact in­for­ma­tion and went our sep­a­rate ways.

Over­all, the trip was im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing. The slow pace al­lowed me to re­ally get to know my neigh­bours. Every­one on the Kiara I came from dif­fer­ent walks of life, but on the ship, we were all equal. We were con­fined to the same space, ate the same meals and suf­fered through the same mos­quito-filled, air-con­di­tion-less heat to­gether. It was a hum­bling re­minder that we’re all the same — no bet­ter or worse than any­one else in this world.

Choos­ing to take this jour­ney is like choos­ing to hand-write a let­ter. Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has made it quicker to type out an email, but putting pen to pa­per forces your brain to slow down, mak­ing ideas flow dif­fer­ently. It’s more ther­a­peu­tic and, in my opinion, more mean­ing­ful.

With trav­el­ling, we’ve made it eas­ier to reach far-flung places, but I’m start­ing to won­der if we lose some­thing when we jet around from place to place. Some­times, I think the slow boat is ex­actly what we need.

For The Wash­ing­ton Post


A boat coasts along the Hual­laga River at sun­set near the town of Yurimaguas, the start­ing point for a trip down the Ama­zon.

Pas­sen­gers aboard the Kiara I — some lo­cals, some trav­ellers — play cards to pass the time dur­ing their three-day jour­ney from Yurimaguas to Iquitos.


Af­ter a stop to un­load cargo and pas­sen­gers in Nauta, the Kiara I con­tin­ues on the Marañón River be­fore meet­ing with the Ama­zon.

Ham­mocks strung from metal pipes and rusty beams serve as the sleep­ing ar­range­ments for pas­sen­gers who hop aboard the Kiara I.

Men load the Kiara I with food, fur­ni­ture and live an­i­mals at Enapu’s port. Cargo ships such as the Kiara I won’t leave un­til the ship is fully loaded.

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