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.
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.