Iquitos is the world’s largest city that is inaccessible by road. It’s in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and came into its present sizeable being through a rubber boom from the late 19th century to early in the 20th century.
There is no real hope to cycle to Iquitos – people either take a boat along the Amazon River and one of its tributaries or they fly. Most tourists seem to fly, but in doing so they miss out on experiencing travelling through this region as many locals do. It takes one a little away from beaten track…for there is no track.
To do or to be?
Sure, flying is quicker and perhaps may seem necessary if time is short and there are lots of things that a person needs to do. However, if a person has a style of travel more focused on learning how to be then taking a boat is a highly valuable experience.
For me making the space to travel by boat down the river, although at times exhausting, frustrating, and boring, brought with it space to cultivate patience, acceptance, and contentment. I suspect that from here on in my life I will find it slightly easier to just simply be…with the moment, with my-self, and with whatever is before me – such flow and acceptance I don’t doubt will be bring more happiness (the eudaimonic sort that I would most like) into my life.
The different ways to float
There are varying options as to how to travel by boat through the Amazon. I pretty much did them all over the last few weeks getting into and out of Iquitos.
The very slow and very inexpensive way – lanchas
First, from Pucallpa to Iquitos I took a cargo boat. For a very economical price (150 Soles – just over £30), some 200 or so other folk (only a few of which are tourists) and I, all swinging on hammocks with a mass of cargo (from bananas to flat screen televisions), slowly drifted down the river together for several days. It took 3 days to get from Pucallpa to Iquitos (it would be 4 or 5 days to go the over way). There were occasional stops at tiny little jungle villages to drop off/pick up people and cargo. At each stop often delicious, and sometimes mysterious looking, fresh food would get sold by those living at the villages and this was a very welcome relief from the food of questionable quality cooked on board.
Once I’d strung up and got in my hammock on that first evening a big smile crept over my face as I was overcome with an amazing sense of ease and relaxation – there was nothing I had to do except sit in a hammock watch an extended jungle scene pass by for 3 days. My legs were grateful and the rest of my being glad to have the space to sit quietly and rest. Sometimes I read or meditated, and every now and then when I felt like it walking around the decks talking with fellow passengers whom were mostly locals with plenty of time and curiosity. By the end my hammock neighbours became familiar faces and it was quite sad to finally get off the boat. But after three days, unsure at times whether I was completely bored or completely present, it was a relief to set foot on firm ground.
The height of the boat and ability to go up on top deck enables some amazing sunsets to be seen.
The faster and more expensive way – rapidos
If a cargo boat isn’t for you there are other faster yet more expensive ways. Perhaps as much as a quarter of the time and at least twice the price – although I’m not entirely sure as I didn’t compare prices directly. I took a couple of these and had some powerful insights.
I didn’t find it easy to talk to others on these boats because they are very noisy and my level of castellano requires lots of concentration. But in any case no one seems to really speak on these boats – people just seem to sit for hours on end. It’s amazing to observe the self and others – in such a small space for hours at a time (longest boat I took of this type was 14 hours).
How does one fill that time in a meaningful way?
I became extremely mindful – I found myself listening to my body with such attentive care in a way I hadn’t before. I’d load up with food for the journey each time but I have been aware for some time as to how I can use food to escape boredom and distract myself – sometimes I won’t stop eating until there is nothing more to eat. But faced with this extended period of time I had the opportunity to observe what goes on inside of me as I sit with much tasty food before me. My body doesn’t need the food a lot of the time when I reach to eat and the desire is completely based in the mind. My mind because it struggles to just sit and be will work hard to suppress the body’s innate knowing of what it needs. My mind eventually convinces the whole system, sometimes in as little as 5 seconds, that food now is essential. Safe to say I really learnt to listen to my body and this is a practice I’m trying to develop in my life generally. I watched the mind as it demanded and then watch these demands simply subside. I was grateful to have the space to do this.
On these boats I also found it interesting to watch others – this is a very typical way to travel and the people that take these boats exhibited a great deal of patience and acceptance – it takes a long time to travel this way and people, even the children, just get on with the ride. It’s absolutely amazing to see people with time on there hands and what they do with it. My fellow passengers exhibited a level of patience and acceptance I don’t regularly observe in my culture. Phones were barely out and the need for distraction, and the ability to do so in any case, was simply not present. Perhaps this was why on these boats I was always the only traveller, although I did meet one or two coming the other direction from Ecuador to Iquitos.
Short distances to the local villages
If you want to get to the local villages up and down the river around Iquitos then a local boat is the only way to ride. It’s cheap and easy and I paid 4-5 soles for an hour or so journey. These boast put along at a fairly slow speed but they are enjoyable. I didn’t have long enough to get any profound realisations but they are very relaxing.
The complex way – up the Napo with a bike
If you want to take a boat to Columbia or Brazil down the Amazon River, it’s fairly easy. If you want to head back up river to Pucallpa or Yurimaguas, it’s fairly easy. However, if you want to head to Ecuador up the River Napo it’s a bit more complex (here is a useful link that helped me). There is no-one direct boat and cargo boats are few and far between. In all it took me 6 days. First a boat to Mazan (1.5 hours, 15 soles). Then from Mazan to Pantoja (border) via Santa Coltilde. The boat was full up the first day to Santa Coltilde so I went the next and that was the complete journey to Pantoja (stopping at Santa Coltilde for the night) costing 200 soles with 8 hour and 14 hour journey times each day respectively. Then Pantoja to Rocafuerte (1.5 hours, 20 dollars), and finally Rocafuerte to Coca (10 hours, 20 dollars).
It’s not all plane sailing
The trip to Ecuador, which I only completed 3 days ago, was exhausting but I appreciated having the time for myself. I was relieved once it was over but I feel like I know myself a little bit better now. By the time I arrived in Coca, Ecuador, where there was finally a road I could ride, it had been 3 ½ weeks of not biking. I so dearly needed this time away from cycling – to pause, reflect, and look inward. But although I didn’t cycle much I couldn’t get away from the bike and to tell you the truth lugging it down to ports, and on and off boats, was a real burden. Plus, I incurred an additional cost to take it as cargo not quoted in the above. However, by the time I arrived I was extremely excited to know that I would be back on my bike the next day. I was totally ready to ride.