Amazon River Adventure, Yurimaguas to Iquitos on a Tramp Freighter

by Captain Bill

Guest post by Belden Daniels

Buenos Dias! It is now early Saturday morning, 9/17/11, just after the sun has risen at 5:30am. Here on the Equator, the sun sets at about 6 and rises about 6 all year around, varying only about 15 minutes from Summer December 22 to Winter June 21. I am sitting outside on the deck  of the SS Eduardo VI after my first day and first night on the Amazon. All my many new Peruvian friends and acquaintances think this is really weird and fascinating — their Gringo friend typing away on his computer sitting in the bright Amazon sun on the deck right by the Wheelhouse of the ship, just above the cattle, the bananas piled high, the salt, two Chinese generators and a handful of spanking shiny Suzuki motorcycles. We are surrounded by young kids and young people gawking and talking, including “Aida” a smart and fluent teacher from Yurimaguas bringing her teenage secondary school charges on a field trip on the river to Iquitos. Now six are doing the crossword together in Spanish I think it is not the NYT by any stretch, but everyone is having fun. Who is the husband of Fatima? What is the word for Latin money – three letters? What is the symbol in Latin #s for 150? We have the C, now struggling for the “50″. Ah, yes, it’s L.

The Eduardo VI makes the SS Vietnam pacqueboat which Pamela and I took from Singapore to Sri Lanka in 1960 seem like the Queen Mary. That ship loaded on the rubber first, the tin second, the exotic Spanish flamenco dance troupe third, and us fourth. Wonderful French food, movies and wine. Not quite on the SS Eduardo. Here people get loaded first: 15 or so people in 8 very simple metal cabins with a sheet, a towel, something called a toilet and no frills, plus the 110 person mix of Peruvian Amazonians in their hammocks [including Aida and her charges] on two hammock decks with six young Europeans — 2 Brits, David now on his 3rd year traveling the world and Kevin the Scot, beautiful Marta from Poland with Martin the chef from the Czech Republic, even more beautiful Agatha [oh, the French say that so much more beautifully than the English!] and Frederick from France – all committed world travelers working, learning languages and traveling slowly around the world, in no hurry to go home.

Nothing runs on schedule here. The nonchalant sense of time makes my friend Paul Wright smile a bemused smile, and I am now totally captured by Peruvian time, never my strong suit. Paul, an expat Californian who is my traveling companion all the way down the Amazon until he decides to get off, has lived on the Amazon for 45 years and has the patience to show for it.

Paul, is 79 with as many stories as I have, and is apparently the only man alive who could arrange for me the almost insuperable task of sailing 3000 miles from boat to boat and city to city and country to country down the Amazon. He calls my shipdeck computer table perch the “longest office in the world” – from Yurimaguas to Samiria to Nauta and Iquitos and Caballo Cocha in Peru, then first to Leticia [a major drug entrepot for moving the world’s best cocoa leaves from the Amazon jungle of Peru to its refinement and manufacture in Columbia, before shipment to Panama and Mexico to move across the border to the world’s largest (and most hypocritical) drug market — the US; I will have an entire Mega Report to talk about the many multiple billions of $ Drug Trade, and our totally irresponsible approach to it – it is the oxygen that permeates the air of Mexico, Panama, Peru and Columbia, but it is seldom seen or heard, only its deadly consequences],  and then Tabatinga in Columbia, and then on to Manaus, Brazil and finally Belem at the mouth of the Amazon on the Atlantic three weeks later in Brazil.

When we arrived in Yurimaguas Thursday, 9/15/11, we didn’t know if we were leaving that evening or Friday 9/16/11. Then we were told 12 noon, but young Harry [pronounced “Harrr-E”], a very handsome 27 year old Peruvian Buck who is Paul’s gopher, bet Paul a beer that it would not set sail until at least 4pm. Harry won. Sometimes we can’t find Harry, but we know where to look – he is usually in a hammock somewhere with yet another beautiful Peruvian girl [really there are no other kinds of Peruvian girls]. Paul asked Harry if it is hard to make love in a hammock, and Harry replied in Spanish “not so much.” Sex here in the Peruvian Amazon jungle is very like Bhutan — a very easy and natural part of life to be enjoyed as often as possible — as the ’60s song says, “Love the one you’re with”. Harry is also an equal opportunity bi-sexual lover, which is apparently quite common here in the Peruvian jungle.

Our wonderful collection of Amazon kids and teenagers are now permanently hanging out with us for the duration. Now sharing potato chips [Frito Lays, god help us] and the vastly better and sweeter very thin fried banana slices sold like potato chips. I much prefer these thin dried, lightly fried banana slices, and think someone could make a fortune challenging Frito Lay with them in the US.

So in a reverse of Singapore, people first, cargo second until the last banana stalks or rice bags are raced to the dock by overloaded porters in shorts and nothing else. We were held up an additional 4 hours by the special difficulty of loading 9 huge head of Brahma – Texas Longhorn cattle on board plus one especially cantankerous bull who definitely did not want to be corralled. Six cowboys were pulling and hauling as two even bigger Chinese generators were being loaded on. The bull realized that if he ran into the generators and knocked them over he could make life very difficult for the cowboys. And he did. The leader of the Chinese generator loading gang was an also very large 250 pound bald Peruvian stevedore, nude but for shorts that were trying very hard to fall off, who could have been a part of the WWW World Wide Wrestling TV circuit. I honestly was worried that he was killed when the bull pounded the generator into him; but he reacted angrily as if he had been only bruised a bit, which he certainly had been. The bull got his tail broken for his malfeasance, and he was much easier to handle once he was broken. A brutal business these pacqueboats. Both the bull and all the equally stubborn cattle were joined on the 130 foot  Eduardo VI by tons of bananas, fish, rice, salt, produce and a half dozen brand new big Japanese motorcycles headed for Iquitos.

Both Tarapoto, a young and thriving drug entrepot [our hotel owned by a mid sized drug lord] and commercial center for a vast Amazon highland agricultural Eden of rice, potatoes, bananas, grapes, coffee, oranges and hundreds of other fruits and vegetables plus, of course, the best cacao in the world for high grade chocolate [not Hershey’s, people are quick to tell me] and cocoa for cocaine  – all segregated by altitude in the Amazon highlands from 1500 feet to 5000,  and Yurimaguas, the first significant up river port town for all of this produce on the Amazon — are both towns of about 120,000 souls plus 60,000 motorbikes in each and 20,000 motor rickshaws, called “”MotoKars”” in this part of the world.

Very few autos at all in the towns or on the roads, but very large trucks filled to the gills driving the dangerous, guard-rail-less two lane black top highways winding up and down and over and around the jungle mountain tops and very sheer green canyons of Virgin Amazon Jungle. On Thursday 9/15/11 we drove the 150 kilometers from Tarapoto in the Andean foothills and Amazon highlands to Yurimaguas on the Amazon lowlands in a “collectivo” bus, my 16th “collectivo” or “publico” since leaving Mexico City one month ago. This remains to date the best bus ride of my life. Cliffs as extreme as Big Sur, but much more windy and sheer, somewhat like the drive from Yosemite over the Sierra Nevadas to Nevada, yet all of this in lush, lush Virgin Amazon jungle! I got more seasick than anytime in the rough Winter Humboldt Current seas of the Galapagos – more like Antarctica, but I managed to keep it all together. I also loved once again wangling my 15th out of 16 collectivo bus rides in the shot gun seat just to the right of the driver – the seat with the best, unobstructed views of the shear cliff drops and mountain tops and rich Virgin Amazon jungle vegetation.

Two other interesting aspects of this trip: first, we had two policia check points because of the heavy drug traffic on all these mountain routes, and at about kilometer 100 we suddenly arrived at what is called the “Abraba” where the Andean foothills and Amazon highlands and Virgin Jungle abruptly ends, and the endless 3000 miles of Amazon lowlands stretching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean begins. Quite a breathtaking sight! My Polish and Czech friends, Marta and Martin, had an apparently far more terrifying ride coming through the heart of the cocoa country with the berserk driver trying to outrun the drug robbers who, if they catch you first strip you of everything, and then your life.

When we finally left Yurimaguas after 4pm, of course we immediately ran aground on a sandbar. After many failed attempts, the Eduardo IV had to come out and pull us back into the channel. Beautiful long Amazon sunset and a near full moon on the river after a usual late afternoon shower.

Our Captain was on his makeshift “bridge” if we can dignify it with such a word. It is literally right next to my cabin, and I hear the very definitely not-power steering wheel cranking its chain and cable port and starboard all night long – soothing actually. Our Eduardo VI Captain has absolutely no instruments [or glass in the two windows] on this bridge, or even a light to steer by. It is all done Mark Twain style by the feel of the constantly shifting river, with new channels and islands appearing and disappearing daily. And navigation at night only by human night vision and a few stars and the good fortune of a full moon once a month. Quite literally Mark Twain style, as electronic depth readers don’t work on the Amazon. They are too easily sheared off in a few days by a log floating by. So the method is that of the 19th Century on the Mississippi drop a line over the side and measure the meters down to the silty bottom. This is especially impressive at the low water season we have now, where the Amazon is 45 to 50 feet lower than it is in April, when it stretches two more miles in both directions into the jungle like the Nile. Sand bar groundings are a part of the journey, as we of course discovered leaving port yesterday. Then of course, as the crew jumps out there is [1] the risk of piranhas that can strip a cow to bone in a 3 minute frenzy [so I said I would last about 30 seconds, which our crowd of cross-word puzzle doing and kaffee klatching teenage friends thought was hilarious] and, more ominously [2] the carnero, which are 10” long and finger thin, with a profound capacity to wriggle into any human orifice and eat their way out. The world is full of risks, but some of these are a little different. Now another hazard: soup thick fog covering the Amazon called the Niebela.

Now as we sail down river on Saturday 9/17/11, we are stopping every 30 minutes or so at every small thatched hut village along the river if they signal with flipping tin sheets in the sun to telegraph that they have cargo to add, such as the endless bananas and more very reluctant cattle heading to their slaughter in Iquitos early Monday morning.  If it is just villagers to come to or leave the ship, they are ferried in a small dugout without the “big” ship having to slow down or go to port – only real cargo, so the priorities on the river here are quite clear. We are now at Noquira, with maybe 200 souls on a sunny day like today living in thatched huts strewn along the river bank. We are here to pick up a huge pile of bananas being placed right beside the nine long horn cattle and one bull in the corral just below me, and one very reluctant cow who keeps jumping in the water and trying to swim away. Oh, now squealing hogs pulled and pushed “walking the plank” in reverse, also headed to Iquitos slaughter.

At each stop, all the vendors come on board with fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, snacks, flashlights, hammocks, agua, and even a live parrot on a stick being sold to anyone who would have him, her or it. As is true of most parrots, this animal does not seem to be very nice. Harry just brought me  a shimbillo, a big foot long seed pod [about twice the size of a Chestnut tree pod] from the jungle with lush white fruit like cold chicken or lobster inside.

Speaking of fruits, I am eating so many fruits and vegetables and fishes I have never seen or heard before in this phenomenally bio-rich environment. There are apparently more than 5000 species of fish in the Amazon, a number I must verify. I did count 22 different species in the Yurimaguas market early yesterday [Friday 9/16/11] all of which were available either salt or fresh: [1] the charming piranha, of course, with a very scary row of extremely sharp teeth like Jaws in Goldfinger; [2] very big sardinas up to nine inches long, [3] liza, [4] palometa, [4] boyuichico, [5] pasaco, [6] llambino, [7] doricella, which look like pike, [8] acarausu, with a large blue spot on the low back near the dorsal fin, [9] toonore, a superb fish we had the night before on the balcony of an open air restaurant in Tarapoto, [10] sabalo, [11] maparate, [12] bagre, which seem to me to be a form of catfish, [13] dorado, a fish I know and again had last night, [14] lagirto blanco, [15] paco, also last night, [16] gamitano, [17] arawana, that have huge scales the size of silver dollars, and are a delicacy in the Middle East and Asia, [18] bujunqui, [19] corbeno, [20] shuyo, [21] paiche, and last but far from least [22] 30 foot long eels with bodies the thickness of a big upper arm!

A remarkable, and as usual, somewhat troubling world. So glad I am here. I love just sitting outside my cabin and watch the river flow by, and all the people and fish and boats [beyond the hundreds of dugouts are dragon boats very much like those on the Bangkok River that are the short haul boats for people and produce] from a beautiful early 5:30 sunrise to an equally beautiful 5:30 sunset, which we have just had. So now to bed before landing early tomorrow morning shortly after sunrise.

It is now sunrise, Sunday morning 9/18/11 and we are in our first truly heavy “Calcutta monsoon-like” bucket downpour. Paul says the seasons of the Amazon are wet and far wetter; we are now in mere “wet”. And, you guessed it, the 3am landing in Nauta is now more like late morning. Too many cows and pigs and bananas to load at too many stops coming down river. We will see…
Love to all, Belden Daniels

Amazon River Adventure, Yurimaguas to Iquitos on a tramp Freighter

Bill Grimes is the publisher of the Captain’s Blog. The opinions and details of guest posts may or may not express the opinions of Bill Grimes or Dawn on the Amazon E.I.R.L.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Denis Cole September 21, 2014 at 5:55 pm

Can you please advise me the whereabouts of Paul Wright, assuming he is still alive! He owes me money and I haven’t been able to contact him for 3 years.
I have known him since he had his travel business in LA and used to visit Brasil where I was working. I am now retired and living in Miami.
I’ve given up on ever seeing my money again but am curious as to what he is doing these days.

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