Man of Le Lancha
A guest post by Adrian Walker, “The Snake Whisperer”
Miguel Cervantes made “tilting at windmills” almost fashionable centuries ago and one Peruvian windmill that is deserving of a good tilt is the “lancha” or river ferry that operates between Iquitos and Santa Maria, 100 kms or so distant along the beautiful and meandering Rio Nanay.
My partner and I had decided to take a break from the noise and bustle of the city so what better than an overnight river cruise and a few peaceful days in the small (pop. 2000) village of Santa Maria, last port of call along the great river. We’re advised that the lancha departs twice weekly and takes about 12 hours to reach our destination, most of that by night as scheduled time of leaving is 5 in the afternoon. The return journey downstream will occupy a mere 11 hours and thus some essentials such as food and fluid plus a hammock are called for to undertake this epic journey.
Accordingly we arrive at Morona Cocha at 3 to ensure good seats and are surprised to find the wooden hulled boat is already heaving with Peruvian faces and hammocks plus assorted items of cargo, the latter stored in the lower hull with most humanity on the upper deck of the ageing rustbucket. We choose a hammock site with limited space available as already at least 35 others have their sleeping quarters arranged, most spaced at around 15cms apart, all very cosy! I estimate at least 80 members of humankind aboard.
The scheduled start time of 5 comes and passes as does 6 and as 7 looms with no sign of the boat stirring from its moorings, a few passengers become restless and cries of “vamos” are echoing through the boat, a beseechment which the hoary old captain ignores entirely. Finally a little after 7, and to sighs of relief the lancha springs noisily into some form of animation and its journey commences allowing us to relax and catch the last shreds of daylight as we splutter out along the Nanay.
Evening sets in deeply and with clouds covering the moon and rain looming the hammock is soon in use and problem no. 1 surfaces! A child of 10 or 11 is in occupancy of the hammock adjoining ours and her hands sleepily stray into our space and begin playing “touchy feely” with first my face and gradually, despite frequent rebuffs, my ears and nose are being regularly pulled. As it’s pointless in rebuking a sleeping child I decide upon a positive course of action which is simply to turn around, alas to no avail as the wandering hands immediately find signal pleasure in my feet and toes which begin to be abused. It seems that no relief can be had so a mummy like wrap of a sheet is applied and this at least modifies the errant hand and reduces the stress of toe yanking. Problem no.2 is revealed later in the night when nature calls and as the lancha has but one small washroom situated at the rear of the boat, a delicate limbo beneath the hammocks is called for, however upon swinging my legs free I find a seething mass of bodies sleeping on the floor, mostly children, and little available room to plant two feet without causing serious injury or grief to an infant and his or her mama, inevitably sleeping beside the child. I feel that every child and mother on board has opted to sleep beneath the gringos hammock but eventually manage to escape and commence the limbo rock below the taut strung hammocks. This is when problem no. 3 arises, namely that the secondary sleeping quarters to be favoured is across the narrow set of steps that lead to the washroom. Once more a delicate tiptoe operation is required and completed with minimal abuse from disturbed sleepers. At least I haven’t crushed any infantile skulls!
Apart from these small issues the lancha has a curious odour permeating its very soul, a blend of what I discern to be urine and diesel fuel and added to the LED lighting which burns all night plus the groan of the motor sleep is difficult with all sensory organs being somehow offended.
Morning finally delivers a release from the tortures of the night and we rise to birdsong and soon the village of Anguilla comes sharply into focus, a tiny settlement an hour or so downstream from Santa Maria. Our goal is close and this brings waves of relief to the travellers.
Reaching Santa Maria in brilliant sunshine I am struck by the pretty terraced village surrounded by jungle. The lancha makes berth but almost no one moves and soon we learn that this is merely cargo stop number one and human cargo must await stop 2 before alighting from this uniquely and inadequate Peruvian imitation of the QE2. At last we find our feet on dry land but even before we can consider locating a hospedaje for the night the police invite us into their quarters for a friendly chat. It proves no more than amicable and as all documents are in order, all questions answered satisfactorily and half a page of scribbled notes taken down we are free to find quarters for the night.
Santa Maria boasts a total of 3 such establishments and we visit them all, finding numbers one and two cheap at 10 soles per night but dark, cramped and looking to be flea or worse inhabited we continue on to number 3 which is dearer at 20 soles but possesses riverside rooms with the resultant breeze and a bed as hard as the brick pillow that rests at one end of it. We opt for this more than a toilet roll short of 5 star accommodation, pay for 4 nights to the delight of the owner who promptly disappears the next day on the lancha, thus leaving us to collect our own water to refurbish the tapless bathroom.
These minor discomforts aside, Santa Maria is a charming village peopled with honest inhabitants who enjoy laughter and display unashamed curiosity at a gringo in town, all wanting to chat with my partner as they have learnt that my Espanol is minimal. Any phrase I manage is met with laughter and I soon learn that these people laugh at anything and everything. They enjoy their lives in this small, but exquisitely beautiful environment where doubtless many of them have lived since birth. Eateries abound, all in private homes who do no more than place a blackboard on the sidewalk of their front door, advertising whatever is on for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Choice is limited as generally the blackboards only offer a single item. All are huge servings, comprising lashings of rice, plantain and minimal meat, be it chicken, fish or whatever else is in stock. Refreshments are also served, again dependent upon on what is fruiting so we enjoy a range of limonada, carambola and other juices with our 5 sol meals. Life here is easy and bordering on comfortable despite our bed, the 3 hours daily of power supply and the absence of the internet. I feel as if I’m in a back to the 50’s sitcom.
As a naturalist wildlife is a primary reason for the visit and I’m far from disappointed with a near town swamp crossed by a convenient bridge providing an abundance of birdlife inclusive of a handful of rarities. It’s well vegetated and clearly seasonal but the season is right and migratory species abound in addition to numerous other specialised species that favour just such habitat. In a few days our birdlist has swollen to in excess of 150 species. That’s impressive stuff, even in bird rich Peru.
After our 4 night stay which has left us satisfied, relaxed and at total ease with the village and its friendly inhabitants we await again the arrival of the lancha, only to find that manana is the cry despite the advice we had received as to its comings and goings. We choose one further night in our lodgings where the owner is yet to return and water is still being carried by the Aquarian residents. The lancha of course fails to arrive and by 7 at night local advice is manana, delivered casually as if they’re used to this level of unreliability. Manana comes and is close to lapsing with no lancha and again we’re assured manana. This time we opt to move house and after discussions with some of our new found amigos we quickly find an alternative room which comes free of charge and is perhaps more comfortable than the one we have abandoned. Two days late the legendary lancha arrives at 5, stops at 3 ports within the confines of the village to load cargo before finally reaching the main loading point where we gratefully board the slow boat to Iquitos, a mere 3 and a half hours after its arrival in Santa Maria. The trip home is similar to the one we have endured in getting to Santa Maria initially but downstream is reduced to 10 hours of discomfort, hammock disturbances, odour of humankind, machinery noise and the other minor bothers of this Peruvian windmill and somehow the 30 soles for us both seems excessive for the service offered.
In summary the lancha can only be described as an “experience” whereas Santa Maria is a jewel in the Peruvian crown, be it golden or tin, the people are friendly, honest and warm, the village unequal in population as few older teenagers remain, quiet perhaps because of that very reason, beautiful in the extreme, and welcoming to those who care to take the journey. To close a simple example of that camararderie should suffice. Late in our stay we note a blackboard outside a house we haven’t eaten in which declares prominently “majas carne con arroz 3.50”, in short meat with rice, and so we stop by and order same. Firstly a jug of carambola refresco is delivered, secondly a full plate of rice, beans, meat and plantain is served. It’s huge and more than enough for two. Having eaten our fill I proffer 5 soles to the overweight cook and we turn to leave, content to give her a small tip. This fails as she insists on change being handed over and refuses politely to accept the gratuity. I give the 1.5 sole to a boy who loads our baggage in darkness on the lancha and we sail to Iquitos dreaming of Santa Maria where the world is honest, unhustled, unharried and clean, a return to a simpler world.
Man of Le Lancha
A guest post by Adrian Walker, “The Snake Whisperer”
More articles by Adrian Walker about his experience in Iquitos and the Amazon Jungle;