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A Low-Budget Adventure River Trip Through the Ecuador/Peru Rainforest

A hobo shares the story of his travels through Brazil, Peru and Ecuador -- including a ride on "Noah's Ark."

I am sure some of you are looking out the window and dreaming about how nice it would be to visit the Amazon River. I look out the window and think of a past life, simple and clean. Clean sheets, normal food, and my best friends. I am very lucky and would not change anything.

Iquitos, Peru is one of the best places I have visited. I say this with trepidation, though, because it is not an easy city. Most cities are simple for travelers. They enter the city, and there are 3-4 things to go see. They spend each day looking at them, then leave. This is not true in Iquitos. You enter, stay confused, and then you leave. Or you pay a lot of money for a tour, and are still confused, and you leave. Hopefully happier than you came.

I reread that paragraph, and said to myself, "Andy, that does not make sense." True, but that is Iquitos, Peru. It is a mess. Nothing is simple in Iquitos. If you go to Jungle Jim's, Ari's Restaurant, or the Gringo Bar and sit around, you will hear lot of stories. But the stories are all about random events. The person was walking through the market, or down the street, and someone walked up with a strange animal. These funny little things happen daily, but there is no way to plan them, and this frustrates the normal travelers; they leave and are not sure what they did in Iquitos. For the ones that feel they must do something, or they would be wasting their time-- they pay for a tour to a lodge in the jungle. This optimizes their chance of something happening, and when they leave they can say to their friends... "I went on this tour."

Now that sounds simple. Book a tour, enjoy the trip, see the jungle and animals. What is wrong with that? Nothing. But I have a dream of seeing a 15 foot alligator or hacking my way through a jungle with a machete, then walking under a waterfall for a swim. The problem is the animals do not cooperate. So each lodge has a few animals as pets. A monkey, and various birds, or a big snake for the visitors to see. This is special, but not quite as exciting adventure for "Indiana Jones."

The guides have a difficult job here. The people come to see the jungle and animals and will pay lots of money. So, why is this a problem? The jungle is work. It is extremely difficult. The average traveler or tourist, expecting comfort, is not prepared physically or mentally for this type of trip. The words 'comfort' and 'jungle' are not compatible.

I have already started some explorations. I found a few guides who will take me off the normal path. I know where the docks are, and which people have boats for hire. I saw a place to charter airplanes with pontoons to fly into the jungle and land on distant rivers. I am learning which Indian villages are only for show for the tourist, and the ones that very few people visit. I am taking the time to listen and learn. I am just hanging out. A good activity for a traveler.

With each of these adventures I will write a detailed story. I am starting with some simple day trips, progressively getting more complicated as I learn what equipment is necessary and where to go. I will include photos, prices, and a map drawn with my computer. This is not easy, lots of planning. So be patient as I meander through life on the Amazon River.

A TRIP FROM QUITO, ECUADOR TO IQUITOS, PERU BY THE RIVER NAPO

We wanted to find the hobo budget traveler route from Quito, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru. The tourist route we know exists for 600-700 dollars. The question is, can a traveler do it on a hobo budget? Say... Fifty dollars?

OVERVIEW OF TRIP

We took a bus from Quito, Ecuador to Tena, then another bus to Coca, Ecuador. One-day boat trip to Nuevo Rocafuerte at the border of Ecuador and Peru. Another two-hour boat trip to cross the border to a city on the Peruvian side called Pantoja. Then a 4-5 day trip down the river to the town of Masan. Took a 3 wheeled motorbike across a narrow strip of land, and then 1 hour boat ride to Iquitos, Peru. This took about 10 days.

NOTE: It is not necessary to go to Tena. Going directly to Coca is cheaper and faster. It was just a choice we made.

WHY THE RIVER NAPO?

A trip to any destination or country is better if you enter from one way and leave from another. In most countries that means you go to the next country. Very few proceed north of Ecuador to Colombia because of the problems with Guerillas. It is therefore normal for people to leave Ecuador by the city of Tumbes, but a great alternative is to leave by the River Napo to Iquitos, Peru. Then proceed onward either toward Brazil or travel west by river to Yurimaugas and catch a bus, or south by river to Pucallpa and catch a bus. There are also cheap airplane flights to Lima, Peru for 80 dollars US.

Iquitos, Peru is where the Amazon River and the Napo River meet. A great base to enter the jungle and see the wild animals, with local villagers.

Here is a map that may explain better the routes of the Gringo Trail for the top of South America.

THIS IS A MAP AND MESSAGE BOARD OF THE RIO NAPO TRIP http://www.hobotraveler.com/053napomap.php

MY LIST OF CONCERNS OR PROBLEMS LISTED IN A PRIOR NEWSLETTER-- AND BRIEF ANSWERS.

  1. The guidebooks are very, very vague. This is true, and they will remain so for a few years.
  2. have not met anyone yet that has done the trip. There are people doing the trip, but you would only find them in Coca, Ecuador or Iquitos, Peru.
  3. All the Eco-tours just get you near Coca or Tena and not down the river to Peru. They do take you down the river, but just to see stuff. Forget the Eco-tours and other excursions. Waste of time.
  4. Some sort of on-going border dispute between Peru and Ecuador. This ended in November of 2000. The relations appear to be OK, and I expect will remain so.
  5. The boats are small, so shelters have to be made on shore. This could be true for some travelers, but 95 percent of the time, you will be able to rent secure and dry hammock space from locals.
  6. The water is high right now, they say. Supposed to be faster. Fast water is only a benefit, but in reality it still appears very slow.
  7. Isolation leads to the ability to rob. Never was that isolated. But if you rented a personal canoe and traveled with a private guide or individual, this would be true.
  8. The culture always makes people say what you want to hear, and not the reality. So to separate the noise people tell you from the reality is difficult. Still a problem. The solution is to just wait it out. They will say nothing exists, but a good solution will always turn up.
  9. Ecology issues become blurred with reality issues, Marketing of what people want is different from what is real. Do not be concerned with ecological sites or tours; they are not presently giving any information of value on the Rio Napo trip.
  10. I may need a minimum of 8-12 people to rent a boat. This was not the case. Do not worry, the people will be there-- not necessarily other travelers; the locals also need to travel the river.
  11. I may have to change to another boat at the border of Ecuador and Peru. Yes this is true, but not a problem. There can be one-to four-day layovers.
  12. The cargo boats only leave when they are full. This can lead to delays and unexpected expense. Yes there are delays, but for the most part, the expense is no more than a couple US dollars per extra day.
  13. Malaria, dengue, and cholera are possible diseases. This is the same as any place in South America, but there is also head lice to avoid. Do not sleep in the same hammock or get too close to some of the locals.
  14. Drug traffickers along the border of Colombia and Peru. I am sure they exist, but they’re almost impossible to find.
  15. Possibly illegal to transport cargo on the river. -It is legal, but not being done in large quantities. There is very little commercial activity at this border.
  16. Where to get stamp on passport? In Ecuador you get a stamp in Coca, and in Peru you get one at Pantoja.

TENA, ECUADOR

After a trip by bus from Quito, Ecuador, we arrived in Tena late in the afternoon and settled into the Amazonas Hotel for the night.

Woke up at 5:30 in the morning. Roosters have been crowing incessantly for the last hour with a few dogs barking for good measure. I finally succumbed to consciousness, and decided to get a cup of coffee and type on this computer. There is no electrical plug in the room, or in the bathroom, so I performed my normal procedure of replacing the light socket in the middle of the room with the adapter socket that has 2 plugs on it, and then screwing in the light bulb again. My extension cord gives me enough cord to reach my computer. I will need to hurry because they will probably turn off the electricity at 6:00 in the morning. The electricity is turned on at 6:00 at night and probably turned off again at 6:00 in the morning.

Tena is nice, and modern, but also backward at the same time. It has been raining intermittently since we arrive, which gives a person a wet and soggy feeling. Always feeling a little wet. The Hostal Amazonas for two dollars and fifty cents is quite nice, except for that unknown variety of bugs that scurry away when I turn on the lights. They are probably cockroaches, but I really do not want to investigate. This is definitely a place where one needs to shake one’s underwear before putting it on.

I have not seen any Indians dressed in indigenous clothes. My ability to speak Spanish has greatly decreased. They speak a really badly pronounced Spanish mixed with lots of words of Quechua. And because they really do not care if they understand, it makes life a little frustrating. Mark remarked that I have a short fuse sometimes. It is not temper, I told him, but me giving them direct orders, in an extremely forceful way. This is not always good, but, as in most countries, there are two types of people, the people that give orders and the people that take orders. When I need to accomplish something quickly, I give orders. This is a tourist place, and the locals have decided that the best way to deal with the tourists is to just confuse them, and they will pay anything. So they do not like that I ask how much things cost before I pay. Tourists change a place, they pay a lot of money for anything, and think that they are helping the people. I suppose in some ways they are, but more often then not, the locals just consider the tourists stupid, and naive. So in reality the goal is not accomplished, because there is no mutual respect created between cultures. It is easy to understand why people do not talk, and bargain hard, or discuss thing with the locals. It does not cost that much in the first place, and to force the people to listen and talk is tiresome.

The trip took 6 hours from Quito. We paid 5 dollars US and left at 9:30 in the morning. It would have been better to leave as early as possible. But Mark is one of those people that needs to sleep and eat breakfast. That is OK, but not the best way to travel in Ecuador. Better to leave very early and arrive early. Then, if the bus has trouble, we still arrive before dark. I went along with Mark on this point because I did not want to argue. He is an experienced traveler, but he travels with nothing of value and therefore takes little caution, leaving life to fate, and doesn't worry about anything. On the other hand, he really feels that going down the River Napo should not be done alone. I think he likes to travel with other people. I like to travel alone, because it is safer for me. I do not have to compromise my schedule, or my ways of being safe.

TENA

Tena is definitely a one-horse town. Everywhere we go, there are tours on the river or jungle. Everyone we see looks like they just came back from a tour, walking in tow of the guide of the day, and sharing dinner with the guide and other locals. Being good tourists, they also pay. Mark is a good travel companion because neither one of us can be bothered by either tourists or guides. Of course we are, by definition, tourists. I am sure the local trips are overpriced and very beautiful-- like a kindergarten class; the teacher tells you what to do, and all the kids fight over being first. They tell you what, and when to see something--showing only the picture of the world they wish to present.

So we are very excited because we will go down the river Napo with no guide, making our own adventure, good or bad.

I just went and woke Mark to a flurry of complaints. He started on a list of reasons he could not sleep. The military guys ran by at 5:00, shouting off cadence. "There was a carnival outside the door!" Between the chickens the dogs, and military how can you sleep? The sun has not broken across the horizon. Morning in Tena. We leave for another 6-hour bus trip to Coca. You may look at this as torture, but this is part of our tour. Through muddy roads, rainforest, fast running rivers, and every type of local normal behavior. The bus must be included to enjoy the total picture.

Please click here for photos

More photos

COCA, ECUADOR

Five hours on a bus from Tena to Coca. The bus stopped and picked up every person that raised a hand, from school children to farmers with plastic containers of gas. A few men with hardhats who either work for petroleum companies or on road crews.

The trip through this jungle pass is beautiful. Tall trees with moss hanging down, ferns spreading their branches. Dense green as far as you can see, with low-hanging clouds over the valleys and mountains. Because the winding road makes me get motion sick if I look at the passing vegetation, I must fix my eyes on things farther away. We are in the very front of the bus, so there is less of a problem, but the constant stopping and starting, weaving back and forth as we work our way through mountain passes, climbing, and dropping around the curves of the mountain makes me weak.

Houses along the way are made of wood. Simple, solid looking homes inserted into a cocoon of green--often hard to see for all the foliage that surrounds the house. We came upon small groupings of houses and maybe a small school. Hard to believe that there are enough students to have a school. This is a beautiful place to see and a horrible place to live. Farmers clear away trees and the jungle reclaims it the next day. Water is so abundant that there are streams and waterfalls everywhere: alongside the road, and coming out of the side of mountains. Corn planted alongside the road is full of weeds, trees, and brush. On the sides of mountains, the only things that do not grow plants are the road, and the occasional concrete pad in front of houses.

COCA

Mark is serious and says we have reached the end of the line. The road has ended in his mind here, and so has the normal world. We are on the fringe of places where normal things like electricity and running water are not common. Our present hotel is a mix of these two forms of civilization. We have lights and water, but the room is very dirty and bleak. Noise is constant outside. Music, the wonderful part of culture, is everywhere and overbearing. The restaurant below has women and guys asking us to buy them a beer. They look like working women. We hope they do not decide to work in our hotel.

Fortunately we find another hotel. One notch up and a leap from 3 dollars a night USA to 3.50 dollars night. We move this morning to the Florida Hostal. All the hotels in the city are full with what we believe are petroleum workers. Only a few close to the dock on the River Napo have vacancies. This is perfect, because we have to go there 3 times a day to check for incoming cargo boats.

Hot, dusty, and full of noise. Mark says to me, "I normally go to beautiful places." I do not comment, because, for the most part, he is claiming his status as a tourist. Beauty first, reality second. This is reality and difficult to avoid. There is an expensive hotel along the river. It has a disco, a swimming pool with a slide, and parking. We are fully capable of avoiding the reality of local life, but I have no desire to. I want to smell, hear, and feel the culture. There are bread stands, food cooking in the street, smoking and smelling. Water trucks filling up tanks on tops of roofs, and large trucks rambling along the road, with military guys idly standing and comparing notes, looking for something.

I have been to many places in Colombia, or Ecuador, or Peru where I was the only Gringo. There is a Gringo trail and we are not on it. Mark comments every hour on the hour, "They are all looking at us." I realize that I am immune to this--and consider it normal. I look for the friendly faces, and happiness interspersed among the many faces of vendors and small children, or mothers with babies strapped to their backs. Mark says, "I have not seen one whitey." This is not racist, only the obvious. We are the only white Gringo people in the city. "This is why we came," I said, "To see if we can go to Iquitos by water." I am sure we can. But.... how difficult will it be? More importantly: is it for the cheap hobo budget traveler? And can anyone make the trip? My impression as we are about to leave the clear Gringo trail of the Guidebook is yes, for sure. It is possible to travel to Iquitos. But will it become part of the the Gringo Trail?

For those of you that are complaining about the word Gringo: In Central America and Mexico it refers to all people from the USA, but in South America it includes all people that are white or tourists-- and sometimes they just group all people as Americans and blame the USA for all sins. The people from the USA represent about 3-4 percent of the travelers; most travelers here are European. The USA has no presence in people. Music, movies, and computer culture... yes.

Photos: http://www.hobotraveler.com/055tcocacity.shtml

ON THE DOCK - RIVER NAPO - ECUADOR

There is a beautiful dock at Coca, covered with trees and overhanging the river. We are at the convergence of the Coca and the Napo Rivers. Looking down, we can see the long narrow boats about 15 meters long that carry people, cargo, and, I am sure, a few animals.

The boats are supposed to leave on Mondays and Thursday. We arrived in the afternoon on Thursday. The boat had already left, and we would need to wait until Monday. Various boats go down the river daily, some carrying petroleum workers to the work site. So everyday there is a possibility of finding a boat to Nueva Rocafuerte, at the border of Ecuador and Peru. We ask several times a day. There is a military building for the Captain of the Docks and supervisors for security. About five people are standing in front of the Captain's offices at all times. A couple of guys with guns, a couple of locals, and what appear to be off duty workers with nothing to do.

Friday, someone from the military post led us to a boat captain. He was leaving on Saturday at 8:30. We were very fortunate to meet a man who spoke English, an Ecuadorian married to a Canadian woman. He lives across from the Auca Hotel at the Tame Building. He told us the immigration office was nearby. This perked up my ears, because I had not known there was an immigration office. I had asked at least 5 times where we get a exit stamp on our visa. The military guys keep nodding their heads when I say Nuevo Rocafuerte, and I am sure that they do not understand well. There is no central information that is clear and accurate. This is confusing, and I speak very good Spanish.

Photos: http://www.hobotraveler.com/055coca.shtml

IMMIGRATION

The immigration office is 2 blocks from the Dock. It is on the third floor above the Tame Building. If you stand in front of the expensive Auca Hotel and look across the street, the Tame building is on the right corner of the street. Immigration is right around the corner and up. You will see a sign. The hours are not clear, but they do seem to be open daily. The boats leave very early in the morning, and the office will probably be closed-- so you need to get the exit stamp the day before. The boats that leave on Monday could be a problem because if the office is closed, you will not have a stamp. At this point, we are not sure if the office is closed. Now there may be another office at the Nuevo Rocafuerte post, and perhaps we could also do this there.

SUPPLIES NEEDED

GET MONEY IN QUITO !!! You can get a credit card advance on Visa but not MasterCard. Bring toilet paper, water, food, mosquito net, mosquito repellent, umbrella or poncho, rash medicine, hammock with ropes, snacks.

Mark has broken out in a rash. I had one on the Amazon coming from Manaus to Iquitos in the past. So I recommend you carry a small tube of antibiotic creme. This will help with most rashes including heat rash. There is gossip of some form of wood particles in the water.

GUIDES

There are a few guides in the guidebook in Coca, etc. We stopped and talked to a couple. They spent more time talking about partying and drinking and had very little information. The office of tourism here is only marginally helpful and is some ways just a front for tour companies. The best way to find a guide is to hang around the city for a week and talk with the locals until you meet someone you trust. There are dangers on the river and you will be completely isolated from anyone.

DANGER

The city of Coca for the most part is safe. I would not say it is a friendly place, but the people are cordial and helpful as long as they are selling you something. As usual, staying out to five in the morning and getting drunk and stumbling home is only asking for trouble. I have not felt any real danger here, although I am sure it could be found. I am sure the biggest problem for a naive tourist is to pay way too much. But that is an annoyance and not a danger.

COST (US dollars)

Bus from Quito to Tena, $5. Bus from Tena to Coca, $6. Two nights in hotel, $6.50. Boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte, $10. Mosquito repellant, $1.80. Mosquito net, $6. Hammock, $6. Ropes for hammocks, $3. Total: $44.30

BOAT FROM COCA TO NUEVO ROCAFUERTE

Every time I type the word "Coca", I am sure some of you think of cocaine. Coca is the word for the plant that cocaine is made from. I have no idea why the city and the river have the name "Coca."

Back to the trip. We woke up early, and this time Mark was complaining about the motor that pumps water to the tank on the top of the building. It would turn on and off all night, right outside his room. The Florida Hotel is great, but avoid getting close to the pump. Good place to wash a few clothes before leaving.

With full travel gear, backpacks, frontpack, we walk in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. I do not want to get my gym shoes wet in the boat. A tourist would have on big shoes, long pants, and a safari jacket. Mark wears the travel pants with the zip-off legs, and he washes them once a week--if I am lucky. It is hot and sticky.

We walk down to the dock to wait for the boat, or at least hope the guy shows up. He told us to meet him at the dock at 8:00. This could be anywhere from 7:00 to 10:00 in the morning by my astute interpretation of Latino time. Alfonso arrives at about 9:00 and a sense of relief passes between Mark and me. I do not want to walk back to the room and unpack--and do the same thing the next day, maybe. We have been enjoying the time, people watching. There are people waiting everywhere. Some to work their way down river to their homes or grass roofed huts. They probably want to get out of the big city as quick as possible, and away from all these city folk. Petroleum workers drive up in their 4-wheel-drive trucks, unload strange devices, hardhats, ropes, and other gear--looking a little bit like they are just five minutes out of bed. Drinking is normal, and these are normal people. So I am sure they are still clearing a few cobwebs out of their minds. The sun shines pretty bright and we hope the boat has a roof on it. If it starts to rain we could get very wet. We have no idea what to expect.

The boat has a roof, and I know my computer will live safely another day.... weeeee. The boat is about 20 meters long, and made of steel. The guidebook says that we will go down in dugout canoes. I do not think they have updated this section of the book for the last 10 years. Steel and high powered motors are common. Boat owners make a very good life hauling workers back and forth to the oil rigs. I know I make this sound like an adventure, and it is. We do not have helicopters, armed guards, and oil money to fund this trip.

The boat has only one motor, and is filled to the brim with plastic gas barrels, and about $1000 worth of extension cords, and other supplies. I was hoping it would have 2 motors like the petroleum boats. Not for speed, but for insurance if one breaks. Although Alfonso has a habit of looking around and not seeming confident, he is a very good captain. It looks like a long cigar boat with a roof.

The boat has 10 people on it. The captain and a guy in the front to steer us away from shallow waters. A man and wife with a baby. A girl from Rocafuerte who is 15 years old and going on 20. And another girl from Quito going to visit her brother in the military. She is 18 years old going on 15. One guy that says he owns a finca, or a plantation. Then Mark and me. Two gringos going crazy slowly and steadily. Alfonso is great, and has supplied us with plastic lawn chairs to sit on, and even a few bottles of water to drink. The trip is supposed to take 12 hours, which means we would arrive after dark. Who knows and who cares? There is no way to control this or change it, so we must accept the trip as it comes.

Motoring down this stretch of the river was pleasant. Mark sets up a hammock in the boat, and proceeds to smoke cigarettes and tease the two girls. They are characters, and Mark and I have good laughs. Looking over the side of the boat and out from under the roof, we are right on top of the water. The river is about the width of 3 football fields, and a lot bigger than I thought it would be. But it is not deep and the captain must keep an eye constantly alert looking for the winding path of navigable water. The man at the front sends occasional hand signals of which way to turn, or trees, and sand bars to avoid. This becomes a wet and miserable job when we hit one of the intermittent rain storms

I try to explain in Spanish to Monica, the girl from Quito, about oxbows and why the river meanders and is not straight. I know she does not care, but I am trying hard to remember my geography class in college, and it give me something to think about, and a few new words in Spanish to learn. I am sure they are not the correct words. The river is so wide that it is difficult to realize it meanders, but it does, and the Captain keeps going diagonally back and forth. Each bank of the river shows an almost violent erosion. Trees fall into the water and float away. The soil, mud, and foliage drop into the water and leave a ledge of clay mud, slowly or quickly changing the course of the river. There are steps cut into the bank of the river to allow the inhabitants along the river to get to their dugouts, or boats, and to greet visitors bringing supplies or picking up things to sell--or to hop a ride up or down the river.

I came up with the Spanish word "arco" to call the oxbow. This comes from the word "arch" that would be above a doorway or entrance. These oxbows or arches are formed by the U-bends in the river, then shortcuts form when the river meanders so much that two bends actually connect and create a new path. The outside edge of the U is the deepest, and the path that Alfonso chooses.

The bank of the river has oil machinery, cranes, and other stuff, although we do not see an actual oil well. Only men and machines doing what seems and impossible task of trying to create a place to work inside the horribly dense vegetation. There are clearings, and with all the talk about the depletion of rainforest, and trees along the Amazon. I have a hard time believing the statistics. There are "platano" plantations immersed in the canopy of green. This is a type of banana. These "fincas" are very hard to see because they are entrenched in trees and vines and tall grass. The only signs of organization is that which nature demands. Nature is winning here, and man is just another mosquito.

ARRIVED DRUNK - NUEVA ROCA FUERTE

Not us! Sounded like a good name for this section. Upon arriving at the military base at the border we soon find a whole base full of very drunk soldiers and loud music. Soldiers dressed half in soccer uniforms and half in military dress, and dancing in the streets. Screaming above the music, we present our passports, and tell who, what, and why we did it, and who's to blame. Mark endears himself quickly with to soldiers by drinking their beer and dancing in the office. All 6 foot 4 inches of him. Surrounded by short guys dressed in green.

Morritz, a German guy, was standing there waiting, or questioning the various soldiers about boats, and possible ways to proceed further down the river. Morritz was with a guide from Ecuador, and he had paddled down from Coca in a dugout. It took about a week and he slept along the river-- and smelled like it! I quickly got a head start and told him he stank. I want him down wind from me, and thinking about washing himself, and his clothes, and checking himself... "Do I stink?" He says in bad English. "Yes," I say. I like to get to the point. I hate sharing space with anyone that smells too long. Mark has trouble washing his clothes, but does wash himself a lot. Morritz may have trouble with both. I am soon to find out that there are worse problems.

Click here for photos

NUEVO ROCAFUERTE HOTEL

The best hotel in town, and the worst hotel. It was the only hotel. A long walk down the road and at the edge of the Pueblo was a very nice hotel, or hostal. It had a courtyard with plants and flowers and lots of space. The owner said only one room was available so Mark and I shared the room. Three beds and enough room for 6 people, it was great. We hoped that they would turn on the electricity and water soon. We paid 3 dollars USA per person and the fan never did work, but the electricity did come on at 6:00 for a few hours, but because I waited for morning to shower I missed the water.

After a nice meal, we went to the local disco. I left early, and then Mark stumbled into the room later-- partly because they had turned off the lights in the town, and partly because of the 1 liter size beer they sell here. He said that as the night proceeded, there were 10 guys for every woman, and they were taking turns dancing. Mark has been eating the typical food, accompanied by a papaya or occasional mango. He received a lesson from me on how to flush a toilet with a bucket of water, and that it is required behavior-- you can't just go back to bed. He says diarrhea is worse in India. I keep telling him that he is South America, and there is no requirement to regress in social behaviors. I am few years older than Mark so I go into the big brother act with him. There is a good balance between his energy and my age.

CANOE TO PANTOJA

We do not have a map, but they say we need to go to a Pueblo called Pantoja. It is about 1 hour by fast boat and 2-3 hours by slow boat. Everyone in the city has been saying the price is between 3 dollars and 50 dollars. Most of them have been quoting us the 50 dollar price. A guy with a stern looks tells us he is doing us a favor and will take us there for 10 dollars USA per person. He has a slow boat, and we just came on a 10 hour trip from Coca for 10 dollars. The trip should be about 3 dollars per person. Morritz does not want to pay, and Mark seems indifferent. I suggest walking away. The boat man needs us, and we need him. The more times we walk away, the cheaper the price. We slowly drive him crazy with bad Spanish, and we keep saying 6 dollars per person. He finally shakes his head, and says OK. In the end, he can either make 18 dollars or nothing. He is a the owner of small "tienda" or shop in Pantoja. and makes the trip on a regular basis to pick up various things.

This boat was a dugout canoe. Very long and thin. I tell Mark he is clumsy, and he says he isn't, but I want him to think before he stands up in this thing. It has a motor on the back, and is very relaxing. A nice feeling-- like we were only a few inches off the water-- and sliding along, we could really feel the river. Every wave, branch, or river debris was within touch. Our load of soda, purified water, beer, etc. was traveling well, and as long as there was no rain, life would be good.

Shortly upon leaving we had to check in to another military post and give them our passports. Then we crossed the mouth of a river and two flags, Ecuadorian and Peruvian. We think this was the actual border. But as with all information we collected, it depends, or "depende", as they say in Spanish. Lots of travelers quote all sorts of hearsay. Conjecture and speculation become hard facts when told from one person to another. It is best to keep an open mind, even about information from guidebooks or other travelers.

PANTOJA, PERU

There are two ports in Pantoja. The first is for military and the second for civilians. Upon arriving, we were greeted by three other Gringos: two from the USA and one from the Netherlands. They seemed pleased to see us. I think they were a little bored, and needed a few more people for conversation. Everyone was waiting for a boat to arrive for the trip to Iquitos. There were now six people in our group.

When planning this trip in Quito, Ecuador. I asked various tour companies and travel agents. No one even admitted that it was even possible. So, with six people in our group, I was now becoming more of a tourist and less of an adventurer. But that is normal in reality; most people are not the first to do things, just the first to talk about it.

Pantoja is good fun, and everyone sits around relaxed and talking. There is not much to do, so the conversation is good. Travelers consume copious amounts of Aguadiente, and stories are told.

There is a no running water or electricity in the houses. So every day, we must go to the community water fountain to clean. This is a very pleasant experience because this is also the place where all the locals hang out to talk and wash clothes. The water is refreshing in the tropical heat. Taking my coffee pot, I have to dump water over my head, and then stand there while all the local girls laugh at me. I lather up with the soap, and then dump a full coffee pot of water over my head. This is different but quite effective. Plus a great way to meet people.

This routine continues for a couple of days. We sleep in hammocks for one dollar US and get together each night for dinner and conversation.

The immigration people tracked us down, and we went up and got our entrance stamp. The village is extremely small; all you have to do is walk up hill and ask, and you will quickly encounter the immigration office. I am not sure that there are regular hours, but the lady that ran the office opened it especially for us. Do not forget to get your passport stamped!

Click here for photos

THE BOAT --- The boat!

A blue boat chugs up in front of our temporary home. The name of the boat is Victor. The captain is very happy to arrive and is walking around with a bottle of rum, sharing it with the locals The rest of the crew is preparing the boat to spend the night. They drive a stake about 4-5 feet into the ground, using a large wooden mallet that is bigger than the man using it. They then tie the boat to the stake, and set up a couple of wobbly boards to enter and leave the boat. We are ready-- for what, who knows? The captains says it will cost 20 dollars US and will leave the next day at 7:00.

This is pretty early, so we decide later in the day to transfer our hammock positions to the boat, so we can wake up and leave with no hassles. We are going to wait until dark, because they are unloading wood and supplies, and the crew is working very hard to unload the boat. People are coming and going, and our stuff would not be safe from theft. So we will wait till before it is time to sleep to carry our backpacks aboard. The captain is working diligently, entering and leaving all the local homes or business, carrying his bottle, and laughing and shouting orders to the boat from the shore. This is all exciting for a small village on the River Napo.

Tomorrow we start our boat trip.

NOAH'S ARK II: THE RIVER BOAT TRIP FROM PANTOJA TO MASAN / IQUITOS

The boat trip from Pantoja to Iquitos is the longest time we spent in the boat-- about four days. It started out peaceful and relaxed but ended extremely crowded and noisy. Upon starting, the boat is completely empty of passengers and cargo and slowly fills as we proceed down river.

When people ask me about passenger boats on the Amazon, I am never sure how to answer. This is my third major trip by boat in the Amazon basin. The first started from Manaus, Brazil and went to Tapaghinga, Brazil. We then crossed the three-way border and took another boat from Santa Rosa, Peru to Iquitos, Peru. I did this trip about a year and half ago. This trip down the River Napo is my third major trip. The Rio Napo merges with the Amazon River just east of Iquitos.

Describing the boat trip is a catch 22. A person asking is usually thinking about doing the trip and wants advice, so I want to help and be honest. But the boat is both hell and heaven at the same time. The real problem is the moral trepidation of talking about another culture. How to explain what happened or how the boat is managed without appearing crass or bad-mannered, but having the full knowledge that people are asking for helpful advice? The catch 22 is that if I am honest, they will think that I am too critical. And if I am not honest enough, they will think I was a jerk for not telling them the whole truth.

I have listened to other travelers talk about their boat trip. They usually avoid any ugly part of the trip, and try to look on the good side. This is just rude, because they are willing to send a person on a trip that could be very uncomfortable.

So here we are, lying in hammocks on the top deck of a boat slowly chugging down river, weaving back and forth, following the meandering path of the river. Stopping at various locations to pick up other passengers and cargo of bananas and other farm products. As we go down river we see grass huts and villagers looking at us from the riverbank, holding their babies in their arms and peering at the river. The boat is their only contact with the outside world. Their serene and distant life on the river might include the occasional trip up or down the river by dugout canoe to visit a neighbor.

That situation sounds pretty good.

So here we are, lying in hammocks, and every time we stop they load on more people until we have a hammock below us, above us, and in front and back. Bodies are everywhere. When you think there is no way to put one more person on the boat, they stop and pick up ten more people. In a space that would easily hold forty people in comfort, they loaded one hundred and forty. I tried to get an accurate count of the number of passengers at the end of the trip-- almost impossible. I crawled under and over hammocks, bumping and jostling people to count. And at the same time they are all moving: going to the rest room, or to find fresh air on the top of the boat.

This is acceptable, as the people NEED to go down river. It could be a week before the next boat arrives, and the overload, in my opinion, is the most pragmatic method.

We are cattle.

Click here for photos

Is it good or bad? That depends on how you live your life, and what degree of cleanliness is acceptable or not acceptable to you--whether there are limits to the way you will allow other people to invade your personal space, and the boundaries in your head. There is always a continuum from A to Z of decisions to make when traveling. The sliding scale of personal judgements.

There are no black and white situations here. The decisions are all gray and murky. Every comment I will make, or could make, is subject to critical analysis, and there is for sure an opinion different than mine that is completely correct, or completely wrong, according the subjective perspective.

Tolerance is needed, but so are sound judgements. You can always be in situations that slowly slide from very different to dangerous. The boat owner and captain is a great guy, happy and jolly. Fun and gregarious, but if this boat capsizes from being overloaded, people will die, and he may go to jail.

I called the boat Noah's Ark II because I saw two animals of every type along the river loaded on the boat. Monkeys big and small, chickens that are laying eggs, and roosters that have contests to see who can crow the loudest. Living in the hammock next to me, and below my feet. Pigs wallowing in feces in the cargo hold below, and a 3-foot turtle in the bathroom. Every imaginable farm animal and person was loaded on this boat. Two of every type of animals, and one hundred and forty humans for good measure.

The boat trip is worth the experience, and if you are trying to go from Quito, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru, the alternatives will cost you many hours and hundreds of dollars more. The short time where the experience is bad is worth the greater good of the enjoyment, and the experiences.

MASAN - AVOIDING THE LAST 13 HOURS

The river makes a very large loop at the end of the trip. This loop is so big that the river almost connects. You can leave the boat If you wish-- which almost all of us wished to do--in order to avoid the remaining 13 hours of boat trip. Even the travelers that could not say a bad thing about the boat trip got off. You take an exciting and quick moto-taxi trip from one river point across this narrow strip of land, and then pay another small speedboat to take the last leg of the trip to Iquitos, Peru.

This was enjoyable and quick.

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