A day or two after leaving Montañita, the coast of Ecuador. I got a text from Ryan, an Irish guy I had met, saying ‘Hey man, you mind if I join you to the jungle?’. Back at the hostel, I had told him about my Amazon idea. I didn’t know him that well, but he had a good vibe about him. So I said ‘yeah for sure, let’s meet up in Quito’ the capital. A couple of bus rides later we met up and got the necessary items for our trip. I bought a hammock to sleep in, plastic bowls and utensils for our meals.
I wanted to get to Iquitos in Peru by way of boat from Ecuador. Some 800kms on the Rio Napo from El Coca to Iquitos. One option was the ‘slow boat’. A big cargo boat, usually with two or three floors, carrying people and goods up and down the river. It makes the trip 1-2 times a month. We didn’t have a lot of information going into this trip. We knew we had to get to El Coca on the Rio Napo, by bus from Quito. That there was a slow boat, and it went 1-2 times a month. We didn’t know which time of the month or how long it would take. We’d heard it could take anywhere from 5-10 days.
The 21st of September 2019 we left our hostel in Quito and headed for the bus terminal. It was midday, sun was shining and we were pumped to be heading out. We got on a bus towards the terminal but we had to change bus. When we arrived at a smaller terminal we asked around how to get to the North Terminal. We were directed out of the terminal to a bus stop a couple of blocks away. Bus came, we got on with our big backpacks. Then the bus started to go back in the direction of city. We soon found out that this was the wrong one. We quickly got off, hailed a cab, and asked him to take us to the north terminal. Luckily it wasn’t far away. We shook our heads laughing that we’d already made a bad call this early in the journey.
After a long night on the bus, we had come to the edge of the Amazon jungle.
El Coca, the air thick and warm. We waited in the terminal until it got lighter. Then we headed to the river to find out where to catch a boat to the border. The boat left at 7am, and would take us 10 hours down stream to the border village of Nueva Rocafuerte. We arrived in the afternoon and set out to find the police station where we could get our stamps. Turned out the migration office had been moved to El Coca, but that was far behind us now. We were four of us, travellers, with hungry eyes trying to get a stamp. After a lot of back and forth the officer eventually brought out an old stamp and we were on our way. Now we had to hire a small boat to take us over the border.
Approaching the village on the Peruvian side, Cabo Pantoja, we saw a big cargo boat anchored to shore. ’That must be the boat!’ we exclaimed. Turned out it was, and set to leave in two days. Jackpot. We were ecstatic at how we had been so lucky. During those two days, more travellers arrived, everybody waiting for the boat.
Two cyclists from Argentina, travellers from France, Italia, and Brasil. Some of these fellows had been backpacking for years, making their bread selling handmade crafts, playing music or working odd jobs. Along with an ability to bargain and travel as cheap as possible. Truly inspiring to meet those kind of people.
The boat trip lasted 3 days, and those were the longest 3 days in my life. Drifting slowly down the river, the same landscape passing by. Tall trees in the wind, small openings where villages lay. We made stops by every little village along the river. For the villagers, it’s one of their few options of trading their goods, crops, and plantain, etc. In exchange for sugar, flour, and butter, and other merchandise unavailable to them.Cellular connection long lost since we left Ecuador. Hanging on the roof of the boat with the new friends we made, listing to music and making crafts. Peaceful times.
We arrived at 8am in Iquitos. It was quite the unusual sight after 5 days with just jungle and villages. Iquitos, the biggest city in the Amazon inaccessible by road. Big on petroleum and tourism. Buzzing with life, boats, and tuk-tuks. We checked in to the cheapest hostel we could find, Casa de la frances, and went out scouting. By 1pm we had found a tour guide to take us into the jungle. We were quite dumbfounded that it was that easy. We had been approached a lot in the streets by shady tour-sellers, but eventually we were lead to someone serious who could offer what we where after. Which was a true jungle experience and not some fast-paced packed trip through Gringolandia. Although if you don’t have the luxury of time I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad experience, but we wanted to stay as far away from tourists as possible. The next day we left with Green Wild Expeditions, for a 17 day stay in the jungle.
We stayed with a family consisting of 3 brothers, their parents, wives and children. There was 3 houses in the village and a field where they grew rice, sugarcane and some vegetables. The field was only available to them in the dry season as the whole field would be under water during the rainy season when the river rose.
There was no electricity, toilets, or showers. There was the bush, the river and the roof. We slept on the floor on thin mattresses under a mosquito net. Everyday had the length of two days. Time passed so so slow. Our days were filled with new knowledge and experiences, learning about the lifestyle in the jungle. We sat traps, made weapons. Blowguns, spears, bows and arrows. Cutting down our own material and learning about the tree species and what utility they had. Wherever we walked there was always new things to be discovered. Fruits to be tried, plants to be feared. Plants to relieve cancer, headaches, toothaches or fever. Others to heal itches and mosquito-bites. Some were disinfectants and anti inflammatory. I was stunned by the diversity.
Our diet consisted of fish, rice and cooked plantain. If we were lucky, we got some tomatoes, or beans on the side. We woke at around 5-6am. Had breakfast at 8. Then lunch at 2pm, which was usually the last meal of the day. The village was without electricity so when it got dark it usually meant bedtime, most days. They did have a generator that they turned on twice during our stay, to watch a movie, or see a football match. But usually we were left with candlelights for the night and our headlamps. Some days were tougher than others, working in the bush with machetes, cutting and carving. Other days we just took it easy, read a lot, or worked on our weapons.
We created deep bonds with the families there. Having many conversations with the brothers and our guide. Every day there was laughter and smiles. Their connection to nature and the ease of their life was showing. Even though they were primitive in their ways, they had it all in their backyard. Food, medicine, shelter. For us it was all green jungle, but they had a mental map of their surroundings, knowing where to find the right plant or tree for their need. It was very humbling being in their presence, trying to learn as much as possible.
They divide the jungle into three parts. Low, medium, and tall jungle. Low being in and around the city, where everything has been cut, and the land is used for farming or housing. The medium jungle where there’s more trees and bush remaining and where you find smaller villages. Then there’s the tall jungle, referring to the mostly untouched part of the jungle, where the old tall trees still stand. Here the bush is so dense you can barely see 5-10m ahead. The ground is soft and you sink in it as you walk over leaves and other dead remains from plants and trees, in a constant composting state.
Then came the day of the mission. We set out to the tall jungle, to find a camp spot. Were we would stay a night out by ourselves without the guides. This was about an hour walk away from our village. We found a spot, and spent that day building the shelter. Come next day we were alone under our nets in the shelter we built. In the middle of nowhere. There were so many noises, animals calling and moving around. Monkeys passing through over us, though we couldn’t see them, just hear them. Our guides came the next morning with two jungle rats that we had caught in our traps laid down two days earlier. Yummy breakfast. After 2 weeks of fish and rice, meat was welcomed. We laid the rats on the fire, burning the fur and scraping it off. Once the fur was removed, we could cleaned them, and then grill them. Tasted like chicken. Some huge meat-eating wasps were also interested. So I let the wasp carve out a little bite. I was surprised at how greedy it was. You could tell the wasp was heavy loaded as it struggled to take off.
It was an experience for a lifetime. It felt good and strange to be so far away from the civilised world. No signal, no distractions from news or media. We only had ourselves and our immediate surroundings. It was a relief to let go of everything. No worries on my mind. I could only enjoy what I had around me. I’ve always been fond of nature and getting away from the world, but this experience made me appreciate it more and gave me a deeper understanding of how important it is to take time away for ourselves. I think anyone could do this, it’s just a matter of how comfortable you are in the uncomfortable.