Human Cargo on the Slow Boat to Iquitos, Peru

Travel Features Peru
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Human Cargo on the Slow Boat to Iquitos, Peru

For one serene hour, we were human cargo in a world of pink. The sky was Persian rose; the river, reflecting it, ran ruby as it flowed as smooth as glass.

We forgot the world as we stood on the roof of the riverboat, chugging its way downriver on our third day. Down the Huallaga to the Marañón, down past the two-colored confluence with the Ucayali, where the Amazon proper begins.

Tourists pay top dollar to witness these Amazonian scenes, but there was no room for luxury on the Eduardo IX as it made its way from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. And having paid just $45 for the three-day riverboat trip, I was happy to be just another piece of freight in transit.

The port in Yurimaguas is small, hot and inefficient. I watched from the bow of the Eduardo IX as wiry men below me hauled assorted cargo from dusty trucks up sagging planks of timber to the waiting boats. Each dockworker ascended with stuttering steps, dead weights digging into their shoulders: furniture, old refrigerators and crates of beer.

The Eduardo vessels are cargo boats that also carry people—not the other way around. When the cargo bay is full, only then will the captain sound the horn to mark the departure for Iquitos.

If you’re late, you’ll be left behind in Yurimaguas. If you don’t have a tiny cabin, you’ll need to find a space to hang your hammock. The food bell will ring three times a day. As human cargo, you’ll be fed a muddy brown soup of something hot and sweet for breakfast, and chicken with oily spaghetti for lunch and supper. If you have a cabin, you’ll have a private space and security for your bags. If you don’t, you won’t.

We had to wait in Yurimaguas for two days, having missed the last boat out by an hour. Each day we received different answers regarding the supposed next departure: “We leave at six,” “We leave tomorrow,” “We leave when the boat is full.”

Only the latter answer mattered.

iqu123.jpg

The buzz of excitement was palpable as the Eduardo IX began to vibrate, its hull trembling as the engines came to life in the late afternoon. And while there was nothing dark or foreboding about the start of this endeavor, it was hard not to think of Kinski’s wide-eyed Fitzcarraldo or Charles Marlow in search of Mr. Kurtz.

With my bag safely stored in my hot little cabin, I spent the first night in my hammock, where I drifted off to the chug-chug-chug of the engines and the subtle nocturnal sounds of one of the world’s largest river systems.

I awoke to a grey day, the light sitting flatly on the jungle to either side, but unable to subdue the Amazon’s ever-powerful greens. The breakfast bell pierced the calm, calling passengers to queue up outside the cramped galley.

Cabinless passengers are not provided with plates, bowls or cutlery on these riverboats, so most bring their own fork and containers to receive their daily rations, including the standard breakfast of a hot thick muddy concoction that might have been hot chocolate. It was edible, once you peeled the copious skin from the brown surface.

By lunchtime, a wall of rain fell in the distance, blurring the landscape downriver like a godly thumb smudge. The Eduardo IX plowed into this deluge and rain blasted across the small upper deck area that we had claimed for ourselves, hitting us horizontally with face-stinging force. Papers flew; backpacks and hammocks were drenched instantly. So this was why all the Peruvian passengers chose to stay in the overcrowded but sheltered deck below.

I swiftly retreated to my cell of a cabin, which had suddenly become a refuge, something far more than just a storage space for my backpack.

6b9b-crop.jpg

The rain stopped two hours later and I poked my head out from my metal sanctuary. The riverbanks were still sliding nonchalantly by, and the Eduardo IX held its course in stoic fashion.

A grey river dolphin surfaced just to starboard. Hearing splashes rising up from the river below me, I leaned out over the guardrail expecting to see more dolphins. Instead, I saw passengers on the lower deck throwing trash into the river: black bin liners full of scraps, plastic bottles, yogurt pots, plop, plop, plop.

Large signs on both passenger decks clearly state that throwing trash into the river is prohibited. But this unabashed dumping of trash is all too common in Peru, and the captain and crew had chosen to ignore, or had simply given up, trying to enforce this simple rule. At the time, the U.N.’s major Climate Change Conference in Lima was just weeks away; sometimes, it’s hard not to be a cynic.

The Eduardo IX carried on regardless, stopping at a handful of small ports serving little wood-shack villages. One took a delivery of 50 cartons of eggs; another received at least 30 crates of Cristal beer and returned 30 crates of empty bottles, as is the way in Peru.

I spent the rest of the day looking through my binoculars at dolphins and colorful birds, occasional aguaje plantations in the middle of nowhere, and a group of villagers wandering through a flooded field, perhaps in search of giant snails. I wondered how it would be to grow up there, so isolated from the wider world but never too far from the next village up or down river. Looking to the horizon, it was hard to grasp the true depths of the Amazon rainforest, so vast and full of life but almost devoid of humans. Without the river, there would be no one here at all.

The third day was a day of port stops, pickpockets and the world turning pink. The morning sky was a gunboat grey as we pushed on downriver toward Nauta, a tin-roofed riverside town of some 28,000 inhabitants. Most riverboat passengers disembark in Nauta where they catch a bus to Iquitos, saving at least eight additional hours on the boat.

amazon_trip_5-crop.jpg

The mass exodus at Nauta was quite a sight. I watched from the upper bow railing as passengers clambered off the Eduardo IX and onto a steep muddy slope that passed as a docking area. Young men carried cargo, including broken refrigerators, goats and more cartons of eggs. A teenage boy descended from the crowd to help an elderly woman make the climb, while a young girl stuttered her way up carrying a box full of yapping puppies. Smiling families and concerned merchants watched from the street above, where a woman shrieked at a man who she accused of pickpocketing her cell phone. A local policeman stood beside them in the heat and commotion, apparently uninterested.

In stark contrast to the scene at Nauta, the emptied Eduardo IX was a floating testament to tranquility as it continued on to Iquitos.

The Río Marañón joins the Río Ucayali 10 miles downriver from Nauta, a confluence most cartographers take as the beginning of the Amazon River. The river now ran wider, deeper, and the sky seemed more expansive than before. In the late afternoon, the remaining foreigners assembled on the dented metal roof of the Eduardo IX in anticipation of a clear-skied Amazonian sunset. With the Peruvian flag whipping above us, the sun began to set behind the silhouette of trees, it’s final yellow rays pooling across the inky water and illuminating white wisps of cloud arching across the darkening sky.

The bulbous head of a pink dolphin surfaced as the sun dipped below the horizon, and soon the whole world turned pink. By whatever union of high atmospheric pressure and airborne particles, the remaining light above us had painted a series of pinks across the heavens, from French rose to ruby. The slate-like river reflected the colors of the sky: everything was pink as we slid towards Iquitos, until night settled and left us with the stars.

At about two o’clock in the morning on what was officially day four, we began the approach to Iquitos. Lights twinkled in the distance below a sliver of a moon, marking the location of the sleeping city. A moonlit ghost appeared to starboard, a hulking half-submerged thing that looked like the bleached bones of some giant river creature. It was a riverboat hull, long abandoned.

To the port side, now, where another vessel languished half stuck on a river spit. It looked a hundred years old, like the failed venture of a long-broke rubber baron. Both slipped into the darkness as we neared a half-lit and deserted port. The Eduardo IX slowly veered into place. With no fanfare, with not a soul to greet us, we nudged up to the banks of Iquitos.

We slept on the Eduardo IX that night, which was fine with the captain and his skeleton crew. “See yourself off in the morning,” they said. “Just be gone with the rest of the cargo.”

Photos: Tony Dunnell

Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer living and traveling in Peru since 2009.

Also in Travel