Imagine a golden snake. Quietly meandering its way through 7000 kilometres. Now imagine this snake to have wings. Green wings, teeming heavily with life, spread across nine countries. That in a nutshell, is the Amazon.
From its origin in the Peruvian Andes at Arequipa to meeting the Atlantic ocean at Belem in Brazil — the Amazon river surrounded by the rainforest — covers over half of the South American continent.
The “Amazon” was the beginning of our fascination for South America. The rainforest, its gigantic trees, queer animals and hidden tribes — it’s stuff childhood mysteries are made of. You hope to unravel it all sometime in the future. The possibility of setting foot in this mysterious world might just be one of the “subconscious” reasons why we chose South America as the first destination for our round-the-world travels.
The jigsaw of this Amazon journey began with a narco trail. Once we reached the Pacific coast at Lima, we knew we had to “somehow” get to the Amazon. Internet research came up with a town named Tarapoto as the head way into the Peruvian Amazon. A 28-hour bus journey would get us there.
The journey was reminiscent of the western ghats in India: winding roads lined with lush green forests. One slight detail we were unaware of was, this route was part of the famous narco trail in Peru. An old French lady from our hostel we got chatting with later brought this to light. “Good thing you didn’t get into any problems”, she remarked. We shuddered to think what those “problems” could be. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss!
We had assumed all travellers here would be on their way in or out of the Amazon. Instead, we were introduced to a world of psychedelic herbal teas, shamans and ayahuasca ceremonies. Our hostel mates here told us about how they had had an out of body experience, “seen the colours of music” or how “Jesus had come walking to them over water”. We were intrigued but the lure of Amazon was more intense. We silenced our curiosities with, “let’s leave this for the next time”.
Our next stop was Yurimaguas, a 1-4 hour drive from Tarapoto depending on the extent of road work. This was our port of entry into the Amazon. From here, we would board a cargo boat and head to Iquitos over the Ucayali river (a tributary of the Amazon) 3-4 days away, depending on the water level.
The port of Yurimaguas was essentially a piece of land next to the river. Trucks loaded with cargo were everywhere. The entire male population of Yurimaguas seemed to be there. Everyone was frantically busy unloading the cargo from the trucks and loading it onto the boats. Hundreds of sacks of onions, potatoes, vegetables, rice, drinking water, beer, alcohol, and livestock — hens and cows were all being loaded into the boat we would be travelling in.
This gave us our first brush with the word lifeline. Iquitos, the largest city in Peruvian Amazon is also the largest city in the world without road connectivity to the outside world. Which means, the entire life essentials of not just Iquitos, but hundreds of tiny villages and towns along the river — even some tribal villages deep into the forest — are transported through these boats.
When the boat showed no signs of leaving well past the departure time, we figured that the official time didn’t matter. From then on, we started paying closer attention to the number of sacks left to be loaded instead of the clock.
We spent the time tying up our hammocks to a suitable pole. This hammock would be our home for the next few days. The boat staff who helped us also told us of the other facilities they provide, “cerveza, cannabis, todo (beer, cannabis, we have it all!).
Our fellow passengers were travellers from all across the world - Julia, a young solo traveller from Norway, a couple from Sweden, a Peruvian-Polish couple (they had met through Couchsurfing!), David – a Canadian writer, Caro - an Argentine who had been to India and had absolutely loved it, and Willy, also from Argentina cycling through South America. We were all on our maiden voyage over the Amazon. Eyes glimmering with excitement, the Amazon fascination binding us all. This group of strangers were going to be our only companions, as we set out on our dream journey.
After an overnight wait, the boat finally left the Yurimaguas shore with a loud bong. The air got cooler as the land went farther and farther away. The frenetic buzz of just a few minutes ago was suddenly replaced by a heavy silence. We stood at the boat railings for a long while — coming to terms with the situation. We were travelling over the Amazon river through the Amazon rainforest. The muddy water of the Amazon surrounded by the green forest — would be our constant companion for the next few days.
Every morning we would be woken from our gently swinging hammocks by the breakfast siren and the caretaker shouting, “comida, comida”. Get in a queue with our tiffin boxes, have it filled with a gooey liquid supposed to be oats - was the morning ritual. We performed it twice more each day - for lunch and dinner. The gooey liquid replaced by rice (or so they told us, apart from the blob of starch, it was anything but!), chicken and boiled banana. Sometimes there’d be more variety: two peas and a fried banana.
We would then set about observing our surroundings. The un-contacted tribes — whose way of life is nothing as we know it — pique the most interest. While there are a few tribes like that, they are now protected by law to let them remain un-contacted. They live in deep forests, out of bounds to the common man.
There are many others who live a more or less “normal” rural life. Agriculture is their main means of sustenance. We even spotted some cows and hens around these villages. Their huts, made of dried palm leaves (Amazon is home to over a hundred variety of palm trees) are built on stilts, to protect them from the rising level of the river in the wet season. The “villages” would at times be just a group of 2 or 3 houses. A group of houses and then the forest.
The big difference between these and regular villages was the fact that here they had the big Amazon rainforest as their backyard. Just a short walk away, and they’d be so deep into the forest, that in the middle of the day, you’d need a torch to find your way!
Their only connection to the world outside of their patch of land in the forest, are these boats we were travelling in. They come by once or twice a week. At every “village”, we would see people waiting on the banks. Soon our boat would anchor to a small jetty, and people would rush in to unload their cargo.
At times, the water near the villages wasn't deep enough for the big cargo boat to anchor. We would just stop at a spot close to the village. The “villagers” would row by in their smaller boats, unload the cargo and take it back to their villages! Mobile markets on boats!
The most spectacular scenes of the journey were around the sunset time. The sky turned a glaring golden, then pink and purple as the sun lowers into the Amazon. The forest became livelier. We could start hearing the bird calls. See flocks of birds in the skies returning back to the forest.
We even spotted some dolphins around this time. The famous pink dolphins of the Amazon! Unlike the grey dolphins, who travel in groups and are easy to spot, the pink dolphins travel solo or in pairs, making them a rare sight. Since one of our main tasks on the boat was observe everything around with rapt attention, we could spot the pink pair jumping out of water when they passed us by.
When not observing, we used the time to catch up on some reading and writing. Conversations flowed. Since we were all these crazy travellers over the Amazon in a cargo boat (no one, unless you live in the Amazon rainforest, does it only as a means of commuting), we all had one thing in common — love for “the road”. That made it easy to connect, even though we did not necessarily speak a common language. David educated us a bit more about the ayahuasca ceremony. He had experienced one himself. Just like we have a handful of dongi babas, here too there are fraud shamans we need to be aware of. Caro had a whole bunch of questions for us, about arranged marriages in India. We, in turn, had a handful of questions to Willy about his cycling. He patiently answered them all, even unpacking his neatly wrapped bicycle. We told him, if we ever take up cycling, he would be our long distance guru!
Before we left on this journey, we were worried of boredom on the boat. It was alright to be excited, even overwhelmed about being in the middle of the Amazon rainforest - but we would really have nothing to do — is what we had imagined. We had underestimated the “life” that we would get to see in the Amazon. As if the four nights we spent on this boat weren't enough, we took another of these boat journeys over the Amazon, in Brazil.
The border crossing, from Peru to Amazon could be the laziest immigration office in the world. We were on Santa Rossa island, the last spot of Peruvian land. We are quite unlikely to get another chance at such an “away from civilisation” border crossing.We were crossing countries, in the middle of the Amazon rainforests!
At first, the officer (!) in charge wasn’t around. Now this waiting in queue for the man behind the desk isn’t anything new for us but we hadn’t imagined experiencing this at an immigration office. When he sauntered in, the forms we had filled didn’t really interest him much. A casual look at our passports and he stamped us out.
A short boat ride to the other bank, and just like that we were in Brazil — at the border town named Tabatinga. The immigration process here was even more intriguing. The office is smack in the middle of the town, and closes at 6.30 PM. Which translated to, “Whenever you find the time and feel like it, do visit the immigration office for the entry stamp into Brazil!”
This was the first time we were entering back into a country. Our first ever stamping in had been in the mega city of Sao Paulo, almost 5 months back. We were now entering through the wilderness of the Amazon rainforest.
This junction of countries is actually a tri-nation open border. Leticia, the border town of Colombia is a short walk away. We took this chance for walking down to Colombia for dinner and walked back into Brazil for dessert!
The journey in the Brazilian boat was far plusher than the Peruvian. The boat was freshly painted. And had “modern facilities” like the water filter and TV. Food was served in an air-conditioned dining area. Tables and chairs! There was real cutlery — ceramic plates, glasses, spoons — such pleasures! Salads, mains (never repeated!), dessert. Even the breakfast was multi course. This, to us, felt like a 5-star cruise liner!
We were back in the land of the super friendly Brazilians. The ones who manage to strike a conversation with their warm smiles and vivid hand gestures.
On the last day of our journey, the organisers had arranged a farewell gift for all the passengers. That evening, as we sat on the open upper deck of the boat, saw the last of our pink-skied Amazonian sunsets, everyone sat together playing a game of Bingo! We had lost touch with the Brazilian numbers, but our super friendly Brazilian co-passengers didn’t let that become a problem. It was a wonderful “last day on the Amazon river” celebration.
As we neared the port of Manaus, we had a chance to see on of the most intriguing natural wonders of the world. The two tributaries, Rio Negro and Rio Solimões flow next to each other for several kilometres. Negro (meaning black) has distinctly black waters. Another other one has typical brown waters. But the composition and the density of their waters is such that these waters do not mix. Even a little. For as far as your eyes can see, you see brown and black waters flowing side by side!
The last two weeks had been that time in our lives when 'Amazon' had meant the river and forest. It had nothing to do with buying or selling anything. It was living life at its simplest. Our Amazon sojourn was the perfect icing on the cake for this journey that had lasted 5 months, through 6 countries and 23,000 kilometres, cost a few thousand dollars, and made us richer by a lifetime of experiences and memories!
Sandeepa and Chetan are full-time travel bloggers and photographers. You can follow their work here. They've been travelling long-term since 2013.