Cruising the Amazon on the Cheap
By Chris McBeath
Since chickens and bananas dictate your itinerary, cruise might be a
misnomer for this meander up an Amazon tributary in northern Peru, but
for adventurers, it doesn’t get much better – or cheaper.
But be warned. Accommodation is intimately communal. Meals are whatever the tiny galley dishes up out of pots large enough for a stewed possum or two. And facilities include humidity-killer cold showers (remember, this is the steamy jungle) of murky river water.
Still, if you’re armed with your own hammock, a bowl and a spoon (purchased from the market or on board) you`ll be set to experience one of the cheapest, all-inclusive cruises around.
Catching one of these vessels is a quest unto itself. The key is to get to Yurigamaus, a scruffy little port town that scarcely hints to its former glory days of the rubber boom on Avenida Arica. To get there, however, you first need to fly to Tarapoto, a necessary – and the only accessible - transfer point for moving on to Yurigamaus.
Located in the Andean foothills in the heart of the north eastern Peruvian jungle, Tarapoto is not the most salubrious place so plan to arrive in daylight. A hoard of MotorKars will greet you at the airport, ready to rattle you across the dirt roads to a colectivo, a group of cabs that make the 2-hour journey over the Cordillera Escalera mountains to Yurigamaus with whomever they can cram into their vehicles.
Once in Yurigamaus, catch a MotorKars to the muddy, rutted shore where numerous boats lie in various stages of (dis)repair and cargo loads. With a fleet of seven boats, Transportes Eduardo is your best bet for hospitality and overall water-worthiness. It’s a cash-only, walk-on, first-come, first-served deal.
Passengers are considered cargo alongside cattle, corn and sacks of potatoes, only as human-freight you get to negotiate your passage with the captain. Locals gravitate to the cheaper (60 PEN/approx. US$24) middle deck where the heat of the engine room wafts up and mingles its greasy aromatics with those of the kitchen. Tourists and more affluent travelers head for the upper deck (100 PEN/approx. US$40) where breezes and views are pretty much guaranteed. Arrive early and you have your pick of air-space. But don`t get too smug because the boat doesn`t get underway until all three decks are pretty much crammed to capacity which invariably means delayed departures. Chances are that you and your hammock will be reduced to a five-degree swing before the loading`s done.
Up Close and Personal
Bumping buttocks with your neighbour makes for instant friendships even if Spanish isn’t in your repertoire. And surprisingly, traveling in such close quarters means that privacy is very much respected and save for youngsters with a curiosity for all things foreign, your hammock space quickly becomes sacrosanct so catching up with a good book and snoozing through the afternoon is an easy bliss. All as the Amazonian jungle floats by.
If you’ve purchased the all-inclusive package, three meals a day are part of the deal. Breakfast is usually a grey liquid with a floating oat or two, barely flavoured with a vanilla bean, and served with two large buttered buns. Even Oliver would be challenged to ask for more. Lunch and dinner, however, offer carbo-generous servings of rice, lima beans, potatoes, plantain and either pieces of bony fish or scrawny chicken bought from thatched hut villages along the way. If you’re on a passage-only ticket, as most of the locals are, every strong yields to throngs of vendors who swarm aboard peddling everything from fresh fish to live turtles. Mouthwatering mangoes. Citrus limes. Pucallpas. Lucumas. And an array of home-cooked offerings such as corn-on-the-cob and stir-fry stews.
A Timeless Adventure
Watching the organized chaos of goods being loaded and unloaded is the real entertainment. The corralling of obstinate cattle and scatter-brained pigs. The stacking of endless sacks of rice and potatoes. Eggs piled as precariously high as the leaning Tower of Pisa. And stalk upon stalk of bananas, some delivered via pequepeques (small dugouts with outboard motors) that come alongside mid-river as both vessels drift in the current. Many stops are impromptu, signalled with flipping tin sheets in the sun to telegraph they have cargo to add.
Go with the Flow
Everyone is subject to the river’s vagrancies and different boats deliver different experiences. But if you have a go-with-the-flow attitude, few expectations and no pressing need to be anywhere in particular, you’ll find this cheapskate cruise to be packed with experiential value.
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