As Diego and I headed into the low-lying, tangled jungle and said our goodbyes to the people of the tiny community on the Rio Orosa, our packs seemed heavier than ever. We were carrying two weeks of food supplies, and the pack straps were already digging into my shoulders. With the oppressive heat and humidity, my heart was racing with the sheer physical exertion. Even though I had done some training in the city, I had not walked in the jungle for a long time and I had to admit I was just plain out of condition. The first day was hard going and eventful, as I had a rare accident with my precious machete and cut my hand to the bone. We also had to contend with 17 hours of back-to-back severe thunder storms, a lightning strike literally metres away, and trees falling like ninepins all around us in the night. Small streams became raging torrents, and the low-lying forest became a swamp with more mud and mosquitos than I had seen since the beginning of the expedition. Despite all this, Diego managed to get a roaring fire going with wood shavings after cutting away the saturated surface of the firewood. This is important, as a fire is the heart of any jungle camp, and once all was in order that evening, and we had dried our clothes and packs, and I had patched up my hand, we sat contentedly under shelter, staring into the flames and drinking coffee. Despite the continuous deluge, all the worries, discomfort and events of the day seem to vanish. It was my turn to get the fire going the next morning, and it was just as much of a challenge as everything had got saturated again during the night. This daily setting and taking down of camp in the rain, lasted almost the entire two weeks. The wet conditions were unseasonable, but it is a rainforest,after all.
As usual, too many events to write about on this traverse, but I have to mention a bullet ant sting to my neck, the pain of which took me by surprise. Reportedly, “some victims [compare] the pain to that of being shot, hence the name of the insect.” (Wikipedia). On the last night of the traverse, we arrived somewhat famished at a small community where we were practically force-fed plate after plate of rice, fish, fried bananas and chicken: just the fuel we needed. The final day involved the 13 km 3 hour 14 min swim across and down the river to Iquitos. I was battling the current of the Rio Itaya pushing out into the Amazon for the final 90 minutes, while trying not to swallow any of the city’s pollution. Diego, who is a fisherman, amongst other things, said “I wouldn’t swim across the river here for a million dollars!” Ha, and there I go, happily paying for the privilege!
Diego has now returned home by boat to Brazil, to give his family the money he earned. He can now say he is the first known Brazilian to cross the vast expanse of jungle on foot from Benjamin Constant on Brazil’s Border to the city of Iquitos in Peru – a feat of which he is justly proud.
I have also now walked the 100 km road to Nauta alone. En route, I visited the Manatee rescue centre, (see video below) and I am currently searching for a local who wants to accompany me as I prepare to swim across the mighty Río Marañón, (more info below) then on to another swim across the main Amazon river (called the Ucayali in these parts) and a traverse of the islands in between. This will get me to the east bank of the river and open my route to Requena. It would have been impossible three months ago (without a motorised canoe – or maybe a helicopter), as the islands were deep below the turbulent, swirling floodplain waters (see google map below).
I could try to continue the journey alone, which would save me precious money and time, but it would be increasing the risks to an unjustifiable level. The greatest danger over the next legs of the expedition will undoubtedly be from human interference, partly because of a fear of ‘gringos’ among the indigenous people and remote communities. In some of the communities I have been called Pela Cara (face peeler) by some older residents and/or community members who are under the influence of home-brewed sugar cane alcohol. There is also a myth that some gringos are organ traffickers who live alone in the forest, preying on the local people. Some will think I am a drugs trafficker, and some that I am from an oil company or want to buy land to search for oil, gold or timber. There is also the ever-present risk of stumbling onto a jungle cocaine refinery, an illicit airfield or an arms cache. Finally, the language barrier – especially with respect to the more remote communities – is still a problem. So I have to be prudent and walk with a local person who can defuse any awkward situations and quickly and clearly explain why I am here.
I have argued with my guides a few times when at difficult points they sometimes suggest using a boat to gain a few kilometres distance up a river. I always refuse and then have to explain to them and the community members that I cannot use a boat and I have to cover every metre of the route on foot (or swimming). This often costs me more time (detours) and causes friction between me and the guides. After they calm down they settle for calling me loco (crazy) gringo (mostly in jest). I reason with them “look, the longer it takes, the more money you earn.” This usually does the trick, as their motives are understandably different from mine: they are here to earn money and get back home – not because they want to be here.
In the few months I spent as a prisoner of the rising waters, I am satisfied I used my time well, improving my Spanish and negotiating a new passport – a mission in itself, from here. I also planned the route ahead in great detail, and finally – and most importantly – I have acquired the permission and documentation to pass all Ashaninka and Shapibo lands ahead, through visiting and talking personally with the Chiefs or Presidents themselves in Pucallpa (involving an interesting five-day cargo boat journey upriver for only 100 Soles (food included)
I would have liked to visit the Matses Indigenous community for a month, or perhaps to have socialized more and visited some of the more remote tourist destinations out of Iquitos, but I desperately needed to conserve money, so I kept myself to myself for the most part, rarely venturing out in the evenings, and eating cheaply at the local market stalls most of the time.
Of course like life itself, not everything goes smoothly, and the 43 detailed topographical maps I needed that I had bought a few years back (for over £400 – weep!) and stored in a house in Lima, were unfortunately stolen when the house was robbed. I cannot afford to replace them now, so I am simply printing out Google Earth maps to use. There was also the dubious pleasure of being here to experience the 8.2 earthquake, epicentre midway between Iquitos and Pucallpa. We are so close to the Andes now, and the seat of the ancient Inca empire, that perhaps I should blame Pachamama for that particular rumble in the jungle.
I would like to thank FATMAP and Water To Go for their support, supplying tools that made the recent traverse safer for us both. I used the downloadable FatMap satellite maps to plot the route, avoiding suspicious cleared areas I was informed were probably cocaine plantations. And the amazing WaterToGo bottles meant any type of unclean water was rendered fit to drink.
About the Maranon and Ucayali rivers.
The Marañon River was considered the source of the Amazon River starting with the 1707 map published by Padre Samuel Fritz, who indicated the great river “has its source on the southern shore of a lake that is called Lauricocha, near Huánuco.” Fritz’s reasoning was based on the fact that the Marañon River is the largest river branch one encounters when journeying upstream, something clearly evident on his map. For most of the 18th–19th centuries and into the 20th century, the Marañon River was generally considered the source of the Amazon. The Marañon River continues to claim the title of the “mainstream source” or “hydrological source” of the Amazon due to its contribution of the highest annual discharge rates”. Wikipedia
The Ucayali River (Spanish: Río Ucayali) arises about 110 km (68 mi) north of Lake Titicaca, in the Arequipa region of Peru. The Amazon River takes its name close to Nauta city (100 km upstream/south of Iquitos), at the confluence of the Marañón and Ucayali rivers. The Ucayali becomes a major tributary of the Amazon River. Navigation was blocked by lengthy sections of rapids. The city of Pucallpa is also located on the banks of the Ucayali.
Source: Wikipedia, accessed July 2019
Nauta is a town in the northeastern part of Loreto Province in the Peruvian Amazon, roughly 100 km south Iquitos, the provincial capital. Nauta is located on the north bank of the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Upper Amazon, a few miles from the confluence of the Río Ucayali.
Established by Manuel Pacaya–Samiria, a leader of the Cocama peoples, following the 1830 uprising at the Jesuit mission of Lagunas, Nauta soon became the primary commercial hub of the Peruvian selva baja (known also as Omagua, or the Amazonian lowlands) In 1853, a Brazilian owned paddle steamer made it all the way to Nauta.
Nauta is the primary destination of the only major road leading out of Iquitos, and is a staging area for several ecotourism lodges and ships on the Marañòn River. Boats take passengers from Nauta to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
Source: Wikipedia, accessed July 2019
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Header photo. Diego in front. Crossing the jungle near to Rio Orosa, Peru. Before the deluge of rain.
Diego hungry and tired, only an hour before we make camp and food. We don’t hunt animals, only the occasional fish. We carry all our supplies of rice, farina, tinned fish, and dried soup, coffee, sugar and dried milk and fruit drink powders.
Very rare to see a Caiman in the river near Iquitos. “They have all been eaten,” said one of the locals.
The Earth machine in action. The forest making rain. 100% free, cool, pure, fresh evaporated water. Watering the plants & replenishing the rivers.
A Shipibo funeral I was invited to attend, when I visited Pucallpa to get permits. They sing for hours on end for several nights. Listen below to one song in the Shipibo language.
A Military parade – every Sunday in Iquitos
Diego boarding the boat to get back to Rio Orosa.
A giant blue-footed caterpillar we found deep in the forest
A large cargo boat passes downriver as I swim. It created several waves big enough to surf on!
The 13 km swim down and across the Amazon to arrive in Iquitos.
I try to minimise the risks as best I can, which is why I do not show my live track data anymore when walking, or my location when I Tweet. All the track data from the very start at the Atlantic ocean is currently stored on my Garmin Inreach account.
Tracking map 1: Rio Cochiquinas (previous leg) to Rio Orosa. I have no idea why these straight blue lines have started appearing. Perhaps someone can explain the annoying phenomenon..?
Tracking map 2: Rio Orosa to Iquitos. Although it appears on the map that I was walking along the amazon riverbank (bottom left), in fact I was swimming almost in the middle of the river for 13 km. The course of the river may have changed, or the map does not accurately show the extent of the river at high water.
Tracking map: Iquitos to Nauta.
Official Video of the Manatee rescue centre on the outskirts of Iquitos. Link to their website here
Pan and zoom map to see more detail.