Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 26 – TARAPOTO TO IQUITOS

Tarapoto

I was trying to make my way to the Huallaga River so I got several buses for short journeys and on one of the last ones, a Peruvian guy told me to go with another guy that was heading to Tarapoto so I had people looking out for me who knew where I was trying to go.

The last bus took us to the first line of protestors so we got off and tried to reason with them. One of my bus friends said ‘this is my friend Jen, she is a tourist will you let her through?’. They said no. There were people sleeping on the road and fires were burning. I thought we were going to need to sleep on the road with them. Luckily another bus passenger knew a way through the jungle so we cut through making our way through streams and avoiding branches to get to the road on the other side. 

My new friend Den offered to carry my backpack for me and I duly let him. We walked to the road to Tarapoto and he said ‘One question – what do you have in here?’. I said clothes and he pulled a face about it because it was heavy. He showed me to a good hotel and said he was going to stay in a room downstairs. I said fine and then he repeated it again. I think he either thought I was going to stay with or at least visit him but he gave up in the end and left. So maybe his intentions weren’t so pure after all, and it seems that neither was the other guy that helped me.

The next day I went for a wander around the ‘city of palms’ and bumped into the other guy who I will call Ben. I asked him where a good place for breakfast would be and he asked me out for lunch. I said ok and then I went for the breakfast in the market which was great. I then went to the supermarket for supplies and holed up in my room to avoid this date. I felt bad but I was always worried about saying no. Hopefully he put it down to my bad Spanish. 

The woman and her son who ran the hostel knew about my situation so they would let me know whether I could get through the blockades or not. Basically, Peruvian people helped me no end during this portion of the trip and I am grateful for that. Although I would expect nothing else, as people like helping others no matter where in the world you may find yourself.

So I was trapped in Tarapoto for a few days, the hotel had Fox TV which made everything better as I binge watched Friends as well as some random films whilst reading crap in bed.

It is so nice to watch TV when you’re travelling as I hadn’t watched anything for months. This was this was before smartphones, iPads and wifi so it was either Fox, DVDs or Spanish telenovelas. 

Also worth a mention but not really apparent to an insider is that TP is the first port for drug smuggling as coca paste is send from here to Colombia for processing. You can reach Colombia by boat from here as well as by flying. Colombia then supplies the USA. Difficult to fight a ‘War on Drugs’ when your citizens are desperate to shove it up their noses.

Yurimaguas

After four days the path to Yurimaguas was as clear as it would ever be. The lady from the hotel took me to the bus station on a motorcycle and she palmed me off onto a Peruvian/German couple. I didn’t speak to them that much but we became a threesome for the journey. This was good for me as it helped to have people to cross the picket lines with and in between pickets we took various tuk-tuk taxis and eventually got to Yurimaguas. They also negotiated a good deal at a hotel off the Yurimaguas square and we went to the boat to pay for our tickets together. It was leaving the next day.

On the boat the top deck seemed to only be tourists and the bottom deck was for people travelling for a purpose instead of pleasure, so we must have paid more. The fact that fewer people were travelling due to the strikes was good for us as we bonded well.

I met a Dutch guy called Daniel who was travelling with a British girl, three American girls who were in the Peace Corps and another Dutch guy who was travelling alone. The Dutch guy and British girl had flown from Tarapoto and then hired a cabin on the boat. Pussies.

The great thing about being on the boat was that they served you hot meals downstairs three times a day. The solo Dutch guy and I got stoned at the top of the deck and then got the munchies and bought tuna and crackers from the ship shop. We then played a game of chess whilst giggling hysterically. The crackers looked like shit but they tasted great.

I chatted to one of the American Peace Corps girls about her charity work and she said that her work was to encourage Peruvians to eat healthily as she was a health volunteer. I thought that sounded like a patronising load of bullshit. Bailey, one of the other girls told me that there are areas where the Peace Corps send volunteers and advise them to take the pill. This is for when they get raped, not if, when. 

It was an enjoyable time on the boat over the three days, going in and out of the different ports along the river. They delivered bananas and different things as this was the primary purpose of the boat. The men on the boat caught some huge catfish, the same length as a person. I had no idea they could get that big but there are many stories of giant creatures in the jungle. I made friends with the Dutch guy Daniel and we said we would go travelling together when we got to Iquitos as he didn’t like the British girl very much.

Iquitos

It is hard to find the words to talk about Iquitos, it is the world’s largest city not accessible by road and it certainly feels that way. It was built on the strength of rubber boom.

Daniel and I got a room in a hostel together and then looked around to book ourselves onto a jungle trip. We wanted to go on a really cheap trip so we went rogue and just hired a guide to avoid going through travel agencies. In hindsight, I wish we had come through a travel agency and paid upfront instead of the pay-as-go and organising it along the way.

Before the trip, we visited the shanty town of Belen with Bailey who we’d met on the boat. Belen is Spanish for Bethlehem but don’t be getting any biblical ideas about this place. Apparently, the shantytown is pretty shady but this didn’t really cross our minds at the time. We hired a young guy with a boat to take us on a trip down the river and we drank coconuts and ate rice wrapped up in leaves. The major issue with the boat was that the river is fairly wide and there isn’t a lot to see – this was coupled with the fact that we’d all spent a lot of time on boats recently and the novelty had worn off somewhat.

Unemployment is high and many of the inhabitants come from the forest to sell their wares as well as hunting and fishing. It’s a really sad state of affairs but Iquitos is so isolated that there really is nowhere to go. Disease and violence are rife as people live in such overcrowded conditions, trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty.

Another loser in the situation is the wild animals that are caught and sold at the market. Animal trafficking and hunting are less restricted here than some areas of Africa and Asia where there is money to pay guards to protect animals within certain park boundaries. When I visited there were piles of deshelled tortoises and the gnarly bodies of indistinguishable small mammals. This is a trade borne more out of opportunism and poverty whereas African and Asian trading has evolved from the realms of desperation into organised crime linked with various other insalubrious trades.

At least the butchered animals are out of their misery, it’s a different story for those at the market. The marmosets whose minuscule legs are chained to tables all in a row along with parrots, kinkajous and baby capuchins who are so young but have witnessed such cruelty, whether intended or not.

In the wild the marmoset is a ball of energy, constantly on the move, listening for predators and never far from somewhere to hide. To be in the open, surrounded by humans and unable to move or socialise is the absolute opposite environment to their biological hardwiring. The pet trade for these creatures is completely alarming as we cannot provide anything near as complex as their forest habitat and while some animals can possibly enjoy human company this is not one of them.

The animals I saw were a drop in the ocean as Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has discovered 383 species of animals trafficked in Peru in the last decade. Out of all these animals, 9 out of 10 die on route to one of 40 markets in 10 cities around the country. They also kill the mother to catch the baby so it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that they can’t reproduce as fast as they are being killed.

We moved on to a different part of the market and we met another backpacker who joined us. Belen market is big so there is a lot to look at, it sells a lot of shamanistic items such as ayahuasca vines and bottles of San Pedro that looked like Vimto. My worry was that backpackers would come here and buy a load of liquid hallucinogens, neck them and go fucking crazy. In ceremonies, only small amounts of the juice are used and I hope that is not lost on people. I am especially wary after my experience with Luke in Thailand.

Back at the market, the guys were having ‘boy banter’ and I was ignoring them. As I was looking for something to eat for lunch I stood still and a small dog cocked its leg up and pissed on me. My jeans were know soaked in piss and market floor juice. The British guy thought this was hilarious and couldn’t stop talking about it. Little did he know how many animals had pissed on me during this trip, not to mention the guy who’d recently thrown up on me, as well as the shamanic spitting. I’d gone through the full spectrum of bodily fluids and I just didn’t care anymore.

The worst thing was that after this experience at the market our ‘jungle tour’ guide took us to some really dubious tourist wildlife attractions which made me feel even more for the wildlife of the Amazon. We met our guide at the Malecon, which is boulevard along the river which has some nice restaurants and nightlife. Even while we were sat there a man tried to get us to pay to hold his snake, an actual snake not his penis…

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