Welcome to the Jungle: Iquitos, Peru to Leticia, Colombia to Tabatinga, Brazil

Lima was a riot in a whole lot of different ways. After reading over my last post, I’m worried I focused a bit too heavily on some negative aspects of my experience in the city. Yes, it smelled like an exhaust pipe, was seemingly eternally cold and grey, and I was vomiting through most of it (and if I was lucky, that was it). But I also spent practically a whole night dancing in a Peruvian club to a live Peruvian band, had my first and many (proficient!) conversations in Spanish between a Fin, Italian, and Peruvian because it was the only common language, and successfully navigated my way through a Limen~an neighborhood in the middle of the night after getting lost, something I tried and failed to do a little over a year ago in Brussels and Florence. I value my experience in Lima so much because it broke me in for the rest of the trip. I experienced my first looooong bus ride with bad food and worse movies, food poisoning (now that, plus what happened in Medellin, qualifies me as a real third world traveler), explored, on my own, one of Latin America’s biggest cities, all the while dodging some actually really nice, if still slimy, drug dealers (ask me about that story in person) and figuring out the bus system with capable but still nervous Spanish. It’s something I’m never going to forget, and served as the basis for the rest of my summer’s travels. Without it, I can’t imagine how I would have handled the last week in Colombia–that’s a story for later, but let it suffice to say that it’s a good thing I was heading back to home base, Cuenca. Thinking of everything that has happened in the past month and a half, taking the super sketchy taxi to the airport with Trish, wondering if we were about to be robbed (we weren’t), and subsequently flying to Iquitos seems so long ago. These memories are vivid, yet they are so distant.

You can trace the roots of our trip to Colombia back to the end of December, days after moving into my new apartment. Trish was getting set to head to Oakland, California to intern, and stopped by my place to say goodbye. At the time, I was hanging out with my buddy John, who was in town for New Year’s from Mizzou. We were in the middle of trying not to fumigate ourselves spray-painting and attempting creativity in my living room when Trish walked in, and after talking for a bit, our trips to Peru and Ecuador came up. It was a pretty simple path from there. If you’re going to be in South America, and me in Ecuador, there’s an obvious excuse to see a bit of the world there. At that moment it was set. We were going somewhere. “Where” wasn’t decided until two days before we actually left, and we debated Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil before we finally settled on Colombia. We went so far as to even come up with a plan for getting to Bolivia (below), which was ditched for the travel costs and Bolivia’s cold climate.


Where I would have ended up if we went to Bolivia, I have no idea.

Colombia was initially a no-go due to the usual danger associated with the country, a connotation that seriously needs to change. Colombia is much safer than Ecuador and I hear Venezuela. FARC and paramilitary are still active, but are confined to specific regions. Avoid Choco, Putamayo and dangerous neighborhoods and you’ll likely be fine.

We started our journey in Iquitos, Peru the largest city in the world that can’t be reached by road. From Peru, you can either fly there, as we did, or take a boat a few days up the river from Pucallpa, on the western edges of the Peruvian Amazon. The other route is up the Amazon toward Leticia, the city on the tri-border of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, which is the manner we took to leave–10 beautiful hours in a speed boat in piranha infested waters lined by small villages. It was incredible. I can still picture it now…and god how I want to be back there. It was pristine. Sweaty and dirty, yet still pristine.

The runway in Iquitos was lined with airplanes that looked like they hadn’t been flown in decades. Their propellers were rusted beyond repair, and I’m pretty sure Indiana Jones used them one day before they were fished out of a swamp in the jungle. Funnily enough, Harrison Ford was in Iquitos filming a movie while we were there, so maybe it wasn’t a coincidence after all. We stayed with our friend Gary “Gazza” Torres, Trish’s jungle guide a few weeks back in the very same city. He’s 27 years old, and has encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle. He actually got lost in the jungle a few weeks before we met, wasn’t able to find his way back before dark, and Man vs. Wilded it in the forest. He dined on the fish he caught with his bare hands, and slept on a makeshift bed of palm leaves with the monkey he raised–he bought a tiny monkey a while back for 10 soles (3.5 dollars), raised him, and soon after set him free. It never goes very far, though, and whenever Gary whistles for him he swings on over. I can’t even put into words how jealous of that I am. Right now, Gary is in Alaska working on a cruise ship, soon to be returning to Quebec to do some more traveling. He speaks Quebecois, English (with an Australian accent), and obviously Spanish. He’s an interesting guy, to put it lightly. I told him about my motorcycle diary dream, and I think I’ve got a partner in my future adventures. He even taught me how to ride his motorcycle in Iquitos (I think there are only like 7 cars in the entire city), which I subsequently killed and couldn’t restart a few miles from his apartment. While a moto-taxista was able to push me home, Gary and Trish were worrying that I got pulled over by the cops and taken to the police station. Without a cell phone or a Peruvian driver’s license, or even my Wisconsin license with me at the time, I could have been pretty screwed. But then again, everything has a price. Maybe the 100 soles I had in my pocket at the time would have gotten me out. To be honest, that’s probably how it would have ended up anyways. It’s a good thing, though, that I’ll never know. After getting towed back and laughed at for killing the engine, Gary and I headed to a club. Gary hit on a girl from Quebec with his Quebecois, got rejected, and we headed back to his place and watched American Pie dubbed in Spanish. If you thought it was funny in English, you’ll find it downright ridiculous in Spanish. The voices are hysterical.

We only spent two days in the city, since we unfortunately had to hurry our way to Bogotá. With Trish’s shorter schedule, we had to prioritize. 200 soles later, we were ready to take the 6 A.M. speed boat to Leticia. After returning from the club at around 2 am, I called it a night, set seven alarms, and prepared to wake up three hours later to head to the boat. Since it was a ten-hour boat ride, I figured I could get some sleep. No need to waste a precious night in a jungle city with a hilarious jungle man. What’s the risk? Well, my iPod died in the middle of the night, and my phone’s alarms didn’t go off. Really? Come on. How does this sort of thing even happen? It must have been too quiet, on silent, or something. I don’t even know. But I know what you’re thinking right now, and you need to hold on. I woke up, saw that it was pretty light out, and checked my phone to see how long I had to sleep. Upon looking at the time, I leaped out of bed, and said in that sort of voice you get when you wake up and realize somethings wrong:

“Um, Trish, we have a bit of a problem. My alarms didn’t go off.”

Still practically asleep, she responded: “Wait, what? What time is it?”

“5:57. We’re going to miss the boat. Do you think the tickets are exchangeable?” That was a stupid question.

Not even paying attention to the question, she bolted up with a sort of energy and purpose I have yet to see since.  “Hurry. Get your shit. Don’t worry about your shoes, nothing. Get it together and let’s go.” It was all a bit bit drill-Sergeant-esque, but I was a bit too taken aback and actually somewhat intimidated at the time to make any jokes. In a matter of seconds, we got all of our stuff together, woke up Gary, thanked him, got a taxi, broke moto-taxi landspeed records to get to the port, and ran through said port with our backpacks on our backs and our shoes in our hands. We didn’t think there was time enough to protect our feet from the hookworm living in every feces infested crack on the street. Whatever. It happened. As was to be absolutely expected, people were giving us the most ridiculous looks. I wonder how often it is the people of Iquitos, a rather isolated yet somewhat because of this touristy city, see two young white people running through the small port the way we were. Probably not very often, although I’d bet more than you’d think. We’re not the first, and we won’t be the last. We got to the port at 6:04 A.M., ran down the stairs to the water two at a time, and hopped on the boat moments before it took of. We were forced to sit apart, but the lovely thing about our tardiness was that I was able to take the last unoccupied seat on the boat: the very front seat, next to the driver, with the most leg room and an unobstructed view of the river in front of us. It was the most incredible boat ride of my life. I’m going to have to remember to do the same thing the next time I make it to out to the jungle.

Oh, Trish was stuck in the middle of the boat, against the wall next to a fat man, basically unable to move her legs, with a small window on her right. She was able to make it up to the front eventually, when the driver allowed me to sit outside so she could take my seat. I have no regrets. Sorry Trish.


Iquitos Houseboats


Nothing but motorcycles and moto-taxis. It was awesome.


What we saw from the late-comer’s seats


“Stumbled out of bed frantically at 5:58 to catch a 6:00 boat down the Amazon, watched the sun rise over the jungle en route, and wound up in Colombia ten hours later. There’s nothing like going through border patrol in your PJs…just nothing like it. — with Matt Conway in Leticia, Colombia.”

– Patrcia Rose Paskov, July 6th, 39 Likes, 10 Comments (most notably that of Ali Massoud: “This is legendary.”

Ten hours later we were handing our passports over to Peruvian exit officials at the border crossing, which was nothing more than a wooden shack with a computer, a desk, and a man in shorts and a t-shirt with a stamp. There wasn’t even a gun in sight. Just parrots. That’s when I knew I was going to like Colombia. I just had no idea how much.


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