It's sunset, last warm rays of light fall softly on the almost perfectly smooth surface of the Amazon river and paint red the tips of the roofs in a tiny village that we're leaving behind. The cargo boat moves slowly and the families on the deck are starting to prepare their hammocks and bedding for the night. There is some hustling going around as the dinner is getting served soon - no one wants to be the last in line for the portion of rice, fried banana and what resembles minced meat. Suddenly, everyone is on their feet to form a line across lower and upper decks with their plates and spoons clinging in their hands. Even the little ones have taken their positions in the line - some waiting patiently, some sobbing and some playing catch me with their older siblings. It's messy, but it's an event in another otherwise uneventful day on the boat, and excitement about the dinner is contagious. So we get out of our hammocks and join the line.
To start our Amazon adventures we flew from Bogota into Leticia, Colombia - a tiny town in the middle of dense jungle, cut off from the rest of the country by guerrilla forces predominant in the jungle. Leticia is a funny town - it's in Colombia, but from Leticia you can walk into Brazil (3 blocks from the town center) and you can hang out in Peru (5 minutes boat ride). There are only few cars in town as there are no roads connecting Leticia to anything else, it's mostly motorbikes. There's not much around, but you can explore the local villages, communities and jungle conservation projects by renting motorbikes ($12 a day) - everything feels like in the middle of nowhere though.
Most travelers (and those are not many) come to Leticia for the sole purpose of boarding the cargo boat to go to Peru. In Leticia market you can buy hammocks, ropes, utensils, snacks, canned food and everything else you’d need to travel on a cargo boat. You’re also likely to discover that the whole cargo boat boarding is anything but a smooth experience.
First, you need to ensure that you’re legally leaving Colombia and entering Peru. No one is making sure of that besides you and there’s no official border, so making an illegal move is really easy. To get Colombian exit stamp you’ll need to go to Leticia airport and check yourself out of Colombia in advance. To get Peru entry stamp - you’d need to get a boat ride to Santa Rosa - Peruvian island next to Leticia, find a government office there and get the stamp in advance. Next, you need to figure out when to board the boat... and it’s not like there is an official schedule. Most of the time you’ll find out when the boat is leaving for Peru through a word-of-mouth in the town or when you talk to Peruvian officials in Santa Rosa. The boat might not be coming when you plan to leave or it could be a boat going to different destination. It’s OK if you don’t leave on the first try - there’s always tomorrow’s boat.
We boarded the boat on the second try. The boats leave anywhere from 4pm to 9pm, so to make sure we don’t miss it we waited on the shore in Santa Rosa watching the docks where the boat was supposed to arrive. At 7pm the boat was still not there, so suddenly the prospect of trying again tomorrow became very real. The boat arrived just as we were ready to go back to Leticia and book another night at our hostel. The tiny, mud laid island that served as docks for the cargo boats suddenly became the center of hustle and bustle with people arriving on motorboats from everywhere, cargo being tossed and stacked in the lower deck and passengers bargaining the ticket price with the captain and his assistant.
A cargo boat is a barge with an engine - base floor is for cargo, there's really nothing you can't encounter being transported - bananas, soda bottles, tractors, pigs, furniture, rice, motorbikes, other boats, plastic, etc. Second and third floor is for passengers - the space is just a deck with metal bars on the ceiling for tying up hammocks. Everyone hangs their own hammock - sometimes it's reasonable distance from each other and sometimes when the boat is crowded it's more like shoulder to shoulder - and everyone lives in their hammock for 4 days.
The days on the boat pass lazily, "go with the flow" has a true meaning here. There's nothing much to do besides stare at the horizon and the mix of jungle and tiny villages on the banks of the river, sleep in the hammock, read, ponder and talk to your neighbors if you speak a bit of Spanish. There's nothing to decide as there are no choices to make and there's not much you can do about anything that's happening - be it knee deep water puddles in the toilets or a newly boarded passenger trying to tie up their hammock right above you or in the gap between you and your neighbor which you already thought is too damn small to even breathe without touching each other. You just go with the flow.
The time when we boarded the boat in Leticia and all the chaos with departure schedules, passport stamps and figuring out the technicalities behind boarding a cargo boat seemed very far away after only several days on the boat. Passengers came and went with the boat making stops every 4-6 hours in larger communities along the river, and besides the breakfast, lunch and dinner, onboarding and offloading of the cargo are the biggest events throughout the journey.
By the time we reach Iquitos in Peru we familiarized ourselves with the major players on the boat - the family of eight that can help figuring something out, the guy who is famous for stealing unattended things, the grandma who you want to be friends with so that she collaborates with you to protect the hammock space when the new passengers arrive, the cooks who treat you nicely because you laugh at their jokes. The boat has its own temporary social structure and figuring it out is a fun challenge to undertake, especially if you're new to the South American ways of doing things.
People traveling on cargo boats are mostly villagers from remote places and traveling as far as from the East of Brazil to the West of Peru on cargo boats (2-3 weeks just to visit family in another country) Most of them are very simple people and a lot of them have never seen a white person before - so be sure, you'll be quite an attraction on the boat.
The boat experience is really unique. You get to see places and communities which you'd never see otherwise as there are no roads. You get to experience the magnitude and majesty of the Amazon river itself - it's length that goes beyond the horizon, its width and fullness that impresses you every morning when you open your eyes, its abundant green color on both banks. With every kind of weather the Amazon changes - from gloomy and mysterious to incredibly bright colors and lively atmosphere.
The next 4 days cargo boat journey that we did from Iquitos to Yurimaguas where the overland transportation begins, was not much easier, even though it does have significantly more gringos on the boat and the locals are somewhat more used to their presence. It's still a test for your ability to go with the flow and figure things out as the time comes.
For a traveler the uncertainty is always something to learn to be comfortable with and traveling by cargo boats up the Amazon has been a good teacher for us.