We took a mototaxi to the busy shore of Puerto Reloj, weaving in and out of other vehicles on our way with our luggage strapped to the back of the vehicle. This was finally the moment that I had been waiting for, the moment where I was going to get to travel into the Amazon. I sat waiting on the shore while our boats went to fill their tanks. Dozens of boats of all sizes were pulled up along the river. A little girl of about nine or ten sat in the shade underneath the canopy of a wooden canoe waiting to leave, with a green amazon parrot perched on her hand. She gently stroked its head while watching the people loading and unloading the boats. The shore itself was very dirty, covered in trash both in the water and on land. People everywhere were walking around selling clothing, food, batteries or whatever else to those preparing to leave. I took a few moments to buy some fishing hooks from a man in a store close to where the boats were, hoping that I would have a chance to catch something while being gone.
We left the port, with countless other boats traveling up the Ucayali River. The river was at least three quarters of a mile wide, possibly more. I quickly discovered how important it is to have a boat driver that knows what they are doing on the water (down here they are called motoristas). There were numerous trees, branches or stumps floating independently down the muddy river, all of which could possibly end your trip. It wasn’t long before we stopped for lunch at a small community along the shore who had tables set up to sell food to people traveling along the river. I ate piranha for the first time with rice, beans and plantains. The meat was white and flaky, and absolutely delicious. We soon continued, seeing boat after boat traveling back and forth in the river. Some carried heaping mounds of sand, although most had either passengers or produce such as bananas. Most of the boats were far different than any that I had ever seen back home. Essentially they were canoes, ranging in length from fifteen feet to forty. Most had a canopy, stacking bananas and materials on top. The majority were made out of wood. Along most of the shore at this point grew river cane, most of it around 16-20 feet tall. I spotted something large and gray appear just above the surface of the water, and then quickly disappear beneath the surface. It took another breath, and then once again returned to the murky depths. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. After years of watching documentaries about the Amazon, I had finally seen a river dolphin. Our motorista made a right turn down a smaller river, and then several more times as the large river branched off into smaller versions of itself, disappearing into the lush green forest. We saw fewer and fewer boats, although there were still quite a few small communities along the shore with their clothes hanging on lines to dry in the sun. Each community had one or two wooden canoes tied up along the riverbank. These canoes were smaller and not made for carrying large loads and didn’t have canopies. While watching the forest I watched a fish startled by the boat launch out of the water and hit my coworker, bounce off of a white supply sack sitting in the back of the boat and flop back into the water. It gave us all a good laugh. I couldn’t believe the amount of trees along the shore, many covered in vines draping down into the river. Now that the river was smaller I was able to really get a better look at the forest. I commented on it to one of my coworkers on the boat, and he remarked that it was all second growth. We passed men dragging logs behind their tiny wooden canoes slowly down the river, I counted one towing at least twenty. Yellow butterflies and many species of birds crossed the river, becoming much more frequent the further that we traveled from civilization.
We had to make several stops along the river for one reason or another. There was quite a bit of erosion along the banks of the river, resulting in a tremendous amount of trees littering the shoreline. Navigating through the river became significantly more difficult as the water level was much lower than the significantly larger Ucayali River that we had been in earlier. Several times we hit either a submerged tree or a sand bar, so we made a stop to raise the motor. In total we had two canoes, five people in one and six in the other. It soon began raining, making it significantly more difficult to navigate around the trees in the river. I’m sure that for anyone not from the area, it would have been almost impossible. We passed a man and his son in a smaller canoe making their way up the river. The son was driving while the father sat in the front. They kept watching us, but never waved- something that I noticed with a lot of people in the area as opposed to those closer to the city. As soon as we passed them, I watched the father reach down and pull out a rifle. I told my boss and one other person in the boast about the gun, and they didn’t seem concerned in the least. They responded by saying “todo tiene arma” or “They all have guns” also that it is necessary to have one out here because of how dangerous that it can be.
We eventually caught up to our companions in the other canoe, which had passed us earlier when we were first hit by the rain. They were parked along the shore; we pulled up next to them to discuss what was to be done. We had about a hour to go to reach our destination, although less than an hour of daylight left. One of the men said that the river can be dangerous at night because of the “cocleros” or men who produce and traffic cocaine in the forest. We decided to stay with a community near where we were parked, after getting the verbal confirmation that it was ok with them. We stayed on the top floor of a wooden, palm thatch roof house. The community was very nice, although very small with no more than seven or eight buildings- one of them being the school. I spent some time on the first floor playing with one of the children who was eager to show me his wooden top, which the adults fired up a generator and watched TV. I eventually wound my way through the people and onto the wooden walkway leading to the back of the building and to the small kitchen and visited with the mother who prepared our food. She spoke about her husband, and how he has been gone for over a month. He had a bacterial infection on his foot that ate away a big hole. He had to be treated for it in Lima, leaving her alone. A large pot boiled on an iron grate in the corner of the room, fueled by a bed of coals beneath it. I asked her about what it is that she was preparing, and she spoke to me about an animal that lives in the forest that in Spanish means “false cow” mostly because of how large that it grows- I later found out that it was tapir, and what we would be eating for dinner. After a quick meal I spent a little more time speaking with the mother, when the boy who had the top came up to me and wanted to show me his turtle. He reached down on the floor next to the cooking pot and proudly showed me a beautiful brown and orange box turtle that he said he found in the woods, and had kept it for quite a while, feeding it fruit. After taking a few moments to look at his turtle and say goodnight I walked up the wooden stairs to the area where we had all set up our tents, and quickly fell asleep.