Peru – First Stop Iquitos

This is an excerpt from my journal written after spending three weeks in Peru. It was an early reflection about the depth and breadth of the experience. There was so much diversity in the adventures and learning, that years later I am still integrating them into my psyche and my life.

I will be leading a spiritual journey to the sacred sites of Peru in July 2013. See Calendar listing for details.

First Stop – Iquitos

Flying from Seattle, through Atlanta and Lima, we continued until reaching Iquitos. This poverty strewn city, located in a corner of the country near borders with Colombia and Brazil at the headwaters of the Amazon River, provides the first taste of culture shock and emersion into the adventure that awaits.

As there were 13 of us on an organized tour through The Prophets Conference, we had agreed to submit to the designated itinerary. This included checking into the oldest hotel in town. The Real has a stately facade facing the river and the most active boulevard for nighttime strolls, street entertainment, vendors, and fascinating people watching. It also has no hot water and has not been updated for what could be decades.

Welcome to the reality of life in Iquitos.

While Iquitos does have a more modern side (and a lovely hotel we would check into later in the trip), it is truly a third world city. The Belen market sprawled for miles, offering everything from clothes and fish to jungle medicines made of roots and bark. Later in the day the fish mongers throw their scraps into the street to be cleaned up by hundreds of buzzards. I’ll admit this was the first time I had ever walked among buzzards in the same fashion as I walked through a crowded chicken coop when I was a child.

But our entry through Iquitos held the purpose of conditioning us for our journey 200 km down the Amazon to a jungle camp where we would spend the next week living in a grass hut with mud floor, sleeping under mosquito nets at night, and bathing in the murky tributary that fed the Amazon. Every minute was pregnant with discovery as we trekked 5 hours in the hills and forest of the jungle examining medicinal plants, captured 3 vipors that had found their way into the rafters of the various huts, experimented with shamanic medicines and healing techniques, and touched the edges of our mental, spiritual, and physical limitations.

As if this was not enough of an experience, the ferry ride to get to the jungle camp and back to Iquitos was not for the faint of heart. Leaving Iquitos just before sun down, we are dropped on a corner near the wharf, and encircled by the two dozen members of our guide entourage, ranging in ages between late 50’s to 10. We haven’t even gotten to know them well enough to recognize them, but they are obvious by their serious concern for our welfare as we move through this area. We are strongly warned that this area is heavily filled with robbers and thiefs, to stay tight and close and keep your eyes open.

We are moved in a single file, flanked by our guides, across the street, and down an alley. Around us are hundreds of people carrying cargo off the ferry that just landed, and hundreds more moving their wares into position to load for the outbound journey.

We are told to walk cautiously yet quickly down a flight of steep, rough-hewn stairs. Doing this, we realize that it ends awkwardly, requiring us to continue down a treacherous, slippery embankment of mud and rocks. Negociating this, we traverse a plank that leads to the front platform of the ferry.

Losing our tight formation as people slip and slide down the hill, carrying their purses and daypacks, we run the gauntlet through the cargo handlers and food vendors, to the steep, slippery metal stairs, two flights to the top deck where we have secured the safety of a private area.

Once we catch our breath and realize that we have made it safe and sound, we indulge ourselves in the spectacle of this operation. Standing at the railing, we can watch as hundreds of people make their way onto the ferry, some carrying motorcycles on their backs down the hill, or huge sacks of grain, or crates of eggs balanced 20 layers high.

During the 14 hours  (each way) of this Amazon journey, we will see glorious nature – sunsets, stars with no interfering ambient light, lush trees lining the river like dignitaries welcoming us into their family, and colorful birds, huge butterflies, and flying fish.

We will also see lifestyles and culture of the Amazon. The ferry makes about 100 stops along the way at villages that can hardly be seen in the dark. The bright lights of the ferry shine on the landing area, sometimes no more than a non-descript patch of shoreline.

Out of the dark you may see dozens, or hundreds, of people scrambling to descend an embankment, carrying cargo of all descriptions, boarding the ferry before it backs away a few minutes later, turning off its light and leaving the area pitch black and invisible once again.

At one stop, we pulled up to an unmarked cliff of about 100 feet, topped by a cut in the palm trees. When the lights struck the area, a dozen men came out of the opening and began throwing 20 ft. planks of lumber down the embankment and loading it on the boat. There were no pulleys, cranes, or equipment of any sort. A couple of the men tumbled over the cliff and those who stayed above simply pushed the lumber over the cliff. Those below managed to avoid getting clobbered and dragged it to the platform of the ferry.

Again when the lights went off, there was no evidence that this place even existed. In our astonishment, we could only comment that in the States the lawyers could put their whole neighborhood through Harvard with the law suits that would come out of such an operation. And here, in Peru, on the Amazon, it was a way of life.

Later, our trip took us on to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Lima…much different climates and cultures. You can read more on that in subsequent articles.