Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Peru Adventures 2007

Peru Adventures 2007
by Lon Haldeman

Tonight at 2:00 AM the Huallaga River was as smooth as a farm pond. Our boat was 100 feet long but didn’t stir a ripple in our wake as we drifted with the current. A thick fog surrounded our boat so densely it was difficult to tell if we were moving. The halo of the full moon could be seen overhead. To either side was gray darkness. The river was over 200 meters wide here. Normally the silhouette of trees or kerosene lights of villages on the river bank would be visible. Tonight because of the fog the shore was black. The two pilots of the boat were keeping their path by following the fastest trail of debris made of floating tree limbs through the channel. Occasionally the pilots would turn on their powerful spotlight but the reflected glare was useless to see more than fifty feet ahead. I stood by the railing and threw an apple core off the left side of the boat and heard it splash in the water. I threw other piece off the right side and heard it ricochet off tree branches on the bank. We were darn close to that side of the river but I couldn’t see a thing.

I had made this boat trip from Yurimaguas to Iquitos, Peru six times before. It would be about 400 miles as the buzzard flies. In nautical miles the distance was over 500 miles as the river turned 180 degrees with huge bends looping back toward itself. The Huallaga River would merge into the Rio Maranon coming from Ecuador. Then merge again with the Ucayali River to form the mighty Amazon. All my other trips down the river were memorable with crystal clear nights and silhouettes of trees along the banks. Tonight was different and the two boat pilots were acting stressed out. There would be no way to stop a 100 foot boat with only fifty feet of visibility. One of the pilots waved a broom into the night as if he could see better by sweeping away the fog.

During past trips this boat would take about 36 hours to reach the village of Nauta and seven hours more to reach Iquitos. Since we were drifting down river with the current and no engine power I was wondering how much time we were adding to our journey. I stood near the front railing hoping to see something...anything. I don’t know how the pilots managed to keep our boat drifting in the deeper channel of the river. At 3:00 AM I went to bed. The usual purr of the engines was quite tonight. I had faith the pilots could keep us away from the bank. At 6:00 AM I woke with the first gloom of daylight. The fog was just as white as the night before. Two new pilots were at the wheel stressing out. As the sun got higher the fog turned into wispy patches that revealed clear sections of river. The pilots throttled up the engines as our propellers churned up the chocolate water of this muddy river. Our speed increased as we began passing the floating debris that had escorted us during the night.

We were now on the fifth day of our tour across Peru. The previous four days had also had their share of adventures. The first day mainly involved traveling to Peru and getting everyone to arrive in Lima before midnight. Our group of ten was made up of six people from the United States. Peggy and Veronica were long distance runners who came from Alaska. Susan was a 60 year old retired librarian from Berkeley, California. Terry was a race promoter from Colorado and Lothar was a genetic scientist from Maryland. One of our group was an eighteen year old young man named Cristhian Correa who came from Piura located in the north of Peru. I had met Christian six years ago during my tours across northern Peru and we stayed in contact over the years. This would be his first time away from home traveling across Peru by bicycle. Our tour director was Vioricka Rodriguez from the jungle city of Iquitos. She had traveled with our tours for the past five years and would arrange all the travel and hotel plans.

The other two members of our group were eight year old Aracely and her mother Nayda. I had met them three years ago and they had traveled with me last year. Aracely is a spunky and bright girl with a personality that radiates across the room. Her mother is unable to take care of her and Aracely lives in the Chosica Foster Home for Girls most of the year. Aracely’s mother and grandfather wanted Aracely to go home with me to the United States. The adoption and immigration laws will not allow her to leave Peru. Her outgoing attitude was infectious among our tour group and I am sure we all now consider Aracely our daughter in Peru.

Why Travel in Peru?
A theme of our tours would be “Not to do what tourists do”. We would see parts of the country not usually visited by tourists. Everyone was paying for their travel expenses as we made our way across the country. We run these tours as net cost and use any extra money for additional projects. We would meet and interact with as many local people as possible. Our mission would be to monitor and evaluate all the projects we started the past five years. So far an average of $10,000 to $15,000 per year has been raised to help these projects in Peru.

We all arrived in Lima and had a morning city tour of the Colonial old town. Lima has over 500 years of recent Spanish history not counting the previous 2,000 years of pre Inca ruins. That is a lot to cover during a three hour bus tour. A highlight of the tour is going through the church catacombs filled with racks of skulls and thigh bones.
Later that afternoon we flew to the jungle city of Tarapoto located 350 miles over the Andes Mountains on the rainy side of Peru. This is where we would start our bicycle ride to the boat docks where we could board an Amazon Riverboat heading to Iquitos. Our first cycling day would be 36 miles over the rough mountain road to the jungle settlement of Caynarachi. The reports about the condition of the road varied greatly during the months before our tour. Some people said the road was now paved and suitable for skinny tire racing bikes. Other reports said there were still patches of dirt. When we arrived in Tarapoto we learned that the road was closed for dynamite blasting during daylight hours and only open for restricted one-way travel at night.

The next day since we couldn’t begin cycling from Tarapoto, so we did a different tour and rode 15 miles uphill to the mountain village of Lamas for lunch. From our restaurant we could look at the city of Tarapoto almost 2,000 feet below. The return trip was a fast ride to our base hotel just in time for us to pack up and get ready to shuttle across the road construction to Caynarachi. We really wanted to cycle this section because the roadside waterfalls and twisty mountain road was very scenic in daylight. I had ridden it several times before on my mountain bike and knew it was a six hour ride on the dirt road.

Since the road was now closed we needed to load our bikes in rented quad cab pickup trucks and sit in line with 100 other vehicles waiting for the road to open at sundown. As the sun set a long line of trucks, buses and cars came toward us through the construction zone. We could tell the vehicles going our way were impatient since some of them had been waiting in line since mid afternoon. A chorus of honking horns blasted across the valley. When the police gave the okay for our line of traffic to proceed all forms of order were forgotten. The smaller vehicles jockeyed to pass slow moving trucks up the grade. Equally matched taxies raced side by side through the dirt hairpin turns. The clouds of dust in our headlights barely hid the brake lights of the vehicle in front of us as we all raced bumper to bumper up the mountain. I sat in the passenger seat well aware that the darkness hid the 500 foot drop-off into the canyon beside me. The road was in worse shape than reported with only 15 miles out of 36 miles being completed. It would have been a tough bike ride and impossible at night with the reckless traffic. We arrived in Caynarachi about 9:00 PM in time for dinner at a restaurant across the street from our cement block hotel with the bathroom down the hall. We slept in cot style beds draped in mosquito netting. Our basic accommodations made us appreciate our other hotels that had air conditioning or at least a fan in the room.

The next day we had about 48 miles remaining to reach the riverboat town of Yurimaguas. The mountains were behind us and the terrain changed to low hot jungle. We knew the remaining road was smooth and perfect black top. Since the road was still closed from Tarapoto during the daytime we had the highway today to ourselves. We had rest stops arranged every ten miles with our support car. Our seven riders drank a bottle each of Gatorade and Inca Cola every ten miles. Even with our leisurely pace we rolled into Yurimaguas at noon as the mid day temperature neared 100 degrees.

Getting on the Boat
The riverboats run on their own schedule depending on how much room for cargo they have remaining to fill below deck. There are usually several riverboats in port at various stages of loading. A big chalkboard is attached to the pilot house railing listing their expected departure time. Our goal today was to find a boat that was leaving tomorrow in late afternoon. I knew from past tours that the expected departure time could vary by 12 to 24 hours. One year we hurried to the docks to catch our boat that was supposed to leave that afternoon. Just as we arrived the boat pulled away from shore. Dejected we started looking for other options. A dock worker quickly explained that the boat that just left was yesterday’s boat. Our boat was still at the next dock getting loaded and would not be ready until tomorrow.

This year the Edwardo III boat was getting loaded and the sign said we would leave tomorrow at 2:00 PM. The boat still had five cabins available which we could share and store our gear. We would also hang our ten hammocks for lounging on deck. Our traveling conditions would be comfortable and we could use the boat’s kitchen for making some special food for our group. We had enough time to spend a day in Yurimaguas and go shopping in the bustling fish market. By the next afternoon we were ready to begin our riverboat trip to Iquitos. As expected the loading of cargo would delay our departure from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM and then finally to 10:00 PM. In the quiet of the night our boat pulled away from the docks and into the main channel of the river. The expectation of finally getting in motion is only exceeded by the chance to eventually get off the boat in 36 hours.

Delivering School Books
Our schedule on the boat would be to deliver bundles of books to rural schools located along the banks of the Amazon River. This would be part of the Anne Marie McSweeney Book Delivery Project which was established to distribute books to rural schools in Peru. As we stopped to pick up bananas we had about ten minutes to locate the school and school teacher. We would make a gift of twenty books to the surprised teacher and then be back on our boat in a few minutes. Usually the teacher was very grateful to receive the books followed by questions of how we ever found their school. Most teachers acted as if they were condemned to a life of solitude in a jungle school. Receiving the books was a highlight for them but the satisfaction of supporting a jungle school who needed help was fun for us too.

During some of our book deliveries we took a small motorboat to shore so the big boat would not need to stop. Just before sundown the captain said we could take the small boat to shore while he went ahead three miles to the next village. After our delivery we could leapfrog ahead and meet him there. There were six of us with the small boat driver who went to the village of San Francisco to deliver the books. As we neared the river bank the motor of our boat sputtered to a stop and we had enough momentum to coast into the muddy shore. The six of us jumped off the bow of the boat as the driver continued to pull the rope to restart the outboard motor.

We hustled up the high riverbank and located the school next to the village soccer field. What we didn’t realize was our motorboat engine refused to start. With our weight out of the boat the driver began drifting away with the current as he frantically pulled the cord to start the motor. For the next ten minutes we continued to search for the school teacher and deliver the books. When we returned to the riverbank we could see our motorboat and driver floating down the river as a speck in the distance more than a half mile away.

After some fast talking with the local villagers they said we could take the trail through the jungle that would connect to the next village three miles away. We didn’t have any options, so we started off with a brisk jog through the corridor of sugar cane, corn fields and banana trees. Eight year old Aracely was with us and her mother Nayda. Vioricka was dressed in her stylish high heals which were not made for running. The path was separated from the river by 50 meters of dense jungle. Occasionally we would hear the motor of a boat on the river. Was that our little boat looking for us? By the time we hacked our way to the riverbank the motor noise would be far in the distance.

The sun was going down and our dilemma of being left in the jungle was becoming a concern. Nayda’s pace had slowed to a steady walk. We sent the two fastest members of our group ahead to try and catch the Edwardo III. It took us 45 minutes to reach the clearing of the next village. The Edwardo III had departed 20 minutes before. Our little motorboat wasn’t in view. One of the villagers had a dugout canoe with a putt-putt outboard motor he said we could take and chase the big boat. The only chance we had to catch Edwardo III was if they stopped again to pickup bananas at the next village. So we all loaded in the dugout canoe as the sides of the boat sank to a few inches above the waterline. We would be fine if no one leaned side to side. We started chasing down river going slightly faster than the speed of the current.

In the distance we could see the white hull of our big boat docked at another village. Could we catch them before they left again? I took off my lime green shirt and attached it to a pole in the canoe. I began waving it hoping Edwardo would recognize us. After five minutes we could tell they had seen us and were coming back toward us. Just as we met the big boat our small motorboat came from behind us with the engine working again. We were all able to get back on the big boat before darkness. That would be the last time we delivered books using the little boat.

Getting Off the Boat
Just as predicted we arrived at the village of Nauta in 36 hours at 10:00 in the morning. We could get off the boat here and ride our bikes on pavement the final 110 kilometers to Iquitos. Aracely and her mother would stay on the boat to Iquitos and help deliver our luggage to our hotel. It was nice to be back on our bikes again riding this newly paved road through the jungle. In past years this road had been ankle deep in sticky red clay. Riding a bike then was almost impossible after a recent rain. This paved section of road is surrounded by 400 miles of jungle in every direction without any connecting routes. For scale; a map of Peru shows a one inch red line for this 60 mile road without another road within ten inches or 600 miles.

The road is nearly desolate of vehicles except for the final ten miles into Iquitos. The lack of privately owned cars makes travel outside the city only possible by bus. Half way between Nauta and Iquitos is the roadside marker for Kilometer #46. Three miles off the road is the possible location for a new school in the village of Nuevo Triunfo (New Triumph). It looks like the middle of no where. There are dozens of families living here in the jungle without any schools within 25 miles. So far there are 80 children wanting to go to the new school.

Since this road has been paved there is now more interest in road race cycling in Iquitos. There are now three racing clubs in Iquitos organized as part of the local fire departments. Many of their riders do not have access to modern equipment and are using bikes pieced together from available parts. Our group was able to donate some of our extra clothing and equipment their developing riders. The past three years PAC Tour has been collecting used clothing and parts from tour riders to be donated to riders in Africa without equipment. The riders in Iquitos are the type of cyclists we should also help. When we returned home we sent them 30 jerseys, shorts, assorted shoes, saddles and other parts.

In Iquitos we attended a meeting with the club directors to plan a 65 mile bike race from Nauta to Iquitos. This race could be the biggest cycling event ever organized in the jungle of the Amazon. PAC Tour would like to offer a $1,000 first place prize which is equivalent to 3 months wages of most of the racers. This event would also be open to riders from around the world as a way to encourage cyclists to come to one of the most desolate regions on earth. The local bike clubs were excited by the idea of supporting the race. They have the cooperation of the municipalities to put together a first class event with police escorts, rest stops, live music and lots of local festivities. We will offer a choice of package deals for foreign riders which included several days of additional cycling and jungle tours near Iquitos.

Contact Lon at... haldeman@pactour.com



Post a Comment

<< Home