Into The Amazon: Aboard El Barco Gilmer IV

Five years ago the odds of me co-leading a yoga class aboard an Amazon river cargo ship were pretty bad. Similar to an NFL lineman riding a donkey at the Kentucky Derby...not good.

I’m not sure where I heard about it, but along the way through Peru, whispers of a no frills river adventure started to gain traction with me. A bit of research revealed a world of low budget water travel as a tag-along passenger on the cargo ships supplying the city of Iquitos. The city is located in the north eastern corner of Peru and is the largest in the world with no road access. The only way in or out is by air or water. Since my norther travels still didn’t have much direction it was eventually decided, I would go to Iquitos...the long way.

From Tarapoto it’s a two hour ride to the port town of Yurimaguas and another 15 minutes by mototaxi as far as you can go. Here you will find the end of the road, as far as Peru is concerned, and what appears to be a minimum security prison yard a.k.a the port.

Boats at port, The Glimer IV is on the right

Once I got through the gates and security the surrealness of the situation began to set it. The port was a bustling place full of cargo, heavy equipment, and guard towers. A small collection of tourists meandered about among it all within the barbed wire confines. Four boats were being loaded to the brim with onions, eggs, bananas, animal feed, mototaxis, beer, Coca-Cola, chickens, pineapples, and anything else an isolated city may need to survive.

For two days trucks were unloaded onto the boat. Workers carried two 50kg sacks of animal feed at a time, not an easy task

Only one vessel seemed keen to accept passengers, and crew members ushered me on. Some bartering took place, I got my ticket, and was now officially a piece of the haul aboard the M/F Gilmer IV.

Jungle banks pass by as we travers the slow flowing river

Once you commit to the boat there are a few things that need to be considered:

1. There are no beds or any other structure to sleep on besides rusty steel deck

Solution: Go back to town, barter for a hammock, tie it to the boat rafters, chill

Living the hammock life

2. There is no potable water, or even water I would have considered trying to filter

Solution: Stock up before leaving, nothing’s coming

Showering next too the toilet also took a bit of getting used to. But the cool river water was a welcomed escape from the heat.

3. Once the boat leaves the port there is NOTHING to do

Solution: mingle and get creative

The boat makes some extra money off passengers but it is truly a cargo vessel, and it leaves once it’s full. I got on board at about noon and was told we depart at 5:00pm. There was plenty of time to grab lunch, a hammock, and muck around town for a bit. After returning, a few more passengers were on board and the lack of set departure time became clear. Tomorrow was the consensus, somewhere between early am and early evening. The sun went down, the boat continued to be loaded, and I spent the night in my hammock.

At noon the next day we set sail, excitement flowed from the passenger community as the 3 day voyage began. Activities for the day included being in the hammock, being out of the hammock, watching the endless jungle bank slowly pass by, and the occasional, highly anticipated, river dolphin spotting.

Sort of a lockness monster photo situation here, but hey, river dolphins are elusive creatures. Take my word for it, that's a dolphin poking it's head up

Time seemed to move even slower than the boat. Breakfast was served at 6:00am, though the kitchen staff made it clear they were hard at work by 3:00am; blasting festive holiday tunes as they prepped the day’s meals. A bell would ring when feeding time arrived and passengers lined up with bowls in hand,  eager to receive their rations (food is provided but eating equipment is not...BYO). By 9:00am the jungle sun and humidity made it all but impossible to leave the cool(ish) confines of the shaded hammock area. 11:30am brings the lunch bell and come 5:30pm the final sounding for dinner is a welcomed marker of cooler weather.

Feeding time! Breakfast consisted of a watery porige type drink common in Peru and 5 bread sticks to dip. YUM

Feeding time! Breakfast consisted of a watery porige type drink common in Peru and 5 bread sticks to dip. YUM

By the end of day one all the passengers were getting to know one another, and by day two a tight knit friendship group had been formed. With absolutely no other means of distraction, life stories were relayed in detail, every card game know was explored thoroughly, and eventually Qigong and Yoga class became part of the morning routine. It was a diverse crew spanning a wide age range, most continents, and all kinds of lifestyles. However different on the surface, everyone shared the same sentiment for finding adventure in places seldom looked.

Abi and I co-lead Yoga class on the roof after our friend John lead a Qigong session

Abi and I co-lead Yoga class on the roof after our friend John lead a Qigong session

Eventually the journey came to an end, Iquitos appeared on the distance and we made it to the port. The crews navigation of the river seemed skilled and seasoned, their parking ability did not. In a repeated process of gaining speed and ramming the front of our boat into the others docked at port the crew tried to fit the large rectangular vessel in a small triangle of beach landing. For over an hour they poked at prodded trying to force space, at no point did it seem to register for another boat to move. Eventually, one did, we docked, and the ride was over.

If only they had a back-up camera, maybe this would have gone smoother...

It was a bitter-sweet conclusion, the contingent of wandering travelers had become dear friends and it was time to splatter across the continent as we all headed off in different directions. I’m confident many will cross paths again and I can only hope that more adventures as grand and inspiring as this one come along.