There’s a good reason that this section of the Peruvian jungle is rarely visited. Because there’s largely no information out there as to what to expect, and every local will tell you that the area is unsafe as it represents the home of the once influential Sendero Luminoso (a terrorist, communist militant group with a heyday in the 1980’s). With limited information about transport in and out of the area, it probably loses interest since no tourists are particularly sure they can navigate out of the place on the river.
I’m in a unique situation in this regard in that I have nothing but time on my hands, so I picked a point in the jungle which was accessible by road, and that looked to have a number of lancha’s (long jungle boats) nearby on the google satellite image. I figured that at worst there may be no-one navigating this section of river, and perhaps I could purchase a boat and onsell it further north. The real gamble was finding boats to take me North to Atalaya, where I’d heard there was a connecting series of boats that went further North to Iquitos – a very touristy jungle port in the North-East of the country.
It took 2 days to reach the pass down into the jungle, and when I did I was gifted with a spectacular 3,500m descent. With increasing regularity the paved road turned to dirt at the corners making progress a slow affair, landslides dotted the descent forcing the 2 lane road into a half lane instead. There was a distinct blanket that I passed under where I suddenly felt the humidity. Shortly after this transition I ran into the famed broked beer truck and sat down to drink pilsner through the afternoon with the locals. They gave me a share of takeaways and by the time I made it to the valley floor it was well after dark. I’d ridden the last 15km or so shirtless due to the humidity and plenty of laughs were had by the locals when I rolled in. I wasted little time finding a hospedaje for the night and went out to find one last beer before I slept. It came in the form of an incredibly drunk local who took me out to show me the finest watering hole in all of the village, a corner store with a single plastic table out the front.
I asked questions about the influence of the Sendero Luminoso in the area and he responded by pulling down his pants and showing me his hammer and sickle arse tattoo. I was put off my beer so necked it and bid my farewell to the odd fella.
The following day I explored the town of San Francisco and Kimbiri and noted the incredibly obvious jungle-port vibe. Rickshaw’s ran about the dusty bridges and great Cevicheria’s were on offer everywhere. The heat was more or less unbearable.
Asking about town I found out that there were no boats heading North from San Francisco, and that I would need to follow the river to Puerto Ene to find one. I’m sure this wasn’t the case, but rather than find an unofficial boat headed that way I decided to ride the 60km or so along the river.
The road was flat an easy enough, but the humidity meant that I was searching for water filled quebrada’s to lay in. By the side of the road were older women with machete’s lopping coconuts off trees and selling them with a straw for about 40 cents, it became my source of hydration throughout the day. It was slow going because officially the road I was riding off ended on all maps after about 20km and there were no towns shown, I knew the name of the place I had to go to but couldn’t get any reliable information about how far it was, and few of the villages had sign’s to let you know what they were. Eventually I rolled into Puerto Ene after dark and quickly found a cheap place to stay.
Puerto Ene isn’t a place for tourists, and exists as a port hub for locals trying to connect with roads further north along the river. The accomodation options are limited to shitty square boxes with no roof above the few restaurants, and the shared bathrooms have a hose coming out of the wall to soak you with cold water (there’s absolutely no way you would consider a warm shower there due to the humidity). The mosquitoes are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I paid my pittance and quickly determined the information to get out of the place – a boat which was leaving at 8am the following morning.
The river changed name to Ene and we entered the land of the Asháninka tribes. The Asháninka’s are a tribal group that inhabit this section of the valley and live off of the jungle and rivers by harvesting fish, honey and nuts as well as insect delicacies. I had my first encounter with Asháninka before Puerto Ene in the settlement of Otari. I didn’t stay long, but I shared a beer with the village leader, Amadeo, and he told me of life in the settlements – he himself had 8 wives and more than 50 children between them.
I have no photo’s, because part of what Amadeo explained to me was how since the reign of the Sendero Luminoso in the area, the settlements were very poorly catered for socially. I left some canned food with him and continued North.
Heading North along the Río Ene we passed numerous checkpoints where machinegun clad military units entered the boat to check ID of the passengers. Apparently this is a prime area for narco trafficking and the government take it seriously. They took everyone’s documentation, walked it to the back of the boat and then (I think without even looking at it), called everyone’s name out and handed it back. I stifled a laugh when they called my name out since I was the only gringo there and therefore the only person who handed over a passport that couldn’t have belonged to anyone else.
I usually ignore people when they tell me a place is dangerous unless I’ve heard first hand account’s of danger or violence, but it was becoming obvious that this was indeed a volatile area.
After 8 hours I left the boat near Puerto Ocopa and heard there was another boat headed North to Atalaya the following morning, but since it was only mid afternoon I decided to head off riding the road over the pass to Atalaya instead. I expected it was a 2 day ride or so, but after 1 hour of carrying my bike over large boulders on an obviously 4WD track I hitched a ride with some locals. It turned out to be the best move I could make.
I got the lift at about 5pm, and they quickly told me that the 130km trip to Atalaya took 8 hours, by car. That sort of distance would be covered in a few hours on an ordinarily bad road, but 8 hours spoke to how horrible this road was. We drove until midnight and then stopped at a hidden jungle camp of their friends to sleep for the night. I put my tent up without the fly and blissfully slept out of range of the mosquitoes, it was impossible to hide from the humidity. In the morning I shared breakfast with my new friends and found out they were staying in the jungle there for a week breeding butterflies. They showed me their large bucket of fermenting bananas and how they planted larvae into them with tweezers. Not really sure why they were doing it but it was interesting none the less. The 30km into Atalaya took all day and I stopped constantly to swim in the little brooks by the side of the road. Parts of the track were too steep or too sandy to ride, and when I got into the town I wasted little time figuring out how to leave, eager to get out of the heat and humidity.
There was a boat leaving that night headed to Pucallpa which left at 1am. Rather than spend an extra day I decided to get straight on the boat and dropped a few dollars on a bed to sleep for 6 hours under a fan before I had to go.
At 1am I boarded my lancha and again found I was the only gringo. We barely made it half an hour up the river before an electrical storm rolled through, forcing the boat to moor near a shore and wait it out. The lancha’s are long traditional river vessels which aren’t enclosed, so all the tarps were tied down tight along the boat while the passengers tried to keep themselves and their cargo dry. I curled up foetal and tried to sleep.
For the next 18 hours on the boat I drifted in and out of sleep and watched the sunrise, the river and then the sunset before we docked in Pucallpa. Along the way we stopped to pick up people at more Asháninka settlements and naked tribal children ran out to see what the commotion was about. The women of the villages raced each other in their cushma’s to sell fried trout to us on the boat. In the afternoon we stopped for lunch at a straw thatched house on the river and the boat captain warned me to watch my belonging’s, there were thieving monkey’s in the area. The house had a number of pet monkey’s and when we left river dolphin’s raced along the side of the boat.
Docking in Pucallpa I noted that the place had a strange vibe that didn’t feel quite so safe. Basically the way I figure a proper port town might have felt. I hurried my stuff off the boat and made sure to watch my bike with an eagle eye while I grabbed my bags. The port was chaotic, and I’m sure many bags have wandered off from there with the wrong legs. I found a place to stay which felt like a set from the ‘Saw’ movies and rested and got my thing’s together in preparation for the final push up and out of the jungle. The rain had arrived which broke the humidity intermittently but made for soggy, clammy riding all day.
The road up and out of the jungle was a roller coaster, offering 50km or so of flat before a 2,000m climb and 1,000m descent, Repeated 4 times to climb all the way up to 5,000m in the Cordillera Blanca. The people here weren’t friendly. All through Peru I’ve been riding to calls of ‘gringo’ up to 20 times a day. It’s not used in the way that it’s used further North, and simply refers to someone foreign. Along this section of road, when someone called out ‘gringo’, it was done with a fierce look on their face which seemed to read, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not welcome.’ I usually tried to stop and talk to the most aggressive sounding people to try and diffuse whatever sort of problem they had with gringo’s, but it wasn’t the most pleasant feeling riding through the area. It was strange to me, because the area didn’t strike me as somewhere that saw a lot of tourism, so I couldn’t figure out how these people could have such a problem with foreigners. It’s the only place along the whole trip I’ve felt uncomfortable, and there was also a whole lot of great hospitality.
After a long day of riding I stopped in a small town which had a large police station. To that point I hadn’t tried my luck camping with the cops or firemen in Peru so I figured I’d give it ago. I spoke to a guy who told me I could camp out the front of their compound and leave my bike locked up in the station. I couldn’t convince him to let me camp safely in the compound and started setting up my tent. Quickly another policeman came out and told me I couldn’t camp there since it wasn’t safe during the night. I might have offended him when I pointed out that they mustn’t be the most qualified cops if they couldn’t vouch for the security in front of their own shop. I’m sure the only reason I got away with this was because they knew I wasn’t a native Spanish speaker, and probably assumed I didn’t intend to be so rude – after 110km in the saddle that day I absolutely intended to be rude, I just wanted to sleep. They forced me to put another 15km on the bike in the dark before I found a local village that let me camp near the school. I fell asleep to dogs barking at me from 3m away.
Soon after I broke out of what could be considered the jungle, the climb’s were brutal but the humidity lay off, the hospitality returned to what I’d previously experienced and a local family gifted me manzano’s and a pineapple when I stopped to take shelter from the rain. As the altitude increased the landscape changed from dense green jungle to the sparse high altitude landscape I’ve become used to, this time cut with the jagged peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in the distance.