Rafting the Amazon #1: Pucallpa
I’d been traveling for about a month since I finished my service with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. I was with my Chilean girlfriend, Pali, and our hope was to reach Venezuela by land. We had already explored Paraguay’s Chaco region, Bolivia and Central Peru. We recently left Huancayo and after a long, bumpy bus ride, arrived in a town called Pucallpa located in the Peruvian Amazon.
We were going to catch a riverboat in Pucallpa and float down the Ucayali River to Iquitos, located on the Amazon River. Pucallpa was a muddy, bustling town that reminded me a lot of other flat and dirty towns I had visited in Paraguay. We walked around town a bit and found an inexpensive hotel near the river. Once we unstrapped our backpacks and toweled off sweat, we decided to explore the city. We walked to the river port and looked at the dilapidated boats and people selling fish and produce. As we strolled through the port area we saw a long, yellow and green canoe.
Pali and I had earlier joked about floating down the Amazon in a canoe during the bus ride to Pucallpa. So, just for the fun of it, I asked the man who made the canoe about its price. It was too expensive for our budget and it was so large that it would have been difficult to navigate with only two people and no outboard engine. I questioned the canoe owner, George, if there was another way to go down the river, besides the public riverboats. He said another option was to float down the river on a raft.
The raft just after it was bought
Ironically, as he talked about rafting down the river two farmers floated up to the shore on a raft full of bananas. As they unloaded the bananas I asked them if they were interested in selling their raft and their price. They quoted $2 for the raft and a $1 for the oars. I’m sure they would have discarded the raft if I did not buy it, but I obviously could not complain about the price.
I debated about buying the raft. I had no idea what to expect on the river, had no experience at navigating a raft and did not know how long it would take to get to our intended destination, Iquitos. I suppose since the raft was basically free, and since I was encouraged a bit by Pali and George, I purchased the raft and the oars. George even offered to help us modify the raft and make it seaworthy for our adventure. The raft was a bundle of logs they called Topa wood, probably cork, that was lashed together with the log’s bark. It was about 7′ wide and 10′ long. I paid two kids 50 cents to paddle the raft to George’s house.
We walked to a hardware store and looked at life vests for the trip, but they were too expensive so we did not make the purchase. I still worried a bit about the idea but as Pali and I ate ice cream and talked, we convinced ourselves that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.