A solo female traveler climbs aboard a cargo ship for a three-day journey from Peru to Colombia.
They told me not to go to the Loreto region of Peru. They told me to avoid the border with Colombia. They told me a lot of things. I didn’t listen.
By the time I arrived in Iquitos, I had been traveling alone for nearly four months. The city, from my arrival, greeted me in contradictions. My mototaxi, though quick and comfortable to hail, crashed into another. My hostel, beautiful online, was dark and empty upon arrival. The weather released into rain with a gasp of relief when I arrived and returned just as quickly to sun. By the end of my first day in Iquitos, I had been traveling for over twenty-four hours. I switched hostels and collapsed into my bed with unencumbered relief. When a cockroach half the size of my palm ran up my leg and into my pants, I flicked it off with little more than a shudder. My sleep was dreamless and deep.
Iquitos was a mirage city, both there and not. Many of its houses and structures seemed built for the moment. Soon, I learned why. For nearly half the year, Iquitos is partially flooded by the Amazon River, as it expands nearly thirty additional kilometers beyond the span of its dry season banks. The most famous floating market, Mercado Belén, is built above a neighborhood where each house sits on stilts or large logs. The mercado is a mix of urban and jungle and sells everything from iPhone cases to potions designed to seduce or kill. My first days there, I wandered the streets with quiet awe. I did not want to leave. I was already planning to leave.
I was not being entirely truthful with my family. When they called to ask how I planned to cross the border between Peru and Colombia, I told them I would be taking a boat. “Like a cruise?” my mother asked excitedly. “Will they have towel service?” I answered no but didn’t elaborate. Not only would the boat lack towel service, but it would also lack a bed, meals, and a fully functioning toilet. To cross the border between Peru and Colombia, I would be hitching a ride atop a cargo ship. Some afternoon soon, I would walk to one of the three ports in Iquitos and board a ship distributing supplies to isolated communities living along the Amazon. Three days later, I would arrive at the border island of Santa Rosa. I would disembark, stamp my passport, and then find a boat to take me across the river to Leticia, Colombia. I knew these things, objectively. What little information I had found on the internet, I had supplemented over the last few days in Iquitos with conversation.
I had learned that I could travel by cargo ship a few weeks prior. Somebody at my hostel in Cusco had brought up the option, and I appreciated the simplicity of the plan. I wanted to see the Amazon River. I wanted an adventure. But when I brought it up to friends back home, they all balked; even the state department website advised against going. At that point, I had been traveling solo through South America for almost four months. I had hitchhiked across borders and spent nights camping alone in the Patagonian wilderness. I had learned that often the stories we hear about places are not full truths. Especially for women traveling alone, people feel the need to share stories of danger, to make sure we understand the worst possible risk of a place before we go. The night before I was set to leave, I sat across from another girl who had just done the journey in the opposite direction. She had had an extraordinary time. “You can do it,” she said. That settled it.
There was no information on how to cross the border this way, no official port office in Iquitos. Instead, there were half a dozen people who hadn’t done it themselves but had friends who had. I had been told to buy a surplus of vegetables, snacks, and water. There would be food served three times total on the boat, likely rice and some meat stew. Other than that, we were on our own. I went to the local markets that morning and filled my bag with rations.
The boat was a three-story behemoth. When I arrived, it was being loaded with cargo, and I watched curiously as all manner of things were loaded onto the lower deck. There were metal pieces for building, boat parts, and massive carcasses of fish I had never seen or heard of before. As I boarded the ship with my bags, a carcass about the size and shape of a dolphin passed on my right. The deck for human cargo was wide and gray, with bars along the ceiling to string hammocks. I chose a spot in the very middle and curled up in the hammock to wait.
As the hour of departure inched nearer, women selling food and toilet paper began to walk around. Suddenly, the horn sounded, the sellers disembarked, and we began our journey towards Colombia.
The first forty-five minutes were beautiful. I laid back in my hammock and watched the sky slowly turn pink outside. When I shut my eyes, I could hear the sound of hundreds of birds calling out in the dusk. “I am going to remember the next few days for the rest of my life,” I thought to myself. Five minutes later, my stomach began to cramp. Remembering the state of the “bathrooms” on board, I resolved to ignore it. When it became apparent that that would be impossible, I hobbled my way over to one of the two rooms that functioned as a joint toilet/shower/bathroom and, holding my nose, emptied my stomach. What was going on? I was typically pretty careful. I had recently recovered from a parasite I had picked up in Argentina and had no desire to repeat the experience.
Suddenly, I knew. Three days earlier, while deep in the jungle, I had absentmindedly brushed my teeth with water from the tap. In other words, I had consumed water straight from the Amazon River herself. I had a parasite, and we were barely an hour into our three-day journey up the river.
The heat and humidity were intense. Every forty-five minutes, as if on cue, my stomach cramped again, and I ran back to the bathroom that all hundred people on the boat shared. Any food I consumed ran straight through my body. My store of water was disappearing at a rapid rate. The smell of sweat and people permeated the space. As the night continued, my body became more and more dehydrated. The nausea that accompanied the dehydration was added to, in part, by the inescapability of the boat’s movement. Even curled up in my hammock, there was a definitive, slow sway. I fell asleep praying that I would wake up feeling better in the morning. The nearest clinic was in Leticia, and we were on the fastest route there.
I woke with a migraine and, groaning, rose from my hammock. While I slept, the sun had set and night had set in. I walked over to the window, hoping for a breath of fresh air. At the view, my breath caught in my throat. The moon hung low and yellow overhead. Reflected below in the river, it seemed to create a path of light. The boat moved slowly, and the river, in its mass, seemed not to move around us. The moon’s brightness drowned out the stars that first night. In darkening the sky, she illuminated the Amazon’s nocturnal world. Unconcerned about snakes, caimans, or spiders interrupting my reverie, I sat on the deck and watched the night unfold. Shapes slipped in and out of the river, and shadows moved quietly along the banks. Birds and bugs sang out unfamiliar music from the trees. At one point, a series of gasps and excited murmurs brought me to the opposite corner of the boat. A moth twice the size of my hand had landed on one of the hammocks and was gently swaying with the motion of the ship.
I awoke again at dawn and felt better. I sipped maca and watched the sun rise and make its way slowly towards the sky.
During the day, the river erupted with life. The jungle was nearly neon with verdant green foliage. Birds and bugs of all sorts shrieked their presence throughout the day. At one point, a pod of elusive pink dolphins began to tail our ship, following us for nearly an hour. I snapped photos in overjoyed silence as their sinuous backs slipped in and out of the muddy waters below.
We arrived in Santa Rosa the morning of the third day. Disembarking, I turned to look back at the way I’d come. I was sweaty, smellier than I had ever been, and still unsteady with illness. The three-day cargo ship adventure had not been easy. But it had also been extraordinarily beautiful. I wrote extensively and read my way through three novels. I shared cookies with the small children on board and made friends with their parents. I sat watching out the windows for hours as all manner of birds and bugs flew by. More than that, I succeeded at a thing that six months prior I could have never imagined myself doing. Sometimes, we do things for the stories we will get to tell after. I crossed the border between Peru and Colombia by hitching a ride on a cargo ship, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.