We entered Peru with about an hour of daylight left. From the start of the day, I figured we could make it to Mancora. I didn’t know anything about Mancora, but there was a business card for a hostel in Mancora at the hostel we stayed at in Banos, so I figured there should be something worthwhile there.
As we left the border, we had our paperwork quickly checked by a guard. We asked him how long it takes to ride to Mancora. He said less than an hour. I looked up and saw that Mancora was 127km away. The math involved informed me that he was grossly overestimating the abilities of our bikes, but it still looked like we could probably make it to Mancora without doing much night riding.
It took a lot longer than that, though. For one thing, there were lots of speed bumps and lots of small towns to ride through. We were going along the coastline, which made for a beautiful sunset, but afterwards we were left riding in the dark.
Progress became even slower after sunset. For one thing, bugs became a problem. They’d hit the visors and make it difficult to see and when the visors were raised, they’d smack us in the eyes. We were also having problems with oncoming traffic. For some reason, the vehicles coming towards us were almost uniformly refusing to dim their brights as they approached us. At times I actually had to come to a complete stop on the side of the road to let them pass because I couldn’t see anything.
These reasons, compounded by us not knowing the road, led to Aaron pulling over at what looked like a fancy, beach side resort and tried asking about a room. I use the word ‘tried’ because he had to stand outside a bamboo gate and ring the doorbell and shout at people inside who seemed to not notice him at all for about 10 minutes.
He did eventually get someone’s attention though. We almost stayed there, but it was a bit more expensive than we wanted to pay just then. Also, I had Mancora as a goal and it didn’t feel right to stop just 40km short of it.
It was then, after arguing about what we should do, because Aaron wanted to stop as soon as possible, that Aaron bolted after a large, two-story bus. We’d talked about using this strategy before, but this was the first time we’d really tried it out.
It worked better than expected. We didn’t have to worry about oncoming traffic anymore, or bugs for that matter. The bus driver clearly knew the road, too, and all we had to do was follow its tail lights. We followed the bus almost the whole rest of the way to Mancora.
When we arrived, it became completely obvious that Mancora is a backpacker, touristy, beach town complete with surfboard rentals, bungalow hostels, and pizza sold in almost every restaurant. While these aren’t always the sorts of places Aaron and I like to stay, we knew that we were about to head out into some very non-touristy areas soon, so we felt it was OK to stay there just a little while.
We had sushi and settled into a moderately cheap hostel with a pool on the main strip. It wasn’t the cleanest place, but they allowed us to ride directly up and park in front of our door and there was a new KLR650 parked just across from us, so we figured we’d be safe to stop there. Also, it was the first place we looked and it was the kind of night that just needed to end.
After a quick dip in the pool, we went to bed. We were tired. And while that’s a poor excuse for leaving the light on in the bathroom, it’s all I got. That light attracted a horde of large, shiny, black beetles that chose to periodically wake me up by climbing over my face and chest. At one time, I woke up to three of them on me at the same time. The funny thing is, I was too tired to care and would still say that I got decent sleep that night.
The next morning we went searching for sun block and found ourselves in a clear ‘supply and demand’ nightmare. Every shop sold it, but at incredibly varied prices, almost as if to say, “I wonder if I can find someone in enough pain to actually pay this.”
We were nearly in that much pain. The sun in Ecuador and Peru was proving to be a different sort of sun than what we were used to. Aaron was making jokes about my nose falling off, because it’d burnt and peeled about three times so far and it wasn’t looking too good just then. His wasn’t in good shape either. But, seriously, I think my nose was about to start bleeding.
We eventually found a pharmacy that had non-extortionist prices and continued with our day. I was still planning on making it to the hostel advertised on the business card I took from Banos, so that was foremost on our to-do list. It’s called ‘The Point’’ and it didn’t take too long to find it.
It had a nice pool, several reasonable room options and the price was alright. We moved in and became way too comfortable in no time at all. They made good food and there was good company, so once we got there, we stayed for the whole day. We only left for a short time to ride up and down the beach on our bikes.
The next day, we had plans to continue on towards Yurimagaus, the place where we could get on a ferry towards Iquitos, but we wanted more information before we started that journey. First, we wanted to know how long the ride should take. We were really, really comfortable at The Point and I think we really needed the rest. At the same time, we needed to get to Iquitos before Paul, the director of the project we intended to volunteer at, went back to the USA, which was in 6 days.
But did taking an extra day to relax really mean that we would miss our meeting? We started to ask around and found that the ride from Mancora to Yurimaguas was somewhere between 12 and 30 hours. To us, this is like being told, “You can make it there today if you start now,” and, “It’s a million miles away,” at the same time.
We talked to the boss of The Point and, between her advice and looking up how long the average bus ride takes, came to the conclusion that it should take us between 15 and 20 hours and that we could do that in two days. This allowed us one more day to relax, sit by the pool, and participate in karaoke.
We went to bed early that night and woke up long before just about everyone there. We paid for our room, loaded up the bikes. While The Point was very secure and we had very little need to worry about anyone taking any of our things, it was at this point that I noticed that one of my bungee cords was missing. The Point graciously allowed me to take a length of thick, boating rope and that’s what I used to secure my bags for the next few days.
We had our roads picked out, but we weren’t exactly sure how far we could make it in one day. The total distance of the ride was somewhere around 1,050km (about 650 miles), but without knowing the conditions of the roads, we could only guess as to how much distance we could cover in a day.
The ride was amazing. We stopped on top of a cliff that overlooked one of the beaches and Aaron looked down at his GPS and said that we should soak in the view, as he couldn’t say for sure the next time we’d be seeing the ocean.
From there we went east. A cursory look at a road map of Peru shows that there’s no direct road from Piura or Chiclayo to Tarapoto, the larger city directly south of the port city of Yurimagaus. So we weaved our way through mountain roads. We had to deal with some dangerously thick fog again, but once we made it around the last curve, we were rewarded with a stunning view and a rainbow.
The terrain slowly turned from jagged and mountainous to semi-tropical and occasionally overgrown. We stopped at lookouts and could see way out into the distance the vast thick jungle below us. And as we descended into small towns along the way, the sun began to set and we started looking for places to set up camp.
We saw a sturdy looking bridge ahead of us on the right side of the road and, on a whim, headed up. About five minutes up the dirt trail, Aaron spotted a Peruvian flag flying from a plateau just ahead of us. Aaron claimed flags generally indicate a military post, police station, or school and that all of these possibilities would probably be sympathetic to our current needs. So we took another turn and parked on a flattened area of dirt next to a small building.
A man came out to greet us and we learned very quickly that this was a school and he was the teacher. While he doesn’t always live at the school, during the week, he stays at the school because it’s easier than the commute.
It took him a while to realize that we wanted to stay there and camp. He kept telling us that there was a hotel in the next city down, only about 15 minutes away, but once we were on the same page, he said we were welcome to put up a tent and even offered us the use of the school’s bathroom, which happened to include a shower… which was a huge luxury for us just then.
In the small strip of buildings I’ll call a town that came just before the bridge we crossed, we picked up some bread and a couple other supplies for dinner. I was also still carrying my can of tuna that we bought before climbing Cotopoxi back in Ecuador. Aaron chose to eat his tuna only moments before starting the hike up the volcano, which led to very uncomfortable fish burps. I felt I’d made the right choice to save my tuna for a time like this.
We took showers, watched some TV on our computer, and fell asleep.
We were up early the next morning and kept riding. On the way down the short, dirt path, I notice a serious change in the way the KLR was riding. Sure enough, it was a flat tire. This came as a bit of a shock to us, because we’d never had a flat tire on the entire trip. We’d been riding the whole time with five spare tubes just waiting for one on our bikes to pop so we could get rid of one and reduce the somewhat unnecessary weight.
Only a block away from the bridge there was a shop that, for only a couple of dollars, changed the tire and one side of bearings. It turns out both needed to be changed, but this realization didn’t happen until we arrived in Iquitos.
We lost about an hour on that mini breakdown, but we were still thinking we could possibly make it to Yurimaguas that day. Then there were the stops:
-We were stopped once by some men with guns that told us that there were bad men with guns out there looking to do bad things to us. The motion of a gun getting placed to my head and blowing my brains out was mimed several times. We came to an understanding that these were volunteers in charge of keeping the bad guys off the roads. They wanted a tip, so we handed them some coins and continued.
-Then there were the road construction stops. Now, we are used to cranes, trucks, and bulldozers clearing an area and periodically letting people pass, but this was nothing so civilized as that. Sure, there were some sheer cliff faces on some of these roads, but I don’t even know how so much dirt made it on the asphalt. It seemed like they were intentionally making it impassable for much longer periods of time than necessary. When the first stop took longer than 10 minutes, we started to ask questions. At a later stop, one conversation went like this (keep in mind Aaron was speaking in elementary Spanish at the time):
Aaron: How much time to open road?
Construction worker lady: Five minutes.
Construction worker lady: No. Actually… about one hour.
This kind of break happened at least 5 times on our trip eastward. In a couple cases, we were lucky and made friends with the guy whose job it is to hold the stop sign. We’d assure him that our bikes were big, strong dirt bikes that would have no issues riding through the construction zone. And, in a couple instances, they would actually let us ride through. But for the most part, we had to wait like everyone else and this added a significant amount of time to our estimated time of arrival.
You can save time when traveling in Peru by choosing carefully when you pass through these danger zones. Lunchtime is almost always a free pass. Riding a dangerous road at lunchtime could save you up to two or three hours. Nighttime, while arguably making the treacherous roads even more dangerous, is another time you can pass without stopping.
The one time we rode into the night was to get to Tarapoto. On the way, we were approaching a an earthy and muddy area with large cranes and construction machinery sitting dormant when we noticed a small group of men crowding around a bright light at the far end of the clearing. They were shouting excitedly and shaking a tree violently.
We decided to investigate. As we got closer, the youngest of the men pulled back a slingshot and let loose into the tree. Out fell one of the cutest little monkey/possum creatures I’d ever seen.
The men celebrated as one of the elders picked it up roughly by the long, rat-like tail and gleefully showed it to the others.
Aaron and I were a little bit turned off by the whole experience, as sometimes it’s hard to see something so cute in so much pain, but after a series of questions we learned that they planned to make a very delicious stew out of the little guy. We decided it wasn’t for us to say whether or not it was right to do so.
Not long after this incident, we arrived in Tarapoto. We knew that we were close enough to make it to Yurimaguas the next day and that there was a chance we could even get on a boat then, too. We checked a couple hotels and found one that was cheap, had a garage for the bikes, and claimed to have decent wifi, so we were sold.
The next morning we tried to find some odds and ends at the local market area, but the adventure was cut short when something hit Aaron that became a somewhat regular occurrence; gastrointestinal emergencies. I’m talking about stomach cramps that sometimes meant something bad was going to happen, but usually just meant you needed a few minutes to find a dark area and rock back and forth in the fetal position. Both Aaron and I experienced this way too frequently over the next two weeks.
The ride north from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas was yet another beautiful one. The landscape continued to get just a little jungleier and in a short time we were riding into a semi-urban region with thickening traffic.
Just on the outskirts of Yurimaguas, we were spotted. Generally, we don’t like being singled out and corralled. In many cases, simply by not looking like locals, we can’t help but get singled out. But the corralling is something we actively try to avoid. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to do this.
Two guys on a motorbike rode very close to us, made the sort of motions that indicated they would bring us to a boat, and we reluctantly followed.
It was hot.
When we arrived at the port for the boat named ‘Eduardo,’ we were immediately enveloped by people looking to ‘help’ us. It is our understanding that there is a sort of finders’ fee for the people that bring foreigners to the captain of the boat, so all the guys there were trying to steal us from the original two guys that found us.
Realizing that this is exactly the sort of place we couldn’t leave our stuff unattended, I went to see the captain first. I followed our two new ‘friends’ down the dock and up some stairs to the middle deck of Eduardo where I met the captain-or the first mate-or just some guy that said he made the decisions around there. I wasn’t quite sure, because they never really introduced me to him
This man assured me that the boat was leaving at 6pm. That meant we could leave in just three hours. He also refused to budge below 350 Soles for both us and our bikes.
I went back to where Aaron, our motorcycles, and the horde of motorcycle taxi and passersby folk had gathered.
Aaron went to check out the situation next. Now, the whole time I was walking to Eduardo and walking back, as well as talking to the ‘captain’I was constantly asking, “Definitely today? Not tomorrow?” and I was reassured vehemently that it was.
They told Aaron differently. They admitted that Eduardo would not be leaving in three hours. This is something Aaron admitted to having read about before arriving. The slow cargo boats will always say that they are leaving ‘today.’ The truth is that they will never leave until both the cargo hold and the passenger areas are full, ensuring maximum profit for the trip.
When Aaron got back to the bikes and told me this new information, we realized Eduardo was not a viable option for us to make it to Iquitos in time to meet with Paul. Assuming Eduardo did actually leave the next day at 6pm (which it didn’t), it still wouldn’t arrive in Iquitos for about three more days.
Now we faced the challenge of finding a different way to Iquitos. The major problem here, was that our ‘friends’ and all of the people that crowded around us insisted that Eduardo was the only way for us to get to Iquitos (it wasn’t).
So we thanked everyone for all their hard work and slowly rode back into the town of Yurimaguas. It didn’t take long before was saw a different dock. ‘How strange,’ we thought. We’d been told there were no other big boats and no other docks, but here was one not four blocks away from the other one. Aaron went down to talk to some captains and I watched our stuff near the road and was quickly refound by our ‘friends.’
They seemed to realize that they’d been caught out at this point. “So there are other ways?” I asked, and they nodded and said that they would help us out with this, too. Aaron agreed with me when he returned that their ‘help’ was exactly what we did not need or want, but we couldn’t really get rid of them, so they followed us everywhere we went for a while and made us feel uncomfortable as we talked to other captains.
We eventually found out that smaller, mainly passenger boats, called ‘rapidos’ leave much more frequently than the large cargo boats. We also learned that they only take 15 hours; which is much shorter than three days. We decided, even though it was 500 soles, that the saved time and the ability to meet with Paul was well worth it, but we still wanted to haggle the price down a little bit.
Us choosing to do this led to the dock captain getting annoyed and hopping on a mototaxi and telling us to come back in two hours. We left to look into other options and the KLR had another mini breakdown caused by the sleeve connecting to the carburetor disconnecting.
By the time we got KLR working again, we’d missed our window and when we spoke to the dock captain she asked why we hadn’t come by when she asked.
We were despondent. The next rapido we could get on wouldn’t leave until the next night at 3am. We sat on the curb as the sun went down and grumpily answered questions from the people that work and hang out around that dock. Two or three of the men there started to like us and tried to champion our cause to the dock captain.
There is a certain tendency that I’ve come to notice in my traveling – While Aaron wanted to cut our losses that day and just find a place to shower and sleep, I said I’d like to just sit there for a while longer. This is because just being present in the right place for the right, often awkward, amount of time usually facilitates something. This ‘something’ can be a good or bad thing. In this case, it was talking to people who talk to the dock captain and explaining our trip to everyone nearby. Eventually, things that weren’t making sense to us earlier became clear.
Firstly, the reason they said they didn’t want us on the boat that left that night was because the door was too small to allow our bikes inside (it wasn’t… we found out later that it definitely wasn’t). The one leaving later had a different door and it would work better, they said.
Also, we realized that ‘tomorrow at 3am’ was only 24 hours after the one we were arguing for. We somehow thought we were losing two days, but we were only missing one. Rapidos leave every morning from Yurimaguas at 3am.
A mototaxi driver who took interest in us as we were sitting and looking sad then led us around town and showed us some hotels until we found a decent one for the right price. Then we went out for food and a drink.
The next day, we met with the young captain of the next departing rapido. He spoke with an almost arrogant confidence and we liked him immediately. He told us that it’d be no problem to get our bikes on his boat and that there was need to even think twice about it. We couldn’t get him to drop the price of the two of us and our bikes to any lower than 500 Soles, however, but we figured that, at that moment, our time was worth more than the somewhere near $30 difference in price.
So we loaded the bikes later that day. Doing this meant riding the bikes through some incredibly thick mud, as it was the end of the rainy season and the river was higher than usual. Aaron tried mowing through one of the thicker areas and got very stuck and nearly lost one of his sandals. After the mud came some planks of wood haphazardly pieced together that we maneuvered through to get to the area that the rapidos actually docked at.
A couple of guys we acquired through the two days of living in Yurimaguas that we actually did consider ‘friends’ helped us lift the motorcycles into the rapido and from then on we didn’t feel comfortable leaving the boat.
We stayed there and talked with a few people who were also planning on leaving in the morning and slept there.
At 3AM, while it was still very dark, the boat was full. About 40 people were seated and the front and back areas were packed with cargo. We left the dock and were headed towards Iquitos.
Technically, we were headed towards Iquitos, but it’s not really smart to take any of the boats from Yurimaguas all the way to Iquitos. You take the boats to Nauta. Nauta is only about an hour and a half or two by road south of Iquitos, but it’s a lot longer by river. So our actual destination for this rapido was Nauta.
The boat ride wasn’t too bad. After a few hours of really only seeing a flashlight flicking back and forth up front, there was the sunrise on the river. We went by small, riverside towns and dropped off passengers and small boats came up to the sides of our rapido and sold snacks and beverages.
Then, the boat kept going. Even the most amazing things start to feel mundane after a long enough interaction. The speeding boat and the glorious thick Amazonian jungle ceased to be a wonder in our minds after about 10 hours.
Once we were a fair distance up the river, though, and we slowed down enough to drop people off, we began to see the pink dolphins that we’d heard so much about. We were told that there are two different species of river dolphins living in the Amazon River. One of them is kind of normal looking while the other does really look sort of pink.
Yes, “pink river dolphin” sounds magical. And yes, some of them do look beautiful and majestic; as if they’re on their way to have a fanciful tea party with a unicorn at the end of a rainbow. Some of them, however, don’t really look pink. They look fleshy and, frankly, a bit gross. We got to see both sides of the spectrum in dolphins that day.
As the sun began to set, we arrived in Nauta. Aaron decided not to tell Paul when we were expecting to arrive. He wanted it to be a surprise, as Paul seemed to think that it was unlikely to impossible that we reach Iquitos before his flight back to the USA.
Before we could ride the short distance from Nauta to Iquitos, however, we had to get our bikes off the boat. This was a much harder ordeal than getting them on, as the exit was a series of planks of wood adjoining buildings. The planked walkway was only wide enough for one person to comfortably walk in some areas, and there were sharp turns. To up the ante, the depth of the water that we were risking dropping the bikes into was estimated at about 10 feet. But we were thankful that, at least, we weren’t dealing with salt water, like we were entering Colombia.
So we lifted the bikes down onto the walkway and forced people out of the way as we moved with an almost manic sense of patience and concentration.
By the time we got our bikes down and tipped those who helped us, it was completely dark. Finding all of our things on the boat and repacking the bikes was a bit difficult, especially as the bikes were around a difficult walkway and climbing back onto the boat wasn’t especially, easy.
But we managed. We predictably attracted a large crowd of onlookers who, thankfully, kept a reasonably healthy perimeter around our bikes and asked us questions. We rode off with everything we put on the boat, which I was somewhat surprised by. We were told so many stories of things going missing on these sorts of journeys, but everything we started with us rode off into the night with us.
We hurried away from the crowd and were quickly parked at a petrol station. We tanked up and put on our Monarch Pass riding gear. Aaron wasn’t convinced we needed it. I was convinced it was going to rain. In the end, he decided to put it on because riding at night in new places can always be dangerous and the protection the gear provides makes a big difference in the outcome of crash.
Sure enough, it did rain… hard. It rained so hard I couldn’t see anything and water on the road was deep enough to fill in my waterproof boots and make everything feel squishy. We move aggravatingly slowly towards Iquitos.
The rain slowed as we entered Iquitos city limits. Aaron had Iquitos loaded on the GPS and we believed we had the address all set up. It was the wrong address. We rode around for about an hour or more before eventually finding our way to the front door of the People of Peru Project building.
Of course, we didn’t know that we were exactly where we were trying to get to, so we rode back and forth past the entrance until we parked on the side of the road at the plaza nearby.
As we asked a mototaxi driver, another, almost assuredly drunken, mototaxi driver blatantly ran full-on into the back of Aaron’s bike. This was odd for several reasons, but the one that was most vexing was that there were literally no other vehicles on the road and Aaron was mostly off the side of the road. The driver acted even more strangely after this by pulling to the side of the road ahead of us and just looking confused and sorry.
Aaron waved him away. The damage was done. While the DR escaped any real damages, the Pelican hard case rack that had needed to be welded constantly through the first leg of our trip and that we finally believed to be truly fixed had just been re-broken. This was a pretty serious annoyance at the time and caused some rather extreme consequences for the journey much later on.
We got the information we were hoping for from the mototaxi man we were asking before the accident, turned around, and were back at the front door of the People of Peru Project.
Aaron was not disappointed by Paul’s reaction. We put the bikes inside and went out for a late dinner at Kikiriki, Paul’s favorite chicken place.
Paul was very welcoming and the next morning we met with the staff and some of the people going through the program. This was going to be our home for the next month and we were happy to have the opportunity to make a positive impact on as well as get to know such a unique area of the world.