Our boat finally left in the afternoon, around 4pm, after we were initially told 9am. “That’s on time in Bolivia” the owner of our hostel told us. We turned into the swift current and the motor vibrated the floor as we sat at the front in our wooden chairs next to our tent. It was a nice home, with the breeze in our faces relieving the intense heat and blowing away the bugs. We were finally off, hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon.
We brought our own food to save money and cooked it on our tiny camp stove, finally using the fuel I had been carrying fuel for for the last five months. There were seven others on the boat with us: the captain who ignored us for the most part, four crew members that could have been replaced by one hard worker, and two women who cleaned and cooked for the men. One funny thing about the journey is that no one in Puerto Villarroel knew how long the journey would take. We got answers ranging fro two to six days. When we climbed onto the boat and asked the crew members, who were sitting down together eating lunch, one said “two days” and another said “five.” We found this quite hilarious considering they probably make this run several times every season. The food we brought was the following: 10 tomatoes, 2 bags of pasta, a bag of garlic, cooking oil, 10 eggs, 1 can of tuna, 1 can of hotdogs, 10 sandwich buns, 1 bottle of spicy ketchup, 12 liters of water, and 1 bottle of Cuban rum to bring out the sailors in us.
The Rio Ichilo wound it’s way through the ever thickening jungle, and we saw hardly any evidence of civilization besides an occasional palm-roofed hut or a small fishing boat. The first day was short and as the sun began to creep into the treetops we tied up to a tree along shore and shut down for the night. The instant we slowed and edged toward shore, the mosquitoes attacked us like we have never been attacked before. Huge, vicious, and hungry beasts they were. We quickly retired to our tent and made sure it was well sealed. I got up in the night to use the bathroom and, since it had been the rainy and cloudy season since we arrived in South America, I was able to see the southern sky for the first time in my life; the Southern Cross and Milky Way above me so alien from the memorized constellations of the north. But I couldn’t enjoy the experience because I could feel the blood leaving my body and flying off into the night. I sat in bed scratching for awhile, listing to the sounds around us. The jungle has a voice of it’s own, loud and chaotic, straddling the line between peaceful and terrifying.
At daybreak the engine started and we continued our slow drift northward. We woke with fresh bug bites from four mosquitoes that had snuck in during our nighttime unsealing of the tent. They were full of blood when we squashed them. There were also hundreds of the little devils clinging to our tent, desperate for entry, and we didn’t dare venture out until the boat had gained enough speed that the moving air pushed them away from our cozy hangout. We cooked eggs and read and watched the never-ending jungle pass us by. Every time that the air became stagnant, the bugs would attack us and we would reapply our OFF! We were told that this region didn’t have malaria, but we had purchased drugs for treatment just to be safe. Even if it wasn’t present here, we figured it was a nice addition to our bag of medicines. Since the antimalarials have such bad psychological side effects, our plan is always the same: avoid being bitten and keep the drugs handy for treatment. There is a quick and easy blood test kit to find out if you actually have malaria or just a random jungle fever.
Our entertainment was watching the river pass, eating, reading, and writing. We got a bunch of blogs written out, ready for when we arrived back in civilization. The jungle, which had started off with shorter trees and dense brush, was now getting thicker with taller trees covered in vines. We talked about how awesome it is that the Amazon still contains un-contacted tribes. The meaning of “impenetrable” was becoming clear to us. This time, as the sun started to get low, we took a few quick sunset pictures and beat the bugs into our safe place in the tent.
Our boat, however, continued by headlight late into the night, not stopping until sometime around midnight. We could hear the crew whipping around the towels they used to slap bugs from their skin making a “smack! smack!” every few seconds. It sounded miserable. This was it, hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon.
No mosquitoes had gotten in this time. But they were even thicker on the outside of our tent and we couldn’t exit for over an hour after we started moving. “Muchos mosquitoes!” The crew would say as they laughed at us hiding in our tent. Eventually we gained the courage to leave our sanctuary and made some breakfast. We asked how much longer we had to go and the response was “Mañana….” which by now meant “I have no idea…” to us. Since we were at the end of the rainy season, we had expected to deal with some wet times on the boat, but we were blessed with amazing sunny days. I was starting to get a tan going and we were pretty relaxed, sipping on some sweet rum and eating tuna fish sandwiches. Then, for some reason, around noon, we pulled up along the bank and tied up the boat in the middle of nowhere. We ran for out tent because the army of bloodsuckers was engulfing us. “What are we doing! Vamos!” we said as we baked in our sauna-temperature tent. We watched as out of nowhere canoes started pulling up and tying up to us, loaded with plantains.
About 12 of these boats came through, each slowly unloading their supply, getting paid, and puttering off. This banana market took over an hour and was the most miserable part of the trip: too many bugs to leave the tent but too hot to stay inside. “VAMOS VAMOS VAMOS!” we yelled. No one listened to the whiny gringos.
We were told that we would arrive in Trinidad around 10 or 11am and our captain continued to sail our boat for the entire night, the groan of the engine easing us to sleep. At least there were no bugs this night as we kept moving forward hitchhiking Bolivian boats in the Amazon.
By this time we were pretty bored. Thankfully because of not stopping during the night, there were no mosquitoes when we woke. We were down to only our cooking oil, garlic, and a bag of pasta, so that’s what we had for breakfast. As we ate, a crew member rushed us to hurry and pack up because we would be there around 10am. At noon they said it would be another hour and by 1:30 we saw a few docks and a couple shacks along the shore. “You can get a ten minute taxi to Trini from here” they said. We paid our captain the 400 Bolivianos that we owed him and set foot on dry land. For some reason we both knew that this wasn’t the end of the adventure.
Check out the rest of the story of Hitchhiking Bolivian Boats in the Amazon!