Cycle Series: Peru
Chris Pountney
Chris Pountney • Jul 15

Cycle Series: Peru

by Chris Pountney

Chris embarked on his cycling journey 11 years ago, in May 2010. For the majority of the last decade, he traveled the world by bicycle and boat – traversing the world not once but twice. On his adventure, Chris visited about 90 countries, finally settling in Denmark. If you would like to read more about Chris’ world travels, the first book in his trilogy is ‘No Wrong Turns: Cycling the World, Part One: Paris to Sydney.' His adventures and explorations are documented on his website

Previously, Chris recounted his journey to Canada, where he found himself face to face with a bear, and his trip to Kazakhstan where he discovered the physical dangers of cycling the hard way. This time, we journey to Peru to hear more of his adventures. 

My girlfriend, Dea, and I were awake in plenty of time to get our bikes down to the river where we found our boat waiting for us. This was the last in a series of boats we'd chosen to take through the Amazon rainforest in Peru, partly for the adventure of it, partly to give our legs a rest from the demands of cycling down through the Andes mountain range. We got all our bags inside the boat, but there wasn't going to be space for the bikes, and the captain made the decision that the best place for them would be strapped to the outer edge of the roof. I can't say that I was entirely happy, but he did a pretty sound job of tying a loose piece of string around them to keep them there, and as long as we could make it through the next thirty-six hours without bumping into anything, they'd be fine. I added our locks around them to make sure they couldn't disappear in the night, and we hoped for the best.

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Boats on the Amazon

The boat ride went very well, for the first couple of hours. It was fast and breezy and the seats were comfortable. But then one of the three people who were crewing the boat decided it was time to put some music on, very, very loudly. Dea and I had taken seats right below one of the speakers, and so we got to enjoy it especially loudly, lucky us. I had a look around the boat and noted that at least three-quarters of the people, all local Peruvians apart from us of course, were at that moment trying to sleep, and the other twenty-five percent weren't really looking up for a banging party either, but the music stayed on regardless until the afternoon. When it finally relented it was replaced by a television, which showed a fighting movie with no discernable plot at a similar volume. Once again I was quite sure nobody actually wanted it on, but we all had to listen to two hours of disturbing noises of people punching each other and screaming in pain, and the real-life sound of children sobbing in distress. I think we were all relieved when the end credits finally rolled, and we could go back to the loud music again.

Unlike the other boats we'd taken, this one was going basically non-stop through the night, with a plan to be in Pucallpa in thirty-six hours. The boat did make some stops, with people hopping on and off from little rainforest settlements, sometimes transporting big bunches of bananas or live chickens with them. Occasionally a smaller boat would come over to us from shore in order to transfer people or things. With no roads in this part of the world, the river really did seem to be the lifeblood for these people, and at one point a woman with a small child crashed into us with her dugout canoe only to pass on a piece of mail to the captain, presumably with a request for it to be posted once we reached somewhere with mailboxes. 

Bikes in peril

But the longest stop during the first day came in the middle of the afternoon, and it was not a planned one, with the men in charge a little flustered that the engine was no longer operating as we drifted over to the side of the river, the bad smell coming from the back of the boat indicating that something had indeed gone horribly wrong. But by some wonderful twist of fate this disaster occurred at a location where there happened to be pink river dolphins, and so we watched on in amazement as they leapt up out of the river nearby. It was a special moment, watching these incredible creatures, only slightly diminished by the rising fear that we might be stranded out in the middle of the jungle on a broken boat.

But somehow the men got our ship moving again, and on we sailed into the night. The music was finally turned off and us passengers all did our best to sleep, while those in command continued to navigate by moonlight. This was no easy task, for it was the dry season and the water level was low, meaning there was a need to be careful in how they traversed the river to avoid sandbanks and areas of shallow water. That wasn't my problem though, and I drifted off to sleep. I was having a lovely dream about pink river dolphins punching each other in the face when I was suddenly yanked back to reality by the sound of the bottom of the boat beneath my feet scraping loudly on the ground, a chorus of startled noises from those around me as we did the boat equivalent of an emergency stop. It dawned on me that we must have run aground as I suddenly adjusted from being asleep to being awake. The men crewing the boat started doing their best to free us with long wooden poles, but it was clearly a hopeless exercise, and after a while, one of them jumped down into the river. The water was obviously very shallow, as he was easily able to walk around the boat. Others followed him in and they began to try to rock the boat from side to side to get it free. 'Rather them than me,' I thought, 'there's piranhas in there!'   But their efforts were in vain, the boat wasn't shifting. We were stuck.

More and more of the male passengers began to jump into the river to help, and I realised that I was actually going to have to get up and join them. It really was the only manly thing to do. So I pulled off my shoes and socks and leapt out of the window into the piranha-infested waters. Waters which came halfway up my shins. The riverbed felt sandy and mushy between my toes and some fish nibbled at my ankles. 'Piranhas!' I thought, kicking at them furiously, hoping I still looked manly. What was I doing here, in this river in Peru, in the middle of the rainforest, in the middle of the night, a bright moon overhead, a beached boat in front of me? It really was surreal, one of those truly memorable travel experiences, the sort we'd come here for, I suppose.

A surprisingly high percentage of the other men had their backs to the boat and were peeing into the river, in what I could only guess was a coordinated attempt to raise the water levels enough to free the boat. 

Either that, or they hadn't dared visit the onboard toilet, but in any case, I wasn't going to join them, for I'd heard enough stories about that little Amazonian fish that can swim upstream and lodge itself in your penis. Sure, it probably couldn't swim upstream that far, but I wasn't taking any chances. 

The men returned from relieving themselves and we got back to the business at hand, rocking the boat back and forth to try and wriggle it free. We were able to move the boat side-to-side at the front and the back, but a middle section was completely beached. At that point the water was no more than ankle-deep, the boat absolutely stuck fast on it. Getting it off wasn't going to be easy.

By now all of the men were in the water, save for one, who had reacted to the crisis by putting on a lifejacket and sitting nervously in his seat, an interesting course of action considering the one thing we were absolutely not in any danger of doing was sinking. A fair few of the women were also in the river helping out now too. It was turning into quite the team-building exercise, as we tried all manner of things to get the boat free. Eventually, it was decided that we should all push on one side at the front of the boat, causing it to go around in a 180-degree turn. This we did, and it may well have dislodged some of the sand beneath the middle of the boat, for we were then, with a great effort as we all heaved at the sides, able to move the boat forwards. Finally, it broke free after some two hours of effort, and as the boat moved forward I found the level of the water increasing rather rapidly, and jumped aboard. With everyone (hopefully) back on the boat, the engines were started, and our journey could continue. Now there was a real jovial atmosphere on board, and we were all thanked for our efforts with a cup of Inca Cola (a sugary yellow Peruvian alternative to Coca-Cola, as fine a testament to one of history's great civilisations as you can imagine).

A couple of hours later, with everyone having drifted off to sleep again, the boat ran aground once more. Nobody got up this time.

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