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I was Kidnapped and Held for Ransom in Peru, Part 1

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Guest Post by Robert Louthan. All photos by the author.

Ecuador proved to be a very special country. The beautiful landscapes and friendly culture made it a hard place to walk away from, which is why I may have overstayed my three-month visa by just a little bit. I did eventually leave, crossing the southern border into Peru on October 22.

My first destination was Chachapoyas, and I decided to take the road less travelled to get there…so, after leaving the Ecuadorian farmland I’d been living on for five weeks, the 32-hour journey looked a little something like this: VILCABAMBA-taxi-bus-ZUMBA-collectivo-walk-LA BAMBA-cross border-collectivo-taxi-SAN IGNACIO-sleep-taxi-collectivo-JAEN-taxi-collectivo-BAGUA GRANDE-tuk tuk-bus-CHACHAPOYAS. But alas, I’d arrived.

What some would call the gateway into the Amazon, Chachapoyas is surrounded in cloud forest and rolling mountains in every direction. I settled in and quickly arranged my first trek up to the ruins of Kuelap, about three hours outside the city. Predating Machu Picchu by 1,000 years, the site was built by the “Warriors of the Clouds”, who, as we learned, were actually very peaceful, mega intelligent people boasting a rather advanced culture.

A few days later, I trekked out to the Gocta waterfall, one of the highest in the world dropping something like 2,500 feet. As I sat at the base, the sheer power of the falls induced a trance-like state that held me in awe for hours. The eight-mile round trip hike was packed with lush nature and very few people, which could be due to the fact that locals kept the waterfall a secret for centuries. It was only in 2002 that the government “officially” discovered the area and publicized it for tourism.

The Gocta Waterfall. Look how tiny the people at the bottom are in comparison. 

Deciding to venture east into the Amazonas region, I started off on a path deeper into the Amazon Jungle. The humidity was already kicking my ass during the eight-hour shuttle into Tarapoto. However, the adventure was worth being wet all the time. It was simply a matter of acceptance, which would prove to be a theme along this trip. I checked out another waterfall and a swimming hole, and then continued my journey further on into the port town of Yurimaguas. Known for being the last urban center connected by highways to the rest of Peru, Yurimaguas marks the beginning of Amazonas boat travel. My only real agenda was simply to experience the region and learn more about its people and way of life.

I set my destination to Iquitos, the largest city in the world unreachable by roads, and approximately 250 miles from Yurimaguas by river. For 100 Soles ($30), I arranged to make the three-day trip aboard a cargo boat leaving for Iquitos the next day. It’s not uncommon for people to accompany the supplies these boats carry to villages along the river. Eggs, mangos, grains, beer and other goods are loaded to fill up the bottom level of the boat. The second level typically has space for 50-60 people to also make the passage, which is otherwise impossible on land through thick jungle. And they include basic meals of mostly rice and potatoes for the low price – not a bad deal. I’d purchased my hammock on shore for 20 Soles and I was ready to go.

The next morning, we arrived at the boat and set up, beginning our integration into boat life. As hours ticked by, people filled the space with a labyrinth of hammocks and belongings similar to a game of Tetris, basically fitting in like puzzle pieces. The noon departure time passed, and then really passed, and by well into the night, we were still docked. It became apparent that patience would be the most important virtue to practice at this point. They continued to load cargo, a seemingly endless task. When our boat was full, the workers were already loading up another that would set sail three to four days later. Supplying the whole of the northern Amazon region, unreachable by roads, these boats embark every few days at a relentlessly constant pace.

The hammocks setup we all slept in on the boat.

I eventually fell asleep and awoke Sunday to find we were still at the launch port in Yurimaguas. Ha! By mid-morning, and to the sounds of rumbling engine and joyous hollering, the ship finally edged off and began to set sail.

It was a smooth ride on the glassy river as I relaxed into my book and fell into a sense of calm, broken only by a loud bell signaling meal times. We arrived at the first village to deliver supplies at 11 p.m. and I found myself awed yet again, for very different reasons. The unloading process was organized and deliberate, like a flow of marching ants. The whole town gathers around in the middle of the night, working together to distribute the cargo to its rightful places on shore.

Back out on the water, I had deep, lucid dreams and woke at 5 a.m. to watch the sun rise above this precious, new place. I soaked up the day as we rolled along, stopping to make deliveries along the way. Not a problem in the world…until we reached the village of Saramuro. There, hundreds of villagers, most holding spears, stood awaiting our arrival. Some rice and cargo were unloaded, but a majority of the villagers gathered there were amassed in a ceremonial chant. I couldn’t discern much of what they were saying, but noticed we weren’t the only large boat docked there and I watched two villagers pound a 4-foot metal spike into the ground near us. Next, they proceeded to tie up our boat, send up a roaring final chant and just walk away.

Boat life on the river.

Pretty immediately, I learned we would be held there for 24 hours, as part of a village protest. Apparently, the Peruvian petroleum company upstream from the village has been spilling oil into the river for years, and Saramuro villagers are fed up. The demonstration was meant to get the attention and support of the Peruvian government. They held boats back for nearly two months, delaying cargo deliveries to Iquitos, sending a loud and clear message. They wanted the petrol company to be held accountable for what they’d done to the river, and they wanted change. After I got that, I couldn’t disagree and I swiftly accepted the circumstances.

The sun beating down on the ship was nearly unbearable, so I headed on shore to find shade and see what the people there were all about. I found a nice tree to sit under and a piece of wood I decided to paint. After a few hours painting the river on a piece of wood, I located the village chief – his clothing and stature made him easy to identify – and I offered him the artwork. I wanted to honor his village in some small way and show support for his cause, and he accepted. It felt like a powerful moment.

The dinner bell rang and I headed back aboard the ship to eat. But later, I found myself curious about the people at the village – what their nights are like. It was still a relatively peaceful demonstration, so I headed back to shore to take a walk. HOLY SHIT, man! What I found was something I will never forget. There were about 200 folks spanning an easy three generations, all gathered around a small projector showing Loony Tunes cartoons on the wall of one of the villager’s homes, in the middle of their big protest.

I’m not joking, two hundred tribesman with spears and face paint, all laughing hysterically at Loony Tunes cartoons. It was surreal – it was fucking amazing.

I wish it had ended there.

The rest of the story next week.

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