Given that, in life, the journey often offers more than the destination itself, combined with the fact that Santa Clotilde is in such a remote part of the world, I thought it would be interesting to describe exactly how one gets to this remote pueblo on the Napo River.
The most direct and hassle-free route to the Napo River lies through Lima, the capital of Perú. (It is possible to get into this part of the Amazon through Colombia, as I did on this trip, and I suppose one could find the upper reaches of the Napo in Ecuador and travel downstream from there, but these routes are only really feasible as part of large trips when visiting other places.) From Lima, we take a two-hour flight up and over the towering Andes hugging Perú’s coast and drop down into the jungle enclave of Iquitos. No roads connect Iquitos with the rest of Perú. Coming in on the airplane we can see why: dense jungle as far as you can see, ribbons of river criss-crossing the green in no particular pattern. Situated at the confluence of the main channel of the Amazon River and Nanay River, a major tributary, Iquitos is more than three-thousand kilometres from the river’s mouth in the Atlantic Ocean and yet sits only 150 metres above sea level. That should give you some sense as to the vastness and density of the Amazon rainforest.
Iquitos itself is a fun, frontier sort of town. Weaving in and out of dense traffic on the moto-taxi ride from the airport I am nostalgic for other traveling adventures. That and the tropical humidity and I could just as easily be somewhere in Southeast Asia. In Iquitos the people traveling to and from the Centro de Salud in Santa Clotilde typically stay at a property run by the Franciscan mission in town. A lot of the humanitarian work done in this part of the world was pioneered (and is still being continued) by missionaries and this place serves as a base camp of sorts for people heading further into the jungle. For our purposes it is quiet, cheap, and reasonably close to the port from where the next leg of our journey begins.
After a 5:30am wake-up call, the first challenge is the Mercado de Productores, one of Iquitos’ bustling early-morning markets. With our big packs we navigate the rickety, wooden steps, slick with the morning rain, down past the lines of fish laid straight out on the dock for sale and along the wobbly planks to where the lineup of boats awaits. Our movements are guided by the guttural cries of the fishermen hawking their goods, while the stench if garbage and fish makes us forget our growing hunger. Sounds and smells dominate the senses here.
Getting from Iquitos to Santa Clotilde requires two separate boats. While Iquitos sits directly on the Amazon itself, Santa Clotilde is actually on the Napo River, a main tributary that sweeps down from the north before joining the Amazon about two-hours boat ride downstream from Iquitos. Because the rivers run parallel for a while before eventually joining, it is actually much faster to take a boat about an hour out of Iquitos and cross over the narrowest point of land to the Napo before heading up river from there.
On the dock in Iquitos we find one of the rapido boats heading for our crossover point. This is not the sort of place that keeps an orderly schedule. A boat doesn’t leave until it is full. We climb in, handing our luggage to the deck hands to be strapped to the roof, and wait while the owner is out on the dock trying to convince potential passengers that his boat is better than the one next to it. Luckily for us this is a well-traveled route and soon we are crammed in next to several families and headed out onto the Amazon. I should take a second to describe the boats. Metal-hulled and 20-25 feet long, with a large outboard engine hanging off the back. It is this engine (both the speed and the bone jarring din it creates) that separates these boats from the more traditional method of river travel in these parts, the peke-peke (essentially a flattened canoe with a weed-whacker hanging off the back), hence the name rapido.
Less than an hour later we land in a little village named Indiana. There is little time for leg stretching though as there is a legion of moto-taxi drivers waiting who will do everything short of lifting you out of the boat to get you to choose their ride. Within minutes we are whisked away onto a narrow jungle road. With a mixture of rolling green hills and dense vines on either side, this crossing is the first close-up view of the beautiful countryside in this part of the world. It is only a glimpse though and soon we find ourselves on the dock in a small town called Mazan, having finally arrived on the Napo River. There is enough time here to meander through the covered market and to indulge our growling stomachs in a long-awaited breakfast. Sitting at one of the open tables in the market I am served a hearty bowl of caldo de gallina – essentially chicken noodle soup with chunks of carrot, onion, celery, and platano – out of a huge, steaming vat overtop of the fire directly in front of me.
Refreshed and fed, we head back to the dock and climb in the boat for the final leg of our journey, a five-hour jaunt up the Napo River from Mazan to Santa Clotilde. Luckily for us, this boat is a step up from the previous one. The seats are padded, and look slightly more permanent, and there is a beverage service – one of the driver’s sons climbing over the rows of seats passing around a big bottle of Inca Cola. When the loud thrum of the engine throttles up I wonder if I will be able to handle this environment for five hours. But after fifteen minutes the din becomes soothing and the scenery of the passing jungle shore lulls most of the boat into a peaceful sleep. There isn’t much along the open river. Most of the villages have been built back from the river along the infinite number of intertwined quebradas and lagoons that snake across the whole rainforest. Occasionally we stop in some of these pueblos to drop people off. When we do there a crowd awaits us, pestering the driver for one of his small supply of newspapers. There isn’t so much as a mail service along the river, but the people do like to keep abreast of what is going on in the rest of the world. Slowly we eke our way up the river, dozing off and on, taking photos of the jungle, and reading some tropical medicine. Eventually, just after I have had about enough, the spire of a radio tower protruding from the green landscape comes into view ahead of us around a bend in the river. Sensing my curiosity, a man across from me points and says, “Santa”. More huts and cleared land start appearing along the left-hand shoreline. Ten-minutes later we pull up to cement dock along the shore. A crowd of people awaits to meet returning loved ones. Our baggage is hauled off the roof intact. We are easily directed the short distance up the main path to the Centro de Salud and with the thump of our bags dropping on the wooden deck of our new home our journey has finally come to an end. Three planes, three moto-taxis, and two boats later, we have arrived in Santa Clotilde!