The Henry journey

Iquitos, Peru is the largest city in the world not reachable by road. Of course today you can fly into its airport in just a few hours. Or you can reach this jungle metropolis the same way it{s always been done – by boat.

One boat company has a total monopoly on the trip from Pucallpa to Iquitos: the Henry. Its nine ships are named the Henry I through IX (like the kings of England). Each boat is a collectivo, meaning that the boat doesn{t leave until all the tickets are sold and all the passengers are onboard. Our boat spent 2 nights sitting in the Pucallpa harbor before we got out on the road.

The trip takes about 4 days, depending on the weather and speed of the river. Upriver from Iquitos to Pucallpa takes double that, but neither can be predicted – and it{s sort of fun to just forget when you’re planning to arrive, let the river take control, and get over it. A basic fare is S/100. That buys you a space to hang up a hammock and 3 meals a day. For us, breakfast was cinnamony arroz con leche. Lunch and dinner involved lots of rice, lots of soup, and lots of weirdly, flavorless boiled plantains. (Our group suspected that they put them in on the first day and just kept boiling them). Make sure you bring your mess kits, because plates and tupperware aren{t provided!

The boats differ hugely. Some end up being freakishly crowded – hammocks rubbing up against each other in the packed cargo hold – while others are spacious and allow you to have your own little hammock camp with meters and meters of personal space. You can also rent tiny cabins instead of hammocking it, for an extra price. But this too differs: some boats are almost all cabins, while some only have a few. And you can{t really choose – only one Henry leaves at a time. You{ll get to see the other boats going the other direction on the river. Whenever one Henry passes another, they dock for a few minutes to exchange gasoline and supplies. You can wave at the people on the other boat{s deck and even high-five them.

Being on the boat is a one-of-a-kind cultural experience. Watching the forest slip by as days run together is truly magical. You{ll pass towns totally untouched by roads, forgotten by time and backed by tall, vine-streaming trees. At each stop vendors pour onto the boat to sell food; the shrill calls of “Hay juanes! Hay comida!” will send you into convulsions by the end. Or maybe not, because the food options are good – they might include tamales, chicken dinners, jungle specialties like bittersweet aguajina, and mini salads. One lady was even walking around with a full-on telephone strapped to her chest calling, “Hay llamadas!” The trip is also best for the adventurous,
and those who don{t get seasick. The water is pulled straight up from the river, so either stock up on bottles of San Luis or bring some sort of purification pump. And the bathrooms are B.Y.O.T.P. (use your, imagination) and feature dinosaur-size moths, cockroaches and shiny black scarab beetles.

But this is a way to see the river country unlike any other. When the skyline of Iquitos appears on the horizon, it{ll seem like a mirage. And when it{s time to wrap up your hammock and face the city streets, you might be a little sad the boat ride is over. This is how Peruvians see Peru. And if you want more of the Amazon than that jungle lodge your hotel thrust a brochure of at you, this voyage will provide a feast for the imagination.