It began badly. I missed the boat. In 6 weeks of travelling by bus in Bolivia I had never left on time, but last Saturday I was left stranded at the port. The epic boat trip down the Rio Mamore was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and I’d planned part of my trip around it. From the destination port of Guayaramerin I could cross into Brazil and from there fly back to São Paulo, but now it all looked in jeopardy.
I had arrived in Trinidad late Thursday night after another long bus journey from Santa Cruz and the following morning I jumped on a moto taxi to Puerto Almacen to try and organise the trip. There are no passenger boats, you have to speak directly to the Capitanía in the port and find out what boats are leaving. I was in luck. The Boldito was scheduled to head downriver the next day.
I spoke to captain Alfredo who told me I would even have a small cabin. I just needed to buy a mosquito net and some provisions. It would cost only £30 for four nights, including all meals, so I knew it would be extremely basic, but that was fine, I was going for the scenery not on board entertainment. Alfredo told me they were still loading up the cargo, 35,000 litres of diesel, but they would be setting off the following day, so I should arrive at 1pm.
The rest of the day and Saturday morning were spent buying the net and extra food and water and exploring the laid-back town of Trinidad. After an early lunch on Saturday I arrived at the port at 12.45 only to discover the Boldito had finished loading early and so had already departed. But I had one last chance. The lorry drivers at the port told me the boat would be passing Loma Suarez, another port further north, just after 2pm, so if I caught another taxi I might just make it. Someone rang the captain telling him I was on my way and I rushed off in a cab. Well, actually, it was a flatbed truck pulled by a motorbike, a kind of rickshaw, but it got me there in time.
On the banks of the Rio Ibare I waited and waited. After about two hours sitting in sweltering heat I was ready to give up, but then the Boldito appeared round the bend in the river. However, it was clear it wasn’t going to stop. They sent a crew member to the shore in a small motor boat to pick me up. Finally, I was on board and I met my two fellow passengers, Johanna and Peter from Germany. My cabin was in fact being used as a store room, but it was fine. Just after dusk on the first day we finally entered the Rio Mamore and began the long journey north.
It’s surprising how quickly the days passed, doing very little apart from reading and watching the river banks glide past. We saw many white herons, a caiman and some tantalising glimpses of the noses of pink dolphins. Sunrises and sunsets were particularly beautiful, when the colours changed dramatically, the temperatures were lower and flocks of birds swooped low over the water or high above the trees on their way to and from their nests.
We made only one stop, at a tiny port, called Puerto Siles, for Alfredo to complete some paperwork. The captain, who has been doing this run for 10 years, told me all the diesel was bound for Riberalta and Cobija further west. Close to another village a local boat pulled up alongside and the crew delivered some sacks of rice and at some point we took delivery of a pig.
Johanna and Peter practised their juggling skills. My party trick was banging my head on door lintels, rusting pipes and overhead steel vents, something I did at least a dozen times a day. Whenever I go on boats, I’m somehow always surprised that they are never built with someone over six feet tall in mind. Conditions and food were basic, but it was incredibly relaxing and I was quite sad when on day five, Wednesday morning, we pulled into the port at Guayaramerin.
But I was now excited to get back to Brazil which I could see across the river. Unfortunately, Guayaramerin was hit by a strike and as we got off the boat we soon realised that none of us were going anywhere. All ferries and buses were suspended. Five wonderful days to get to Brazil by boat and there it was. So tantalisingly close and yet so far.