Men's Journal | June 2009
featured in Best American Travel Writing 2010
Iquitos, Peru, population 360,000, bills itself as the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road. The capital of the Peruvian Amazon, it is an island in a vast ocean of jungle, a seaport 2,000 miles from the sea, linked to the outside world only by air or by the roiling waters of the Amazon River. At the height of the rubber trade in the late 19th century, Iquitos was one of the richest cities in South America, a boomtown that could afford to ship in a prefab mansion designed by Gustave Eiffel or ship out dirty linens to be laundered in Paris. Today it is a filthy, crumbling frontier town, choked with motokars, three-wheeled taxis that turn the dusty streets into a buzzing and honking chaos. Iquitos is also a launching point for exploration of the 2-million-square-mile rain forest that spreads across the Amazon basin, home to a tenth of the world’s known species, several of which I can see as I walk along the waterfront, where hawkers sell stuffed piranhas, mounted butterflies the size of paperbacks, and 12-foot anaconda skins unrolled with a theatrical flourish. But I have no time to barter for souvenirs. It’s the rainy season, and black-bellied thunderheads are piling up on the horizon as the pressure drops in the soupy tropical air. I am hurrying to the port to catch a boat heading down-river, through the vast unsettled territory that lies between Iquitos and Peru’s frontier with Brazil and Colombia.
If all goes according to plan, somewhere on the banks of the mile-wide river I will rendezvous with a 33-year-old former British Army captain named Ed Stafford. But Stafford has warned me that in the Amazon things rarely go according to plan. He should know: Since April 2008 he has been on an expedition to be the first person in history to travel the entire 4,000-mile length of the Amazon River on foot, through the heart of the largest jungle on Earth. He’s attempting to walk every step of the river’s route from source to sea, wherever it is possible to walk. There are also several hundred tributaries he will need to cross using an inflatable raft he carries with him, and he must traverse three countries and the territories of dozens of indigenous tribes. In his expedition blog, Stafford writes: “Walking from the source to the sea is one of the last great feats of exploration.” ... [read here]