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Iquitos

Arriving into Iquitos was a huge relief. We were utterly spent but the prospect of food and drink, bustling markets, and city comforts had us buzzing with anticipation. Unfortunately though, our recovery period there wouldn’t be nearly as laid back and joyous as we were hoping it’d be.

Iquitos is the capital of the Peruvian Amazon with a population of just under 500 000. Amazingly, it is the largest mainland city in the world that is not accessible by road. Completely surrounded by dense rainforest, it was accessible only by boat, until the invention of air travel. The area has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years but the city itself was established by Spanish Jesuits in 1757 who gathered Yameo and Iquito natives to live and work there. During the rubber boom of the late 19th century, the city became a hive of activity with many Europeans flocking there. With them they brought all sorts of exotic and modern wares from Europe making Iquitos the envy of all Peru.

Unfortunately, during that time, indigenous people were worked in conditions close to slavery. Eventually a Brit named Henry Wickham smuggled some rubber tree seeds out of the area and established plantations in Asia and Africa, causing an end to the boom. Much of the beautiful, colonial architecture remains as a reminder of more prosperous times. The city is now a draw for indigenous peoples from far and wide who come in search of modern living.

Jake, Yan and I arrived there in our canoes, as darkness closed in around us, on the 29th of June 2023. We were welcomed by Cara, who stood at the bottom of a wooden staircase that stretched down to the riverbank behind Amazon Dream Hostel. Cara was a huge boost to team moral, especially to Yan, considering they’d be sharing more than just a boat over the coming weeks. Cara and Yan are partners and Cara is a former Royal Navy dental nurse. She immediately injected laughter and new energy into us and added a really nice dynamic that we suddenly realised we’d been missing. She'd arrived by plane only a few hours before we paddled in. If that’s not an example of logistical brilliance, considering the distance we’d covered and numerous setbacks, I'm not sure what is?

Once the kit was secured, we were shown to our rooms by the eccentric and warm host Chip, an American expat, and his Peruvian wife. Jake and I spent around 20 minutes washing off the grime and preparing to head out in search of a meal. Surprisingly, Yan and Cara were only 5 minutes longer in getting ready, but Yan came round the corner grinning from ear to ear.

Chip recommended a place for us to eat and we left via the front door, squeezing through group of street dogs. He'd been slowly caring for more and more of them, feeding them and paying for veterinary bills, so it seemed that all of the best looking, friendly street dogs in the city, hover around the door of Amazon Dream Hostel.

For the first meal we had a burger and a pizza each. Considering the logistical problems of importing produce into such a remote city, we were happy. I wouldn’t say that Iquitos is a place to go if fine dining is your thing, but there were no complaints. The calories were definitely appreciated and for me, food has always been fuel first and enjoyment second. As we ate, we were serenaded by two incredibly flamboyant men in tight white jeans, whilst two incredibly beautiful, olive-skinned women danced seductively in bikinis alongside them on stage. Families with young children watched on and cheered and applauded. Our British modesty would have to be left at the door, we were firmly in Latin America. It’s in-your-face and vibrant, in fact I really couldn’t stop watching. No offense to Ian and Jake, but I was happy to have a change of scenery.

The next team member to arrive would be Moira, our aspiring Ecologist. Moira is the granddaughter of my dad’s (David Bathgate) friend and fellow climber Brain Robertson. She had left Boulder (Colorado) after school to study ecology at Edinburgh University and reconnected with my dad. Through their conversations, she learned of the expedition and from there she became a hugely important part of the Summit to Sea team. I had been looking for a way for us to use our time on the Amazon to gather valuable information, she had the answer. We’d be taking sound recordings every day for the entire descent. These recordings could be used to determine the existence of indicator species and the presence or absence of these species could give us an idea of the health of the river.

 On our second day in Iquitos, we heard that Moira was stuck in Denver with at least a 24-hour delay to her flight. We rejigged plans slightly and relaxed into city life. Yan and Cara moved to an Eco-Lodge that Cara had booked for them then met Jake and I for a few beers in town. During that beer drinking session, we solved one of the great world issues: Equality doesn’t work, what we need to strive for is a world where people:


Advance Based on Relative Competence


What this means is exactly what it says. It's funny how spending time entirely outside your comfort zone, overcoming problems together and introducing diversity into a team, makes for incredibly insightful conversations. Maybe politicians should be thrown into the wild for 6 months before they’re allowed to make decisions. If you do feel triggered by this, I’d advise you to get yourself out into the world, away from social media and leave your comfort zone behind. (This cannot be done within Europe or USA) Once you’ve done this you’ll realise that some working and living environments are unsuitable for certain types of people. That fact can depend on many variables and does not hold to gender, race or sexual orientation. Whilst I’m on this rant, I’ll also say that in my opinion, lack of time outside your comfort zone is the main contributor to mental health issues. (If you haven’t experienced a trauma in your past). Test yourself, you might fail, but you’ll grow from it. Having solved a few more world issues we called it a night.

The next day, Moira finally arrived after more delays having leaned the valuable lesson: never to travel on 4th July weekend again. Our plan was to spend just under a week in Iquitos so that the girls could acclimatise. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling great for that first week, fighting off another stomach related illness. Jake would be leaving in a few days, whilst the rest of us would head north, onto the Napo River, to a small site owned by Green Gold Forestry where we'd conduct sound sampling for Moira. So, we took this time as an opportunity to rest and recover before commencing the science stage. We became tourists.

We went to an indigenous museum, Belén Market and spent some time lounging at a pool. At Belén we were amazed by the stalls. So much fruit, fish and meat, as well as herbs, woods, plants and clothes. The filth and grime was piled in every corner whilst vultures lined the electric cables above waiting for an opportunity to swoop. They were as thick in the sky as the rats were on the piles of garbage. For me that was part of the charm of the place. We all agreed that we could have wandered the market in constant amazement all day. Unfortunately, the presence of severed monkeys’ heads and anaconda skins was disappointing to see. Wherever you go, please don’t fuel the market for anything to do with rare animals. We saw and smelled an untold amount of bush meat and fish that had been sitting in the sun all day. From Caiman to Capybara, everything seems to be on the menu and festering away in the heat of the day. Honestly, I loved it, there was something to gawk at in almost every stall. The selection of fruit was mouth-watering, and we bought some delicious dragon fruits that were devoured later that evening.

Next to Belén Market is a floating city, also named Belén. It is a essentially a ghetto on stilts that was built on the flood lands just below the city. For 4 months of the year, it stands in 3-meters of water which wash away the litter that piles up during the dry season. This is a place where the poorest indigenous people from outlying communities have gathered over the years looking for work. We learned about the chilling facts of child exploitation problems here; unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for parents to sell their children into the seedy industry. Up until not too long ago there was a problem with western men coming to Iquitos for this reason. We met a gentleman who will remain unnamed who put in some incredible work with the help of the British and Peruvian Governments to make it far more difficult for foreign paedophiles to operate in the area.


A few days in, Yan and Cara (who will now be referred to as Yara) met a man called Osmar and his American wife whilst they were canoeing near their eco-lodge. Osmar wanted to show us the town properly, from the eyes of a local man and share some of the projects he was running or involved with. He picked us up in his Hilux which began an adventure round Iquitos and the surrounding area. He was refreshingly honest, being Peruvian and talking about Peru and he spoke perfect English. The first subject we covered was Covid and it sounded like Iquitos was basically ignored by the Peruvian government throughout the pandemic. Osmar said that there was a military led curfew in which many arrests were made. Doctors were given bonuses if they announced that people died of covid, so everyone who died was bracketed under a covid death and their bodies sent to a mass grave behind the main graveyard. Not ideal in a Catholic country. Eventually the people rose up after a man that was presumed dead, was taken to the mass grave, woke up half buried and then stumbled home.

Osmar took us to an education centre where young students are taught how to be environmental guides. The staff and students were very polite and incredibly enthusiastic when speaking about environmental protection. They seemed to be generations ahead of some of the communities we'd met along the river. The students took us on a tour around a section of protected forest and educated us on the flora and fauna. The white sand under our feet on the forest floor was evidence that we were standing on what was once a coral reef, millions of years before. It was on this tour that we saw our first poisoned dart frog which was exciting, especially for Moira.

Later that morning we were taken to a manatee rescue centre and were able to see four young manatees that were being nursed to adulthood before being taken to a lagoon deep in the Peruvian Rainforest to be released. They are beautiful animals, rather like a placid cow of the water, but I was more interested in the caiman and monkeys they had there. One poor monkey had no hands because some superstitious people remove them to be sold in Belén Market for witch doctor medicine. This little guy was fortunate to have found his way to the sanctuary and scampered around the enclosure undeterred by his disability.

Next Osmar wanted to take us to his project at Belén floating town. He and his wife have set up a charity called Sunshine Kids aimed at rescuing children who have been sold into the sex industry. Both boys and girls. Often, it's the parents themselves who make the sales with the average family having between 7 and 9 children. Parents get three chances to reform and are given some education and warnings before their child is confiscated. The main expense for the charity is setting up a big concrete centre in the middle of the floating town.

A centre where children can be educated properly and have confidential chats with carers.


Osmar himself was a street kid of the floating market who was fortunate enough to be rescued and brought to America. He has now returned to Iquitos because he can’t live in comfort knowing what goes on there. He’s a remarkable man and has devoted his life setting things right. Some of the children who go through his program end up at the environmental guides school that he took us to. Osmar seemed to know a man, woman or child on every corner which is usually the case with charity workers who roll up their sleeves and get stuck in.

As we left we passed a large are of land, half hidden by corrugated iron. I can only describe it as a tree graveyard and it was a sobering reminder of the deforestation problem plaguing the Amazon Basin. A problem that if we do not resolve, could spell the end of life on Earth as we know it. We need trees for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that they absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale and the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that human activities emit. As those gases enter the atmosphere, global warming increases, a trend scientists now prefer to call climate change.


We finished the tour with a trip to the Nanay Bridge, a construction that the people of Iquitos take immense pride in. Considering the huge area of flood land that it spans, it is an industrial marvel, connecting the land north of the Nanay River to Iquitos by road. Sadly, we already know that wherever roads go in the Amazon Basin, deforestation swiftly follows. This will be an area of concern, to watch in the coming years.


That night we went for a beer on the roof of a hotel and mentioned to Osmar our predicament, that we hadn't managed to stamp our passports in Peru yet. The girls were fine, they'd flown in, but Jake, Ian and I entered Peru via the Rio Pastaza. It's not a normal way to enter, in fact we were the first westerners that we knew of to have made that trip. Clearly there are no immigration check points between there and Iquitos, but the nature of our expedition meant that we had no choice but to enter the country that way. We had stopped at a military check point in Ecuador and Peru on either side of the border and they both told us we could continue, but they couldn't help us with documents or passport stamps. We then stopped and informed the police of our presence in Andoas (Pastaza, Peru),San Lorenzo (Marañón, Peru) and Maipuco (Marañón, Peru). They all told us to continue to Iquitos to get our passports stamped. Now that we had arrived in Iquitos, this was our only priority job before departing for our science week.

Osmar, being the good egg that he is, offered to take us to immigration because of course he knew some people there. First thing the next morning he met us at the immigration office on Av. Mariscal Caceres, with our canoes strapped to his roof. They were due to be taken over 100 miles by barge, to the Napo river that afternoon. Osmarhad kindly offered to drop them off at the port for us.  We entered the building and explained our situation to the secretary, immediately it seemed like there was going to be a problem. Osmar's influence unfortunately didn't help us in this situation, and we were told that we had two choices. One was to surrender ourselves to the police for being illegal immigrants. They would detain us, make up a document, then we'd have fifteen days to leave the county. The other choice was to make a 5-day trip upstream on the Napo River to Cabo Pandoja, a Peruvian town on the Ecuadorian border. From there we could sneak out of Peru and back into Ecuador. In Rocafuerte, on the Ecuadorian side, we could get exit stamps in our passports, come back into Peru legally and get our passports stamped in Cabo Pandoja. We tried again and again to explain that on the Pastaza, we'd passed the Ecuadorian then Peruvian military bases and gained permission to pass. We'd also stopped at Andoas, San Lorenzo and Maipuco police stations and gained paperwork explaining our intent. Immigration simply said the police and military didn't have authority to allow us through. It was basically a situation where we found ourselves in front of a 'Little Britain' character saying "computer says no".

Jake was due to fly home in 3 days’ time, so he had no option but to surrender himself to the authorities, in order to get paperwork and be allowed to pass through immigration at the airport. The downside of this option, despite being detained was that because of the record, Jake would be unable to enter Peru for the next 5 years. Once we knew the police were on their way to detain him, Yan and I had to immediately scarper, after all we were illegal immigrants. We had plans to collect scientific data with Moira for a week, leaving in 2 days. We also knew that it'd take us roughly 7-8 days to paddle to Leticia (Colombia) and therefor wouldn't be able to leave Peru within the allotted 15 days. We wished Jake luck and headed for a coffee to weigh up our options. At this point Moira gave us the contact details of Joe Plumb, the Honorary British Consulate here in Iquitos that she had been liaising with during here scientific planning.

With the clarity that comes after a much needed morning coffee, I decided that it was time to ask for help and gave him a call. The voice at the other end of the phone was a warm northern accent, energetic, with a ‘good-at-getting-things-done’ vibe to it. He was immediately keen to be help and asked to meet us at the immigration office as soon as possible. We arrived there to the site of a middle-aged man, powerfully built and well dressed with a beige coloured travellers’ jacket and hat giving him an air of a British explorer finally settled in some far off place. Truth is he was a bit of an explorer, though his travels had been funded by the Church. In Iquitos he had met the love of his life, Gina and decided to hang up his collar to start a family. As the most influential Brit in the area, he was now Acting British Consulate in Iquitos. He shook my hand firmly with a smile then took us straight past the secretary to an office up stairs. Yan and I gave each other a relieved look, we had a strong ally now and we were confident the problem would be solved that afternoon.

The Peruvian official who greeted us was sitting in a pressed white shirt, with his slick black hair done to perfection and there was a familiar scent of too much aftershave hanging in the air. He had a look on his face that suggested superiority and unfortunately, despite Joe’s best efforts, he had little sympathy for two 'gringos' who had entered the country via an "uncommon and dangerous route." His face softened when I decided to play to his ego and asked him (through Joe) if he could use his position of authority to help us beyond usual means? However, I think it changed to a smirk as he formulated the answer in his head which was; "There's simply nothing I can do to help you." The head man in immigration was not keen to pull any strings for us or make any calls and that was that. We did however get some helpful information though. If we had gone down the police/paperwork route, we'd have an interpole record which could make future travel very difficult. This was not an option considering our travel plans for the rest of the expedition. Our only option was the border run. The advice from immigration for us, was to sneak out of Peru and then legally come back in. The officials wanted to be official and yet give us unofficial advice… entirely frustrating and completely Peruvian. At least we knew what we had to do.

As the day progressed, I started to become more and more concerned for Jake who was alone and detained. Osmar told us that the police had tried to confiscate the canoes because Jake had used them to cross the border, Osmar had to say they were his before leaving Jake in the station. He'd helped us out again in a big way! Eventually around 1800 Jake texted and said he had recently been released and was recovering from the experience with a cold beer. He had the paperwork and would be allowed to leave on time, which was great, but being locked in a cell all day without food, water or air conditioning had understandably soured his mood. I was just relieved that he was sorted. 

The night before Moira and I were due to leave for Rio Tacsha, Jake took us out for Pizza. The last supper before another painful goodbye to a brother who had thrown every piece of himself into the expedition. We had a nice meal and a couple of beers then hit the hay early, in preparation for our early start the following morning. When I arose, I opened my bedroom door to the sight of Jake washing blood off of his arms and face in the kitchen sink. "I was involved in a robbery last night." He said through a tipsy glaze and showing a hint of pride. At around 0300 he saw a man grab a woman’s bag and jump into a tuk-tuk, he jumped on the side of it and was then hurled into the street, tearing the skin off his arms. Luckily Jake was alright, and had slowed the man enough to be caught by a group of locals, who piled on top of him, beat him considerably then hauled him away. Inwardly I was quite frustrated by this story. As expedition leader my first priority was for all of my team to get home to their families safely. For Jake to have gone back out to drink on his own in Iquitos at that time was an unnecessary risk. In hindsight, if I’d been leaving the following day, I wouldn’t have wanted an early night either, I'd have wanted to make the most of every minute left in Iquitos. Besides, he'd helped capture a thief and that is well worth two skint elbows.

Jake wated to come to the port to wave us off and help with the bags. First stop on the way there was the Banco de la Nacion ATM so we’d have cash on the Napo. Outside of Iquitos, there are no card machines, all transactions are made with cash (Peruvian Sols). As I slid my card into the slot it met some resistance and then an error code came up on the screen. A man approached me and seemed like he knew the issue and told me to enter my number. I covered the panel and entered it, and nothing happened. He kept insisting I enter it and was ducking and weaving behind me trying to see my hand. He said to do it slower. In my head I knew something was dodgy, but I was too concerned with deciding what we'd do about the boat we were about it miss. It was around 0630am at this point. The bank didn't open till 0900. The boat left at 0700. I sighed and scratched my head, inspecting the machine and wracking my brain for what to do. Losing my card to the machine would be a nightmare. At 0645 I asked Moira and Jake to go with the tuk-tuk and bags and try to stall the boat. I waited by my card as a second man told me to enter my pin the same way. I had no idea what to do, I was too tired and stressed to make a decision. I thought I'm just going to have to sit here till 0900 and delay the science trip a day. Finally, I kneeled down and properly inspected the card slot, there was a small wire or something showing just below my card. I was kneeling trying to pick it out and wishing I didn’t send the guys away with my bags because I needed my Leatherman. As I tried to pull at the tiny wire with my fingertips, a well-dressed decent looking man came in and told me there were bank staff just around the corner. I don't know why I believed him, maybe I just wanted to, but I followed him round the corner, and he pointed to a door. As I walked through the door he peeled off and disappeared. I went through and looked around for about 30 seconds before hurriedly returning to the machine. The little wire was gone, and as expected, so was my card. I’d been done! I was really embarrassed with myself and for an hour or so I fantasised about throwing the thieves through the bank windows, having been more switched on to the ambush. Moira and Jake returned, unable to stall the boat anyway. I ordered a new card and transferred some money to Western Union. It was hardly the end of the world, nothing had been stolen, but we'd lost a valuable day collecting data.


Later, I went to Western Union to pick up some money I'd transferred with my driver’s licence. The woman behind the desk wouldn't accept my ID because it wasn't a passport. On the Western Union website it states you require "a government issue ID" but I didn't have the Spanish skills to argue my case. I trudged angrily back through the heat to collect my passport and then returned. This time another woman took a look and refused me based on the fact that my names were in a different order on her computer. My passport says John Dean Darling Bathgate. She had John Bathgate Dean Darling. I said “You can’t be serious??” She said “Lo siento senor” with a smirk. I heard "computer says no". It was time for the build-up of frustrations to burst from my mouth like an eruption at the summit of Tungurahua. I couldn't help it. The abductions, the searches, the illness, the immigration problem, the robbery, the lost days… She received a full and venomous tongue lashing, complete with a variety of explicit and colourful language in which I brutally blamed every Peruvian for the frustrations we’d had. I wasn't even embarrassed at the time although I am now; I was totally done with Peru. To the lady behind the desk; please accept my apology. But next time, use a bit of common sense please!

That night Jake, Moira and I went out for a second farewell meal at a place we'd been avoiding all week because they had decorated the outside wall with AstroTurf. The service and food was the best we'd had in Iquitos so far!


Jake, thank you so much for your efforts during Stages 2 and 3 of Amazon Summit to Sea, it was a pleasure to share the memories with you.




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