From Iquitos – one of the largest cities in the world with no roads leading to it – the only way out of the jungle was to fly, or to take a two to three day river cruise down to the edge of the jungle. Since we were short on time and keen to get to Peru’s north coast, Sam and I decided to take the cheats option and hop on a one hour flight to Tarapoto, a small city in the Amazon Basin nestled somewhere between the jungle and the mountains.
Having picked Tarapoto because 1) it was outside of the Amazon and 2) the flights there were the shortest and cheapest, we didn’t have a very clear idea of what to do there. Pretty quickly, we discovered that it was fairly off the beaten track, with few other travellers stopping there and no hostels – only cheap hotels where we met no other travellers. With a mild, sunny climate, clear skies and stunning views of lush green mountains, Tarapoto is worth a stop en route through Peru, and it’s a good way to break up the journey from the Amazon to the coast. Although there isn’t much to do in the town itself, the fantastic countryside around means that there are plenty of opportunities for some great walks, not to mention a number of impressive natural sights.
We decided to head to some nearby waterfalls: a popular swimming area with locals and apparently stunningly beautiful, the Cataratas de Ahuashiyacu. Not wanting to fork out for a tour from one of the many companies in town, though, I stupidly decided we would simply try to get to the falls on our own. A google map search showed an hour’s walk to ahuashiyacu, but I didn’t realise this meant the river with the same name, not the waterfalls. So, after well over an hour walking first through the outskirts of town, then down a dirt road through some beautiful farmland, we came to a dead end along a pretty flat road with no waterfalls in sight. Just as it started to rain, a local farmer confirmed that the falls were no where near. Back on the road, we flagged a mototaxi whose driver told us something in rapid Spanish that I didn’t understand, drove us around for a while, and then abandoned us at the side of the road next to a tiny town far away from anywhere. Luckily, we were able to flag a second mototaxi whose driver happily spoke slowly enough for me to understand. He explained that mototaxis are forbidden to drive tourists up to the falls – something I couldn’t really follow about thefts or complaints, which meant the police had banned mototaxis from the main tourist sights – and instead took us back into the town centre of Tarapoto, where we found a driver willing to take us up to the falls and bring us back for S./60 (about £12).
Although it had been a mild disaster, the walk (up until the rain started) had been pretty fun, and we saw a side of Tarapoto we wouldn’t have otherwise glimpsed – not to mention the beautiful countryside and farmlands surrounding the town. I was still feeling fairly stressed from the morning, but as we drove, the sun came out and my mood picked up. Better still, we had picked a driver who seemed compelled to add in a mini tour along the way, pointing out such sights of interest as the road which buses take to Moyobamba, or the highway to Lima (which he claimed, I believe falsely, was a thirty hour drive).
We stopped first at a viewpoint looking out across a deep valley of craggy green cliffs, and our driver pointed out three different waterfalls across from us. The view was breathtaking, especially with the blue skies and bright sunshine, and as we cruised down into the valley my spirits were fully restored. In the valley it was cool and shady, with fresh clean air that smelled of damp leaves and woody earth. We left the car and walked along a wet, winding path into the forest, hearing nothing but the hum of insects and the rush of water from the falls.
The waterfall, or Catarata, of Ahuashiyacu is absolutely stunning. About 40 foot high, the water plunges in a ‘v’ shape from a high, rocky outcrop which is shaped a little like a face, with the waterfalls forming tears. The force of the water is so strong that the whole clearing is filled with wet mist, making it really refreshing and cool after the hot sun from above the valley.
We spent an hour at the falls, – which we had to ourselves – swimming in the cold but crystal clear water of the pool and relaxing in the lovely, shady valley, while our driver sat in the sun and napped, waiting for us. He seemed to have a fairly easy job! Once we’d had our fill, he drove us back to sunny Tarapoto, where we spent a little time browsing the shops for bargain hand-crafted goods, enjoyed a long chat practising my terrible Spanish with two young guys working in Radio Shack, and finally rounded the day off with a huge, cheap dinner on the plaza.
Although we were a little off the beaten track, had had a few disasters, and hadn’t met any other travellers since our day tour in the Amazon, Tarapoto was a nice and very pretty stop between the Amazon and the coast in Peru, and I’m really glad we paid the little town a visit.