Saturday, September 17, 2016

Five Days in Pucallpa


Pucallpa is a city located in the Peruvian rainforest on the Ucayali River. It is the 14th largest city in Peru with a population of 210,000. Pucallpa is an Incan Quechua word meaning ‘red earth’. It is generally recognized as having been founded in the early 1800s by missionaries, though people have lived in the area for several thousand years. In the early years rubber was the economic base. Now lumber, oil and agricultural products sustain the economy. Tourism is not a significant contributing factor at present. The city can be reached by air, boat and car, though the last two modes are chancy depending on weather conditions.
 
Anyone visiting Pucallpa looking for a jungle/rainforest experience will be disappointed. The interior of the city looks like any other large Peruvian city; even the principal park lacks a display of rainforest foliage, or any foliage for that matter. The Ucayali River forms the border of most of the north and east edges of the city and it is here that the visitor will see evidence of the rainforest and its contribution to the city’s economy. At several locations boats are frequently arriving loaded with fruits and vegetables including bananas, pineapple,yuca, aquaje, cocona, cashu and camu camu. Some of the products are sold on the spot to individuals and local businesses or transported to coastal cities. A good place to view this activity is north of the Plaza de Reloj (Park of the Clock – named for a clock tower). The park is a short walk from Pucallpa’s major hotels.

When you’ve had your fill of watching the people working you can rent a peque peque in the same location and take a ride on the river. You won’t see jungle, exotic birds, insects or animals but you will get a good feel for all of the activities that make Pucallpa tick. You’ll see logs up to eight feet in diameter being loaded and unloaded on barges. You’ll see concrete, rice and other items that aren’t available locally being unloaded. The people who own and operate the peque peques are natives and have a wealth of knowledge about anything you’re likely to see. Incidentally, the boats are called peqeu peque because that is the sound their engines make. The standard boat tour takes one hour and costs about $9 for two people. It’s well worth it.

Another location to rent a boat at is Lago Yarinacocha, a popular fun spot on the northwest tip of the city. It sits atop a gently rising cliff above the river, and during the rainy season is often flooded which is why the many open air restaurants and houses are built on stilts. It is a noisy, dusty place. The single road is choked with moto traffic and boat operators aggressively competing for customers. With the roar of the moto engines and music blaring from nearly every restaurant It is a chaotic experience verging on sensory overload. Peruvians love it. It is worth seeing…one time.

Here the boat tour is two hours round-trip, with a stop at the village of San Francisco. The standard cost is $27 for two. There is nothing to see on either river shore but sand and trees. The stop at San Francisco consists of a visit to several artisans and a tiny museum. Years ago the community had a native theme for tourists, with the villagers dressed in costume and portraying life as it was before the Europeans arrived, but that stopped when the government provided water, electricity and a road. In our opinion the boat ride and village visit is a waste of time and money.

Yarinacocha does boast of having several of the most popular restaurants in Pucallpa. Two of them; the Anaconda and Balsa de Oro float on the river beside each other. We had lunch at the Balsa de Oro where Maribel had venison and I had wild pig. The quality of the food and service was good though quantities were small.

Pucallpa has the reputation of having no tourist attractions, and depending on personal preferences that could be true. We spent five days there and never lacked for something to do. Beside the peque peque ride, park of the clock and Lago Yarinacocha there is a nature park with a zoo, a small park (Lupuna Park) featuring an historical 200 year old tree, two shopping malls, both with cinemas, and a tiny museum.  Of them all the museum was the highlight of the trip for me.

The Don Agustin Rivas Vasquez museum is on Tarapaca Street close to the Plaza de Armas and is very easy to miss when walking by. We had to track down a woman to open the museum for us. It is a small second-floor room filled with impressive wood carvings. The spirit and imagination of the man comes through in each sculpture. We spent two hours there examining each piece; each one carved from a single piece of wood, and talking with the woman. Though he has not lived in Pucallpa for many years Agustin Rivas still owns the building; has a bedroom there and returns during Christmas to visit friends and family. There is a detailed internet article about him for anyone interested in learning more.

Other activities are driven by the climate. Many businesses close from 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm because of the heat. The ice cream and juice shops stay open and make a lot of money during those hours. Early afternoon is a good time to be in one of the air conditioned malls, cinema or hotel room. Pucallpa has several 1st class hotels catering mostly to business people. We stayed at the Casa Andina and were very pleased with everything.

All in all it was a good experience. We will probably never return to Pucallpa but are very glad we made the trip.

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