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."
We live in an age of diminishing firsts, so those wishing to find fame or notoriety through adventure are forced into increasingly baroque categories: summiting Everest on prosthetic legs, or climbing Kilimanjaro on rollerblades. The Amazon has been run several times by kayaking expeditions, and a Slovenian named Martin Strel has even swum most of its length, but nobody has ever crossed it on foot. When I first read about Stafford's mission, I immediately wondered what made Stafford believe he could actually make it.
Perhaps more than any other landscape, the Amazon jungle is steeped in myth and mystery, looming over the human imagination as a symbol of both untamed wilderness and environmental vulnerability. The mind shudders at its enormity. The river that begins as a trickle of glacial meltwater at 20,000 feet in the Andes discharges 32 million gallons a second. Twenty percent of all freshwater flowing into the world's oceans passes through its mouth, which gapes 150 miles wide. For five centuries the river has been the obsession (and undoing) of countless outsiders, from the lunatic conquistador Lope de Aguirre to the vanished 1920s explorer Percy Fawcett. The lore of Amazon exploration is filled with starvation, madness, disease, and murder.
I understood the region's undeniable allure, but I was still curious why anyone would subject himself to two years crossing a landscape largely populated by anacondas, jaguars, vampire bats, pit vipers, scorpions, wasps, army ants, electric eels, piranhas, drug smugglers, hostile tribes, dengue and yellow fever, malaria, 15-foot black caimans, and 18-inch leeches. Not to mention the candiru, a pin-size catfish that has the ability to swim up a stream of urine and lodge itself irretrievably in the urethra. There are almost no roads along Stafford's route, and since the most common way of traveling is by boat, even trails are scarce. So to try to understand whatever impulse inspires Stafford onward, I arranged to join him for a few weeks of his journey. But first I had to find him.
At the Iquitos docks I board a rusting double-decker ferry, whose every inch of deck space is strung with hammocks. I am the only gringo aboard, and everything I do meets with stares. The sky is flame-orange; cumulonimbus clouds boil over the forest as the boat noses out into the current. The water is the color of cappuccino, and putting green-size mats of floating vegetation drift along in it. Dugouts with outboards hug the banks and beat their way upstream against the flow. The ferry steams along swiftly with the current, the river lashing in broad meanders between the un-broken walls of jungle.
As darkness falls and most of the passengers climb into their hammocks, I stand by the wheelhouse, watching as the pilot navigates around huge floating logs. After several hours of staring into the blackness, a tiny cluster of lights appears on the far bank. As we get closer, I see two men, and the taller one, wearing a baseball cap, waves to me. The big boat grounds itself against the muddy bank, and I jump down, the only passenger disembarking at this stop. The two men approach. I can't resist: "Mr. Stafford, I presume?"
"Have a beer," he replies, laughing.