I had decided I wanted to visit the jungle city of Iquitos as it was the biggest city in the world not connected by roads. Getting there would be easy, I could fly to Lima but I was really determined not to have to fly out. I didn’t want to go back to Lima a third time, nothing against Lima just didn’t want to go back on myself, and it’s a long way from Lima to Ecuador. So I decided I’d visit if I could find a way to get to Ecuador direct from Lima. I discovered there is a boat, well four boats, that take you up the Rio Napo and across the border to Ecuador connecting with El Coca, which is connected to the road network in Ecuador. There were two very detail blog posts that described the route (Mind of a Hitchhiker and Roaming Around the World who had made the journey in 2017). I knew the journey was possible but I didn’t know if I’d be able to achieve it. I did know the journey takes 4-5 days and hat is a long time on a boat but I was excited about experiencing an area not many people get to see.
My first mission when arriving in Iquitos was to find the tourist information, iPeru, which is located on Jirón Napo just below the main Plaza. I was in a lot of pain when I entered so I tired to get it sorted quickly. The woman who helped me initially said she knew nothing about the journey but spoke to her colleague, tapped into a computer and soon printed me off a boat schedule. There is a slow boat and a fast boat. The fast boat took two days to get to the boarder, I have no idea how long the slow boat takes and it goes twice a month. The fast boat leaves on Tuesdays and Fridays but I wanted to confirm this. There was a number on the schedule so I typed this into WhatsApp and messaged them.
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this but WhatsApp is amazing for a traveller. Nearly all the agencies can be reached and by it which for someone like me who’s Spanish is not good enough to use on the phone I can message instead. I received a reply confirming the boat left on those days and that I could buy a ticket from the office in Iquitos. The travellers on the other blogs brought their ticket in boats but there is a risk that the boat might be full so I’d recommend buying in advance if you can.
The next day I went to the office which I was told is located near Calle Maynas and Calle Yavari. If walking from the plaza head towards Yavari and follow it up until it meets Maynas. Around two blocks from where the roads meet the tarmac road stops and it felt very sketchy, although I didn’t see anything to suggest it’s dangerous and the reciption showed me where it is on a map and didn’t say the area was problematic so don’t let this out you off. When you get to the T junction take a right and look for number 360, which is on the right on the corner of the next Street. In there you can buy your ticket, which was 215 soles, more than had been advertised before. I paid and was given instructions as to how to get to he boat.
The first thing to know is that the boat that takes you to the border does not start in Iquitos, it starts in a place called Mazán which is on the Rio Napo. Now the lady that sold me the ticket told me that i had Romeo to catch the 9am boat by leaving the same day if I got to the port at 6am but after speaking to the man on the hostel reception I decided to take his advice and leave the day before. It’s up to you but I’ll explain below as we go through the journey as to why.
Iquitos to Mazán – Day 1
It wasn’t necessary to leave early as the boats left all day. I took my time in the morning and went to get a last breakfast as I wasn’t sure what food I’d be eating for the next few days. I also wanted to take advantage of the WiFi. Annoyingly I was told that I could only use the WIFI for one hour and the food was disappointing.
At 11:30, packed and fully supplied. I brought crackers, biscuits, chocolates etc, things that I could eat without cooking and a 7 litre bottle of water. The water came in handy but the snacks were largely unnecessary in the end. This route is well travelled, at leat by locals if not gringos.
I took a tuc tuc to Puerto Lao, it cost 5 soles which is a rip off considering the ride I did next for 5 soles. You want to catch the fast boat to Indiana, but you can also say Mazan. There are at least three places to get boats here. I chose the wrong one and had to walk arcos the dodgiest planks I’ve ever seen. It’s almost as if a load of wood washed up in shore after a storm and they said, okay this will work for the dock. There was lots of people unloading the boats including live chickens balancing on planks of wood across open stretches of water as they came on shore. I was pointed in the right direction and had to climb down a steep bank until I reached a man who someone had gave me directions shouted at.
In the blog i had read the journey cost 8 soles and I was happy to pay 10, so when the man told me it would be 20 I laughed. He immediately reduced it to 15 and when I said 10 they laughed. It seemed of I wanted to go it would be 15. So I agreed and got on board. The boat was two thirds full at this stage and as it was a collectivo we had to wait until it was full. Despite it being a fairly grey day it was stupidly hot and even more so when the woman and her son sat next to me. The seats are really not built for Europeans. It took somewhere between 40mins and an hour to fill up and then we were off on my last stint on the Amazon river.
The journey took and hour and from my memory was largely uneventful. My big bag was strapped to the roof and there was a boy running around up there, which is impressive as the boat was not as wide as a bus. When we docked there were a tonne of people trying to get my custom for a tuc tuc. I walked past them but one man followed me. I said 5 soles to Mazan and he agreed so off we went. The journey was fun as it wasn’t quite proper roads but a road made of small concrete squares that seem to pass for roads in these parts. A lot of them are damaged which meant it was a bumpy but fun ride. I was dropped at the hostel I had requested which was the only one on maps me, Hotel Leydy. I’ll go into details in the next paragraph but my advise is to take a look around town as there are plenty of places to stay.
I was dropped outside of a building near the river which had stairs leading up. At the time I didn’t see the huge sign outside staying it was the hostel as on the map it appeared in a slightly different location. A women went upstairs and I followed. She showed me to a room at the front which contained a bed, no sheets, a table and a stool. There was a light and a plug socket. A window with no glass, right into the street although there were shutters. She said 10 soles (although in the morning this had gone up to 15), I asked for another room and she said no so I took it. Again I should learn to walk around town as after I dumped my things and took a little walk around to see what was available I spotted a tonne of other places. The toilet had no seat, which is not uncommon, and the flush was using buckets of water, again not uncommon, but this is the first time the shower has consisted of water and a bucket. The water was freezing but as it was so hot was really refreshing. And surprisingly quick.
I sat by the river but after covering every inch of my body with bug spray I could feel I was getting bitten so retreated inside the room to read. After dark I ventured out to see if I could use the WiFi at the Internet cafe. I couldn’t so I went to get some food. Essentially chicken and chips was on offer. The girl serving me didn’t seem to understand me, her mother (maybe) did better but the guys on the table next to me seemed to know what I wanted so between the four of us we ordered food, a beer and some sauces which ended up being 24 soles again different to what I thought I was quoted, but still it’s a fairly decent price. After I went to the “hotel” to go to bed. It was a hit fairly sleepless night and I was a little concerned about the lack of a mosquito net.
Mazan to Santa Clotilde – Day 2
The boat was due to leave at 9am and it was suggested in the other blogs that I should arrive early to get a seat. I awoke far too early for this as people seemed to be leaving and entering the hostel all night and lots of bikes pulled up outside. It’s surprising how loud things are when there is no glass in the window.
I took another “shower” and then went out in search of the boat. It had appeared overnight and wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. Attached to a floating platform which was accessible by walking down through the mud, I mean beach, and then across planks of wood balanced on, well it wasn’t scaffolding but it served the same purpose. If I fell I’d be in the water. I was enjoying the randomness of it all and the slightly dangerous situations. The only thing that was upsetting was that lots of good were being unloaded from other boats. There were chickens all tied together and then pigs tied to a stick by their legs and then left to lie in the sun. One pig was squealing, I’ll guess in pain, as it was unloaded. I can’t really criticise as I eat meat and animals are considered different in this part of the world so I don’t want to judge but it wasn’t pleasant to watch.
I boarded the boat, where most people had claimed a seat with their bag. I selected one that had good leg space and then swapped with a lady who had a child. It took me a few minutes to work out what she was saying and then we were off. The boat sped up the river at around 25-30km and hour. Our destination for the day was Santa Clotilde, the boat takes two days to get to the border so it stops overnight.
The boat journey itself was fairly uneventful. The boat sped along the river creating some breeze which was really welcome as the weather was ridiculous. I think we had one storm on this day, there was plastic sheeting either side of the boat which could be pulled down to keep out the rain. Some would get through but again it was welcome to counter balance the heat. The boat was long but small. We sat on what seemed like recycled car seats and other than a bathroom at the back, which I used once on this day, there was not much else to do. After watching the scenery for an hour or so and it didn’t really change much I delved into my book.
We stopped at most of the villages and hamlets along the way, to drop off and pick up people and packages that ranged from live chickens to well, I don’t know. When we did sock there was often a group of people watching and I watched back silently to try and capture a glimpse of life. Just before 11 I was handed a ball of rice and chicken wrapped in banana leaves. Lunch was provided as the boat would not be stopping.
We eventually reached our destination at 4pm and were told we needed to be back on the boat for 3:30am. The hostel was right by the water front. My room was better as it was not right at the front, it had a mosquito guard across the window and there was an actual shower and working toilet and sink in this one. Otherwise everything was the same. I waited out the storm that appeared with the other passengers from the boat and chatted in bad Spanish before heading out for some more chicken and chips and returned for an early night.
Santa Clotilde to Pantoja and then Nuevo Rocafuerte – Day 3
The boat was only supposed to take me as far as the Peruvian border town of Pantoja but I managed to get a second boat across the border that day. We will come to that later.
I awoke at 3am, finished packing and was surprised to find I was one of the last to get on the boat. The crew had set up a hammock for a lady with an injured foot as there was now less luggage and I needed to find a new seat as everyone had switched places. I was in a foul mood as I’d slipped in the mud boarding the boat and it was still too dark to access the damage. I’d basically only covered myself in cold mud but it wasn’t the best start to the day. Two of the passengers were a little late and the crew went to fetch them. We left just after 4am in the dark and it was very quiet on the boat. Today was much of the same, just following the river, stopping, dropping things off and picking them up. I saw boats and children playing in the water. There was one group of children playing football on a sand bank in the hear of the day. Each time play stopped they just jumped into the water to cool off and for back out again. The other passengers suggested I took photos but I don’t like taking photos of other people’s children without permission. It was a fun site to watch, and then they swam over to see the boat.
We were given breakfast which was a repeat of the chicken and rice from yesterday and socked for lunch. I’m not sure what I ordered but it was tasty and we were soon on our way again. Today was much more cloudy and we had our fair share of storms. I was exhausted to be honest with the early start and just plowed through my book. My bum hurt by this point and I was bored of sitting for so long. Although this I something not many people do and I was getting a look at life in the Amazon I was starting to get bored. If only I could speak more Spanish then I could ask questions. I’ll learn for he next time I return.
We eventually arrived at Pantoja at around 6pm. It wasn’t quite dark but the sun was setting. This was where I was a little concerned as I needed to get a stamp for my passport and find a boat across the border. There are no public boats that take this route but you can charger a boat and as this route is a way I to Ecuador there are people that are willing. I asked the crew where I could ask about a boat and they pointed me in a direction. I went to find one of the hostels in the town but was dithering as I wanted to see what the other passengers did, hoping that one might want to go across the border or point me where to go. They seemed to dither also so I walked towards a hostel. One the Way a man asked if I was going to Ecuador. I said yes in the morning and asked where I could get a boat, on the way another man said he could take me now. I was a little confused and concerned about the safety but he spoke to a woman in uniform at the docs and she pointed me towards the police station. This is where I missed a key piece of advice.
On both the blogs I’ve read they mentioned that they had difficulty getting the stamp, due to the officer not being available so with this in mind I wasn’t surprised to seethe immigration office closed. The police station was next door and I spoke to them and they said to wait as the immigration officer was at the dock. I waited 15 minutes but then decided as it was getting dark I’d stay the night and I didn’t want to keep the man in the boat waiting. So I left, and started walking, I can’t remember why but something made me turn around and I saw the lady from the dock behind me and she told me to come to get my passport stamped. I don’t know how she had gotten past me and I had assumed it was a man, probably because the other blogs had mentioned a man but I assume he’s been replaced due to his incompetence as the lady was really good at her job. I asked if getting the boat would be fine at this time and she said yes. And I got my stamp.
I returned to the dock and the price of transportation had risen to $25 now, I didn’t have much choice but to agree as I’d just been stamped out of Peru and it was still less than the $20-$50 quoted on the original itinerary. So I got on board. It was a tiny boat with no life jackets and the mans family, his wife, daughter and baby were on board. I assumed he was a skilled boats man and he wouldn’t kill them so I’d be fine. As we left on the dark river I started to think a little about the consequences of my actions. Here I was on a boat in the middle of the Amazon completely at the mercy of these unkind people. I decided I needed to trust and I had been told to take the boat so I didn’t have much choice. Obviously they didn’t kill me, they were really nice, and I think if they had I’d been seen getting the boat by the immigration lady who had my details on file, so I decided it was fine. Although the situation wasn’t helped by the storms i could see all over he sky. This did, however, make for a beautiful journey. I was told it would be 90mins to 2 hours but I think it took just over 3. It started to get cold, the engine kept stopping, we hit a sand bank and the captain was using a torch to spot fallen trees in the water and we come close to hitting some. Anyways I arrived in Nuevo Rocafuerte just after 9. The first hostel was full but the second had space. It was much more expensive here but I had a TV, private bathroom, WiFi, and aircon. It was too late to get my entrance stamp and the boat i needed left at 5:30am so I realised I’d have to stay here an extra day. I had hoped I’d gained a day but alas not. But it’s probably a good thing as I was exhausted. I brought a beer and some crisps which served as dinner and went to bed.
Nuevo Rocafuerte – Day 4
I awoke earlyish but decided to take it easy and sat with the Cartoon Network on in Spanish hoping I’d pick up some by osmosis whilst I sorted photos and updated the blog. Around 10am I decided it was time to get my entrance stamp as I’d been in Ecuador overnight and wasnt sure how long is have before it caught up with me. The immigration office was a little harder to find. It wasn’t quite in the location the map suggested and I had to ask a few people. I entered what I thought was the right building and was instructed to knock on a door. I did and after a couple of times I heard a noise, again the blogs I had read suggested it was hard to get hold of the immigration officer. So I tried the handle and opened the door to a bedroom with the officer inside. Had not expected that. He came around to the office with me and stamped my passport with no problems. With that i had the whole day free to waste before getting the boat in the morning. I decided to take a wonder around the town.
There wasn’t really much to see so I headed back to my room and after managed to buy some lunch at a local, I’ll call it an eatery. I spent the afternoon reading by the river watching the locals go about their business. A bakery opened so I brought what passed for croissants and Pan o chocolates for the next day and after starting to get bitten I retired until the next day.
Nuevo Rocafuerte to El Coca
I awoke at around 4:30 and got ready. Just before 5am the hostel owner kindly knocked on my door to see if I was awake. I left the hostel at 5:10 and walked the two blocks to where the boat waited. Someone checked my ID and my name was added to a list and I had to get on the boat alone unsupported which worries me as instead of mud this time there was water and I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake.
A guy took my big bag from me and stashed it at the front and I grabbed a seat halfway along. This was the most modern boat Id been on. There were TV screens which had the news on, but these were soon turned off, and just before we departed at 5:30am the boat blasted out a serian, which is did for much of the fist half hour. I’m not sure how excited I’d be living in the village but people do get up early here to work in the light.
The journey was pretty much the same as previous days, picking up and dropping off passengers. I saw groups of school children on boats in what must be a school boat. The police came on board at one point and made us all wear the life jackets and there were several groups of parents with children. At one point a little boy burst into tears because his mother was changing his sister in the toilet. I don’t know why but I gave him some of the chocolate bread and that immediately stopped him. He then hovered around for more but I didn’t want to encourage a habit. A little girl sitting across from me had seen the whole thing and later when I started eating another she stuck her hand out, I offered and the mother was happy for her to have some. As soon as she finished she stuck her hand out for more and started crying so I gave her more but after a third time I felt I was reinforcing bad behaviour. She later was held over the side of the boat so she could go to the bathroom. It’s funny how things are different here, that people will accept food from strangers, I do it and I think there is not the fear of poisoning or razor blades. Maybe people here have better things to do.
Again we picked people up and dropped people off. We stopped for lunch but I had enough food so stayed in place. It also rained a lot more today but the covers mostly kept me dry. It was again a long journey but I can’t think of anything else exciting that happened. Actually I don’t think I’ve tamed about how wide the river is but I think the land is pretty flat here and I get the impression it’s not very deep but it’s easily 100metres or more for most of the time.
We reached El Coca around 4pm and I headed to a hostel I thought was cheap. I couldn’t be bothered to compare prices so I just took the room which was nearly as good as the one the night before. I took a wonder to the bus station but it was the wrong one and with the main terminal being a further 3km out of town I decided to quit and get some food. Even tho it was a Friday I didn’t know anyone in the city so I headed back to the hostel early to sleep.
It had been a long journey and both an interesting and boring one. But I had travelled a route that not many people had and I had a tiny look at how people in the Amazon live. One thing that surprised me was the amount of villages there were along the river. But of course that is where the villages will be, not in the middle of the jungle. There were also a lot of children and not so many adults. I assume they must have been working.