Iquitos, Peru is the largest city in the world that is not accessible by road. This leaves two options for your arrival: by plane or by boat. Without knowing this, I accepted a volunteer position at an animal rescue outside of Iquitos – so naturally, this caused some hiccups when I started planning my arrival.
Flights aren’t outrageously priced – approximately $100 from Lima, $250 from Piura, and $300+ from Cusco – but I always like to weigh my options. Just a few weeks before I needed to decide my fate, I learned about a new option: a 3 day / 2 night boat ride through the Amazon and its surrounding rivers. I would need to purchase a hammock for a bed, and would be sleeping on a cargo boat with several hundred Amazonian Peruvians. You have my attention.
The port leaves from Yurimagaus, Peru (2.5 hours from Tarapoto), which was extremely inconvenient and entirely out of my way – but this sounded like an adventure unlike any I have had before, and that’s just what I was looking for.
Getting to Yurimaguas:
I was starting in the beaches of Mancora in northern Peru, and had received a lot of mixed information about how to get to Yurimaguas. This is typical in Peru, so let me clear this up for you:
If you’re starting in the north, there is no direct bus from Mancora to Tarapoto, but there are three main cities that do provide them: Piura, Chiclayo, and Huaraz. The residents of Mancora will tell you that you have to go to Chiclayo to make a connection, but this is NOT true. Piura is the closest, easiest, and cheapest option – and the buses from Mancora run hourly for $/.25-$/.30 soles ($8-$9 USD). This is a three-hour trip; as long as things like this don’t happen:
If you have the time, stop and enjoy these places! I’ve heard good things about Chiclayo, but unfortunately did not have time to stop there. I spent a week in Huaraz to complete the Laguna 69 and Santa Cruz trek, and it is absolutely beautiful (the treks more so than the city). There are many more treks in Huaraz including the 8-day Huayhuash trek, Chavin, Llanganuco Lake, and more. I regret not spending more time there, but I selfishly was tired of camping below freezing, and needed to relax on a beach for a few days.
Because of the truck tipped in the middle of the road, my three hour bus to Piura took almost five hours. I anxiously arrived at 4:50 pm, just ten minutes before my 5 pm Movil Tours bus was scheduled to leave. The Movil Tours bus is 14 hours, and costs $26 for semi-cama or $33 for the full-cama. I recommend booking in advance because I’m unsure if there are any other direct buses. I didn’t have time to look. Around 8 am, I arrived in the city of Tarapoto. From here, I found a tuk-tuk to the taxi station, and a taxi for $/.20 soles ($6 USD). There is a cheaper, collectivo option as well – but after about 20 hours of solo-traveling, I just wanted to get there. 2.5 hours later, I arrived in Yurimaguas.
I was told that the boat was scheduled to leave at 6 pm, so I headed to the local market to buy a hammock for $/.40 soles ($12 USD). The hammocks can also be bought right at the port, and there were even women selling them on board the ship.
After almost 24 hours of buses and taxis, I was excited to be at my destination: on board the Maria Fernandez. The first floor of the boat was being stocked wall-to-wall with cargo, while the second had approximately 50-60 hammocks of local Peruanas, and the third (tourist) floor consisted of Myself, Adrian and Christopher from California, Kelsey from Connecticut, and Tom from Germany. We were scheduled to leave at 6pm. Let’s do this!
Around 10 pm, after spending the entire day on the boat – we came to the conclusion that we would not be leaving. I had been warned that this may happen. Nobody will tell you that you’re not leaving, you just eventually figure it out. Unfortunately, this also means that meals will not be prepared for you either. Thank goodness an enchilada woman showed up to save the night.
I sat still, sulking in my hammock for a while, before realizing just how immature I was being. Despite my “inconvenient” situation, this is still a vacation for me.
I signed up for this.
I’m sitting in a hammock, drinking a beer, being impatient, and winging to myself – when just two floors below me are literally hundreds of the hardest working people I have ever seen.
I stood and watched as truckloads of cargo showed up through the entirety of the night, immediately replacing the trucks before them. I had so many questions from my previous life as an Operations Manager: “How long does it take to unload one truck of salt? Or one truck of speakers, or miscellaneous equipment? If one truck is late, does the boat wait? What even defines “late” in Peru? Who the hell is even in charge all of this..?”
Each employee carried bags of salt and/or rice, speakers, desks, refrigerators, crates of beer, crates of chickens, and plenty more extremely heavy equipment onto the boat. Without dollies, ladders, work belts, or any sort of bridges – the workers ran swiftly onto 2x4s, taking the weight of the equipment directly onto their spines and necks. This cannot be good for you. Some of them didn’t even use their hands to balance the cargo – they just casually jogged in with several kilos of rice on their head. An entire section of cows and pigs groaned and screamed below us, as they trampled over each other trying to find space to sleep. A boy fished in the distance with just a piece of string and a flashlight. Mosquitos swarmed by the thousands to the boat-lights, as the bats dive-bombed in, picking them off one by one. It was a lot to take in, as the sun began to set in the distance, creating some peace in the midst of all the chaos.
Despite the seemingly never-ending amount of work, the employees (mostly donning flip-flops or barefoot) powered through – working at full speed and practically running to and from the boat. Around midnight, I dozed off peacefully to the sound of pigs squealing and screaming for their lives.
At 7 am, I woke to the same sounds. The workers were still going, and so were the pigs. I have no idea if this was a new crew or the same people, but it doesn’t matter.
At 11:30 am, three more gringos (kind of) walked on the boat: Eva and Miguel from Spain, and Barna from Hungary. Around 12 pm (we were still not served lunch), the boat started inching away from the port, with our new gringo-ish friends not having any idea how perfect and lucky their timing had been. We were finally off!
We embarked to the open river, watching Yurimaguas disappear into the distance. I sat in my hammock and stared into the flat, green jungle lying in front of me, wondering what was in store for my future. Long, thin boats passed us by, driving themselves to the mini-pueblos lining the banks of the river. Within a few hours, clouds overtook the boat, and it started to downpour. The workers lowered the tarp shades and we were blocked into the darkness within the boat. I was hoping for a thunderstorm, but no such luck. It simply rained the entire day and night. The Amazonian sunset I had been craving was going to have to wait yet another day.
We woke to the sound of pots and pans clanging. “Desayuno! Desyauno!” Apparently 6:30 am is breakfast time.
Head downstairs with your boat ticket and tupperware to get your desayuno. Breakfast is an interesting blend of water, sugar, cinnamon, and other spices. This paired with some bread, and you’ve got.. something. Breakfast, I guess. Shut up. Just eat it.
Day two proved to be a perfect day. The wind was steady, providing a relaxing, refreshing breeze. The sun sat at our backs, reflecting the trees and clouds off of the river. We made friends with Carlos, the captain, who let us sit on the top of the boat, and even drive for a bit. Kelsey had brought a ukulele, which was incredible timing after I had lost mine on the bus to Mancora just a week before. The only thing now to top off this perfect day, would be watching an Amazonian sunset..
Around 5:00 pm, we stopped in the port of another small village, but this time was different. Along with the usual cargo drop-offs, this time we would be adding cargo. Up until this point, there had only been about 10 people on our top floor – the 7 gringos and a few Peruanas. However, at this port, about 60-70 more people started running onboard. Before we knew it, our entire floor was filled – mostly with Peruana teenagers. Apparently there was a soccer tournament in Nauta (the next biggest city), and that’s where everyone was headed. This made it far more uncomfortable, harder to walk, and caused us to be much more conscious of our baggage. I had read in other blogs that people have had things stolen and the boat would be dangerous, but where haven’t you heard that? We kept our bags underneath our hammocks and never had any trouble with anyone. In fact, we found the locals to be very friendly and enjoyable to hang out with, like always.
Unfortunately, due to the amount of people coming onboard, my sunset was once again tarnished. We sat in our hammocks watching the sunset, right in the midst of a small port, and most specifically – a cell-phone tower. Dangit.
After the sun was down, we took off again. I sat in the front, staring at the flashlights in the distance sending morse code signals towards our boat. This is how these villages are able to get all their food and supplies. They wait for the cargo boats to pass, and have to signal them over to make their exchanges on smaller boats. The captain and his employees would choose a light, hop onto their smaller motorboat, and make drop-offs/pick-ups over the next few hours. We tried to convince Carlos to take us out on the small boat, pero no suerte.
We (tried) to sleep around 11 pm, but it was difficult with the amount of noise around us. People were playing music, talking, laughing, etc. I originally expected this amount of people on the boat, so I didn’t really mind. This is what we signed up for. With that being said, Peru is a very interesting place for this type of behavior. Everyone in these villages and pueblos are so considerate, and will never hesitate to help a neighbor in need – but when it comes to music or noise, it’s entirely acceptable to be as loud as you want, at any hour of the day. Nobody complains, nobody cares, and craziest of all – they can all sleep right through it. No effing problema. For them at least.
At 5:30 am (before the 6:30 desayuno role call), I woke to the sound of Peruvian teenagers playing Despacito (again), talking, and laughing equally as loud as the night before. By this point I was actually pretty annoyed, because ya know – fuck Despacito. But what can you do? When in Peru, as they say. We watched the sunrise with our unwarranted Peruvian soundtrack in the background, and received a warm, welcoming reflection to start the day.
Around 2 pm, we arrived in Nauta. Nauta did not appeal to me one bit. I was loving the boat life, and Nauta just looks like a dirty, beat-down port city on the side of the river. I later found out that many multi-day jungle treks will initiate in Nauta, because it is just a 1.5 hour drive from Iquitos. Also because of this, our new teenage friends, and most of the people on the boat, would all be leaving us. Oh well!
After a 2-3 hour pit-stop in Nauta, we took off again. Both floors had cleared out, leaving just the gringos and a handful of locals to enjoy the remainder of the trip. We prayed that our arrival in Iquitos wouldn’t be until the morning, but there is really no point in asking. The captain said a 3 am arrival, and his coworker said 9 pm – so who could ever know? All I knew was that after three nights on this boat, I still hadn’t received one proper Amazonian sunset. Technically, we weren’t even on the Amazon yet. To this point, we had been on the Huallagaand Maranon rivers, so I was getting antsy. I asked the captain to give a honk when we actually reached the Amazon, which he did, around 3 pm. Woot Woot! Mothafuggin’ Maria Fernandez!
Around 5:30 pm – with the sun setting on our right, and the moon rising on our left – the sky began changing drastically. On the left were shades of bright red, orange and yellow, while the jungle and fauna casted silhouettes underneath. On the right, the full moon reflected off of the river, while the sky changed into a pastel-like variety of purples and blues. The captain, Carlos, gave us the go-ahead – so we climbed to the very top of the boat to get the best possible view. For the next hour, we sat on top of the boat and laughed about all the scenarios that had taken place over the past few days.
Sometimes when you travel, things can become very frustrating. You build places up in your mind for months or even years, just to be severely let down by things out of your control. Back in Chile, Jimmy and I hiked for three days in Torres del Paine to reach the infamous towers. We spent the entire day before, hiking for 20 km through the pouring rain, to later arrive at our campsite and sleep in below freezing temperatures. I did not have a thermometer, but the snow coming down and our frozen water bottles were enough proof for me. I was visibly shaking to the other campers on their guided tour, because my boots and socks had been filled with water throughout the day. I struggled to get warm that night. It was maybe the coldest night of my life.
We woke at 5 am to hike to the top and see the sunrise over the towers. I put on my (still) soaking wet underwear, shirt, socks, etc. and started hiking. Moving was the only way to stay warm. When we arrived at the top, there was nothing but clouds, snow and ice. With a flight the next day, and the only bus leaving at 2 pm, we waited as long as we could, and then made a mad sprint to the bottom in order to make the bus. By the time we were halfway down, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the towers were perfectly visible. We cursed out every person walking past us with their jeans and day packs (some even in dress shoes). Why do they get to see this, and not us? We had put in so much planning, time and effort. How had we not earned this?
I sat quietly on the top of the boat, thinking about how different and unique my life has become over the past few years. I am constantly in a heated debate with myself about what the hell I’m doing: what is my purpose in this world, when will I want to “grow up,” how do I make my family proud of me, what will make me happy, and so forth. Times of stillness and silence (like the towers in Torres del Paine) will always bring this out in me. But then, there are times like this – where your patience is tested, but in the end, everything seems to work out perfectly.
I had experienced everything this boat had to offer. There was a port full of workers, who I was able to watch stock the entire boat overnight – helping me appreciate the fact that I have never, and hopefully will never, have to work in conditions like this. There was a crazy rainstorm in the midst of the Amazon. We were alone on the boat, then we were swarmed with locals, then we were alone again. I had seen many tiny villages, living off the rivers and surviving on their own. I had a new, incredible group of friends – which was the closest I had become with anyone since Jimmy left. And then there was this moment, sitting on the tip top of this boat – watching the sun set and the moon rise simultaneously. At this time, I wasn’t questioning anything. I was completely at peace. Everything was tranquillo.
Minutes later, Carlos abruptly informed us that we would be arriving in Iquitos in an hour and we needed to start packing. We scrambled down to untie our hammocks and literally throw everything into our bags. Upon arriving, we were forced to switch onto a series of boats before a big, fat Peruvian man threw down a huge 2×4 for us while making gringo jokes to his supporting cast of port workers. They all laughed as we walked into the dirty, noisy Iquitos streets – where we found a tuk-tuk, some food, and a hostel for the night.
The only thing we hadn’t been allowed to do on this boat trip was to jump into the river. The idea was still so foreign and terrifying to me. I don’t like insects or reptiles. I don’t like the way they look, sound or move. I don’t like crocodiles, spiders or slithery snakes. I don’t like the idea of piranhas tearing me apart in the matter of seconds. I don’t like some crazy fish that swims up your peehole (Thanks a lot, Discovery Channel). I’m a simple guy – I like cats and dogs and monkeys and normal people stuff. But I really wanted to jump in. So the next day, we caught a ride to Quistococha – a small Amazon beach/zoo – where people play volleyball, soccer, and they even have a blob (like in Heavyweights). All together, we clenched our peeholes, and finally jumped in!
The next day, we decided to take a two-hour local boat tour, before I needed to head to my home for the next month: Padre Cocha. We watched dolphins jumping and people fishing, learned about the portable river gas stations, and visited a small animal reserve (which I’m not convinced was a reserve) – before the conductor called over another small boat. When the boat arrived next to us, he signaled for me to switch boats. I guess this was it. I picked up my backpacks, and had to give my friends a quick, unexpected goodbye in front of a boat-load of staring Peruvians. I was sad to watch them head off into the distance, but it was my time.
Padre Cocha & Pilpintuwasi, here I come!
Bode’s Recommendations & Final Thoughts:
>> Hammock: I bought a regular hammock for $/.40 soles, and it worked just fine. I recommend buying a large hammock if you can. It may look unnecessary, but you will not regret spending the $/5.-$/.10 ($1.50-$3 USD) when you are comfortably wrapped up watching the sunset. It makes for a nice souvenir too.
>> Entertainment: Bring books, cards, instruments, alcohol, bracelet materials, hackey-sacks, juggling balls, etc. There will be plenty of downtime, so keep yourself stimulated however you can.
>> Food + Water: Peruvians are hustlers, and even the people riding the boat with you see this as an opportunity to make money. Bring plenty of water and snacks, but both can still be purchased onboard. Breakfast, lunch and dinner – although not the fanciest food you will eat – will be served onboard and is included in the price of your ticket. Be prepared for plenty of rice and chicken.
>> Mosquito Net: This is more of a non-recommendation. Feel free to bring a mosquito net, but none of us used them, and I don’t think it is necessary. Definitely bring insect repellant just in case.
>> Boat Ticket: Do not throw away your ticket. It will be necessary as proof for your meals each day. You will also need to purchase tupperware beforehand, but this can be bought at the port or even on the boat.
>> Be Conscious of Your Surroundings: Although the locals live and survive off of these rivers, they do not treat them with the respect that they deserve. You will likely see anything from drinking cups to entire bags of trash thrown overboard. Try not to be judgmental – this all stems from a lack of environmental education in the area.
>> Shower: Don’t be afraid to shower! The bathrooms are not ideal by any means, but you will feel great after. We waited until the last day to try it, and everyone wished they had been using it the whole time.
>>Don’t Expect to See Animals: This is not a nature tour. You will likely not be seeing many, if any, animals at all. I was fortunate enough to spot a dolphin and a snake, but I spent a lot of time on the roof decks, and both were definitely “right place, right time” situations.
>> Research: I had a fucking blast on this boat trip, and I’ve met several other people who shared the same feelings. There are many options of boat trips around this area including trips to Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. Do your research beforehand, because I’ve heard of people having much worse experiences heading in other directions. Maybe we were lucky, but I would recommend this experience to anyone I met. Keep in mind, it’s just a few days for you, but it’s everyone else’s every day life.
>> Thiago Adventure Express: If you’d looking to do a jungle tour, you may run into our friend Maicol, the owner of Thiago Adventure Express. We met Maicol on the boat in Nauta, as he came on board to pitch his tour options. If you plan on doing a tour, it may be best to book in advance and get off in Nauta, so you can begin the next day. I will go into more detail on our jungle tour next week, but we paid $/.120 soles ($40 USD) per person for a 4 day / 3 night trip. Otherwise, you will need to make the 1.5 hour drive return (not a big deal, just wanted to save you time). The website is not perfect, but Maicol was very helpful and always available on WhatsApp:
>> Maicol (WhatsApp): +51 910 317 833
To everyone I met on this boat: I am so happy our paths crossed, and I hope they do again sometime soon. Home is where you make it, and you all made this boat my home, even if just for a few days. Best of luck on the rest of your travels!