By Campbell Plowden (firstname.lastname@example.org); special report for the Pariwana Hostel Blog
Backpackers who want the adventure of traveling through the Amazon have two basic options for sleeping when going beyond hostels with beds – a tent or a hammock. Many rural people and backpackers (mochileros) in Peru bring a tent or squared-off mosquito net with them to sleep when they’re on the move. Tents give you some privacy to change and a place to keep your pack out of sight. They should be lightweight, have a built-in mosquito net, and freestanding (you’ll often need to put it up on a wooden floor where it’s not possible to put in stakes).
I prefer using a hammock over a tent – perhaps because I slept in one for a few years when I lived in a native village in Brazil. One major advantage of a hammock is that it is essential to have one for long trips on “lanchas.” These are the boats that carry dozens to hundreds of people to and from Iquitos and towns along the Amazon and major tributaries. Check out “Travel trips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 1: Large Lanchas” for ways to get around on these large boats. Relaxing in a swaying hammock is also a lot more comfortable than sitting on a hard bench for a full day in one of the smaller community lanchas (See Travel tips for “colectivos” for more about getting around on these smaller boats).
There are three basic types of hammocks – nylon travel hammocks, “jungle” hammocks, and cloth hammocks. The first kind is the lightest and relatively cheap. It’s fine for a nap but not so comfortable to sleep in for long stretches. Jungle hammocks have built in mosquito netting and tend to more spacious and a bit more comfortable than the simple nylon models. Some are also partially or completely waterproof. These models are good choices for camping in the jungle and usually need to be purchased at specialty camping stores or online.
Cotton hammocks come in a variety of sizes. They are bulkier than ones made of synthetic materials, but they are the most comfortable. They are also warmer – a nice asset in chilly nights in the Amazon. These are good choices for backpackers traveling on boats and sleeping in rural homes – less appropriate for camping in the forest. The best quality cloth hammocks are made in Brazil, but all types can be bought in Peru. Choose your hammock well because it will be your refuge for three days going by lancha from Iquitos to Santa Rosa (Peruvian town at the border with Brazilian), four days going from Yurimaguas to Iquitos, and five days going from Iquitos to Pucallpa.
Here are some tips for setting up your hammock. No matter what kind of model you get, tie four to six feet of chord, rope, or flat strips of strong fabric (called “pretina” in Peru) to the loop on both ends of the hammock. I use nylon rope that is a third to half-inch wide. Thin chords are lightweight, but they can become almost impossible to untie if the knots have borne the full weight of someone lying in a hammock for hours. Wrap or tie these chords to opposing metal beams or wooden rafters so the middle of the hammock hangs about two to two and a half feet below the ends. A timber hitch is a great knot for this because provides a secure attachment and is easily undone. On “lanchas” be sure to tie your ropes to beam above the plastic drapes so you won’t have to retie your hammock when these are let down during the night and heavy rain. If you’re not clever with knots and seem to be struggling, a Peruvian neighbor traveler will likely offer to help you.
When your hammock is in place, push down on it hard and then gradually sit it in to see if your knots hold fast. Crashing down on your butt can be painful (although funny if it happens in slow motion). Then get in to test it lying down. You should be able to stretch out your full body lying diagonally. This position will allow you to keep your back somewhat straight and prevent back ache. Adjust the height and length of your hanging ropes if needed to get your hammock as comfortable as possible.
Space is a premium on the hammock decks of crowded lanchas. If you want to sleep next to a fellow backpacker, put your hammocks right next to each other or someone is likely to squeeze in between you. Lie down with your head toward the middle of the boat because it’s hard for people to avoid knocking into you as they walk along the side next to the benches. You can bonk your head less and let your fellow passengers sleep more if you can master the up and down slalom ducking between hammock ropes going to the bathroom or snack bar. It’s important to have a mosquito net covering your hammock when sleeping on land or a boat in port around sunrise or sunset. This isn’t so necessary on moving boats that have a nice breeze blowing through them. Having a mosquitero on a lancha, though, does give you some extra privacy and room to keep small valuables near you.
Enjoy the experience of gently swaying in a comfortable hammock on a boat trip bound for adventure in the Amazon. You may sleep as soundly as a baby.
When you pass through Iquitos, you can find other backpackers at more than a dozen hostels and inexpensive hotels near the Plaza de Armas. A few popular ones are La Pascana, Mad Mick’s Bunkhouse and Trading Post and the local branch of the Flying Dog Hostel. My favorite place to have a drink, enjoy the only green Thai curry in Iquitos, hear about people’s favorite ayahuasca shaman and have an occasional game of chess with the owner is the Karma Café on Calle Napo 138.
Check out other articles in this series:
Travel trips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 1: Large lanchas
Travel trips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 2: Rapidos (speed boats)
Travel trips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 3: Colectivos (community lanchas)
Campbell Plowden is the Executive Director of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, a non-profit organization that promotes forest conservation and sustainable livelihoods for traditional communities in the Peruvian Amazon. He regularly stays at the Pariwana Hostel when he passes through Lima. See his regular blog Campbell’s Amazon Journal. Visit or join the CACE group on Facebook.