Travel tips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 1: Large Lanchas
By Campbell Plowden (firstname.lastname@example.org); special report for the Pariwana Hostel Blog
If you want to visit the Amazon rainforest in Peru, you will probably fly into the gateway city of Iquitos. If you are really savvy, you can get around the city by bus, but it’s cheap to take a “mototaxi” (three-person cab mounted on a motorcycle) almost anywhere.
Getting to cities, towns and villages in the jungle, though, almost always involves taking one or more kind of boat. Three and four star tour companies have their own well maintained crafts, but if you are a backpacker looking for adventure on a budget, this series will give you some tips about different kinds of vessels may help you stay safe and be a little extra comfortable.
Large lanchas (similar to ferry boats) are several hundred feet long and carry hundreds of people and a fair amount of cargo between Iquitos and the Brazilian border on the main Amazon River and up the Ucayali River (going south) to the city of Pucallpa. Mototaxi drivers generally know which port to take to you for boats bound for the major destinations. Backpackers and most Peruvians buy the cheapest fare that lets them spend the 10 hours to five days of their journey in a hammock.
Most local travelers and backpackers are pretty honest, but I keep my backpack right under my hammock in a spot where it touches my bottom. This allows me to feel it move in case someone tries to pull it away. I always keep my passport, money and small electronic items with me inside the hammock. Most moving boats have a nice breeze so mosquito nets usually aren’t needed. Having a mosquitero on a lancha, though, does give you some extra privacy and room to keep small valuables near you.
Some lanchas have a TV at one end of the hammock decks. Program options seem limited to B or C grade action movies with sound tracks that tend to have a higher proportion of loud static than intelligible dialogue. Put your hammock at the far end of the deck (although stay under the covered area) if this entertainment option does not appeal to you. All boats have a plug next to the TV or where one would be. Keep a close eye on your phone if you want to charge it there.
Some boats have a couple of plugs in other areas of the hammock deck where you could plug in a laptop if you are close enough. Since lights are spaced more liberally in this area, I’ve expanded my access to electric current by screwing in my own socket adapter. These screw into a socket and give you one or two regular plugs plus another socket to screw in a light bulb. Make sure you get one that is wired for 220 volts since the current would fry ones designed for the lower voltage in the U.S. I got mine at the Sodimac home center in Lima since I couldn’t find them at any hardware store in Iquitos.
If you are especially concerned about the security of your backpack and other things, you can often pay an extra 30-40% to stay in a “camarote.” These small cabins sleep two or four people in bunk beds and usually have their own light, fan, and plug. Some boats give their occupants access to a more private bathroom. Try to reserve and pay for camarotes in advance at the boat company’s office in Iquitos. If that’s not possible, call them by phone. Be aware that reservations are not iron clad. A friend and I got bumped from ours once by the mayor of Jenaro Herrera heading to Iquitos.
The other safety concern of course is the integrity of the boat itself. It used to be disconcertingly common for big lanchas to tip over and sink because they were overloaded with people and cargo. My lancha was delayed once because the coast guard discovered a hole in the hull that was allowing water to fill the bottom hull. One friend used to carry his own lifejacket because there often weren’t enough to go around in case of an accident. The authorities have gotten much stricter in the past few years. Every passenger is now registered and the status of the vessel and its equipment seems to be thoroughly inspected before port authorities clear it for departure.
It is customary for passengers on large lanchas to get free “meals” on longer trips. They can sustain you if you are: a) on a tight budget, b) don’t need too much food, c) and aren’t too picky. Breakfast is often a cup of watery oatmeal. Lunch may be a bowl of thin soup with a chicken foot. Dinner can be a decent helping of low to medium grade rice with a piece of beef, chicken or fish. Backpackers concerned about the quantity or quality of the free fare have a few alternatives: a) bring your own food and/or b) buy the somewhat higher quality meals (for $2-4) from the snack bar or c) buy a meal from one of the ladies who darts on board during brief stops in port.
Lancha bathrooms usually have both toilets and a shower or a large barrel of water for flushing the toilet or taking a bucket bath. Locks are often rusty and recalcitrant sliding bolts, but do your best to close the door when you go in so you don’t have surprise visitors. Bring your own toilet paper. Sinks to wash hands and teeth are sometimes in the bathroom, sometimes outside. You obviously should not drink the water coming from these taps.
There is an average of one large lancha per day going between the major routes. Vessels leaving Iquitos usually do so within an hour of their scheduled departure time, so plan to get there a good half-hour before then – an hour is better if you want to have a decent choice of places to hang your hammock. Don’t count too precisely on the time you will arrive at your destination. Typical travel times going between Iquitos and Santa Rosa (Peruvian town at the Brazilian border) on the main Amazon River are three days, four days on the Marañon and Huallaga Rivers between Iquitos and Yurimaguas, and five days on the Ucayali River between Iquitos and Pucallpa. Allow more time for going upstream than downstream.
Boats can get hung up with coast guard inspections, transferring large amounts of cargo, mechanical troubles or quirks of nature. My lancha from Iquitos to Pebas on the main Amazon River was delayed when we ran aground a hidden sandbar around midnight. We were finally freed almost ten hours later with persistent pushing from a smaller lancha. The Amazon is a very strong river, particularly in the rainy season. This trip that takes ten to twelve hours going downriver generally takes fifteen to twenty hours going upriver against the current.
Depending on your preference for solitude or tendency to be an extrovert, ability to speak some Spanish, and stock of good books or music, long trips on lanchas can be fun, relaxing, or incredibly boring. It sounds exotic to say you traveled along the Amazon River, but what you mostly see for hour after hour is mile after mile of indistinct greenery. If you are cruising close to a bank, neat accents are trees with bright pink flowers, weird-looking fruits, and squawking parrots flying into the forest.
When you pull into a small town, backpackers can get glimpses of the lives of rural Amazon people bringing agricultural and other products to market or carting materials only available in Iquitos back to their homes or small businesses. These include giant bunches of plantains, large sheets of corrugated aluminum for roofs, and sometimes protesting pigs and bulls. I enjoy traveling on lanchas at night because sometimes I am treated to sky full of stars I don’t see at home in the northern hemisphere. I also really like to meet other folks traveling on the boat because everyone has a unique story.
One final security tip. If your lancha happens to get back to Iquitos in the early hours of the morning, you may enjoy watching the open air market that unfolds on deck as wholesale buyers fill their baskets with don cella (striped catfish), tucunare (peacock bass), and other fish kept on ice in giant crates. Use your camera discreetly if you want to photograph these animated interactions and hold your backpack close to your front if you try to exit through this semi-controlled melee. Backpackers who are not in a hurry can also just relax on board until dawn and exit with the light when the chaos has subsided.
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.