from Coca to Iquitos – a week down the Napo River

Taking a cargo ship from Ecuador to Peru, slowly driving down the Amazonas. For months it had been playing in the back of my mind, like a whispering dream. Now finally it was time to do it. And hell, it was a journey – but a good one. For anyone thinking of taking the same route, here’s how I did it.

I took a night bus out of Quito to the last city sitting on the edge of the Amazon basin, Coca (official name Puerto Francisco de Orellana). Buses leave from both the north and the south terminal in Quito (Carcelén and Quitumbe), I took it from the north. From Carcelén the trip would normally take 7-8 hours, but due to a flat tire it took us quite a bit longer. I arrived in Coca around 8 am the next day, just too late for the lancha (ferry boat) to Nueva Rocafuerte that leaves daily at 7:30 am. Anyway tickets sell out pretty quickly and space is limited, so it’d be good to secure your tickets one day in advance. I got my ticket for the next day ($18,70) and already made some new friends at the port who would also be travelling the day after.

The next morning we got on board and set off in eastward direction. It’s a long and a bit of an uncomfortable journey of 8-10 hours, but there’s a toilet on board and the boat will make a stop halfway for (a super hasty!) lunch. I ate half my plate, put the other half in a tupperware box for later, hurried to the bathroom and was just about to get up again, when I heard the horns of the boat as a sign that we had to get back on board. Despite the slightly uncomfortable seats, the lack of space, and the seas of time to kill, I must say I had quite a good time chatting away with fellow travellers and admiring the mesmerising scenery. Make sure to bring enough water and some fruit or biscuits, because the day is long and the sun and heat happen to dizzy you up a bit.

We got stuck one time in the mud underway, as it had not rained in months and everyone kept on remarking that the river had never been this low (climate change has made it completely unpredictable when the rain season will come around). The captain took off his pants and pushed the boat, after which we arrived in Nueva Rocafuerte around 4:15 pm without further problems. Nueva Rocafuerte is the last official town before the border with Peru, so me and my newly-acquainted travel friends went for the necessary passport stamps at an office that is a 10-minute walk from the waterfront. (Do this or you might be in trouble later on.) There’s no atm’s in this Nueva Rocafuerte, nor in the next (Pantoja and further), so make sure to bring enough dollars to cover the whole way unto Iquitos. I didn’t, and I was lucky that the other passengers could lend me some money. You’ll find a hostel in Rocafuerte if you choose to cross the border the next day.

From Rocafuerte you would normally take a peke peke (canoa made out of a tree trunk) to Pantoja on the other side of the border, but we were lucky to meet a fellow traveller that happened to have his own peke peke and offered to take us for $10 each. I have read on other blogs that the fare with peke peke will normally set you back between $30-50 a person. The price tends to depend of the amount of people on board, so you might want to start looking out for fellow-travellers who are going in the same direction already on the lancha in order to share the cost.

Right before sunset, our host anounced that we would spend stop over on the side of the river spend the night. We parked our canoa next to two others, which turned out to belong to a recently constituted community of seven indigenous families of the Sekoya tribe who were all somehow relatives of our Peruvian friend. The Sekoya people received us with shy smiles and wide eyes, but open arms. They allowed us to put our tents up in their camp, between the four houses that make up the entire village. We bathed ourselves in the river, under a spectacular pink, purple and orange sky that set everything around us in a warm glow. Our hosts invited us to have dinner with them, so half an hour later we all gathered around the fire, surrounded by thick, black darkess and the sounds of the jungle. We shared from big pots filled with eggs, rice, cassave (a big flat round type of bread made from yucca), spicy sauce and plantains for everyone.

We continued the journey to Peru the next morning, after a substantial breakfast with fish freshly from the river and more cassave. Arriving in Pantoja, our Peruvian fellow-traveller and host said goodbye and set off to go home, another 6 hours of travelling downstream. We encountered the cargo boat lying in front of the town. It turned out to have arrived that same morning, for which we were extremely lucky, because later we would encounter two girls in the village who had been awaiting the boat for 8 days. They had ran out of cash and had not eaten any vegetables nor fruits in a week. Make sure to have enough money on you to survive to upto two weeks, as you never know when the cargo ship will leave. There’s no atm’s in this town either, so you have to exchange your dollars with the locals for soles. They will offer you a shitty rate (s./3 for $1), but there is no other way to get money and the locals are well aware of that. Only exchange as many dollars as you need, because the exchange rate will probably be more in your favour elsewhere.

The captain told us the ‘Heroica’ (which looked more like an old shipwreck than an operating boat) would take off the next morning at 7 am, and allowed us to already get on board and spend the night on the boat for free. We made our way to immigration for the necessary passport stamp, and started preparing our trip. We got hammocks for s./38 each, and bought enough water to survive the first couple of days. The trip from Pantoja to Iquitos normally takes 4 days, but since the water in the river had been so low, we were warned that it could possibly take longer. Over the days, the boat will get more and more loaded with cargo and people. On the third day we were already 34 hammocks and there didn’t seem to be space left to put up more. But people will – they’ll simply start bunking, putting one hammock above the other. Sleeping during the night might therefore prove to be difficult, as there’s people snoring and farting and babies crying all around. There was one night that one of the passengers had drunk too much caña (a distilled drink made from sugarcane) and vomited all over the person sleeping below him. And then there’s the pigs screaming in the deck below, as they are – in vain – fighting for their lives down there. Luckily there’s more than enough lazy time during the day to make up for the lack of sleep and since there’s only very little to do on board, it won’t affect you that much.

As was to be expected, indeed we got stuck in the mud a couple of times. Once we spend almost an entire day trying to get the ship to move again, both the boat crew and a few passengers (normally only the men, but we decided with a couple of girls to go help as well) shoulder to shoulder in the water, pushing with all our strength at the count of three. As an encouragement of nature, we were being accompanied by pink river dolphines who were playing around us. Quite a day!

When it was day six on the Heroica and we were stuck in the mud for the fifth time, we decided that it had been enough. We had run out of food since that morning (well, there was a ‘brunch’ served of one cooked plantain a person, perhaps meant as an encouragement to go help push the lancha), and I was starting to feel that I had only been eating plantains and rice for almost a week (I’m a vegetarian, so I skipped the meat that came with the meals at least twice a day). When the ship stranded, we were only half an hour away from Mazán, from where you can take a mototaxi over land and then a quick boat to Iquitos. Staying on the big ship will slow you down another 8 hours from there (that is, if it doesn’t get stuck), as the river takes a loop between Iquitos and Mazan (see the map attached). We had a local fisherman, who happened to drive by on his boat, bring us to Mazán for s./2 each. The fisherman turned out to be drunk as hell, waving and laughing at imaginary water-beings as we were speeding over the water. Once in Mazán, it was as if everybody in that town had already downed a bottle (or two) of caña. The majority of people appeared to be absolutely pissed, and it was Monday morning before lunchtime. Alcohol abuse seems to be a big problem here, especially under the (previously) indigenous people. Increased access and availability to alcohol within these communities, combined with poor living and working conditions, a lack of health, education and alcohol prevention and treatment all contribute to this issue. Also, it must not be forgotten that equal rights for the indigenous has only been a very recent development in Peru’s political history.

The journey on the Heroica set us back s./100 (which equals about $30 on a non-shitty rate), or $33 if you pay in dollars (shitty Pantoja-rate), three meals a day included. You’ll need to bring your own tupperware/bowl and cutlery, in which your food will be served. Bring some fruits and avocado’s from Coca, because we weren’t able to get anything further downstream (due to the drought, the boat with vegetables and fruits had stopped passing by the villages lately). Apart from that, bring repellent (we met someone with malaria in the indigenous village where we spent the night), a desinfectant (hygiene unfortunately is not one of the boat’s charms), earplugs and toilet paper. I’d recommend you keep your own trash and throw it out once in Iquitos, because any trash thrown into the common bins is likely to end up in the river. (Be prepared to see plastic bottles and bags in the water almost everywhere. Boat passengers will, sadly, for the most part just throw their garbage overboard.)

On a last note, I was told that there used to be another boat, bigger than the Heroica, covering the same route, but that it had stopped going eversince the river had reached such a low point. There’s another alternative if you don’t want to spend four days on a boat nor wait a long time in Pantoja for it to arrive – there’s smaller and quicker boats leaving from Pantoja a couple of times a week, that should get you to Iquitos in 1,5-2 days. But they’re more than double the price and, I imagine, not half as fun. All in all, I had a great time on board. It was not always easy, but incredibly interesting and valuable, as well as fun and hilarious. For me, the whole experience was both crazy-making and life-changing. I was lucky to meet some lovely people on board, spend a night in an indigenous village, sleep with a monkey on my belly, see some mesmerising sunsets and – last but not least – more plantains than I thought I’d see in a lifetime.

If you’re left with any questions regarding this trip, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. For more photos of life on board, click here.

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