River Riding – Rios Napo, Amazonas, y Ucayali

We often research travel blogs to help us decide where we want to go on our way south. It was tricky sifting through all the stories out there to gather information for our journey into the Amazon, so we figured we could publish some helpful tips from our experience. The first part of this blog entry will be the basic information, followed by the details of the sequence of events. Enjoy!

The Basics

Coca, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru : A Journey down the Rio Napo

Arriving in Coca, looking for boats

Pertinent Information:

Around the 20th of every month there is an express boat from Coca to Iquitos.  It is a three day, two night trip with overnights in Pantoja, Peru and Santa Clotilde, Peru.  The cost is $150 and includes all meals.

Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte (Border of Ecuador and Peru)

Duration: Approx. 10 hours                Cost: $15 (additional $10 for a bicycle)

Public boats leave Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and Monday at approx. 7 A.M.  Get there early to load your stuff on and claim a good seat.  The boat is about 60 feet long and maybe 8 feet wide with benches lining both sides and plastic lawn chairs set up down the center.  Boat stops around mid-day at a restaurant for lunch, cheap and good food.

Loading bikes above for the journey to Nuevo Rocafuerte

Nuevo Rocafuerte to Mazan

Duration: 5 days                Cost: $550

From Nuevo Rocafuerte to Santa Clotilde is the difficult stretch to travel.  There is supposedly a cargo boat that comes around every few weeks, but does not seem too reliable.  There are several guys that will rent a private boat for $50 or $60 to take you the short ride across the border to Pantoja, but it seems that you are in the same situation once you arrive there.

We opted to take a private boat from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Mazan with a guide and his motorist.  We stopped often, hiked around the jungle, went fishing, stayed two nights at the homes of our guides with their families, tried a load of new foods, and had a really positive and seemingly authentic experience of the river.  We had 5 in our group, with 5 bicycles and all of the associated gear.  The cost was $110 per person, but do not count on getting an equal deal.  This covered two meals per day, although we were prepared with snacks as well.  The trip took 5 days and 4 nights.  Ask around in Coca before you leave to try and see what guides are in the area, or if anyone knows of boats heading towards Iquitos.  Our guides name was Pepe Lopez, everyone seemed to know him and we would recommend going with him if you have a chance.

Pulled in for the night along the Rio Napo

Mazan to Iquitos

Duration: 3 hours                Cost: S./20 with bike

Once in Mazan you can take a short moto taxi across the land, not sure of the cost but would guess around 5 soles ($2) per person.  We rode our bikes, it took about 10 minutes.  From there you are on the Amazon River.  Speed boats seem to leave frequently throughout the day, and were rumored to cost 15-20 soles ($6 to $8) per person.  We took a large private boat with our guide and his family; we paid 20 soles for each person with a bike.

Iquitos to Pucallpa

Duration: 4 days                Cost: S./70

If you decide to continue on to Pucallpa, there are boats leaving Iquitos more or less every day.  We took a Henry boat which leaves from a dock only a couple of kilometers from the downtown area.  There is a huge sign for the terminal on the waterfront road, you can’t miss it. The vessel was a large bottom cargo deck with four passenger levels above it. Our boat was delayed by a full day to load more cargo, but they let us sleep on the boat anyway.  It costs 70 soles ($28) per person and there doesn’t seem to be much of a limit to how much luggage you can bring.  That price includes 3 meals per day; you need to bring your own bowl.  Breakfast is a strange watery porridge type meal, we would recommend bringing snacks and fruit to supplement.  Lunch and dinner are healthy portions of rice, chicken, plantains, yucca and sometimes lentils.  Pretty good eating.  People string hammocks up at intervals, on our boat we had an entire floor to ourselves where we set up tents and had a full picnic table to eat and play cards at.

A typical Henry boat, although this one is a bit smaller than the one we were on

And now back to Coca for the full story…

There are multiple options for boats leaving Coca. We decided to utilize the services of a local boat taking passengers and goods down Rio Napa to Nuevo Rocafuerte, the border town on the Ecuador side of the Peru/Ecuador border. The ride itself was a pretty interesting experience. Picture a 60ft. long, 8 foot wide wooden boat with a green canvas roof for sun protection. Perfect, now add 5 bicycles to the roof, 100 people sitting along both sides of the boat and in plastic chairs going down the middle aisle, and finally put their luggage in the back of the boat in a pile four feet high spanning from one side of the boat to the other and taking up several feet lengthwise until it reaches the man handling the motor. It was quite crowded.

Crowded boat

A couple of trucks driving up the river

After about four or five hours into the 9 hour ride the boat stopped in a small town for people to get out, stretch their legs, and eat lunch. It was quickly apparent that we weren’t the only ones with bladders close to the rupturing point.About 30 minutes later everyone was shuttled back into the boat and we were, once again, on our way. Several more pit stops at the small spaced out villages to drop people off and, collectively, hundreds of pages read in our books and we were there. Immediately after loading our bikes up with our things and leaving the dock we were greeted by Pepe Lopez.

Back when we were in Coca and trying to figure out the best boat options for our trip we were lead to Pepe and had spoken to him briefly on the phone before leaving. After meeting him in Rocafuerte it wasn’t long before we realized he was our guy for the next boat ride. We scoped out the two twenty-foot river canoas he had, one for our bikes and one for our bodies, with a nice shade tunnel and benches inside. It looked like it would do the job, and Pepe promised a tranquillo experience, so we said ‘let’s do it.’

Packing up the boat from Nuevo Rocafuerte at the crack of dawn

We had a 9PM meeting to check out of Ecuador with immigration and then had a solid five hours of sleep before loading up the boat and leaving town as the sun rose. The two boats were strapped beside each other, with Pepe directing from the front and our other guide Celer driving the motor. Other than the impressive Amazonian, pink-tinted sunrise coming up above a jungle covering every spectrum of the color green and a river flowing light brown water, we were also riding between the two land masses that are Peru and Ecuador. It only took about an hour to reach the Peruvian border town, Pantoja, where we needed to stop to get our entry stamps.

Before going to the town immigration office we fully believed for almost twelve hours that we’d just done the trips easiest border crossing, exiting Ecuador from Rocafuerte. We were wrong. The groggy faced man that greeted us in his undershirt and squinty eyes made it clear we had just woken the lone employee of the office, which may or may not have doubled as his house. Less than five minutes later all 5 of us were out the door with fresh passport stamps welcoming us to Peru. This left us plenty of time for a jungle walk before our boat would leave.

Checking out the Jungle

A creature from outer space

That night we parked the boat in a tiny village that none of us remember the name of. When entering the river from the shore, the river almost immediately drops off, so we spent a while doing some synchronized diving followed by floating downstream before getting out and going again. Soon after we were all holding sticks with fishing line and a baited hook at the end. Ten minutes later Dave landed a 15 (mas o menos) inch catfish that we would be eating the next day. As we slept a decent rainstorm rolled in and kept pouring as we loaded the boat for another 5 AM start. This seemed to be the general pattern for our Napo tour, rain in the night through early morning and then partly cloudy afternoons.

First campsite of Peru

Dave reppin' the South African speedo

The cruising was fairly comfortable for us; we generally each had our own bench and if not could still lay down whenever we needed to. Although as the trip progressed the guides decided to take the weight off of our second boat and fill up the main vessel more. It was awesome to see the river at that pace and from such a small, personal ship. Every bend we would come around would reveal new treasures, whether it be a half submerged tree full of egrets or kids playing on the front lawn of a simple bamboo home miles away from any other human settlements. There was quite a lot to look at and appreciate, and when the motor shut off, some awesome jungle sounds to be heard.

The second evening we stayed in a small isolated town called Diamante Azul, and had a blast playing with the kids in the village. There was a crazy amount of children in this little village; Pepe told us that they don’t have TV for entertainment so a lot of babies are made. After getting permission from the leader of the town to stay the night in the school/church/multipurpose building, we ran around chasing kids and trying our best to be the scary monsters that made them so interested in us.

A group of kids fascinated at the arrival of the gringos

Sunset and cute kids

The following morning we made the two hour trip to Santa Clotilde and had breakfast of wild pig at the sidewalk booths. We had a good walk around town and found it to be a lot bigger than it seemed from the riverfront. We met some travelers there going the opposite direction, who unfortunately had just missed their boat for Pantoja. When we first negotiated with Pepe, he had offered to just take us to Santa Clotilde, where we could find another boat for Mazan. After seeing the situation that these other travelers were in, we were sure grateful to not have to be unloading all our stuff and searching for another ride. We set them up talking with Celer and he put them on track with some of his local buddies to find a northbound boat.

After each buying two papayas for 50 sole-centimos (about USD$0.20) and receiving the gift of a head of bananitos, we pushed off again for a short, three hour ride to our next destination. Right before we pushed off Pepe tossed some sort of carcass into the canoa; as we made eyes at one another we realized it was a monkey. The motor went into gear and we looked back to see Pepe and Celer munching away. And what type of adventurers would we be if we didn’t try when they offered us a bite?

Exhausted after the harrowing experience of near-cannibalism

We arrived at Pepe’s home in the tiny village of five families called Puerto Erica. All the little kids were running around jumping in the mud when we pulled in; we knew we were in the right place. We met the family and helped park the boat, but it didn’t take long until we were all swimming in the river, covering ourselves with mud and stealing children to throw into the drink. The fun factor was going off, and I’m sure our guides were surprised at how silly and childish these bearded guys could be.

We cleaned all the mud off and then went for a jungle mission with some of the young boys of the village. They led us down a wide buffalo trail and every now and then they would point toward a path leading off into the depths and tell us about boa serpientes that we could find there. We kept going. After a long walk down the trail we ducked off into the jungle, with the kid carrying the machete in the lead. We bushwhacked for a good bit, checking out many different microenvironments and doing our best to submerge ourselves in the life of the forest. Spiky tree roots tried to grab us and small birds screeched out our location, giving us away to everyone around. We could hear a pack of howler monkeys way out there as we turned back for home. Walking back with the sunset brought fun times with the boys that had guided us. They made bamboo flutes and kazoos out of flowers and we had a little parade as we walked.

Welcome to the Jungle

Machete, little boy and Jungle

I spy an egret in the trees

That night the stars were easily some of the best we’d ever seen, and it was pretty exciting to have a good look at the southern hemisphere sky. Staying by the river under the unobstructed universe was definitely a highlight of the boat trip. We spent some time with one of Pepe’s wives’ father, who filled the room with his smile and laughs and shared his culture with us. He played some songs on his flute and did chants in Quechua while we chilled out on the floor of the hut. After a good session hanging out with him we called it a night. We awoke briefly in the middle of the night to a herd of buffalo migrating through our campsite. It was a bit of a startle but also pretty cool once we realized what was going on.

Water buffalo were everywhere

We rose up the next morning for a fishing trip with Celer back in the jungle where we had walked the day before. We weren’t so sure what he was doing when he tossed his line into a puddle on the side of the trail, but in less than a minute he had the first fish. We quickly moved from puddle to puddle, doing our best to imitate his fishing style, but none of us could seem to catch one. After about an hour Celer had six fish for breakfast, and so it was time to go home. We also found a nest full of good size eggs from what looked to be an Amazonian jungle version of a grouse, and Celer convinced us to take them for breakfast as well.

Breakfast was served at the house, prepared by Pepe’s wife (one of many) and her sister and mother. We had a pleasant time sitting on the floor of the simple home and hearing about Pepe’s specialty meal of monkey that he likes to prepare. It was pretty cool to have the experience of eating with the family in their home. Definitely did not feel like a guided tour, more just like hanging out with some local dudes that are taking us down the river.

the kids

Breakfast is served

We loaded half the family, a bunch more gear, all our bikes, and a chicken into the main boat and left the second canoa behind. Apparently that was its destination all along. We then did a two hour trip to Celer’s house in Bellavista, where we unloaded and reorganized the boat. We met Celer’s family and had an awesome meal of piraña on the floor of his house. Then Celer and his brother Percy took us to the other side of the river for a harvest mission.

Pepe with piranha for lunch

We pulled in to a secret little cove off the river that allowed us to take the boat off the main waterway and under the reaching canopy of trees. Percy took off with the machete and we followed closely. The trail was a bit of a maze, and we weren’t quite sure how they knew where they were going. We ended up in a forest of food, an open swath of the jungle covered in bananas, papayas, yucca, and sugar cane. Before filling the large baskets and bags with the goods we had come for, the brothers lured us over to a decomposing log in a pond, where they started hacking open the wood and pulling out big wood beetle grubs. Apparently it is some kind of a treat, because the Peruvians were munching away like they couldn’t get enough. It took some convincing but eventually we had to try it. The bugs were surprisingly tasty and it wasn’t hard to imagine how a big plate of fried rice with these things would be a nice dish. But they were super rich and so we didn’t want to overdo it on our first round.

We proceeded to fill up our sacks with as much fruit and root as we could carry, stocking up on the gifts of the land. We made the heavy haul sweating and swamping back to the boat, where we met a small kid in a little boat catching fish. He sold a few to Celer, and then we towed him up stream a bit before crossing. Unfortunately he swamped his boat as we dropped him off, and he lost his fishing net, but we were able to help him empty the water and get his boat floating upright again.

Okay, I can do this

Here we go

Ughhh!!!!!

We returned to Celer’s home and then found a nice cliff on the edge of his property where we spent a good hour jumping into the river. Dave hadn’t gotten his taste of the grubs yet, so we had a little ceremony in front of the house with the whole family watching him trying to get it down without puking. It was pretty funny. We slept early that night and got going in another rain squall the next morning for our last day with Pepe, Celer, the wives and five kids who were now sharing the boat with us, along with all the produce we had acquired. And the chicken with Dave riding up front under an umbrella. Quite the scene.

Dave up front in the morning rain storm, keeping the chicken dry

After a few more hours of cruising the river, with a break half way for swimming and papaya, we landed at Mazan and unloaded all of our stuff. Twelve people and all the accompanying gear spilled out of the little boat onto the dock. Mazan didn’t seem to have much to offer, so we quickly loaded the bikes and got back on the open road.

The open road lasted for about ten minutes, and then we were on the other side of the oxbow peninsula, looking at the biggest river in the world. The Amazon in all its immensity stretched out before us, easily the widest chunk of directionally flowing water any of us had ever seen. Despite the not-so-sanitary conditions of the port, it didn’t take long before we were all swimming in the river. The boat traffic and grime was less important than the chance to be in such an epic body of water.

The great trees of the Amazon rainforest

We joined Pepe, Celer, and family in a water taxi for Iquitos, about three hours up stream. It was our first boat going against the flow of the river, and was clearly much slower. When we arrived in Iquitos Pepe escorted us in a moto taxi to the house of his wife (2nd of Pepe’s women that we met) and daughters, and they graciously took us in and let us stay for the night. The next day we went searching for our next boat ride, and found it easily in the first place we looked. The Henry cargo ferry was going to Pucallpa that evening for a mere seventy soles with three meals a day for four days. We signed up and then went to work scurrying around town to get everything we needed for a few more days on the river.

Piranha in the Iquitos market

After saying our goodbyes to Pepe’s family, we returned to the shipyard to load the boat. We then found out that since it had rained that day, the cargo loading had been delayed, and we wouldn’t actually be leaving until tomorrow. We were however slightly confused about how a 2-hour rain squall delayed the boat for 22 hours. Since we already had tickets, they let us sleep on the boat that night. We had the boat to ourselves for a night and were entertained by the long process of hand loading at least one hundred new motorcycles, many tons of lumber, and a huge pile of scrap metal onto the deck.

Loading up full

All aboard

The next day we got our last minute groceries for the trip, and established our camp on the fourth floor of the boat. The ship had a bottom floor for cargo, followed by two large open floors for passengers, then a smaller passenger space followed by a top deck where the captain stood at the wheel. By being the first ones on the boat, we ended up managing to take over the small space on the fourth floor with our sprawled out hammocks and tents. Anyone who came up to the fourth floor immediately turned around and went back down, scared away by the hairy ones. We didn’t mean to be intimidating, perhaps we were just a little too different looking.

The view of the polluted Iquitos harbor from our fourth floor penthouse

There’s not much to say about the four days from Iquitos to Pucallpa. We chilled in our hammocks, read books, wrote, played cards, ate when the meals were served. There were some awesome sunsets and beautiful jungle scenery on the river. Every now and then we saw a crew of pink river dolphins playing in our wake. We met a few interesting Peruvians, and got off the boat for a walk in a few of the towns. Another major source of entertainment was watching the huge ship crash into the river bank every now and then to let a passenger off in the middle of the jungle. We also got to see a failed rescue attempt when we came across another cargo ferry that had ran aground on a sand bar. After many attempts to push the boat free, we gave up and just took on the rest of the passengers. It was relaxing, much like riding the ferry in Southeast Alaska.

Relaxin'

Amazon sunset out the window

Unfortunately the trip ended badly, when we woke up on the last day to find that Max’s hammock, Chris’ sunglasses, our Boombotix music amplifier, and Dave’s computer and passport had been stolen stealthily while we were sleeping. We thought we were pretty secure in our set up, all camping in a circle around our belongings and so had gotten complacent and not put away our valuables before going to sleep. The thief was able to sneak through the barracks while the roaring engine of the boat drowned out the noise of his work. We alerted the captain and crew of the boat and they did as best as they could to help us find the missing stuff, searching private rooms and baggage, but we weren’t able to find anything.

Arriving at Pucallpa

We departed the ship and unloaded our stuff into the heat of Pucallpa. It sure made a difference without the constant breeze of the moving boat. We slowly moved toward fruit juice and some of the silliest sandwiches ever eaten. Just one ingredient between a sliced bun. We then went to the police station and got the investigation going so that Dave could have his proof of police report for his passport. Half of us stayed the night at the police station and the other half at the fire department.

The following day we met up with some friends from the boat and went to the Pucallpa Zoo. Although we had an awesome Amazonian jungle experience on the Rio Napo, we didn’t get to see a whole lot of wildlife beyond the birds and buffalos, so it was cool to get to hang out with all the local animals at the zoo, even though they were behind bars. We had fun feeding the monkeys and watching the tortoises and snakes move around slowly.

After slogging around in the heat for the morning, we decided that it wouldn’t be that awesome to ride our bikes in those conditions. We were a couple days ride from any real elevation, and the prospects of pedaling were not particularly appealing. Thus we opted to hop on a bus that evening, heading for the town of Huanuco at 1900 meters elevation. After two weeks on the river, it was time to get back to the mountains.

Back to the Andes, the mountains of Huaraz were our next destination...

July photo of the month

In the Andes of Northern Ecuador

The July photo of the month was for all the friends and families that helped us make this trip happen. Because we got a ridiculously amazing amount of support and we will never be able to express the full gratitude that we have for our community of loving people. As the Quechua of Northern Ecuador say, “pashi.”