What an adventure!
Traveling from Coca to Iquitos by boat was a journey into the unknown. Looking on a map, it seems to be a logical route from Ecuador to Peru. But, it’s not a commonly traversed path in South America at all. There was much uncertainty to our journey, as it’s not well documented online or in guidebooks. But we’re always up for an interesting travel challenge like this. And the voyage proved to be quite interesting indeed.
To give you a preface for the journey, here is how it’s described in the Lonely Planet Ecuador guidebook.
While backpackers may bubble with excitement at the idea of floating the Napo all the way to Peru and the Amazon River, only the most intrepid travelers should rise to the occasion. In this truly off-the-beaten-track adventure, aspiring ‘survivors’ may have to endure cramped and wet travel, the possibility of seeing their next meal slaughtered, and potential illness.”
This is all an accurate depiction. Yet we successfully made it down the Napo and into the Amazon to now tell a few tales about this epic river journey into Peru.
This voyage is most definitely for the true adventure traveler. It’s a rough experience. Mattresses we slept on were absolutely filthy. Bucket showers with river water became how we cleansed ourselves after the day’s intense heat. But that was all part of the fun. We were thrilled just to have beds and bathrooms at all. Those were luxuries that weren’t guaranteed along the route.
Sure, conditions weren’t the most sanitary, but that was among the least of our apprehensions. We were nervous about capsizing in the rural boats with all of our travel gear. Also, we’ve watched the movie Anaconda, so those horror scenes in the Amazon were always in the back of our heads. J-lo and Ice Cube may have lived, but the fate of all those other characters was cringeworthy.
More seriously, we had been warned about the swarms of virus-carrying mosquitos. Yet perhaps our biggest concern was the uncertain ability of actually completing the journey, since you’re relying primarily on passing boats. We had heard tales of people getting stuck in a tiny village for weeks without any way to continue on. As it turns out, this concern was completely warranted. But it was not because of a lack of passing boats, and rather it was because of a major problem at the rural border we crossed by river. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Day 1: The Crowded Boat from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte
Let’s first back up to the beginning of this journey. It all started in the town of Coca, Ecuador. This is the end of the road and the beginning of our voyage down the Napo River to Iquitos, Peru. It’s here in Coca that is your last chance to take a hot shower, eat a good meal, and sleep in a room with air conditioning. We did all of those things and went to the big supermarket to stock up on bottled water and non-perishable food for the unknown journey that lay ahead.
We had found a regularly scheduled boat making the daily journey from Coca to a tiny border town down the river of Nuevo Rocafuerte. We bought our one-way tickets for the early morning voyage and arrived with the almost comical amount of gear we’re now traveling with. Buying all the food and water added a few more bags to our growing arsenal of luggage (Want to know everything we travel with? See our Ultimate Packing Checklist here.)
At the dock in Coca, military police called passengers onto the boat by name, one by one, and checked passports. Somehow we were called last and all the seats had been taken. This boat was packed! We carefully stepped over cargo haphazardly scattered throughout the aisle of the long boat and looked for a space on the seats to squeeze our butts in.
We’re no strangers to riding in overcrowded transport, so we found a place on the floor to ride out what was supposed to be a 10-12 hour boat trip. We wedged ourselves in between a box of baby chickens peeping away, and a drowsy guy in muddy boots. This was going to be a long ride.
Then some women in the back of the boat must have taken pity on us. Either that or the boat wasn’t allowed to leave without passengers all in seats. So we made our way to the back of this long boat and managed to squeeze into a seat.
It was still a tight fit. But things got better from here. I was startled by something scratching at my feet. The first mate (captain’s wife?) had brought her dog along for the ride. He became our comfort dog throughout the otherwise uncomfortable voyage down the Napo River.
After a few hours we stopped in the middle of nowhere, where a guy had a restaurant (I use that term loosely) on the side of the river and was prepared for the influx of passengers suddenly piling onto shore.
He quickly dished out hearty platefuls of fried chicken with rice, lentils, a tiny salad, and a huge bowl of soup. We got turned off of the soup when we spotted whole chicken talons floating around in the milky water. We turned to the chicken, which looked similarly horrible. But it turned out to be some of the best pollo we’ve had in Ecuador – very well seasoned, packing flavor! And it seemed particularly fresh too, given the many chickens that were freely walking around this random little food house in the middle of the jungle.
Meanwhile the captain was running a tight ship, and we had only 20 minutes to wait in the food line, get our meal, eat it, and use the restroom. The captain did his version of a horn honk, which was instead putting on the noise you typically here from a car alarm. We paid the $2 for our meal, received a complementary blow-pop, and were back on the Napo River towards Peru. The quickness and efficiency of everything was refreshing and quite uncharacteristic of what we’ve grown accustomed to throughout much of Latin America.
We continued down the wide Napo River plowing right through a few storms. It is a rainforest after all. Ultimately we arrived to a checkpoint where Ecuadorian military police boarded our boat to inquire about our travel intentions. It was also at this mysterious bend in the river that about three quarters of the passengers disembarked. I’m not asking questions, as this made the remainder of the journey so much more pleasant now that we had space to breathe. We arrived to Nuevo Rocafuerte around 3:30 in the afternoon, and much sooner than we had anticipated. When the water is lower, this trip can last well into the night. Things were looking up!
Roaming Around Nuevo Rocafuerte
We had heard some horror stories and tall tales about this town that even included rumors of murdering travelers – really! So we approached the docks with apprehension. Instead we found a very peaceful and serene Amazon village. In fact, it turned out to be our favorite village of the entire journey. None of the villages along the way are connected to mainland by roads, so this was our first taste of being car-free, which was refreshing. Welcome to the jungle!
There was a little hotel right across from the boat dock. Although it was basic, it was much nicer than anticipated. Crisp clean sheets, running water, electricity, cable TV, a beautiful balcony overlooking the Napo River, and even decent wifi! All for a mere $12. We were very content here.
We poked around this sleepy town and even stumbled across a tiny tourism office for the nearby Yasuni National Park. We found a guide who offered to take us on an excursion through Yasuni. But more importantly than this side trip, is that he agreed to use his boat to transport us onward to a village on the other side of the border, in Peru. Score!
The little hotel we were staying at had prepared some mediocre beef stew and rice for dinner. We finished up just in time for the fireworks show over the Napo River. No, not real fireworks. It was an intense thunderstorm rolling in! Torrential downpours followed. We watched it all unfold while nursing a few balcony beers, as the sky turned black while the “streets” below became streams.
Day 2: Piranhas and a Wet Trek Into the Jungle
We woke up at the crack of dawn as the roosters provided a natural alarm. It was time to venture into the dense jungle of Yasuni National Park.
Most of the time traveling down the Napo, you’re motoring fairly fast and in the middle of the wide river. Hence, you often don’t get a chance to see what may be lurking around the shoreline. Now off in a small and slower boat into this this narrow tributary of the Napo River, it all offered a much more intimate vantage point.
Perhaps it was the calm after the storm, as the waters were remarkably still providing for mirror images of the tall canopies that towered overhead. Our guide, Fernando, eagerly stood on the bow of the boat trying to spot wildlife while his son handled the motor. We found many tropical birds, some nutria swimming in the water, and even the famed pink river dolphins!
We spotted nearly about a dozen dolphins in total but it was difficult to get a good look at them (or a decent photo). These pink dolphins tended to travel solo and would pop up to the surface for air very sporadically and only for a split second.
We slowly ventured deeper into the maze of the jungle until the water narrowed so much that it seemed impossible to pass. Instead, Fernando revved up the motor and plowed right on through. We ducked our heads quickly as low tree branches were sent flying into the air. Eventually we reached a point that was no longer passable. Fernando said to get out.
We thought he was joking. But it was no accident we wound up here. We were given rubber boots. This swampy water was where we would be beginning a jungle trek. We looked for crocodiles and anacondas before cautiously stepping into the dark water.
Given the heavy rain from the night before, the water level was high. We sludged on through, as the murky swamp water filled our boots and climbed to our thighs. No piranhas here, right?
Eventually we reached a dry trail to trek even deeper into the jungle. We found some sloths way up in the tree and a few toucans too. The trees were huge! Not since roaming around Borneo had we experienced such gigantic trees.
But it was just as interesting to look down, as it was to look up. The jungle was thick with insects and small reptiles. We saw armies of leaf cutter ants, gigantic toads, and a chameleon that changed colors right in front of our eyes.
Speaking of insects, it wasn’t until hiking through the interior of this jungle that the mosquitos started to make their presence known. Fernando offered a solution. He broke open a mound and instructed us to let the termites crawl over us. Apparently termites provide a natural repellent. They did, in fact, leave a nice scent on our skin. It was the strangest thing. And the mosquitos left me alone!
Back on the boat, Fernando had one more activity for us that we weren’t expecting. He passed around what looked like some sticks from the jungle. But these sticks had a short fishing line and a hook at the end. We were given some chunks of meat for bait. It was time to go fishing …for piranhas!
As soon as we dropped our lines in the water, the piranhas were biting strong. We almost couldn’t believe that we had just been wading through these very same waters. These piranhas were quite crafty, as they often stole the bait right off the hook, many times over. But I managed to snag one!
It was a fun moment but the excitement was cut short real quickly. I presented the piranha to Fernando so he could get the hook out of its vicious teeth. Fernando just smiled and said, no – you’re the fisherman. I asked for the pliers. He laughed. Was he messing with me or was I to really use my bare hands to recover the hook out of an angry piranha’s toothy mouth?
I proceeded and realized this was no joke. It took a few minutes but I finally got the job done. Meanwhile, I had apparently caught Fernando’s dinner for the night.
Arriving to Peru
We then cruised a few hours out of the National Park and towards Peru to the border. It was right then that the sun came out and a rainbow even appeared just as we were approaching the village we’d be staying in for the next night, Pantoja. This all felt like a good omen. (Boy were we wrong.)
Things got even better as we approached the village. The once-a-week fast boat to Iquitos that was rumored to be there – was, in fact, there! This alone was a huge victory for our voyage. We met the captain of the fast boat, Christian, who greeted us with good news. We were all set to depart the next day. Or so we thought.
Pantoja was even smaller and more rustic than the last town. But it was a friendly and festive village. Latin music blared across the riverfront as men sat around swigging beers while women tended the grills. It was Sunday and people seemed to be enjoying the weekend. You could easily spot a few people who may have enjoyed one too many.
Our $4.60-per-night room was among the least we’ve ever paid to sleep somewhere. But we soon discovered why the cost was so low. This place was a total dump.
A rank smell emanated throughout the room. The concrete walls and floors seemed reminiscent of a jail cell complete with bars on the windows. It was steamy hot but we couldn’t use the fan since the generator to run electricity only turns on for the first few hours at night. The bed consisted a thin dirty foam mattress pressed up against a hard wooden bed frame, with a thin sheet and a musty pillow.
In the bathroom, there were some buckets of river water provided that served a dual purpose. It was to be used to bathe with, scooping cup-by-cup and pouring it on you. And it was also the means to flush the toilet.
Our room in Pantoja had made the previous night’s accommodation seem like a 5-star hotel. It had been a while since we used the bucket method to shower. But this is all part of the experience and we were happy simply to have a bed to sleep on and a roof over our head. Heck, it was only one night. No problem.
Although we were now settled in our small Peruvian river village, we still hadn’t gotten our passports stamped into Peru – a very important necessity before continuing onward down the river. There’s no formal border on the river. Instead we had to walk throughout the small village looking for the police station that would process our entry and stamp our passports. We found a shabby office with broken windows that said “Policia” on it, but no one was around. We banged on the door and asked a few neighbors, but there was no sign of anyone there.
So we went to find Christian to explain there was no one at the police / immigration office to get stamped into Peru. He made a few phone calls and seemed to be yelling at someone who was not doing their job. Christian told us to return to the office and someone would be there.
Sure enough, we found an immigration / police officer in plain clothes, who seemed to be quite bothered that we needed our entry stamp. Perhaps we woke him up from his Sunday afternoon siesta. Whatever the reason, he was not happy about us inconveniencing him. Immigration officials are never really friendly, but this guy seemed to be in a particularly bad mood.
We completed our paperwork and it all took a few minutes to process. Heather got stamped in, no problem. A friend that had continued with us down river also received his stamps without incident. But when it was time to process me into Peru:
What!? In the 62 countries we’ve traveled to, I had never been denied entry. So, of course, this incident had to happen in the most rural and out-of-the-way border crossing we’d ever attempted crossing. And the reason wasn’t just because of the officer’s grumpiness. It seemed there was a serious problem with me being listed in the Peruvian immigration computer system.
Back in 2015, we had entered Peru for a few days during during a Panama Canal cruise that sailed down the coast of Souther America. The itinerary stopped at a few ports in Peru before sailing onward to Chile.
While taking repositioning cruises, often it’s policy to turn your passport over to the cruise’s security and they handle all the immigration stuff. But unbeknownst to me until now, they did not process my passport correctly. In the Peruvian immigration computer system, it was on record that I entered Peru on the cruise, but that I never exited the country. The system had indicated that I had overstayed my time in Peru and had been illegally living there for the past two years! This was not only preventing me from entering the country, but the officer alluded it was a crime punishable by jail.
I had thought our hotel room seemed a bit like a prison cell, but I was now facing a reality of seeing what an actual jail cell looked like in this tiny Amazon village. This was all due to some bullshit clerical error that happened two years ago.
The officer seemed to believe my pleas that this was all just a mistake. But he would need to correct the glitch before letting me continue. He would need to contact the central office in Lima, which didn’t open until the next day and after our boat was to depart. But that timing didn’t matter because the officer said it would take a few days to process the error, and we would have to catch the next boat, leaving next week. Next week!
We shuddered at the thought of staying in this tiny village with meager accommodation for an entire week. We contemplated returning to Ecuador and calculated that it would take us five days of travel to reach Quito. We were now deep into the Amazon and felt pretty helpless. All we wanted was to complete this journey we had set off on, not spend the next five days on a series of boats and buses returning to Quito.
We were now dripping with sweat in the barren office, asking the officer again and again what our options were. Was he waiting for a bribe maybe? We weren’t sure. I tried to shuffle through my passport to show him my entry stamp into Chile back in 2015, which would prove my innocence. But he didn’t care and snatched my passport out of my hands before I could locate it. Things were heating up.
This all went on for about an hour, arguing back & forth in Spanish, as I was catching about 75% of what he was trying to explain to us. But comprehension dropped to about 20% when he started getting angry and talking faster.
But out of nowhere, he started to change tone a bit and it seemed he wanted to let me in. It seemed he just didn’t want to get in trouble for doing so. He kept on saying “Quierro, quierro.” (I want to, I want to.)
I saw him hesitantly reach for the stamp a few times, but then deciding against it. C’mon, c’mon, just give me my freakin’ stamp! I nervously watched again as he kept reaching for the stamp then putting it back. He was like a confused dog that couldn’t make up his mind whether to go outside or come inside. I was considering offering a bribe, but wasn’t sure if that would make things better or worse.
Finally he turned to my friend, making a deal with him that if the friend helped me in Iquitos, the officer would give me my stamp and entry card. We still don’t understand what that was all about, but we weren’t asking any questions. Our friend agreed without any hesitation to the officer’s left-field request.
Thank goodness. We were so relieved. Although now we’re also a bit anxious of the uncertainty that I am possibly in Peru illegally as far as the country’s immigration system is concerned. This will likely complicate exiting procedures at the very least. It looks like a visit to a US consulate may be in our future to help clear up this snafu.
Anyways, once that potentially trip-ending experience was overcome, the sun was setting over the Napo River. It was definitely beer o’clock to ease our nerves. So I joined the locals with some warm cervezas (no electricity, no refrigeration) to not only help calm me down, but also to help forget about the nasty pillow I’d be drooling into in a few hours.
Day 3: Amazon Village Life and An Unexpected Turn
It was Day 3, and we had set our alarm to wake us at 5:45 am, fifteen minutes prior to departure. Instead, the boat’s car alarm sirens blared through the town around 5:30 to wake everyone up in the village, warning of his sudden departure. Throughout Latin America, transport seems to depart later than scheduled, rarely on time. But Christian apparently wanted to leave early.
There was no electricity, so we gathered our belongings in the dark to then walk down the muddy riverbank and load the boat. I was baffled when we actually pulled out of town nearly 10-minutes ahead of schedule. This never happens. But we appreciated his sense of urgency to get the trip underway.
While the previous night’s accommodation was the pits, this boat was the nicest one yet! There were comfortable front-facing seats with full back-support and the side rain flaps didn’t have any holes leaking water onto us like the other boats. There was even a little bathroom that was lacking a toilet seat but was actually stocked with toilet paper. Ah, it’s the little things! There were only a half-dozen of us on the boat too, so we had loads of space to move around as the sun rose up from the river.
Not only was this our favorite boat, but this stretch of the Napo seemed to be the most scenic yet. We passed many indigenous communities that were composed of just a few little huts. These were the types of places you would likely see in a National Geographic magazine.
We were fascinated as we watched local life go by on the riverbanks while indigenous folks rowed passed us in their dugout canoes. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw a little girl and a little boy fighting over what looked like a stuffed animal. But this turned out to be not a toy – it was their pet monkey!
We were now about midway between Coca and Iquitos, so these are likely the furthest communities away from those larger cities. We were deep into this Amazon tributary.
We stopped in these tiny Amazonian villages, making a few odd deliveries and picking up passengers. At one village we dropped off a hammock. At another we picked up a live chicken. Later, a guy was delivered two cans of beer that put a big smile on his face, ear-to-ear.
Then things took a more somber turn. We stopped at one village where all the residents seemed to be lining the river. Then all then men were carrying a big guy on a mattress onto our boat. We helped load him on as the villagers passed him from the shore. The man was breathing, but otherwise lifeless. We discovered that he had a stroke and we were now transporting him to a hospital in the town that would be our next overnight stop.
A woman on the shore, presumably his wife, cried and wailed as we pulled away from the village. I could still hear her loud shrieks as we motored further down the river. It seemed as if she was coming to terms with the realization she would perhaps never see him again. It was such a raw and emotion-filled moment on the river that we did not see coming.
If this boat only plies this route once a week, we wondered how long this man may have been left like this. Having access to heath care is part of the danger of living somewhere so remote. But it’s also part of the danger of traveling somewhere remote. It really put things into perspective for us as we carried on down the river with his limp body lying on the floor in the back next to the toilet.
Roaming Around Santa Coltilde, Peru
This was another long day on the river. About six hours after we picked up the stroke victim, we finally arrived at this bigger village which had a hospital. But it was still quite a tiny place. It was here on the docks that we had envisioned a scene where medical staff would be waiting for us to rush this poor guy into the hospital and try to revive him. He was still breathing and hanging on after all.
Instead, passengers slowly got off the boat. We helped with a few other passengers to carry the stroke patient onto the concrete dock. We were baffled as he lay there for another half hour as dogs and children ran on by. We’ll never know what ultimately happened to him but can only hope for the best as he finally got carried away to this rural village hospital.
We tried to put this behind us and explore our new home for the night. The village was bigger than the last but still very rustic conditions. This town even a road with a stop sign, which was laughable given there wasn’t a single car.
There were a few shops and we even managed to find what looked like a legit “restaurant.” We asked for a menu. The woman laughed, rolled her eyes, and told us that the dinner was chicken. Okay, chicken it is. We were happy to have some more chicken & rice, as we had been living off of peanut-butter crackers for breakfast and lunch during the past two days.
At first glance, the rooms we were staying in seemed like a slight step up from the last place. It wasn’t. At least the last place had a fitted sheet to protect you from the dirty mattress. Here there was a thin sheet placed on the barren filthy mattress and no other bed sheet whatsoever to use as a blanket. We closed our eyes as we were bombarded with a soundtrack of loud-talking men and random clamor throughout the rustic river hotel.
Day 4: Cruising Into the Amazon River
It was broken sleep all night, which was fine because we were wide-awake at 3:00 am, ready to go for our early morning departure. This morning Christian had told us we would leave at 4:00. So, of course, we were cruising down the Napo towards Iquitos by 3:50 am. Hopefully we didn’t leave anyone behind.
We may have slept better during these dark early morning hours on a speeding boat than during the night in the room.
After our final sunrise on the Napo River, it was nice to be able to see our surroundings again. It was a pleasant ride and surprisingly cool-ish temperatures. The daylight again revealed the thick jungle we’re traveling through that was dotted by remote villages.
It wasn’t long after that we reached the village of Mazán, where we collected our belongings and disembarked the boat that we’d been traveling on now for the past two days. But our Amazon journey wasn’t quite over yet. In fact, we still hadn’t even reached the namesake river. It’s here in Mazán, where there’s a shortcut to the Amazon River.
Instead of continuing by boat down and around, there’s a skinny peninsula you can cross by land using a mototaxi. The frenzied scene of tuk-tuks was reminiscent of SE Asia. We had departed from the Napo, yet it seemed that we had arrived on the Menkong. We hopped into one of these three-wheeled motorbikes and were whisked across the shortcut, finally reaching the mighty Amazon River.
We were almost to our final destination of Iquitos. Our final boat ride, which was only about an hour was a breeze. After days of nothing but lush rain forest and small villages, it was strange to see development appear in the horizon. We had finally reached Iquitos, said to be the largest city in the world not accessible by roads.
With four very full days on the river, a few sleepless nights, bucket showers, and a diet of almost entirely of peanut butter crackers and the occasional chicken & rice, it had all taken its toll on us. It was an incredible adventure that we were so happy to have embarked on. Yet we were also quite ready for our river journey to conclude.
Reflecting on the Napo River Journey from Coca to Iquitos
Despite facing some rougher standards than we’re accustomed to, navigating down the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos by boat was a fascinating experience and an incredible travel journey that we’ll certainly cherish for life. It was one of those experiences that was most definitely more about the journey itself, than it is the destination.
Flying to Iquitos would have been much easier and perhaps even less expensive. But where’s the fun and adventure in that? We find it refreshing to occasionally hop off the tourist trail, travel deeper, and take the
road river less traveled.
This voyage was a true adventure that was as full of as many twists as there were on the winding river itself. We’ll value the connections we made at the local villages and the smiles we shared. It was neat to travel through the Amazon rain forest, but it was those little bonding moments and even the bumps along the way that made the journey something special.