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 using both the Napo River and the Amazon River.
But, this river voyage is not a commonly traversed path on the South America backpacker trail. There is much uncertainty to planning such a trip. It’s not well documented online nor in guidebooks.
But we’re always up for an interesting travel challenge to help fill in the information for others to follow. And this independent voyage down the Napo River proved to be quite interesting indeed.To give you a preface for the journey, here is how a trip down the Napo River is described in Lonely Planet Ecuador.
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.”
It’s an accurate depiction. Yet we successfully made it down the Napo River and into the Amazon to now tell provide some details, along with 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. Some mattresses were filthy. Buckets of river water became showers after the day’s intense Amazonian heat.
But that’s all part of the fun and adventure. We were thrilled to simply have beds and bathrooms at all. Those were luxuries that weren’t guaranteed along this lightly traversed route.
Sure, conditions aren’t the most sanitary on these remote stretches of the Napo River. 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 those other characters was cringeworthy. (Tip: don’t watch this movie before you go!)
More seriously, we had been warned about the swarms of virus-carrying mosquitos. Yet perhaps our biggest concern was the uncertain ability to actually complete this Napo River trip by boats since the schedules appeared irregular.
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 isn’t entirely warranted today. There are now regular boats.
But we did run into snags that almost foiled this Napo River trip from Coca to Iquitos. It wasn’t because of a lack of passing boat though. Rather, it was because of a major problem at the rural border between Ecuador and Peru. We’ll get to that little fiasco in our tale of floating down the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos.
But first, we want to provide a bit of information on how to get Coca to Iquitos by boat yourself, using the Napo River.
It’s very possible to take a series of four boats from Ecuador to Peru on the Napo River, which flows into the Amazon. In the past, this was an even rougher voyage, in which intrepid travelers had to rely on slow boats which that may (or may not) pass down the Napo every week or two.
Thankfully, there are now regular fast boats plying down the Napo River with set schedules. It is doable to complete this entire Coca to Iquitos voyage in 4 days. We’re here to show how.
Also, it’s possible to travel from Coca to Yasuni National Park for a day of exploration. Doing so can be a more affordable way to tour the Ecuadorian Amazon, compared to pricier lodge stays. That said, the lodge stays are a much more comfortable and complete Amazon experience. As a result, many travelers may want to consider a lodge stay and a proper Ecuadorian Amazon tour instead of this DIY adventure, to have a more complete Amazon experience.
But no such package exists from Ecuador to Peru along the Napo. You’ll need to do that on your own.
Adventurous independent travelers on a shoestring budget can indeed reach Yasuni on the cheap, during the Coca to Iquitos trip. It’s easily possible to include a side trip to this national park while transiting all the way to Iquitos, Peru. (Or return to Coca).
How to Travel from Ecuador to Iquitos Peru by Boat on the Napo River
It’s a long journey with uncertain information. So we’ll try to clear things up based on our experience.
Just understand that information and conditions can change with time. If you travel from Coca to Iquitos by boat and find that info has changed, then please let us know in the comments. We’ll gladly edit and update this post to help other travelers. Gracias!
Here’s the plan to get from Coca to Iquitos using fast boats:
- Day 0: Arrive in Coca, Ecuador
- Day 1: Travel by ferry from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte (8-10 hours). Overnight in Nuevo Rocafuerte.
- Day 2: Consider a Yasuni National Park tour. Hire a boat to cross the Peru-Ecuador border from Coca to Pantoja (2 hours). Overnight in Pantoja.
- Day 3: Pantoja to Santa Clotilde river ferry (all day). Overnight in Santa Clotilde.
- Day 4: Santa Clotilde to Mazan (all morning). Take the shortcut across Mazan for a connecting ferry to Iquitos. Arrive in Iquitos.
Plan the Napo River Trip Around the Weekly Pantoja – Santa Clotilde Fast Boat
This Napo River journey is possible in four days if all connections go smoothly. You should be aware that there are daily boats plying each section except for the Pantoja to Santa Clotilde segment. Boats only go from Pantoja to Santa Clotilde and beyond, once or twice each week.
We can confirm this boat departs Pantoja every Monday. There is changing info about a second day of departure from Pantoja to Santa Clotilde. It’s possible that a second departure may be Thursday or Friday. The Monday morning fast boat from Pantoja is more of a sure bet.
So plan to leave Pantoja for the Monday departure. Or track down up-to-date info on the day of departure before your journey for a smooth connection.
This boat is operated by Transporte Fluvial Vichu. Phone: (065 ) 500 367.
To catch the Monday Pantoja boat, you’ll need to plan to arrive in Coca, Ecuador, by Friday afternoon. If you don’t catch the Monday boat from Pantoja, or schedules have changed, then the worst-case scenario is that you’ll just need to stay in Pantoja for a few days until the next fast boat is scheduled. It’s best to pad your Ecuador-Peru itinerary with extra days, just in case.
Note: if embarking on the reverse route from Iquitos to Coca, the departure days from Mazan (near Iquitos) are Tuesday and Friday at 8:30 am.
First Get to Coca, Ecuador
Before setting off on an adventure down the Napo River, you’ll need to get to El Coca. This river town is more formally known as “Puerto Francisco de Orellana.” But most people just call it “El Coca” or “Coca”.
It’s important to time your departure accordingly for a smooth 4-day trip. There are daily boat departures from Coca downstream to Nuevo Rocafuerte. But given that you’ll need to connect with the twice-per-week Pantoja boat, it’s wise to plan to be in Coca three full days prior to the Pantoja boat departure.
For example, if planning to catch the Monday boat from Pantoja, then be in Coca by Friday evening.
Getting to Coca by Bus
It’s possible to reach Coca by bus from the more popular destinations in Ecuador such as Quito (10 hours), Tena (4 hours), and Baños (7-8 hours, two buses). Plan your arrival to Coca accordingly.
El Coca is a pleasant-enough Ecuadorian riverside medium-sized city. But there’s not much going on here worth lingering for.
Buy Your Fast Boat Ticket!
After arriving in Coca, drop your luggage off wherever you’re staying. Then it’s time to gather supplies and secure your boat tickets.
It’s best to head directly to the boat docks to confirm the next day’s departure times, ensure there’s room, and purchase your tickets. Tickets have been known to sell-out on occasion, particularly for those who wait to purchase their ticket the morning of departure. So buy your tickets the night before. The ticketing office is located right here. Bring your passport.
There are two boat agencies with departures on different days. Here is the schedule of departures from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte, current during the time of our trip:
- Sunday: 7:30 am, Kamu Kamu Services
- Monday: 7:30 am, Cooperative de Transporte Fluvial
- Wednesday: 7:30 am, Cooperative de Transporte Fluvial
- Friday: 7:30 am, Cooperative de Transporte Fluvial
- Saturday: 7:30 am, Kamu Kamu Services (this is the boat we took)
Ticket cost $18.75. You’ll likely be fine to just wing it and buy your ticket upon arriving into Coca. But here is some contact info, if you want to confirm up-to-date schedule and info:
- Cooperative de Transporte Fluvial: firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 062 882 582
- Kamu Kamu Services: phone: (062) 382 153
Ask About Exit Stamp Procedures in Coca
⚠️ In the past, your exit stamp from Ecuador was always handled in Nuevo Rocafuerte. A reader has recently commented (Oct 2019) that this has changed, and it is now to be done in Coca. It is very important to have this exit stamp in your passport before proceeding into Peru. So be sure to find the current information, when on the ground in Coca and proceed accordingly.
Stock Up on Food, Water, and Cash
Anyhow, after buying your tickets, it’s time to stock up. Coca has supermarkets to buy supplies before this Napo River journey. Do so.
We suggest getting a good amount of snacks for this lengthy voyage. Grab some water too. But you’ll be able to buy more drinking water along the way at each of the villages you overnight in.
In Coca, there’s a TIA supermarket located here. It won’t be open early enough on departure day. So be sure to do some shopping on the night before. The TIA supermarket closes at 9:30 pm.
In addition to stocking up on food & water, be sure to grab enough cash for the trip. Coca will be the last place you’ll be able to access ATMs until reach Iquitos, Peru several days later. You can easily budget this entire trip (transport, food, hostels, etc.) for less than $150 USD. But we’d suggest bringing more, just in case.
You’ll be able to exchange US dollars for Peruvian sols in Pantoja. So don’t worry about having soles for the journey. But do have enough USD to exchange. The rate in Pantoja isn’t great, but it’s acceptable.
Where to Stay in Coca
There are many shoddy hostels in Coca with beds for around $10 or rooms in the $15-$20 range. On the other end of the spectrum, Coca actually has a few nicer hotels that that charge $100/night.
Yet there’s one very reasonable 3-star hotel with big rooms, comfy beds, solid wifi, and warm showers. It’s the Hotel Coca Imperial, with rates starting at about $30 per night! At only slightly more than the price of a hostel room, we found this hotel to be well worth it! It was great to have a comfortable sleep, reliable Internet, and a good shower before the rough conditions that lay ahead. Check up-to-date prices and recent reviews.
Day 1: Napo River from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte by Boat
The boat departs promptly at 7:30 am. Arrive early to be on the safe side and in hopes of snagging a decent seat. Have your passport accessible upon check-in.
The boat ride from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte takes about 8-10 hours, depending on the flow of the river and the number of stops. Traveling from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte, the water flows downstream. So it is faster going this direction, rather than coming from Peru.
There’s a quick lunch stop about half-way to Nuevo Rocafuerte. This happens in a tiny community known as Paña Cocha. They serve some particularly tasty fried chicken lunches ($2).
If all goes well, you should arrive in Nuevo Rocafuerte sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon.
Where to Stay in Nuevo Rocafuerte
There’s a hotel/hostel located right where the boat drops you off. It’s $7 for beds in a shared room. $12 per person gets you a private room that even includes wifi, cable tv, a balcony, and a private bathroom. It’s all pretty nice actually, particularly so for being way out in the middle of the Amazon.
Basic meals are offered for $3. And large beers were $2.50 + a $1 deposit for the bottle.
The name of this hostel in Nuevo Rocafuerte is Hostal Chimborazo. Phone: 062 382 109
Ensure Your Passport is Stamped
Before eating dinner and cracking open a cerveza, be sure you have your exit stamp from Ecuador. In the past, this was handled here in Nuevo Rocafuerte. There’s a customs/immigration officer in a building about a 10-minute walk from the hostel and the boat ramp. The hostel owner can show you the way.
Note: A reader has recently comment (Oct 2019), this is no longer possible and must be handled in Coca. We’re unclear if this change is temporary or permanent. So it’s best to get this cleared up in Coca if possible. And please report back in the comments to help other travelers. Gracias!
Also, take some time to enjoy this remote little village.
Organizing a Day Trip into Yasuni National Park
If interested in venturing into Yasuni National Park, now is the time to organize a trip. Ask around the village.
It is possible to take a day trip into Yasuni National Park from Nuevo Rocafuerte. This is highly recommended to get a more in-depth take of nature in the Amazon that you otherwise see whizzing by in the fast boats. A trip into Yasuni National Park includes some hikes through the jungle, a boat ride through an interior lagoon, and even piranha fishing.
There are a few guides in Nuevo Rocafuerte to ask around for. Chatting with people around town, we received a few names and went searching for them. While in Nuevo Rocafuerte, ask the town people for the following residents who lead guided tours into Yasuni National Park. It’s a small village and everyone knows everyone. A knowledge of Spanish will be a big asset in asking around.
Here are the names of the Nuevo Rocafuerte’s guides that were recommended to us while in town:
- Juan Carlos (recommended in Lonely Planet and hence can demand higher rates)
- Ronnie Cox
Of the four we tracked down, Fernando made us the best offer. His initial rate was $70 per person. But he ultimately lowered his price down to $200 for a boat of 5 passengers who were keen to join us for this Yasuni day trip.
So it worked out to $40 per person for our group of five. It is important to note that his price was not only for an entire day tour in Yasuni National Park. This price also included the 2-hour boat transfer from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja, Peru.
It was a great day and we felt it was well worth it! (More about our trip into Yasuni is detailed in our travel tale, recounting this journey, that follows this instructional guide.)
If you’re not able to organize a tour of Yasuni, you’ll need to organize a private transfer to Pantoja. It’s only a 2-hour trip. Yet prices will range from $10-$20 per person, depending on the number of people, your negotiating skills, if someone is happening to already be going that way, and how eager someone is to make the trip to earn a few bucks. But not to worry, there will be someone to make this trip.
Day 2: Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja by Boat
Hopefully, you’ve arranged a trip into Yasuni for a day of searching for pink river dolphins, fishing for piranhas, and hiking through the rain forest. Don’t worry about getting your feet wet. Water boots were provided.
If you are able to arrange a Yasuni tour, the day will culminate with a 2-hour trip towards Pantoja. Otherwise, you’ll just go directly from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja by boat during a 2-hour trip.
It should be a fairly seamless trip into Peru. You may not even realize the moment you’ve crossed the border.
After arriving into Pantoja, you’ve got some more errands to run.
- Get your entry stamp into Peru
- Convert USD to Peruvian Soles
- Confirm the boat trip for the next segment: Pantoja towards Iquitos
Get Your Entry Stamp in Pantoja
Be sure to get your passport stamped into Peru. Ask around. There’s an office connected to the police station. We had some issues (as you’ll read in our subsequent tale). Hopefully, you don’t.
Exchange Money in Pantoja
There are small convenience stores in the village who will exchange your US dollars for Peruvian soles. It’s not a great rate, but not horrible. Exchange enough money to get you to Iquitos.
Since you can pay for the boat trip in US dollars, you’ll only need enough soles for meals, snacks, and some transportation once you get towards Iquitos. You can likely get by, exchanging $20. But it could prove to be a safe bet to exchange more than that, just in case.
Where to Stay in Pantoja
Once arriving in Pantoja, there’s one hostel. It’s way more bare-bones and not as comfy as the one the Nuevo Rocafuerte. Cost of the room was 15 soles. Beds aren’t that nice. The rooms were smelly. And the shower is by buckets of river water.
There are some little joints in the village that’ll fix up a simple meal. We paid 5 soles for dinner and 6 soles for large beers.
Day 3: Pantoja to Santa Clotilde by Boat
The next segment is the longest day on the Napo River. The boat departs at 6:00 am, and possibly a bit earlier.
This segment costs $70 USD for the two-day trip from Pantoja to Mazan (near Iquitos). This price includes a hostel stay in the town of Santa Clotilde. Meals are on your own.
Thankfully, this lengthy day on the Napo River is covered in the most comfortable boat of the 4-day trip. The boat has front-facing cushioned seats, and even a basic toilet onboard. There are numerous stops at remote villages to allow various local passengers on-and-off and for delivery of goods.
Expect to arrive in Santa Clotilde in the late afternoon.
It’s another pleasant and small riverside town to explore. People are mostly friendly. Although some may be a little shy.
Where to Stay in Santa Clotilde
The Santa Clotilde hostel is included with this two-day boat ride from Pantoja to Mazan (near Iquitos). It’s another very basic hostel with a low level of comfort.
There are a few places to find simple meals for dinner around Santa Clotilde.
Day 4: Santa Clotilde to Iquitos by Boat
The final day is broken up into a few smaller segments. This is the earliest morning. The boat from Santa Clotilde to Mazan departs at 4:00 am. It’s the same boat as the prior day. This next segment is included with the $70 that’s already been paid.
By mid-morning, you’ll arrive to the village of Mazán, Peru. This is where there’s a shortcut to the Amazon river is. The Napo River continues on for a twisty journey flowing away from Iquitos, where it eventually flows into the Amazon River.
Instead of prolonging the boat journey, anyone traveling this route transfers over a skinny peninsula instead. So here in Mazán, everyone gets off the boat. You then transfer on to tuk-tuks, who will take you on a 15-minute ride to reach the Amazon River, overland. Expect to pay about 5 soles for this motorbike ride.
Upon reaching the Amazon River by tuk-tuk, it connects with a final boat (15 soles) that goes the rest of the way to Iquitos. Given the early start to the day, you’ll arrive in Iquitos by lunchtime.
With that, this Napo River journey from Coca to Iquitos is concluded!
Napo River by Boat: Costs & Budget
- Fast boat from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte: $18.75
- Private boat from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja, including a full-day tour of Yasuni: $40
- 2-day fast boat from Pantoja to Mazan, including 1-night hostel stay: $70
- Mototaxi across Mazan: 5 soles (~$1.50)
- Boat from Mazan to Iquitos: 15 soles (~$4.50)
- Total transportation costs: $134.75
*Note: Those who opt not to take a day trip to Yasuni Nat’l Park can reduce transportation costs by $20-$30 to complete the trip from Coca to Iquitos for as little as $104.75. Although visiting Yasuni is highly recommended, as it was our highlight of the four days.
- Hostel in Nuevo Rocafuerte: $12 per person
- Hostel in Pantoja: 15 soles for the room ($2.20 per person, shared)
- Hostel in Santa Clotilde: $0, included with fast boat price
- Total Accommodation Costs: $14.20
*Note: Also, a night in El Coca before Napo River journey: $32 ($16 per person)
Food & Drink Costs:
The only cooked meals available throughout the trip were dinners, each night and lunch on the first day. Costs ranged from $2-$4 for each cooked meal. Breakfasts and lunches were simple purchases from stores in Coca and in the overnight villages around the way. Fruit and even bakery items were often available for purchase in the villages. We also stocked up on peanut butter, crackers, chips, and other non-perishables that didn’t require cooking. Plus drinking water.
We did not meticulously track spending for food, water, and beer. We estimate having spent less than $20 each on food, water, and a few beers during the entire 4-day Napo River journey. Plus another $5-$10, each, on supplies in El Coca beforehand.
Total food costs: ~$25. Budget about $5-$10 for each day.
Total Cost of DIY Napo River Trip by Boat:
- Transport: $134.75
- Accommodation: $14.20
- Food & Drink: ~$25
- Grand total: $174
So without a Yasuni National Park tour, this trip down the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos can be accomplished for less than $150 USD. Without a Yasuni tour, costs add up to about $120 plus food & drink expenses.
We suggest bringing a bare minimum of $200 per person. But really, you should bring much more, just in case. You’ll have absolutely no access to banks, ATMs, or cash way out on the Napo River. If an emergency occurs or something unexpected happens, you’ll be thankful you have this extra cash.
Boat prices could suddenly change overnight. A breakdown could leave you in a village longer than expected, with a need to purchase more food & water. An enticing opportunity to tour Yasuni National Park may leave you spending more than you considered. Or maybe you just decided to have a few extra cervezas. These are all good reasons to bring more money than anticipated.
But the biggest reason to bring extra cash is simply in case of an emergency. If there is any sort of medical emergency or major issue that arises, you’ll want to have extra cash to help get you our of a scary predicament.
Napo River Slow Boat vs Fast Boats
For the journey laid out above, this was strung together by a series of fast boats along the Napo River. These are long, skinny motor boats that can cover a lot of distance during a single day. These fast boats are the only way to journey down the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos in less than a week’s time.
But there is another option. There are slow boats plying this same Napo River route.
There are irregular slow boats that also voyage the Napo River between Coca and Iquitos. They pass by once or twice each month. The three slow boats that most often use this route are named:
- Cabo Pantoja,
- Manolo, and
The cost for taking a Napo River slow boat from Caca to Iquitos is roughly $30 USD or 100 soles. This price includes some very basic (and questionable) meals. But you’ll need supplemental food, your own eating ware (plate, bowl, utensils), and drinking water.
You’ll also need a hammock to hang on the boat to sleep in during the multi-night voyage. Conditions can be crowded and uncomfortable. Before committing to the long slow boat voyage down the Napo, consider if it’s right for you. Below is a pic of a Napo River slow boat to give some understanding of what conditions are like.
The entire slow boat Napo River trip can sometimes take up to two weeks. But we’ve been told, slow boats have made the journey from Coca to Iquitos in as little as 9-10 days. You can ask around in Coca if it’s known when the next slow boat may pass by.
Taking a slow boat can be cheaper. And it may be quite an experience. But it’ll take much longer and it’ll be less comfortable. So judge whether this may be right for you.
For us, the fast boats are definitely the way to go. The fast boats provide greater flexibility to spend time in the Amazon on land. You’ll also be able to sleep in beds and have hot cooked meals there. And the fast boats are, well, faster! It cuts a nearly two-week trip into four days.
Tips to Know Before You Go Down the Napo River
Let someone know your whereabouts and that you’ll be in a remote part of the world. Let them know you’ll likely be unreachable for at least four days, if taking the fast boat route down the Napo River. Since you likely won’t have access to phone and internet, don’t let friends and family become unnecessarily concerned if they can’t reach you.
But DO let them get concerned if weeks go by and you haven’t reached Iquitos. Let them know your approximate arrival date, but give them some understanding that it could take a few days longer.
Cell Phone Coverage & Wifi along the Napo River
Plan to disconnect. This journey down the Napo River can be an excellent digital detox. Unplug and enjoy nature.
During our trip, there was no cell phone coverage between Coca and Iquitos. The only solid wifi we encountered was at the hostel in Nuevo Rocafuerte. There was no wifi in Pantoja. Santa Clotilde had some private wifi networks, but was difficult to access.
Vaccines and Medicine
Mosquitos not only are a nuisance throughout the Amazon. They can carry diseases. Consult a health care professional for recommended vaccines and preventative medicines. This is a malaria zone, so antimalarials may be advised.
Also, it’s likely a good idea that you’re up-to-date on your Yellow Fever vaccine. Again, consult a medical professional. (We’re only here to dish out travel advice. We are not doctors nor medical experts.)
Prepare for Mosquitos
Above all else, try not to get bit by mosquitos in the first place. Long sleeves can be a good idea. Repellent is a must. Repellent with DEET works exceptionally well, but can be harmful to the environment and to you. We like this REPEL natural mosquito repellent spray.
What to Pack for a Napo River Trip:
Pack enough clothes for the entire trip. It gets very warm and muggy during the day. So light dry-wicking clothing is a great idea.
But it does cool off during the nights, particularly after heavy rain. In the early mornings, it felt cool enough for a light jacket. Hat and sunglasses are clutch for the sun.
This is a rainforest. Make sure you have proper rain gear. A good rain jacket is important.
Also, pack a good book or something to keep you occupied during long travel days on the Napo River.
As already mentioned, pack some food, drinking water, and cash. Also, bring some toilet paper, as this isn’t always available. Medicines and a simple first aid kit can also be a good idea.
A hammock and cutlery are only necessary when taking the slow boat. They aren’t needed with the fast boat trip described in this post.
And don’t forget your passport!
Getting Your Passport Stamped at the Ecuador-Peru Border
Don’t forget to do this critical task on both sides of the border. You need to get stamped out of Ecuador. And you need to get stamped into Peru.
It’s been reported that the place to stamp out of Ecuador has been changed to Coca. Verify this before leaving Coca and act accordingly. Otherwise, in the past, the exit stamp has been procured in Nuevo Rocafuerte.
Also, be sure to get processed into Peru upon arrival into Pantoja.
Make this task a priority. Issues at this remote border have occurred.
Determine if this Journey is Right for You and Consider Other Options
Understand that this Amazon trip is not for everyone. If you’re a seasoned independent backpacker with much experience traveling across South America, then you’ll likely be fine. Others may want to reconsider.
Those who are short on time will want to consider a flight between Ecuador and Peru instead of the Napo River trip by boat.
If you want to see the Amazon but are hesitant with the conditions and comfort level of this trip, then consider a more proper lodge stay and tour. It’ll cost a bit more, but will offer a much more complete experience and you’ll be much more comfortable. You’ll also learn a lot more and have access to some more interesting places throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon.
There are many affordable tour options in Ecuador. This 3-Day Amazon of Ecuador Tour is a much more complete and comfortable experience with three full days in Yasuni National Park, including a nice lodge stay. Or in a different part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, consider this highly-rated 4-Day Stay at the Cuyabeno Dolphin Lodge, which is even more affordable.
Expect the Unexpected on the Napo River
We’ve done our best to provide the most up-to-date info, schedules, and prices for this Napo River trip. But conditions do change.
Also, the unexpected happens. Whether than be a boat breaking down, an earthquake shakes things up, or weather conditions change river access. This is the remote Amazon. Anything can happen.
Travel Insurance is a Must
We regularly recommend travel insurance on any trip to Ecuador. But for this rugged and remote voyage down the Napo River, travel insurance is an absolute must. Should there be some crazy emergency way out in the middle of the Napo River, you’ll be most ultra-thankful that your travel insurance has covered emergency evacuation. It could save your life.
The biggest risk in traveling this remote route is for a medical emergency to arise. Snake bites, sudden illness, wildfires, breaking a bone, or a boat accident are all rather unlikely occurrences. But they are possible and could prove dire.
Travel insurance helps to mitigate such risks. Don’t depart down the Napo River without it. We use World Nomads, which includes emergency evac in their coverage. They’re also one of the few travel insurance providers that will allow you to purchase travel insurance while in the middle of a trip. So even if you’re reading this from Ecuador, there’s still time to buy a plan. It only takes a minute to get a quick quote.
Our Journey from Coca to Iquitos
We hope this article has helped to shed some light on the logistical info on navigating from Coca to Iquitos by boat. For even more details, read on for more personal tales from our trip.
The Crowded Boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte
Let’s first back up to the beginning of this adventure. It all started in the town of Coca, Ecuador.
El Coca 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 the 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 instead dug into 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. We were only given 20 minutes to wait in the food line, get our meal, eat it, and use the restroom.
The captain then did his version of a horn honk. But instead of a honk, it’s 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 in Nuevo Rocafuerte around 3:30 in the afternoon, and much sooner than we had anticipated. Total travel time for the day was a bit more than eight hours. 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 the 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, this Nuevo Rocafuerte hostel was much nicer than anticipated.
Crisp clean sheets, running water, electricity, cable TV, a beautiful balcony overlooking the Napo River. There was 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!
Meanwhile, 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 transformed into streams.
Piranha Fishing and a Wet Trek Into the Jungle
We woke up at the crack of dawn. 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 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. It provided 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.
During this search for Amazonian fauna, 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 tend to travel solo. When they popped up to the surface for air, it was very sporadically and only for a split second.
We slowly ventured deeper into the maze of the Amazon 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 instructed us 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 began a jungle trek through this slice of the Amazon rain forest. 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 delve even deeper into the jungle of Yasuni National Park. 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 Yasuni National Park 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. But the mosquitos left us alone after this!
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 in Spanish, “No, you’re the fisherman.”
I asked for the pliers.
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 Yasuni National Park and towards the Peru 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 Nuevo Rocafuerte.
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 of 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.
Denied Entry into Peru!
Although we were now settled in our small Peruvian river village, we still hadn’t gotten our passports stamped into Peru. Of course, this is a very important necessity before continuing onward down the river.
There is 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. Another traveler that had continued with us down the Napo River river also received his stamps without incident. But when it was time to process me into Peru:
Wait, what!? In the 80+ 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 entering. 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 a Panama Canal cruise that sailed down the coast of South 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 may not have process my passport correctly.
In the Peruvian immigration computer system, it was on record that I entered Peru on the cruise and never exited the country. According to the immigration official, the system had indicated that I overstayed my time in Peru. So it was assumed I’d 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.
Upon arriving in Pantoja I had joked that our shabby hostel 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.
Or it could have been because of a crooked immigration officer who may have just been making this all up.
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 explained that he needed 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. So 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. He snatched my passport out of my hands before I could locate it. Things were heating up.
This all went on for an hour, arguing back & forth in Spanish. But my Spanish is only good enough to catch about 75% of what he was trying to explain. My comprehension level dropped to about 20% when he started getting angry and talked faster.
But out of nowhere, he started to change his tone. It seemed that he was over the heated argument and wanted to let me in. It now 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 he decided 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. He said that if our friend helped me in Iquitos to go to the consulate there, the officer would give me my stamp and entry card now.
It didn’t make much sense. We still don’t understand what this whole ordeal was all about. Maybe a bribe. But we weren’t asking any questions. Our friend agreed without any hesitation about the officer’s left-field request.
Thank goodness. We were so relieved.
(Fast forward several weeks, upon eventually departing Peru, immigration officers told me there was no problem at all with my passport or status.)
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). It not only helped to calm me down, but also to help forget about the nasty pillow I’d be drooling into in a few hours.
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 this long Napo River boat 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. It also included rain flaps didn’t have any holes leaking water onto us like the other boats. Ah, the little things!
This boat even had a bathroom. It was lacking a toilet seat, but was actually stocked with toilet paper. 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 not to be 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 the 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 our next overnight stop, Santa Clotilde.
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 might never see him again. It was such a raw and emotion-filled moment on the Napo 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 health 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 Clotilde, 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 had 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 riverside hotel.
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 3:45 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’d been traveling through, dotted by rmore emote 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 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.
It was four very full days on the Napo and Amazon River. It included a few sleepless nights, bucket showers, and a diet almost entirely of peanut butter crackers along with the occasional chicken & rice. It had all taken a little toll on us.
But it was a pretty incredible adventure that we were so happy to have embarked on!
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. We’ll certainly cherish this adventure for life.
It was one of those experiences that was most definitely more about the journey itself than it was 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.