Different Parts of Everywhere

#116: Taking the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos

ECUADOR-PERU, 21st-24th Septemer 2019

We were down at the riverfront in plenty of time to board the first boat of our river journey. This boat was a rapido, a fast, sleek passenger ferry that would take us from Coca, where the road ended, to Nuevo Rocafuerte, the last town in Ecuador, in about seven hours or so. We’d already bought our tickets a few days earlier for $30 each, which seemed like a good deal considering it also included passage into Peru the following morning too, though we weren’t sure what was going to happen with the bikes. But figuring out what to do at the crowded dockside was made easier by the arrival of two other cyclists. Juliet from Brazil and Alfredo from Argentina were in the midst of a tour of the northern parts of the continent, along with their little canine companion. The black pooch sitting in a basket on the back of Juliet’s steed wasn’t the only unusual thing about their bikes though. The “panniers” were all homemade by Alfredo out of plastic boxes, and on Juliet’s bike one front pannier was replaced by a guitar.

They couldn’t speak English, unfortunately, but we followed their lead by wheeling our bikes down to a waiting boat and loading our bags on. The boat was filling up with people and it seemed there wasn’t going to also be space for four bikes on the narrow boat. I had imagined that they would perhaps be lashed to the roof somehow, but instead some men who may or may not have been in charge told us that the bikes would have to be transported separately on another boat. I certainly was not happy about this, but Juliet and Alfredo seemed very okay to go along with it and we were being encouraged to follow them on board as our boat was ready to go. The bikes were still just leaning against the railing of the dock. It went against every fibre of my being to just leave them there and get on a boat without them, but I didn’t know what else to do, other than put my trust in what the men were saying. We got on the boat and took our seats, and waved goodbye to our bikes, which we surely would never see again.

The boat was at least very comfortable. We had big leather seats, enough leg room, and a lovely cooling breeze flowed past us as we sped downstream at about forty kilometres per hour over the smooth water. It really was rather a pleasant way to travel. ‘I could get used to this,’ I thought. After about half an hour Dea spotted a small boat going very fast behind us. “I think that’s the boat with our bikes on,” Dea said, and we turned to watch as it sped past us. And sure enough, there were our four bicycles, perched precariously on the roof of this other boat as it bumped over the water, and everything was now fine.

Halfway through our journey we made a lunch stop and it was nice to get out and stretch our legs. There were a few other stops along the way too, just to pick up or drop off people at the little villages that appeared out of the forest every once in a while. There were quite many other boats on the river too, just little dugout canoes many of them. With no roads connecting the villages out here it was obvious that the river worked as the means of transportation for the people, as it must have always done.

Not sure she really thought this through.

By mid-afternoon we were in Nuevo Rocafuerte and a little disappointed to be, as without the cooling breeze generated by the movement of the boat it was actually a lot hotter on land. Our first enquiries naturally concerned the whereabouts of our bicycles, of which there was worryingly no sign. Juliet and Alfredo, who we’d realised were a slightly different kind of traveller to us, had gone off to talk with some other Latin American travellers who were selling homemade bracelets and things at the side of the street. So I took on the responsibility of tracking down the bikes, and was led by our boat captain to a nearby yard, where I was relieved to find the bikes safely stored behind a fence.

The next task was to cycle to immigration, which was at the other end of the quiet town (there was basically no traffic here, lovely). When we’d bought our tickets back in Coca we’d been told that the immigration in Nuevo Rocafuerte wasn’t operating and we should get our Ecuadorian exit stamps before leaving Coca. This had meant a three kilometre walk to an out-of-town immigration building, where they had refused to stamp our passports, and told us we actually could do it in Nuevo Rocafuerte after all. Now we were in Nuevo Rocafuerte and tracking down immigration, which consisted of one young guy in a house. He told us he didn’t have any stamps, but he took a photo of our passports and said he’d send it to the immigration back in Coca, where he was quite sure they would process it. Of course they would. Without stamps in our passports once again we just had to trust everything would be okay.

After eating rice and eggs at a little restaurant, Dea and I went to sit on the riverfront in the evening. There was no traffic about, but quite a few people who came out to enjoy the cooler evening air and sit and hang out. There was a nice atmosphere here, and we felt safe enough to camp out in front of the church, a covered roof meaning we could leave the flysheet off the tent to keep cool.

We were up again bright and early, for we needed to be back at the boat for 7:30. This time there were hardly any passengers, and our bikes were allowed to travel with us. It was just a short ride across the border, and in less than an hour we were pulling up at Pantoja, Peru. This was a similarly small town, but plenty of people were around to watch us arrive. One of them was the immigration man, who directed us to come up a steep hill to have our passports processed. At the top was an immigration building, outside of which was a small troop of soldiers from the nearby military base, standing in formation. We weren’t sure if they were here for our benefit or if they always did this, but within a few moments of our arrival they began marching in unison, an impressive show of military might. Well, for about thirty seconds. Halfway back to their base and still within full view of us they stopped marching and started walking casually chatting, but it was good while it lasted.

The immigration man was very friendly and gave us no hassle about not having an exit stamp from Ecuador, welcoming us to Peru and giving us both 90 days to enjoy it. We then had a long, relaxed day ahead of us in Pantoja. We soon confirmed with some locals that another fast boat to Iquitos would be leaving the following morning. This would take a day and a half to reach the big city of the rainforest. If we preferred there would be a slow cargo boat leaving the day after that would take five days. No, we did not prefer that, especially when said boat arrived in Pantoja later that day. It looked crowded with people, hot, smelly, and loud music was pumping out from it. We knew it would be much less pleasant than the fast boat. We also knew we were going to have to take such a boat south from Iquitos in order to get down to Pucallpa, so we thought we’d enjoy the more relaxing rapidos while we could. Juliet and Alfredo were not thinking the same way, and would wait for the slow boat. This was because it was cheaper, obviously, and led to me and Dea discussing how once upon a time we too would have opted for the more economical, less comfortable option. “Well, now we’re a different kind of traveller I guess, in our thirties, enjoying a bit of comfort. Nothing wrong with that.”

The rest of the day in Pantoja was a very relaxed affair, mostly spent lounging around in a covered pagoda thing. We were doing like the locals, who were in a similar state of heat-induced stupor. It was a nice place again, with some kids playing a game of throwing a plastic bottle upstream and diving in the river to catch it as it came past, and everyone else doing very little. No one paid too much attention to us at all. Travelling along these waterways has become an increasingly popular activity for backpackers and nobody was at all surprised to see our European faces, though everyone was very friendly. Once again we chose to make camp under a covered area so that there would be no need to put on the flysheet of the tent.

It was an even earlier start the following morning, and we were forced to pack up in the dark and make our way down to the boat at four a.m. to meet our captain and depart for the next leg of our journey. It was very dark, and as a result we didn’t pack everything up quite right, but this was something we would not realise until it was too late.

The good news was that the bikes would be safely on board the boat again, and it was a similarly comfortable boat with leather seats and a breeze coming in as we zipped off into the sunrise. It’s alright being in your thirties really. This boat made even more stops than the last one, with people hopping on and off, sometimes transporting big bunches of bananas or live chickens with them. Occasionally a smaller boat would call us to a stop to deliver people or things on board. At one point a woman with a small child crashed into us with her dugout canoe just to pass a piece of mail to the captain, presumably with a request for it to be posted in Iquitos.

Our vessel.
Glad we werent on this one.

The little settlements along the river seemed nice, with big grassy areas where the forest was removed to place buildings of wood with thatched roofs. It was simple living, of course, but there was clearly great pride taken in making things presentable and nice. The river itself was wide, with a colour that was difficult to define. It was a muddy brown to look directly down at it, but in places it looked green from the reflection of the band of continuous trees on each bank, in places a grey-blue from the sky. We had hoped to see river dolphins, and indeed we spotted many along the way, although they were all actually trees half submerged in the water that looked like dolphin fins. We reached a bigger town an hour before sunset and everyone walked up to a basic hotel that was included in the price of this boat ticket. Once again we would have to be up very early, so we settled in for an early night.

Our alarm woke us at 3:40 a.m., as we had been told the boat left again at four. Surprisingly all the other hotel rooms were empty, and we were worried we’d got the time wrong and everyone had gone without us. We hurried down to the boat but it was closed up and dark. A little after four the captain emerged from within and we got on board, to find all the other passengers sleeping in their seats, having, for reasons we couldn’t fathom, got back on the boat at three.

It was raining and the canvas sides of the boat remained down all of the way to Mazan, which we arrived at around eleven. Here everyone had to get off the boat and take moto-taxis a few kilometres overland to the Amazon River, to avoid following the much-more circuitous route of the winding Napo River, which would take many hours by boat before flowing into the Amazon. Dea and I had been told that we could cycle over, but now, as we hurried to get our stuff off the boat, the captain informed Dea that they would not be able to wait for us after all, and so we would have to find our own boat the rest of the way to Iquitos. This naturally put us out a bit, especially as we knew it was only three and a half kilometres over to the Amazon, and we set off cycling fast in order to try and get there before the boat could leave without us.

It was kind of a cool place to cycle, a surprisingly populated place, with lots of simple homes and smiling kids. The road was really just a concrete path through the forest, the only other vehicles were moto-taxis. We went as fast as we could, but it wasn’t really very fast, and at one point we had to stop to look at monkeys, and we reached the other side to find no trace of the boat. The water was very low though, and there was very little trace of anything, so we asked a man standing nearby. He told us that there wasn’t enough water here, and the boats were actually leaving from Indiana, ten kilometres down the river, now. That made sense why the captain said he couldn’t wait for us to cycle there. Now we certainly hoped he wasn’t waiting for us!

We had to backtrack all of the way to Mazan and then ride southeast on a path that was uncomfortably busy with those moto-taxis. We eventually made it to Indiana, a bustling little town where a lot of passenger boats were lined up waiting to take people to Iquitos. Our bikes and most of our bags were stowed on the roof, and then we had to wait until the boat was full. The captain wasn’t going anywhere until every seat, including the front step, was occupied, and then we headed off for the final hour ride to Iquitos. We had barely had a chance to realise it, but we were now travelling on the actual proper Amazon River. Super cool stuff.

The Amazon!
Just heading to Iquitos with a chicken and a tortoise.

Iquitos did not make a great first impression. We stepped off the boat onto a wooden platform and had to somehow get our bikes and bags across a long series of wooden planks and up a lot of steps. Around us were very basic wooden homes that were basically floating on the water, which was completely full of trash. There seemed to be quite a few people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, and when we did eventually get all our stuff up to street level we were confronted with an unbelievably noisy street filled entirely with moto-taxis. Iquitos is the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road, and it was to be our home for the next thirteen nights. The first part of our river journey was complete.

One thought on “#116: Taking the Napo River from Coca to Iquitos

  1. Carlos

    Obviously it’s too late now but from Mazán you could have gone to a research station deep in the jungle (part of Explorama lodges) where you can spend the night in basic huts and they have an amazing canopy walk. We went there a couple of years ago and it was the highlight of our trip to the Amazonas, next to night walks in the jungle. Keep safe.

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