Let me introduce you to the floating Prison that, in the end, we truly loved. We were one of the lucky few to travel from Pucallpa to Iquito by boat, a cargo boat to be more precise. 5 Days we spent on the Amazon river and this post focusses on the experience: what can you expect when you do an Amazon River trip. It is part of a series of three posts, of which the others give you an extensive packing list and all the practical information you need to go from Pucallpa to Iquitos by boat.
If you are prepared to be slightly uncomfortable, you will be rewarded by one of the most authentic experiences in Peru.
- Trip: Pucallpa to Iquitos by boat
- Transport: Cargo Boat
- Duration: 96 hours
- Date: 30-08-2018
My friends told me about this cargo boat: from Pucallpa to Iquitos by boat, sleeping in a hammock, cruising the Amazon for 5 days. We had no idea what to expect, but it sounded like an adventure. So, por qué no? It truly was one of the most out of my comfort zone travel experiences and, in all honesty, I felt quite nervous the days before we would leave: how was I going to survive 5 days of nothing to do? Accordingly, the true answer when people ask how it was would, therefore, be: I hated the first 1,5 days and loved the remaining 3,5. Man, how we struggled the first day….
Day 0 – The first night
It started by being ripped off by the tuctuc driver at the harbor when he decided halfway through the journey to increase the price from the agreed 5 soles to 10. (Drivers, they really are the same everywhere in the world) Next, followed refusing the intense hammock sellers at the harbor. We asked about the departure time of the driving prison to be: yay we would leave today at 6 pm. We hurried to the market to buy an impressive quantity of food and hammocks for 4 people… (We summarized what we brought in a cargo boat packing list for you)
Back at the boat, we needed to make camp, but we were late. There were hardly any places left, certainly not for four people next to each other. Two kind Peruvians moved a little bit, such that we by accident got a great spot: at one of the blue tables (nice for dinners) and far away enough from the engine (loud, smelly and hot). We did, however, only have 3 meters for 4 chicas, but hey! Better your friend’s ass against your leg than that of a stranger. Hanging a hammock, that was a first as well. The benefit of the situation was that we provided some good entertainment for the people around us and that we were so hopeless that in the end, our neighbors hung the hammocks for us.
Let’s go to Iquitos!
The heat that we had so much longed for in Lima, was already no longer fun. We were excited when the boat left at 5 pm, an hour earlier than we expected. So much for Latin non-punctuality. In minutes we felt a pleasant breeze and saw stunning Jungle scenery. We even made a little “friend” Robin, a small 12-year-old, and his sister Marcella (later called foxy) with whom we played Tic Tac Toe. Laying in our hammocks, we were excited: we were on our way! And then the boat got stuck.
And then the boat got stuck...
It was the dry season, so the river was shallow and with no digital radar system finding the right route was kind of hit and miss. And we missed it. Goodbye to the wind, hello to the mosquitos. Accordingly, the insects bit us while we tried to figure out the cueing for the toilets at the back of the boat. The WC was a toilet-shower combination, which turned an already unpleasant, small room into a steaming sweatbox. At the first day you don’t get dinner, so a tin of tuna bought at the kiosk and a tomato had to suffice. And like that, after 8 pm there was nothing to do but sleep or to try to at least. Without the breeze, our ill constructed mosquito nets and lack of space we sweated like beavers (Joe’s favorite phrase #RememberDevvo?) and woke up about 20 times
Day 1 – Adjusting… Big time.
Bye Bye Wine
The advantage of going to bed at 8 pm is that you wake up bloody early and you can watch the sunrise at 5 am without a problem. It was stunning, a good beginning of a very challenging day. This started at breakfast when my friend could not find her camping cutlery set, or her sunglasses, or her Rip Curl hat. The first had been in a bag on the floor, the latter outside of her hammock at night. Now they were in the hands of an unknown Peruvian. The bigger shock happened when we wanted to shower after our chicken soup breakfast, and we realized that our new soap ánd a bottle of red wine (shock horror) was gone!
Our new soap ánd red wine was gone
Our disappointment was grand: even your semi-valuables were not safe. We were sure it was the children. Them hanging around our premises no longer was innocent but rather annoying. We did not want to talk to anyone anymore. Add this to the heat and that time passed slowly. It was a bad day with a lot of adjusting to do. Why did we decide to go from Pucallpa to Iquitos by boat, why did we not just fly? But the biggest surprise happened in the evening when we arrived at Contamana.
All of a sudden the boat was bustling with activity, ladies entered the boat screaming “Hay pan”, “Hay cake”, “Hay refrescos”. No one had prepared us for this assortment of food for 1 sol. But our excitement quickly died out when we saw that not only the sellers entered, but also more passengers. Our assessment of “no space left” was made from a western need-for-space perspective. To Peruvians, there was plenty of space! Just hang yourself above another mat or in the 30 cm left between another pair.
We panicked. Our camp was the only thing saving us from the stares, the thieves. It was our safe space, and it needed protection. Now we understood why other blogs told us to “stake your place”. So, we sat down between our hammocks, played cards, drunk our only remaining bottle of wine. This could not go on much longer anyway. Wrong, wrong, wrong. More and more people entered. Now people even hung hammocks in the gangway: we had a whole class of kids occupying our once beloved bench with view on the river. We were sitting there like cattle: cramped, hot and unhappy. This really does feel like a driving prison.
Day 2, 3 – Accepting the new reality
Read, Eat, Sleep, Repeat
With these many people in the boat obscuring the view, the only way to see outside was by actually going outside. This is how the course of our trip changed. Being outside, the wind was stronger, relieving the heat for a while. And although the shoreline only changes gradually, it is always stunning. We slowly started accepting our new prison life. Do you hear the bell? Line up with your Tupperware and boat ticket to get yourself a serving of carbs (see practical information). Watch your stuff and accept you have no privacy. Lower your (sometimes ridiculous) Western standards concerning hygiene and space and you settle with the fact that time goes slow: eat, read, sleep, repeat, eat, read, sleep, repeat.
Losing track of time
“Time is a particular concept,” one blog wrote, and it certainly is. When we would feel like lunch was about to be served, it would only be 11 am. But once we got used to it, it was blissful. Laying in your hammock, going outside for a while, sleeping a bit without feeling bad because there literally is nothing else to do. And now, having accepted our fate, we started interacting again. We started recognizing faces.
Take the smiley guy, who helped us buy the boat tickets, or Robin our small thief, or the mother with the two beautiful little girls one of which was a baby and constantly walked through the boat with her stone-cold poker face. The Brazilian family whose oldest son tried to talk to us all the time. Or the school class (trying to impress each other) accompanied by their kind teacher. Our private neighbors, who did save my friend’s book from being nicked by putting it up in our backpack hammock after she fell asleep.
Time is a particular concept
It was special being part of something so pure, so Peruvian, so not touristic.
The Peruvian Experience
This was our new crew, our new amigos. And just observing them was the best part of the trip. All of a sudden there would erupt a clothes sale behind us or the school class would start playing music and everyone started dancing. At some point, a girl began giving pedicures, and later, she gave a Mary Kay cosmetics workshop. Or seeing poker-face baby getting a bath in the sink with a beautiful view over the river, which melted our hearts. It was special being part of something so pure, so Peruvian, so not touristic. This boat trip really gave us a chance to look into the lives of normal Peruvians and this was our new reality.
Day 4, 5 – Enjoying every second
Theft on the Amazon Express
I returned from my four-day sunrise streak when the smiley guy was not smiling anymore, the tension in the boat was high: people were gossiping, looking angry or upset. 6 phones were stolen in the night, among which the one of smiley guy. We dodged a bullet! Our camp and sleeping arrangements had worked out! We had hung our backpacks above our hammocks, a very unstable construction. Seeing them slam to the floor twice a day made no one want to touch them. Add the mosquito nets, which made it impossible to reach into our hammocks, and you have a safe haven.
Still, though we found ourselves in a CSI scene while we were eating our breakfast chicken soup. The whole boat got searched and questioned under the lead of the captain. The only other gringo on the boat (they call you this openly in your face constantly), a French guy, woke up to see the Brazilian kid rooting through his bag. Who quickly disappeared and now was nowhere to be found… But it’s a boat, so he and the phones could never be far. Fortunately, the phones were found back in the cargo on the second deck and like that the equilibrium returned to normal, people were smiling again as if nothing happened.
Our trip was almost coming to an end and that gave us mixed feelings. Now that I had really accepted our new reality, our floating prison started feeling like our home and I could easily have stayed another week. Every day, we would discover something new. Like the route that was completely drawn out by the captains. That the boat is navigated completely without technology, we found out when we were invited in the ‘cockpit’ and were allowed to steer the boat. But also new places like the roof or the front deck, a new surprise every day.
The conversation with the captains is only one example of meaningful and fun conversations that I had on the boat. There were so many more beautiful moments, like drawing portraits with the children (the non-stealing ones) at the other side of the table or a conversation with a single mom of a baby of one-year-old about gender equality in Peru. All of the conversations were in Spanish though, because English speaking people are scarce the Amazon. So, make sure that you have a really good offline dictionary (SpanishDict) and already some knowledge of the Spanish language, because you have about 200 language buddies to practice with!
Pucallpa to Iquitos by boat, we did it!
The closer we got to Iquitos, the more the weather worsened resulting in a tropical rainstorm. It reflected our mood: how we were going to miss this magical place! We would miss the nice people, the real enjoyment of every little moment, the beautiful sunsets and sunrises (I keep repeating this, but really, just indescribable), and the good conversations. Even sleeping in a hammock was comfortable now and the shower once a day a true blessing.
In the end we could say we did it: We went from Pucallpa to Iquitos by Boat. But this trip truly had two faces. Admittedly the first day was hard. However, after accepting our new reality, it was simply amazing. Accordingly, it was an experience that I had not wanted to miss for anything in the world. If you are prepared to let go of what you know and get very, very uncomfortable, then this is the best activity to do in Peru.
Make sure to check out our other posts about the cargo boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos too 🙂
What to bring on your trip by cargo boat trough the Peruvian Amazon.
All you need to know about your cruise on the amazon by cargo boat