Human Cargo on the Slow Boat to Iquitos

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

Jesse and I didn’t plan anything in Peru beyond our first two hostels in Lima and Huaraz, which would get us through a week and half. Beyond Huaraz, we weren’t quite sure where we would go or what we would do. We wanted to go to the Amazon in South America, but didn’t have time for Brazil. Most people don’t know, (us included at first) but Peru also hosts part of the Amazon river and jungle. We didn’t get much time to research much before we left, so when we were extra early for our flight out of Dallas we both jumped onto our laptops and raced through webpages of tourist and travel ideas for Peru. This is when we learned about Iquitos and the Peruvian Amazon.


There are only two ways to get to Iquitos; by plane or by boat. It sits in northern Peru on the Amazon river and at first we figured we would just fly there, but minutes before the final boarding call to our first flight we stumbled upon an article that talked about the slow boat to Iquitos. This “boat” was really a barco, or a cargo boat that shipped live animals and products up and down the river. It offered passage to humans who were willing to sleep in hammocks on the deck between boxes of fruit and who knows what else, eat the mushy soup on deck with the crew, and use a bathroom with somewhat filtered river water. Doesn’t this sound glamorous? Maybe not entirely, but the allure of living like the locals and relaxing on an Amazon “river cruise” for three days with nothing but time to relax and admire your surroundings was so alluring to Jesse and me. There was no time to read any follow up articles or searching. We boarded the plane with the boat on our minds. We were hooked.


After hours of research during our first week in Peru, we weren’t much more informed about the slow boat than we were from the first article we read before leaving. It would cost between 90-100 soles per person, or about 30 dollars for 3 nights, all meals included. You needed to buy/bring a hammock and straps if you planned to sleep on the deck or could pay more for a cabin (they were all occupied by the crew anyways so I wouldn’t plan on a cabin if you plan to take the boat.) Food was included but water was not, and you needed to bring your own utensils and Tupperware. The article I read said “you’ll never have to wait more than a day or two to catch a boat” from the port in Yurimaguas.


This wasn’t much to go off of, but at this point, we no longer cared about Iquitos. As cliché as it sounds, it was no longer about the destination, but about the journey. We were sold on riding this slow boat down the Amazon for the sake of riding down the Amazon. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever traveled simply for the sake of traveling, not just as a means to get somewhere. It was a nice change and we were ready for the adventure.


We followed what little information we found online. We took an overnight bus to Tarapoto from Trujillo. It is worth mentioning that Trujillo was one of our least favorite places. We only stopped here though because it was the only place that had buses to Tarapoto and from Huaraz, which is where we were at the time.


Once in Tarapoto, we took a collective to Yurimaguas. Read all about the saga HERE in Jesse’s post about the road trip leading to Yurimaguas. Once we arrived we headed straight to the port and tried to find a hostel or travel agency or ticket office or somewhere that could give us more information about the slow boat. The town seemed deserted and there wasn’t much to see. It was by far the most run down of towns we had seen so far and hostels that looked decent seemed nonexistent most of the walk to the port. We stumbled upon one and asked her if she had any information about the boat. Of course she didn’t but she had a friend who worked in the port who she could call to get more information for us.


Wilson showed up to the hostel about 10 minutes later with the news that the last boat left earlier that day (it was Saturday) and the next boat wasn’t leaving until Wednesday afternoon. I felt so betrayed by the trusty article I read in the DFW airport. Our flight left Iquitos on the following Friday night. I’m not math wizard, but I knew that there was no way we could take a 3 night boat on Wednesday with enough time to fly out of Iquitos on Friday. The devastation began.


Have no fear though! Wilson to the rescue. Wilson knew of a fast boat to Nauta (the main port that the slow boat stopped the day before Iquitos) that took about 12 hours, ran his own jungle tour in Nauta, and could get us on another fast boat from Nauta to Iquitos after the jungle tour that would have us back in Iquitos with plenty of time before our Friday evening flight. This wasn’t what I wanted at all. Hammocks on the slow boat > jungle tour any day. The jungle sounded great, but Jesse and I were amazed by the jungle in Costa Rica on our honeymoon. Frankly the only reason we had journeyed this way and this far was to take the slow boat. We took an overnight bus from Huaraz to Trujillo, spent two nights in Trujillo (because the buses were sold out,) took an overnight bus from Turjillo to Tarapoto, and the nightmare of the collective to Yurimaguas for a total of 4 days just to get here and find out that nope, you actually can’t take the slow boat to Iquitos. We didn’t care about the jungle or Iquitos at this point and were pretty upset. We got Wilson’s contact information, but just wanted some fresh air. It was certainly the lowest point so far (and in all of our time in Peru for that matter.)


We moped around the streets and Main Square and were quickly approached by a man, Michael, in a bright orange port vest who asked if we needed information on the boats to Iquitos. Relief flooded over me and we quickly explained that we wanted to take the slow boat to Iquitos and asked if the next boat really wasn’t leaving until Wednesday. It was like someone erected a huge wall in front of my face and the waves of disappointment came crashing back at me when he confirmed that yes, the next boat did in fact leave on Wednesday. He tried to sell us some of the same information that Wilson spit out earlier, but our souls were crushed and we pushed past him to find some dinner. While looking for a place to eat, we ran into Michael about 3 more times at very different spots in the city with 3 more sales pitches on his tour in Nauta. On the third try we learned that he and Wilson were business partners. We politely said thanks, but no thanks and our stomachs with some food while trying to settle our minds around the fact that we needed to make other plans to get to Iquitos.


Dinner was whole fried fish from the river, my first time eating whole fried fish. I had no idea what I was doing and ended up pulling spines out of my mouth with every bite. Jesse and the locals all had a good laugh.




With full stomachs and slightly improved spirits, we headed back the hostel to try and decide our next steps. After an hour without progress Jesse found a second port area on the map and we decided to walk down and ask around about the slow boat as a last ditch effort. We met one nice kid who told us that we needed to go farther down the port and ask there, but he also thought that the boats were all gone for the next couple of days. We had nothing to lose at this point and were pretty desperate so we kept walking until we came up to another section of the port that had a tiny office with the name of the slow boat Eduardo on it (which was supposedly the slow boat we wanted) and a man locking up for the night. For my final attempt, I asked when the next slow boat left for Iquitos.


His answer?


Tomorrow morning.


Seriously?


Yes.


That wall crumbled down and we were so giddy that all of our travel smarts went out the door. He told us that the boat was leaving from Copan. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying so I asked him to write it on a piece of paper. When I asked how to get there he said don’t worry just hail down a tuk tuk driver and show him the paper, he will know where to go.


Potential mistake #1.


Then when I asked him where to buy hammocks, he said follow me around the corner. It was brightly lit and there were a handful of local men sitting outside drinking by the water so it seemed safe enough. He brought us to his friends’ riverside store that sold hammocks, snacks, water, and anything else you might need for the trip. He showed us the hammocks and although they looked pretty, they looked small and not of the best quality. I asked if they had a bigger one for Jesse. When he said no, he unfolded the first hammocks he showed us and said it was plenty big. Have you seen Jesse? I seriously had my doubts that he would fit in this hammock, but it was about 10 PM and so far we had reached nothing but dead ends. I had my doubts but Jesse said “If we are going to do it then screw it, get it while you can.” We were so excited about taking this slow boat that common sense went out the window and we bought the hammocks and straps. We paid entirely too much for them, but we didn’t care since the possibility of buying hammocks the next morning were slim to none. All smiles here.


Potential mistake #2.


We were all smiles with the knowledge that the slow boat was actually happening. Upon returning to the hostel however, we googled the port he wrote down and came up with absolutely nothing in our search; we were back to square one. Maybe not entirely because the guy sounded like he knew what he was talking about, but since google couldn’t produce anything about Puerto copan, our fate lied in the many tuk tuk drivers that would cross by our hostel in the morning and hopefully know what copan meant.


The next morning we snagged some fresh bread from a bakery and hailed a tuk tuk. He seemed to know what the little piece of paper with Copan on it meant so we blindly put our faith in him and off we went. About 15 minutes later in a much more rural neighborhood, those doubts were building back up and we wondered what on earth we just got ourselves into. I said a little prayer, threw my hail mary with all the power my arm had left and voila, we entered the very large and established Puerto CopaM with an M not an N. Side note: even after the trip, google still came up with almost close to nothing about Puerto Copam and when barcos were leaving. We also later learned that the boat was supposed to leave from the main Yurigmaguas port the afternoon before, but was delayed and also switched to this port for a morning departure on Sunday, the day we left.


Copan, Copam, no me importa nada mas, hemos llegado.




An elderly gentleman greeted us at the gate and walked down with us to the boat. We had a feeling he would ask for some sort of tip or something for showing us the way, but there were multiple boats and we were clueless as to which boat to take. I could have figured it out, but he was nice and we made it, so what the hell, we entertained his chit chat. Once we got on the boat he helped us put our hammocks up side by side and had us test them out. Mine seemed fine enough, but Jesse’s was already looking worse for the wear. He did a slow roll to sit down in the hammock, inching himself back slowly and at about 50% body weight, we could all hear the threads of the hammock start to tear. This is what he had been afraid of when we bought them. He sat down perfectly still, lifted up one foot in slow motion to make sure his weight was distributed as evenly as possible across the hammock. One leg down, one to go. As soon as he lifted the second foot up to slide into the hammock, the entire thing broke and Jesse fell to floor. We weren’t exactly anywhere near hammocks R-US and this was his bed for the night three nights so we were a bit screwed. Luckily for us, the guy who helped us find the boat was still milling about. He went and talked to the crew and had to beg the cook on board to let Jesse rent a hammock from him while we were on board. I wasn’t involved in this interaction but from what Jesse said the cook was not happy to loan his hammock. The guy helping us nudged him though and basically said seriously? His hammock already broke and the boat hasn’t even left yet. He relinquished the hammock eventually and Jesse was blessed with quite possibly the best hammock on board. I was jealous, but happy that he at least had a bed for the trip.


Note: If you see a hammock like the one I am laying on, DO NOT BUY IT. Another guy on our boat bought this same one and it broke the second day. Mine creaked the entire boat ride, which was nerve racking every time I was in my hammock. I was worried about if it would hold instead of relaxing into it.




We were finally settled and starting to relax in the hammocks when guess who shows up? Michael. The same guy we saw multiple times around town last night. You know, the one who told us the next boat didn’t leave until Wednesday? He showed up on the boat, glad to see us and STILL tried to sell us his tour. He had to be out of his mind thinking I would take his tour after misleading us about missing the last boat. He clearly knew what he was doing we and clearly weren’t going on any tour with him.


By noon men were still loading up the boat, squeezing crates of this and that into every available corner. They even had to ask the last 5 hammocks to move at one point because they needed extra cargo space and helped people find small slices of personal space to hang up their hammocks among the already crowed living quarters. Luckily our space remained intact and without extra roommates. We arrived at 7:15 and watched the crew make countless trips loading the boat. We were graced with views of egg, orange, apple, and avocado crates to our right, hammocks to our left, a loud pet rooster in front of us thanks to our fellow guests, and a beautiful view of the murky Amazon waters behind us. The bottom deck contained a packed crate of cows that were all backed up onto each other like it was high school homecoming and Little John’s “Get Low” had just come on the speakers. Except the smell was twice as bad as it was at the end of homecoming in the gym.




Without any notice the boat left Puerto Copam at 2 pm and slowly began it’s trip down the river.



We spent most of the first afternoon and evening lounging in our hammocks, reading, and enjoying the sunset on the open top deck of the boat. Dinner was a light soup with one potato slice, a few straggling noodles, and a small slice of chicken. We brought a local spice shaker just in case the food had no flavor, but despite its looks, the flavor of the soup was pretty good.



My favorite part after departing from the port was watching the gorgeous sunset, which was followed by star gazing with our new French couple friends on the top deck while we shared our Pisco bottle that we brought on board.



Our wakeup call the next morning was most certainly the rooster nestled by our backpacks about 2 feet from my head, and breakfast was served shortly thereafter. The cook rings a bell and everyone scrambles to find their Tupperware or bowls that they brought on board, makes a line, and awaits their servings. It was a light cinnamon oatmeal soup and 2 pieced of bread with a thin layer of butter. We supplemented this with a jelly packet and thick granola oatmeal we brought with us. The sight of the liquid soup may have made you turn an eye away from our bowls, but the taste was actually quite good. Now, I definitely didn’t finish all of my helping, but it was much better than expected.


We learned from the locals that if you don’t finish, you throw what you don’t want overboard and then make your way to the two sinks in the bathrooms to wash out your Tupperware in the sink. The same sink that is used to wash your hands or teeth. The same sink that is run with “filtered” river water. No, I didn’t use this water to brush my teeth, but I did like the locals and rinsed our bowls in the sink. Some nice grandma let me use some of her soap to get a better clean. While I was washing our bowls, the captain came in the bathroom and grabbed the rubbish bins from the two bathroom stalls. In South America, sewage systems are weak at best and you can’t throw any paper down the toilet, so everyone’s paper from the past day was in these two bins. I wasn’t sure what he was doing at first, but to my dismay he casually walked to the side of the boat and effortlessly tossed the trash into the river without even blinking an eye. I was absolutely appalled at the lack of environmental concern, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Trash is everywhere. EVERYWHERE in the streets in Peru and why would the river be any different?


After breakfast we headed to the top deck while we were stopped for a big drop off and delivery and did some yoga to none other than Odesza for an uninterrupted thirty minutes. It was incredibly peaceful and much needed. Soon though, our French friends Emilia and Roman came up and were snapping away with their camera in the water. Why you might ask? Wild dolphins were all around the boat jumping in and out of the water. Of course we stopped yoga and joined the dolphin watch crew around the deck. The yoga was nice, but I was grateful that Emilia interrupted us because we were missing so much!


There were all kinds of small boats in the water picking up and dropping off. One boat filled with freshly caught fight saddled up right next to the cook’s cabin and tossed up a bag of large fish he just put together. In exchange the cook tossed down a large pack of cookies. I’m not quite sure who got the better deal there, both looked delicious. Sadly though, I know those fish weren’t for the passengers. I confirmed this later on when the chef was eating three large fish and nothing else for lunch.



Later that day we read more and relaxed in hammocks. By this point, Jesse had become one with his hammock and wouldn’t get up for anything unless the cook rang a bell or he needed the restroom. I tried to get him up once or twice but wasn’t very successful. I napped in the afternoon to sounds kids running around the deck and playing. This boat was the Mecca of hide and seek and their laughter was infectious.


Lunch was pasta, rice, some type of sweet potato-ish starch and a small piece of chicken. Again, I was expecting worse. It didn’t need any of the shake that we brought with us. The crew actually picked up lunch at our stop that morning. Eat locally.


During lunch we were saying how nice an Inca Cola soda would be. It’s this local yellow Peruvian soda that tastes absolutely nothing like it looks. The first time we sipped from the bottle our taste buds were hit with the bubble gum flavor gum you chewed at ball games as a kid. Not at all what we expected. Anyways, we were craving one. About 30 minutes after lunch, we made another stop and a group of 10 women and young girls came on board selling “cold” drinks and we found two overpriced Inca Colas that were so refreshing. It was perfect.


The rest of the afternoon consisted of more reading, relaxing, and watching the kids play. One girl had acquired two green parakeet birds at a previous stop and was showing them off like she was Captain Hook to anyone and everyone who would give her attention.


Eventually my favorite little girl came up and wanted to talk to me. She asked me if I spoke English and I said of course. Why was her next question as it would be for any child of that age. Why? Why? Why? It was okay, she was adorable and I didn’t mind. Because people where I live speak English of course. She thought this was funny and continued to engage in conversation with me. In the middle of talking a HUGE storm dropped from the sky all of a sudden and the crew rushed to pull the tarps over the side of the boat. She asked me about where I was going and I told her that Jesse and I are traveling around the world for a year to see everything that we could. Her response was like that of an 80 year old man. She thought deeply for a minute before saying in Spanish, “Good.” Long pause. “That’s really good to do that.”



We decided later that night to get off a day early in Nauta instead of Iquitos. The French couple did quite a bit of research and said that all of the best jungle tours leave from Nauta. They said most people go to Iquitos, book a tour, and then just come back to Nauta to start the tour anyways. Since we had a flight to Lima in a few days we figured we could use the extra day and got off in Nauta the next morning as well.




Within seconds of getting of the boat, a local came up to me and said Emily? I am waiting to pick you up for your jungle tour. Imagine my surprise. I was baffled. How on earth did he know my name and who was he? Once I shook my head off and asked him a few questions I realized who he was. Guess who? Michael’s cousin. HELL NO. We said no thank you and headed off to find a tourism office.


It wasn’t open until 9 and we had some time to kill so we walked around the local market and enjoyed some breakfast.


Once it opened, we realized that the guy was essentially a broker and he started walking us towards the tourism office. We happened to run into Emilia and Roman in the street; they had just come from the same office we were going to. Guess who again? Yep. Michael’s company. We immediately told the broker thank you but no thank you and teamed up with the French. It looked like we would have to go to Iquitos after all to find a tour. They hadn’t eaten yet so we brought them back to the market for breakfast round 2 and fresh squeezed orange juice before heading in a collectivo to Iquitos to begin our jungle tour search.


We settled on the first tour we found because it was the same price as all the tours the four of had collectively researched and at this point we wanted to walk around Iquitos, drink some beer, relax and call it a day. Yes, we had to go back to Nauta the next morning, but the tour was exactly what we wanted and the guide spoke English which was a blessing since Jesse doesn’t speak any Spanish.


What I liked most about this week is that we traveled for the sake of traveling, not to get to any particular destination. Yes, we were about to take a jungle tour, but as soon as we found out about the slow boat, the trip to Iquitos was about the trip, not Iquitos.


If you’re ever in Peru and have some time to spare, take the slow boat down the Amazon. Living like the locals is an experience that you will never forget.


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