When I was in Honduras last year, I met a guy that told me this amazing story about taking a boat for days down the Amazon River. Sleeping in a hammock, seeing the scenery of the jungle wind by, and experiencing the tiny villages along the river banks just sounded like magic to me. If you’ve been following my journey for long you probably already know that’s exactly what I did.
There are plenty of places to head off into the Amazon Rainforest whether in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, or Bolivia. I chose the northern section of Peru for a couple of reasons. First I wanted to see the actual Amazon River. There are hundreds of tributaries all feeding into the river but I wanted to see the greatness of the river as they all come together. Second, there was the mystic of Iquitos. It’s a rather large city deep in the Amazon of Peru and is the largest city in the world that cannot be accessed by any roads. To get there you only have two options, plane or boat.
Taking the Less Traveled Route into the Peruvian Amazon
Most people who visit the Amazon Jungle in Peru fly to Iquitos and book a tour with up to 20 more Gringos for a few days. If I was on a short timeline I might have opted to go this route, but at the moment I have all the time in the world to travel (well until the money runs out) and I’m always in search of the authentic experiences rather than the typical tourist fare.
I was already in the Andes Mountains visiting some amazing places around Cajamarca and Chachapoyas (Keulap, City of the Dead, Karija) and though I’d heard warnings about the roads between Cajamarca and Chachapoyas and then between Chachapoyas and Tarapoto, I knew this was the route I had to take to get off the Gringo Trail and see the real Peruvian Amazon.
Tarapoto to Yurimaguas by Car, Yurimaguas to Lagunas by Boat, Lagunas to Iquitos by Boat
Arriving in Tarapoto was a shock to the system after being in the Andes for weeks. All of a sudden it was hot, humid, and downright miserable walking with my backpacks. From Tarapoto we took a combi (shared taxi) to the small town of Yurimaguas on the banks of the Huallgas River, one of the many tributaries feeding the massive Amazon River. It is one of two places where you can start a boat trip to Iquitos (the other being Pucallpa).
Luckily I had joined up with another backpacker in Chachapoyas who had the scoop on the best place to enter the jungle away from the crowds. About a day’s float down the river from Yurimaguas is the town of Lagunas. It sits at the base of the Pacaya Samiria National Jungle Reserve, the largest protected area in Peru, and is almost void of tourists. So instead of heading straight for Iquitos, we decided to stay off the Gringo Trail and venture off into Lagunas.
If you’re picture a lovely little river cruise down the Amazon, you’re sorely mistaken. The boats are mostly for shipping freight down the river with space for passengers to hang hammocks and tag along for the ride. From Yurimaguas to Lagunas (about 30 Soles) we spent the better part of a day on the boat lounging in hammocks and studying the tiny villages along the riverbanks. I enjoyed the ride but plenty of people, including my travel mate were going stir crazy by the end of the day.
From Yurimaguas you can also get a boat directly to Iquitos which is a larger freighter with more space for passengers. This ride takes 3-4 days, if you’re lucky. Since we stopped in Lagunas we broke up the trip and caught this boat when it stopped there. Unfortunately for the passengers that were already aboard the boat, they’d already had 2-3 days on the boat instead of the typical one. The boat had apparently made it only a few hundred meters off shore when it got stuck due to the amount of cargo weight it was carrying. It took two days to get the boat loose and moving again…and no the passengers weren’t able to get off the boat even though they could clearly see the shore they’d just left. They were more than a bit rowdy by the time we joined them in Lagunas.
Pacaya Samiria National Jungle Reserve
Landing in Lagunas brought with it the normal craziness of walking into a waiting crowd and trying to find a hostel. I’ve come to really like the chaos of it all, unlike many who still book ahead or get nervous with all the haggling. Amid the crowd of people my friend and I were lucky enough to find a hostel and tour leaving first thing in the morning very quickly.
In the morning we were picked up by Miguel, who owns the small tour company in Lagunas, and climbed in the back of his uhhh motorcycle truck (think the front end of a motorcycle attached to a small truck bed) for the bumpy ride to the river and the start of our journey. Along the way we picked up our two guides for the trip, Octavio and Jovita, a lovely husband and wife couple who know the jungle and where to find the animals so much its impressive.
I don’t know what kind of canoe or boat I was expecting, but I certainly thought it would be a bit bigger. The 4 of us for 6 days in a canoe that was hollowed out from a tree trunk seemed a bit crazy starting out….and really it was, but also a pretty comfy way to get around. They put reeds in the bottom to sit on so we wouldn’t get wet by the water that would continually come into the boat and propped me up with bags of supplies to lounge on. Not bad really.
Winding down the river, butterflies flitting around us, interesting bird calls in the distance, and a general feeling of serenity surrounded us as we headed into the jungle. The first day was full of anticipation and excitement of what was to come.
During our 6 days, we saw so many animals, gorgeous birds, reptiles, spiders (big ugly hairy ones….one in our make shift shower!), bats, frogs, and of course felt the terror of clouds of mosquitoes having us for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I credit our guides with much of our sightings as most of the other people we met in our 6 days (there weren’t many) didn’t see near as much as we did and were in awe checking out our photos…honestly I still am too!
During the day we floated through the river in our canoe, sometimes winding through ‘short cuts’ in dense brush, getting out occasionally to walk through the jungle in search of wildlife. Our meals were mostly made up of the fish we caught in the river. I hadn’t fished since I was a kid so I was sooo impressed with myself when I caught a half dozen piranhas and some other fish with no more than a string and hook on the end of a piece of bamboo our guide cut from the jungle. If you’ve never had piranha I highly recommend it!
At night our accommodations varied greatly from quaint stilted riverside cabins with basic beds (horribly thin mattresses) to sleeping on reeds with only a basic roof overhead and a thin cushion below us. Thank God we also had mosquito nets or the very little sleep I got in the jungle would have been nonexistent. During the night the sounds of the jungle were all around. I remember thinking just how accurate those sleep sound machines are with the sounds of the Amazon Rainforest. The frogs come alive at dusk and turn the jungle into a symphony of sounds. The vampire bats swirl over head, coming far too close for comfort, and the mosquitoes are relentless in their attempts to bite us. I left the jungle covered from head to toe with mosquito bites and even a week later I’m still scratching. Tip: Even though you’re wearing clothes spray your rear with repellent…mother nature will call eventually and there’s nothing worse than walking around scratching your ass all day! Trust me…
On a couple of nights, when it was pitch black with darkness, we climbed back into our canoes after dinner to troll the waters for the crocodiles that come alive at night. Though more than a little difficult to get pictures of, we saw a bunch with at least a few that were as big as our canoe. It took a lot to stay calm knowing how close we were and that if these guys attacked there would be nothing we could do.
The variety of animals was amazing. When I entered the Amazon there was wildlife I really hoped to see and aside from an anaconda and a puma, I saw them all. My favorite was definetely the sloth. I had only seen them on TV before and never with the awesome designs in their fur. They really are incredibly slow when they move and just amazing to watch.
Some of my best photos from the week are below. I hope you’ll share which is your favorite!