“Unfortunately for us, it was a problem. A big problem.”
I never like to rush things when I travel. The longer I travel the less I like to rush. This is why I decided to skip Ecuador on my way down through South America, leaving more time for Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Unfortunately, there are not any easy or cheap ways to get from Colombia to Peru at the last-minute. The easiest option is to catch a 72 hour bus from Bogotá to Lima… but that really did not appeal to me, and it wasn’t even that cheap!
One destination I wanted to visit in Peru was Iquitos, which is deep in the amazon jungle. It impressively boasts being the largest city in the world not accessible by road, with a population of about 400,000 people. There are two ways to get there, one is to fly in from Lima. The other is the path less travelled, the option I decided to take. To catch a boat down the mighty Amazon river.
You can take a 13 hour speed boat from the small Colombian town of Leticia, which is located right on the intersection of the Peru, Colombia and Brazilian border. I worked out it would cost me the same to fly to Leticia, take the boat to Iquitos and then fly from Iquitos to Lima as it would for me to catch the bus from Bogotá and then fly to Lima and back, only this way would be a hell of a lot more of an adventure.
At the airport on my way to Leticia, I ran into a couple of friends who had been on the same boat as me a month back during my crossing from Panama to Colombia. They had the same idea as me for getting to Iquitos, so we teamed up. The flight from Bogotá to Leticia was about 2 and a half hours. After about half an hour we started flying over the edge of the Amazon Jungle, I was pretty slack-jawed for the rest of the flight. I didn’t know there were this many trees in the world. It looked like we were flying over the sea, everything was the same colour and it was NEVER ENDING. It seemed like the only way to differentiate it from flying over the ocean, was the occasional brown river snaking its way through the greenery.
I got off of the plane in Leticia and it became apparent immediately that we had gone over to a whole new world. This was definitely the most remote place I had ever been. Everything was overgrown, the air was so thick and humid you could probably have cut it with a knife. I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face. Leticia has a population or around 30,000 people. It was obvious it rained a lot there. It wasn’t a place I wanted to spend a lot of time, a day or two at the most.
There are 2 options for taking a boat to Iquitos. You can either take a speed boat, which take around 13 hours, or a slow boat which takes 2-3 days. The slow boat would have been fun; you have to buy yourself a hammock to sleep in and then negotiate a price with the boats which are leaving. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for this (Gah, this is why I hate rushing!!) so we took the speed boat. There was one leaving at 3am the next morning and the next one wasn’t for 4 days. This would have ruined all of my plans so it looks like an early start for us!
That evening there was a big football game on and Colombia was playing Peru, one of their biggest rivals. Colombia won the match, and the entire town came out to celebrate. This was my first taste of Latin American soccer enthusiasm. For over 2 hours a huge convey of cars and at least 2-300 scooters rode around the tiny town beeping, yelling and just celebrating their football loving pants off. It was an amazing sight for me.
The plan was to get up around 2am, go to the riverbank and then catch a boat across the river. The speedboat leaves from the other side (the Peru side) and the immigration office is over there too to give us the required entry stamps we needed. We had already obtained our Colombian exit stamps at the Leticia airport. From what we could determine through our broken Spanish and the lady at the hostel’s extremely broken English, this should be no problem.
Unfortunately for us, it was a problem. A big problem. We were walking through the deserted streets down to the riverbank where there were a lot of small boats moored alongside piers, jetties and boat houses. There were no people around. No ferry to take us across to the other side, no boats moving on the water. It was 2:30am, 30 minutes to go. We were half asleep and we had no idea what to do. For some reason there was a police officer sleeping in a chair nearby. He appeared to be sleeping quite deeply.
We eventually decided to try to wake him up and managed to do so with a bit of difficulty. He definitely was not excited about being woken up and we were not able to communicate to him what we needed to know. He promptly went back to sleep. The clock was ticking. The river was far, far wider than I had ever imagined too. We could not afford to miss this boat.
A scooter taxi arrived shortly after, as our panic started to increase. We told him we needed to get across to catch the speed boat. “no es possible” He informed us. It’s not possible. We couldn’t get across here unless we has pre-organised a boat and driver to take us. We would need to go down to the Brazilian side where there are water taxis waiting to take people. He offered to call 3 of his friends with scooters and they could take the 4 of us down there, it’s about 15 minutes away. The boat was scheduled to leave in about 15 minutes.
We debated what to do for a little while without a lot of hope. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, we see a small wooden boat approaching! A guy arrives behind us on the back of a scooter and gets off and starts walking over to it. Their boat is just big enough to take the extra 4 of us and our backpacks. JUST. For a fee of course….
Our spirits lift as we glide across the calm water of the biggest river I have ever seen. It’s a clear warm night and you can see thousands of stars in the sky. It was very dark with just a small light at the front of the boat so it was also pretty eerie. The top of the boat was about 2 inches above the water on either side since it was overloaded with us and all of our gear. I couldn’t help but think about what kind of things might be swimming under the murky water, and how easily the boat could tip. It made it even more exciting.
We arrived at the dock on the other side and gave our tickets to the conductor. He was dismayed to learn we did not have our passports stamped for entry yet. We followed him for a few minutes across some planks and over several questionable structures built on stilts over the water, until we came to a house. The immigration officers house. Where it turns out he was sleeping even deeper than the police officer we woke up earlier.
The conductor encouraged the 2 girls with us to call out to him and knock on his door and windows. They did, to no response. Anxiety increasing once again. He started calling out as well, so did we. Putting on our best “por favor“. It didn’t work. Eventually he yelled out that they don’t open until 7am and we would have to come back then. We had no choice but to keep trying, the boat was going to leave without us and we couldn’t get onto it without the stamps or we could have major issues when it came time to leave Peru.
We called and called and knocked and knocked, eventually he got up, came over to the window and told us again to go away and then come back at 7am. He then went to the bathroom and urinated in the noisiest, longest way possible. The sound of his stream of urine hitting the water in the toilet seemed to pierce through the darkness, just like the mounting swarm of mosquitos were managing to pierce the skin of my feet in multiple places.
I tried to shut out any thoughts of Malaria as we waited and heard him going back to bed. Eventually the conductor of the boat went off and bought back someone else, I assume a family member or good friend of the immigration officer, who pleaded and begged through the window. Eventually he got up, let us in and gave us our stamps. As we sat down on the crowded but comfortable speed boat around 4am I let out a huge sigh of relief.
The boat hung around loading up and waiting for people for over an hour after all of that happened so we had plenty of time. The actual boat ride was pretty awesome. It wasn’t too hard to sleep and it was a great introduction to the Amazon. The sheer size of the river is simply awe-inspiring. We arrived in Iquitos that afternoon raring and ready to go explore the jungle!