Taking the slow boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos is easily one of the wildest and yet most relaxing adventures you can have in Peru. The journey grants you a rare glimpse into the authentic lives of people living in one of the most remote corners of Peru: the Amazon. For those with a taste for adventure and a little extra time in their schedule, the slow boat to Iquitos is more than worth it.
That’s the thing about Iquitos, it is completely cut off from the rest of the world in some ways. There are no roads that go there. Your only options, should you choose to make the journey, are by plane or by boat.
The journey can take anywhere from 4 to 7 days, depending on the water levels in the river. Along the way, you’ll get a tantalizing view into a place where life is slower, where time moves languidly alongside the waters of the Amazon. By the time you reach Iquitos, stuffed full of fried plantains and speaking Spanish fluently with your Peruvian neighbors, you’ll be half convinced it’s time to buy some land and build yourself a house on stilts deep in the Amazon jungle.
The journey on the slow boat is not for the faint of heart, but the experience is beyond compare.
What to Expect on the Slow Boat to Iquitos
Expect long, relaxing days laying about in the sun. Expect unexpected stops at villages perched precariously over the swollen waters of the Amazon. Expect the ship to run aground in the middle of the night, the distant sound of metal groaning far below you as the hulk hits the muddy river bottom.
But first, you have to get on the boat. And that is the hardest part.
The boat is a small container ship. A long, flat bed at the bow of the vessel is slowly filled with supplies for the villages that line the river. Massive pallets of rice and sugar, furniture, dry goods, everything that towns isolated in the center of the Amazon would need to survive. At the stern, there is a tower, three or four stories, and passengers find space on the second and third story. Everyone hangs a hammock side by side. People squeeze in as tight as possible. There are tables in between the rows of hammocks that make it easier to hang out and eat during the day.
The boat doesn’t leave until the front cargo area is full. So the catch is this: the boat doesn’t leave at any pre-arranged time. It leaves when it is full. That could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could be in three hours, it could be in 72 hours. You, as a passenger, do not know when the boat will leave.
This makes it extremely important for you to reserve your spot on the boat as soon as you get to Pucallpa.
Reserving Your Spot on the Slow Boat to Iquitos
- First, find the boat. You’ll need to head down to the docks by finding Jirón Inmaculada and walking all the way down that road to the river. If there are no boats there, check up and down one block.
- Second, find the cargo ship that is currently being loaded up with supplies.
- Third, find the captain or representative of the ship. Ask if he is taking on passengers. Purchase a ticket. It should cost about 100 soles.
Your ticket guarantees you passage to Iquitos as well as two meals a day. The boat has bathrooms but no showers, so expect to feel quite stinky when you arrive at the other end.
In all honesty, when I arrived I could not figure out which boat to take. I waited until I found some other gringos (foreigners) hanging around the docks and asked them where to look. They pointed me in the right direction. So, if the above directions don’t work and you can’t find a ship—find the gringos.
Once you get a ticket, the next thing you need to do is buy a hammock. There will be merchants selling hammocks at the gate to the dock, but those are generally the most expensive. Your better bet is to head to the nearest market and buy a hammock from one of the sellers there.
Hammock in hand, head on board the ship and pick your spot. The second and third level are set aside for passengers so you can string your hammock up where ever you see free space. I recommend stringing the hammock up next to a table, otherwise, you are going to be eating off of the floor for the next four days.
What You Need to Bring
You need surprisingly few supplies to enjoy the journey from Pucallpa to Iquitos in relative comfort, but there are a few necessities you can remember that will help make your journey more enjoyable.
- Water: bring large bottles of water to sustain you for the journey. People will be selling water along the way, but if you want to avoid buying many small plastic bottles, bring some big ones.
- Books: needless to say, there is no wifi on a container ship floating down the Amazon river in the depths of Peru. Bring something to read.
- Extra toilet paper. Trust me.
- A deck of cards or some other games to pass the time.
Something you don’t really need to bring is food. You’ll get breakfast and dinner provided by the ship. It’ll be underwhelming. During my journey, we got watery porridge for breakfast and honestly, I don’t even remember the dinners.
The real food comes in the middle of the day. The ship will stop at one or more villages each day to drop off supplies. Technically, you can get off the boat here to explore the village, but the boat will NOT wait for you. If you’re still ashore when it disembarks, you’re out of luck and will need to convince some villagers to ferry you after the ship on their little-motorized canoes.
Every time the ship stops at a village, men and women will swarm onto the ship selling all manner of local delicacies. Coconuts, fried plantains, juanes (rice and spices and plantains wrapped up in banana leaf), tacacho (meat, rice, and plantains), and so much more. It was one of the highlights of my time on the boat. Peruvian Amazonian cuisine is totally different from the cuisine in the rest of Peru. The flavors are more tropical, the ingredients exotic, and the preparations scream of long hot days spent drifting down the world’s longest river. The food somehow belongs in the Amazon, it is of the Amazon and tastes of the deep roots of indigenous life there. Exploring the food of the Amazon is to explore the Amazon itself: rich, wild, and untamed.
Other than that, your only job for the next four days is to chill. Relax in your hammock. Hang out on the top deck and watch the Amazon roll by. Wave at small children peeking out from between the trees that line the river. Picture their homes and the winding muddy trails their feet follow every day. Imagine what it might be like to spend your days running through the dense trees and climbing up to the canopy.
A journey down the Amazon River is a rare, once in a lifetime experience. The slow boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos gives you, the tourist, a rare opportunity to experience life as a Peruvian. This isn’t a tourist trap—it’s the real deal. The authentic Peruvian method of travel to Iquitos. If you have the opportunity to make this journey, take it.
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