In the Footsteps of Orellana
Down the Napo, Coca to Iquitos
By Yancey Davis
Somewhere, far from museums and galleries, adventure sports packages and "hands on" animal reserves, past picturesque natives all too willing to pose for that perfect shot, lies an entire world, far off the gringo trail. It can get confusing out here, and sometimes scary, especially for the neophyte tourist looking to expand his or her travelling chops. The long way down the Napo and Amazon Rivers from Coca, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru is one of these experiences.
Spoken of with near reverence in hostel common rooms in Quito, little actual information is available from the usual resources. Guidebooks offer a paragraph or two of loose information, while the best write-up on the Internet is based on a trip from 2001. Contained herein is an up-to-date guide to the journey for those intrepid travellers looking to get from Ecuador into Peru in one of the least conventional ways available.
Coca (also known as Francisco de Orellana after the Spaniard that "discovered" the Amazon) has grown drastically in the past few years, giving way to a bustling downtown with restaurants, hotels, internet cafes, ATMs and all the other modern amenities that can't be experienced again until Iquitos. Buses leave at semi-regular intervals from Quito to Coca, and the 8-12 hour ride runs about ten dollars. Hotels are available throughout town for $5-10 per night.
Boats from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte leave almost daily now. Passage for the 12-hour boatride can be purchased in advance at the port for twelve dollars or, like most bus rides, paid whilst onboard. Scheduled departure time is 7:30 am, but expect at least half an hour longer to load up cargo and latecomers. Make no mistake: Coca is the last "city" before Iquitos, and there can be as much as two weeks time spent between the two. Food, last-minute supplies and most importantly hard currency (one hundred dollars is a bare minimum for safety's sake, especially if travelling alone) should be picked up here. A good hammock is also required for the last four nights of the trip.
The long riverboat from Coca to Nuevo Rocafuerte holds about eighty comfortably in two narrow rows of people sitting face to face. Twelve hours pass slowly as the vessel makes regular stops along the bank of the Rio Napo to drop off passengers and produce, often at villages no larger than two small huts enshrouded by jungle. One of these located about midway provides lunch at normal almuerzo prices. By the time Nuevo Rocafuerte is reached, it's typically past sundown and few of the morning's passengers remain.
Power runs in Rocafuerte from eight in the morning until eleven at night; water gets shut down even earlier. A single strip of land provides some simple tiendas and a restaurant consisting of a single outdoor table situated next to a grill. It's simple, but provides some of the last enjoyable meals until Iquitos. There are at least two hotels for lodging sleeping guests for five dollars a night, while some locals will gladly rent out hammock-space for around two. The local police station here hosts the immigration office for the requisite exit stamp from Ecuador.
Boats are available daily, but despite this being the shortest leg of the journey -- less than two hours to Pantoja, Peru -- the standard boat fee is fifty dollars. Split five ways it's affordable, but lone travellers will feel the pinch. It is possible to catch boats already on their way to Pantoja for around ten dollars, but these vessels tend to stop in town randomly, never for longer than ten minutes, so short of dedicating a day to waiting by the dock, this can be a difficult option. Rocafuerte's a far better town to wait in than Pantoja, but missing the lancha will add weeks to this trip.
After a quick stop at Pantoja's military checkpoint, the civilian section of town awaits. A single lancha (no-frills cargo ship) heads out of here to Iquitos approximately every ten days. Lucky travellers will arrive to find the ship already loading; unlucky ones may find themselves waiting more than a week for it at the local hotel ($5 a night). A single money-changer can provide soles from dollars, but the exchange rate borders on criminal. The lone restaurant is similarly unpleasant, and many have complained about visibly inferior service given to tourists on top of already low-grade food. Electricity runs from 6-11 nightly, except for a municipal building that blasts music out over the entire town from 6 am until dusk.
The lancha always stays docked in Pantoja for one night, making it difficult to sleep through entirely, and upon departing the following morning, a deafening car alarm horn alerts the entire town. Thirty-five dollars buys passage and three meals a day to Iquitos, but it's only thirty to Mazan, which is the fastest route to the city anyway. Meals are edible, but just barely, sometimes consisting of five different starches with no meat or vegetables. Bringing along some added seasoning is highly recommended.
Over the course of four to five days, several tons of plantains, livestock and people will be loaded onto the well-worn riverboat. The first night is comfortable; the last night is hellacious. Hammocks, like massive spider webs, fill the passenger cabin completely with bodies arranged just inches from one another, not only to either side, but above and below as well. Babies scream, roosters crow and pigs squeal nightmarishly throughout the night. But the crew is very friendly to tourists, and love learning new card games to pass the time.
Mazan to Iquitos is about thirteen hours along the Amazon. However, most passengers opt to exit in Mazan, where it's possible to take a motorcycle taxi across a thin strip of land for less than a dollar. From here, it's just a one hour speedboat ride down the Amazon to Iquitos, the largest city in the world only reachable by boat or plane. This isn't a trip for everyone, and it certainly isn't always enjoyable. But it is bound to be unforgettable.
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