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One of the absolute highlights of our three months backpacking South America was taking a cargo boat to the Amazon in Peru. We went from the small town of Yurimaguas, Peru, to Iquitos in Peru. Sure, we could have got a Lima to Iquitos flight but where’s the fun in that? This Amazon boat ride was a fantastic experience and if you’re planning to visit Iquitos and aren’t in a rush, then I’d highly recommend an Amazon riverboat trip.
Before you start to consider sailing down the Amazon by boat, you should know that this isn’t a fancy Amazon river cruise. Far from it. On this boat to Iquitos, you’ll be sleeping in on the boat in a hammock or bunk beds in a small cabin and likely sharing the boat with chickens and/or pigs who are taking a cruise down the Amazon river on the lower decks. It’s a fun, but different way to do Amazon boat travel. And, if you’re up for an adventure and aren’t in a rush then this Amazon boat trip is something you’ll remember!
Getting to Iquitos, Peru
There are a few ways you can get to Iquitos. I’ll briefly cover the cost and duration of flights from Lima to Iquitos and from Iquitos to other popular destinations. Then it’s on to how to get to Iquitos, Peru by boat since that’s what I have first-hand experience with.
Where is Iquitos?
Iquitos is in northeastern Peru, approximately 1,000km away from Lima, the capital of Peru. It’s known as the gateway to Amazon rainforest lodges and the tribal villages of the northern Amazon. Iquitos city is the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon and a great alternative to some of the other popular cities in the Amazon rainforest such as Manaus in Brazil.
If you’re looking for an Amazon adventure then this is the best city to base yourself in Peru!
Flights to Iquitos
You can fly to the Iquitos airport and flights to Iquitos, Peru leave from numerous South American cities.
- How to get to Iquitos from Lima: Iquitos – Lima flights take about 1 hour 45 minutes and you can usually find flights from under $100US each way.
- Iquitos – Cusco: If you’re planning on going to or from Cusco to Iquitos then flights are between $120-$200US and take at least 4 hours, usually with a change in Lima.
- Iquitos – Quito, Ecuador: If you’re going from Iquitos onwards to Ecuador (which is what we did), then you’ll first fly Iquitos to Lima, and then on to Quito. Cheaper, but longer flights also stop in Guayaquil before going to Quito. Expect to pay between $500-$700
I always use Skyscanner to find cheap flights – it’s not let me down yet!
Lima to Iquitos by bus
There are no buses that will take you the whole way between Lima and Iquitos. However, you will have to get the bus for some of the journey, this is outlined below.
Travelling by cargo boat to Iquitos
Taking a boat down the Amazon river is a very fun and adventurous way to travel to Iquitos, Peru.
We spent 4 days cruising down the river on a cargo boat accompanied by pigs, chickens and local families. If you’re prepared to be without hot water and can cope with not setting foot on dry land for a few days, then this experience will stay with you forever.
Where do the boats go from and to?
There are a couple of different routes you can take to get to Iquitos by boat. If you’re coming from the west (so coastal Peru) then you’ll probably be going from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. If you’re coming from the south then you’ll probably catch the boat in Pucallpa to Iquitos.
The route from Yurimaguas to Iquitos by boat usually goes via the Huallaga and the Marañón Rivers. Our boat stopped a few times but the main stop you can/might want to get off at before Iquitos is Nauta.
Nauta is a good getting off point for Amazon adventures. You’ll find some of the tour companies from Iquitos actually take you out here anyway.
Getting to your port
The main place you’re looking to get to is Tarapoto if you ask around people will probably say you need to go from Tarapoto to Iquitos. Really you’ll be going from Yurimaguas to Iquitos, but Tarapoto is the main bus hub in the area.
Mancora to Yurimaguas
We were coming from Mancora on the Peruvian coast. This meant we made our way over to Yurimaguas with a series of buses and taxis from the town of Mancora.
The journey takes about 20 hours. First, you take a bus from Mancora to Sullana where you switch to another bus headed for Tarapoto.
There isn’t a Tarapoto Yurimaguas bus but you’ll need to get a collectivo from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas. From here it’s a taxi to a collectivo station and then a 2.5-hour collectivo (a bit like a taxi) to Yurimaguas for roughly 20 soles. And then another taxi to the port.
Lima to Yurimaguas
The Lima Yurimaguas bus is easier than the route we took from Mancora.
Instead of 3 different vehicles, you can expect one direct bus. The bus will take around 28 hours (see this post for my top tips for long bus journeys) and cost roughly $40USD.
The company Bus Universo offers a direct service, but I’m sure there are other options too.
How much do the boats cost?
This varies depending on which boat on the Amazon river you’re travelling on, whether you’re opting for a cabin or just a hammock spot and how good your haggling skills are. Chances are you’ll be charged more than the other passengers.
This boat trip down the Amazon River is still a lot cheaper than other Amazon cruises you’ll read about.
It costs about 150 soles for a hammock only spot out on the deck, or 200 soles for a cabin. This includes all your food for the duration of your journey.
Hammock only spots on the boat to Iquitos
If you book the hammock only spot then you will also need to buy a hammock (unless you already have one!).
Hammocks can be bought on the boat from locals for about 30 soles each (we got two for 50). It may be cheaper to buy your own first from a stall in Yurimaguas.
What do you get if you buy a cabin?
The benefit of cabin space is that you’ll have somewhere to lock your bags away. There’s also a bed which they’ll make up for you.
On top of this, the cabins have electricity points and at meals times your food will be delivered to you, so you won’t have to join the queue.
You can also put a hammock out on deck to relax in during the day.
How do I book a spot on the boats?
You can’t book them in advance. It’s simply a case of going down to the port at Yurimaguas or Pucallpa and asking about the boats scheduled to leave.
What type of boat is it?
This is a cargo ship, not a cruise ship. Expect very basic conditions. But that’s all part of the adventure!
Depending on which boat you catch you may find you’re sharing the boat with pigs and/or chickens. The animals are usually kept on the lower decks and most passengers book a space on the top deck.
There is a fast and a slow boat but since you’re in South America, don’t rely on things sticking to a schedule.
We ended up on the Eduardo V. This boat had 3 floors; 1 for storage (& animals) and 2 for people.
How often do the boats go?
The fast boat leaves every day and usually takes 3 days to get to Iquitos. The slow boat goes whenever it’s full so that could be every day or every couple of days.
When you’re being shown on to the boat you’ll probably be told that the boat will be going later that evening. I’d recommend you don’t rely on that being true, I think we were on the boat for pretty much the whole day before it started moving!
Getting the boat from Yurimaguas to Iquitos definitely isn’t the right choice for you if you’re in a rush!
How long do the boats take to go from Yurimaguas to Iquitos?
The faster boats take about 3 days to get from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. The slower boats take about 4 to 5 days to travel down the Amazon River.
Both of these durations depend on water levels. Our boat stopped a couple of times along the way to Iquitos and things were loaded/unloaded on to the boat which no doubt slowed things down a little.
Where will I sleep on the boat?
That depends on whether you’ve booked a cabin or just a hammock spot. If you’ve booked the cabin you’ll get a fairly comfortable bed, arranged in bunk beds. Linen is provided for you.
If you choose a hammock only spot then you’ll be sleeping in a hammock out on the deck. Hammocks are pretty comfortable when you get used to them and on a couple of nights, we chose to sleep out on deck rather than in our cabin.
Are there showers?
Yes, there are a couple of showers. The water isn’t warm but you’ll probably enjoy a refreshing cool shower as it can get pretty humid out on the Amazon. The showers also aren’t always the cleanest (although I’ve definitely seen campsite showers that are A LOT worse).
Is food included?
Your food for the duration of your trip is included but you’ll probably want to take some extra snacks.
The food is usually rice, some type of meat and plantain for lunch and dinner and for breakfast you’ll normally get porridge.
If you’ve booked a cabin then the food will be delivered to your door at meal times. If you’re staying in a hammock only spot then you’ll need to go queue up at the kitchen. They ring a buzzer to alert people that it’s meal time!
What to pack for your boat journey to Iquitos
To make your boat journey to Iquitos more comfortable I’d recommend packing the following:
- A hammock
- Plenty of snacks
- Books and things to do; there isn’t much in the means of entertainment on the boat
Will I need a mosquito net?
I don’t remember there being many bugs on board, especially while you’re actually moving. I’m a mosquito magnet so if there were some, they’d have definitely found me.
The only time we encountered a lot of bugs was when we stopped at another port.
At this point, some of the staff went up and down the corridors with the cabins on and sprayed some bug killer. This meant that a load of dead bugs ended up over the top bunk (which is why we then slept in the hammock the next day).
Other things to remember before getting the boat to Iquitos
- It may be worth your while getting off at Nauta if you’re planning to venture further into the jungle. A lot of tour companies offer trips starting from there so you’ll save yourselves quite a bit of time by not going all the way to Iquitos.
- The boats never leave on time. We were supposed to leave at 10 am then 3 pm and finally left around 8.30pm
- Be prepared to share the boat with livestock; chickens, cows and pigs are not an uncommon sight
- You may be dirty, tired and desperate to get off the boat by the end of it, but you’ll have a thoroughly memorable experience, great sunsets and the chance to spot wild river dolphins. A true adventure.