This experience has always been on our bucket list! The Amazon is a 4,400-mile river with thousands of branches. It is a 2,600,000-square mile basin, draining rivers and streams in eight countries (Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname). Its rainforest is the largest on the planet and it’s combined with the savannah, floodplains and rivers. It is a region of immense diversity, sheltering more than 30,000 plant species, 1,800 fish, 1,300 bird species, 311 mammals and 165 types of amphibian. There are many ways into the Amazon, Brazil being the most common starting point for most Amazon trips. Peru and Colombia are also offering great travel experience. Most people visit the Amazon as part of a tour or via organised itinerary. Independent travel is possible but it comes with some complications and requires more spare time. Hence reading through this ultimate do-it-yourself guide to amazon river and rainforest will come handy.
If you are in Brazil, you can fly into Belém and book onto a local boat. Then arrange flights or epic bus journeys on from Manaus. It is more crowded but you’ll have more companionship from fellow travelers and dance samba on deck at sunset. But you won’t see many toucans. In Peru you head directly for Iquitos and in Colombia your only point of entry is Leticia, where you can fly to from Bogota. Peru and, to a lesser extent, Colombia are notable for their wildlife. Where deforestation and industrialisation have devastated great expanses of the low-lying Brazilian Amazon, the headwaters are in better shape.
We have started our journey in Peru and finished in Columbia so can we can actually advise you on at least two parts of the Amazon. And this is how we did it!
We felt very excited about being out of the gringo-land when we landed in Terapoto, little Peruvian town and the closest airport for starting the Amazon River experience. You can of course fly directly to Iquitos but where is the fun in that? We wanted to spend a few fine and quiet days on a ‘barca’ (cargo/passenger boat) before getting there. The moment we exited the plane, humid and hot air hit us and it felt sooo good.
We took a moto-taxi to the center (only 3km away) and got dropped at some budget hotel that the driver recommended. It was ok and close to the main market so we did not look anymore. We only came to Terapoto to catch a bus to Yurimaguas, port town where the Amazon ‘barcas’ depart from. However, we decided to spend a day in this little town and then move on. It was like being in Asia again – hot, humid and dusty and all we could see and hear were rickshaws. We loved it. We spent a day wandering around, shopping, getting much needed supplies as bug repellents and sun screen and other bits and pieces.
The way to Yurimaguas the next day was stunning. That is another reason for not flying directly. The newly paved road was winding around big mountains and lush green jungle with waterfalls and finally led us to a relatively flat landscape up the river. It was not the Amazon yet but one of the smaller rivers joining it. However the ecosystem here is pretty much the same (the Amazon river starts just before Iquitos).
We stayed in a little hotel just by the water with colorful paintings of a jungle and animals; balcony overlooking the river and hammocks everywhere. We just loved it. We went for a stroll around the town, went to the port to ask for departure hours and then sat in a bar with cold beer in hand. I know you can picture yourself doing the same right now!
The only thing to do was to reserve our cabin on the boat.
Ultimate do-it-yourself guide to amazon river – travel tips for Terapoto to Iquitos journey:
- Lima – Terapoto flighs are serviced by Peruvian Airlines, LATAM or Star Peru at around $130-$150 per person. We flew with LATAM and it was confortable. Search for flights here!
- Terapoto – Yurimaguas bus costs 20Sol/$7 each
- The river hostal in Yurimaguas (35Sol per double room) is just the steps down from the main plaza – there is a bar on the way down and every rickshaw driver knows this place
- Eduardo IV barca in Yurimaguas is said to be the most comfortable and costs: cabin 150Sol/$46 per person for the whole trip with food: 100Sol/$31 for an upper deck and 70Sol/$22 for lower deck but you have to bring your own hammock (or rent for 20Sol per trip) + plate and mug for food (no necessary for a cabin). They depart every day except for Sundays and local holidays.
We boarded Eduardo IV boat around 10 am as the departure time was supposed to be around 11 am but as usual in places like this people don’t work well with time schedules. The barca was all filled up with hardly any place left for a hammock at all, even at the second floor which is more expensive and usually emptier. Tom was counting on some good hammock space but only managed to squeeze in between others. It was no big deal as we had a cabin to ourselves, but he really liked the idea of spending days on the hammock with his book and beer in a hand. It was wishful thinking as with so many people around it was too hard to relax. Having a cabin was a good idea as we could secure our belongings, sleep comfortably and still spend time with locals whenever we felt like it. Most of the time we did not have to even leave our cabin as children would come to us to watch what we were doing on our laptop, teach us Spanish or just stare…there was nothing better for them to do anyway.
We were not the only ones on board as we also got two more couples to be our cabin neighbors. It was a good idea to stick together in Iquitos and take a jungle tour as 6 people increase your negotiation power a lot. The cruise down the river is a very chilled out experience and there is really not much to do but socialise, read, watch movies or just sleep. We enjoyed it though and even the very questionable standards of showers and toilets were not able to spoil the experience. The big advantage of having a cabin is also that you get to eat first. They bring you food to your bed literally and if you stay in a hammock you have to queue with others. Despite of what different sources say, food served by Eduardo IV kitchen was really tasty. Every meal was somehow different but always consisted of rice, pasta, some meat, sauce and fried banana. We could not complain at all. I was just not very happy with the morning porridge but that is simply because I don’t like it and I don’t like hot milk. Tom enjoyed both of our rations very much. We had instant coffee with us and the cook was nice enough to make coffee for us every morning.
The cruising itself is amazing. You get to watch the jungle, fresh water dolphins playing around villages and creeks, tiny towns where you cannot get to in any other way but the boat. People would come to the shore to watch the boat. For some it is their daily time killing activity and they wave white flags at the captain if they wanted them to stop. Like a huge bus haha Once I was at the deck with the captain to watch my laptop when it was charging and I saw this tiny white flag on a shore already behind us. I showed it to the captain and he reversed to the village to take a few passengers. If the village is beyond the standard stop list then it is just like a lottery for them, I suppose.
We made it to Iquitos after 3 days instead of 5 as water level was good enough for fast transport. This town does not look beautiful from a distance and not better from the land. It was dirty and looked very poor. It remains the major hub for excursions into the Peruvian Amazon though. From here visitors can either go by boat up to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, Peru’s largest, or take the Nanay river to the Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve. Only the main plaza area it nicely done and ready for the mass tourism. The Italian couple decided to ditch us all and just left without saying anything but we still had a little group of 4 to negotiate. We took a much overpriced rickshaw to the centre and ended up in Hotel La Casa del Frances, just one block from the Plaza.
Ultimate do-it-yourself guide to amazon river – travel tips when in Iquitos:
- Stay around the main Plaza to enjoy the nice part of town. Iquitos is low budget friendly and we only paid 40Sol/13$ for our hotel, which was nice, clean and had kitchen access
- Things to do => Belen Market, Museums and Manatees Rescue Centre
- Safety => the place has quite a reputation so be vigilant and don’t get involved with locals who don’t seem genuine. Use your gut feeling. Don’t take anything with you to the Belen Market area, unless you don’t mind loosing it of course. Even your shades can be easily snatched from your head so be careful.
- Amazon Lodge booking =>shop around and do your research. In general choose a lodge as far from any village or town as possible. You wont see any animals otherwise which would be shame
- We would recommend against booking any Jungle Lodge via internet or in advance as you will be charged double or triple. People were paying around 150$pp per day instead of 45$ like we did.
- The Yaguas Tribe we visited as part of our Jungle Lodge experience was great. Make sure you have this or similar tribal experience in your itinerary.
- What to avoid => getting bitten. The combination of heat, foliage and wet means you’ll encounter insects that want to bite or at least annoy you. Long lightweight trousers are an essential complement to chemicals. And pack a small mosquito net if you are travelling independently.
- What to bring => rainproof gear, a hat, sunglasses, high-factor sun protection, deet based mosquito repellent as well as something warm for the chilly nights, a water bottle and an antiseptic hand gel. You may need a loo roll and wet wipes with you for when needed
- Food: you can enjoy good western food here if that is what you are missing (like us!). There are nice grill bars, pizza places and coffee houses as Iquitos has a fair share of expats living there.
The next day we went to see the (in)famous Belen Market which is to be quite something. Well, it was. You can see all sorts of stuff there. From turtle eggs and corpses, through some weird meat to skinned monkeys or their tails. It was interesting that they would literally kill anything in this place (like little China perhaps?). Although I felt really sorry for the monkeys and turtles. Apart from the meat section, you have the Witches Lane and food stalls that sell anything made of local herbs and produce. It is interesting but is infamous for robberies. Don’t take anything with you, even sunglasses. Some random guy, who claimed to work for a museum offered us a guided tour around the market and the village. We refused. The village is a BIG no no and all the hotel stuff will assure you about that unless you want to part with everything you have and/or be wounded. Of course, we could have been wrong. Possibly we have missed some special experience but better safe than sorry.
We also visited two main tourist agents in town for the Amazon Lodge experience and we finally decided for Amazon Reis. It had these fabulous reviews online providing supposedly 5 star experiences. The only doubt was about the distance of the lodge from Iguitos into the Amazon. It was only 80km away and we heard that the more the better. To be honest we should have listened to our gut feeling, but that is another story all together.
When we came back to Iquitos we decided to stay one more day to see one more important place – the Manatees Rescue Centre. It is a very low-key establishment, run by volunteers and students of veterinary and it is such a rewarding place to stop by. We could feed these amazing animals and see the baby manatee being bottle-fed. They are so cute and unfortunately hunted for in the Amazon region. People kill them for meat and then take the babies as pets. However they don’t know how to feed them (they are lactose intolerant and need special milk) and they die or are sold. This is why the centre plays a vital role in educating locals about the animals and taking care of the babies. We probably spent more than 2h in there and were late for our checkout time hahah
That day with great spirits we boarded another barca and made our way towards Colombia. This one was much smaller but also very nice and we had a similar experience as before. It took another 2 nights to arrive in the border of 3 countries: Colombia, Peru and Brazil. We had a lot of time to think of our previous experiences … we were so happy we did this journey. Excitement about our new place of destination was growing fast especially that we had another chance for the Amazon jungle experience in here;-)
When we arrived to the place of 3 frontiers before lunch time, they dropped us at the bank of the Amazon on the Peruvian side, so we think. It was hard to tell because there was a lot going on around us. To get anywhere else we had to take a water taxi anyway. We negotiated a price with a boatmen and he took us first to the immigration office. We were then stamped out of Peru and then he took us to Leticia, the port of entry to Colombia……finally.
People say it is not pretty but we found Leticia rather nice. The streets are nicely coordinated, is very green and very lively. Hard to say how, but this place is so much different to Peru. It is probably not solely thanks to the people, as this place was a dispute between Colombia and Peru for decades, hence a mix of cultures live there, but maybe the ‘inland’ Colombians, who relocated here, brought with them the vibe, the colors and the music of Colombia. We could hear salsa music everywhere and people were obviously in festive spirits.
Ultimate do-it-yourself guide to amazon river – travel tips for Iquitos to Leticia and Puerto Narino journey:
- Iguitos – Leticia barca costs: cabin 90 Sol/30$ per person with food for the trip, deck was only a little bit cheaper like 75Sol. They leave every other day so need to check.
- Don’t forget the necessary immigration at the borders which ever way you are going as it can complicate your further journey. Peruvian immigration is on the shore and Colombian at the Airport.
- Prices in Colombia are much higher than in Peru. average room price in Leticia is $25-$30.
- Water taxi service to Puerto Narino – cost $15 each one way, 1.5h
- The jungle excursion in Puerto Narino – cost $15 for both of us
We went for a stroll around the town and then we walked the 3,5km to the Airport Immigration office (should have taken a taxi ha?). Apparently staying in the country for 4 days without stamp is illegal. We were just passing by as our interest was in Puerto Narino, little village in the middle of a jungle. That was more like it! We liked it instantly.
It is green, low-key and very very clean. Not many people know that Puerto Narino is an exceptional place not only because of the National Park located nearby but because they simply recycle everything. Yes, everything and it is full of ‘transformed’ rubbish. We saw extraordinary town decorations made of plastic bags, bottles and paper. Apparently they have a group of volunteer women who clean the streets daily and take care of the recycling.
This place is incredibly isolated yet so modern and fabulous. The only way to get there is by the Amazon but still they apply the modern ways of recycling water, plastic, paper and glass. They are an example for all the other villages, towns and cities on the continent. It has a very structured society as well. Everybody has their own jobs, purpose if you like and they belong to a clan. On majority of houses we could see sign posts explaining which clan this particular family belongs to. As we only got 2 night left before our flight to the capital we wanted to use our time wisely. We arranged for a guide together with another Colombian couple and the next day we went to the Terapoto Lake in the jungle.
Let me just tell you, if what we saw in Peruvian jungle was not enough to fulfill our Amazon dreams, then this was. The boat took us through canals and lakes hidden in the jungle. We had to sometimes go through the dense forests to get to where we wanted. AMAZING!!! We saw loads of birds, plants, fished for piranhas and then finally got to see dolphin again.
It was a first place we visited in South America that had so many skinny looking dogs. So we felt we had to do something. We bought some dry food and were feeding them if they looked really bad. We got to like a really funny looking couple of dogs – beauty and the beast you could call them. One was a huge Rhodesian and the beauty was a tiny cross-bread bitch that looked really scared. Both very neglected and homeless. When locals heard how much Rhodesians cost in Europe they just shook their heads. “Take him, we can make more” – they said. Believe me, if we could we would have. They looked so funny when we fed them – big and small, scary and scared but both equally beautiful.
One afternoon we were buying water in a store and to Ara parrots flew in. It surprised us so much that we did not know what to do. They obviously had done it before. They sat at the counter, pointed towards sweet buns with their beaks and the owner just handed it over to them. This is the sort of place Puerto Narino is. You struggle to see Ara closely in a zoo and here they just eat chocolate buns when they feel like hahha. We loved every minute spent in this place. We loved the eco culture, jungle feel, beautiful cottages you can stay in but regrettably we had to move on..
PS. While taking off I was lucky to sit on the right side and I could see the mighty Amazon River from above. Just as they show it on Discovery Channel! Dirty looking water of brown-ish color was winding between an abundant green jungle for miles and miles to see. Simply fabulous!!! Another thing ‘to see before I die’…done!!!