Travel tips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 3: Colectivos (community lanchas)
In the first part of this series (Travel tips for large lanchas), I offered tips for backpackers traveling between Iquitos and other major points in the northern Peruvian Amazon like the Brazilian frontier, Pucallpa, and Yurimaguas in the large lanchas (ferries) that are slow and relatively inexpensive. Depending on your mood, they can be relaxing, fun, and/or boring. Check out Travel tips for "rapidos" to learn about Amazon travel in speedboats. These smaller crafts are a lot faster than the large ferries (if they don’t break down), jarring, loud and one-third to twice as expensive as a lancha traversing the same route.
To experience the heart of life in the Amazon, though, backpackers should ride one of the colectivos (small lanchas or ferries) that local people use to transport their product to market and visit their relatives in small communities. These colectivos are generally 30 to 50 feet long and travel between Iquitos and communities along tributaries like the Tahuayo River that are too small to be serviced by their larger counterparts. While large lanchas stow big cargo on the front deck and have upper decks for people in hammocks, colectivos do not separate passengers and their goods.
There’s no better way for a backpacker to see what’s coming out of the fields and forest of the Peruvian Amazon than traveling in a colectivo. As they stop at one village and no name settlement after another en route to urban markets, bales of palm leaf roof thatch and bags of charcoal progressively fill the open deck on top. People on the inside section get up close and personal with animated chickens, glassy-eyed catfish, and stacks of dark-red lumber.
Here are my tips for riding a colectivo. Some also apply to riding large lanchas.
1. Find out if a colectivo goes where you want to go.
2. There are at least five ports around Iquitos whose boats go up or down different rivers. Most mototaxi drivers can tell you where to go to find a boat for your particular destination.
3. Unless you have a very reliable up-to-date source, go to the port several days before you hope to travel and find out the name(s) of the boats that go to your destination and ask when they leave. There may only be a few departures per week.
4. Colectivos usually leave within an hour of their appointed departure time. Times of arrival can vary by many hours depending on how many stops a boat makes along the way and how much cargo it takes on or discharges during these stops.
5. When you get close to the port, at least one or two guys will likely sprint up to the back of your mototaxi if your backpack is stored there. They are much more likely to be would-be porters than thieves. The polite ones will ask you first if they can carry your bag for you. The aggressive ones will try to pick it up and then ask. Be very clear with them if you do not want their help. (No – “no gracias, no gracias”). If you do want them to carry your pack or other heavy gear, make sure you agree on a price before they bring it to the boat. (How much? – “Cuánto cuesta?). Don’t be shy about bargaining.
6. Some ports are not directly accessible by road. A mototaxi can get you to close enough to a place where a water taxi (usually a motorized canoe or peque-peque) can take you to the colectivos.
7. You can’t make a reservation on these boats, so just show up before they’re due to depart. I suggest getting there a good hour ahead so you can sling a hammock across the widest mid-section of the boat. (See The art of traveling in the Amazon with a hammock for tips about hammock types and slinging techniques). Not many people do this, but I highly recommend it because the alternative is sitting on a hard bench for four to fourteen hours.
8. You might like to ride on top with barrels, leaves or charcoal, but be prepared to deal with hot sun, cold rain and possibly diesel fumes blowing back from the engine smokestack.
9. Bring your own food and water. You may also be able to get basic meals, snacks and drinks from vendors at “major” stops or sometimes fellow passengers.
10. Going to the bathroom may require some gymnastic ability. On the last colectivo I rode, I had to step across the narrow struts supporting the engine and then climb up into the little room with a hole perched over the river. I was glad I only needed to pee because there didn’t seem to be enough room to squat down to do anything else.
11. You don’t get a ticket for passage on colectivos. Carry enough soles in coins (or at least have a small bill) to pay your fare to the captain or one of his assistants when you are getting close to your destination. It usually costs no more than one or two dollars to go anywhere.
12. You’ll find mototaxis at the entrance to every port although you may need to climb up a muddy hill or some steep stairs to reach them. Most ports near Iquitos are a two to three soles ride to the Plaza de Armas which has an abundance of hostels for backpackers with a clean bed, shower, and good company for a decent price.
You won’t see many backpackers in the colectivos that service small communities. Learning some Spanish beyond the bare basics will give you a unique opportunity to meet the campesinos who provide city people with their staple foods, charcoal to cook, and most of the materials to build their homes. Riding a colectivo will give you a genuine experience of Amazon life you can share with friends at home or any party on the road.
Campbell Plowden is the Executive Director of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, a non-profit organization that promotes forest conservation and sustainable livelihoods for traditional communities in the Peruvian Amazon. He regularly stays at the Pariwana Hostel when he passes through Lima. See his regular blog Campbell’s Amazon Journal.