Travel tips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 2: Rapidos (speedboats)
Adventures in the Peruvian Amazon often if begin in the gateway city of Iquitos. There are daily flights to Iquitos from Lima on LAN, Peruvian Airlines and Star Airlines. Copa Airlines now offers three flights per week between Iquitos and Panama. You can’t reach Iquitos by road from anywhere but if you have time you can take a large lancha to get there from Santa Rosa at the Brazilian border in about three days, Yurimaguas in three to four days, or Pucallpa in five days. See Travel trips for boat travel in the Peruvian Amazon – Part 1 to learn more about Amazon travel on large lanchas. To visit communities tucked away on smaller rivers, check out Travel tips for "colectivos."
While the vessels that carry hundreds of people and cargo between Iquitos and other towns and cities on the Amazon River and a few major tributaries have their own advantages, they are either slow or very slow. If you are a backpacker with a bit more money than time available to take a large lancha, you can get a rapido, a smaller and faster motor boat, to get almost anywhere. Rapidos that operate on regular routes usually carry about 8 to 20 passengers and offer pretty good deals. Getting from Iquitos to Tamshiyacu by lancha takes about four hours and costs about $2 compared to one hour in a rapido for $6. Large lanchas going from Jenaro Herrera to Iquitos take about twelve hours and cost about $13 in a hammock and $19 in a camarote (small cabin). The rapido-van combo makes this journey in just over four hours for about $31. Taking a rapido from the Brazilian border to Iquitos cuts this travel time in a large lancha from three days to 8 to 12 hours depending on which way you’re going. If you’re really pressed for time, there are also limited flights (some operated by the military) between Iquitos and Santa Rosa on the Peruvian side.
On long distance routes, there is usually no more than one rapido leaving per day at a fixed (i.e. approximate) time. Seats can only be reserved from their original departure point. Passengers can board at later stops if there is space available. Operators can generally be contacted via a cell phone for inquiries. Rapidos also often have an agent in large towns along their route. Ask around at the largest general store (like Comercial Ucayali in Jenero Herrera) to find these people.
Rapidos servicing shorter more frequently traveled routes (like Iquitos to Tamshiyacu) only leave when they have filled their boat with walk-on passengers. You may only need to wait 15 minutes, but be patient if it’s longer. Once you take off, it’s a fast, furious and often bumpy ride. The high-powered engine makes it hard to talk to the person next to you without almost shouting or listen to your MP3 player at less than full volume.
Rapidos will accommodate your backpack, but not much else. Carry a large plastic bag to put it in just in case it needs to be stowed outside and protected from wave splash and rain. If you’re tall, your legs will probably be a bit cramped between tightly packed rows of benches and seats. That can’t be helped, but I often put a shirt, towel or folded light-weight sleeping bag on the bench to at least cushion my bottom on longer trips. The main risk of riding in a rapido is hitting an unseen log and flipping. Send good vibes to the driver (and sometimes his assistant) to stay alert and take note of the nearest life jacket just in case you need to grab one in a hurry.
Try to empty your bladder before you get on board. A few large rapidos have a toilet tucked away in the back, but most don’t. On longer trips, you may get a break at a floating dock where you can dart into an outhouse (usually a shack with a crude curtain and hole in a board over the river). You can sometimes duck into tall weeds at the river’s edge. Be careful not to let your sandals get sucked into deep mud.
I was once given a pack of crackers and complementary beverage on a rapido, but I always carry my own water and snacks in my daypack. Rest stops always have ladies and boys anxiously waiting to sell plates of fried fish with yucca roots, little bags of lightly-salted aguaje fruits, and bottles of soda to rapido passengers. "Curiches" are refreshing popsickles made of frozen local fruit pulp. Backpackers with sensitive digestive systems should be aware these local dishes may not be prepared made with attention to the highest possible standards of hygiene or water quality.
Most rapidos have an awning covering its top and side flaps that can be fastened to the gunnels. If you know you’re going to ride in a boat without one of these, keep a poncho and bag to cover you and your gear close at hand in case of rain (always a strong possibility in the Amazon). Backpackers should also consider wearing a hat, long-sleeve shirt and pants, sunscreen and sunglasses to help protect them from strong midday sun. The risk of getting sunburn or sun poisoning (particularly for light-skinned folks from the north) is higher in open boats because you are exposed to solar rays from above and radiation reflected from the water’s surface.
If you sign up for a jungle trip with any of the dozens of tour operators in Iquitos, they will likely take you to a lodge in their own boat or rapido. If you haven’t signed up for one in advance, you’ll find offices of many ecotourism outfits within two blocks of the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos. Check out Dawn on the Amazon for one option and information about other operators.
Some non-profit organizations that do conservation or community projects in the region (like the Rainforest Conservation Fund, Instituto del Bien Comun, and Project Amazonas have their own boats to transport their researchers, visiting doctors, or guests. If you have a connection with one of these groups, you may be able to hitch a ride or pay to go with them to their sites.
You can also charter a rapido of any size to go almost anywhere you want. Sometimes this is the only option because some communities are not serviced by any regular transportation. This will be the most expensive way to travel since you’ll need to pay for the gasoline and oil, use of the boat and time of the driver. You can find boats for hire at most ports around Iquitos. My friend Victor Vargas (firstname.lastname@example.org) lines up boats for private and corporate clients so you could contact him to find a reliable charter at a fair price.
Maintaining engines in good order in a tough environment is expensive, and they often have mechanical problems on the water. Most drivers can do simple repairs on the spot, but breakdowns lead to delays and sometimes good stories. My disabled rapido once floated down the Amazon for half an hour before another one came along and gave us a tow. Another time such help was not available in a more remote area. The four of us on this private boat pried up the floor boards and used them to paddle upstream for two hours to get to the nearest town. I at least appreciated hearing the chirps of frogs around sunset that had been drowned out by the noise of the engine.
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. Visit or join the