11 May 2014

Border Mission: Peru to Colombia

Iquitos was a very different city once we returned from our trip into the Amazon. It was early afternoon and everybody was in town, the streets were literally buzzing with rickshaws, it was so noisy and almost impossible to cross the road as there was so much traffic. Such a contrast to the serenity we’d just experienced in the jungle! 

life on the amazon river peru

We collected our big backpacks from Miguel’s hostel before heading to our slightly fancier abode for the next two nights, La Casona, where hot showers and a giant comfy bed awaited us. Also, we hadn’t done any laundry in a while and dropped off six kilos at a ‘Lavadaria’ during our walk. 

Feeling clean and fresh from an amazing shower we set out on a mission to buy boat tickets that would take us to Colombia in a couple of days. We were really enjoying Peru but so many travellers had raved about Colombia and how cool it was. Easily sold we decided to spend the final month of our trip in Colombia. Now all we had to do was work out how to get from Peru to Colombia, via the Amazon river. 

Information online was a bit confusing about how to get hold of the tickets but we finally found the booking office in Iquitos. Our boat would be at 6am and would take 8-10 hours. That's a long time to be on a boat! 

With our boat tickets in hand all we needed next were some flights, our boat would take us to Leticia in Colombia, a town very similar to Iquitos as there are no roads in or out, just boats and planes. Of course there was a cheap flight available, but it was at 5.30pm, meaning we would be pushing it quite fine to make it but we can’t resist a bargain so decided to go for it! Our first destination in Colombia was Cartegena, a Spanish colonial port town on the Caribbean coast. Visions of turquoise seas and white sands motivated us to tackle this epic 18 hour journey in one day, if everything went to plan we’d be in Cartegena by midnight. 

brunch by the amazon iquitos peru
"Brunch with an Amazon river view!"

Now that we had a plan to get to Colombia we could relax and see what Iquitos had to offer. To be honest there is not that much to do and the tourist restaurants are a little tacky so we ate dinner again at Karma Cafe. We only had one more day to kill in Iquitos and enjoyed brunch by the river, it’s lovely daytime setting as there are brightly coloured flowers along the promenade and lots of hummingbirds buzzing about them. Everywhere was suspiciously quiet though and many of the restaurants and shops were closed. We made our way to the Lavaderia and were shocked to find it was closed, we visited again in an hour and still it was closed. 

Soon we realised that it must be a public holiday, it was International Workers Day (aka not a public holiday in the UK). Great! Our clothes were locked in a launderette and were leaving Iquitos at 5.30am the next day. It wasn't looking good but Steve remained hopeful that they would open later and kept going back to check. Unfortunately they never did and Steve never got his clothes back. It turned out that Steve had chosen to wash almost all his t-shirts, shorts and underwear on this occasion so he was pretty mad. To this day he still hates to think that another man is wearing his favourite denim shorts!

The next morning we were up at 5am to catch a rickshaw to a different port in Iquitos. It was pitch black as we made our way down the steps and there was only a couple of other passengers waiting. Er, where is the waiting room? We could see our boat though so knew we were in the right place. Soon a policeman appeared to check the bags and documents of the passengers, to our relief we were waved straight past - we’d have been gutted if he unpacked our entire backpacks as its such an effort getting everything inside again. The boat was bigger than we imagined with space for about forty passengers comfortably and it was clean. Phew!

life on the amazon river peru
"A boat port in the middle of nowhere..."

By 6.30am we were still sat in the port which wasn’t ideal as we were on a tight schedule to make our first flight. About twenty minutes later we moved and were on our way with fingers crossed that we would make it to Leticia by 4pm. Our boat was just over half full and we had a friendly crew, within an hour breakfast of a chicken sandwich and coffee was served. And then we napped wondering what are we going to do for the next seven hours.

As we cruised down river, the Amazon got wider and at some points you couldn’t see the river bank. We had no idea of our progress and were none the wiser when we stopped at various villages along the way, they are so small that they are not featured on the map. We did stop a lot too, we had no idea if that was normal and if we were making good time or not. For lunch we were served a hot carton of chicken and rice. The food was much tastier than we anticipated.

life on the amazon river peru

Life on the river was fascinating for us, we saw canoes full of school children, solo fisherman and individual huts on very tall stilts. Our boat didn’t go too fast and if somebody was coming towards us in a canoe or smaller boat we’d slow right down so we didn’t tip them over in our wake.

Eventually about 3.30pm we pulled into the final stop at Santa Rosa, still in Peru. We disembarked with the rest of the passengers and let a local boat owner befriend us and show us to immigration. We had to visit two different huts and we’re still not sure what the difference was, then we hopped into our new friends wooden boat with three other backpackers for the ten minute, five soles fayre across the Amazon to Leticia and Colombia.

As we got nearer the opposite river bank we could hear the unmistakable beats of salsa filling the humid air. Such a contrast to the almost silent village of Santa Rosa in Peru. Leticia was rocking, there were people everywhere and each bar, cafe and shop front was painted with the national Colombian colours. This town looked a whole lot of fun and we almost wanted to stay the night. Our friend led us up the main street to get a taxi and as we walked we realised that on the left was Colombia and to the right was Tabatinga in Brazil, it was crazy. Border crossings are normally full of officials but this place was teaming with locals having a good time wandering wherever they liked.

leticia colombia
"Hola Colombia!!"

The taxi to the airport was expensive at 50 COP (£15) but we were able to split it three ways as an Israeli backpacker from our boat was booked on the same flight. We started our drive in Brazil, before entering Colombia and stopping at the ATM for pesos. It was at this point our extra passenger got out of the taxi and started photographing everything despite the fact there being nothing to see. 

Leticia airport was fairly small but more modern than we expected. There were also quite a lot of people here, the majority were locals so we were the only ones inside the beautifully air conditioned Immigration office. Once we'd gotten our visas we were able to check-in with about an hour to spare before our flight. We’d made it and even had a time for a couple of cheeky Club Colombia's from the hole-in-the-wall bar!

Our next stop was Bogota airport for a couple of hours stopover and then on to Cartegena, where we arrived about midnight. We were so tired by this point, we took a taxi to Hostal Casa Baluarte very glad we’d decided to reward ourselves with a nice hotel room for the night. The bed was the comfiest we’d slept in for a long time! Unfortunately the service and cold showers let it down but we’ll tell you more about that and how Steve almost got a Colombian ASBO in our next post...

Per person we paid $60 for the boat (inclusive of meals) and about $100 for flights with Viva Colombia. It was an exhausting journey to do in one go as there wasn't much opportunity to sleep after the boat trip. It was a fun adventure, much cheaper and more scenic than flying all of the way. If you get the chance, give it a go!

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