When I was planning my trip through South America, I thought it sounded like a really cool idea to get go from Colombia to Peru by boat along the Amazon river, instead of taking a plane. Little did I know that this process would involve taking at least two planes anyway, as well as being a very confusing and stressful experience. I’m only glad that we could speak Spanish and a bit of Portuguese. Otherwise we would have been totally lost and probably still be somewhere in the Amazon rainforest (ha!).
My time in the Amazon rainforest was amazing, there is no denying that. But I really should and could have prepared better (see my guide on how to prepare for the Amazon rainforest). I just had no idea what it would be like, so if you are thinking to go from Colombia to Peru by boat, hopefully this post will eliminate some of the confusion and help you understand what you are in for!
How to go from Colombia to Peru by boat: The Process
The process will start when you arrive to Leticia. You can’t do any of this stuff in advance so allow enough time between arriving in Leticia and departing in boat.
Book your boat ride
There are numerous tour agencies that sell the tickets. However, there are only two companies which operate the actual service to go from Colombia to Peru by boat. One is Golfinho and the other is Transtur. The tickets for this cannot be bought online, nor can they be purchased anywhere in Leticia. To get the tickets, one must cross the border from Leticia to Tabatinga, Brazil.
Crossing the border
Don’t worry, this is a fairly simple process. Because the two towns are conjoined (see the map below), there is no border control, it is simply a matter of walking down a street. I didn’t even realise I was in Brazil until I looked behind me and saw the sign: ‘Bienvenidos a Colombia’.
But it won’t take you too long to realise you are in Brazil. Suddenly all of the signs are in Portuguese and all the people you walk past speak Portuguese (and no, not everyone is bilingual, there are many people living right next to the border that don’t speak a word of Spanish, and vice versa). Also, the conditions of the two towns are vastly different due to different city councils. While Leticia prides itself on being the ‘cleanest city in Colombia’, Tabatinga is a mess. Lots of poverty, dirty streets and unfinished tar paths are what will greet you.
So basically, you have to visit Tabatinga to pick up your tickets, but you want it to be a simple in-and-out. There’s no popping over to Brazil for a coffee or for lunch, as we had naively imagined. You really want to just get your tickets, and get out of there as fast as possible.
Buying the tickets
All of the tour agencies and ticket sellers are located on the same street, Rua Marechal Melet, known by locals as ‘rua dos sapatos’ (shoe street). We wondered where they’d got this name from, until we walked down the street to see hundreds of different shoes laid out for sale on the side of the road.
We bought our tickets directly from Golfinhos, located at Rua Marachel Melet #306. Follow the maps below to see the layout of the town and how to get to the ticket office. Note that it only opens in afternoons after 3pm.
The price will be subject to negotiations (and your level of Spanish/Portuguese), but we managed to get it down to 180.000COP (or around $60USD) per person for four people. Most of the tour agents were bilingual in Spanish and Portuguese.
You will need to pay in cash and have your passport handy.
Get your passport stamped
There is no apparent strict border control, so the matter is in your own hands to get your passport stamped. You need to get your exit visa for Colombia stamped less than 24 hours before you exit Colombia, and the Peru one to be stamped within your first 24 hours in Peru.
You need to go to the Leticia airport to get this done. The airport is not far from the town centre and you can get a ride there and back for as little as 10.000 COP (about $3USD). The office closes at 6pm.
This is done on the small island of Santa Rosa, Peru, before you take the boat journey (which is the only actual journey from Colombia to Peru by boat that you will take). You can get there from the waterfront in Leticia on a boat for about 20.000 COP ($7USD). The immigration office is located on the main street, next to Las Brisas del Amazonas restaurant. It’s a good idea to call first to make sure someone will be there, but generally they open until 5 or 6pm.
From this island, you can take a boat to the island from which you actually take the boat to Iquitos. But that all comes into the next step.
Getting ready for the boat ride
So both boats board at 3am…yeah. There are a few ways to get there, including shuttles from Tabatinga and Leticia which will see you waking up at 2am at the latest. We opted to stay the night in Santa Rosa, which meant a short boat ride for us the next morning.
Leticia to Santa Rosa
We organised our boat at the docking station the day before, when we arrived from Leticia to Santa Rosa. When you arrive, you will be greeted by a line of boating men. They would all be more than happy to offer you the service of driving you to the docking station the next day at 3. Just choose one and negotiate (preferably out of earshot of the other drivers).
Santa Rosa is a bit of a dead town. It consists of just one main street. All electricity is powered by generators, so there is no electricity until about 6pm, and then it lasts for a few hours until everything goes black. There are a few restaurants and a few hostels on this street, but apart from in the immigration office I didn’t see any other foreigners around. We got the vibe that it can be quite a dangerous place.
The hostel we stayed in was sup-par, to say the least. There were four of us, but since it was going to be such a short night’s sleep, we didn’t see the need to pay for anywhere fancy. So we ended up being squished together on a double bed in a room with a heavy mildew smell trying to get some shut-eye but all the while expecting that alarm to go off any minute. It was a very strange night to say the least.
Santa Rosa to the docking station and beyond
When the alarm finally rang we found ourselves collecting our belongings in complete darkness, and rushing off to the dock in heavy rain, where the boat we had previously organised awaited us. It was a dark ride to the docking station, as no lights are allowed to be turned on to navigate the river as apparently it could attract dangerous creatures.
Anyway, we made it to the dock and it was time for our Amazon river adventure!
The boat ride
The boat driver will have a list of names of people who bought tickets and will call you up one by one. Luggage is loaded on top of the boat and you can choose a seat. Tip: try and get a seat where you can look out the window, as not all of them have well positioned windows!
So now you are finally on your way from Colombia to Peru by boat! Remember you are travelling upstream by taking this route, so the boat ride takes over 11 hours, so allow for that time. Oh, and try to refrain from taking pictures out the window with flash on before sunrise. Remember, no lights allowed for safety reasons! Taking pictures after sunrise is okay, but don’t expect any magical pictures through those tiny windows.
Getting off the boat
Welcome to Iquitos! You have endured 11 hours sitting down, so it is time to get up and stretch your feet. The next step is to disembark. Then stand around waiting as the luggage is taken off the top of the boat and handed down to passengers.
You will be greeted by a number of tuk-tuk drivers all competing for your service. In Iquitos, there are no traditional taxis. Most of the road vehicles are motorcycles or tuk-tuks. In other words, pack light because no one has a boot for all your shit!
Common Misconceptions about travelling from Colombia to Peru by boat:
There is very little information to be found on the topic, so I have put together the common misconceptions people ( me included!) tend to have about travelling from Colombia to Peru by boat.
– You can travel from Colombia to Peru without a plane.
I was completely wrong about by initial assumption that by travelling by boat we wouldn’t have to take planes. In fact, both Leticia and Iquitos are completely secluded. There is no way to get to them by road, as they are both fully surrounded by rain forest. I (foolishly) assumed that we could take a bus to Leticia from another town in Colombia or something, but unfortunately that is actually impossible.
Unless you want to spend weeks walking through the Amazon rain forest, the only way to get to Leticia is by plane (we took a plane from Bogota). Likewise, in Iquitos, the only way to reach the rest of the country is by taking a plane. Iquitos and Leticia are two of the most remote cities in the world, so don’t expect transport options to be abundant.
– The boat ride itself must be amazing.
I had been dreaming about the boat ride down the amazon river for months. I was expecting a lovely scenic ride with close-up shots of anacondas and cheetahs basking in the sand by the water’s edge, as well as a vast outdoor area to enjoy the amazonic breeze and take in panoramic views as well as shooting beautiful, insta-worthy pictures. When the websites said that beverages and breakfast were included, I imagined a bar where fresh tropical juices and hot Colombian coffee would be brewed up, and that a hot cooked meal would be provided, along with chairs and tables to fully appreciate the service.
…Let’s just say my fantasies did not play out how I would have hoped. The ride consisted of a stuffy indoor bus-like coach, with tiny windows. There was certainly no deck to enjoy the breeze. In fact, there was absolutely no way to get fresh air. Because of the early start, we spent most of the ride trying to catch up on sleep and drown out the awful Spanish-dubbed action movies that played constantly. After hours on a grumbling stomach, breakfast was finally served at around 9am. The drinks consisted of two options: bottled juice or bottled water, and the breakfast was a sandwhich of which I ended up dropping half the contents on the seat in front of me because I was eating it with no table (not even a fold-down one) on a rocking boat.
Long story short, this is not a touristic experience by any means. What it is is the only means of transport for people who travel by necessity between Leticia and Iquitos. Yeah, it was cool gazing out the window at the vastness of the Amazon River. And yeah, it is great for bragging rights to say you’ve travelled via the Amazon River and gone from Colombia to Peru by boat. But would I have spent my time doing this if I could go back in time? I’ll be honest with you – no, I probably wouldn’t.
Most of the journey the view is exactly the same: brown river alongside grass and trees. The only thing that changes is how close the boat is to the greenery.
– You are travelling from one country to another.
The boat actually departs from Santa Rosa, Peru to arrive in Iquitos, Peru. So while I did go from Colombia to Peru by boat, it was a very short trip that took about five minutes. The long trip is actually entirely domestic.
By all means, go and spend some time in the Amazon rain forest. It is an amazing place and I learned so much in the time I spent there. However, unless you have a particular reason to visit both Leticia and Iquitos, I recommend visiting just one of these towns. Save yourself the trouble of worrying about boat tickets, visas, safety and the works. Both towns have great options for Amazon rain forest tours. Leticia, in my opinion is a prettier town but Iquitos is larger with more things to do.
So I suggest not taking the journey from Colombia to Peru by boat. Simply enjoy one place and then take a nice, easy plane and fly to your next destination.
Please keep in mind all of the places mentioned in this article experience a lot of poverty. While the local people live in a semi-developed suburbia, they live in very remote places. As such, they may come across very detached compared to the friendly Latin American people you are used to. You need to take care to look after yourself and your belongings when spending time in these areas.
Maybe you are thinking that a fast boat isn’t for you. That to get from Colombia to Peru by boat, a slow boat might be the way to go. To be honest, I haven’t heard raving reviews about these either, just a slower and more torturous version of the same thing. On the other hand, with these boats you do have access to go outside and see more of the nature in more detail.
For more about what you can do in the Amazon, see this Amazon Travel Guide by Telegraph. If you are planning a trip to the Amazon rainforest, make sure you check out my post about how to prepare for the Amazon rainforest. If you’re still travelling Colombia, here is a good guide to backpacking in Colombia.
Has anyone done this or the reverse trip before? How was your experience? If you are planning on doing this trip, let me know in the comments as well!~