Most people travelling overland from Colombia will probably take the very long-winded bus route into Ecuador, and travel into Peru from there. But for those looking for something a bit more adventurous, or who simply want to head straight into Peru, there is another option. It is possible to sail from the town of Leticia, in Colombia’s bottom right corner, into either of the two bordering countries – Peru or Brazil.
You can fly to Leticia from anywhere in Colombia via a connection in Bogota. This is a jungle town in the Amazon rainforest with no roads leading to it, so as far as I know there is no overland route to Leticia.
At the airport in Leticia, you need to get your passport stamped with an exit stamp for Colombia. You can’t do this on the boat and they won’t let you sail, or get your Peru entry stamp, without it. The immigration office is within the main airport building, after you disembark from the plane and go through baggage collection etc.
Sailing the Amazon
When it comes to sailing from Colombia to Peru, you have two options:
1) The slow boat, which takes two-three days. Although I didn’t do this myself, I did meet a few people who travelled this way and quizzed them for details. They’ve said the boats are comfy enough but overcrowded; many shared space with cargo and animals like pigs and sheep. Lodgings are usually hammocks in a public space, food is provided, but the boats are unreliable: I’ve heard reports of them sailing up to four days after the scheduled departure date, and during that time passengers have to wait on board the boat to avoid it sailing without them. According to Wiki Travel, the slow boats cost about $20-25, but that is unconfirmed. You can book tickets through travel agencies in Colombia. NB – If you have travelled on the slow boat please comment here so that we can update this section of the article!
2) The rapido, or speed boat, which takes between eight-ten hours depending on the current and weather conditions etc. These leave every day except Monday at around 3 or 4 am. This was the option I chose, so the rest of this post will deal with the rapidos…
Buying your Tickets
Once in Leticia, you need to hop the border into Brazil to buy your tickets for the boat. You can do this in a taxi: the Brazilian town of Tabatinga is right next to Leticia and there is no border control here, so no passport needed. In Tabatinga, there are two companies selling tickets; Transtur and one other. I can’t find the name online, but the office is about four doors up from Transtur’s. Both companies leave on alternate days, so which one you book depends on which day you want to leave:
Transtur currently sail on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The other company sail on Tuesday and Thursday.
As of March 2014, a ticket for the rapido with Transtur (including two meals) cost 160,000 COP (about £50) per person.
Getting Ready to Sail
The boat leaves from Santa Rosa, which is across the river from Leticia and is in Peru. Again, there’s no border crossing or passports needed.
Once you have your tickets, and your Colombian exit stamp from the airport, you need to head to Santa Rosa in a ferry (3000 COP pp – about £1) to get your Peruvian entry stamp. The immigration office is right by the small port at Santa Rosa, any local will be able to point it out to you.
The immigration office will give you a stamp in your passport, and will ask how long you plan to be in Peru. Be careful with this: if you say one month they will write ’30 days’ on your passport stamp, and if you stay in the country any longer than that you will be charged $1 per extra day when you leave. UK citizens are entitled to up to 90 days, so make sure you ask for 90 even if you plan to stay there less!
The immigration office will also give you a small white immigration card. They won’t staple it in your passport and they neglect to mention how important it is – but it is! DO NOT throw away this immigration card – without it you will be charged additional taxes in most hotels/hostels and will have complications when trying to leave the country, especially at a land border (you may not be able to leave without heading back to the nearest airport to get a new card). FYI – if you lose your card, you can pick up a new one for S./30 (£6 GBP) at an immigration office in most major cities like Lima and Cusco.
What to Expect
Once you have your exit stamp, boat tickets, and entry stamp, you’re free to relax. The boats leave at about 3:30am most days – the actual time will be confirmed on your ticket. My advice is to stay in Santa Rosa – Leticia is the bigger, more modern town (with nicer hotels) but it will make getting to the port in the morning much more difficult and you’ll need to leave a lot earlier. In Santa Rosa there are very cheap hotels right next to where the boat leaves, so you can stay in bed that much longer.
Get an early night – you will thank yourself at 3am the next morning when you are struggling to sleep on a crowded boat.
The fast boats are narrow motor boats with about 30 seats. These don’t recline and are pretty packed in, so don’t hold out hope for much leg room.
Your big luggage will go on top of the boat and you won’t see it again until you reach Iquitos, so pack a day-bag with everything you might need.
There is a toilet on board but no soap, and the paper ran out about halfway – so take some tissues and antibac handgel in your carry-on.
Two meals are provided by Transtur: breakfast about 7am (coffee and a roll/sandwich), and a hot lunch at around midday (meat with rice, fizzy drinks). There is no vegetarian option (even the breakfast was a chicken roll) so if you are a veggie take your own food.
The boat is scheduled to take ten hours, but can take less or more time depending on conditions. Take a lot of reading material and music, and prepare yourself for a long ride!
The river journey down the Amazon into Peru sounds romantic – but it is also uncomfortable and tough. If you don’t like discomfort, dirty hotel rooms, stress, uncertainty, cramped spaces, or travelling by water, then I would recommend taking the plane. The journey is rewarding but you need to be prepared for it!
What to do
In Leticia/Santa Rosa, there isn’t a huge amount to do, but the surrounding area is, of course, a rainforest so there is plenty of wildlife to see. We did jungle tours in both Leticia and Iquitos, and I definitely preferred the one in Peru. Avoid opportunistic locals selling you ‘tours’ – this may turn out to be a bloke hiring a ferry for two hours and overcharging you for a trip down the river. I would recommend either booking a reputable tour company for a river cruise or jungle walk, or possibly paying one of the ferry drivers direct for an hour or two at sunset, which is the best time to see the river dolphins.
In Iquitos there is a lot more to do, it is a bigger town with hotels, bars and restaurants to explore and a strong backpacker community. While here you could try an Ayahuasca retreat, a jungle tour (or a few nights in a jungle lodge), visit the zoo at Quistococha, or check out the floating market at Belen. There’s plenty to do so it’s worth staying a few days.
(Please note that these pages aren’t fully up to date):
NB – If you have taken this journey, or a similar one yourself, please comment here to add any information I might have missed, or any updates to times/prices etc. You could really help out some future travellers.