Amazon Adventure - The Boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte
As we headed blindly into the Amazon, we knew only that were on a very tight budget and that we were going to hop on a cargo boat heading to Nuevo Rocafuerte on the Peruvian border. From Coca, we planned to take the Napo River and hop off five hours later at a place called Panacocha. We did not have the funds to do a tour or stay in a luxury jungle lodge. Rather, we were on a mission to have a do-it-yourself Amazon experience.
Within a day of being in Coca, our dreams were half-shattered, as we are told by pretty much everyone we spoke to that it was not possible that this could be done. So, we checked into the San Fermin Hostel, which is a big wooden house on the corner, one block left off the main road on the same street as the Banos bus terminal. We paid USD$14 for a double room.
After inquiring at the reception desk for information on the boat, it was soon pretty obvious that the owner was on a tour-selling mission. He told us everything we did not want to hear. A local tour guide who was also sleeping at the hostel got involved and told us it would not be possible to stay at Panacocha without a tour but that "we have a tour here for only USD$300 per person."
We tried to explain again and again that we did not have this money and that all we wanted to do was pay USD$10 for a boat ride down the river and back. After an hour of broken Spanish and English, we left telling them, "We would think about it." After taking a stroll down to the river and finding the information booth closed, we decided to stick with our initial plan and head to the river early the next morning.
After asking a few people down at the port, we got the impression that there was some sort of boat leaving at 7:30am the next morning. Our 2008 out-of-date Lonely Planet said that their was a hostel on the riverside for a few dollars a night. Perfect.
So, with a bit more of a spring in our step, we spent the afternoon eating ceviche and watching monkeys terrorize the local dogs down by the river. Just before we turned in for the night, we invested in a hammock from a shop on the main road for USD$10, thinking that if worse comes to worst, we will be able to set up the hammock outside a lodge under our mosquito net.
Monday morning, we woke up at 5:45am excited to see what the day and night would bring, almost hoping we would be forced to use our hammock and sleep in the wild. When we arrived at the port, we were expecting to be hustled or approached by a ticket seller for the boat, but nothing happened. We were not even certain what the boat would look like. We did, however, catch site of three other gringos, the first we had seen since being in Coca!
We approached them and found out they had arrived late last night, and they also were trying to do the same thing, but go all the way to the border. After hanging around for an hour looking earnestly at sailors faces hoping they would offer us a lift, one guy we asked said it might be possible to take two of us to Panacocha on his work boat, but he would have to check with his boss. He told us to meet him at the Mission Hotel further up the river at 8am, an hour later.
The other gringos gave up trying to find a boat to the border and eventually came down to Mission's harbor to try and make progress on our lead. To our greatest disappointment, the boss decided no! Even though the boat was half empty, it was for two old couples who had paid over the odds for a tour. We begged and begged, standing at the end of the pier, with our sad gringo faces, but no luck. Whether it was due to our not being five rather than a less intimidating number of two is uncertain. But without the Swiss German’s knowledge of Spanish, we would not have had the info in the first place. Encouraged by our new found friends, we headed back up to the main port area. The day was still early!
We bumped into the tour guide who was staying at our hostel who already knew about our pitiful lack of money situation. We said to him, "Cut the bullshit. What can you recommend for us to do today?" Luckily, he came up trumps and said he had a contact he could call. He could get us a boat for $25 each for our own day tour. Vamos to the Island of the Monkeys!
After our pleasant ride to the island down the river, and after our guided walk through the jungle and back, our driver, Freddy, offered to take us back to his house on the river past Coca to meet his father and to see where he lives. "Well, that’s what I think he is saying," said one of the Swiss Germans. Just nodding our heads, we smiled and said, "Si, si!" We sat back and enjoyed the ride not really know what was to come. Fifteen minutes past Coca on the river, we arrived in a small village in the jungle, and Freddy’s father was there to meet us and tie up the canoe.
He proudly showed us around his two-story house, which he built with his own hands. We sat in the yard playing with his one-year-old baby and his puppies, waiting for his wife to come back from work. Oblivious to what was going on due to our lack of Spanish, we did not expect a white German lady, who speaks English, to walk around the corner in a suit in the middle of this small jungle village.
We were invited to stay the night, and dinner was put on to cook straight away. The hospitality we received was amazing. Even though he could not fully communicate with us, Freddy invited us into his home to show us his way of life for free. This is more than we could have wished for and a much more authentic experience than a packaged tour could provide.
With the help of Freddy's wife, who made a trip with us into town, we found out that the boat to the border would arrive tomorrow morning (Tuesday) and tickets would be sold at the port until 4pm. We decided we were happy with the way our Amazon adventure had worked out, and after another day, we would take the night bus back to Quito, then make our way to meet our friends up in Colombia. Our Swiss German friends would stay and take the boat to the border, swinging in their hammocks on the way, a 12-hour journey in total.
That night, we sat around Freddy’s dinner table with a mixture of Spanish, English, and German, with a tangle of constant translation, which everyone is happy to do. It’s a very surreal feeling thinking that we had all just met each other that day and yet it felt like our Amazon home. In the house and bed Freddy built, we fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
Something which I didn’t realize before entering the Amazon and towns like Coca is how much of it is being destroyed by oil companies and their rigs. It is not a nice sight to see--the open oil flame burning in the middle of the once dense section of the Amazon jungle. Freddy explained to us (through translation, of course), that even though the oil companies bring big contracts to Coca, this also makes it an expensive place to live and keeps boat prices high for him and for us. These oil contracts also stop local people from giving cheap rides to passengers down the river even when they have room, so there is no competition to keep the prices down.
Through our experience, we found that the easiest way to go down the river cheaply is to travel to Coca with a group of people, at least five or six if you want the price to stay really low. So, renting a whole boat can be affordable. Also, of course, you can catch the boat to the border, which does exist despite confusion and leaves Tuesday mornings. However, if you wish to cross the border and go to the next town in Peru, there is no cargo ship. So, once again, you will have to hire a whole boat. The more people, the more affordable it will be. I know the Swiss Germans were planning on waiting at the border to try to find people to join them there. Unfortunately, we were heading in the opposite direction. It will have to be one for next time!
If you are ever in Coca without a tour, ask for Freddy and his wife or his company, Witwoo. Maybe he will be free to take you for a trip down the river on his boat and show you his life like he showed us.