Iquitos is well-known as being the remotest city in the world, only accessible by air or river. For those wanting to experience the latter, there are several ways of going about it.
For luxury travel, with air-conditioned cabins, naturalist guides, and wonderful food, a number of tourist ships operate out of Iquitos.
For those on a budget - and with the time - three-decked vessels, with the lowest deck reserved for cargo and the upper decks for hammocks and a few cabins, have traditionally plied the wide rivers of northern Peru, linking road heads at Pucallpa and Yurimaguas with Iquitos and the Colombian-Brazilian border. They provide a wonderful way to travel, getting to know the ribereños (river-dwellers).
Prospective passengers go to the docks where chalkboards indicate to where and when each boat is departing. The destination is reliable; the departure time is not. Sailings are usually postponed by hours or days until the captain gets a profitable cargo. Watching cattle, cars, cement, or sacks of corn being loaded, and later unloaded in tiny communities, is part of the experience.
Fares are inexpensive, typically under $15 per day of travel in hammock class, up to $25 for cabin passengers; prices are negotiable. Basic meals are included, but finicky eaters may want to bring their own. Bottled drinks and snacks are sold aboard.
Cabins, usually with four bunks, are tiny and airless; toilet facilities - including cold showers - are shared.
Hammock passengers bring and sling their own; you can buy one in markets throughout the Amazon. Don’t hang your hammock near the engine room (very noisy) or under a light (hard to sleep and attracts insects).
Once you select a boat, go aboard and speak to the captain or owner about a passage and get a receipt. Don’t hand over your fare to anyone else!
Watch your baggage with care in the chaotic loading and unloading process. It is best to leave your bags in a hotel until you find the right boat, rather than wandering around the docks with luggage.
The length of voyages depends on the height of the river and whether you are going with or against the current. Upriver from Iquitos, allow 3-4 days to Yurimaguas, 4-6 days to Pucallpa.
Downriver from Iquitos to the Colombian-Brazil border, open launches called rápidos or expresos charge about $60 for an uncomfortable, all-day trip.