For overland travelers in Peru, the road between Tarapoto (San Martin) and Tingo Maria (Huánuco) opens up a number of possibilities. Rather than heading to the coast to travel between central and northern Peru, this scenic stretch of highway gives you the option of staying inland, potentially saving both time and money.
The route, however, remains a distinctly adventurous option. The highway itself is still under construction, with lengthy stretches of dirt road between smoother asphalted sections. A couple of bridges are also in a chronic state of disrepair (at time of writing, both have been completely disassembled). If that’s not enough to put you off, the highway also has a reputation for banditry.
The 285-mile (460 km) stretch of highway between Tingo Maria and Tarapoto forms part of the longer Marginal de la Selva Norte (Ruta 005N), also known as the Longitudinal de la Selva Norte or Carretera Fernando Belaúnde Terry. The Marginal de la Selva is one of three longitudinal highways in Peru; its northern half runs from the Junín region (central Peru) to the Peru-Ecuador border near San Ignacio in the Cajamarca region (see map of administrative regions of Peru).
Notable towns along the route (heading north from Tingo Maria) include Tocache, Juanjui and Bellavista. A handful of smaller towns and villages are also scattered along the route, including port/river crossing settlements like Puerto Pizana. If you want to stop for a night along the route, Tocahe and Juanjui are the best options in terms of hotels, restaurants and other services.
The duration of the trip between Tingo and Tarapoto varies according to road conditions and driver preferences (length of lunch break, average driving speed), but normally takes 8 to 10 hours.
In 2010, road improvements (primarily an increase in asphalted sections) had reduced the travel time to a fairly consistent eight hours, but then the two main bridges along the route fell into disrepair. Currently, these two river crossings must be negotiated by passenger and vehicle ferry (free of charge). If you arrive at the river bank just after the ferry has set off, you’ll have to wait until the ferry comes back. If this happens at both crossings, your travel time can increase significantly (perhaps by an hour or two).
If you’re a relaxed traveler with a fondness for off-the-beaten-path travel, you’ll probably enjoy the scenic and adventurous trip between Tingo and Tarapoto. It’s a good opportunity to follow the course of the Huallaga River through the high jungle regions of Peru, and you’ll really be getting off the well-trodden gringo trail. There are, however, safety issues to take into account.
The Tarapoto to Tingo Maria road, like the road from Tingo Maria to Pucallpa, has a bad reputation. The Upper Huallaga Valley is home to many of the country’s illegal drug trafficking operations. Of more immediate concern to travelers is the risk of banditry (highway robbery) along the Carretera Fernando Belaúnde Terry. The road is patrolled by both police and ronderos (members of the rural ronda campesina patrols), but it is never 100% secure.
I’ve traveled between Tarapoto and Tingo Maria on numerous occasions (including once with my family when they came to visit from the UK). I’ve never had any problems. I've heard a handful of reports of bandit roadblocks along the route over the last five years, one involving an American friend of mine. He was caught up behind a roadblock; luckily for him, the bandits had already started to rush their operation. Rather than ransacking the car, they demanded quick and easy cash from the passengers. If they had searched the car, they would have found his expensive research equipment (cameras, laptops etc).
Whether you travel along the route is entirely up to you. I don’t tell people to avoid traveling between Tingo Maria and Tarapoto, but I always explain the potential risks involved. I also always recommend traveling with a reliable agency.
Some beat-up buses travel between Tingo and Tarapoto, but a better option — for reliability, comfort and security — is to go with a taxi company. Companies such as Pizana Express (my preference) and Tocache Express have multiple departures every day from both Tingo and Tarapoto, stopping off wherever you like along the route. The fare from Tingo to Tarapoto and vice versa is normally between S/.80 to S/.100 (this tends to fluctuate depending on road conditions).
Hitchhiking is not a great idea unless you have plenty of time and even more stamina.