By Noel Lau
What is it about languidly cruising down the Amazon River that strikes people as romantic or exotic? Tales from travelers, documentaries and movies have made this boat ride up or down the cafe au lait-colored river a must-do South American adventure.
Manaus, Bazil: Your Amazon Adventure Begins
Whatever your route is, you’ll either start or end in Manaus—a hot and humid city stuck in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest. The city itself is quite boring except for the beautiful theater, but it will be your base if you choose to do a bird watching or piranha fishing trip into the jungle.
Manaus managed to appeal to me mainly because I wanted to be on solid ground for a while after taking a three-day boat ride from Porto Velho, a Brazilian city close to the Bolivian border. In Manaus, I learned the next boat leaving on the seven-day trip to Tabatinga (next to Leticia, Colombia), wouldn’t be leaving for another four days.
Buying your Ticket
For the next few days I walked to the Manaus Port everyday to check the prices, which ranged from 330-350 reais ($190-205 USD). I was told that you could get it cheaper at the last minute when the captains want to fill up their boats. Unfortunately, I found out two days before the departure that this was the only boat leaving in the next week, so prices kept rising.
I started asking around and the locals told me that there’s another port entrance about 400 meters away where the locals buy. I rushed there and found a ticket for 300 reais ($175 USD). The only catch is that because it’s the secondary entrance, you have to pay a small launch to take you to the boat.
Normally you are allowed to sleep on the boat for the days prior to its departure without extra charge, but the captain was having the boat painted, so I had to stay another night in the hostel. The next morning I left very early to get to the boat. If you are among the first to arrive, you get to pick a good spot to put up your hammock.
Choosing your Hammock
You can buy a cheap hammock at the market in town. They cost from $5 USD upwards. Or the second option is pay triple the price to get an air-con, cell-like cabin. The boat has three levels; the best place to put your hammock is on the second level at the front. You want to avoid the foul smell and insects from the toilet and kitchen which are located at the rear of the boat.
The bottom level is for merchandise and goods, so if the boat is full and you come late, you might have to sleep among crates and boxes. The top level is an open deck where the bar is located. Whatever you do, don’t sleep there. The one thing all these boats that ply the Amazon have in common is that they like to play music, mostly raggaeton and forro (a type of Brazilian popular music) at an insanely loud volume from the morning, all day until 2 or 3am.
Life on the Boat
All three meals on board are included in the price of the ticket. Breakfast is served at 6am which is usually biscuits and coffee with milk. Lunch is at 11am, which consists of rice, beans, pasta, chicken or beef. Dinner is the same as lunch and is served at 5pm. We had to take turns during meal times because there were so many people. But don’t worry, there is always plenty of food.
It is advisable, however, to go to the supermarket beforehand to stock up on bread, biscuits, snacks, etc. Make sure you keep them in air-tight bags and hang them on the beam above your hammock. I bought a bag of sweets and by the second day an army of ants were having a party in it. Since all bars on boats sell beers, most boats prohibit passengers from bringing their own alcohol.
There is no routine on the boat besides meal times. We were woken up every day by an ear piercing whistle. Then we had the rest of the day to do nothing. Most locals took to chatting; the men with the men, the women would huddle together to do each others’ nails or exchange gossip, and the children played together—the whole boat became their playground. Backpackers and travelers tended to seek each other out, exchanging stories, experiences and books. Someone will definitely have a deck of cards or some games to kill the time.
Whenever I could get away from them, I enjoyed sitting on the top deck, watching the lush green jungle pass by. Wildlife watching was my pastime as well. Birds were quite easy to spot, but naming them was impossible. I had never seen such a colorful and diverse array of birds. Once I spotted some monkeys swinging from tree to tree. And I was quite lucky to see some pink dolphins. I got used to life on the boat. It became very soothing to see the wide slow-flowing river beneath me and not be in a rush to do anything.
Stopping in Villages along the River
The boat stopped often in villages to unload cargo, sometimes up to a few hours. Even though most of the villages aren’t very beautiful, I still wanted to step onto solid ground, even for a few minutes, just to break the monotony of life on the boat. I would go into the villages, have a drink and watch life in an Amazon village unfold before my eyes. It was quite hypnotic.
The arrival of boats is usually the highlight of the week for these villages, as they bring home loved ones, supplies, medicine, etc. It’s hard to imagine living in a place so cut off from the rest of the world, where the only connection is days ride down the river. Yet due to modern technology such as TV, phones, etc. these places don’t feel so isolated.
On the second to last day, we stopped in an indigenous village. I was surprised at how modern things are: children wearing hand-me-down western brand t-shirts, young men in stylish sunglasses riding motorcycles, houses built with cement rather than wood. Yet among the western influences, I was happy to see kids still playing in the river without care, their laughter ringing out in unison to the pounding sounds from the women washing their clothes by the river.
Just when I was enjoying myself and growing accustomed to life on the boat, we arrived at our destination: Tabatinga. It felt rather anticlimactic, because I realized that the existence of those few days on the boat was a time-wrapped bubble and now that bubble had burst and reality had rushed in.
Cities, days, costs
Porto Velho to Manaus 3 days $60-90 USD
Manaus to Tabatinga 7 days $190-205 USD
What to bring:
Insect repellent, light blanket/sleeping bag, hammock, earplugs, books, playing cards and a healthy dose of patience.
Noel Lau has been traveling and working his way around the world for the past decade. Most recently he has been living in Colombia after a year of slowly crossing the South American continent by bus, boat, and plane.