The Dos, Don’ts and Discoveries of Amazon River Travel

Spending a week sleeping in a hammock on a boat travelling along the Amazon River truly sounded like the tonic for a World Cup hangover.  And yet I was unsure of what exactly to expect.  So here I will try to convey this unique experience by identifying how best to prepare, what to expect and reveal the (mostly positive) discoveries I made along the way.  Warning: May contain sunsets.

Planning

When travelling and planning your routes between countries in South America, it soon becomes apparent that land-based routes are far more affordable, yet more time-consuming.  South American flights are not as cheap as in Europe due to the lack of competition or budget airlines.  My original intention was to travel by bus from Manaus North into Venezuela (taking in Angel Falls) then later cross the border into Colombia.  When I was made aware of the volatility within Venezuela I redirected my journey to instead travel upstream along the Amazon River to Tabatinga on the Colombian border.  While there is a faster, more expensive option, I was in no rush and relished the opportunity to slow things down after the pace of the World Cup.  After the final on Sunday, the next departure was on Wednesday so I booked my ticket and sought the advice of fellow travellers.

Preparation

  • DON’T book a Christian boat – VERY IMPORTANT as these do not sell beer and will not even let you store beer in their fridge (although they will transport beer for profit as cargo!)
  • DO ask your hostel for any spare hammocks as many travellers finish their journey in Manaus and may leave one behind, as in my case.
  • DO check the size of your hammock – my hammock was short which meant I was the highest off the ground and ran the risk of injury each time I dismounted.
  • DO choose a thicker material of hammock for your comfort – the thinner material is less cosy and cuts off the circulation to dangling limbs.
  • DON’T forget at least two strong ropes for tying your hammock to the ceiling – I inherited ragged rope and declined the option to buy more reliable ropes.  Although my ropes held, I slept in fear of plummeting from my dizzy height in the middle of the night.
  • DO bring a warm blanket – it gets pretty cold at night despite being in Northern Brazil.
  • DO buy a small supply of food (fruit, biscuits, crisps etc.) – meals are around six hours apart but, having said that, I did not build up much of an appetite in the heat (I always managed at least seconds at meals though!)
  • DON’T worry about bringing water – the boat supplies plenty of cold water for free that tasted and proved safe for me to drink.
  • DO set yourself a project, bring books and cards for entertainment – you get a LOT of free time 🙂

Meals

I was warned about the food provided for meals but felt confident that my strong stomach would handle anything improperly stored or prepared.  My self-belief proved sufficient and in fact nobody on the boat seemed to suffer from any food-related illness (although one poor man was definitely suffering with some illness from the moment he boarded the boat until his family collected him days later).  And as mentioned above, drinking water was free, cold, safe and plentiful.

Breakfast was served at 6am: the whistle signalling each meal served as a morning alarm (so I would advise against sleeping next to the canteen)!  The deluxe meal consisted of sweet bread rolls with butter and sweet coffee (so just water for me).  The lunch whistle sounded around 11:30 and we were summoned for dinner just before sunset began at 5:30ish.  Identical to my jungle diet, these meals were consistently a choice of rice, spaghetti, beans, chicken and occasionally a beef or fish dish.  We were treated to a chicken broth on both our first and final meals.

Entertainment

With the meals forming a framework for the days it was easy to settle into the lazy rhythm of river travel.  After the hectic pace of the World Cup I was happy to spend days chilling in my hammock or sitting on the upper level watching us pass riverside communities and never-ending forest.

Having stocked up on writing supplies and finally acquiring several books written in English, I filled my days by reading, listening to music and tackling the project of my travel blog.  Short periods had proven insufficient to motivate myself to blog so I thrived with these long, empty days and filled over 60 A4 pages with tales of my travels for the entirety of my month in Brazil.

For the majority of the evenings the four of us (me, René from Germany, Fernando from Colombia and Rajidi from Congo) played cards for hours – we played the version of Rummy that I had learned on my Amazon Jungle trip.  Fortunately we weren’t bothered by mosquitoes most nights (due to constantly moving along the river and possibly Fernando’s reasoning of sunshine after the day’s downpour) but we always had repellent close to hand or played in darkness as a last resort!

SUNSETS…lots of them!

Meeting Locals

I had read reviews and blogs about Amazon River travel where sleeping arrangements involved hammocks criss-crossing, overlapping and sometimes hanging above one another.  Fortunately my experience was not this crowded.  I found sufficient space for my hammock in spite of originally following misguided advice to settle on the empty upper deck – this served as evening socialising space so nobody slept there.  At most there were 50-60 hammocks spread across 3 rows on the middle deck with the additional crew in cabins upstairs.

Me taking a photo of René taking a photo of Fernando with young Hector

Me taking a photo of René taking a photo of Fernando with young Hector

It was a cosy setup and despite René and me completely lacking Portuguese we managed to meet and communicate with some of our neighbours.  One child took great joy in batting a ball of scrunched-up paper back and forth as we lazed in our hammocks. I was happy to donate paper (each time the ball escaped overboard) and play at first, but the game wore thin over the coming days so more and more often I feigned sleep or insisted I was busy reading or writing!  Our immediate neighbour, a little boy named Hector, was far more adorable (and less demanding) travelling with his gorgeous 19-year-old mother.

Did someone say sunset?

Did someone say sunset?

Most of the crew were friendly, particularly the kitchen ladies.  We were also allowed to get a prime sunset view from the front of the boat by the captain.  But after stopping on the third day, one miserable woman did not allow us to store our hastily purchased beers in their fridge.  René and I therefore spent that afternoon savouring our cold beers as we were taught Portuguese by one married 17-year-old Brazilian girl, learning words for any surrounding objects including the human anatomy.

We continued consuming our stock during our evening round of cards but with the beers growing steadily warmer we capitalised on another stop to top up with more cold Brahmas.  We offered some of our cold purchases to one of the crew members and in turn he repaid us by sharing his personal stash of cachaça, stumbling through a mixture of Portuguese and English conversation for the rest of the night.  He repeatedly tried to clarify the differences between the border towns of Tabatinga and Leticia, which became a running joke amongst the four of us throughout our stay in Leticia.  Things got more emotional as he spoke of the head and the heart – marking the end of our cachaça tolerances – so we called it a night.

What else to expect…

Weather:

  • Most days were hot and sunny – don’t make my mistake of forgetting to apply suncream to my knees while reading on the upper deck!
  • Expect funny looks when sunbathing (at least on the Christian boats).
  • Expect some rainy days and blustery, cold nights.
  • Expect beautiful sunsets…and maybe the odd sunrise.

Stops:

  • Expect long breaks for unloading cargo – this can be entertaining to watch as cases of soft drinks and beer (oh the irony!) get thrown and stacked.
  • Consider changing boats if stopping close to Tabatinga – our last unloading stop took several hours and most other passengers chose to pay for the short journey to the final destination.

Facilities:

  • Expect cold showers – a relief from a hot day if you can handle it.
  • Electricity access is available – perfect to recharge your phone or iPod after listening to music all day and taking sunset photos.
  • Bins are provided but expect to see locals throw bottles, food packaging and other litter into the river – I made a point of frequently using the bins but I doubt I made much of an impression!

Recommendation

Yes!  If you aren’t pressed for time and are looking to relax, slow time down and especially if you want to break that writer’s block then I would thoroughly recommend Amazon River travel.  It is possible to travel up- or down-stream as far as Iquitos in Peru near the Amazon’s source and Belem where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  River travel proves cheap and useful for linking Amazonian destinations, particularly for itineraries involving Manaus.  Experience sleeping in a hammock is an asset, but with my advice I hope anyone can enjoy this relaxing experience or at least get an insight into this peaceful journey.

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