It’s hard to wrap your head around the sheer scale of the Amazon River – this humongous waterway makes most other rivers in the world look like a mere trickle. Last week, Lee and I travelled a total of 1,584 km between the Brazilian cities of Manaus and Belem on a river ferry – an epic journey that takes five days in total.
River boats are the long distance buses of the Amazon and they connect most of the major settlements along this enormous river. The large ferries are not the best for jungle sightseeing as they simply sail down the middle of the river (take an Amazon tour for that), but they are a fun, laid back way to get from point A to B and an experience in themselves. Here are my tips to help you plan your Amazon boat trip.
Planning Your Trip
Which Direction to Travel?
Lee and I decided to fly from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, then take the journey to Belem because it was what worked best for our needs. It is possible to do the trip in the other direction, but you will be travelling upstream so it will take a little bit longer – so keep that in mind.
Don’t Expect Punctuality
When you are planning your Amazon River trip, don’t expect that the boats will arrive on time. In fact, it’s better to expect that they will always be several hours late. Things operate on “River Time” here, so a boat that is expected to leave at 10am will probably start boarding at noon. Our boat from Santarem to Belem was supposed to arrive at noon, but it didn’t get there until the evening.
Keep your schedule as flexible and possible – if you expect delays then you won’t be too stressed out when they inevitably happen. Just sit back and read another chapter in your book, you’ll get there when you get there.
Should You Stop Halfway?
It is possible to take the trip between Manaus and Belem as one single journey, which will turn out to be around 5 days in total. This might be the best option for you if you want to get directly between the two, but you might also choose to stop halfway in between.
We decided to stop for a few reasons. First of all, I am a digital nomad freelance writer and when I spend five days at a time without being connected to my email – I run the risk of missing out on an urgent job opportunity or getting behind on work. It made more sense for me to split the journey into two parts so that I could get to civilisation in between and respond to my emails.
Also, we wanted to stop in Santarem so that we could visit the beach at Alter do Chao. This is a beautiful sandy beach on the Tapajo River and it is the ideal place to relax, with several great restaurants where you can sip cold beer with your toes in the sand. We even rented a stand up paddleboard from our hostel for the afternoon!
Prepare for Boarding
What to Bring With You
Here are some items that you might find useful to bring with you on the trip:
- Your luggage
- An assortment of snacks
- A hammock (more info on how to purchase one below)
- A towel or a sarong to use as a blanket at night – it can get a little chilly in the small hours of the morning
- Your camera – there will be some great shots along the way
- Something to entertain yourself with – books, a Kindle, games, cards, a laptop with TV shows, etc.
- Bug spray
- Seasickness tablets (it is a river but it can get choppy)
- Cash – to pay for your meals on the boat
Buying a Hammock – Your Bed for the Journey
One of the most essential supplies that you will need for your trip is your own hammock – the boat does not supply you with one. Luckily, they are easy to find. There will be market stalls selling hammocks near the docks where the boats set off – we bought ours on the pier in Manaus.
You will need a set of tying ropes, two per hammock, as well. On some boats you won’t need them because there will be hooks for you to hang your hammock from. However, on the Anna Karoline there was only horizontal metal poles on the ceiling so we had to use the ropes to tie our hammocks up.
Don’t be afraid to haggle when you buy your hammock. Our hammock seller started off at 50 R per hammock and 5 R each for the tying ropes (120 R in total). We haggled him down to 75 R in total, including the ropes. We might have got it cheaper if we had haggled harder, but we were happy to pay that price. Never take the first price he offers, be patient and haggle with a friendly smile on your face – you can save a lot of money!
It is possible to pay a lot more for a cabin on the boat, but I don’t know why anyone would want to sleep in a dark, stale, windowless room when they could sleep on a hammock on the open air deck. I am not exaggerating when I say that my hammock blessed me with the best sleep of my entire adult life.
I think it was a combination of the soothing white noise from the boat engines, the way the hammock cradled my spine in an ergonomic way and the gentle swaying motion of the boat. Even with afternoon naps, I slept around 9-12 hours per night on the boat and one night I slept a blissful 15 hours. I haven’t snoozed that much since I was an unemployed teenager – I feel fantastic!
What to Expect on the Boat
We took the Anna Karoline from Manaus to Santarem and the Liberty Star from Santarem to Belem. I can only tell you about what we experienced on those boats, however it seems to me that most of the Amazon ferries are similar so this will give you a general idea of what to expect.
Be warned, this is not a luxury cruise ship. It is an old, rusty, run down Amazon River ferry. However, it’s not as bad as you might think. The bathrooms can be a little scuzzy and stale, but they are cleaned often. There are showers, so you can keep yourself fresh on the boat. In fact, the showers have amazing water pressure and are better than many showers in hostels you will find in Brazil.
There are a few creepy crawlies – spiders, moths and the like – but there is no avoiding those in the jungle. Take bug spray for the mosquitos and otherwise don’t worry. I found the bug life quite fascinating actually, on the first boat I saw a bright green praying mantis and on the second boat I was visited by a moth so big I thought it was a bat.
Expect to have no internet access for the duration of your trip, as well as no mobile phone signal for most of the journey. You are in the middle of the freaking Amazon River jungle after all. 🙂
This means that if you are a digital nomad such as myself, you will need to take these days off work. Set an email auto responder to let your clients know where you are and that it will take a few days for you to email them back. If you have weekly tasks that you need to carry out for your remote job, make sure that you do them in advance.
There will be electrical sockets on the boat, but there will be very few of them and they will be a hot commodity with many people wanting to charge their phones and other devices. I am writing this post offline, while sitting on a plastic chair up against the water cooler with my laptop plugged into the only free socket I could find.
The lack of connection to the outside world on the boat has been quite a nice break for me. As a freelancer it’s easy to feel like work never stops, as there is always something more to do and a steady stream of fresh email in your inbox begging for your attention. Taking a few days off the grid has allowed me to recharge, read Game of Thrones, watch an entire season of Parks and Recreation, work on my own projects and sleep – it’s been truly wonderful.
There was food served on the boat, but it was not included in the price of our tickets. The typical price was around 10-15 R for a large plate of food. You could buy a food token at the shop and exchange it for your meal when the dining area was open. Typically, the dining area was open for meals at set times, usually:
6:30am – 8:30am – breakfast
10:30am – 1:30pm – lunch
5:30pm – 7:30pm – dinner
Needless to say, I was never awake early enough for breakfast so I can’t tell you what that was like. Lunch and dinner was a variation on beef, rice, beans, noodles and salad every time. The food is cooked fresh on the ship and it is actually quite good.
However, even though it is tasty – having the same meal over and over again can get a little boring, so I would recommend bringing some of your own food too. I would have loved to have a sandwich for at least one of my meals just to break up the monotony.
There was also a shop on the boat where we could buy beers, instant noodle cups, potato chips, cookies and other snacks. The snacks are expensive, however, so bringing your own supplies will certainly help you to reduce your costs.
Life on the Boat
What is there to do on a river boat on the Amazon? Basically – a whole lot of nothing.
But that’s the best part! You can simply relax, write in your journal, catch up on those postcards, read a book, watch episodes of your favourite show, play cards, chat with your travel companions and catch up on your sleep.
Meanwhile, the muddy expanse of the vast Amazon River drifts by. You can watch as you slowly pass small villages, wooden huts, children bathing in the river, lush green forests and spectacular orange and lavender sunsets. You’ll get where you are going, eventually, but in the meantime just relax and enjoy the ride.
Have any more questions about the Amazon ferry trip? Let me know in the comments below!