A Guide to Travelling by Boat Down the Amazon
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!
Looks like a nice experience! I live in the Amazon region in Ecuador, but we don’t have this kind of big ferries here where I live. Anyway the river here would be too small for the ferry to navigate 🙂 A lot of bug’s here too, but that’s the way in a jungle, the mosquitoes are the worst.
hi hanna you can go to your city of coca ecuador and take a riverboat down the napo river to nuevo rockafuerte.in the aerea of rockafuerte is the most elusive amazon live to be found if so,
This sounds amazing! i have been dreaming of doung one of these tours for year. But it looks like i am going to have to keep waiting.
This travel guide post has some great and useful information. Brazil is a great travel destination that’s growing in popularity as well as amazon river boat riding travel. I love boat trip. Magnificent shot and great angle.
Thanks for sharing this information.
Great info, this is happening for sure! Did u worry about taking malaria medication while you were there?
No, we didn’t take malaria medication. We decided that the side effects of the medication weren’t worth it. We took precautions to avoid mosquito bites and we didn’t have any issues.
Great write up with a lot of very useful information. I am planning a similar itinerary with a friend in February and we are also hoping to travel by boat from Manaus to Belém, perhaps with a stop in Santarém along the way. A few questions – Did you book your boat in advance, or did you find that it was easy enough to simply make arrangements upon arrival? Do you know where I could find any more information about prices and companies?
We didn’t book in advance, we just did it when we showed up in Manaus.
Thanks, good info. How about valuables? Are there any lockers on board or do you have to keep an eye on it?
There are no lockers on board, you are in charge of your own valuables. Because there were two of us, we could have someone sit with the bags while the other goes for food.
If you are travelling on your own, I would recommend keeping all of your valuables such as your wallet, phone, passport in a small bag or purse that you can keep on you at all times. Your clothes and your main bag are fine to be left near your hammock.
I did the trip from Iquitos to Belem, stopping at Alter de Chao, in Sept. 2015. It was another world. Steven
Could a 64 year old single woman do this trip alone safely?
What a really nice journal!
We’ll do the same trip, but if it is possible to take a car on the boat…
Do you know if any boats can and Will take cars?
The boat we were on didn’t have any cars on it – but there may be some that do. Sorry, I don’t have any information on those!
Hi. I am planning to make a trip from belem to manaus and probabely also to porto velho. But as I am planning a wold trip by bike, train and boat I have a bike with me. Do you know if it is possible to take a bike with you?
Thanks for your comment. I don’t know for sure if you are able to take a bike with you, but since there is quite a lot of space on the open deck of the boat I imagine you could take it on and then just chain it up out of the way somewhere on the boat. I would ask when you are buying the tickets, as you might need to keep it down on the cargo hold depending on how busy it is on deck. However, I saw lots of families transporting tons of stuff, so it seems to me that taking a bike with you wouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Thank you for sharing this inspiring story! we would like to travel from Manaus to Belem, but have not been able to find a modest cruise, sleeping in hammock like you did. Can you kindly inform us with which company you travelled.
Many Thanks, Anne
Thanks a lot for these helpful informations.
I’m also planning a trip from manaus to belem this year.
Can you recommend a website about the river boat companies where I can find further informations about the possible cruises on the Amazon River ?
Thanks a lot
Thanks a lot for this helpful information.
We are planning a tour by car from Surinam, through British Guyana, Brazil, Amazon River, French Guyana and back to Surinam.
Did you book your boat in advance, or did you find that it was easy enough to simply make arrangements upon arrival? Do you know where I could find any more information about prices and companies?
Do you know if any boats can and Will take cars?
Can you recommend a website about the river boat companies where I can find further informations about the possible cruises on the Amazon River ?
Do you know where I could find any more information about prices and companies?
Thank you very much for your information.
Yvonne ten Hove
The most challenging part of the boat trip from Manaus to Belem is purchasing the ticket. It’s pretty much “wild west” in that regard. Once on board, a child could figure out the rest. So, other than the rather standard pics from your journey, the account was pretty useless.
Thanks for responding to some of the important questions posted by your readers.What, did you just drop off the grid or something?
Thanks for your feedback, Joe! You seem like a really nice guy. 🙂
Hi Joe, please can you let me know how easy it is to get a ticket once in Manaus and do you remember the cost/ how frequent the trips are? Cheers
The Boa t make stops on the way? Or is a direct Travel?
It stopped in Alter do Chao in the middle of the voyage. We decided to get off and stay a few days there, but that wasn’t necessary. You could do the entire journey continuously, which would take about 4-5 days.
It would be really njce to describe how to buy ticket in Manaus….this is definitely the hardest part for a people from west….
We want to go on a cruise from Manaus this summer. Do we need to book it in advance or can we just buy tickets upon arrival in Manaus? Booking in advance costs a lot more and is non-refundable. I want to know if there are many different boats there and different cruise companies or should we secure a cabin in advance?
We didn’t book the Amazon river cruise in advance, we booked it with a local company when we got to Manaus. There are a few different companies to choose from and if booking in advance costs more and is non-refundable you might find it advantageous to book when you get there. However, that depends on how flexible you are with your travel dates.
Wow that looks like an awesome excursion! I hope I can make this travel very soon
Hi Kelly, great info!
I’m thinking of travelling around that part of Brazil, but I don’t have much time, so don’t want to do a full 5 days by boat. I’ve seen that there is an airport in Santarem, and was wondering if you knew anything about travelling to and from there by plane?
I don’t know from my personal experience, but I don’t see why you couldn’t do that. I found this page which seems to have quite a bit of info that you might find relevant. Let me know if you have any other questions.
Have a fantastic trip!
I am considering the trip but wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (over 6ft tall and over 250 pds)?
I am considering the trip but wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (over 6ft tall and over 250 pds)? Thank you!!
Lee is 6 foot tall and over 200 pounds and he was completely fine on the hammock and had plenty of room. The hammocks that we bought were quite wide. The only issue might be that if you are traveling on a very full boat, there may not be a lot of space between hammocks. However, that would be an issue for people of any size.
Thanks for this information! I was wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (6 ft+ and 250 pds+)? Appreciate it.
Hi Kelly, my partner and I are planning a trip to Santerem and wanted to experience an Amazon river cruise but we’re also strapped for time which is why we’re choosing the shorter Santerem to Belem option. After searching a long while on the internet for some info on cruise lines, times and prices with no success your blog has become a little golden gem for info, so thank you! My question though – do you think it’s possible to buy our cruise ticket to Belem on arrival instead of advance and where do we go to do this? Also, you mentioned that tying ropes are needed for the hammock on some boats. Did the boat from Santerem need the tying ropes? And can we buy these items in Santerem? Thank you for any advice in advance!
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I just did the trip as well 🙂 From Leticia/Tabatinga to Manaus and I absolutely loved it.
I’ve summarised my experience too with lots of tips which might come in handy for anyone who is thinking about it.
I have been looking for an amazon boat that uses hammocks for weeks, what company did you use/ is there a link where I could find how to book it?
Thanks so much
The boat that we went on was the Anna Karoline and we booked it while in Manaus… unfortunately I forgot to note the name of the tour shop where we made the booking. However, I didn’t think it was difficult to find an Amazon boat that uses hammocks – they seemed to all have this sleeping option!
Great article. Thank you so much! Am doing the trip soon with my motorbike… Did you see any boats carrying vehicles like cars or in my case a motorbike?
When you did it , do you remember what time it arrived in Belem? How many days were you on it? 4 or 5?
Thanks for the great blog.
Like Sean above I’m very interested to know what time you arrived in Belem on the 5th day. My partner and I need to rush back to Rio for our flight back to London and the trip we’re looking at should arrive in Belem on the 2nd. Do you think it’s safe to book a flight out of Belem to Rio on the 3rd the day after the boat arrives or is there a chance the boat could be majorly late?
Hi Kelly: I’d like to ask a few technical questions if I may… What is the cruising speed of the typical riverboat and how far did you travel per day on your trip?. Did you travel at night? Did the boat refuel during your trip? What kind of engine powered it? Diesel? Electric? Thanks in advance for your time. – Dan
Yes, we traveled at night and slept on hammocks on the deck of the boat. As for the speed and the type of engine and fuel, I really don’t know.
this page was the only place where i could find some information about a ‘local’ ferry from Manaus!!!
do you know if there is any company online?
i must be in Santarem in a very precise date, so i need to book in advance and be sure i’ll get there on time…..so i cannot just go to the harbour…can you help in someway?
I believe it is too late but anyway I’ll leave some info here.
The reason it seems hard to find local ferries in the Amazon is because it is not online yet, however there are plenty of companies and boats running through the main Amazon cities. After all, this is the how locals get around since there are almost no roads in the Amazon.
These boats are commonly late (from my experiences out of 7 boat trips 3 ran late). I would not count on it to fit a tight schedule such catching a flight or something as 3 to 12 hours delays are a common thing.
-The best way to get boat tickets is goind directly to the city/town’s port and buying it directly there. Some bigger places may have more than one port (Manaus, Belem and Santarem all have more than one) so it is better to ask someone before, just say where you want to go and they will tell you which port the boat departs from.
– There is no need to book in advance, just make sure you get to the boat few hours prior departure (also good so you can secure a nice spot for your hammock).
– Plenty of them being sold near the port, make sure to bargain before buying it. Also, I would suggest buying the medium or large size hammock (also called double hammock), instead of the small one. They are much more comfortable. Don’t forget to buy two pieces of rope with it.
– I am easy with food but honestly most of the boats I travel served good food. Sometimes it was included in the ticket and sometimes it was not (and would cost around 15 reais lunch / dinner and 10 reais for breakfast).
– There is normally a bar on these boats where they sell snacks, sandwiches, beer, soda, etc).
Traveling by boat in the Amazon is an amazing experience, very relaxing, good time to disconnect from the rest of the world and just chill out in your hammock, read a book, talk to people over a beer or when having a meal. People are generally friendly and want to chat.
Hello Kelly! Could you please let me know how did you get on the boat? Do you need to make prior reservation? Or just stay somewhere and wait till something comes? And if to wait, then where? Thanks in advance!