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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.

Our Boat, the Anna Karoline (photo by )
Our Boat from Manaus to Santarem, the Anna Karoline (photo by ShipSpotting)

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!

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Stand Up Paddleboarding in Alter do Chao

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

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  • 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.

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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!

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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.

Cleanliness?

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.

Creatures?

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.

Connectedness?

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.

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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.

Cuisine?

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.

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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.

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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.

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Have any more questions about the Amazon ferry trip? Let me know in the comments below!

About Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

33 comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
    Srimanta Ghosh

  4. Great info, this is happening for sure! Did u worry about taking malaria medication while you were there?

    • Hi Jason,

      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.

  5. Hi Kelly,

    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?

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  6. Thanks, good info. How about valuables? Are there any lockers on board or do you have to keep an eye on it?

    • Hi Jan,

      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.

  7. Steven Siegelman

    I did the trip from Iquitos to Belem, stopping at Alter de Chao, in Sept. 2015. It was another world. Steven

  8. 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?

  9. 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?
    Rahel

    • Hi Rahel,

      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.

      -Kelly

      • Dear Kelly,
        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

  10. 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
    br
    Thorsten

  11. Dear Kelly,

    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

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. It would be really njce to describe how to buy ticket in Manaus….this is definitely the hardest part for a people from west….

  15. 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.

  16. Wow that looks like an awesome excursion! I hope I can make this travel very soon

  17. 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?

    Cheers, Adam

    • Hi Adam,

      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!
      -Kelly

  18. I am considering the trip but wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (over 6ft tall and over 250 pds)?

  19. I am considering the trip but wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (over 6ft tall and over 250 pds)? Thank you!!

    • Hi Laura,

      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.

  20. Thanks for this information! I was wondering how the hammocks work for larger people (6 ft+ and 250 pds+)? Appreciate it.

  21. 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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