This was one of the reasons why I came to Brazil: to travel through the Amazonas River on a boat. I went upstream the river, from Belem to Manaus with a stopover in Santarém to visit Alter do Chão and do a break after so many days on the boat. They say upstream is better because you go closer to the side of the coast, and you can see better the nature & local homes, if you go downstream (from Manaus to Belém) the boats travel through the middle of the river…
I have to admit that I was really nervous when I finally was in Belém going to do this trip, I couldn’t find much information about it, and all I could read on the internet (or my Brazil Lonely Planet guide from 2008…) was “danger, danger” if you are a woman doing it by your own. Nothing of that happened! It was a chilled & peaceful journey through the jungle on a boat (well, 2 boats: one boat from Belém to Santarem, and another boat some days later, from Santarem to Manaus). During the journey I was traveling almost only with locals, who where on their way home, visiting relatives, or just traveling for business…
Useful Information before traveling
To be prepare for this trip, first of all you need to get your own hammock & ropes, to hang it on the boat! So here is where the experience begins, because they sell thousand of different types of hammocks. In Belém there is a street where you can find all the hammock stores together, and all prices range: Rua Quinze de Novembro, very close to the market “Ver-o-peso”. Mine was 25 R$ (ropes incl.) and works perfectly. You can also get cheaper ones, or more expensive, its up to you and your budget!
Once you have your hammock, you might need your boat ticket (Belém-Santarem), which it will be another experience. You buy it at the Port of Belém (the same port where you take the boat to Marajó Island) and if possible, some days in advance, because boats don’t leave every day. In the port you will find the booths where they sell tickets, but you DON’T buy it there (it’s more expensive), you get it from the salesmen with dark green shirts (which identify them as “boat-ticket-sales-men”) who are always around the entrance trying to stop you and sell the ticket. These are much cheaper that the ones offered on the booth, and also give you access to the boats. My ticket was 120 R$ (instead of around 300 R$…) from Belém to Santarem (2 and 1/2 days trip) but you might never know the real price. They always show a price list (which obviously it’s not true!), and tell you that you will buy it cheaper, but the exact amount, it’s unknown! Between 100 and 180 R$ is more or less the price range for the open area where all the hammocks are hanged, you can also get a cabin for 4 people… but I thought it might be more authentic to travel outside together with all the locals, and also because I was on my own. When you buy the tickets with the salesmen, it could happen that instead of a ticket for the boats leaving from this comercial port (boat name: CLIVER) you get a ticket for a boat leaving from another pier located in the old town of Belém (boat name: Rodriguez Alves). Try to buy tickets for this last one, because they say is much more comfortable and clean than the CLIVER ones. That’s what they told me, I was lucky, and without knowing, I had tickets for Rodriguez Alves IV.
Once you have your hammock & ticket, and the day of your trip had arrived… it’s time to go to the pier! If you got a ticket with CLIVER they open doors of the boat around 2 hs before departure, but if you got the Rodriguez Alves one (I hope so!) they open the boat in the morning to start loading it with all the stuff they will carry. When you get to the pier with people working loading the boat, you go to a booth where they exchange the ticket the salesman gave you, for the ticket that allows you to board the boat. When you travel with your hammock, you need to go early to the pier in order to hang your hammock in a good spot. Some tips for this: do not hang it next to bathrooms or near the engine, and try to go to the floors above if possible, this way it’s not so loud nor smelly and you will be able to sleep better by night. Do hang it next to plugs (to charge phones or cameras) or close to a wall so nobody hangs a hammock next to yours.
Due to the fact that the journey takes a few days, they sell food in the boat: they offer breakfast, lunch and dinner in certain hours (8am, 12pm and 7pm more or less) and snacks & drinks on the top floor all day long. Breakfast was 4 R$, lunch and dinner 10 R$, the water was for FREE on board, which I drank during the trip, without any problem. The food they have is the typical brazilian”prato feito” (rice, spaghettis, fish, meat or chicken, and beans), for around 10 R$ per meal, but as the boat stops on the way in several ports, you can also buy other stuff (fresh cheese, bread, juices, fruits, açai, etc.) on the different places, still you can always bring with you some snack before getting in the boat, like cookies, crackers, etc.
Once you found your spot and hanged your hammock, take out your book to wait until the boat is ready to leave. In the mean time, you will notice how crowdy it becomes (I boarded @11am, and we left @5pm!) Not only crowdy, but also you will see how they put their hammocks veeeeeeery close to yours, on top of yours, underneath yours… it becomes a colourful hammock maze. I was in the middle… and next to a woman with 2 children, who went almost the whole way with me… (no comments).
Once the trip begins it’s time to relax and enjoy the journey… you will first leave behind Belém with it skyscrapers, then it will become dark, and from the next day on, you will enjoy the best sunrises and sunsets of your life, you will see canoes coming close to the boat to ask for food, you will feel the fresh wind on your face, maybe you have some storms in the middle of the river, where it rains a lot in a few minutes, you will see houses of locals in the middle of the water, and schools, as well as stores, churches and a whole way of living.. on the Amazonia river.
Regarding insects, even though I took with me every kind of mosquito killer, I haven’t seen an insect on the whole journey! I did this trip on June (end of wet season) and regarding temperature & insects, it was perfect: nights were mild and I could sleep very well, and during the day due to the fact that we were constantly moving, I always felt a comfortable breeze, and as I said: ZERO mosquitos!!!! 🙂
Oh, and also important to know in these long term trips, there are bathrooms and showers, so no worries.. nobody is gonna smell on board!
If you think you are going to get bored during the journey, your are wrong! You can read a lot, write your diary, check your guide for things to do on the next stop, chat with your neighbours (very close neighbours..) go to the top floor and have some beers while enjoying the landscape and hearing that great Brazilian music they love on the North of the country… (sorry it’s not Caetano Veloso… or anything similar…hahaha), sleep never ending naps after every meal, and the most beautiful thing: just sit on the side of the boat and enjoy that amazing green landscape…
Once you arrive to Santarem, you can ask for the timetable of the boats leaving to Manaus, I recommend you to take Golfinho d0 Mar which takes not more than 1 day and 1/2, and it’s super comfortable (meals in this boat are a little bit more expensive: 12R$, but you can still buy food from outside every time the boat stops). From Santarem, you buy your tickets directly on the port, and there is not so much bargaining here: I paid 120 R$ again, but normally they are 150 R$, and is very difficult to get a lower price (this second part I did it with a group of 4 people, so we were able to get a little bit more discount). Before continuing with the boat journey I recommend you to make a break @ Alter do Chão which is a very charming town on the Amazonia river, and then continue with the trip. In this case you can buy your ticket the same day you are traveling, some hours before departure, the bus to/from Alter, stops just 400 meters from the port, you don’t need to go into Santarem city.
Beware: there’s one thing where you have to pay attention: every time the boat stops in a port, people comes into the boat to sell stuff, or to help the passengers to download their bags, so every time the boat stops, stay next to your bags, don’t leave them alone (or have someone watching them).
I hope I was able to answer all your questions regarding this amazing through the jungle, that most of us travellers, are eager to do when arriving to Brazil. If you have any questions or there something which is not clear, don’t hesitate in asking!!!
In the following map, you might see that even though the trip takes around 4 days, the journey its not even half of the whole Amazonas Rainforest