‘This is the biggest dormitory I’ve ever stayed in’.
The boat that greeted us with two empty decks when we got on, soon turned into a colorful land of hammocks.
We were on the public boat down the Amazon river in Brazil.
This journey that we took from the border town of Tabatinga all the way to Belem on the Atlantic Coast was one of the most unique parts of my travels of the last year.
My friend and I traveled the river in three sections, from Tabatinga to Manaus, Manaus to Santarem and Santarem to Belém.
A boat, a hammock. All you need to worry about is that you show up to get food at the right time. Other than that, you’re free to fill your time with whatever you want. For most people that are sleeping, chatting to others, staring at the river and repeating everything all over again.
The hammock will become your best friend at that time. It is not only your place to sleep but also your seat and your hideaway. I became a master in completely wrapping myself into the hammock when my introverted me had enough of socializing and needed a few hours by myself.
Sleeping in a hammock was much more comfortable than I had imagined. I’m not the best sleeper so I was slightly nervous about that. That changed pretty much the minute we set up the hammocks, finally left the port of Tabatinga at the Colombian/Brazilian border and I fell asleep right away. We had been waiting at the port for about 3 hours before the boat finally left.
The first boat to Manaus was much more ‘luxurious’ than we had expected and compared to what would await us by far our favorite out of the three boats we took in total. There were 3 decks: the lower deck for cargo and a few hammocks, the middle deck for most of the hammocks, bathrooms and dining hall and the upper deck with some cabins, a small room that functioned as a ‘church’, a small shop that sold snacks and an outside deck with some exercise equipment and space to hang out and get some sun. That area was surprisingly quiet and my favorite spot in the morning to meditate and do yoga right when the sun rose around 5 am.
As you can see, you’re on an early schedule on the boat. The sun rose around 5 am, which meant everyone would wake up around that time. Breakfast was served at 6am, lunch started from as early as 10.30 am and dinner was served at 5 pm. At 6 pm it would already be pitch-black dark and by 8 pm lights were off and most people went to sleep. For an early bird like me, this was great. I loved living by the rhythm of daylight, something I’ve learned to enjoy particularly during this last year of traveling.
Being on a boat for 3 full days meant you got to know a lot of people. Your neighbors would be right next to you, as the deck can get pretty full and hammocks are squeezed in one right next to the other. Personal space was non-existent (thus my wrapping up in my hammock to get it) and me being quite an introvert for whom personal space is indispensable, I had to get used to this a little. I had many people coming up to me to talk, whether that was while I was in the middle of doing yoga, eating in the lunch hall or chilling in my hammock. To me, this was sometimes too much attention and me and my friend being blond females among the few foreigners (out of hundreds of passengers) didn’t help to stand out less.
On the bright side, with that many people on board, I got a good chance to practice Portuguese. If you’re wondering, whether you need to speak any to do this trip I’d say: Not necessarily as there are signs in English and Spanish on the boat and some of the staff and some people will be able to speak broken Spanish. I have met travelers who didn’t speak a word of neither Spanish nor Portuguese and they managed as well. That being said, it’s nice to be able to communicate with the locals and hear their stories, so I’d at least recommend knowing some Spanish. Brazilians usually don’t expect foreigners to know their language and it was always nice to see their face light up when they heard me speak.
We met a few people who were living here in the Amazon region and it was fascinating to hear their stories.
I talked to a guy who was living in a small town along the river. Compared to what I and my friend were expecting we actually stopped quite a few times on our boat journey to pick up passengers from small river towns. He was saying that we’d be surprised how people are probably as obsessed with their smartphones as we are and that he thought most foreigners have a bit of a too simple image of people living in those areas (this does not refer to tribes that do live in the jungle but the people who live of fishing and agriculture and have settlements along the river). He also explained that some people take online courses that are broadcasted by the university of Manaus and that was how he got a degree. The Internet seemed to be plentiful even in that remote area and we’d take the chance once we got sim cards to enjoy some 4G at every bigger town we stopped at during the ride.
Furthermore, we met a Peruvian pastor with his family who had hopped on the boat one stop after us and became our hammock neighbor. He told how he’d been working with tribes in the area for 11 years in order to civilize them. According to him, tribes partly wanted to become civilized to get certain government benefits and ‘luxury commodities’ such as electricity, big boats, etc. but of course that there was also some resistance and they wouldn’t allow just anyone into their territory. He told me about different rituals such as using frog poison (kambo) as cleansing medicine, a practice that had become popular for tourists in the Amazon region in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. I had heard of it before but it was interesting to hear from a person that wasn’t a tourist. He also told me about other practices etc., many of which were hard for me to follow as he was using local words that I didn’t understand and I also wished my Spanish was more advanced to follow his stories. The feeling I got though was fascinating as the description sounded just like I had imagined. The fact that these tribes indeed exist who’ve had little to no contact with civilization. I can’t say whether this ‘civilization’ was really what they but it was interesting nevertheless to get at least a glimpse into this story.
Another guy we met told us that he was working in the river gold mining business and would constantly proudly point to his gold ring on his hand which had his initials engraved into it. Up to this point I had been unaware that there was gold in the Amazon, so that was another interesting fact to know.
Again, this was in Portuguese so I was able to follow only partly and not enough to recite the full stories but I am happy I got a few bits and pieces of the different worlds that exist out there.
The scenery cruising down the river pretty much stayed the same throughout the whole time. We didn’t get to see any animals unfortunately except for some birds. What we did see where small communities living in houses on stilts on the shore and fishermen heading out to do their work. The morning and evening showed some beautiful sunrises and sunsets and the stars at night were pretty impressive – we got to see the milky way the first night!
We would sometimes stop at small towns and villages to pick up new passengers or drop some off. This was the time when everyone would stand expectantly on the side of the boat, waiting to see what goodies the food vendors would sell. We were always on the lookout for ‘Choppe’, a popsicle as the heat on the boat could be challenging, especially in the afternoon. Vendors would also sell fruit, shrimp or full meals.
After 3 days and 3 nights we finally reached Manaus around 10 am.
The last hour was the time when everyone was packing up their hammock and their belongings and moved towards the railing to watch out for the city of Manaus to appear. After 3 days of trees and small settlements suddenly a large industrial city appeared in from of our eyes. Seeing that I couldn’t help but feel a hint of nostalgia, knowing that we would leave our little oasis of peace behind.
People who before were wearing summery clothes as in shorts and flip flops suddenly changed into dressing shirts, jeans, high-heels, etc. Even after having spent a year in the sweltering heat in South-America I still cannot comprehend how people can wear tight jeans in this climate. I kept being the tourist with the summer wear as the heat of the city was even hotter and stickier than on the boat.
All in all, the trip was in a way surreal, knowing that we were really on the Amazon river, very relaxing and entertaining. We made the decision to finish the rest of the journey until Belem in the Atlantic Ocean by boat as well as we loved it so much.
If you want to know the nitty-gritty details about the trip, also check out my post: Tabatinga to Belém – the details