Travel Stories: Belem to Manaus by Boat: Five Days on the Amazon River, Brazil

There aren’t that many trips nowadays that take days rather than hours, so I was keen to experience a slow ferry trip leaving Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River in the north of Brazil, and arriving at Manaus, in the centre of the jungle, five days later.

When my partner and I arrived in Belem on a stormy weekend in March last year, the first step was to buy a ticket. We went straight to the dock, but it being Saturday, the ticket office was closed and after some wrangling with some rather aggressive independent touts, we thought we’d leave our purchase until the office opened.

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The Rondonia

However, in the meantime, our friendly hotel owner, Patrick, told us we could get a ticket from an agency not far from where we were staying. Off we went on the Monday morning and the purchase was easy and quick. We were booked to travel on the Rondonia!

We decided to go for an air conditioned suite, as the price for that was not too much more than it would be for both of us to buy hammocks and string them up on the boat deck. In addition, we would have somewhere to lock our bags. And we wouldn’t have to share toilets and showers with well over a hundred people for five days! The boat was scheduled to leave Belem at 7pm, and we were surprised, having been warned of likely delays by the guide book, to be pulling away from the dock at 6.59pm!

The first day was absolutely the best. Sailing slowly past tiny settlements and single houses on stilts, our boat was soon surrounded with little canoes full of children calling to the passengers. The Brazilians on board were ready for them, and threw preprepared bags of food and clothing into the river for them to collect.

Before long, we had little boats attached to ours, as the children threw ropes and latched themselves on, before scrambling up the sides of the boat like tiny pirates, to sell fruit to the passengers on board.

Amazingly, some of them appeared to be really young and we marvelled at the incredible strength and dexterity they displayed! Apart from one unlucky chap, who miscalculated a jump from one boat to another..

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Slight miscalculation!

Our accommodation was slightly less luxurious than we had anticipated, but still comfortable compared to the hammock area. The suite was a green metal box. With a rusty bathroom complete with monster cockroaches, and brown river water in the toilet, shower and tap. It was well worth staying in it, as the decks were quite loud with people talking and babies crying through the night. The air con was also extremely welcome when the heat got oppressive!

Life on board was slow, but the days were filled with lots of reading, chatting, sleeping and eating. The view from the back of the boat was hypnotic, and it looked as though we were watching a huge television screen!

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We were able to get off at a couple of stops, including a stroll in the fish markets at Santarem, a large town on the Amazon River. We only stayed there for a couple of hours but it was enough time to stretch our legs and have a look, whilst keeping an eye on our boat to make sure it didn’t leave without us.

One of the most notable things about being on the Amazon River was the size of the bugs that were attracted to the lights on board. Each evening we were bombarded with giant moths fluttering about, and some butterflies too.

On the last day, as we approached Manaus, we were able to see the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. This phenomenon occurs at the point where the muddy Rio Solimões meets the clear Rio Negro. The difference in temperature, speed, and density of the water in each river means that they do not mix together, and so there is a length of river which is half and half.

Disembarking at Manaus, I felt a faint sadness to leave our floating home, and the friends we had made over the previous five days. How lucky, though, to have been able to create such wonderful memories!

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Sarah Jayne

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