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River journeys

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Any journey up the Rio Amazonas is a serious affair. The river is big and powerful and the boats, in general, are relatively small, top-heavy-looking wooden vessels on two or three levels. As far as spotting wildlife goes, there’s very little chance of seeing much more than a small range of tropical forest birds – mostly vultures around the refuse tips of the ports en route – and the occasional river dolphin, although your chances increase the smaller the craft you’re travelling on, as going upriver the smaller boats tend to hug the riverbanks, bringing the spectacle much closer. Going downstream, however, large and small boats alike tend to cruise with the mid-stream currents, taking advantage of the added power they provide. Whichever boat you travel with, the river is nevertheless a beautiful sight and many of the settlements you pass or moor at are fascinating.

It’s important to prepare properly for an Amazon river trip if you want to ensure your comfort and health. The most essential item is a hammock, which can be bought cheaply (from about R$25 in the stores and markets of Manaus, Santarém or Belém, plus two lengths of rope (armador de rede) to hang it from – hooks are not always the right interval apart for your size of hammock. All hammock shops sell them and you need to get them at the same time as you buy your hammock. Loose clothing is OK during daylight hours but at night you’ll need some warmer garments and long sleeves against the chill and the insects. A blanket and some insect repellent are also recommended. Enough drink (large bottles of mineral water are the best option) and extra food – cookies, fruit and the odd tin – to keep you happy for the duration of the voyage may also be a good idea. Virtually all boats now provide mineral water, and the food, included in the price, has improved on most vessels, but a lot of people still get literally sick of the rice, meat and beans served on board, which is, of course, usually cooked in river water. If all else fails, you can always buy extra provisions in the small ports the boats visit. There are toilets on all boats, though even on the best they can get filthy within a few hours of leaving port. Again, there are exceptions, but it’s advisable to take your own roll of toilet paper just in case. Yellow fever inoculation checks are common on boats leaving Belém to travel upriver, and for travellers unfortunate enough not to have a valid certificate of vaccination, you risk having a compulsory injection.

There are a few things to bear in mind when choosing which boat to travel with, the most important being the size and degree of comfort. The size affects the length of the journey: most small wooden boats take up to seven days to cover Belém to Manaus, and the larger vessels generally make the same journey in five to six days (four to five days downriver). See the “Listings” sections for Belém, Santarém and Manaus for more on boat operators.

Better value, and usually more interesting in the degree of contact it affords among tourists, the crew and locals, is the option of taking a wooden riverboat carrying both cargo and passengers. There are plenty of these along the waterfront in all the main ports, and it’s simply a matter of going down there and establishing which ones are getting ready to go to wherever you are heading, or else enquiring at the ticket offices; these vessels are essentially water-borne buses and stop at most towns along the way. You’ll share a deck with scores of other travellers, mostly locals or other Brazilians, which will almost certainly ensure the journey never becomes too monotonous. The most organized of the wooden riverboats are the larger three-deck vessels, on which the Belém–Manaus trip costs US$70 for hammock space (US$50 downriver); this is negotiable if you’re really stuck for cash, and will often come with a small discount if you buy your tickets two or more days before departure. The smaller two-deck boats are cosier, but often only cover shorter legs of the river. This is fine if you don’t mind spending a day or two waiting for your next connection to load up. All of these wooden vessels tend to let passengers stay aboard a night or two before departure and after arrival, which saves on hotel costs.

There’s room for debate about whether hammock space is a better bet than a cabin (camarote; currently around R$250 upriver), of which there are usually only a few. Though the cabins can be unbearably hot and stuffy during the day, they do offer security for your baggage, as well as some privacy (the cabins are shared, however, with either two or four bunks in each) and, in most cases, your own toilet (which can be a blessing, especially if you’re not very well). The hammock areas get extremely crowded, so arrive early and establish your position: the best spots are near the front or the sides for the cooling breezes (it doesn’t really matter which side, as the boat will alternate quite freely from one bank of the river to the other), though the bow of the boat can get rather chilly if the weather conditions turn a bit stormy. If it really gets unbearably crowded, you can always take your chances by slinging your hammock on the lower deck with the crew, though you’ll also have to share your space with cargo and throbbing engine noise.

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