Amazon River Boat Cruise: From Belém to Manaus

The idea of taking a boat across the length of the Amazon River thrilled us, and we were both very giddy when we got on the boat. On the morning of our trip, Laurent negotiated our tickets for R$200 in the main hammock cabin for the 5 to 6 day journey to Manaus. He bought the tickets and headed straight to the docks. Laurent had arrived on Cisne Branco a few hours earlier than Emily to find optimal spots to string up our hammocks, after hearing the competition for decent spots was fierce. By the time Emily had gotten there, he had secured our positions in the best spot on the boat (the middle where the distance between the lengths of the ropes were the longest) and was swunging left and right in his double hammock reading a boat. Once Emily had gotten some food at a supermarket a taxi ride away (the area around the docks apparently is too dangerous for the military police to let foreigners wander around), we hunkered down in our positions and aggressively made sure that no hammock would come in between our heads so we could still cuddle at all hours.

Our loyal Cisne

It does get quite crowded

At around 5:30pm, the chef came around and took our orders, and at around 6:30pm, we were off. We found out that day that if the kitchen opens at 5:30pm, we should be there at no later than 5:15pm if we wanted food other than the dredges. We ordered 2 portions (mistakenly, as they are real big) of beef, rice, noodles and beans for R$10 each and ate them on the deck. In the evening on the first night, we crammed into the very crowded hammock space and read on our e-readers or listened to podcasts.

The chef at work, making endless frango

The usual lunch

In the morning, we had breakfast. 7am is normally regarded as a decent time to wake up and perhaps, a crowd-beating time, but we found out that by then, there was little left to breakfast. We had a sandwich and heavily sweetened coffee on the deck. We had spotted some other fellow gringos on the ship the night before, and they were perched on the bow with their GoPros and chatting about. We joined them and found out they were part of a motorcycle expedition across South America. There were 5 Americans and 1 Australian, led by a local Brazilian guide and an Austrian-Canadian support van driver. They were very friendly and we stayed close to them for the remainder of the trip.

The cruise ship experience on a budget

Sunrise on the Amazon river

The constant refrain we heard from others who have taken an Amazon River boat ride is that it is boring and the scenery is never-changing. It is neither of the two. It is a great experience. As we sat on the top deck where the breeze was the stronger, we caught glimpses of the lives of locals through peering into their homes along the river. Their homes were often simple, perched on stilts, and varied in design from one to the next. The riverbanks are populous, and its inhabitants cast friendly waves. As the boats approached these houses, children (sometimes accompanied by their mother) would paddle out towards the boat and the passengers on Cisne Branco would toss a plastic bag filled with goodies out towards them. We found out later that this was a long-standing practice on the river, where the passengers would distribute some food or clothing in these bags for the locals. As our journey continued, we also saw that the scenery varied from dense jungle forest to open swampland, and in the background, high plateaus that loomed over the nature below.

Occasionally, we would get a hitch hiking boat with some local venders offering us some goodies. These were sold at bargain prices, and included a delicious variety of Amazonian snacks- salted shrimp for R$5, a jar of preserved palm hearts for R$5, over a litre of bagged açaí for R$7, and at our stops, plantain chips for R$2 or entire meals for about R$10. We munched on the shrimp and drank the açaí while we gazed at the lush green surroundings.

Typical house on stilts

Children looking for some goodies

We spent much of our time on the boat reading, listening to podcasts, avoiding the absolutely terrible loud Brazilian funk music being played at full blast, and talking with the other gringos. The Australian, Ray, delighted us with stories of his motorcycle trips across Siberia, southeast Asia, the Himalayas, and Africa. He was more experienced at wildlife spotting than us, and on more than one occasion, pointed us to a pink dolphin that surfaced. We listened and shared stories of our own. The heat on the ship was only unbearable in certain parts where the sun was located, and we moved our chairs frequently between starboard, port and stern to avoid it. We were also pleasantly surprised that there were showers on the boat, which released only pleasantly cool water. The times which we were on board were great as an opportunity for us to be in one place for more than a day or two just to relax and get our groundings again, while in the very pleasant company of the motorcycle expedition members.

Snacks!!!

During our journey, we also made several stops. Manaus was apparently conspiciously in need of tomatoes, and we started our journey with half of the deck filled with tomatoes, and with additional stops in Monte Alegre and Santarém, virtually the entire cargo capacity was just stuffed full with tomatoes. On our third day in the journey, we finally had a lot of time to get off the boat to go exploring. We docked at Santarém at around 6am and had time to walk around, and had some (relatively) unsweetened coffee and tapioca for breakfast. After running some errands, we headed back to the boat, only to see to our great delight the abundance of mango trees around us. Laurent whacked some mangoes off the trees and scaled another tree. Mango juice flowed down our chins as we enjoyed some fresh mangoes. To our immense delight, we also stumbled upon the mother of all mango trees, and hundreds of fallen mangoes laid on the ground. The friendly man whose property this tree sits on gestured for us to pick some up, and by the time we got back on the ship, had an entire bag of mangoes for us to enjoy.

Laurent climbing a mango tree

That night, the Brazilian guide for the gringos, Felix, arranged for us to be included in a special meal. We were growing sick of the same meals over and over again (we had a choice of frango- chicken, vaca- beef, or fried pescado- beef, over the same bed of rice, noodles and beans) and welcomed any kind of variation. Earlier in the day, he had gotten a large fish from the market in Santarém and had gotten the chef to cook it for us. It was delicious, and we ate it while admiring the sunset and the onset of stars covering the sky. On each of the nights, we were lucky to experience at least a portion of the sky that was not covered by clouds, and could see the stars clearly without any kind of light pollution around us.

Some açaí

On our last day of the trip, our peaceful early morning reading was interrupted by boisterous cheers and a storming of the male passengers on the deck. Felix explained to us that one of the men’s phones and his R$500 were stolen on the boat, but through intense discussion and investigation, it reappeared again. The man celebrated his good fortune by offering to buy everyone drinks, and at 8am, we watched this group of Brazilian men crack open a large bottle of vodka and dance to this loud music. By the time we docked, they stumbled happily off the ship.

This woman spent 5 days in her hammock eating mangos

We had expected the trip to take 6 days and 5 nights, but perhaps because the captain drove fast or our miscalculation, we arrived there in 5 days and 4 nights. Although we could have paid more for an air-conditioned bunk room which all the other gringos did, we preferred our experience to be crammed up next to the locals (who we observed with astonishment, barely, if at all, left their hammocks for 5 days). The nights were not hot and relatively mosquito free. To be sure, we had strung up mosquito nets, but nobody else on the boat did. All in all, it was an enjoyable experience which gave us a unique look at the Amazon, and we can’t wait for our next journey from Manaus to Tabatinga.

We came to enjoy this scenery

So many good books on the Amazon

Our Amazon themed reading list:
  • The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon – David Grann
  • Walking the Amazon: 860 Days. The Impossible Task. The Incredible Journey – Ed Strafford
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey – Candice Millard