We started our Amazon journey in Belem, a prosperous city on the mouth of the river as it thrusts itself into the Atlantic Ocean. Our intention was to take the boat from Belem to Manaus over six days and continue north on land by bus to Venezuela. It wasn’t until we disembarked the boat, halfway up the river in Manaus that we learned Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had passed away. Because of this we decided to steer clear of this unruly country, which has a turbulent history of crime and corruption, now heightened by the death of their omnipotent revolutionary leader. The country would be enduring a fourteen day period of mourning – not a great time for travel. Alas, we were excited to stick to our original plan of sailing the length of the Amazon River, an epic journey which took an additional six days after a brief stopover and change of boat in Manaus, the final destination being the Colombian city of Leticia right on the border with Brazil and Peru.
After our experience on the Paraguay River we were expecting dishevelled, rickety old boats, instead we were welcomed onboard modern sophisticated vessels with multiple levels and clean, relatively new, but very basic, facilities. Just because these boats are “modern and sophisticated”, doesn’t mean they come without trouble. Anything is possible on the Amazon River, including running out of petrol. Aside from the fact we were already running impossibly behind schedule on the trip from Belem to Manaus, it seems the Captain and his crew came unprepared and with a limited supply of fuel. We were wondering what was going on when the engine started sputtering, and then it conked out completely. The current on the river is strong and fierce and it didn’t take long for this massive vessel to start drifting back down river. The clever captain somehow managed to ram the boat into the muddy bank, thankfully that wasn’t too far away. The not so clever crewman proceeded to tie the boat to a dead, withering tree which with the pull of the current we managed to rip out of the earth roots and all in a matter of minutes. Eventually a local in his metal dingy came to the rescue with fuel and tied his boat to ours for a lift back home, a fact he forgot to mention to the Captain, who then reversed over the dingy and sunk it. We then spent the next hour trying to save the dingy and its contents, and the poor owner who had jumped in to save his livelihood and then realised he could not infact swim.
Being first to board the boat to claim your spot to hang your hammock is of upmost importance. We had read that getting on the boat is a race, a matter of “first in, first served” to get the best spot to hang your hammock up to twenty-four hours before departure. With no desire to be forced to sleep near the stinking toilets, or the blaring televisions (they are at both ends), we were keen to get to the port as early as possible to claim our territory. Some boats allow you to board whenever the boat is at port, others like our first boat from Belem made us wait in line until one hour prior to departure, upon which time the gates opened and everyone ran like the wind. For the second boat in Manaus we turned up relatively early and the boat was already packed, thankfully we managed to squeeze ourselves in. The locals, who are accustomed to this kind of travel, have no concept of personal space and will put their hammock wherever they can, below you, above you, or squashed inbetween you, which doesn’t seem so bad until you wake up in the middle of the night with a foreign foot in the face. A lesson learned for next time, guard your space, allow no intruders.
Prior to boarding in Belem we went on a mission to buy hammocks, food and water for the trip. Each boat company provides different services, some, like our boat from Manaus to Tabatinga, provide three meals a day, others, like the boat from Belem to Manaus, provide no meals. All boats provide unlimited, refreshingly cold, filtered drinking water, so that case of plastic bottles we lugged all the way onboard was totally unnecessary. The food on the second boat was tasty but pretty tedious. As it was included we ate every meal, the same rice, spaghetti, chicken and beans every day for lunch and dinner. On the first boat meals were expensive, but the route from Belem to Manaus stops quite frequently where hoards of locals are waiting onshore to sell you pre-cooked meals, empanadas, and snacks, for next to nothing. This was by far a highlight of the trip as it was a race to get to the edge of the boat where everyone hangs out to try and get a cheap meal before the limited supply sells out. Iain proved to be quite valuable, with his enormously long torso and arms reaching far beyond anyone else’s, we ate pretty well. Many locals along the river from Belem to Manaus will also chase the boat down with their tiny canoes fitted with an outboard motor, to sell you exotic jungle fruits, delicious palm hearts called Palmitos, and shrimp. When a cute little Amazon kid jumps on board to sell them to you how could you possibly say no?
Not only is the size of the Amazon jungle being reduced every day by the savagery of logging for the valuable timbers, the amount that has been cleared for agriculture and cultivation is astonishing. Virtually the entire way up river we notice the significantly huge amount of jungle which has been “slashed and burned” to allow for farming. The old-growth Amazon Jungle along the banks of the river is practically non-existent, and everytime we spotted a larger than normal tree, we thought “is that all that is left”?
Not surprisingly, considering most of the jungle has been cleared, the chances of seeing any of those exotic Amazonian animals you were imagining earlier is slim to nothing – the only animals being domestic, or farm stock. You will however spend hours onboard trying to spot the infamous Pink Amazon Dolphin, the largest in the dolphin family growing up to two metres long. This pink bellied dolphin is an elusive creature but we managed to catch a few playing around the boat along with their close friend the Grey Amazon Dolphin. And yes, they are really pink. The locals will spend hours themselves on the edge of the boat trying to catch fish as the boat cruises along to take home to the family for dinner. We thought perhaps they would catch a giant Piranha or at least a long slimy Anaconda, our anticipation was fruitless, for any such sighting we would have to venture deep into the depths of the jungle for the real Amazon Experience.
Click here to view our Amazon River photos.
Next stop, we head deep into the mysterious depths of the Amazon Jungle…