Our Amazon riverboat experience
Setting the scene
The Amazon in total is almost 7,000km in length and is the largest river in the world.
The Amazon river ferries that travel up and down are mostly frequented by the locals who want to travel from one town or another along the Amazon; such as the Belem to Santarem boat.
The portion that we travelled is only a relatively small section and normally takes around 5-7 days.
I can't remember the exact price, but it was somewhere in the region of R$250 each. We booked at the local ferry port so as to avoid getting ripped off or miss-sold by any intermediary agents.
The Manaus to Belem boat price is no more than this so don’t let yourself be ripped off! Only pay more if you’re going to get a cabin.
More on that later ...
We boarded the boat at a small dock that’s a 15 minute drive from Belem’s main terminal. We boarded whilst they were still loading their cargo, and went to the highest passenger deck, and with the help of some locals we managed to get our hammocks all set up and ready to go.
We also roped our bags to a pillar so that people couldn’t steal them (this happens when local children board the boat and throw them overboard into the river and then jump in after them!).
The first day
We soon got chatting with some English speaking people, which was nice as we’d found very few throughout our previous 3 weeks in Brazil.
My first warning signal came when I went to check out the toilets. If you’ve seen the punishment box in Cool Hand Luke, then you’ll know what to picture; each toilet was a tiny 1 by 2 metre steal box with no windows and only intermittently working light and water supply.
Each room had a sink, a toilet and a shower. This wasn’t an issue when they were freshly cleaned and before the heat had really started to warm them up ...
I’ll come back to these cubicles of delight shortly.
Cazzy and I then spent time nestling into our hammocks and reading our books.
The sun started to set and we got some great photos and enjoyed talking to others on board.
Once the kitchens opened I made possibly the biggest mistake of my young life: I purchased myself an on board meal.
Having read online, I’d heard relatively good things about the food, and to be fair, when it was going in, it tasted perfectly good. A big plate of beef, noodles, rice, beans and vegetables for R$15 is a good price.
Scene ends and we open to a new day ....
The next morning
I woke early whilst most were still asleep with my stomach churning like crazy. It hadn’t been the best night’s sleep anyway, but I knew something more was at work here.
Without being too crude, I’m sure you all know the feeling of diarrhoea, but waking up to this onboard a small metal vessel going down the Amazon, and with nowhere to run to for at least 5 days is a horrible feeling.
It was at this moment I remembered the toilet arrangements.
My heart sank, but I had no choice. I dared to visit and at that time of the morning things weren’t too bad and I managed to hold my breath against the smell for most of the experience.
But for the next 10 trips that day, things would not be so lucky ...
... nor the day after that.
The temperature rose well into the 30s during the day time and those boxes got HOT and stinky.
Enough about that, but it’s fair to say it put a massive dampener on my trip. In fact this illness seemed to claim the fate of every white person on board (including Cazzy), only 2 seemed to make it through unscathed ...
Our Australian saviours
Ben and Ansleigh Wilson are an Australian couple travelling together across South America on motorbikes.
For this reason they had their own cooking equipment, so were able to avoid buying food onboard, and they very kindly fed us at dinner time once they realised our situation.
By the end of the cruise we had rearranged our hammocks so we were next to them and were able to catch the breeze that their side benefited from. In fact by the time we left the boat, we realised that all of the westerners had somehow grouped alongside each other on the same section of the boat.
What do you do all day?
I never really got over my sense of feeling sick, and seemed to have some kind of upset stomach for the whole trip, but it did come and go for some hours at a time so enjoyed much of the day.
It was nice to be able to take it easy and have long lie-in’s, though I think Cazzy held the record for about 15 hours in one 24 hour period!
We had chance to read our books, and play cards and have some drinks and play other games or write blog posts.
Most days the boat would stop in at least one port so I would quickly hurry off, normally with Ben, and try and get some food and drink.
Stefan was able to catch a small boat that rushed him to the ship as we had only gone about 100 yards.
Ben would have no such luck.
In fact, we had entirely lost site of the port without a clue if Ben even knew we had left or what he was up to. About half an hour later, and with his wife only moderately worried, we saw a small taxi-boat quickly gaining on us and eventually it pulled up alongside and Ben jumped safely on-board with the 2 vessels moving alongside each other.
This certainly made for an interesting start to the day.
On one evening it went almost instantly from sunshine to some of the most horrendous rain I’ve ever seen, and the river seemed to come alive with turmoil.
It also proved a great chance to have a shower without having to actually venture into the toilets!
We never actually made it to Manaus before me and Cazzy got off. The boat was so delayed that at the 2nd to last port we had the chance to get off and catch a 4 hour bus to Manaus.
Cazzy eagerly jumped at this opportunity and off we went leaving the remaining prisoners (oops, passengers) behind.
Looking back on this part of our journey I would think it safe to say we will never be boarding a boat like that again, however based on other people stories and experiences I would still recommend doing it if you were to get the chance. I think we were a little unfortunate with the standards on board; others we have spoken to have said there toilets were nice and the crew very welcoming (we experienced neither of these).
How to plan your own Amazon riverboat cruise
- If you’re thinking of taking this journey, look at the possibility of the Manaus to Belem cruise. By travelling in the opposite direction you are moving with the current so can complete the journey in as little as 2-3 days rather than 6-7.
- Amazon river travel can be a very slow and largely un-entertaining process; but it does offer the chance to unwind from everything. So take some books with you and try to forget about everything else for a few days.
- Pay for the cabin! It doesn’t cost very much more and is more than worth it when you are feeling sick because you normally get your own bathroom! I’m sure they would still let you hang a hammock up on deck so you can get the best of both experiences without quite so much of the hardship.
- If you’re looking for a little more luxury then there are plenty of higher quality Amazon riverboat cruises available. We saw quite a few
- There are Amazon riverboat tours available that go all the way through to Peru. They would obviously take a few weeks but plenty of people would relish this opportunity. Maybe it’s something for you to look into?
But overall, if you take nothing more from this article than this one point ... DO NOT board the HMS Amazonia! You may not make it off in one piece.
If anyone reading this has any questions then ask them below.
And more importantly if you have been yourself then I would love to hear how you got on!
Did this post help you or is there anything else you need help with?? Ask away!
Alternatively, for something a bit more upbeat, you can check out the things I enjoyed most from our 4 month adventure through south America.