Travelling in one of the slow boats that sail along the Amazon River is an unforgettable experience. If you go to the Amazonia, don’t miss taking at least one of these trips by any means!! These aren’t tourist nor nice boats, but rather a practical transport option, both for passengers and cargo, in a region with no roads or railways. Each passenger is expected to carry his/her own hammock, and tie it to the ceiling with two ropes. Luggage simply rests on the floor.
I took the following boats:
– Tabatinga – Manaus 3.5 days 170 R$
– Manaus – Santarem 1.5 days 100 R$
– Santarem – Belém 2 days 120 R$
If you take the opposite route (upstream), it takes about 50% longer and it is more expensive.
Without a doubt, the first of the 3 trips I took was the one I had the most fun, partly because it was my first time in such a boat and partly because the trip itself was kind of original. I’ll focus of this one.
As I was telling you, I went to buy the ticket the day before, and carried my hammock in order to secure a good spot. The crew were loading the boat with all sorts of cargoes, ranging from food to motorbikes and cars. The first passengers to arrive were hanging their hammocks, in an otherwise empty deck. After tying my hammock, I headed back to Leticia.
The next day, I went back to the boat with the ticket and my stuff. I was astounded to see how the deck had been transformed. Not only were all the hammock spots taken but also the aisles and everywhere. The lower deck, where the cargo was loaded, was full of hammocks as well. This lower deck is incredibly noisy as it is close to the engine room. If you travel in any of these boats, avoid the lowest deck if at all possible. There could be about 400 people onboard, I guess. I thought nobody else could fit in, but yes…when the boat stopped at subsequent ports more people came in and strung their hammocks between two others. No room to swing your hammock and relax, of course. 🙂
To my surprise, most of the passengers weren’t Brazilian. About 70% of the people onboard were from Haiti. Locals were astonished about this as well and told me that’s not at all common (and in my next 2 boat trips virtually all were locals). It seems that after the earthquake in Haiti, the Brazilian government has allowed many Haitians into the country. A migratory route has sprung up through Panama and Peru, and then they get into Brazil by the Triple Frontier and continue towards the interior in this boat. My initial fears about being the only one in the boat who didn’t speak Portuguese were nonsense: French turned out to be much more useful this time.
I was sleeping in the central area of the middle deck. It was a good place to sleep, away from the corridors, but finding my way to the hammock was a pretty difficult task, an exercise of body contortion. My neighbours… no surprise, Haitians! Since these boat trips take days, there is so little personal space and people get so bored (I was one of the very few who had such a thing as a book), there’s a lot of opportunity for social interaction. I also noticed many people were curious about meeting the 5-10 “gringos” onboard. Right upon my arrival, I met Javier, a Colombian from Bogotá who has been living in Brazil for years, and his 15-year-old son Jonathan. Jonathan told me that he didn’t speak Spanish very well, but I soon noticed he was just being modest, his Spanish sounded native. We had some language exchange. He taught me my first Portuguese words and (as his Spanish was so good) I taught him the numbers in English. His father, Javier, has a curious profession: he makes animal-shaped balloons and sells them to families with children in a park in Manaus, for 1 R$. He didn’t miss the chance to offer balloons to families onboard, and I believe he even sold a few. His hobby is just as odd as his job: racy chatting with Latin American women, and according to him, he is sometimes successful. He has a whole list of websites used in every South American country, and he asked for my help to translate to French to find out which ones are used in Haiti. The response we got (facebook) didn’t satisfy him 🙂
With these and other pastimes, the 6 hour delay to leave went by quickly. Finally, the boat weighed anchor and set sail. At that very moment, the Haitians started singing in unison, what they later explained me to be a popular farewell song. Immediately after, the national anthem of Haiti. Later, the singing faded away until the usual racket prevailed, along with Michel Teló’s omnipresent “ai si eu te pego”.
The rest of the afternoon/evening: staring at amazing landscapes and an awesome sunset, practicing my first words in “Portuñol” with Jonathan, listening to sad stories about the earthquake in Haiti. I thought I’d find it difficult to sleep in a hammock in such an overcrowded boat; however, I felt asleep really quickly after an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally.
I’ll tell you some anecdotes of the second and third day in my next post. But remember: this is a fascinating experience, not to be missed.