Rio Amazonas by Cargo Boat

28 Mar

The Amazon basin has approx. 80,000 kilometres of navigable water making it the largest river system in the world.  Much of this remote region is not connected by road and relies heavily on boat travel for transportation of goods and passengers.  Its rivers are the motorways of the jungle and taking a boat trip along them is one of the most iconic and memorable journeys in South America.  Six months earlier we’d had our first taste of river travel down the Peruvian Amazon from Yurimaguas to Iquitos so we were under no romantic illusions about spending 72 hours on another packed boat departing from Manaus in Brazil! But with just 10 days to go until Christmas and spirits sky high, we couldn’t help but feel excited about the riotous carnival of river life that was about to explode before our eyes.

We arranged our passage from the floating dock in Manaus the day before we travelled.  After a quick look around the boat to ensure it was clean and well maintained, we purchased our tickets on board. Tickets can also be bought from agents along the docks but prices can vary so ask around to get the best rate.

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Our boat was a huge chunk of floating metal fused in numerous places to cover rust from endless voyages and painted in cheerfully bright colours. There were three decks – the top for viewing, the middle for sleeping and the bottom for cargo. There were a few small windowless cabins but the majority of travellers attached hammocks to rows of metal rods along the ceiling. Some passengers also slept on the cargo deck but they must have felt like they were sleeping in the belly of a snarling animal with the noise, smell and heat of the generators.

Along with passengers, the boat was crammed full with all manner of cargo. Men carried enormous watermelons on their heads, tractors were carefully manoeuvred up thin wooden planks and live chickens were placed in wire cages. Bags of cement, mattresses wrapped in plastic, shiny new motorbikes and fridges were all painstakingly carried on board until there was room for no more.

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To keep our taste-buds happy, we bought bottled water, fresh fruit and fizzy sweets to take on board and to help with a decent night’s sleep we purchased our own hammocks. Brazilian hammocks are made from thick, soft cotton cloth that’s both resilient and comfortable. They come in hundreds of different designs and colours and we decided that the brighter, the better! Don’t forget to buy pieces of rope to secure your hammock to the metal rods on the ceiling!

On the day of departure, we arrived at the dock two hours early only to find the boat was already packed to the rafters. We felt a wave of panic as we ducked under ropes and squeezed past hammocks looking for a space large enough for two. We circled the decks multiple times tripping over huge piles of personal belongings bundled high against poles and eventually claimed our spot.

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We secured our hammocks with knots sailors would be proud of and sat with our things until everyone was settled. Brazilians have a limited awareness of personal space and we noticed it wasn’t uncommon to return to your hammock to find people swinging happily above or below you. When a hammock defines your world, competition can be fierce. Usually a simple look will be enough put people off parking too close but it’s much harder to get them to move once they’re settled.

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By the time we departed there were hammocks slung everywhere and shared between many people. We were so tightly positioned that if one person at the end of the line moved, the domino effect was felt across the deck. Whole families camped out on foam mattresses on the floor and kids couldn’t resist running and summersaulting on top of them.

As we left the halogen glare of Manaus behind, the jungle thickened and small villages with wooden houses took the place of smoke-belching factories. Pink river dolphins and agile birds with colourful feathers cruised along beside the boat.

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Our boat’s strong engine powered us down the middle of the Amazon. Boats moving upstream travelled at a slower pace and closer to the shore. At times the river was so wide we could hardly see the banks at all and at other points we passed through smaller channels.

We shared the waterways with all manner of other vessels. Wooden longboats laden with bananas, water taxis nipping between villages, barges carrying logged trees and ocean cruise liners making their way 3,500 kilometres inland from the sea to Iquitos in Peru, the only city in the world that cannot be reached by road.

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The modern-day Amazonian cargo boat was a world away from the small villages dotting the river banks. On board the generator powered lights day and night and loud samba music blared from speakers. Beer was drunk from the early morning and games of poker played well into the night. Passengers waited in line to charge their mobile phones in overloaded plug sockets, whilst young children watched cartoons and Kung Fu movies on hand-held tablets.

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The contrast between the idyllic river scenes and the kaleidoscopic party on board was stark.  The peacefulness of the river banks was replaced by samba tunes and families changing crying babies; the light breeze in the tree tops was replaced by rafters rippling with drying clothes and towels; the clean, fresh jungle air was replaced by the whiff of ripe toilets and fried chicken!  

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On remote sections of the river, villagers paddled out to meet our boat in wooden canoes. In places whole flotillas surrounded us and families waved as we passed.

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Some of the passengers had filled plastic carrier bags with food, clothes and toys for the villagers and threw them one after the other into the water to be scooped out with huge smiles. When all of the pre-packed gift bags had been dispatched, passengers bought packets of noodles and biscuits and threw them over board too.

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The days drifted by slowly. We sat back and enjoyed the movement of the boat, we read, we observed and we enjoyed the interaction with the other passengers. At night we hunkered down in our hammocks wrapped in our sleeping bags and drifted off to sleep.

We were reminded that the festive season was fast approaching by the small tinsel covered tree on top of the bar and the occasional Santa hat worn by members of the crew but it couldn’t have felt less like Christmas if we tried!

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The weather changed constantly. Clear skies and steamy temperatures quickly changed into swirling dark clouds and thrashing rain. As the sun rose a beautiful mist hung over the jungle canopy and as the days drew to a close the setting sun ripped a neon-orange hole in the purple sky sparkling on the dark waters of the Amazon.

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Three basic, budget meals a day were served on board and snacks could be purchased from the bar. To supplement the food already sold on board, river traders from remote villages zipped out to the cargo boat in motorised canoes and sold local produce. Fresh fish, exotic fruits and even ice-cream came on board and were eagerly snapped up by fanciful passengers.

After nearly 48 hours on board and an unhealthy diet of fried chicken, chocolate and potato chips, it was a welcome sight to see a family heading towards us with their small boat laden down with fresh coconuts from the Amazon’s tree tops. Without pausing for thought the eldest boy started swinging a grappling hook above his head and with skill and determination secured their boat to ours. As we were moving significantly faster than they were, the front of their small boat was instantly lifted clear out of the water, whilst the back was submerged.

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A young boy of about eight remained in the boat and calmly bailed out with a plastic container. The rest of his family precariously climbed out of the boat and onto ours, passing up the coconuts one by one. Everyone pushed and shoved to make sure they were in line to make a purchase and we were willing to pay a small fortune for this rare treat but all they charged was $2 USD – an absolute bargain!

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As our journey neared its end and the shiny skyscrapers of Belem, the Amazon’s biggest port, came into view, we felt a mixture of relief and sadness to be leaving the cargo boat we’d called home for the last 3 days. We couldn’t wait to take a hot shower with clean water and we were desperate to spend the night in a proper bed without snoring from the guy two hammocks over! But we’d miss the splendid views, the easy pace of life and the joyful and animated personalities of our fellow passengers.

Our journey down the Rio Amazonas had been an unforgettable experience and despite the basic cramped conditions, the insight we’d gained into the Amazonian way of life had been simply incredible.

One Response to “Rio Amazonas by Cargo Boat”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Brazil’s hottest new beach destination (just don’t tell anyone!) | latin chattin' - April 7, 2015

    […] Alter do Chão is 33 kilometres West of the bustling Amazon port city of Santarem, by decent paved roads. Buses depart from Santarém’s Praça Tiradentes roughly every hour and take 45 minutes. You can fly to Santarem from Manaus or Belem or as we did you can arrive here after taking a multi-day adventure along the Rio Amazonas by cargo boat. […]

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