What better way to see the Amazon River than by travelling on it.
Like many things in my travels, this was something I wasn’t sure I could do until I arrived in the area and did some research. I found out about passenger/cargo boats that made regular trips between Manaus (a big modern city in the middle of Amazonia) and Belém (another big city on the Atlantic coast), and signed up for a 5 day trip leaving the following day.
When I arrived at Manaus’ Porto Flutuante boat terminal in the morning I was told I had to bring my own hammock to sleep in on the boat. I hurriedly returned with a newly purchased hammock in 15 minutes, just in time for the scheduled departure at 12 p.m. I was then told the actual departure wasn’t for another hour.
When the boat did leave at 1 p.m., it moved only about 200 m down the river and docked again. The near empty 3 deck vessel soon filled up with new passengers and cargo. People bargained and paid the captain directly and got big discounts by avoiding paying tax and other charges they would have paid had they bought their tickets at the terminal. I then found out the boat wasn’t scheduled to leave till 5 p.m.
The boat finally set sail and soon we came to Encontro das Águas (Meeting of the Waters) where the dark Rio Negro we’d been travelling down on joined up with the muddy Rio Solinões to form one river. It’s a nature’s oddity where the two rivers refusing to mix with each other at once, left a clear line of division visible in the middle of the river for a few kilometres.
I have been surprised by the large amount of rubbish in the river: very noticeable even in this huge stretch of water. Pollution was bad especially near big modern cities. It totally shattered the image I had of Amazonia being one of the last frontiers on the planet where primitive indigenous people carved out subsistence.
During the 6 hour early morning stop at Santarém, I went to the popular white sand beach at Alter do Chão reached in about 30–40 minutes by car.
The boat was full and everyone slept in hammocks on open deck – except a small number of cabin passengers. The hammocks were packed in so tightly that you often touched the people on either side if you moved a little or the breeze picked up.
Every morning we had to untie our hammocks to make space for the 6:30 a.m. breakfast which comprised of simple white bread and coffee. For lunch and dinner we were given rice, spaghetti, meat and salad (for lunch only). All the meals were served in 3 quick sittings due to limited space and the menu stayed the same the entire trip. I was eating for survival and felt like a slave being transported to some distant colony.
The slow, routine life on the boat was punctuated by regular stops the boat made along the way, picking up and dropping off cargo and passengers. At each stop locals were waiting to sell us goodies like fruits, nuts, cheese and ice cream.
One of the highlights of the trip came in the form of encounters with the indigenous people. They would spot us coming down the river and row out to us in their small wooden boats from their riverbank houses. Once they were close enough to our boat they would start flapping both their hands up and down in front of them. I first took this peculiar gesture as a form of greeting but soon realised how mistaken I was when people on our boat started throwing overboard plastic bags stuffed with food and other items which the indigenous people rushed to collect before they sank.
Some Brazilians on my boat explained to me how poor the indigenous people were and needed help. Outside their simple wooden houses on stilts, I could see lots of brightly coloured western clothes hanging on the lines. None of the indigenous people had traditional clothes on. Quite a few houses had a satellite dish and every cluster of houses had a church. Their traditional way of life was being eroded away.
The arrival in Belém at the mouth of the Amazon River at around midday marked the end of the trip that broke many of my fantasies about the lifeblood of Amazonia.