The Slow Boat to Manaus

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The Slow Boat to Manaus

Tiny white birds are framed against the dense greens of the rainforest, carelessly riding the river breeze. Their only companions on the banks are dug out canoes, bobbing in the wake of the slow boat to Manaus. The morning’s murky waters twinkle as the sun gains height, unperturbed by the waste that mars our western waters.

It rains every day. Twice a day. The dense, damp heat that hangs over the water after each rain is punctured by spouts of harsh sun. It’s hot, cold, damp, dry, scorching and tepid- you can pass through every climate in an Amazon evening. Always, the winds are high and the stars are bright.

For 3 nights and 4 days we lived on the river. Passing cargo ships leave space for travellers, locals moving between the remotest villages on the Amazon riverbanks. They strap up hundreds of hammocks, across 2 levels. I was on the top level, with open air windows and no engine noise. Amongst the bustle of travellers setting up their spot for the journey, friends engage in enthusiastic reunions, snacks are shared out amongst fellow passengers, small children run wild, swept up in excitement, and the same 4 reggaeton songs start their seemingly endless loop. Most of the people taking this route are regulars, working and living at different spots along the river. Cracking beer cans and settling down for a few days of pool and music and relaxation, the boat’s inhabitants are set for their journey.

One of the towns we stopped in along the way, with one of the most remote hospedajes I’ve found so far

One of the towns we stopped in along the way, with one of the most remote hospedajes I’ve found so far

It’s easy to be settled on the deck of the ship. The jungle’s edges slip by sedately, varying drastically between different remote regions. I was one of two gringos on the boat, being joined by a Swiss girl who was travelling through Colombia and Brazil. Given that, at this point, I spoke neither Spanish or Portuguese, my other conversations were limited. That’s not to say the locals didn’t try. An older man asked me what country I was from at least 10 times a day, attempting to invite me to join his friends for beers and pool. It’s only in hindsight that I understand his line of questioning. At the time I was completely baffled.

I spent most of my time watching the river. The trees. There were plastic chairs available, meaning I could sit in a chair and observe weird bugs that I saw on the walls for hours at a time. You learn how to kill time, doing absolutely nothing. How to disassociate. You can spend 10 minutes staring at some trees, check the time and realise you’d actually been there for 2 hours. One day we went through the end of the rainbow, which legitimately kept us entertained for an entire afternoon. Once you take away all opportunity for electronics, or wifi, or contact with home, you’d be surprised how easily one can be entertained.

One time I spent a few hours debating, with myself, which tree was my overall favourite tree

One time I spent a few hours debating, with myself, which tree was my overall favourite tree

Every day, we woke at sunrise and slept at sunset. Breakfast was served at around 5:30am each day. It was vile. Sickeningly sweet coffee coupled with sickeningly sweet American-style white bread. All of this was lapped up with what seemed to be a kind of rice pudding, which was, as you may be able to guess, sickeningly sweet. After the first breakfast I never touched it again. It seems a very weird way to start the day, filling an empty stomach with sugar, but the bigger cities in Brazil all also served rich chocolate cakes and dulce de leche as breakfast food. It’s not so easy on the stomach.

Lunch was actually not too bad. There was generally some rice, often beans, we even got some chicken one day. I carry around a bottle of hot sauce, which I shared amongst my fellow travellers to curry some favour as the only non-Spanish and non-Portuguese speaker on the boat. This was typically served at around 11am.

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Dinner was whatever was left. It was served at around 5pm, and we were all in bed by 6pm. Though there were always men drinking on deck after this hour, I found it easiest to retire after watching the sunset each night. With the sides of the boat being open air, if you strap your hammock up near to the edge you can watch the stars from there. I’ve found a lot of spots in South America that are pretty overwhelmingly beautiful at night, where you can pick out the milky way in the sky. The Amazon is amongst these. On these boats, you get very deep into the jungle. Where there’s no towns. No electricity. Not lights for miles to spoil the skies. The nights are warm and smell like flowers, and the skies and clear and littered with stars.

After a few days, we all started to get pretty disgusting. There were technically showers on the boat, which I attempted to use on the first day. What came out of the spout was around 50% ice water, and 50% unidentified insects. I opted against the idea of being clean pretty quickly. The only sink in the midst of your 100-odd fellow passengers, and I didn’t quite fancy the idea of bathing in the sink with a crowd of Brazilian sailors. So instead we went dirty. After 4 days, this was a real struggle. I opted to lock up most of my clothing, as theft is pretty common on the boats. As such, the few clothes that I had available were equally grim after a few days. Our flimsy day clothes clung to our skin from the sweat in the air, the heavy humidity hanging over the days. Every pyjama top, left to the elements during the day, was crawling in critters by the time night fell. Showers were the best thing about Manaus.

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I loved the types of people that you meet on the boat. There is almost no other situation in life wherein you would meet them. They live in villages in the Amazon jungle, taking multi-day cargo boats to work in the towns and bring back food for their families. Everyone I met there was generous and open, and were endlessly patient with my abysmal language skills. It’s one of the most unique travel experiences I’ve had in South America, one of the ones that seemed most detached from reality.

Arriving in Manaus felt like crashing head-first into the human world, into the city world. Manaus is dirty and hectic, and every one of the locals I met on the boat told me to watch my back in the city. I’ve written more on the city here. If you want, you can catch another boat on to Belem, which is another 5 days down the river. I opted to stop in Manaus and find myself a shower.

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The journey also gave me the opportunity to go to parts of the jungle that tourists never normally get to see. To towns that you’d never dream of travelling to. If you get a chance to travel down the Amazon river, the most beautiful spot, in my opinion, is around the town of Coari. Though the town itself is not so special, you can watch the entire ecosystem change in the hour or so leading up to the town. The Amazon river and the Rio Urucu meet here, and the jungle is noticeably richer, greener. The bird life changes, the insects change. In the space of minutes the jungle transforms. It’s moments like these that you don’t get on the day tours into the Amazon, and they’re worth every minute of hardship you may face on the ship.

Check here for my guide to the boat’s set off, or starting, point, Tabatinga (+ bonus Leticia & Santa Rosa), and here for my somewhat dismal guide to Manaus.

Also check out my Amazon tour experience, and my Amazonian survival guide + packing list.

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An account of taking the slow boat to Manaus, the cheap route down the Amazon river