Amazon River Boat Cruise - a 1000 Mile Trip From Tabatinga to Manaus in Brazil
River Boat Cruise - the Adventure Begins
I recently fulfilled a childhood dream by taking a river boat trip down the Amazon river, from the small town of Tabatinga to the large city of Manaus in Brazil. The total distance was just over one thousand miles (1200kms) and I can say without a doubt that the whole voyage was awe inspiring.
You may have seen photos and watched t.v. documentaries of the Amazon but I can assure you once you set your eyes on it for real all previous ideas and opinions are swept aside. This river is simply immense, it humbles you, it inspires, it overwhelms.
These three facts are plain enough. This river is a little over 4,000 miles long (6,400kms), discharges nearly 25% of all freshwater into the oceans and is in places between 150 and 250 feet deep (45-70m).
Little wonder they call it the river sea.
It sustains thousands of small fishing villages and communities on its journey to the Atlantic as well as being home to a staggering number of fish species. The rain forest stretches out either side and is full of exotic birds, mammals, reptiles and all kinds of insects.
Amazonia has arguably the planet's most intense ecosystem. I was privileged to be in it for a few very magical days. From the boat we saw dolphins, large fish, capybara, eagles, vultures, many parrots, toucans and storks. Yes, it's a bird lover's paradise but for me the whole package was a wonder.
Flights to Manaus
From the USA there are flights to Manaus from most big cities. From Florida for example TAM airlines of Brazil offer a return for 859$ which includes a night layover. Pay a little more, 1015$ and American Airlines take you direct in 5 hours. From New York expect to pay on average 1170$ for a 10 hour flight.
Getting to the Amazon
Getting to the Amazon is not easy. You have to fly to either Leticia in Colombia or Tabatinga in Brazil because there are no roads from the outside world. These two are in effect one and the same town, smack in the middle of the rainforest next to the mighty river. Or you can fly to Manaus, capital of Amazonas state. Manaus is also reachable by road from Venezuela and by boat from the coastal city of Belem in Brazil.
We flew to Leticia from Bogota which takes about an hour with the local Avianca airline. As you descend you get a taste of just how vast this territory is, the forest stretching out to the horizon.You land on the single strip runway at a small rather nondescript airport. But the forest you just flew over is now a lot closer!
Essentially you're surrounded by the world's largest rainforest.
I got a real feeling of excitement as we entered the cramped baggage hall/reception desk/ information kiosk. This was the Amazon, a world away from ordinary life. Things were different here.
It was all very chaotic. Many locals and, I presume, native Colombians were allowed to exit straightaway whilst the tourists - there were five of us - had to stay and pay a tourist tax. A man behind a desk was waving green leaflets at us. We didn't have any option, a big burly policeman was on hand just in case we tried a runner.
The fee was 20,000 Colombian pesos which sounds a great deal but is actually only around 10.5$ or 6.3£. So we signed the leaflet, paid our money and headed for the exit door.
If you're thinking of an Amazon holiday you'll need a guide and tour operator. This book is an excellent choice as it gives vital information on tours, who to contact, the best deals available and much more.
Essential Travel Tips
- Yellow fever and Malaria In certain areas of Brazil and Colombia yellow fever is a real and present threat so you'll need a vaccination and booklet to prove you've had the jab before you go. Check with your doctor some months prior to travel.
There's no vaccination against malaria but you can take tablets which help prevent malaria (not 100% guaranteed!). You can get these tablets from your pharmacy. It's best to be wise before the event - wear long sleeve shirts, long strong pants and trousers and cover up all sensitive areas of your body.
- You'll need lots of strong insect repellent - both spray and cream - plus a mosquito net. There are also other types of repellent on the market.
Mosquitoes are at their worst near swamps and still water in the evening so be prepared for an onslaught if you venture out at this time.
- It's always best to do some research before you travel abroad, find out what diseases are around and what areas to avoid. Make a note of emergency telephone and contact addresses just in case you need help.
- Never travel without personal travel insurance.
The Amazon has 2 seasons - rainy and dry,although there are regional differences. In the rainy season (December-June) expect daily rain, some heavy, and temperatures from 23-30C. The dry season has temperatures between 26-40C, and less rain.
Colombian Pesos (COP)
If you go to Colombia and don't know anything about their currency be prepared for a bit of a surprise. They have mountains of pesos, which can be tricky to get your head round at first. For example, when we hired a small taxi for an hour to get out and about in Leticia we were told it would cost us 35,000 pesos!!
And, if you happen to have a meal and drinks whilst you're out and about that can total up to over 100,000 pesos. You could spend 150,000 pesos in a little over an hour and think you've just bankrupted yourself.
The trick is to have the currency rates well imprinted in your brain before you go spending your pesos.
One day we spent over a million pesos - on the boat trip, a tour and the hotel!! In dollars or pounds sterling it didn't amount to so much but you feel as if you've bust the bank.
Hotel or Bed & Breakfast?
Leticia has several decent hotels for short stays, plus cheaper hostels for those who don't mind sharing rooms and dormitories.
I booked three nights at the Amazon Bed & Breakfast in Leticia and can recommend it without hesitation. The rooms are clean, spacious and good value for money. Good breakfasts are included in the price and most importantly, the staff are very friendly and helpful.
Alexander the manager speaks very good English and can set up tours and taxis for you.
Typical rates: Double room, dry season, 170,000 Colombian pesos (88$ or 53£) each night
Bungalow, dry season, 216,000 COP (112$ or 67£) each night.
Leticia in Colombia
Leticia has both an airport and a small river port and is the perfect base from which to explore both the river and the rainforest. There are several tour operators based here, alongside hotels and hostels catering for all sorts of traveler. As you'd expect in a south American town it's choc a bloc full with bars and small shops.
The big banks are here too so you'll have no worries about getting cash from an ATM.
There's a buzz about Leticia which is a bit hypnotic. For one, it's right by the river. You get all the fishermen, the boat people, all the traders, the market people, the taxis, the street sellers, the families, the locals just hanging around. Many of these folk are pretty poor and looking for work loading and unloading boats and what have you. You'll see indigenous natives - Indians - who have chosen to live in town rather than out in the rainforests.
It's safe during the day but you have to watch where you walk at night, use your common sense, let people know where you're going and never carry large amounts of cash with you. There's a heavy police presence so you're not likely to get into trouble unless you ask for it.
In town the streets are nearly always packed with motorbikes, motos, scooters, tuki-tukis (small 3 wheeler taxis) and cars, plus old battered trucks delivering beer and other essentials. As a pedestrian you'll be low priority so make sure you know when and where to cross the road!!
We took a few hours to acclimatise, what with the sultry heat and frantic nature of the traffic and all the stuff going on but once you find a quiet bar, a decent menu and a cold beer or two you settle into something like normality again.
If you need to change money you can find a casa de cambio in the town centre, plus, there's a tourist information desk. If you've booked a hotel or hostel beforehand then it's better to ask the local workers there who will point you in the right direction regarding tours and places of interest. Most likely they'll speak some English which always helps.
Colombia becomes Brazil
Leticia and Tabatinga are separate towns but share an invisible border. You can take a taxi from Leticia, ask to go to Tabatinga, and the journey will take you along the same road across the border, no stopping for formalities.
Colombia suddenly becomes Brazil. Spanish changes to Portuguese, pesos to reais, blue, yellow and red to yellow and green.
Be sure to ask the driver if they will cross the border as some will drop you off just before and try to pass you on to a moto-taxi.
Before we set sail from Tabatinga we had to have our passports stamped to prove we had exited both Colombia and Brazil. This is done at the Migration Office in Leticia or at the airport and at the Policia Federal in Tabatinga.
If you don't have exit stamps you could be stopped and held at the docks.
Tabatinga and the Amazon River Cruise
Tabatinga is in Brazil. All the Amazon boat trips as far as I know set off from Tabatinga docks. The boat we booked was the Diamante, a large vessel which takes both passengers and cargo, although there are other boats sailing.
My best advice is to go in person to the docks, find the captain or person in charge and buy your ticket first hand. You'll need Brazilian reais (R$), your passports and perhaps some Portuguese or Spanish.
Make sure you study the tickets for the right price and the sailing date and time. These boats will set sail as soon as they're ready, any latecomers will be left stranded at the dock, perhaps with no hope of getting their money back.
To avoid any disappointment we turned up 2 hours before sailing time, to check our cabin and ready ourselves for the 3 day journey.
The crew were very friendly, eager to help and always available if we needed information or a hand with our gear.
Hammock or Cabin? Cost and Pros and Cons.
On the Diamante you could hang up your hammock on one of two open decks and keep your baggage close by. This was the cheapest way to travel.
Tabatinga to Manaus cost 350 R$ (155$ or 94£)
Advantages: a taste of real life in a hammock swinging with dozens of others in the open air whilst the rainforest slides by. Nice way to relax, if you like hammocks.
Disadvantages: your baggage is open to all who walk this deck. If you get noisy neighbours you could be up all night.
Cabins cost 1000R$ (442$ or 267£)
Advantages: cosy mattress, shower and private toilet, air conditioning plus quiet space.
Disadvantages: no fresh air, a bit stinky.
I'd say if sleep is vital to you then pay extra and get a cabin.
If lack of money is an issue you'll choose a hammock every time.
Classic Amazon Boat
We passed several of these older, slower boats en route to Manaus. They look romantic but do have a reputation for being noisy, cramped and full of loud fishermen's tales!
Extract From Diary
'Way ahead in the distance I could see ominous grey cloud piling in between white cumulus and blue background. Surely this couldn't be a storm approaching, in the dry season? Soon pink streaks of lightning flashed from sky down to rainforest canopy, the grey darkened and low rumbling thunder could be heard above the low hum of the engines.
Now the whole horizon was gloomy dark, illuminated every so often by electric pink flashes. A small crowd of sightseers had gathered on the foredeck eager to witness an Amazon storm. We were like children at a firework display.
Over the next ten minutes a second mini storm brewed up, more distant than the first. Silver lightning streaked across the sky interplaying with the closer storm, still thundery and pink. For about 15 minutes we watched this glamorous weather show, a double storm of spectacular proportion.
Rain followed, splattering the decks, freshening the air and sending the spectators rushing inside. Including me. Then night took over, the sky turned orange, purple, burning red before cooling into greyish blue.'
Wondrous skies and reflections on the Amazon.
The Amazon and Dolphins
Wildlife and Nature
There's plenty of wildlife to observe and enjoy no matter the season you journey on the Amazon. We saw plenty, ranging from the fresh water dolphins, both pink and grey, to wonderfully patterned butterflies which stray onto the boat crossing the great river.
Birds of all shapes and sizes can be seen especially when the boat gets closer to the forest. Parrots are very common, as are parakeets. Birds of prey are plentiful. Storks and spoonbills and other waders can be seen mostly in the dry season when the sandbanks aren't flooded.
Caiman are around but you'll need some luck and binoculars as they tend to stay in the quieter side channels. Same goes for anaconda. They prefer shallower waters. I'd recommend a tour into the forest and the lakes if you want to see these types of animal.
The Diamante had two large safe clean water tanks where you could fill water bottles at any time. Other boats do not. Check to see if you can get fresh safe water on board. Stock up with bottled water if you intend to travel by boat.
Food and Entertainment
You'll have 3 meals a day if you pay in full.
Breakfast was early at 7am, announced over the audio system. It consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon, cheese, bread roll and sweet spread with butter. Fresh pineapple and mango. Coffee, juice and water as drinks.
Lunch was rice, meat stew, beans and a pudding. Fruit juice or water to drink.
Supper was often rice, a beany stew, or chicken and fish, some vegetables and juice or water, with a light pudding.
For snackers and non alcoholic drinkers a well stocked bar on the upper deck catered for all tastes. They did not sell beer or liquor. A good thing.
If you get bored easily it's important to have with you laptop, camera, cell phone, apps galore, mini t.v. and other digital paraphernalia.
Failing that you could bring a book or two, a sense of wonder and a bit of conversation. These work best because they cost less and are better for the planet.
Excellent natural history guide for the tourist. Full of facts and photos of birds and other animals found in the Amazon and Pantanal.
Amazon Adventure: End Note
Three nights and four days on the Amazon was just about right for us. We needed a break after so long on the water and it was good to be on land again. I'd say if you're planning a trip to this region make sure you experience this mighty river but be wary of the length of stay. Hot, sticky weather, mosquitoes and a totally different pace of life can throw you off kilter. And don't forget to keep plenty of bottled water in your bag at all times.
Common sense will keep you safe.
Think twice before attempting solo trips. Don't go wandering off into the forests by yourself at any time and always stay with your local guide. If you do all these things you will have a tremendous awe inspiring visit and the Amazon will take a special place in your memory.
All photographs by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Andrew Spacey