Andrew's riverboat cruise on the Amazon was one of his most memorable and awe-inspiring travel experiences yet. (And he's traveled a lot.)
Riverboat Cruise: The Adventure Begins
I recently fulfilled a childhood dream of taking a riverboat 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 1,000 miles (1,200 km), and I can say without a doubt that the whole voyage was awe-inspiring.
You may have seen photos and watched TV documentaries about 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, it inspires, it overwhelms.
The Amazon Is Home to Many Diverse Ecosystems
These three facts are plain enough. This river is a little over 4,000 miles long (6,400 km), discharges nearly 25% of all freshwater into the oceans and is in places between 150 and 250 feet deep (45–70 m). 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 on either side and is full of exotic birds, mammals, reptiles and all kinds of insects.
Amazonia arguably has 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.
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, the capital of the state of Amazonas; from the USA, there are flights to Manaus from most big cities. 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, with 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.
Don't Forget to Pay the Tourist Tax
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 straight away 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 like a lot but is actually only around $10.50 or £6.30. So we signed the leaflet, paid our money and headed for the exit door.
Essential Travel Tips for the Amazon
If you're planning on visiting this one-of-a-kind place, there are a few tips you should bear in mind. Doing so will reduce the likelihood of you becoming ill or coming to harm, though of course no vacation can ever be guaranteed as 100% safe.
Defend Against Yellow Fever and Malaria
- Get Vaccinated. 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 well prior to your departure to make sure you can complete the vaccination in time (at least one month before arriving at your destination).
- Take Malaria Tablets. There's no vaccination against malaria, but you can take tablets that help prevent malaria (though they are not 100% guaranteed!). You can likely get these tablets from your pharmacy, but you may need to schedule an appointment with the pharmacist ahead of time.
- Wear Appropriate Clothing. It's best to be wise about your attire, as the right clothes can reduce the chance of being "bitten" by mosquitos. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long, strong pants and cover up all sensitive areas of your body.
- Bring Insect Repellent and a Net. You'll need lots of strong insect repellent—both spray and cream—and a mosquito net. There are also other types of repellent on the market.
- Avoid Going Out in the Evening. 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. I recommend simply trying to stay inside.
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Research and Prepare Before Leaving
- It's always best to do some research before you travel abroad, such as finding 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.
Use Common Sense
Think twice before attempting solo trips. Don't go wandering off into the forests by yourself at any time; always stay with your local guide.
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 around 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 (but fear not, that's only about $45 USD).
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 busted the bank.
Hotel or Bed-and-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 is very friendly and helpful. At the time of our visit, the manager (who spoke very good English) set up tours and taxis for us.
- Double room in the dry season: 170,000 Colombian pesos ($88 or £53) per night
- Bungalow in the dry season: 216,000 COP ($112 or £67) per 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 to all sorts of travelers. As you'd expect in a South American town, it's chockablock full of bars and small shops. The big banks are here too, so you'll have no issues finding 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, boat people, traders, market people, taxis, street sellers, families, and 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.
Watch Where You're Walking
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.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
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.
Note: Leticia is 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, but it's better to be safe than sorry.
Where Colombia Becomes Brazil
Leticia and Tabatinga are separate towns, but they share an invisible border. You can hop in a taxi from Leticia and ask to go to Tabatinga, and the journey will take you along the same road across the border without stopping for formalities. (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.)
Colombia suddenly becomes Brazil. Spanish changes to Portuguese, pesos to reais, blue, yellow and red to yellow and green.
Get Your Exit Stamps Before Setting Sail
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. As far as I know, all the Amazon boat trips set off from Tabatinga's docks. The boat we booked was the Diamante, a large vessel that takes both passengers and cargo, although there were 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, sailing date and time. These boats will set sail as soon as they're ready, and 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 was 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
Hammocks: If lack of money is an issue, choose a hammock.
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. The trip from Tabatinga to Manaus costs 350 R$ ($155 USD or £94) if you choose a hammock.
Advantages: You get a taste of real life in a hammock swinging with dozens of others in the open air whilst the rainforest slides by. A nice way to relax, if you like hammocks.
Disadvantages: Your baggage is open to all who walk this deck. If you get noisy neighbours, you could be up all night.
Cabins: If sleep is vital to you, then pay extra to get a cabin.
Cabins cost 1,000 R$ ($442 USD or £267).
Advantages: You'll have a cosy mattress, shower and private toilet, as well as air conditioning and a quiet space.
Disadvantages: There's no fresh air, and it can get a bit stinky.
Classic Amazon Boat
We passed several of these older, slower boats en route to Manaus. They look romantic but have a reputation for being noisy, cramped and full of loud fishermen's tales!
An Extract From My Travel Diary
Way ahead in the distance I could see ominous grey clouds 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 the sky down to the 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 10 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 the night took over, the sky turned orange, purple, burning red before cooling into greyish blue.
Wildlife and Nature on (and in) the Amazon
There's plenty of wildlife to observe and enjoy no matter the season you journey on the Amazon. We saw plenty, ranging from the freshwater dolphins (both pink and grey) to wonderfully patterned butterflies which stray onto the boat while 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, spoonbills and other waders can be seen mostly in the dry season when the sandbanks aren't flooded.
Caimans are around, but you'll need some luck and binoculars to see them, as they tend to stay in the quieter side channels. The same goes for anaconda; they prefer shallower waters. I'd recommend a tour of the forest and the lakes if you want to see these types of animals.
Food and Entertainment on Board
You'll have three meals a day if you pay in full.
- Breakfast was early (7 am) and was announced over the audio system. It consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon, cheese, a bread roll and sweet spread with butter, and fresh pineapple and mango. Coffee, juice and water were available as drinks.
- Lunch was rice, meat stew, beans and a dessert, with fruit juice or water to drink.
- Supper was often rice and a beany stew, or chicken and fish, some vegetables and juice or water, with a light dessert.
For snackers and non-alcoholic drinkers, a well-stocked bar on the upper deck catered to all tastes, though they did not sell beer or liquor—a good thing!
The Diamante had two large 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. Regardless, stock up on bottled water if you intend to travel by boat.
If you get bored easily, it's important to have your laptop, camera, cell phone, apps galore, mini TV 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.
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.
Heed the advice in this article, and you will have a tremendous, awe-inspiring visit. I guarantee the Amazon will take a special place in your memory forevermore.
Note: All photographs are by chef-de-jour unless otherwise stated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey