Riverboating Across the Amazon

Dusk on the mouth of the Amazon River

For a variety of reasons (mostly economic) I had to get to The Guianas, just north of Brazil.  I wasn’t complaining.  Cheap airfare out of Georgetown, Guyana coupled with the challenge of traveling across the Amazon Basin was just too enticing. The only true concern was that Brazil is a big country, half the total size of South America, and I wasn’t finding any last-minute deals on flights to the cities up north.

Epic bus rides were on my horizon, and although I had done them before, I promised myself that next time I’m in Brazil I’ll research domestic flights beforehand.  Brazilian buses just plain out suck for the following reasons:

  1. They are expensive for what you get.  Brazilian bus tickets are the most expensive overland fares in all of South America.  In Argentina, you pay 2/3 of the price and you get a seat that reclines into a bed, ongoing movies, an attendant in a bow tie, and full meals followed with champagne (no lie).  In Brazil, the only love you get on a bus is the blubber from the overweight woman sitting next to you, which rubs into your space because the seats are too small.
  1. They stop for breaks every three hours so they take 20% longer than they should.
  1. They break down.  In the northern Amazon basin, I was on a 12-hour bus that blew out a tire three hours into the journey.  They couldn’t get the jack to work, so the driver hitched a ride all the way back to the city to get help.  The bus was just too hot to bear so I spent the next seven hours sleeping on asphalt before the driver returned.
  1. There is always one guy on the bus who thinks he’s Eddie Murphy, and tries to keep the bus entertained for 24 hours at a time, yelling and cracking obscene jokes.  Always.  One particular Eddie, aided by a little pre-dawn vodka, did a stand-up routine at six in the morning.  He must have assumed that everyone on the bus would prefer to hear his rampage instead of sleep.  No one complained.  No one ever does.  And I’m sure Eddy’s legacy will live on through all the future overnight buses of Brazil.

Kids are the only source of enjoyment on a Brazilian bus

Excuse my digressive venting about buses.  I just had to get it out.  Perhaps I am the one who should change my attitude, maybe even sneak a few shots of Smirnoff’s the next time I’m on board myself. Let me steer back to the focus of this blog entry.  It isn’t meant to be about traveling by buses, it’s meant to describe traveling across places where buses can’t venture, like the delta of the Amazon.

Thirty-seven hours of travel from El Salvador north across the horn of Brazil left me at a run-in with the Amazon River.  The Amazon, as many of you know, is the world’s largest river by volume, comprising one-fifth of the Earth’s total river flow.  And with little relief between the Eastern edge of the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean, the Amazon flows ever so slowly to the East, picking up the flow of hundreds of tributaries on the way.  Its slow velocity and high volume make the river spectacularly wide (up to 120 miles!) and because there are no major cities to the north, there is no budget to construct Amazonian bridges.  Right now the only way to cross the river or access many of the small towns up-basin is by boat, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.

It was April 21st when I arrived in Belem, a major port city that sits beside the Para River, the southern arm of the mouth of the Amazon.  Here, at the mouth, convoluted channels connect the Para with the main branch of the Amazon.  In between the two rivers sits Marajo, a river island the size of Switzerland. A passenger river boat takes 24 hours to complete the voyage across the 210 mile-wide outlet to the sea, and I soon realized that this too would be my means to connect to the North.  I’ve often fantasized about traveling the Amazon by riverboat, and suddenly I had an immediate reason.

Leaving the Port City of Belem

Sick of big cities, I wasted no time in Belem, and found a passenger boat leaving the same morning I arrived.  I checked my bags, went for a jog to see the river market, bought a hammock, and arrived back at the docks at 10 am, sweaty, and anxious to get on board.  Hammock space on the deck went for a surprisingly steep seventy bucks, hard on my wallet, and I’m sure quite difficult for many of the migrant workers who were also boarding that day.

As 200 passengers boarded the boat, there was a mad dash to claim hammock space.  Hammocks were erected faster than the eye could see.  In the end, it really didn’t matter, because we were clustered like farm animals; some passengers had hammocks to their left, right, above, and below.  I was pushed to the periphery of the deck, which was fine by me.  I had lots of people on one side, and the Amazon breeze on the other.  Within fifteen minutes of our arrival, the upper deck of the boat looked more like a hammock stall of an outdoor market than it did a river vessel.

Hammock space was a little cramped

What to do with my pack was another question.  Everyone placed their luggage beneath their hammocks and left it unsupervised for the entirety of the trip.  I am always paranoid about robbery (I sleep on buses with my bag tied to me), and I was initially uneasy about this.  I soon came to realize that my trip would be miserable if` I didn’t just release my anxiety, so I soon gave in, and threw my bag, including some cash, a laptop, and cameras, in the nearest pile.

As we motored away from Belem, an unappealing blemish to the Amazon coastline, I made my way around the boat to explore our accommodations.  It included six bathrooms with showerheads installed above the toilets, an outdoor deck with a snack and beer bar, viewing space on the bough, and a small space for munching on the crew-prepared meals.  There was more space than I anticipated, and I no longer feared that 24 hours on board would impose the same claustrophobia I experienced on other vessels.

I walked out to the bough to enjoy the breeze and the views of the delta.  There I met Augusto, who was on his tenth voyage across the Amazon.  He and his 70-year-old mother were making the 3-day trek to Cayenna, French Guiana to see his brother.  French Guiana, technically part of France, uses the euro so many Brazilians migrate there in search of a better salary.  Several other passengers on board, primarily men, were doing the same, while other workers were returning to Macapa, the only Brazilian city north of the Amazon, after visiting family in Belem.

Augusto had a passion for the open water.  I think he spent 20 of the 24 hours onboard, standing at the bough, admiring the river views.  I wondered if for many of the passengers, this was their only time all year to relax and appreciate their landscape.  Augusto was excited to show me all of the towns that we passed by, their history, and the various channels that we encountered.  Whenever I was utterly clueless as to where we were on my pathetic 5 x 7 inch map, I would just have to walk forward and consult my trusty friend stationed at the bough.

The towns we passed were impressive.  They were accessible only by boat, and because the coastline is so wet, there were no trails or roads that connected the houses, only footbridges.  Sadly we passed them so fast, and our only interaction was a brief wave with the children playing on the docks.  I thought of waterproofing my backpack and jumping overboard.  I’m sure I could find a place to stay with these lovely people.  It was just a matter of securing a boat to set on my way once more.  Maybe one day when I have more time, I will do just that.

A town connected by footbridges

As the evening sky turned a pale blue that connected without interruption to the wake behind us, it became social time on the river.  Dusk marked the hour when children, occasionally accompanied by their families, paddled their wooden dug-out canoes into the evening waters.  There they would stroll to meet up with friends and watch the riverboats flow by.  Many of the children paddled anxiously to our rear, in an attempt to catch some surf action in our wake.  One ambitious duo paddled out so quickly that our alarmed captain steered the boat away from them.  When they arrived to the stern, the paddler up front leapt from his canoe, rope in hand, and tried to attach his craft to our riverboat.  The speed of our boat was just too much; he lost his grip and his free ride.  Frustrated, he screamed and splashed water at his friend in the canoe.

A young canoeist playing in our wake

A healthy plate of beans, rice, beef, and salad filled my stomach, and I joined the rest of the passengers on the deck above.  Darkness had turned the deck into a disco, led by loud Brega music playing on the video screen next to the bar.  I chatted with Nelsis, who was in transit to the border town of Oiapoque for an “unknown” amount of time.  It was her first time making the journey, and I think she was heading north to take a shot at prostitution.

After two cans of Guarana, the local Amazonian berry soda, I found myself back in my swaying hammock.  Despite the cramped quarters, nine hours of breezy darkness gave me the most peaceful sleep of my entire journey through Brazil.  I and 200 other hammock sleepers awoke to first light and watched the sun rise above the remote channels behind us.  Families beside me greeted me with warm smiles.

I slept so well on my hammock

I looked to my right to see my bags still there.  This riverboat, in just a matter of one day, became a trusting community, where people looked out for each other.  In no place in my travels would I have left my bags unattended, but here I felt quite comfortable.  The riverboat was everyone’s home, and for 24 hours we lived together as if we were lifelong neighbors.  I don’t think that my experience was unique; I think that typically communities naturally grow on any boat trip through the Amazon.

Morning light on the coast

The hours passed quickly in the quiet morning, and the rising temperatures soon reminded me of where I was.  A few more turns in the river channel and a couple of small villages later, we arrived in Porto Santana, our last stop.  For the first time in my trip I was sad to leave my vehicle of travel.  I hugged my neighbors, retrieved my pack, and took the first bus out to Macapa.

I was now in the state of Amapa, a smaller Brazilian state of just 500,000 people.  Sitting alongside the Amazon, its capital Macapa had been a destination I had in mind for a long time.  As a small, isolated and unspoiled city with no tourists, I figured Macapa had the recipe for good, friendly people, so I found myself a modest hotel room and settled in for a week.

Water Buffalo near Macapa

My expectations were soon confirmed by the locals.  Macapa is full of warm and curious people.  Corruption and delinquency that seemed so rampant in Belem and El Salvador had failed to cross the vast Amazon River mouth.  Macapa is isolated by ocean to the east, jungle to the north and west, and the endless Amazonian waters to the south.  The only way for its people to leave is by expensive flights or by reversing the epic journey I had just taken.  It is no surprise that when you ask most people from Macapa where they have traveled to, they only mention neighboring towns in the jungle.

Northern Hemisphere on the right...Southern on the left. Macapa is the only Brazilian city that coincides with the equator.

In Macapa, I could walk the streets by myself in the wee hours of the morning, strike up a conversation with just about any local, and get myself invited into a family’s home for dinner.  At night I would walk to the riverfront, where dozens of vendors sold mixed drinks, coconut milk, and churrasco.  I made good friends with a family of vendors, and returned to visit them each night of my stay.  Macapa had the Brazil that I was looking for.  Kids danced samba in the streets, old happy men walked bare-chested along the Amazon, and the locals seemed darn well content with where they were.  It’s a random place to visit, and I’m not sure if I will budget the time to return there once again, but it will be hard to forget the warm friends I met in this remote Amazonian city.

My crew in Macapa


One response to “Riverboating Across the Amazon

  1. Pingback: 10 Experiences that make me want to go back to Brazil – ASAP « Traveling the Americas

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