The Amazon boat trip, day 1: Hammock gringoland and a beautiful sunset

I found out about the Amazon boat trip from Colombia to Brazil about a year ago, when I read about it in a dusty Tripadvisor forum thread. Then I looked into it a bit more, and in the first month of my trip in Mexico I met a few people who traveled this way from Brazil to Colombia or the other way down. Some said the boat is “a floating piece of garbage”, others liked the experience of sleeping in a hammock on a crowded, smelly and hot cargo ship. I gathered that this boat trip is not for everyone.

And that made it incredibly intriguing.

Though I first planned on going from Colombia to Brazil through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the Amazon journey sounded just too amazing not to do it.

So here I am, 700 kilometres away from the nearest highway, in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, where at sunset hundreds of parrots sing so loud I can’t even hear my thoughts and where butterflies the size of my hand rest on the bushes next to my table while I’m having dinner.

I’m starting the four day Amazon boat trip from Tabatinga to Manaus tomorrow morning!

We stop a random tuk-tuk on one of the two main streets in Leticia, Colombia. “Can you take us to the boat dock in Tabatinga, please?” I ask the young driver in what would soon turn out to be one of my last opportunities to speak Spanish. In some minutes it will only be Portuguese – which I don’t speak a word of – for at least three weeks, if not even more.

From Leticia to Tabatinga in Brazil it’s just a few minutes drive down the road. The two towns are basically one town. There is no border seperating them; even a sign that welcomes you to Brazil is so hidden you can easily miss it.

We were told to arrive to the boat dock as early as 9am, even though the boat leaves only at noon. The immigration procedure is long and the line of people waiting – even longer.

People waiting to board the Diamante boat going from Tabatinga to Manaus.
The boat, waiting to start a four day journey on the Amazon to Manaus.

Everyone is very well prepared for the three nights/four days Amazon boat trip. You need a hammock, a bit of rope, maybe a thin blanket for the colder nights. Some people are bringing mosquito nets too. Though there are water stations on the boat, it’s good if you bring your own water – we have 5 litres each; and of course some snacks. It doesn’t hurt if you have your own plate and a fork, they told us, because that makes it easier and faster for you to get your meals. And of course a book or two, music, movies on your computer. We have all that, and also a Colombian exit stamp and a Brazilian entry one in our passports, both of which we had to collect at the immigration office and the police station the day before so that we could buy our tickets.

While queuing we meet a retired Canadian couple. They’re from Yukon, which is pretty much as north as you can live for my standards. Their story is quite cool: 40 years ago they built their own house in the middle of the woods, next to Teslin lake, and some cabins as well. They started renting them out to tourists, organising hiking trips, added a restaurant and their business was booming. They worked crazy hours during summers, so that they were able to earn enough money to travel every single winter. They still do that now, when retired. And they travel taking-boats-down-the-Amazon style!

After a not so detailed baggage check, they finally let us on the boat. We’re in the first quarter of people, so we can chose our hammock spots, yay! Apparently you want to be on the second or third floor, far enough from the toilets to avoid the smell and the noise at night, and close enough to the windows to get some fresh air. We find the perfect spot. And so do the Brits, Australians, Americans, a Russian girl and her Brazilian boyfriend, a Finnish girl. Soon after that the boat is filled with Brazilian families, so our section on the 3rd floor gets a name: gringoland.

A part of the gringoland area of the boat.

At 1.30pm the boat is finally leaving, with a delay of an hour and a half. I can’t really feel we’re moving, the only sign of it is the sound of the engine, a tiny breeze making the excruciating heat a bit better and the high trees moving outside of my window. I’m chilling in my hammock and it doesn’t seem half bad. Who said this can get boring? I can lay around and sleep all day!

I start talking to the couple in the next line of hammocks. He’s a tall and dark Brazilian with a man bun, who looks like he just walked off Ipanema. She’s a curly redhead with small eyes from Moscow, only given away by her accent after she told me she was Russian. She traveled around in Brazil already and that’s how she met her Brazilian – in Rio.

The heat gets to me, and so does the hammock – after I wake up from a one hour nap, it becomes clear to me that this will be an everyday routine on this journey.

I decide to walk around a bit and explore the boat. It has four floors. The bottom one is for cargo: luggage, furniture, boxes with vegetables, hundreds of kilograms of platanos, beer crates, some cars and animals. There is also a kitchen, where they prepare three meals a day for the whole boat.

The boat is transporting cargo too, a lot of vegetables and fruit.

The first and the second floor are spaces with countless hooks spread around in smaller quadrants, where you can hang your hammock. The hooks are maybe 60 cm apart. That means you can sleep pretty close to your neighbour. And that means you can hang a lot of hammocks on that boat – 764, according to a sign next to the captain’s cabin. Each floor has 8 sinks and a bunch of toilets/showers. On my floor there are also four cabins with beds, private bathrooms and AC – those cost around 800 reals. We paid 220 (55 euros) for the hammock spot.

On the top floor of the boat there is a bar, a small closed sitting area, a TV that shows more or less only football (it is a Brazilian boat after all) and a terrace with a big and extremely loud loudspeaker that plays five Brazilian songs on repeat.

It’s almost 7pm but it’s still hot and humid, so people gather on the deck, to escape the suffocating air in the floors below. A lot of Brazilians on the boat are men, probably traveling to Manaus for work. So many of them are women with their teenage or 20-something daughters and grandchildren. I’m trying to asses how old the women are but I can’t; I think their Amazon looks make them seem younger than they really are. The sunset colours the sky orange and makes the river water reflect in way more dark blue than it really is.

Sunsets on the Amazon are a beautiful sight.

The Colombian girl from the neighbouring hammock walks up to the deck. She’s doing her master’s in zoology in Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil and is just returning from her holidays at home, in Bogotá. She asks us if we had dinner. No, where? And when? We missed an announcement on the speaker and we missed a delicious soup. Day one and already hungry. This will be a fun trip, I think to myself. Thankfully we can buy sandwiches and some snacks for a few reals at the bar.

After our improvised dinner I have a shower. Since we’ve only been on board for a few hours, showers, which are also toilets, still look more or less clean. Nonetheless, I grin when I see brown spots of water on the toilet seat cover. I turn on the shower and cold water starts pouring out. It’s refreshing. Then I look down to the light grey tiles on the floor and understand the dark water spots on the toilet seat cover: I’m showering with Amazon water. It’s brown.

It gets dark later here than in Colombia, since we lost an hour when crossing to Brazil. Soon after 8pm people lay down in their hammocks, reading, talking to each other, listening to music or sleeping. I’m tired too. I watch an episode of the series I downloaded on my computer and fall asleep on my red and blue hammock.

Two or three hours later pouring rain wakes me up. I get up and close the window next to my hammock, but that doesn’t stop little streams of water racing down the wall and on the floor towards the end of the boat. Most of my 350 roommates are sleeping.

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    carmelinee Written by:

    A journalist turned media analyst turned storyteller. Already had a near death experience white-water rafting the source of the Nile, came three meters close to a green mamba and peed in front of a boat of thirty strangers in the middle of a rain forest. Stay tuned for new stories from my trip in Latin America!