Taking a ferry on the Amazon River is considered an authentic Brazilian experience. Nowhere else are long-distance ferries such an integral part of life. With no roads cutting through the thick jungle and insane seasonal flooding, boats are not just the main source of transportation, in many areas they are the only mode of transportation.
The Amazon River has the largest volume of freshwater of any river in the world. One-fifth of all of the run-off water in the world flows down this river. In fact, there is so much water that it can take up to 100 km for it to mix with the Atlantic Ocean where it ends its journey. It is the second longest river in the world. Beginning in the Andes mountains and ending in the Atlantic Ocean, the river travels a staggering 6,400 km (4,000 miles).
We took two ferries, on the Amazon to get from Manaus in the west to Belém, near the Atlantic Ocean. The first ferry took us from Manaus to Santarém, 720 km away. We heard that sleeping in a hammock on a ferry was an ‘authentic Brazilian experience’ and we were excited for it to begin. Getting aboard the Amazon Star was a frustrating task and maybe foreshadowed our coming days. Usually Brazilians form lines and patiently wait their turn. That’s not the case when boarding a ferry. A lot of pushing and shoving ensued as hundreds of passengers forced their way along a narrow plank to get onboard.
When we walked into the sleeping quarters we were in shock. There was a mess of hammocks swinging in every direction and made us question our decision to take the ferry rather than a more expensive cruise, or even fly. Rows and rows of hammocks were haphazardly arranged with no rhyme or reason as to where they were strung. So much for our romanticized notion of cruising down the Amazon in a leisurely hammock.
We bought our ferry tickets from the same company that we used for our Amazon rainforest trip. It included the purchase and set up of our hammocks. We were so glad that we went for this option, because we wouldn’t have been able to figure out how and where to hang them in this mess. As it was, our new hammocks were expertly strung amongst hundreds of others. There was even room underneath our makeshift beds for our luggage. We knew then what it meant when we were told that this would be an ‘experience’.
We quickly discovered that departure and arrival times for ferries on the Amazon are rough estimates. While waiting to depart we took in the hectic scene taking place on the lower level. Some people were driving their vehicles onto the ferry on rickety planks barely as wide as their tires. At the same time hundreds of crates of supplies were being carried on to the ship. It was a reminder that anything and everything that goes down the Amazon does so by boat.
When everything was loaded, we thought we were ready to go, but we were wrong. The police came on board and an announcement was made that told everyone to go to either side of the ferry. Not understanding the Portuguese announcement, we followed the lead of the other passengers. Men went to one side, women to the other. We weren’t sure what was going to happen until we saw the armed police and their sniffer dog going through every piece of luggage and cargo on board. We suspect they were searching for drugs, and thankfully nothing was found. Finally, 1 ½ hours later, we were on our way.
The ferry soon reached the Meeting of the Waters. We had seen the confluence of Amazon and Negro Rivers going to and returning from our Amazon rainforest trip (read the story here), and it was no less impressive the third time. The jagged line that forms as the two rivers fight off joining is a fascinating site.
As the ferry slowly motored down the river we passed more of these confluences as many of the Amazon’s 1,200 tributaries came to join the mighty river. Each took a while to mix with the sand-coloured Amazon.
The ferry was a very basic, bare-bones boat, but it was reasonably clean and we figured we could survive it for a day. There was an area with tables and chairs on the upper deck where we could relax under a shaded roof. A gentle breeze kept us cool in the hot spring weather. A small bar at the end served drinks and snacks. It was really nice until they began blasting ear shattering Brazilian music at full volume all day and night.
From the upper deck we watched the riverbank slowly pass by. At times it was almost difficult to believe we were on a river. In the dry season, when we were there, the Amazon is between 3 and 9 km wide (2 to 6 miles). We couldn’t even imagine how it looks during rainy season when it can be up to 48 km (30 miles) wide! As it was we had at least 1 ½ km of water between us and either shore, making it difficult to see much of anything.
What we couldn’t see though was jungle. We realized that our idealized vision of a wild Amazon jungle doesn’t ring true in many areas. The forest was burned down long ago to make room for modern lifestyles. Instead of a riverbank covered in dense forest, the land hosts small farms with only bits of jungle interspersed between. Some farms raise cattle, others grow vegetables or fruit. There is still a lot of burning taking place to clear more land. Smoke from the fires made the sky glow red during sunrises and sunsets. It’s definitely not the wild jungle that our minds had imagined.
The large river was very busy. We watched from our spot on deck as other ferries, large shipping vessels and even the Brazilian Navy went by.
On both of our trips the ferries stopped at a few ports. Some were nothing but a small collection of local boats, others were busy harbours. At each stop some passengers got off, new ones boarded and of course vendors came aboard to sell their wares. In addition to the usual snacks some of the venders sold the strangest things. One lady sold dresses, another sold pots and cheese graters, which could be used by those who bought from the man selling bricks of cheese. Another lady was selling a type of tupperware. Who comes on a long-distance ferry realizing they need new tupperware at home? At a few of these stops the police also got on to go through the bags. We were getting used to it by then and knew the routine.
At each stop passengers, including us, would watch the action from the side of the boat. There wasn’t much to do on the boat so anything different was entertainment.
After watching the river all day it was time to go to sleep, but sleeping in a hammock amongst hundreds of others has its challenges. Some hammocks are very long and cross over others. A person at my feet frequently kicked me when he moved in his swinging bed. It’s a strange feeling to have a stranger so close when you’re sleeping. Richard’s hammock was next to a makeshift aisle. People bumped into him all night as they got up to go to the bathroom. He was awakened one time in the middle of the night by a funny noise coming from below. Richard looked down to see a guy crawling on the floor under his hammock. The sentiment ‘Do it for the experience’ was losing its charm.
In the morning we were very tired from a lack of sleep and desperately searched for coffee. All we could find was heavily sweetened coffee served in tiny cups. It wasn’t very good, but the sugar and caffeine helped to perk us up.
After more than 30 hours we reached our destination, Santarém. We hurriedly disembarked but many stayed on, traveling to ports further down the river. Our first ferry averaged a speed of 25 km/hr on the 720 km journey. We were told it would take between 30 and 36 hours, so it could have been worse.
Other than a lack of sleep, we weren’t too traumatized by the ferry trip so after a few days relaxing in Alter do Chão, we booked a second ferry to take us from Santarém to Belém. This time our boat was called Anna Karoline VII. For the first trip we slept in hammocks for the ‘experience’, on the second trip it was done out of necessity. We had planned to stay in an air-conditioned cabin for second ferry, but unfortunately all of the cabins were booked. That meant we were to spend 2 more nights in a hammock. Not the journey we had envisioned.
While we thought the ferry from Manaus to Santarém was disorganized, this ferry was a nightmare. There were a lot more vehicles and cargo to unload and load. Without any recognizable person in charge the process took hours. It had already arrived in Santarém 3 hours late from Manaus, and by time we were ready to go another 4 hours had passed. It was so disorganized you wouldn’t think they did this trip every week.
When walked into the chaotic sleeping room our stomachs dropped. A lot of people had already traveled on this ferry from Manaus and so the room was already full. Hammocks were criss-crossed over each other in every imaginable direction, taking all available space. We didn’t know how we’d ever find two spots to hang our hammocks. We had a new appreciation for the man we paid to hang them for us on the previous ferry. Every time we thought we found a spot, a passenger would tell us ‘no’. After a few failed attempts we split up to cover more area. Other passengers had also just boarded but were more familiar with the routine and were somehow finding places to hang their hammocks. We were getting desperate.
Finally, one lady took pity on me and moved her own hammock a foot to make room for mine. I was so relieved. That is until a lady on the other side kept yelling at me in Portuguese. I could not understand anything, but did hear the hateful way she spat out ‘Inglês’. All I could knew was that she didn’t like me because I spoke English and not Portuguese. Once my hammock was up, she was so disgusted with me that she moved her hammock to the other side of the room. She didn’t know it, but she did us a favour because Richard was then able to take her spot. At least we had two spots together, but we were so close that at night we had to move in unison, or one of us would get toppled out of their hammock.
Finally settled in we gave ourselves a tour of our home for the next three days. Compared to Amazon Star, this ferry was a cesspool. It was filthy, old and smelled like a garbage dump. There were only 3 stalls in both the men’s and women’s bathrooms for hundreds of passengers. We had thought our previous ferry was crude, now we longed for it. We were reminded of old movies where the poor passengers stayed in the lower deck of luxury liners crossing the Atlantic. We felt like those poor passengers.
There were two sleeping areas on this ferry. We set up on the lower deck. The upper one looked even worse. It didn’t even have glass in the windows. Instead, the sides were open. One night it poured and a lot of water got in. In the morning the floors had huge puddles.
After leaving Santarém the ferry continued taking us east along the wide Amazon. The scenery wasn’t very different from the previous ferry. The area to sit was very small. It only had a couple of tables and they were always busy. There was a top deck but it wasn’t covered so we could only go up in the early morning and evening. The sun was too strong during the day. Eventually we found a small place at the front of the ship where we could sit on the floor in the shade. We spent the days reading in our hammocks or sitting at the front on the floor watching the river. Time passed slowly.
We learned from the first ferry that the trick to sleeping in a hammock is to lie on it sideways. We struggled each night to find that perfect position for comfort, but also not to knock into each other or one of the other passengers’ feet, legs or heads. Every morning passengers started making noise as they rose around 5 am. There was no sense trying to sleep any longer so we got up too, but it made the days even longer.
After 29 or 30 hours cruising down the wide Amazon River, the ferry turned toward Pará River on a small channel. This channel is so small that we couldn’t find it on Google Maps or Maps Me. A small river in this area though is a relative term. This small, unnamed channel was at least 200 m (650 ft) wide. When we reached where the channel dumps into the larger Pará River, we saw 5 other channels of the same size emptying into it. During rainy season the ground between these channels is most likely covered in water, making one giant river.
Traveling down the small channel was the best part of the journey. We passed small, wooden stilt homes along the water’s edge. Most were single-story, crude shacks with attached floating docks and multiple boats. There are no roads between homes and no second row of homes behind. Every house was located on the river. Their life is on the river.
It was pretty busy first thing in the morning. Boats of different sizes were traveling up and down the river. Some were painted in bright colours. Others were so worn they looked like they shouldn’t be able to float.
Life in this channel is very different from anywhere else. The villagers’ lives revolve around the river. A couple of times we saw villagers race up to the side of the ferry in their boats. Passengers on the ferry threw packages wrapped in plastic bags. We were told they were throwing food that is difficult for the locals to get because they are so isolated.
At another spot a man selling açai approached the rear of the ferry. He caught up to it, tied his boat to the ferry and hopped on. He brought several packages of açai berries with him. When they were all sold, he untied his boat and sped away.
At another spot the ferry was flagged down by people waiting on a dock. A small boat sped toward the ferry bringing passengers bound for Belém. The ferry slowed down and four or five people awkwardly climbed up the side of the ferry. At a few different places boats came along the side of the ferry to load or unload cargo.
Life on this channel was so different from what we saw on the large Amazon River and it was fascinating to witness.
After leaving the small channel we were on the larger Pará River. Here, much like on the Amazon we saw large ships loaded with freight. One had the company name ‘Nortelog’ written on its side. Richard used to work for the Canadian telecommunications company Nortel before it went into bankruptcy. He thought maybe they re-opened in a new industry.
Finally, after 51 hours and 847 km, our ferry slowly made its way to the busy city of Belém in the state of Pará. It was much slower than the previous ferry, sometimes less than 20 km/hr. We were told the ferry can take anywhere from 44 to 48 hours. For us it was much longer.
In total we travelled 1,567 km in over 80 hours on two ferries. Would we do it again? Not likely, but having survived are we glad we did it? Most definitely.
Tips For Taking A Ferry On The Amazon River
- Before you book a ferry or even before you decide on a departure day, spend some time researching which ferry you would like to take. Each week there are a few different options and they are not all equal. Some are basic but clean, others are falling apart and are not very clean.
- If you want an air-conditioned cabin you need to purchase your tickets at least a week in advance.
- Every ferry has a rudimentary restaurant. They aren’t as bad as many reports, but the food does not look or smell appetizing. They serve three meals a day of typical Brazilian rice, beans and chicken. On both ferries there was also a bar that sold burgers, instant soup, snacks, coffee as well as a fully stocked beer fridge. We brought our own groceries to make sandwiches and have fresh fruit.
- You need to bring your own hammock. As we discovered in Manaus, if you can get someone to put it up for you and it helps a lot. We only paid R$100 ($18 USD) for this service and it included the purchase and setting up of two hammocks as well as transportation from our hotel to the port so was more than worth it.
- Ferries will not run on time.
- You may be able to charge your electronics, but don’t depend on that.
- Trips going upstream will take almost twice the time of those going downstream.
- The ferry was R$150 ($28 USD) each from Manaus to Santarém and R$250 ($46 USD) each from Santarém to Belém. An air-conditioned cabin is not too much more if you have two people. From Santarém to Belém it would have been only R$900 ($165 USD) for both of us. There are faster, but more expensive options.
Coming Next – Idyllic Alter do Chão
For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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