A slow ferry on the Amazon River is considered one of South America’s greatest adventures. Nowhere else in the world are long-distance ferries such an integral part of life than here. With no roads due to thick jungle and insane seasonal flooding, boats are the sole mode of transportation between towns. Therefore, these ferries are full of locals and very few tourists giving it a level of authenticity that is hard to find.
The network of ferries stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean upriver to Peru. The most popular ferry trips go on the Amazon River itself, between Manaus-Santarem and Santarem-Belem, but there are many other options. Ferries downriver take 50% less time than upriver. In addition to the slow ferries, there are also speedboats that travel the Amazon. The speedboats go twice as fast and feature airplane-like seats but lack the romance of the slow ferry.
Ferry trips here take days and therefore require you to sleep on the boat. Most passengers sleep in hammocks, but there are cabins as well. I was advised that the hammocks are not only the more authentic experience, but also give you bragging rights!
Selecting the Route:
My goal was to sail from Santarem to Belem. I chose this route for three reasons. 1. The route is 48 hours, which according to multiple online sources is the optimal time because it balances experiencing the boat fully while also not being bored to tears 2. The route traveled both the main channel of the Amazon River and smaller backwaters making it more scenic and 3. I could spend time in Alter do Chao- one of the prettiest towns in Brazil just a 30-minute drive from Santarem.
Boats heading downriver to Belem typically arrive once a week, but the schedule is irregular. Therefore, I was not certain that I would be able to get on the boat to Belem. If a boat to Belem didn’t fit my schedule, I would have taken a trip to a different city such as Macapa which leave more regularly. For this reason, I built in 2 “buffer days” into my schedule in case the boat schedule was unfavorable.
On my first night (Monday) in Alter do Chao, I received word that a ferry was leaving on Friday from Santarem to Belem. I then was able to plan my trip. I would stay Tuesday and Wednesday in Alter. On Thursday, I travel to Santarem and prepare for the boat journey. That would give me 2 days in Belem before my flight out. Everything appeared to be going perfectly.
December 24, 2020: Preparations in Santarem
This was my designated “set up day”. My goal was to get everything in shape for the trip.
My first step was to get to Santarem, the city from where the boat was scheduled to depart. To get there from Alter do Chao, I took a public bus.
After waiting 35 minutes at the bus station, a packed bus arrived. 0.2 seconds after boarding, it bolted off into the jungle. The bus ended up being incredibly crowded; so crowded that I was being pushed in all directions. As we continued towards Santarem, the bus somehow kept picking up more passengers even though it was seemingly physically impossible to squeeze more people.
Even though this wasn’t the most COVID-friendly activity, I couldn’t help but smile while being pushed around- as I knew I was most certainly on a mighty adventure.
1 hour later, I arrived in Santarem drenched in the combined sweat of many Brazilians.
I then walked through the lively city center to my hotel. After checking in, it was time to get to work.
First, I got a SIM card for my phone, which I obtained at a CLARO store. I got 6 gigs of data for 30 reais (6 USD). Very cheap!
Next, I purchased a hammock from the local flea market next to the cathedral. The hammock cost 55 reais (11 USD) and cords cost 10 reais (2 USD).
Next, I purchased the ferry ticket. Lonely Planet said that tickets can be purchased at the dock, which is 4 kilometers west of the city center. Luckily, on the way there, I discovered a ferry vendor who was able to sell me the ticket. The boat I would be traveling was called Rondonia and it actually left from a newly opened dock called Porto DER 3 kilometers EAST of the city. This dock was not mentioned in my Lonely Planet (Brazil edition, 2019 publication date), but is on Google Maps. My ticket said that the boat was leaving at 8am tomorrow. I took a picture of the boat for reference.
Finally, I went to the supermarket. The boat apparently has a canteen with (infamously unhygienic) meals, so I only purchased some crackers plus 3 liters of water and trusted my stomach would hold.
Now with everything ready to go, I was able to take some time to explore Santarem. The city is located on the Amazon River, which is actually quite rare. The Amazon Basin is so large and has so many tributaries and side channels that to actually see the river is somewhat of a feat. In Santarem, the river is narrow- just 5 kilometers wide. Santarem is also home to a “meeting of the waters” where the clear Tapajos flows into the muddy Amazon. The two waters flow side by side in a spectacle that can be clearly seen by the naked eye.
For dinner, it was Christmas Eve so my options were slim. I settled on a buffet that featured a lot of couscous dishes and sushi with cream cheese (a Brazilian thing apparently). Not my favorite meal, but it was fun to see all the well-dressed Brazilians.
December 25, 2020: Departure Day
I woke up at 5:30, was out the door by 6. After a 30-minute walk, I arrived at the dock at 6:30 in order to catch the boat at 8:00.
Porto DER is not a nice place. The muddy shore was lines with a small flotilla of rusty rickety boats, half of which are probably abandoned. After a few tries, I found the Rondonia and boarded.
I checked in on the spacious bottom deck and was unceremoniously sent upstairs.
The middle deck was full of 200 hammocks slung in 4 rows along metal bars. The deck was dark and silent, as everyone was still asleep. I tried to set up my hammock using a figure eight as a stopper. My knot looked different from everyone else’s but I couldn’t speak Portuguese to ask for help and people were still asleep. I knew I made a mistake when my hammock slumped to the floor into a puddle of rainwater.
I decided that this setup was not ideal and decided to explore around the boat. I then discovered the upper deck with a smaller room that could house perhaps 70 hammocks.
This place seemed brighter and less likely to be flooded so I moved here. I put my hammock up in the middle of the room to avoid potential rain and to make my bag less attractive for thieves who throw bags overboard to an accomplice in a speedboat (theft isn’t rampant but this is a thing).
My hammock knot still wasn’t right but this time there was enough space to extend the hammock diagonally along the railings so it wouldn’t fall to the ground. Good enough.
8am passed by and the boat didn’t leave. I waited. 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00 passes. Still nothing, but at least now there was movement on the dock. Everybody had boarded, but the crew was unloading some goods. At 11:30, a big rainstorm hit and sideways rain flew into the boat.
At 12:00, another boat that apparently was blocking us in moved and by 12:03 we were rolling. Finally! And the rain stopped! Belem, here we come!!
Rondonia pulled into enormous Amazon River. The river is absolutely enormous. We sailed so far from either shore difficult to see things. It was just… a huge river…with green far in the distance. It was very cool to be on the famed Amazon River, but admittedly the scenery wasn’t great. We cruised at maybe 20-25 km/hour.
At 12:30, I got lunch from the cafeteria. It 15 reais (3 USD) for a tin container of spaghetti, rice, beans and chicken. I think there were other options but the food words in Portuguese are different than both the English and Spanish counterparts. The food was fine. Not amazing but not terrible at all. The food on these boats has a reputation for unhygienic, but this seemed okay. Usually in these situations, the biggest risk is vegetables washed in bad water, but this particular dish had none.
I spent probably half my time in my hammock. I read my Lonely Planet book, napped, and played an iPhone game called Balls Master. It was comfortable enough- especially because the room with my hammock had some air conditioning. The one annoying thing was my neighbor- a family with a kid who played Baby Shark on his tablet on repeat without headphones…for hours on end. Fun fact: there are a lot more verses to the song than I realized.
The other half of the time was spent outside in two places: the top deck and the upper deck (aka just outside my hammock area). The top deck was the best place to see the scenery. The breeze from our movement on the water made it the most comfortable place on the boat despite the sun.
The upper deck was the best place to hang out. There was a bar selling beer, soft drinks and snacks. There were outlets to charge your phone. Additionally, there was music blasting on the two large speakers. The playlist was very local- for the first day, we only listened to a band was called Açaí Pimenta. Every 3-4 minutes I would hear their hook: “Acai pimenta ahh tah ti” in a deep man’s voice. Apparently they style of music from Para is becoming popular around Brazil.
I was also able to mingle with my fellow travelers – all Brazilian. Nobody spoke English, but some most people could understand me when I spoke Spanish. My Spanish isn’t very good but it was good enough to have some sort of a conversation with people. Only 5% of Brazilians can speak English.
The problem was the other way around: I struggled to understand the Portuguese. Not only are 30% of the words fundamentally different, but the accent is quite different. Certain letters are pronounced different in Spanish and Portuguese. For example, a Spanish “j” sounds like an English “y” and a Spanish “h” is silent” but a Portuguese “j” sounds like an English “j” and a Portuguese “r” sounds like an English “h”. Confused? Me too.
Most of the people on the boat were locals using it for transport but there were some taking the boat for touristic purposes like myself. Those were generally the people who wanted to talk to me. Because Brazil is so diverse, I was told that could pass for a white Brazilian from the south…until the second I opened my mouth.
Our conversations revolved around my itinerary in Brazil, the foods of the Amazon and why people from the US use the word “America” when America is a much bigger place (much of the world considers North and South America to be parts of a single continent called America rather than two continents). I learned that Belem is super dangerous (eek) and that Rio has the hottest girls because they spend all their time working on their beach bodies. I also kept hearing how the various regions of Brazil (North, Northeast, Rio, Sao Paulo, South) are quite different from each other. The foods I am eating here in Para cannot be found south of the Amazon.
Overall, everyone was quite friendly and excited that I was seeing the real Brazil.
3 hours in, my knot slipped and my hammock slumped to the ground. I struggled to retire a better knot and luckily got some pity from a neighbor. The real hammock knot was actually far simpler than what I was attempting. It felt good to finally have a sturdy place to sleep.
5 hours in, we reached the town of Monte Alegre. The town looks pretty shabby but is hides a secret: 14,000 year old cave paintings. The paintings and pictographs are some of the finest in the entire Amazon basin. Too bad I won’t get to see them.
As we pulled into the port, the horn sounded 3 times and everyone headed to the balconies to see the town. Some people disembarked, some people got onto the boat- and headed to my area. I now had a new neighbor. Additionally, some vendors came onto the boat to try and sell things to us such as food and extension cables.
We kept cruising and day turned to night. The sky gets dark very fast without any light pollution. After dinner I spent some time on the deck and then headed to sleep around 21:00 after we left another port called Prainha. The “Baby Shark” family disembarked here. Thank God!
I woke up briefly to protect my bags when we stopped in a port at 3:00. But otherwise, I slept very well.
December 26, 2020: Backwaters
I woke up around 7:00 after sleeping surprisingly well- probably due to the gentle rocking of the hammock.
We were still on the main channel of the Amazon River but the scenery was about to change.
At 9:00, we turned right off the main channel into a secondary channel which was still kilometers wide. Eventually we reach the port at Gurupa. Here I watched an incredible scene unfold as numerous motorcycles were unloaded along a narrow plank. Then vendors and passengers swarmed onto the boat. One vendor was smart and instead of getting on the boat, used a giant stick with a plastic bag to pass his açaí over to people in the windows. He used a second bag to collect the money.
3 hours later, around 12:00. We moved into narrow waterways as we worked our way southeast towards Belem- which is separated from the main channel by the Switzerland-sized Ilha de Marajo.
Here in the channels, we got a glimpse of some remote tribes of the Amazon. They had come to greet us in their canoes and motorized canoes by the dozens. Men, women, children, and families- we saw it all.
The children called to us with bird-like noises and gestured at us with squeezing motions.
The people on the boat started throwing food to the tribespeople. The tribesmembers canoed over to pick up the food. I found it ironic that this was the day after Christmas because we were basically an Amazonian Santa Claus and Rondonia was our sleigh.
This went on for about two hours. In total we must have passed by 150-200 boats.
I was quite struck by this encounter. This was an interaction of two completely different worlds. Neither group could possibly understand how the other lives. My new Brazilian friends said that these tribespeople are so poor that they waited presumably hours (since we departed late) for just the chance to get food. Throwing the food is one of the only ways to help them because they live in such a remote place. The Brazilians also remised that there was no better way to help these people, but throwing sugary pre-packaged foods wrapped in non-degradable plastic was presumably better than nothing.
We continued through the narrow channel for a few hours. The canoes became less numerous. In their place were motorized speedboat which zoomed around us. Some people tried to board our ferry. Perhaps these were the thieves I was warned about. Or perhaps they were taking the ferry since there were no ports nearby.
We passed by a few small lumber mills and the accompanying wooden plank towns but in general, the land was pure unadulterated jungle.
At 18:30 we reached another town. This one had a Ferris wheel! I got cell coverage for the first time in awhile. Then it got dark.
Knowing this was my final night on the boat, I tried my best to enjoy this unique atmosphere. I was hanging out on the deck and was told to chat with a particular group of people. It turns out that there was another tourist here- a French. She has been here 6 months on a working holiday visa and was fluent in Portuguese. She was super tan, which is probably why I couldn’t pick her out as foreign earlier. She also was fluent in English!! I finally got to talk with somebody and it was very exciting.
I went to bed around 21:30 after another fantastic day.
December 27, 2020: Belem
The next morning, I woke up and were in the tidal bay. The water in this bay was even wider than the river! . I also had cell coverage everywhere.
At 9:00, bell signaled that it was time to take down our hammock. I did. Then walked onto the deck and could see the skyline of Belem. The number of skyscrapers made it look like Manhattan!
30 minutes later, we pulled into the port. This adventure was done, but the next one, in dangerous Belem, was about to begin whether I liked it or not!
I stared at the crowd gathered on the dock ready to greet us, took a few deep breaths and disembarked.
The Amazon ferry had all the trappings of an incredible adventure.
The logistics of this boat trip were not difficult, but had just enough uncertainty and preparation required to scare away the causal traveler.
The ferry was undoubtedly slow and had a lot of downtime, but 48 hours was a short enough time that I never felt completely bored. Had there been another day on the ferry, I would have been bored and I might have regretted taking the jouney due to opportunity cost. The Santarem-Belem route was good because the two days had wildly different scenery: the main channel of the Amazon River on Day 1 and smaller backwaters on Day 2. Seeing the tribes was a highlight. I would recommend this route to anyone.
Sleeping in the hammock was a lot of fun and more comfortable than one would expect. Not only was it a new experience, but I loved being with the people.
In short, I would rate this trip as one of my greatest adventures and would recommend the ferry to everyone if you can make the logistics work.