Crossing the Amazon River by Slow Boat
Imagine taking the slow boat down the Amazon River, crossing from deep in the Colombian Jungle to the Brazilian coast.
That’s approximately 2,400kms over 8 days and 6 nights sleeping in a hammock and watching the jungle go by. Pretty incredible, right?
To cross this part of the Amazon you will need to take at least 3 separate boats. We stopped twice along the way, in Manaus and Santarém, but the boat journey is a highlight in itself.
What you need:
- A hammock
- A ticket for the boat
- A bit of patience. It’s a long ride but completely worth it.
Before the Boat:
The boat heading towards Manaus leaves from Tabatinga, the Brazilian city on the triple border between Colombia, Brazil and Peru. I stayed on the Colombian side of the border in Leticia. From what I saw of the three border cities, Leticia is the one with the best infrastructure for tourism; safe, affordable and there are things to do.
Before you can set up your hammock and start cruising down the Amazon River, there are three little steps you need to follow.
1. Go through immigration in Colombia.
To get my stamps out of Colombia, I went to the migration office in town, located where the tourist Malecón intersects with Carrera 12. It’s a short walk from Parque Santander in central Leticia.
I was in and out of the office without any problems within 10 minutes. There is another office at the Leticia Airport too.
2. Go through immigration in Brazil.
On the Brazilian side, the migration process is carried out by the Federal Police. It’s located on the Avenida da Amizade, 2km after you pass the Colombian border. My experience there was also straightforward, I presented my documents and was stamped into Brazil with a 90 day tourist visa.
The officials there can speak Spanish as well as Portuguese. Most people who live on the border speak or can at least understand ‘Portuñol’, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. It’s pretty much the local dialect!
3. Buy your tickets.
Buying the tickets for the boat to Manaus is also done on the Brazilian side of the border at the Port of Tabatinga.
The ticket office is at the wharf where the boat departs. You can either reach it by a local bus from central Leticia that will take you down Avenida da Amizade and then walk, or take a taxi directly there.
Slow boats from Tabatinga to Manaus leave on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. We bought the tickets on a Saturday afternoon for a Tuesday morning departure. The tickets cost 200 Brazilian Reals (R$) which included the 4 day and 3 night slow boat plus 3 meals each day.
If you haven’t bought a hammock yet, you will find people selling them here. They are generally pretty bulky in size though, so I opted for a travel sized from Quechua.
Crossing the Amazon River by Slow Boat: Tabatinga to Manaus
For a 10am departure we were recommended to get there as early as 8am in order to go through security (a very basic bag check) and choose our spot on the boat. We secured a river facing hammock on the second deck, complete with jungle views.
What to expect on the boat
Before the journey, I heard a lot of horror stories about the conditions on the boat. I expected very basic bathrooms and facilities but I was pleasantly surprised. The boat had three levels; one level for the cargo and engines, the second level for passengers, hammocks and bathrooms and the third deck was set up with tables and a bar with sunset views. It felt like a cruise ship! Perhaps not a 5 star all inclusive cruise ship, but to me it was a whole lot better.
The slow boat is not a tourist boat. It is for the most part local transport between cities and towns. People often travel with a lot of luggage and the only places to store it is underneath your hammock. I didn’t worry much with the security of this arrangement, with everyone in the same situation I didn’t feel the risk of having things stolen was high. I kept a small bag with my valuables on me when I went up to the top deck, but I always felt the boat was safe.
Time on the slow boat went slowly indeed. Activities alternated between reading, writing, playing cards, napping and listening to the variety of podcasts, audiobooks and music I had downloaded in preparation for the journey. Under the guidance of my Brazilian travel buddy, I started to study Portuguese and put it into practise with the young family who slept in the hammocks next to me.
Usually, these activities were planned around the most important times of the day; meals. I had low expectations about how much of the included meals I would be able to eat as a vegan. I even packed a sufficient amount of food to get me just in case. To my surprise there was plenty of options. Mostly carbs, but completely delicious. It was usually a mixture of pasta, rice, salad, beans, meat and farofa set up as all you can eat restaurant buffet. There was even air conditioning in the café! Meal times were set at around 6am for breakfast, 11:30am for lunch and 5pm for dinner.
Views and sunsets
The first few days things I could see from the boat looked more or less the same as the part of jungle I saw on the Colombian side. There were plenty of bird sightings and I even saw a few grey dolphins! Gradually the scenery changed and we were passing through a jungle made up of completely different species. It is common knowledge that the Amazon River is big, the biggest in the world in terms of water mass in fact, but there were even points when the river was so wide you couldn’t see the riverbank.
The sunsets from the top deck never failed to disappoint, and I am now of the firm belief that Amazonian sunsets have no rival. The rain filled clouds that pass above the river catch the sun in a way I have never seen before.
About once per day the boat would stop in a town to pick up and drop off passengers. This would usually mean that hustlers would come on board, selling various fruits, peanuts and plantain chips. This is an opportunity to stock up on snacks!
Other than these occasional towns, I didn’t see much human interference between Tabatinga and Manaus. As we got closer, Manaus was visible from afar, with chimneys pumping smoke into the sky and cargo ships taking up the majority of the river. After so many days of your view being pure jungle and river, any sign of humanity seems invasive. Even the towns consisting of little more than a church, school and football pitch seem out of place so deep into the jungle. Honestly, I felt resentful towards the city before the boat even docked at the pier.
Manaus to Santarém
The slow boat out of Manaus departs from the Port of Manaus, the same place where the boat originally arrived. This is also where you can buy your tickets.
Even with a Brazilian to do the negotiating this one cost 90 R$ for 2 days and 1 night on the boat, excluding meals. You can buy meals for about 15 R$ each per meal, though we decided to bring our own food to save money.I spent a lot of time on this stretch in awe of the natural beauty we were passing on the Amazon River, but also overwhelmed by the feeling that I was experiencing it in a very crucial moment; either we protect it or destroy it. Click To Tweet
I wish I could say the standout aspects of this boat were more dolphin sightings, sunsets and majestic jungle, but what I saw from the boat left me sad and frustrated. The jungle was a lot more deforested than areas I had seen before, often with herds of cows grazing on the cleared pastures. I have long known about the problems of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, with animal agriculture being the driving force, but seeing it with my own eyes was on another level.
I spent a lot of time on this stretch in awe of the natural beauty we were passing, but also overwhelmed by the feeling that I was experiencing it in a very crucial moment; either we protect it or destroy it. The rainy weather didn’t help shake off that feeling, though there were moments of hope and light, like this rainbow.
Santarém to Belém
The boats leaving Santarém don’t always depart from the same port you arrived in. Ours arrived in the Port of Santarém, but the boat to Belém left from a Porto Marques Pinto, which is just a few kilometres away. They do sell the tickets at the main port though, and this one cost 180 R$ for 2 nights and 2 days. Food isn’t included on this one either, and prices were 15 R$ per meal.
We tied up our hammocks with a jungle view for the third time, this time with a whole lot of extra space as the boat was far from full capacity.
At this stage we were well adapted to boat life. We had even mastered the art of bringing our own food along. My top recommendation for easy things to bring are oats with granola and bananas and biscuits with peanut butter or tomato. I’m also partial to Oreos which are easy to find in most places. On the first day we even brought pasta that we cooked before the boat.
We enjoyed the two final sunsets accompanied by an overpriced beer bought at the bar, financed by the money we saved bringing food. By the end of the trip, you will be well accustomed and the three sertanejo songs played on repeat. Sertanejo is Brazilian country music, and it’s safe to say the people in charge of the music on the boat are big fans. You will have made your mind up for or against it pretty quickly.
The last part of the boat journey goes through the smaller streams of the Amazon River. There are even points when both sides of the boat are close to the riverbank. The jungle is dramatically different at this point. Here you start to see a lot more palm trees and other species common to coastal areas.
And just like that, after 8 days travelling across the Amazon by boat, we made it to the Brazilian coast and what felt like a whole new world entirely.
Crossing the Amazon River by Slow Boat: Pro Tips
- Hang your hammocks in the middle of the middle deck. This spot is furthest from the bathrooms, the sound of the engine and also has the best view of the river.
- Sleep diagonally on the hammock. After a few nights I noticed this is how the locals sleep and it’s 100% more comfortable.
- It can get cold at night, so bring warm clothes! I was grateful to have a sleeping bag.
- Bring snacks! Perhaps this is a no brainer. Especially for the parts of the journey where the food isn’t included in the ticket price.
- About 45 minutes from the city of Santarém is Alter do Chão. This jungle town was voted to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world! The best time of year to go is between August and December. This is when the water is low, otherwise the beaches in town don’t exist. We went when the water was high and still loved it though!
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