As we flew over an impossible expanse of rainforest and the largest river in the world stretching further than we could seem we got a small taste of how vast this area really is. “Think of how good it is for the planet,” Tim said. Exactly. And after seeing a tiny section of it, from the air, and being blown away about how huge it is, it makes it only scarier to realize that estimates put deforestation of the Amazon over the last fifty years at around 20%. True, this doesn’t touch the loss of forest in Sumatra or Borneo, where there is as little as 15% left, but the Amazon holds approximately half of the remaining tropical forests on earth (as well as 1 in 10 of the known species), and it’s destruction is a truly frightening thing to comprehend.
As we stepped off of the plane, we were hit with a virtual wall of heat and humidity. By the time we were out of the airport, the rain had started, but it did nothing to cool off the sweltering town. In the airport, we had met Viktor, one of many Colombians heading to Brazil to support their team in their first appearance in the international event after a 16-year absence. We teamed up and, after finding a hostel, began to tick things off of our to-do list.
Leticia is a border town; Tabatinga is the Brazilian equivalent on the other side of a most casual international border. We got our exit stamps from Colombia in the airport and were told we needed to enter Brazil the same day – people can move freely amongst the two towns. We took a taxi to immigration in Tabatinga and we wouldn’t have realized we were anywhere new had the taxi driver not told us we were now in Brazil – and for the fact that every imaginable surface was now draped in green and yellow. After waiting in a moderate immigration queue amongst a crowd of other tourists doing exactly what we were, we had some additional information to go off about our next steps.
We had arrived on a Thursday, under the general impression that the slow boat would leave from Tabatinga on Saturday, take us 1200 kilometres down the Amazon, and deposit us in Manaus on Tuesday. It turned out that, due to the influx of travellers pouring down the river towards the World Cup, they had added two additional boats: one on Friday and a second boat on Saturday. After chatting with people who had seen the boats, we knew that we wanted the 12 p.m. departure on Saturday. As a bonus, our accommodation in Manaus was set to begin on Tuesday, so if the boat were on time, it would work our perfectly.
We made our way to the port, where we bought tickets for the Saturday departure for 200,000 pesos, 250 reals, or roughly 110 dollars. The boat would depart mid-day Saturday, was for four days and three nights, included meals, and all we had to bring was our own hammock. Can you say budget cruise?
We spent our time in Leticia gathering supplies (mainly snacks), watching football (because we wouldn’t get enough over the next month), and meeting people who were doing the same journey. Leticia is certainly the nicer of the two neighbouring towns; Tabatinga is rather sprawling, grungy, and decidedly unsafe after dark.
It was with a palpable sense of excitement that we set off early on Saturday to the dock. For three nights on a crowded boat, hammock placement is a top priority, and we had been told to arrive around 8 a.m. to hang our hammocks to ensure a good spot. As we had already come to realize, everyone had been gathering vastly different information on what was actually happening and when it was to happen, and each person of apparent authority we asked had a different answer. So it was a large crowd that had gathered at 8 or 9 a.m. (no one was really sure about the time, as there may or may not be a time difference across the border) and waited around for a couple of hours until we were allowed on to the boat. We had been told the police needed to check both the boat and our stuff before anyone was getting their hammock up.
Miraculously, once this started to happen, Tim, Viktor and I were near the front of the queue and had reasonably good choice of placement for our hammocks. We opted for the wider side of the boat (people wouldn’t be walking into our hammocks as much), near the window (for the breeze), on the second level (the bottom is reportedly more noisy and less safe, as passengers arrive and depart during the night). It soon became apparent the relative large amount of space we had acquired for ourselves was an illusion. As more and more people piled onto the boat, the hammocks were hung twice as thickly as we initially attempted, and the only way to make it work was to stagger the heights – essentially hammock bunk beds. Even still, neighbours were constantly bumping into one another, any rocking of the boat made us all sway in bump in unison. You got to know your neighbours very quickly.
The boat departed around 1 p.m., which was sooner than most bets had estimated. After piling together and locking our gear, we set off to explore the boat.
The first two decks were sleeping quarters – somewhere between 80 and 100 hammocks crammed onto each at any given time. The second floor had the small dining room, where about 15 people could sit and eat the basic meals at any given time. The top deck was where we spent most of our time, as the open air and incredible views made it the most pleasant area on the boat. There was a bar selling beer, ice cream, and snacks, a small covered area, and plenty of chairs and tables. In the evening, salsa generally erupted on the top deck. At one point the boat’s launch went out to do a beer run. Perhaps they hadn’t banked on this many tourists.
It takes a bit of technique and a bit of simply getting used to it to spend a comfortable night in a hammock. It turns out the best solution is actually just a generous quantity of beer. It’s strange as well, because after the first night, where most of us tossed and turned as much as you can when lying like a banana, I vowed to not spend a minute in my hammock the following day. However, once I was up, it seemed like the most comfortable place to be. The second night was better (on account of the beer), and by the third night I was pretty used to the whole idea.
I can’t comment on how this journey would be normally. I’d imagine it would be fairly low-key. I’m sure there could be a couple of travellers aboard, but most would be local. If you couldn’t speak the language, it would, above all, be quite boring I imagine. Because of the World Cup, however, we had a huge number of very excitable passengers aboard. There was a huge group of Colombians, a handful of Canadians, Kiwis, Australians, and Brits, and everyone was in great spirits. There was a lot of energy on board and everyone was friendly, chatty, and excited about what was to come.
The river itself was pretty astonishing. Rio Amazonas is made up of the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro, and begins where the two meet close to Manaus. We were travelling down the Rio Solimões, which originates in the Andes of Peru. The sediment-filled waters are the colour of milky coffee and, as the water levels are high this time of year, the shores were a mix of nearly flooded villages and marshy forests. Where we began the journey, we could see each side of the shore easily. The river slowly widens, and at the mouth of the Amazon, where it empties in the Atlantic Ocean, the distance between the banks is the same as the distance from London to Paris.
The days passed as days do, and if we had gotten some idea of the scale of the Amazon flying into it, our perception only expanded as we motored, at no turtle pace, for days down the ever-expanding river. It felt as though we’d travelled across the continent, but when looking at a map you could estimate we’d only gone less than half of the way to the coast. How vast this area was that we were in, an area that holds unimaginable quantities of undiscovered species, that holds some of the few uncontacted tribes of people remaining on earth.
We were woken in the dark, with heavily armed police aboard the boat. We were a couple of hours away from docking in Manaus, and they were conducting the standard passport and gear checks. Each bag was searched, some more thoroughly than others. It was a long-travelled crew, bleary with sleep, who barely blinked as three men on the boat were arrested. One, at least, was carrying large amounts of cocaine. As the rest of the boat packed away hammocks and other belongings, the detained men sat, almost expressionless, with their hands behind their back on one of the benches in the middle of the boat.
At some point before sunrise, we had crossed the famed meeting of the waters – the spot where the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro meet, but do not merge. Their waters run alongside one another for six kilometres, the different sediment levels, temperature, and speeds making them act almost as water and oil. We had seen none of this in the night, of course, and knew now only because the water lapping at the edges of the boat was now almost black in colour.
We watched the city appear before us. Manaus, during the height of the rubber boom in the late 19800s was once one of the most opulent cities in the world. Now, the sprawling city is home to around two million people, but the last vestiges of the wealth of the rubber age are few and far between. There are a few architectural marvels, namely the Teatro Amazonas. The appeal of the city is found in corner smoothie shops serving out tropical açai by the bowlful, the beautiful central plazas, and, primarily, the incredible people. The residents of Manaus, not as bombarded with foreign travellers as their counterparts in Rio or Sao Paulo, welcomed the World Cup visitors with open arms. This is what truly made Manaus an amazing base for our two-week, four-game long entrance into the event.