Hammock Diaries: From Tabatinga to Manaus
Duration: 4 days (Leaving at 12:00 on Wednesday, arriving at 9:30 on Saturday)
What’s Included: Food (breakfast, lunch and dinner, different drinks each day, a sweet for the dessert and cold drinking water). Plates, plastic glasses for water and other drinks, as well as the cutlery, were also provided.
Price: Normally 200 reais (52$), but I asked nicely and got the ticket for 180 reais (47$).
Things to Bring: A mosquito net and/or repellent, a good camera, a hammock, a blanket/sleeping bag. Some snacks, perhaps. And flip-flops.
After crossing the river to the small Brazilian town of Tabatinga, I promptly went in search of the Polícia Federal, which also served as the immigration office, to be allowed into the country. At the same time, I was also asking people about “Casa de Troco” or the money exchange point to change my remaining Peruvian soles to Brazilian reais, so that I could pay for my trip to Manaus, a large Brazilian city deep into the Amazon Basin, from where I was hoping to continue hitchhiking to the State of São Paulo. But it wasn’t a short walk. And the more I walked, the higher the sun went, the hotter it got, the heavier my rucksacks seemed, and the more I perspired. The sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes, blocking the vision. Several times I stopped to just rest and wipe the sweat off my face and out of my eyes, but only minutes after I continued my face was already thick with the moisture. I had never experienced such air humidity before. (When a few hours later I finally removed my damp clothes, I wrung so much water out of them I could have filled a small teacup. Seriously.)
I first went to the currency exchange point, which was close to the border with Colombia and in the opposite direction from the Polícia Federal and the port with the boat leaving for Manaus. I wanted to get going with the trip already that day and therefore I didn’t want to waste my time getting first to the immigrations, then go to the exchange point at the other end of the long avenue and then walk straight back the way I had just come past the Police in search of the boat.
Having changed my money, I found the Polícia Federal only on my second try, having first walked straight past it without noticing the huge building. The heat, I only had the heat to blame for this. The police officer had only one question for me, which was if I had been to this country before, to which my answer was negative. I didn’t have any stamps in my passport from my previous visit to Brazil this June and July, so any other answer would surely have raised a lot of unwanted questions. (I will elaborate on why and how I managed to get in and out of Brazil without anyone noticing sometime later if I have enough time. And no, I didn’t do anything stupid or illegal, or both.)
And then, having asked a few more people about the right directions, I finally arrived at the port and found the boat to Manaus waiting for me.
About the boat.
On my previous boats, I had bought the ticket directly on board from one of the staff. The ticket for this boat, however, had to be purchased at a separate counter in the port itself. On board, a fierce-looking but friendly guy was checking everyone’s IDs, while at a small desk every person, according to the length of their trip, received a paper wristband, typical to those at the music festivals. The police forces were everywhere, and they were heavily armed. I had read before that other travellers had had their bags and the clothes on their backs thoroughly inspected for drugs and weapons, and I was prepared to undergo the same rigid examination. Therefore, I was rather surprised when they allowed me to continue to the upper decks without anyone rummaging through my stuff. I guess they assumed I looked harmless.
There are no words to express how content I was on this third – and last – of my boat rides. This boat was clean, spacious, with decent bathroom facilities (yes, the shower and the bathroom were still combined, but there was much more space); there were numerous litterbins on each side of the boat, and the whole ship was generally better maintained that the previous two. I couldn’t imagine doing the trip the other way round – starting in Brazil and ending in Peru. All that filth and dirt, and what neglected state those boats in Peru were in, especially the one between Iquitos and Santa Rosa. Brr.
This boat too made a few stops along the way, but in general, there were far fewer stops now than in Peru. Once – it was on our first night – we pulled over next to an army vessel, and a few officers got on board to inspect passengers’ belongings at random. Not finding anything, they let us go, and we continued our trip down the Amazon.
The food. All the meals were delicious, albeit still repetitive. Just after departing, the kitchen stuff distributed cups of sweet rice soup to all passengers, then for dinner we had a vegetable soup, but during the next few days it was always a different combination of rice, spaghetti, some salad and gravy. But the size of the portions were, well, reasonable. And with “reasonable” I mean that everyone was allowed to eat as much as they wanted and even refill if necessary. Provided they ate it all. There was a small fine for those that left any food on their plates. There was always a different type of drink available each mealtime too. Fresh and cold drinking water was also always available outside the kitchen, by the rear wall.
At the mealtimes, there were always two queues outside the canteen – one with the people willing to eat in the canteen itself with the plates and cutlery provided by the kitchen – and the other made up of people that had their own food storage containers and a spoon/fork. The kitchen staff let the first group in first and when all the seats in the canteen were taken, the second group was allowed to enter to fill their plastic containers with the amount of food they wanted and leave. I guess I was the only vegetarian on the whole boat.
About the weather.
On my first day, just before the departure at 12:00, the sun and that blistering heat that had left me soaked to the bone disappeared, and it started to rain. And not just a little bit. It rained like hell. It rained so much that the boat crew lowered the protective plastic fabric on either side of the boat to prevent the closest hammocks and their occupants from getting rained on. (Luckily, I had wisely taken another blogger’s advice to put up my hammock in the middle row, so I was protected from it anyway.)
After that, it never quite got as hot again. It was still pleasantly warm, but every now and then it would still rain, and I guess in the time between the downpours the air just couldn’t heat up to that temperature again. Or perhaps it did, but since I spent most of my time on the passenger deck instead of the top one, I didn’t feel it anyway.
The nights were still cool, so I still used my blanket to keep myself warm. I now reckon that it wasn’t as cold as in Peru – a thin summer sleeping bag would have been sufficient.
Again, the sunrises were spectacular – the vivid colours of yellow, orange and their many nuances in between. I daresay, the evening colours were even more brilliantly intense than in Peru. Every single picture taken on that beautiful background turned gorgeous. But at night it was equally beautiful, for my time on the boat coincided with a full moon. I enjoyed walking up to the third deck in the dead of the night and just observe the scenery sliding past, the moonlight reflected in the dark river waters. I was close to pinching myself; it seemed utterly unrealistic that I was really there, on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Amazon Basin far from any human settlements, living a life I could never have imagined possible.
About the atmosphere.
What goes for the neat state the boat was in, it also goes for the people’s attitudes, both that of the crew and passengers. In Brazil, you can really tell you’re in a more developed country. Brazilians themselves are much warmer and friendlier people than the cold Peruvians (or any other nation in South America that I have visited. Sorry.), and they are also cleaner and more well-behaved. I spent hours talking with my hammock neighbours from Tabatinga and its nearby towns, all of whom were both nice and kind. Plus, there were also more international travellers. Right next to me was a retired man from Madrid, Spain, but I also met a guy from Chile. We didn’t talk much, but we all had one thing in common – everyone felt better in Brazil than in Peru.
One interesting aspect that I will surely remember is that my hammock was one of the smallest on the boat. When I inquired about it to my newly found Brazilian friends, they told me that they have such spacious hammocks so that two people can fit in them, instead of one. Great for couples, I guess. I will also remember the calm after everyone had eaten; when they were resting or sleeping in their hammocks. And the music in the upper deck, so loud once you’re up there, but not heard at all once you had descended the stairs to the middle deck.
And then, again, it was already over. We had arrived in Manaus.
I said goodbye to my new friends, and headed toward the centre. Somehow, my legs led me straight to Teatro Amazonas – the most prominent theatre in the city – and, surprisingly, they had a free Wifi in the square beside it. I checked some emails and Facebook messages, then found the fastest route out of the city toward Porto Velho, the next biggest city toward São Paulo, and started walking again. Several hours later, I arrived at “Porto de Ceasa,” a port providing ferry service for vehicles wishing to cross to the other side of River Negro. I stepped onboard the next departing ferry and used it to traverse the river, hoping to find a lorry going to Porto Velho there. But the very next day I was already back on a similar ferry going back to Manaus.
But about that – in my next post!