How we got up the river without a paddle

Two days into this adventure, Steve and I feel ecstatic. But it’s also already clear this would not be everyone’s cup of tea. What got us here, in the deep psychological sense, was that we share a love of rivers; to us the great rivers of the world are grandly romantic. We’ve never cruised any European waterways (we’re saving that for our dotage), but we’ve sailed down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor. We took boats on the Mekong River from Vietnam to Phnom Penh, then on to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. On our trip to Peru in 2003, we flew to the southern (Peruvian) reaches of the Amazon watershed, and that wondrous experience made us want to see the mother river herself. This spring seemed like the right time to do it.

A bit of research confirmed that plenty of tourists want to spend some time on the Amazon. But I learned that the vast majority of them do this by flying into Manaus (the metropolis in the middle of the region), then taking cruise ships that range from plain to luxurious and sailing around for a few days, often staying at jungle lodges before returning to Manaus to fly onward. This sounded okay to us, but not so exciting (having had our jungle-lodge experience in Peru). What excited us was the idea of using this greatest waterway as a transport artery. Local folks have done that for millenia and do it still. Almost no roads have been built through the region. The very first bridge across one of the Amazon’s tributaries (the Rio Negro) opened less than 10 years ago. There aren’t more mainly because there are no roads to connect the bridges.

The latest Lonely Planet guidebook to Brazil devotes 2 of its 734 pages to riverboat travel, and I eventually also found a half-dozen descriptions written by bloggers who’ve journeyed this way. From these accounts, it seemed clear to me it must be possible to travel the full length of the Amazon River across Brazil on ferry boats. I learned that the big slow ferries have decks where most travelers string up their hammocks, but that the boats usually also are equipped with a few private cabins. To assess whether we could stand the hammock option, we borrowed one from a friend last fall, strung it up on our pool deck, and climbed aboard.

Although swinging in it looked languid and inviting, it tormented both our backs, so we rejected that option. Bloggers said it wasn’t necessary to book the ferry tickets more than a day or so in advance. But most of the writer/travelers were on the road for open-ended amounts of time. Steve and I may be retired, but we still have responsibilities at home that make us book return tickets. To be comfortable, I wanted to book our ferry cabins in advance.

We finally decided we wanted to break up the cross-country river journey into four parts, stopping along the way to participate in different activities. And I eventually found agents in two of the big cities we would pass through toward the latter half of our journey who were able to book the cabins on two of the four segments for us (Manaus to Santarem and Santarem to Belem). I was astounded, however, by the dearth of options for booking cabins on the first two segments. I emailed the owner of the lodge in the reserve where we will stay two days from now and asked if he would help me. He was friendly but replied that it was normally not possible to make such a booking in advance.

For Tabatinga (on the Colombian border) where we would start our journey, I found no travel agents online, no boat companies nor hotels that appeared to offer this service. So we arrived Sunday afternoon with little more than the hope we would be able to figure out how to get ourselves to Alvaroes (the gateway to the reserve) by Thursday morning.

This is how our gamble played out: We got to our B&B too late Sunday afternoon to begin the search (Leticia and Tabatinga are tiny, scruffy South American border towns, so riddled by narcotics trafficking that the US State Department says Americans shouldn’t go near them. Now that we’ve seen them, they don’t seem bad at all, but we also didn’t want to go wandering around the docks around sundown alone.) We were on the hunt bright and early yesterday (Monday) morning, however. I thought I knew where to go. I’d read a blog post written by a guy in 2016 who traveled from Leticia to Iquitos in Peru by boat, and he detailed the street where all the boat ticket vendors were located.

We walked out in search of a tuk-tuk (one of the motorcycle taxis ubiquitous in poor parts of the world). But we saw few and asked our receptionist to call one. Minutes later, a stout, middle-aged Colombian matron wearing a Beatles t-shirt pulled up in her growling little vehicle. Her name was Xiomara. I told her what we needed (she spoke no English, but my Spanish worked well enough and she seemed to have some grasp of Portuguese.) She said the street mentioned by the blogger was only for boats to Peru. Instead, she knew where we needed to go in Tabatinga. And so, yielding to Xiomara’s obvious competence, we put-putted south.

We had to ask her to point out when we were crossing the border; few obvious signs mark it. At the Brazilian boat docks, to our delight, we learned that a boat (the M. Monteira II) was departing the next day and was scheduled to reach Alvaroes on Thursday morning! A cabin was available for 1200 reales (about $338, which would include the two night’s lodging, boat fare, and all our meals and purified water.) Xiomara drove us to an ATM machine and then to money-changers who traded us Brazilian reales for Colombian pesos and dollars. She drove us back to the docks to buy our tickets (now that we had the necessary cash) then on to a Colombian immigration office (to get stamped out of Colombia)…

…and a Brazilian one (to have our visas inspected and secure our stamps for Brazil). We were done with it all by 10:30 am, then Xiomara drove us to an eco-park 7 kilometers out of town so we could take a hike through the jungle and learn a bit about the indigenous culture. Then she took us to a roadside restaurant for delicious grilled river fish.

She returned to our hotel to pick us up this morning and deposited us back at the boat dock by 9 am.

I think she probably should have known we didn’t need to be there that early (even though the boat folks said we did.) It took no more than 5 minutes to get our tickets stamped and passports inspected by the Brazilian police official. Then we had to wait until 10:30 before the line of passengers moved to board. Still, the wait was entertaining, and the payoff was rich. I’ll report more on that in my next post.

2 thoughts on “How we got up the river without a paddle

  1. Wes Mudge May 21, 2018 / 1:39 pm

    Hurray! It’s a real adventure. Arriving in Tabatinga w/o assurance of a boat was a bold move. Esp w govt warnings of danger.

  2. Christy Hendrickson May 21, 2018 / 1:42 pm

    Pretty impressive Jeanette and Steve and definitely more adventuresome that I would be at this point. Cinque Terre is quite tame in contrast. However, Bob and I did manage to find a bus out of town that took us to a trail that led to the top of the mountain where the local sanctuary is only open four times a year. We not only hit the day of the festival but got a ride on a cog rail monorail that took us to the top of the mountain saving our legs for the hike down. As you know, I have fond memories of Leticia Columbia. Sounds like you encountered a Guardian angel to drive you around. Looking forward to your next post. Christy

    Sent from my iPhone


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