An alternative to staying put in a jungle lodge is to choose a riverboat as your headquarters, which will allow you to cover far more territory. Many ecotourist agencies operate or can book you onto a riverboat that will cruise up and down the Rio Solimões and/or Rio Negro. Accommodations range from basic cabins with wooden bunks to cruise-worthy luxury with fine dining. To venture into the forest itself you’ll be transferred to smaller vessels that will allow you to penetrate more secluded and wildlife-rich igapós and igarapés.
Viverde (Rua das Guariúbas 47, Parque Acariquara, tel. 92/3248-9988) can reserve trips on riverboats and charter boats for private groups. You can also directly contract Amazon Clipper Cruises, based at the Hotel Tropical in Ponta Negra (tel. 92/3656-1246), which runs 3–4-day excursions (R$900–1,200) along both the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões. The Iberostar Grand Amazon (tel. 92/2126-9900) runs similar tours, with the added bonus of accommodations on a luxury cruise ship with smashing cabins featuring king beds, plasma TVs, and private verandas as well as multiple pools, restaurants, and bars. However, amid all the champagne and pampering, the Iberostar’s crew takes its eco-activities seriously. Aside from offering excellent guided tours in small launches and nightly wildlife lectures, the library is stuffed with books about every aspect of the Amazon’s climate, culture, history, flora, and fauna. Daily rates hover around R$700. While the price is steep, it includes absolutely everything (including the champagne).
If you really want to rough it and have a much more authentic (not to mention way cheaper) adventure, you can always hop aboard one of the local wooden passenger boats that ferry people and cargo throughout the Amazon. For major routes—along the Amazon to Santarém and Belém, along the Rio Solimões to Tefé, up the Rio Negro to Novo Airão—there is more or less regular service (be aware that schedules change) from Manaus. Since these boats are for transport and not for tourism, don’t expect to see much, if any, wildlife, since the boats generally stick to the middle of the main rivers, far from either shore. Also don’t expect a lot of comfort.
If you opt for one of the few private but cramped, stuffy, and basic camarotes (cabins with bunks that sleep 2–4 people), you’ll have privacy, security, and your own bathroom (a big luxury), and that’s about it. More expensive but still tiny suites have bona fide beds and air-conditioning instead of a fan.
If you’re on a serious budget and want to hang with the locals, you can buy a hammock and string it up on deck. Opt for the middle deck with exposure to more breezes (and farther away from the noisy engine, which is on the lower deck). The experience is often sardine-like, not to mention noisy, with music playing, babies crying, and all-night gossip sessions, especially on the upper deck, where meals are served and passengers tend to linger.
All meals—lots of edible but very basic rice, beans, and fish as well as filtered water—are included, although you should bring some mineral water and snacks such as bananas or energy bars as a reserve. To be extra safe, order à la carte items. Bring a roll of toilet paper as well; the term “shared bathrooms” is somewhat of an understatement. Although safety isn’t usually a big issue, you’ll want to keep a constant eye on your belongings. Keep in mind that delays are frequent and that traveling downriver is always quicker than upriver. It’s best to purchase tickets at least a day or two in advance and to stake out hammock space at least a few hours before the boat leaves (ask the porter for advice). Some boats have a hammock space reserved for women only.
The quintessential boat trip is the four-day journey down to the mouth of the Amazon in Belém. Different companies operate boats that travel downstream on different days of the week, but not everyday, and schedules change frequently. In early 2011, prices hovered around R$250 for hammock space, R$660 for a cabin for two people, and R$700 for a suite for two. Most boats to Belém also stop off at Parintins, Santarém, and Monte Alegre. The 36-hour journey to Santarém costs roughly R$150 for hammock space, R$480 for a cabin for two, and R$550 for a suite for two. Slow boats depart from the Estação Hidroviária, where you can get schedules for all boats and buy tickets. Ticket booths are open 6 a.m.–6 p.m. daily for long-distance river boats. Plan on buying tickets 1–2 days in advance. Purchase tickets from the kiosks and not from the vendors on the street.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.