Cruise the Amazon on a Riverboat Trip

Single, double, and triple-decked riverboats wait at port while the soft peach of sunrise glistens on the water.

Travel like the locals via riverboat like these lined up early morning at the Port of Manaus. Photo © Wagner Fontoura, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

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.

Travel map of the Amazon

The Amazon

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  1. Robert Geyer says:

    Is there no way to book passage online on a Manaus-Belem passenger ferry as there used to be when the old Amazon Star company was still in business and/or operating the route? Are they still, perhaps under a different name?

  2. Robert Geyer says:

    Hi, Michael. I just sent a very long message but am not sure it made it through to you. After I clicked on “Post Comment” I got the advisory that my message was being “moderated”, but it did not then appear below Jackie Beecher’s more sensibly short posting. May I ask you to confirm that you received the message? Thanks very much.
    Bob Geyer

  3. Robert Geyer says:

    Hi, Michael. I’m a fairly seasoned Brazil traveler writing for some independent advice. I’m planning my third trip to Amazonia this fall and would like to do something just a bit more ambitious than on my previous two. One combined a stay in a lodge perhaps 100 km east of Manaus run by French folks with a 3/4-day boat tour up the Negro with the Swallows and Amazons company. The other was a 3/4-night stay at the Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge near Novo Airao, which I thought was excellent and want to repeat toward the end of the trip upcoming. My plan, about which I have already contacted my friend Mark at S&A, is to do a 10/12-day boat trip up the Negro (again) as far as the Jau National Park. I’m not aware of what may be particularly noteworthy about Jau, the point rather being to set myself a goal that will expand my horizons a bit further than on the earlier trips. Suffice it to say that S&A will do such a (longer) trip as long as there are at least two people signed up, although I’ve been told I’m welcome to pay two fares if I can’t find someone as crazy as myself to join me. I haven’t yet, but I also don’t regard my plan as at all crazy. My not-too-specific question is whether you think this makes sense? I’m far from your typical young backpacker type, having just turned 69 and become used to at least a minimum of comfort on my travels (most recently to Croatia). But, for example,I prefer sleeping in a hammock on the deck of the small boat that S&A runs up the Negro to an air-conditioned cabin, tho I like the idea of the privacy of the latter. And I would minimally want to do some hiking, canoeing, swimming, and birdwatching on the trip (my earlier boat trip was during the rainy season and the river was too high even to permit a swim off an exposed beach). I draw the line at camping, which I did for one overnight on the previous trip, it rained (hey, I know it’s called a rain forest for a reason!), and I wasn’t and still am not tough enough to enjoy that. En route back to Manaus I’d really like to spend a few nights at the Anavilhanas Lodge and then book passage on one of the passanger ferries downriver to Belem. Beyond that, I hope to be able to travel on to Sao Luis and the Lencois Maranhenses, Jeri, and Fortaleza, where I have friends. I understand the old Amazon Star is no longer in business (I rode that passenger ferry from Belem to Manaus on the same trip which took me to the Anavilhanas Lodge some years back. Can you recommend a boat or company on/with which to do the passage from Manaus down to Belem? Last time I booked a suite and would almost certainly want to do that again this time around.

    Well, that’s a lot of verbiage and not much in the way of specific questions. What I hope is that you can give me a general reaction to my plan and provide any specific advice of your own that might inform my subsequent planning. Oh, btw, I speak enough Portuguese to make my way around, read a menu, buy ferry tix, etc., thanks to a month of intensive study in Salvador (still my favorite Brazilian city) in 2003. Since then I’ve studied on my own at an alarmingly low level of intensity; more important, I’ve traveled a fair amount in Brazil, most recently to Caraiva and the Praia do Espelho in southern Bahia, where I had a serious horseback-riding accident which landed me in the hospital on my return to the U.S.

    Thanks for hearing me out, Michael. Any feedback would be most gratefully appreciated.

    Bob Geyer, Arlington, VA, USA.

  4. Jackie Beecher says:

    Two healthy and energetic 70 year olds want to take a river cruise on the Amazon in Brazil plus explore 2 cities — probably Rio and Bahia — this summer when the World Cup is over. What do you recommend?