Rivers are roads in the Amazon and riverboat trips are a uniquely Amazonian experience. Trips are long and languid, measured in days instead of hours, with vessels transporting both passengers as well as all manner of goods. Much of the time is spent on the boat's upper deck, watching the scenery glide by, knocking back beers, and talking and laughing over the ever-blasting music. The middle deck is where hammocks are slung, providing a place to read, nap or practice Portuguese with your neighbor. Night falls quickly and decisively, and night skies on the river can be spectacular.
For most people a two- to three-day trip is plenty. For all its romantic appeal, riverboat travel can get rather tedious, especially with the constant pounding of the music and engine. There's virtually no chance of seeing wildlife and boats typically travels far from shore. Consider taking a boat for one leg, and flying the others: air and boat fares can be surprisingly comparable, and you'll have more time for tours and other activities.
The two-day boat trip between Belém and Santarém is an interesting one, passing through the tidal zone around Belém, the narrows of Breves, the high bluffs around Monte Alegre and finally the main channel near Santarém. (The Santarém–Manaus leg, by contrast, follows the main channel only.) The Rio Negro, especially the upper regions, has fairly little boat traffic and winding through massive archipelagos. Porto Velho to Manaus, along the Rio Madeira, is another good choice, a scenic backdoor route to the Amazon.
Top Tips for Riverboat Travel
- You'll need a hammock and rope, as well as a light sheet in case the temperature drops. Most boats have a few private cabins, with bunks, private bathrooms and air-conditioning, though for the price you may as well fly.
- Get to the boat early to secure a good hammock spot. Away from the restrooms is best.
- Buffet-style meals are sold (or included) on all boats, but are notoriously unsanitary. Instead, stick with made-to-order burgers and sandwiches sold from the boat's grill.
- Bring water, dry snacks and extra toilet paper.
- Theft isn’t rampant, but foreigners make tempting targets. Be especially alert when the boat stops in port, which can be in the middle of the night.
- Never leave cameras, cell phones or other valuables unattended in your hammock, and keep your backpack zipped and locked.
- Make friends with the passengers around you, as they can keep an eye on your gear.
- Bring a thin cable and lock to secure your bag to one of the boat's center poles.
- Some thieves will snatch a promising piece of luggage and jump overboard; an accomplice waiting in a a motorboat fishes thief and bag from the river and zips away to salvage whatever's not waterlogged. Victims can't jump in after them and captains will not stop or turn around.