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 into smaller vessels that will allow you to penetrate more secluded and wildlife-rich igapós and igarapés.
Viverde (Rua das Guariúbas 47, Parque Acariquara, tel. 92/3248-9888, www.viverde.com.br) 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, website), which runs 3–4-day excursions along both the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões, for R$900–1,200.
The Iberostar Grand Amazon (Amazon Jungle Cruise, Hidroviária do Amazonas, tel. 92/2126-9900, www.iberostar.com) runs similar tours, with the added bonus of accommodations on a luxury cruise ship with smashing cabins featuring king-sized beds, plasma TVs, and private verandas as well as multiple pools, restaurants, and bars. However, amidst 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 (on large and small boats) 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 cabins (which usually sleep 2–4 people), you’ll have privacy, security, and your own bathroom (a big luxury), and that’s about it. If you’re on a serious budget and want to hang with the locals, then you can buy a hammock and string it up on deck. There are usually first-class and second-class hammock areas—the advantage of first-class hammock space is that you’ll be on a higher deck with exposure to more breezes (and farther away from the noisy engine).
The experience is often sardine-like, not to mention noisy (between music playing, babies crying, and all-night gossip sessions). However, this is a good way to hang out with locals in a non-touristy setting. 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 safe snacks such as bananas or energy bars as a reserve.
The term “shared bathrooms” is somewhat of an understatement. You’ll also 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 a day or two in advance and to stake out hammock space at least an hour before the boat leaves.
The quintessential boat trip is the 4–5-day journey down to the mouth of the Amazon in Belém. A cabin usually costs R$700–800, while a first-class hammock space goes for R$240. Departures are usually on Wednesday and Saturday. Most boats to Belém also stop off at Parintins, Santarém, and Monte Alegre. The two-day journey to Santarém costs R$300 for a cabin and R$100 for first-class hammock space with departures on Tuesday and Thursday.
Boats depart from the Hidroviária do Amazonas (Rua Marquês de Santa Cruz 25, Centro, tel. 92/3621-4359), where you can get schedules for all boats and buy tickets. Purchase tickets from the kiosks and not from the vendors on the street. AJATO (Rua Barés 3, Centro, tel. 92/3622-6047) runs speedboats down to Santarém (R$200, 13–15 hours) and up to Tefé (R$180, 11–13 hours), which significantly reduce the journey time. Prices include two daily meals and boats leave from the Porto Moderna behind the Mercado Municipal. Boats traveling up the Rio Negro depart from the somewhat louche Porto São Raimundo, 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) northwest of the Porto Flutuante (take a cab).
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition