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  • Wolfgang Fobo

Journey on the Amazon River (and return on the Transamazonica Highway)

Aktualisiert: 14. Feb. 2023

It was a dream since childhood, to make a tour along the Amazon river. Time to make it true. We planned our journey with Belém as starting point, upriver until Santarém, 3 nights and 2 days on a regular ferry. The first challenge was how to book such a trip via internet. We were not keen to travel „normal class“, which meant to bring our hammock and rope and fix it on deck. That is also the cheaper option, 300 Reais per person, some 55 Euros. With this option you need not plan ahead, you just arrive and pay as you go (only question might be when many travel, where is the best place to fix your hammock, because it was rainy season). Anyhow, we didn‘t want to travel this way, too uncomfortable for our age (and we were afraid to fall out of the hammock when sleeping, having never done such a thing).


Our ferry, the Itaberaba I, which does its regular tour between Belém and Manaus, and which we took until Santarém

Each of these boats also has a few cabins, air conditioned, private bathroom, and that was what we were after. Booking such a cabin from abroad however is not without problems. Some local websites request a CPF for booking, something like a Brazilian personal tax number - and without it you are out. Finally Gisela found an international website, brazilbooking.com, which enabled us to book and pay our tour with credit card from Germany. We received a voucher, departure date as we booked (it had to be a Saturday), and so we relaxed. So far so good.

Saturday morning in Belém. We took a taxi to the port where all boats were shown to leave, the „hidroviário“. Arriving, this was the place to book all tickets, but not the place where the ferries left. A friendly official, recognising us as tourists, asked me for our itinerary. I showed him the voucher. „Sorry, this boat right now is in Manaus, you have to redeem your ticket“. He started to curse, how we innocent or naive tourists were cheated, and was thinking of an alternative. And there it was. A ferry was leaving that day, the Itaberaba I, and he called the captain to see what was available. And indeed, just one cabin was left, and so we booked right away on the spot, 1200 Reais for the 2 of us, cash. We were organised a taxi to the departure place (another 30 Reais, too much for these few hundred meters, but so what), and upon arrival this official arranged our check in for us. We were relieved having had so much luck, and I happily gave him his „service fee“ that he mentioned, just another 20 Reais, and so we got our cabin.

But things were even weirder than thought: that very morning, Gisela received an email from her booking agency that „unfortunately the boat would be overbooked (bad excuse of course), so our journey would have to be cancelled, money returned of course“. Gisela did not retrieve that email that morning, only after we had booked the alternative tour. Now, if she had checked earlier, we might have been so disappointed that we even not might have gone to the port. So we had double luck. Not checking email and yet an alternative was available.


Our cabin. just big enough for the bed. In the back our privat bathroom

And so the trip started: the ferry did not leave at noon, as scheduled, but 5 hours later. First thing you learn (if you not already have it internalized) is patience and simply let things happen.


The alternative. Or, better: the usual way to travel

Always people approach you and want to have a chat with you (knowing some Portuguese is adamant, otherwise we would not have made it that far). In the boat there is a kiosk where you can buy your beer or your cafezinho, and three times a day the restaurant opens and for 25 Reais offers simple food, a choice between frango (i.e. chicken) and carne (meat), served in an aluminium plate with plastic cutlery. Nothing extraordinary, but it keeps your stomach quiet. Vegetarians or Vegans better bring your own food. Breakfast is 15 Reais and is just enough to keep you alive.


Not yet on the Amazon: from Belém, the ferry travels first through a maze of interconnected rivers

Let me have a word concerning booking from outside of Brasil. Paying directly to a Brasilian website, for example to a local tour operator via credit card seems to be impossible.


Finally reaching the Amazon

Either the lunch like this one, or you bring your own food

We failed twice. It was always the Brasilian bank of the tour operator that refused payment. Reason being, as we always were advised, is, that „this payment could be fraudulent“. Such refusals so far occurred to me only when attempting to pay from outside to Brasil. What of course works is booking of hotels, like via booking.com, or buses, or flights.


When the ferry makes a stop, you could buy your own food (but is this better than the one of the restaurant?)

Taking a sundowner

But local service providers may have other ways of getting their money into Brasil.

I remember that on my earlier journeys to Brasil I always paid either cash upon arrival, or the owner of the tour operator was European, and I paid to his European bank account. Even if credit card fraud is widely occurring in Brasil, a local tour operator needs to find a safe way to make prepayments from outside arrive. What I declined was a proposal by the tour operator to go in Brasil to a Brasilian bank and pay the transfer with cash Reais. This might have been a safe way, but collecting all the money in various ATMs (even they sometimes declined to pay out, or had a quite low daily limit), it would have cost us a day or more to get payment done that way. No wonder that Brasil is ranked quite low on the „ease of doing business“ chart.

Back to the Amazon. We were not all the time on the Amazon. The first 24 hours it all looked like the Amazon, but in fact we passed through a maze of rivers, side arms I presume, which did not bear the name Amazon. But these are also wide streams which seem to be interconnected.


We arrived in Santarém in the third night, at around 2 am. We could use the cabin, sleeping until 8, taking breakfast, and then we left. Normal procedure.


The beach at Alter do Chão, at "Love Island"


Santarém is nothing special, we used our day to spend in Alter do Chão, a beautiful little town with beautiful white sand beaches on the river, the place to relax a few days. From there you can even book trips to the Amazon forest. I really can recommend this place. We however had already a precooked bus ticket from Santarém to São Luis, a bus ride of 42 hours for some 1800 km, on a bus with „semi leito“ option, which means reclining seats, for better sleeping.


The "Semi Leito" bus that we got in Altamira


The bus ride: Departing around 1800, started with a disappointment: the bus did not have the „semi leito“ option, but was „convencional“. Also reclining seats, but I had better seats in memory, from earlier bus rides through Brasil. Gisela was on the verge of strike, being that shocked, but like me had to swallow the toad. 42 hours of horror, we thought. Not quite so bad.


Somewhere on the road, opportunity to take a lunch in a restaurant

The first leg from Santarém to Rurópolis leads direction South, away from the Amazon river. From Rurópolis to Altamira you are on the Transamazonica Highway, which in the beginning was a journey through the night. The highway is not paved, it was rainy season, and the bus often could not drive faster than perhaps 40 km/h. To the left and right just thick forest, the road is narrow, just wide enough for 2 lanes. And when it rains on an unpaved road, the road was so slippery that the bus had difficulties to climb even little slopes. At one occasion we were asked - in the middle of the night - to leave the bus, such that the bus had a better chance to climb the hill (we refused to get out, pretending not to understand). Eventually, the passengers were allowed to get into the bus again. So we made our way through the jungle, slowly but safely, passing trucks that were stuck.


By the way, the bus stops in almost every village that was along the road, taking in passengers, and iwhen it was time for breakfast, lunch or ´dinner, the bus always stopped at restaurants where you could fill your stomach, or buy drinks or additional food.


The next morning around 0930, we reached Altamira. Finally, there we had to exchange the bus for another one, this time for a real „semi leito“. And I understood why only in Altamira. Because the better bus probably would not have made it on the slippery Transamazonica Highway. The second night we could sleep better, probably also because we were too tired from our „adventure“ on the first bus.


To give you an idea of our route: from Belém by ferry to Santarém, then by bus to São Luis. The blue pins depict the places where the boat, respectively the bus, stopped

Anyhow, after 42 hours, reaching São Luis, we were more than happy to finally say goodbye to our bus, and took a taxi to our Pousada, were we recovered. By the way, São Luis is a beautiful town, the capital of Maranhão state, under UNESCO protection. Definitely worth a visit. And the starting point for the „Route of Emotions“, which we did. But this is another story.


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