Route: Tabatinga, Brazil (bordering Colombia and Peru) downriver to Manaus, Brazil
Duration: 3.5 days, 3 nights
Day 3 on the boat. I woke up to the breakfast bell ringing- buzz buzzzz!- and pulled up my eye mask to see the sun rising over the Amazon river; the sight made subpar boat conditions more acceptable. I’m a little stir crazy, a bit claustrophobic and am beginning to resent the people around me (the idea of “personal space” doesn’t exist in river boat culture). Even though I’ve actually enjoyed getting cozy with my neighbors (everyone is really kind), I’ve been in this same space for 2 full days now and it’s wearing on me. We’re not allowed to leave the boat when we dock, which is a couple times a day to let people off or allow more on. This morning, some passengers left via a small boat that just stopped beside us in the middle of the river. The first and second decks are filled with hammocks, packed in like sardines, on top of and beneath one another, with children sleeping on their mothers and some people sleeping on the ground. The top deck is a snack bar and seating area. It was all fairly clean, until the bugs appeared yesterday. The bathrooms are cleaned each morning, but by day, large flying beetles infest them again, making using the toilet quick and uncomfortable. Spiders awake in the evening to spin webs and dangle from the ceiling above our hammocks. My mosquito net is coming in handy- not for mosquitos (thankfully there haven’t been any), but for all the little critters.
Of course, we are in the Amazon, bugs are to be expected. Most times we are very far from any large-scale civilization (the river is the only road to most places we pass), there’s nothing in sight but river and jungle. At times we pass small communities on the banks, the occasional fire stands out in the darkness during the night. Mostly, it is black, with light coming only from the boat and the moon. And from one huge petroleum factory we passed last night, a strange reminder of industry in the middle of nature.
The river itself is massive, I couldn’t have imagined how wide it actually is. It’s more like a very oblong lake or bay than any river I’ve ever seen. Whole islands fit inside it’s shores, which morph from clay bluffs to long sandy beaches dotted with driftwood to green and yellow marshes. The Amazon river is actually many rivers, blending into one another at various times throughout Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. With many different names depending on your location (and who you’re talking to), it’s all ultimately the same water. One picture below is of the Encontro das Aguas, where the black Rio Negro meets the brown Rio Solimoes. They flow side by side for several kilometers before merging!
On board, we get two simple but tasty meals a day, plus coffee with bread and butter in the morning. Usually, it’s rice, pork beans, butter noodles and some type of meat. I can definitely no longer claim a pescatarian status with all the meat I’ve been consuming. I try to avoid it when I can, but beef stew just isn’t stew without the beef stock.
The Brazilian police do not mess around. Before boarding, each passenger and their luggage was completely searched- they took every single thing out of my backpack, then a female officer patted me down. All of me. Again, they’ve stopped and boarded the boat twice now to check our identifications and search our bags. I’m glad I have nothing to hide. Fair warning to anyone who plans on traveling via river in Brazil!
The language barrier I face here was apparent immediately. Suddenly I’m much more appreciative of the little Spanish I speak, because Portuguese is really difficult to understand and even harder to replicate, my ears and mouth just aren’t used to all the “shhhjjjj” sounds. Bring on the misunderstandings.
There are a handful of other European and South American travelers on board, in addition the Colombian/Brazilian families, we’ve been chatting and playing games at night to pass the time. It’s funny seeing different reactions to conditions; one girl has complained to staff about the beetles in the bathrooms, actually very successfully (sometimes speaking up gets results), another couple caused a scene when a father and child hung their hammocks directly above theirs and are now feeling shunned by Brazilians around them. I empathize with them, I’m bothered by the same things. But it seems that the Brazilians and Colombians onboard aren’t as bothered, or at-least they don’t express it outwardly if they are. Maybe they’ve just traveled by river before and are used to certain things. But really, at $100 a ticket, I think we all deserve cleanliness, at least (to be fair, the beetles were gone by day 4). Nevertheless, two and a half meals a day and an unlimited supply of fresh drinking water is pretty amazing. It’s only a few days, after all, and the scenery is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
I have to backtrack a little and give Bogotá more credit than I did in my first post. Because of a flight delay and a missed connection, I was forced to spend one night in Bogotá on my way down to Leticia. (I’m sorry I missed my Bogotá friends- it was a very quick and unexpected stay!) But I’m grateful for it, because with a pair of fresh (or slightly seasoned?) eyes, the capital city is pretty awesome. It’s full of art and culture- gritty, alternative and edgy, reminiscent of the 90s scene in California, and really beautiful when the surrounding mountains are taken into account. Some bars we checked out revealed a local side of the city that was warm and inviting, but with an attitude. I was happy to have a second chance in Bogotá and would love to spend more time there, someday.
I also really have to mention our flight’s descent into Leticia. I’ve never seen such a full blanket of green in my whole life, and I feel like I’ve seen lots of green, having lived in the Northwest. As far as the eye could see (which is far when you’re in the air), there were trees. No holes, no hills, no contrast- the river was the only thing I could see cutting through the green. Obviously, we weren’t near where clear cutting and deforestation have been rampant- which it has been and continues to be throughout the Amazon and especially in Brazil. But there, I saw just one flat layer of bushy green, stretching on and on and on. Leticia was directly in front of us, so it’s development wasn’t visible, and landing there looked like we were descending directly into the trees. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Trying to share the moment with the Colombian woman next to me was difficult, I can barely describe the feeling in English, let alone Spanish. “Que bonita” does it no justice, although I think she felt my sentiments.
Now, I start a couple weeks of traveling in Brazil with my good friend Sylvain! We meet in Manaus, a city of a nearly two million people in the middle of the Amazon. Sometimes, development completely lacks sense, ecologically speaking.