Three nights of sleeping in a hammock strung up alongside about 100 strangers. Six consecutive carb-heavy meals of rice, noodles, and beans. Ninja mosquitos with a freakish immunity to Deet. Showers in smelly brown river water. This isn’t exactly a Carnival Cruise, people.
Perhaps this post should be titled something along the lines of “Traveling From Colombia to Brazil on a Boat,” but I wanted to keep it consistent with the first post. But that’s exactly what this post is about, my experience of crossing the border in Leticia, Colombia and taking the slow boat from Tabatinga to Manaus.
you’re not uptight you don’t have high standards while traveling, this is an awesome, cheap way to see the Amazon on a tight budget—not to mention a great way to save hundreds of dollars traveling from Colombia to Brazil if you’ve got a bit of time. A flight between the two countries can easily cost upwards of $700 USD, but for only about 70 you can hop aboard a ship from Tabatinga, Brazil (which is only a short cab ride from the Leticia airport, or walking distance from most hostels in Leticia) and head downriver to Manaus to catch a flight elsewhere in Brazil.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I did the trip downstream during the rainy season when the rainforest was flooded, which apparently knocks off at least an entire day. There are several other routes from ports in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil ranging from a few days to closer to a week, but I thought the three-day route between Tabatinga and Manaus was plenty.
Keep in mind prices will likely vary greatly based on the time of year and how far in advance you book, but here’s my breakdown during the peak of high season just before Carnaval:
- $112 flight from Bogotá to Leticia on a Tuesday
- 200 Reais (about $66 USD) for my 3-day boat ticket (which includes all meals)
- 36000 Colombian Pesos (about $14 USD) for a hammock and rope
- $164 overnight flight out of Manaus to Rio de Janeiro on the following Thursday night.
That ends up being about $356, which isn’t exactly pocket change, but the only other costs over those total ten days were $30 for three nights in Leticia, the free hotel room in Manaus, plus a few bucks for meals and $100 for the Amazon tour. Plus booking the overnight flight to Rio helped me save on one night’s accommodation. Definitely cheaper and more exciting than if I had flown the $700 Bogotá to Brazil flight in seven hours, and way cheaper than booking a touristy Amazon tour through some agency.
As mentioned, this post is all about staying in Leticia, Colombia and taking the slow boat from Tabatinga, Brazil, to Manaus, Brazil. For more info on an activity-based tour of the Amazon, check out this post.
ABOUT THE BOAT: VOYAGER V
There are several different ships you can take, but I don’t think you have much control over which one you get on. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but I prepared myself for the worst. There was a lot of ambiguity on how long the trip would actually take, and some horror stories about the food being served with a side of explosive diarrhea and vomiting. But overall my trip was a super relaxing, pleasant experience with no nasty side effects—for me at least, some others on board the ship weren’t so lucky. My tiny bout of tummy troubles held off a good few days until I was tucked away in my own private hotel room in Manaus. (Thankfully it was nowhere near as bad as what I dealt with in Thailand.)
Anyway, back to the ship, the Voyager V. Most of the locals seemed to congregate on the bottom level even though it was extremely noisy near the engine. There was a small kitchen in the back half of the ship right alongside the motor, and a picnic table eating area where all of the meals were served. Food was served at a set time every day (breakfast around 6am, lunch around noon, and dinner around 5pm) and yes, I was almost always one of the first people in line for feeding time.
On the second level there was a fully netted-in soccer pitch that stayed lit up well in the night. There’s also a snack counter selling hamburgers, ice cream, beer, soft drinks, and a few other snacks; a common area with plastic tables and chairs, and what looked to be private cabins towards the front of the ship.
The top level was pretty much just hammocks, bathrooms, and gorgeous views.
Each deck has several bathrooms containing a toilet and a shower, and some have a sink. On the top deck alongside our hammocks we had four bathrooms with a few additional sinks outside of the bathrooms, along with a TV and about 15 power outlets. There are actually a good amount of power outlets scattered around the boat, but they’re almost all in awkward places high on the wall. You can leave your phone there to charge by tucking it behind a soap dispenser or something but forget about trying to charge a laptop unless you’re ready to stand there and hold it.
Our tickets had a 1030AM departure time. Riiight. Anyone who’s traveled in South America knows that 1030 translates to about 130. Yet we still decided to head down to the port to get a good spot around 9am. In the pouring rain, four of us crammed into this miniature clown car taxi with all of our wet bags. The dirt roads were flooded, so the taxi driver refused to drive us all the way to the port. Instead he dropped us off at the top of a muddy hill where we were forced to make the rest of the slippery trek downhill in the pouring rain. I still don’t know why we paid him the full fare, but I’m glad I’d tucked the flip flops away in favor of hiking boots. After dropping my bag in a mud puddle while digging for my ticket, I went straight to the top deck where all of the gringo tourists were stringing up their hammocks. I had some of the guys help me hang mine, partially because I didn’t trust my own knot-tying skills, but also because I was too short to reach the rafters.
The deck filled up within about a half hour of our arrival, but we finally left the port at about 110pm, naturally.
The first day was rainy and grey so I spent most of it tucked away in my hammock stuffing my face with an embarrassing amount of the snacks I’d packed. Around 5pm we were served a delicious chicken noodle soup and bread. Soup isn’t really my idea of a full meal, but with chicken, noodles, and veggies, it was extremely tasty and satisfying. Once it got dark I decided it was appropriate to start drinking beer, which I quickly decided was a huge waste of money. The mini cans of Brahmas were quickly eating up my budget but not giving me the desired level of drunkenness I had set out to achieve in pursuit of a good night’s sleep. After six I settled for a sleepy buzz, but unfortunately the MMA fight blaring on TV well into the middle of the night had a different agenda.
If you’re a light sleeper like me, a pair of earplugs just won’t do the trick. Bring headphones and charge your phone/mp3 player. I was constantly waking up every time my earplugs came loose. Also every time a baby screamed, someone knocked into my hammock, or the boat made its cringe-worthy screeching metal sound while turning. At like 12 or 2am (I was too sleepy to read my watch properly) the boat blew its horn and woke us all up while pulling into port. In my sleepy, startled state I shouted “iceberg right ahead!” before drifting back to sleep. Good to know I still have a sense of humor while half asleep.
It seemed like only ten minutes later when I heard a man walking around the deck, shouting in Portuguese while rolling up the sides of the boat to reveal glaring morning sunlight. “What an asshole,” I thought, “doesn’t he know people are trying to sleep?” But he was calling us for the world’s earliest breakfast. And as much as I’m not a morning person, I’m also not one to miss a free meal, EVER. So I forced my grumpy ass out of my hammock at 6am and made my way down to the bottom deck for breakfast.
“Breakfast” was a community bin of shitty rolls (aka hot dog buns as we call them in the States), a tub of butter, and overly sweetened coffee. Definitely not the quality of breakfast I’d normally wake up at 6am for. I smuggled an extra piece of bread back to my hammock to coat with the strawberry jelly I’d packed, scarfed it down, then read about two lines from a book before dozing off again. The only good thing about not getting a proper night’s rest on a boat like this is realizing that you have absolutely zero obligations the next day, so you can nap whenever you damn well please. Finally when I woke up for good a couple hours later I mustered the energy to shower.
Showers on the boat are exactly what you’d expect them to be. They pump out brown river water straight from the Amazon, in the same 4×3 room as the communal toilet. It’s not as cold as you’d expect, but not at all warm either. In the humid Amazon temperature I actually found it rather refreshing.
After that my entire day was an endless cycle of reading, napping, and eating. I think I took four or five naps, only leaving my hammock whenever I heard someone shout that it was feeding time.
Lunch consisted of a basic pasta, rice, beans, and some kind of beef. It’s a good thing it was delicious because it’s basically what we ate for every single meal the rest of the trip. After going for seconds on the pasta and beans I went back to sleep and woke up a half hour before dinner. (Yes, I’ve gained weight.) Dinner was basically the same meal as lunch, except with chicken instead of the beef.
After dinner I wandered around the boat with my camera to take some shots of the best sunset we’d see while on the river. I nerded out for a good hour or two before retiring back to my hammock to resume reading Killing Pablo.
I slept much better the second night because I wised up and put my headphones in and blared some Deftones for a good twelve hours. Win.
I woke up again at 6AM just long enough to ask the girl in the hammock next to me if breakfast was the same as yesterday. When she said yes I covered my face and fell back asleep until about 830.
Upon waking I fixed myself a rather creative breakfast using some vanilla wafers, strawberry jelly, and a smashed ball of bread I dug out of my bag, then showered up to take another nap. We had lunch around noon, and right after loading up on more carbs I noticed the soccer pitch empty, complete with a shoddy looking ball. I was starting to feel restless and fat, so I gathered the gringos to play a game. Before long we were going full-on gringos vs Brazilians, running barefoot on the pitch and sweating our asses off in the afternoon sun. I only made it about 20 minutes before I had to quit from the unbearable blisters forming on my girly feet. I don’t think they missed me though, I was definitely the worst player on both teams.
Afterwards I went to the snack counter and paid 5 reais (about $1.60 USD) for a ham, egg, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and mayo sandwich because my body was craving some sort of variety. It wasn’t great but it was a nice change. I skipped dinner that evening and instead watched an episode of Parts Unknown, and did some reading and writing before fading off into yet another early slumber.
On Tuesday morning I woke up around 7am to a lot of commotion. I thought it was just everybody making their way to another shitty breakfast, but I quickly realized people were packing up their bags. I looked at the GPS on my phone and we were nearly to Manaus. That woke me up immediately, so I got up and made my way to the front of the boat to see the sprawling city before us, which seemed to have popped up out of nowhere in the middle of the Amazon. Within the hour, the trip was complete in only about 66 hours total.
The trip was much more comfortable and organized than I was expecting. It’s not really a good way to see wildlife (or maybe we just weren’t looking hard enough) but you’ll get to see some interesting villages and beautiful sunsets. From what I could tell there are a lot of locals and tourists making the trip, so it’s easy to meet people on board if you’re traveling solo. But really, as long as you’re ready to relax and do nothing for a few days, you’re set. It doesn’t hurt to bring along a book or two and some snacks, but it really is very easy to just sway in your hammock and watch the scenery go by while catching up on some serious napping.