Nick Says: So last time you heard from us, we were just about to set off on our 4 day river-boat up the Amazon, and across to almost the Bolivian border. We were packed and raring to go, but I had forgotten one important thing – things never go to plan when you`re travelling. After heading down to the busy port in Manaus, we asked around for our boat. After several attempts by the sellers to send us to Belem (several hundred kilometres the other direction) we finally got our tickets, only to find out the boat was delayed by a day. Ok, no problem – we just settled in for another night and spent the day at a nature park. Rather fortuitously we met another backpacker there, who came up to us to ask us bus directions. He turned out to be a British guy named Mark (I always need one to travel with) who after turning 50 had decided to jack in his old life in London and go and travel the world. So far he had been in South America for 9 months, visiting almost every country bar Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Amazingly, he also turned out to be getting the exact same boat as us, which was really unusual as we were doing the non-backpacker route and fully expected to be the only westerners aboard. He was a very chilled out guy and easy to get along with, and being older it meant we all got treated with a bit more respect by the locals. Several times he was asked if he was our Dad! Although most of the time people thought he was Brazilian as he was super tanned. A proper ex-pat look going on!
So with our new travel buddy we arranged to meet the next morning at the dock. We waved goodbye to our hostel friends, and set off on one of the sweatiest walks of our lives. Manaus has been described as a pressure cooker, and with our bags on our backs we certainly felt the heat. By the time we finally reached the port we´d probably lost about 1 stone in weight. The only trouble was, we´d gone to the wrong port – our boat was sailing from one 10 mins walk away. So we set off again, sweating all the way there. We found our ticket seller, who put us on the phone to the captain of the boat, who spoke a very poshly accented English and apologised for the delay. He said the boat was just about to arrive and we could put our bags on and string our hammocks up ready for a 6pm departure. However, once down at the docks there was no sign of the Dois Irmaos (our boat to be) and instead a sailor miming that it was still on the river. We were hot, and had no idea what to do next. Setting our bags down, Bee decided to go back up to the agent and get hold of the captain. I would wait by the bags surrounded by sweaty sailors. Ages seemed to go past before Bee returned – and I must admit I was starting to get a bit worried! But she came back with news – the boat had broken down, missed its slot at the dock and wouldn´t be setting off until the next day at the earliest. Declining an invitation to spend the night on a different boat at the dock, we returned defeated to the hostel. Our reward for another night in Manaus? Going to the main plaza in the evening and getting to listen to what was claimed as a Beatles tribute band, but actually only played Paul McCartney compositions – including a mighty rendition of Live and Let Die.
The next day broke with a promise of Amazonian adventure. We met back up with Mark, arranged a new meeting time, and told ourselves we would leave today. Another sweaty walk to the docks, but this time when we arrived about a hundred agents and dock workers rushed to greet Bee and shake her hand, and exclaim loudly at her in Portuguese. It turned out she had made a lot of friends in her stubborn quest to find out what had happened to the boat the day before. So if you ever need to sort out a boat from Manaus in the future, take Bee Barker with you. This time luck was with us, the boat was there! We boarded, put our hammocks up and waited to set sail. A mere two days behind schedule it did, and the three of us cracked open a beer on the top deck as we cruised down the Rio Amazonas and watched Manaus disappear into the distance.
Bee Says: I had no idea what to expect from 4 days on a boat on the Amazon, but the most important thing was that I was armed with a leopard print hammock so was by far the snazziest on board! We were lucky enough to bag a spot on the second deck (of three) as the bottom deck had the scorchingly hot and noisy engine, and the top deck had a soundsystem playing Brazilian pop all hours of the day. As we left in the dark there wasn´t too much to see but we could just make out the moment we crossed the “meeting of the waters” where the white Rio Solimoes meets the Rio Negro, google images here! Lots of the artwork and tiling of the pavements in Manaus, and wider Brazil, is inspired by black and white waves because of this. We strung our hammocks up, with me in between Mark and Nick. The swaying of the boat kept knocking our hammocks into each other like those executive desk toys from the nineties. But soon the waves lulled us to sleep and we woke excited for our first day on deck. Every day basically followed the same routine: Wake up at sunrise (5am) to eat cream crackers & drink piping hot coffee for breakfast. Head to the top deck before the sun gets too hot, to wildlife spot. Ive never seen so many amazing creatures! We saw the famed pink river dolphins (as magical as they sound!) that played and splashed “escorting” our boat along the whole 4 days, giant otter (again, as if regular otters aren´t cute enough?), monkey fish that hurtle up to a metre in the air from the water to gobble insects, fireflies that glowed orange, yellow and green, toucans and parrots in every colour possible. Ocassionally I´d see a few red leaves on an otherwise green tree and think back to how autumn must be setting in back home… then the “leaves” would suddenly fly away, and I´d realise they were red ibis birds.
Lunch was always chicken, rice, beans, salad and noodles. Post-lunch was siesta time for everyone, as the stifling tropical heat made it impossible to do anything else. By 3pm it was back up top for more gazing around, watching the little communities on the riverbanks as they use the Amazon for everything – food, washing, working and travelling. Dinner was… IDENTICAL to lunch but with beef! We had read a top tip before taking this trip which was to buy pimiento hot sauce, firstly to flavour the food and secondly to befriend your neighbours… and this definitely came in very handy. After dinner we were treated every night to the most dramatic, incredible thunder and lightning storms that lasted hours. Luckily… no rain accompanied them, so we could huddle on the deck and watch lightening forks set the sky ablaze and thunder rattle through our bones. Words can´t really do justice to those nights, they were a pinch-yourself memory I’ll always treasure.
Even the toilets and showers weren’t that bad. The best shower by far was the ladies on bottom deck, which had a hole for a window at the exact right eye level so I could watch the Amazon float past as I washed my hair! You had to share your shower with a few spiders too, but they kept to themseves mostly. The toilets were similar to what you would expect from a music fetival after a similar amount of days/quantity of people using it. All in all the Amazon was a perfect serene experience and one I would recommend to everyone! Compared to official organised tours over here which can cost a fortune, this is public transport so we paid a tiny amount for such an incredible experience. The only bad side, which am loath to mention but I have to be honest, was there were a few young lads our age on board. One morning, a guy sidled up to me and asked me to take a shower (and you can imagine what else) with his friend. I was so gobsmacked that I could barely respond other than saying NO loudly and many times. It really rattled me, as up until this point I have barely had a sleazy second glance and mostly men have been overly chivalrous towards me everywhere we have been. Also it was so obvious Nick and I were together, so he had some nerve waiting until I was on my own to ask. The experience did upset me, as the boys would keep staring at me (although to be fair the views are boring to them, as they’ve lived there forever!) but I didn’t feel threatened – just irritated as you cant really escape anyone on a small boat! I was extra careful after this though for peace of mind, Nick accompanied me everytime I went to the showers and toilets, waiting outside like a bodyguard. I felt like Cheryl Cole! But being with Nick and Mark I never felt worried about it and it was easy to forget about them. I only mention it because up until this point there isn’t a single thing we’ve done that I think would be unsafe for a woman travelling alone – however with the Amazon I would recommend (if you dont speak Portuguese) going with at least another person, or a group. This also makes sense from a security perspective, as it means you can always have one person bag-watching.
Nick Says: Apart from the sleazy boys, who left us well alone after a chat (which weirdly involved Disney and barbequeing a bear, so maybe not the intimidating talk I wanted), everyone else on the boat was great company. Little communities soon formed between everyone, and your neighbours soon became friends. Despite our obvious lack of Portuguese language skills, it didn’t stop anybody from chatting to us constantly. The were several memorable people on the boat. First was Boss-Lady, who made the meals, served them to us (we were always last!) and basically ran the domestic side of the ship. There was no way you’d mess with her, even if she alternated between wearing beautiful dresses and Justin Bieber vests. Every morning she would wake us up for breakfast, a gentle nudge for Bee, a stinging slap on my feet for me. Smiles for Bee, scowls for me. However, she took a real shine to Mark, giving him extra coffee when she wasn’t supposed too! The charming devil. Next came the Argentine bikers, two middle-aged guys who had rented the cabin at the front. They were divorced three times each, and were motorbiking around South America on giant BMW bikes similar to those used in Long Way Round/Down, and which were stored in the hold. They didn’t have any maps though, so often borrowed my guidebook to plan their route! We were able to talk to them a bit more in Spanish, although Argentine Spanish is quite different apparently. Then there was distinguished chap. He had a neat little beard and always looked immaculate, no matter the hour. He also seemed quite stern at first. However, 4 days on a river-boat worked their magic on him and by the last day he was bare-chested, swigging beer at 8am in the morning, and beardless. He was also constantly chatting to us, and offering us things, pointing out animals on the bank, and generally saluting everyone. Finally there was crazy old guy who of course was in the hammock next to me. He became obsessed with Bee’s mosquito net (put up as a territory defender, as there was a real lack of mozzies) and convinced it would fly away, so was constantly instructing me to wrap it up. Or just pointing at it. Or stroking it. He also liked to shout at me in Portuguese while standing very close to me and occasionally slap my bum.
Bee Says: We made a stop en route to drop off some frozen fish from the cargo, which was THE entertainment of the trip. Our boat neighbours, who hadnt seemed fussed by majestic river dolphins, swarmed on deck watching for an hour as the various huge fish were unpacked, weighed and rejected or accepted. There were so many types, zebra stripes and one that looked like a mini Moby Dick.
Next it was straight on to Porto Velho where we arrived at an eye watering 4am. We could sit about onboard until 6am, when we had ONE mission. Get to Bolivia… in a DAY! We did this by getting straight on a bus, a melty 5 hours to Guajara Mirim (the Brazilian border town) with no air con. There was time for a quick look around this quaint little place and to get our exit stamp for Brazil (after our Venezuela mishap we were determined to get it right this time). Then it was on to a passenger launch which crossed over the River Mamore as the sun set, and in five minutes we were in Guayaramerín… HOLA BOLIVIA!