Navigating the Amazon in three weeks - An Insider’s Guide

Navigating the Amazon in three weeks - An Insider’s Guide

    When thinking about the Amazon rainforest, I used to picture—obviously—thick, green forests, lots of water and incredible wildlife. But when trying to imagine actually travelling there, my mind was going blank. For some reason, I’d never considered it—even though I was planning to move to Rio de Janeiro.

    Fast-forward a few months, and I’d settled in Brazil. After visiting the Lençois Maranhenses National Park and falling in love with North-Eastern Brazil, I wanted to get out and see as much nature as possible. So, naturally, the Amazon started calling my name.

    Asking my Carioca friends if they knew much about it was pretty useless: even as locals, they’d never even thought about visiting the vast rainforests and rivers (practically) on their doorstep. 

    So, when my research only came up with expensive forest lodges and week-long packages worth £1000 (which definitely wasn’t in my budget), I was disheartened. There must be an easier way.

    Tip 1: Dig a little deeper when doing your research

    While those steep prices put me off at first, I was determined to figure out how I could travel there on a much more reasonable budget. 

    By chance, I found out from a friend of a friend that it’s actually possible to navigate around the Amazon instead of flying. Wait, navigate? Were there cruises organised on the Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro

    I had so many questions, but went straight back to my laptop to find out. Two months later, I would find myself on a hammock boat in the middle of the rushing river, surrounded by rainforest.

    Let me backtrack a bit. In my research, I discovered that there are only two roads in the Brazilian Amazon, connecting the state from north to south. So, to move around, locals turn the flowing river into a highway instead and travel around on boats.

    Amazonian villages and cities are all connected through the Rios, and whether on tiny canoes, or on three-floor hammock boats, it’s possible to arrange your own transport around. Unsurprisingly, I was onboard immediately.

    To make this dream happen, I had to DIY the best combination of flights and boat routes for what I wanted to see. And that was kind of a problem…

    You see, a lot of the information you’ll need to find isn’t that easy to google. So, you’ll have to work for it. That’s where the concept of ‘digging deeper’ really comes in. 

    For example, I remember struggling to find the Amazon boat’s timetable online. Lucky for you, I recently discovered this website that I wish I had known about before my trip! 

    That being said, I still suggest double-checking the schedule at the port once you arrive, rather than just blindly trusting websites. Reading blog posts from people who’d already navigated around the Amazon by ferry was very useful. Most of the ones you can find online are written in Portuguese or Spanish—so you may need some help from Google Translate if you don’t read the language.

    Soooo, once I’d locked down my itinerary of taking the hammock boat from Tabatinga down to Manaus (a casual 1200km), I booked my flights and paid a grand total of £160.

    Tip 2: There’s more than one way to travel the Amazon

    A hammock boat isn't for everyone. It was the perfect fit for me and what I wanted from my trip to the Amazon, but it’s not the only way you can access the rainforest. 

    In fact, what you want to see, eat and do are all really important to figure out before you go, and do plan accordingly, because there are so many options. 

    The tours leaving from Manaus (the typical starting point) are way more structured—and expensive—than tours in remote places. 

    If you do choose to take one of these tours, the company will probably drive you to the rainforest entrance. From there, you’ll explore around the area by foot (during the dry season) or by canoes (during the rainy season).  

    Here was my thought process behind starting in Tabatinga, rather than Manaus: Tabatinga is a Brazilian city located at the three-border point (where Brazil, Colombia, and Peru meet). 

    The three-border point is a perfect location for visiting the jungle, due to the amount of local tour agencies and facilities (restaurants, banks, pharmacies) available.

    Landing in Tabatinga was the easiest (and cheapest) option for me, coming from Rio de Janeiro. The other way to reach the three-border point is to fly to Bogotá, and from there to Letícia. 

    Sure, these cities aren’t the easiest places in the world to access, but that’s kind of the point.

    The three borders point - credit:

    Tip 3: Don’t over plan

    This might seem a little contradictory, so hear me out. Before your trip, research everything you possibly can. But once you arrive? Take it day by day.

    Over planning often leads to a pricey mistake in countries like Brazil (and even more so when travelling in rural areas like the Amazon). The £1000+ week-long tours showing up as a first result on Google are a demonstration of it, because there’s absolutely no need to plan out every single day before you arrive.

    Brazilians tend to be extremely chill, especially in more remote areas such as the Amazon. Because of this, there’s no rush, and you’ll always find a way to organise yourself. 

    People tend to be very friendly and helpful, and your hotel/hostel will always have a contact for local tour agencies—since going into the Amazon rainforest by yourself is definitely not an option. There is usually no need to worry about availability, since only a few tourists make it to these remote places.

    Expecting the unexpected is always a good mentality when visiting remote places like the Amazon. If you can, just factor in a few extra days around your visit to the rainforest, so you can adapt to whichever problem may come up.

    Because I already knew when I was going to take the hammock boat, I had a few days beforehand to explore the rainforest near Letícia with my friend, Phil. Lucky for me, he had already managed to find accommodation and a (decently priced!) tour company that could organise a jungle expedition for us when I arrived.

    Although it was hard to travel without a fixed, well-planned schedule (planning is my favourite part of going on holiday!), I was glad I went in with a flexible itinerary and an open mind. 

    If I had paid for an organised tour (and forked out thousands of pounds in the process), I never would have had my precious memories on the hammock boats, sailing down the river. I’m pretty glad I had already adapted to the Brazilian lifestyle of expecting the unexpected, when I made it to the Amazon.

    Tip 4: Be prepared to haggle with tour companies

    From the moment I stepped foot in the region, it was obvious I was a tourist. Unfortunately, that led some travel agencies to perceive me as an easy target for scams. 

    That feeling, together with chatting with friends who had travelled to remote regions of South America, made me realise how necessary bargaining is to make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.

    There are plenty of different tour options depending on what you want to see. We opted for a 4-day trip with everything included, which ended up costing us 765,000 Colombian pesos (around £150 at the time). 

    But, when we first entered the agency, the starting price for the tour was around £215. Luckily, a friend of mine (hey, Claus!) had mentioned how much his tour of the Amazon cost him a few years before. So, I knew that—for what the agency was offering us—the starting price of £215 was far too high. 

    Haggling was quite easy because we were both fluent in Portuguese, but it can become quite tricky if you can’t communicate properly with the agents. That’s where Google Translate comes back in handy! 

    This tour included one night in a floating house, a night spent inside the forest camping with hammocks, and one last night in a big house within a local community.

    The whole trip was actually on the Peruvian side of the border. That’s the cool thing about heading to the three borders point to start your trip—you can easily knock three countries off your list! 

    Because we’d decided to visit such a remote area of the Amazon in the right season, we were basically getting a private tour. The only other person with us was a solo traveller, and it was such a bonus that we didn’t have to share our guide with a bigger group! 

    Tip 5: Learn how the seasons will shape your trip

    We went in November, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in the Amazon, so our trip was organised with a mix of hiking and navigating on canoes. We were prepared for that going into the trip, but it’s so important to understand how both the rainy, dry (and in-between) seasons may affect your trip. 

    For example, we loved the experience of canoeing, but they were small and a bit uncomfortable. So, if you’d prefer to move around on foot instead, definitely opt for the dry season (from June until November).

    Of course, being on the water meant a lot of our activities included fishing—and afterwards eating what we fished—boat safaris at sunset, jungle flora and fauna exploration, as well as night hiking.

    For all of you animal lovers, we saw tons of spiders (tarantulas included), scorpions, snakes, caimans, butterflies and birds, a toucan, some monkeys, and even a baby tapir. 

    If insects are not your best friends, you may want to skip the night hike in the forest. Although you stroll around the jungle with a torch, you’ll see pleeeeenty of tiny eyes looking at you. Yep, that freaked me out as well, but it also helped me overcome my arachnophobia. Pretty ironic, right?

    Another animal that was very present in the rainforest were mosquitoes. Countless mosquitoes. Which takes me onto my next point…

    Tip 6: Know your backpack

    Please, don’t go to the Amazon with a suitcase. Pack light and take just what you need… don’t worry too much about packing several changes of clothes, you’re gonna smell after 5 minutes, anyway!

    Whichever season you’ll travel to the Amazon, you will encounter rain and humidity. And that calls for a very specific outfit: light-coloured, full-coverage, and oversized clothes. 

    Let me explain. Mosquitos are attracted to dark colours, especially black and dark grey/blue. However, ‘forest’ colours (army green, browns) also work to camouflage within the forest and escape those tiny beasts.

    In terms of clothes length, when you’re in the forest (and not inside a lodge/house), you should stick to long sleeved shirts and trousers. 

    My friend Phil learned that the hard way when his arms were covered in bites because of his Hawaiian shirt!

    Amazonian mosquitos resist well to most repellents, and will bite you even through your clothes. 

    To protect myself (as much as I could), I used this repellent (you can only find it in South America, I believe) and it worked pretty well—if I sprayed it on every hour or so! I also bought this Decathlon hat, which saved my face from a thousand bites (no, I’m not even exaggerating). Very much worth the price.

    Another essential for the trip were thick long socks (I wore these ones) to avoid getting blisters from the boots they gave us for the whole trip inside the forest. And, of course, a good rain jacket for when it starts pouring.

    When it comes to medications, you shouldn’t be too worried about getting sick in the forest. Just a heads-up, though, humidity is very strong in the Amazon climate and if you suffer from tonsillitis, it can get pretty bad. I’ll never forget that Colombian pharmacist who handed me a box of 30 antibiotic tablets (without a prescription) the day my boat was going sail-off. Muchas gracias señora, you saved my whole trip.

    Sidenote: If you’re planning to move between Colombia and Brazil, you may need to get vaccinated for yellow fever at least two weeks before crossing the border.

    Other dos and don'ts

    Something that I wish I had brought with me but, unfortunately, there was no space left in my backpack, was a blanket. 

    It usually gets cold during the night on the boats—whether you’re on a fancy boat with air conditioning or one without windows—and to have something to protect you from the wind and the rain is ideal.

    On the other hand, don’t bother stocking up on snacks. You’ll be able to buy some at every port without getting off the boat, because local sellers will always come aboard. 

    I’d suggest trying salty banana chips, açai and sacolé (handmade ice cream sold in a little plastic bag, pictured).

    Back to my trip—after my tour into the rainforest, it was time to leave the three borders point and start making my way towards Manaus. 

    Taking my own advice, I didn’t make any preparations on how I’d actually get there, so I asked around to see what was available. My host in Letícia had told me that a hammock boat would leave from Tabatinga the following afternoon. So, I asked my host to call a moto taxi and went to the port to buy a ticket.

    Moving in a hammock boat was one of the most memorable parts of my whole Amazon trip, and has since made me realise another very important lesson… 

    Tip 7: Adapt to the local way of life

    The hammock boats are the preferred mode of transportation for long journeys in the Amazon. The boat I booked between Tabatinga and Manaus costed me 220 reais (around £25 at the time) and it took 5 days and 4 nights of navigation. The price included all the meals, access to the toilets/showers, and entertainment (AKA karaoke in the evening on the last floor of the boat!).

    It’s not common for tourists to travel around the most remote parts of the Amazon by hammock boats, so you may get some stares at the beginning. But, after answering the question ‘why the hell are you here?’ a few times, I actually made plenty of friends.  

    Although most villages tend to have a stop on the hammock boats routes, the most famous boat itineraries are those between Manaus and Santarém, and Manaus and Belém (all within the state of Pará).

    These are way pricier than a trip from/to an unknown village, and these trips don’t include food in the ticket price. Of course, there is food available, but the price is usually by weight. If you don’t have a Brazilian credit card, you won’t be able to pay on most boats. I’d suggest withdrawing some cash before boarding, especially if food is not included in your ticket price.

    The three moments that dictate life on the boat are at 5.30am (breakfast call), at 11.30am (lunch call) and 5.30pm (dinner call). The sound is made by a strong bell, so there’s no chance of missing it! 

    The rest of the day is just watching the world go by, so I recommend bringing a few books or downloading a few series, so you don’t have to stare at the river for the whole trip.

    Hammock boats 101 

    Before you jump two feet first into your first hammock boat experience, here are my top tips: 

    1. You’ll have to buy your hammock and ropes before boarding the boat. Prices for a hammock start at £5 and go up to £30. If you’re lucky, you may even get a king-size one!

    1. It turns out, there’s a right (and wrong!) way to sleep on a hammock. It’s best to sleep on the diagonal (not straight up and down) so you wake up in the morning without back pain. 

    Derek Hansen (2014) -

    1. When you hang your hammock, be sure to put it as much in the middle of the boat as possible. It typically rains during the night, and you’ll probably get wet if you hang it closer to the sides/windows.

    Adapting to the local way of life also means adapting to the slow pace, which applies to public transport as well. It’s normal for the boats to leave hours after the scheduled departure, which is often due to loading and unloading of goods. 

    Another factor impacting timing is security checks. Whether at the ports or on the boat, they are very common and can take a long time (especially when navigating from the border with Colombia).

    Luggage checks at Tabatinga’s port, before boarding.

    After I got out of the state of Amazonas to start my long journey home, my heart cried a little. And not the usual post-holiday blues, either.

    Being in the rainforest, completely surrounded by nature, is something that not many people will experience. Whether it’s the time or money that comes from reaching such an isolated place, or just the fear that comes with the unknown, it truly is that incredible, ‘once in a lifetime’ trip. The epitome of a bucket list adventure.

    So, I hope that, by sharing how I did it, more people will get inspired to take the leap and start planning. Maybe you’ll be the one giving out tips next :-)