Exploring the Amazon, the planet’s largest tropical rainforest and freshwater system, is a dream for many, but the costs of joining an organized tour expedition can be prohibitively expensive. Luckily, shelling out thousands of dollars for a spoon-fed expedition is not the only option. In fact, a week of the most thrilling and authentic mode of Amazonian travel — cargo-passenger boats — will probably cost you less than a fancy weekend in Rio de Janeiro.
Traveling on Amazonian cargo-passenger ships is gritty going. These boats are not designed for tourists; they are meant to haul local residents and products up and down the complex network of rivers and tributaries that comprise the Amazon Basin. They are the Amazon equivalent of Greyhound buses and 18-wheeler trucks combined. Since the Amazon Basin encompasses nine South American countries and has about the same geographic breadth of the continental US, these ships are also the workhorses of international trade in the region.
Apart from saving some serious cash on your South American travels, seeing the Amazon on cargo-passenger boats allows for a no-frills dive into the culture, nature, and people of the region. In a way that cannot be duplicated on an organized tour, plying the river on the humble cargo-passenger ship will reveal the true face of the Amazon.
Where to start
If you choose to start your Amazonian journey in Brazil, the most accessible cities are Belém, located at the mouth of the Amazon where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and Manaus, constructed on the point where the two major trunks of the Amazon, the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro, converge. Both of these cities have major airports, and both are worth exploring for a few days.
Belém is a colonial city where the indigenous cultures of the Amazon fuse marvelously with the African-diaspora culture of northeast Brazil, and where some of the most interesting cuisine and architecture in all of Brazil can be found. One of the most innovative and internationally acclaimed restaurants in South America, Remanso do Bosque, is in Belém.
Manaus is a rainforest metropolis that has unexpected cultural nuggets (there are vibrant Japanese and Haitian diasporas here), fascinating foodways, and a raucous nightlife. The Municipal Market in Manaus has a huge variety of fruits, herbs, and fish that will captivate your attention for many hours. The iconic Teatro Amazonas and its surrounding plaza are the de facto hub for backpacker bars, hostels, tourist-friendly restaurants, and street music. Enjoy a bit of street samba, ice-cold Antarctica beer, and fellowship with other travelers at the funky Bar do Armando.
In Manaus, tickets for cargo-passenger ships are purchased at the waterfront near the Municipal Market. In Belém, you can acquire tickets about 12 miles north of the city center in the port of Icoaraçi. We strongly recommend that you purchase your tickets with a local to avoid a heavy “gringo tax,” which might leave you paying two to three times the honest price of the ticket. Ticket prices are not fixed, and the time of year and your haggling prowess will factor into how much you pay. A week on a cargo-passenger ship, roughly the amount of time it takes to get from Belém to Manaus or Manaus to Colombia, will cost somewhere between $250 and $300. Note that this is likely all you’ll need to spend for the week, as food is included and there is little chance of a shopping spree in the small villages where the ship stops.
Belém is the city furthest east in the Amazon, so if you’re planning to traverse the Amazon Basin in its entirety, start here and head west (upriver). While there are plenty of interesting towns to visit between Belém and Manaus, virgin rainforest simply no longer exists in this section of the Amazon. So, if you would rather bypass a couple days of deforested wasteland, start your journey farther west in Manaus.
You can just as easily start your journey on the Amazon’s western side, for example in Leticia, Colombia; Iquitos, Peru; or Coca, Ecuador. They are relatively large cities with ships heading east. Starting your journey on this side will shorten the time between destinations since you will be sailing downriver instead of upriver.
Best routes to take
You can reach just about any port in the Amazon — including across international borders — from any other port. The vast web of waterways is so interconnected that a boat traveler could go from Suriname all the way to Bolivia, or from Ecuador all the way to the Atlantic. This is not to say that one single boat will carry you the whole way. For most destinations, except for the most popular routes — for example, from Belém to Santarém or Santarém to Manaus — you will have to take a series of boats. Since boats only leave when there is sufficient demand or on a sporadic schedule, you might find yourself waiting in a tiny village or military base for several days. For some, it’s boring, and for others, it’s a great way to go deep.
For a first journey,