Slow Boat to the Atlantic

Sailing 2,500 miles down the Amazon

The Amazon: the name itself conjures up images of one of the most exotic, remote and wild places on earth. The looks I got in the office when I explained that my holiday plans were to see if I could travel the length of the world’s greatest river indicated that many of my colleagues thought I was mad. But I like a challenge.

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Although shorter from source to mouth than the Nile, in all other respects the Amazon is the king of rivers. Navigable by ocean-going vessel as far inland as Peru, physically much closer to the Pacific than the Atlantic into which it ultimately empties, the Amazon drains 40% of an entire continent. It dumps as much fresh water into the ocean as the next eight largest rivers put together; a fifth of the world’s total. Almost all of the places we would visit are inaccessible by road and everything, other than those who can afford to fly, must be brought in by boat: the river is the pulsating lifeline of these communities. And of course, once you get there, it is not nearly as wild or remote as it sounds.

We started in Iquitos, Peru, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. After thirty-two hours in transit, including two changes, we stepped out of the airport into the oppressive humidity of the rainforest night during a thunderstorm. Our welcome to the jungle was being immediately savaged by insects.

Iquitos was once a grand city. It, and the other cities of Amazonia had enjoyed the world monopoly on a crucial commodity: rubber. Used in all of the newest inventions of the nineteenth century, prices were sky high and the Amazon boomed. Iquitos paid Gustave Eiffel, famed father of the tower in Paris, to design an iron house for the city. It was shipped from France, piece by piece, to distant Peru and reassembled in Iquitos, where it has steadily rusted ever since.

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But the rubber bubble eventually burst. An enterprising Brit managed to steal some rubber tree seeds and smuggle them out of Amazonia. He was able to grow plantations of rubber trees in far-away British colonies like Malaya. With the trees in neat rows, it was far cheaper and easier to harvest than in the Amazon, where individual trees puncture the canopy and rubber tappers had to cover wide areas to get enough of the precious sap. The bottom went out of the market and the rubber boom was over, ruining the towns and cities of the Amazon. It is not a good place to be British.

Iquitos has a frontier-town feel to it these days and can be quite rough. There is a large market and floating shanty to the south of the city, where pickpocketing and theft is rife. Sat high above the queuing traffic on a bus with no glass in the windows, I rested my arm on the sill next to me. Next thing I knew, someone had leapt up the side of the bus and grabbed my watch. His weight snapped the strap and as he fell back down to earth, with no real idea how I had done it, I instinctively snatched the watch back. He landed by the bus, looked up at me and brazenly shrugged, before sauntering off down the street with his friends, no-one batting an eyelid.

We took a few days to acclimatise in Iquitos, enjoying the local brew, Iquitena, and seeing some of the sights. We also caught up with the local news. The week before, a heavily overloaded ship with capacity for 160 sank while carrying over 200 people. We heard rumours that, as commodity prices are so high, after the boats have been checked by local authorities they load high-value, but heavy materials, like iron and cement. Talking to the local owner of a conservation centre, a donation of $10,000 had only bought enough steel and concrete to make an enclosure ten metres square.

It was with some trepidation that we boarded our first boat on the fabled river. The boats are often very crowded. On one, the only place we could pitch our hammocks was directly over the open hatches of the cargo holds, near the noise and diesel fumes of the engines. We visited the open-air bar on the top deck, where the samba and reggaeton pulsed all day and was always full with locals swaying to the beat. When we returned, our deck was even fuller, and people had pitched hammocks between, above and across ours, creating an impenetrable tangle of hammocks and luggage. The heat was stifling down there, out of the wind near the engines. Fortunately the trip was only a couple of days.

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The three border area marks the point on the Amazon where three countries meet: people and traffic flow interchangeably between Peru, Colombia and Brazil. This was lucky, as we we got our Brazilian entry stamp as the border post was closing, and were then unable to get any Brazilian currency. We had to walk to Colombia where we were able to change some money with a black market money changer. There are umpteen scams surrounding such transactions, and I try only to risk it as a last resort, but this went off far better than feared: we got real bills, at a good rate and even some bonus sweets in lieu of the small change.

Mindful of Colombia’s most famous export, the luggage of all passengers was searched by armed police before boarding the boat.  We had to open all of our bags on the jetty while sniffer dogs were led up and down the line. We were watching from some distance away when I saw the policeman in charge, sporting a stab vest and carrying a machine gun, slip a little bag of something into my open pack. It is fair to say that I was pretty terrified at that moment, having a fairly good guess that I had just had drugs planted in my backpack.

I confronted the gun-toting border guard in the only way you can approach someone clutching a gleaming automatic weapon: extremely politely. With no common language between us, I am still not sure what was said, but I neither ended up in jail, nor paying a huge ‘fine’. I think that he was training one of the sniffer dogs, and the bag he had placed was a tester.

However, our tribulations were not over as our packs were ripped apart by the other guards as we were searched and they inspected every item we had brought with us. With Colombia’s recent history of fractured conflict between various groups of guerrillas, paramilitaries and army, it is not advisable to wear anything bearing a camouflage pattern. Unfortunately, my hammock was a dark green, made of synthetic material and in contrast to the brightly-coloured fabric hammocks of the locals it looked a little military. I have never answered so many questions from a policeman about a hammock.

On the three-day trip downriver, we slung our hammocks on the middle deck, and chained our bags to a pillar supporting the deck above. Petty theft is a problem on the boats. At one stage, my friend awoke to find the t-shirt he had carefully hung on the end of his hammock had disappeared. Assuming it had blown away in the night, he shrugged it off, until he spotted another passenger wearing it. Once we had retrieved the item, we kept our eyes on the worst thief in the world, as we were stuck on the boat with him for the next two days.

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The open sides of the boat provide natural ventilation when the boat is moving, but you get eaten alive if it stops in port at dawn or dusk. For the most part, hammocks swing slowly with the gentle chug of the engines, as the boat meanders downriver at a relaxed pace. But when a tropical storm strikes, which it seemed to on a daily basis, tarpaulins are tied down the sides of the boat to keep most of the rain out. Torrents of water flow down the decks and you knock repeatedly against the people in the hammocks around you.

Most evenings, in the warmth of a tropical night, we were treated to stunning sunsets over riverbanks thick with trees, and an expanse of water ahead and behind as far as the eye could see. My favourite moments were the nightly displays of silent lightning striking right across the northern horizon, almost bright and often enough to read by.

On some of the boats, our tickets seemed to include food. We were fed in an air-conditioned cabin beneath the captain’s bridge, filing in to wolf down rice and refried beans. On others, canoes with petrol engines and propellers on long poles pushed off from the banks, lashing themselves to our stern. Children boarded with buckets of fresh shrimps or fried ‘stuff’ to peddle. We picked up some fruit and other supplies from hawkers on the jetties at longer stops, and tied them to the rivets in the ceiling from which our hammocks were hanging, away from the cockroaches. One of the other passengers bought a whole branch of a banana plant that lay sorrowfully in the corner surrounded by an ever-expanding circle of squashed cockroaches.

To cool down there were showers on board, which sluiced brown river water over you in a hot little room. This was a surprisingly refreshing experience, provided you didn’t think about the amount of rubbish that went straight over the side of the boat every day, and that the toilets emptied straight out into the river. In fact, another backpacker had sidled up to us and asked if he should be careful using the river-water toilets because of the fish famous for swimming ‘upstream’…

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Manaus is the major city of the Amazon. Famously, during the rubber boom, its wealthy elite had the stunning European-style Teatro del Amazonas built with all of the most expensive and luxurious materials and fittings imported from European workshops. Most impressive of all, is the sweeping rubber road they had built up to the theatre, so that the carriage wheels of late comers would not disturb the opera. Whilst the incredible opulence of the rubber days is gone, Manaus is still a wealthy city, but these days it is Amazonian oil that makes it tick, the latest in a long line of threats to the region.

Manaus is an ideal base to organise a foray into the jungle. We shared a canoe with a Brazilian couple from the coast, sat in thick coats under cover from the jungle sun. If any insect landed near them, they proceeded to spray or stamp on it, thereby destroying and polluting the very environment they had come so far to see. For long parts of the year, the forest floor is flooded, and all transport involves paddling through trees submerged in ten metres of water. Plants have adapted, with water lilies growing long stems from their sunken roots in order to allow their picturesque leaves to float on the surface, basking in the sun.

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One of the staple activities of a jungle trip is piranha fishing. I had fished for piranha on a previous trip, standing waist-deep in cold water with hunks of steak on a hook. The nearest we came to a catch on that occasion was when a companion’s rod suddenly pulled flat against the water and the line snapped as she pulled back. “That must have been a big one!” she shouted to the guide, up to her navel in water, “that, was a crocodile,” he had replied calmly.

This time, we would be enjoying the luxury of a boat, and an ice box of beer. I was fortunate enough to catch the first fish of the day, but that was the end of our luck: my friend did not hook anything. “Real men fish,” my friend had declared gleefully at the beginning of the day. By the end, I was able to retort that, “real men catch fish.” A group went out fishing most days, and back at camp lunch was always whole fried piranha. The day after our paltry efforts, lunch was piranha soup.

On a hike through the jungle, our guide demonstrated an indigenous trick to keep mosquitoes away: putting his hand on an ants nest, he allowed them to run over his hands before rubbing them together, squashing the ants and spreading the juices. “Try it,” he said with a half smile, “they don’t bite.” Whereupon we learnt not to trust this particular Brazilian, a conclusion later reinforced when he offered us a snack, cutting a seed in half and handing out live, wriggling grubs. They tasted like coconut.

Just outside Manaus is the Meeting of the Waters, where the black River Negro and the brown River Solimoes meet. Due to differences in water temperature and density, they flow side by side for miles without mixing. We sailed through the confluence, and headed out of Manaus, and on downriver toward Santarem, a pretty little colonial town half-way to the Atlantic coast. We visited Alter do Chao, a kind of inland river beach resort, where when water levels are low holiday-makers cover the beaches, but we could only see the thatched tops of stalls rising from the still-flooded river, and endured more tropical storms.

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The boat to Belem on the coast was far emptier than the previous ones, which allowed us to get to know the other passengers better. I went up to the bridge and asked the captain if I could drive the boat. He stepped aside, and before I knew it, I was piloting a three-decked passenger and cargo ship in a narrow river channel. I had not driven a boat before, and this struck me as rather an advanced point at which to start my career. It was not long before I handed the wheel back to the captain, having weaved my cargo of 200 souls right across the channel several times.

At Belem, the mouth of the river is so wide, you would think you are gazing over an ocean. It is an industrial city that now trades in oil, but its economy was formerly based on an even more destructive commodity, as the enormous old slave market attests. Some estimates put Brazil as the destination of 80% of all slaves ever transported to the new world. It remains an industrial city, with few attractions, and we decided to extend our boat trip rather than hang around.

We headed on downriver, east to the largest river island in the world, Ilha de Marajo.  It is a leisurely place where buffalo are king, roaming the streets of the few towns, and there is little traffic. We dined out on enormous buffalo steaks smothered in buffalo mozzarella, and sweated in the heat. As the thermometer crept to just over 50 degrees, we resolved that next year we would go somewhere cold.

In the weeks that followed our trip, we were dramatically upstaged by both a Blue Peter presenter who kayaked the length of the Amazon, and even more impressively, a Brit who walked from source to mouth. It took him years. However, I was happy with my, more leisurely, choice: 2,500 miles swinging in a hammock to the slow chug of the engines, beer in hand.

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