Chris' 1994  R100GS/PDChris' new bike, a 1996 F650 ULTIMATE JOURNEY Erin's 1997  F650
Living a Dream . . . 2 Live-N-Ride

Nov 23, 2002.-- Brazil: Celebrating 3.5 years on the trip

Credit to up the Rio Amazonas: Belem to Manaus

-- Story by Chris --

Friday, Nov 15th: We had been in contact with 2 different agents about travelling by boat from Belem to Manaus, and of course, getting conflicting information. We decided to go straight to the port to see if things would become clearer. Today is another public holiday, so most businesses are closed as people take advantage of the 3-day weekend. Arriving in Belem just before noon, we eventually found our way to the port. Belem is 100 miles/160 kilometers south of the equator and with 45C/110F temps and 95% humidity, we were sweating our ------s off. We are on the edge of the great rainforest area known as the Amazon, and at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River.

We found the docks, but before we could locate the terminal entrance the local "hustlers/touts" surrounded us, asking if we were heading to Manaus. We parked the bikes, and while Erin stayed with them, I went inside to see what I could find out about the boats. More people approached, wanting to be my agent and arrange the trip for us. I politely ignored them, and tried to make my way through the growing throngs of "agents".  As it was a holiday, all the little ticket booths were closed and I was forced to start asking the people surrounding me for help.

I was eventually let through the port gate (without a ticket), to board the boat docked there and talk with the captain. This is not an open barge, nor is it a large luxury liner. These boats are referred to as "Gaiolas" or "Bird Cages" that transport the native population and cargo to the small cities and villages.  All passengers sleep in hammocks, and some of the larger boats have a few cabins.

The larger boats are about 100’ long and about 15’ wide. There are 3 decks above the cargo hold: Lower for additional cargo (and our motos); middle for sleeping (mostly hammocks and some cabins); and the upper has a small bar and large open deck with outdoor showers to bask in the sun. The boat was set to sail around 7pm, and already there were some 35 hammocks nestled together like sardines. The captain offered us hammock-space for 150 reas each (250pp cabins were occupied), and 200 per bike – this totaled 700 reals, or about US$206. The trip is 5 days, covers some 1,700kms, and includes 3 basic meals per day.

We were not planning or prepared to leave immediately, as we needed time to do laundry and buy some supplies for the trip. We could travel hammock-class, but that would mean sleeping in extremely close proximity to dozens of other people with all the associated noises and annoyances that implies. There is also a security issue, along with exposing ourselves to the swarms of mosquitoes. The cabins are tiny (although not more so than other nicer boats we've been on), but have air-conditioning and a door we can lock our stuff behind.

The Tuesday boat (Santarem) was undoubtedly the newest and nicest, and the Monday boat (D’jard Vieira) was the oldest and one of the last wood boats making this length of trip. We talked with 4 different agents, and got 5 different answers. We had been in email contact with one agent several months before.  Earlier in the week, they booked a cabin (a/c & bathroom) on the Santarem - Price was 260 reais/person and 200/bike, and we had until last Tuesday to purchase. Another agent told us the Santarem would not take the motorbikes, but any of the Monday, Weds, Thurs, or Friday boats would. He would hold a reservation on the D’jard (220/p & 150/bike), and we could pay the day the boat leaves. The first agent had assured us the bikes could go on the Santarem, but we had to purchase the ticket immediately or lose the cabin. He also offered us the D’jard for 240/p & 180/bike. He was very good about email communication, and we didn't feel he was being dishonest, just that his prices were higher and there was a serious conflict in information.  We had been 2 days away from Belem at the time, and told him to let the Santarem reservation go. In Belem we met another agent who said the cabin aboard the D’jard had a/c, but no toilet, and was the worst boat of the lot.

Speaking to yet another agent confirmed the Santarem would not take the bikes, but it was the best boat. He told us the D’jard did not have a/c, so we should take the Wednesday boat at 220/p and 150/bike. The final agent told us the D’jard had cabins with attached bathroom, and same price.  Ugggghhhh!

Saturday, Nov 16th: We woke up rested but still confused – this whole boat trip was getting more complicated by the minute, and we can’t seem to get a straight answer anywhere. We did not want to wait in Belem another week, as each extra day takes away from our time in Venezuela – we need to be in Panama for Xmas. We wanted to travel on the Santarem on Tuesday, but not sure if it was an option. The D’jard left when we needed, but not sure under what conditions (everyone agreed it was the "worst").   People were saying best and worst of the bunch, so we were not even sure what difference it would make if we waited for other boats later in the week.  The heat was a serious concern for us, and although we were sure we could survive the trip, we wanted to enjoy it if possible, not just suffer through it. 

After breakfast, we visited 3 of the agent’s offices, and received more conflicting information. We decided to return to the terminal to see if any offices were open and hopefully get some better info. One of the agents we spoke to yesterday was there, and he got us on to the D’jard Vieira, which had arrived the night before. The boat looked the same as yesterday’s steel boat, maybe even better. It looked freshly painted and quite clean.  The steel boats are supposedly more secure, but they looked the same to us. We met the 1st-mate, who gave us a full tour of the boat, along with cabin #6 which was available. It was a 4’x6’ box, with bunk beds, no window, a new a/c unit, and key to a private bathroom at the back of the boat. Price was 200 reais/person & 150/bike (700 reais or US$206). We got a receipt and did not have to pay until we showed up with the bikes on Monday morning. We were ecstatic as we now possessed solid info, and what appeared to be a good boat. We would land in Manaus Saturday night, then a 2-day ride north to the border. We returned to the coolness of our air conditioned hotel room, arranged covertly (the hotels charge exhorbinent rates) for one of the housekeepers to do our laundry at her house, and made general preparations for our departure on Monday.

Monday, Nov 18th: Called the office of the Santarem at 8am just to be sure – no cabins left, and they will not take the bikes anyway. We packed up our gear and rode down to the docks around 11am – the river was high and we could easily load the bikes onto the lower deck. Although we were cleanly showered, we were sweating before the work was even started. We met the balance of the crew, and all were extremely friendly. They told us the boat would arrive on Sunday morning, not Saturday night as all the agents had told us! We met Maria, a nice woman in charge of the meals. When I asked her if the food was muito boa (very good), she looked at me and said that it was very basic, but tasted OK (honest) – a flash of fear crossed her face and she hesitantly asked if we were vegetarians. We assured her we could and would eat just about anything. She told us breakfast would be crackers (I think), butter, coffee, and hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner would be typical and basic: rice, pasta, beans, and some kind of meat – nothing fancy. We made a last dash to get some final supplies (water, cookies, fruit), showered once more, grabbed an early dinner, and were back on the boat by 6pm for the 6:30 departure – of course, we didn’t actually leave until almost 8pm! As we relaxed on the upper deck, sipping beers and finally relaxing we met 2 very fascinating people-----Father Freddie, a German Franciscan monk and Jorge, a Venezuelan film maker both of whom sat down to have a chat with us.  It was a pleasant beginning to the long trip ahead of us.

Tuesday, Nov 19th: Mariana came around the boat at 6am blowing a whistle – breakfast time! We went below and sure enough, breakfast was no more or no less then stated – fortunately the crackers were fresh, the drinks good, and we supplemented with a few bananas.

Our first day on the river was spent navigating the various tributaries on our way to the great Rio Amazonas.  It was not dangerous or exotic, but it was tranquil and interesting. We slung our hammocks on the top deck, under an awning, and alternated between watching the scenery and napping. As the day stretched out, we passed a variety of other boats and encountered innumerable canoes when the river narrowed. Most of the canoes would loiter near where we passed, with woman and small (sometimes-naked) children waiting for passengers to throw them food, clothing, and other charitable items. It was fascinating at first, then as the numbers increased, it became overwhelming – there were just so many of them, and the passengers quickly ran out of offerings. The woman and children appear to spend their days sitting in canoes, just in front of their stilted shacks, and wait for handouts from the passing boats.  It was sad to see so much poverty.

Later in the day, some of the canoes with older kids were crafty enough to latch onto the side of our boat as we chugged past at a steady 15km/h. As we watched in fascination, the 10-15 year old children would hold out a 2 meter rod with hook on the end, catch a part of the railing, then expertly pull themselves alongside and tie the canoes up. The captain never slowed, and the crew neither helped nor hindered their efforts. These kids brought fruit or vegetables aboard, in the hopes of selling or trading with the passengers. Although we were heading upstream the trip back wasn’t too bad for them. One pair, though, spent too much time on board and was a good few kilometers from home. A barge passing down-river encouraged them to untie their canoe quickly, dive into the water, scramble after their canoe, pull themselves in, then paddle some 150 meters to the next passing barge going down river. I’m not sure if they were that good at it, or if the other captain slowed and turned a little towards them, but they barely caught the end of the barge for a tow back home. Dinner was at 5:30pm, followed by an evening playing checkers, dominoes, and backgammon. There are some 60 people onboard, and we all seem to be getting along quite well.

During the next 5 days, a routine settled in -- We managed to wake before the 6am breakfast whistle and watch the sun lift up over the stern like a giant orange balloon. We take care of the morning rituals and head down to the dining table, located behind the open cargo on the lower deck. The older folks and families with children eat during the "first shift", and the rest of us come down about 20 minutes later. There are 2 long benches on either side of the table, and the crew is quick to put clean dishes and utensils out before the previous occupants have even dislodged themselves from the bench. Crackers and hot chocolate are not that bad a breakfast, especially when fortified with a few bananas we bring along.

After breakfast we hike to the top deck and flop into our hammocks for some relaxing swaying and reading, while enjoying the cool morning breeze. It is not long before we are asleep. The morning hours pass as we wake with heavy eyelids, beginning to break a sweat with the increasing heat, take in the view, and try to finish that same paragraph/page of reading before slipping back into unconsciousness. By 10-11am, we are more awake and watch life on the shores drift by. The views alternate between small cattle farms, dense trees (with monkeys and Toucans), mangroves, loads of fresh water dolphins, and small villages. The river is filled with various sizes and types of boats and barges, while dolphins can be spotted throughout the day.  By 11:15am, Mariana is blowing her whistle and telling us it is last call for lunch. We finish by 11:30, as the crew is rapidly clearing each plate away in preparation for there own meal. We eat dinner around 5:15pm, and the crew around 5:30 – I think the kitchen crew prefer all the meals are finished before the 5:45 sunset. Lunch and dinner are quick because they are relatively basic, and always the same. There is soup, rice, pasta, baked beans, and some sort of cooked meat. You can eat as much as you like, and they provide plenty of cold drinking water, but 15 minutes is really plenty of time to fill your stomach and make room for the next person.

Each day, we make a few stops at various size villages. Some stops are only 10 minutes to allow a change of passengers; others can be 4-5 hours, as large amounts of cargo are transferred. The small docks become very animated when we pull in next to the dozens of smaller boats, even when we arrive at 11pm for a 1-hour stop.  Local vendors jump aboard the boat selling everything from cheese and pastries to fruit and homemade ice cream.  Watching the transfer of cargo can be very interesting, if you are into people watching.

The days are spent talking, reading, and watching life on the river banks slip by. After dinner, we tend to gather on the top deck, have a beer or 2 as the sun falls slowly in front of us, turning the sky spectacular shades of orange and purple. As the night progresses, so do the games of checkers, cards, and dominoes. There is also a TV behind the bar, with a satellite mounted above the roof – the dish must constantly be adjusted using a clever rope/pulley system, in order to maintain the signal with any of the 3 channels we can receive. We’ve been blessed with a near full moon every night, so gazing out to the river can be quite charming as well.

The beds are actually better then we expected, and leaving the a/c on its lowest setting at night provides a comfortable sleeping environment. Throughout our journey, the boat has been surprisingly clean, and the crew very attentive. Our trip along the Rio Amazonas was not the exotic adventure we imagined it would be when we first came up with this plan back in February. It is, however, a very interesting journey meeting all sorts of people and experiencing life along the river. If you are looking for a very relaxing experience, don't mind very basic facilities, and enjoy meeting friendly locals (not those whose lives depend on tourism), we would highly recommend this trip.  We really enjoyed it!

To book your trip on the D'jard Vieira, contact the main office of Nonave Lines (091) 212-8424 -- or try Belem 248-7188; Manaus 621-1800

You can see additional photos by clicking here:  Amazon Photos


Our wooden princess:  100' L x 15' W

- Lower Deck:  Additional cargo (motos up front), and dining area at rear
- Middle Deck: Cabins, Hammocks for deck  passengers, & pilothouse
- Upper Deck:  Bar and common area (we had our hammock up front)

For those travelling deck class, you must bring your own hammock and leave your belongings underneath

Heading up the Rio Amazonas

A simple home in the Amazonas, along the river




Young locals tie alongside, board, and try to sell us fruit and/or vegetables. 

The captain maintains his speed of 15km/h, and the youngsters must hook onto our boat as we cruise past.


You've heard the Amazon Forest is being cut down, these were common sites along the river...

The end of another tranquil day

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