By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
AMAZONIA – The heat is overpowering by mid-afternoon, but as the brown waters swirl against the hull of a creaking river ferry, a slight breeze is enough to bring peace to swaying hammocks and blow away the mosquitoes. In fact, going downriver it is sometimes easy to forget you are on a river at all, for even as far north as Letícia the river is nearly 2km wide.
The Amazon was named after the Greek legend of an expedition led by Spanish conquistador Francisco Orellana purportedly attacked by a tribe of female and child warriors. Its source has been determined as a waterfall near Arequipa in Peru called the Apacheta Cliff, and the river spills 300,000 cubic meters of water into the Atlantic Ocean per second during the rainy season, fed by no less than 1100 tributaries. The most famous of these is the Rio Negro, and near Manaus the dark waters begin to run alongside the Solimões in a striking color partition before the waters eventually mix, creating what Brazilians claim to be the official beginning of the Amazon River.
Journeying The Amazon is never easy, though. If the food becomes bland, indigenous people living in villages along the banks sometimes provide fresh water shrimp and stumpy, delicious red-peeled bananas. They paddle furiously as ferries pass, latching their dugout canoes onto the larger boats with long hooks. They board to sell food and wares before setting off again and awaiting the next ferry.
Bring a fishing rod, however, and you can catch your own dinner like many of the Brazilians – and it doubles as a great way to pass the time. If you get a good captain, he may let you use the barbecue sometimes set up on the roof of the boat to cook your catch.
Spotting wildlife isn’t as common as you may think, though. In theory you can occasionally see animals drinking water from the shores of the river, but they would have to be brave enough to face the often blaring onslaught of forró music from the boats. The water itself offers a more likely view, with several unusual fish species including the beautiful pink river dolphin. The roving spotlight and top deck lanterns are usually the best place to spot wildlife on the ferry, and entomology enthusiasts will be happy attempting to classify the plethora of massive insects drawn to them at night.
If the seemingly endless vision of passing tree canopy begins to tire you, most ferries that ply the waters of the Amazon between Colombia and the Atlantic Ocean sell beer, cachaça and various other forms of sedatives. Heading back to your hammock to sway with the rocking of the boat might be just the way to capture a bit of sanity in the midst of an often hazy journey that sometimes has no ending, especially if you take the seven day trip from the Colombian border to the mouth of the Amazon near Belem.
The boats don’t necessarily follow a strict schedule, arriving ‘when they get there’ and departing ‘when they are ready’. The best thing to do is to get onto your boat as soon as it pulls into dock in order to get the best hammock space – on a busy boat the hammocks often ziz-zag across each other.
Finally, be advised that, particularly in the port of Manaus, it is a good idea to keep a close eye on your belongings. You don’t want to set sail without them. Hammocks for the journey can be purchased in most river ports and it is best to buy tickets on board, from the same people everyone else buys tickets from. They often don’t come around to collect money until the boat has already set off so be mindful of other ticket touts and get ready to relax.