Manaus to Porto Velho by Riverboat

Manaus to Porto Velho by Riverboat

November 30, 2014

Narrated Audio Blog

Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.

What can you expect from a boat trip in this part of the world? This wasn't our first and was likely not our last. Our experience on the MV Kimbia in Guyana was still fresh in our mind, and if the 5 nights spent in the Brazilian Amazon river system on riverboat Dois Irmaos-I between Manaus and Port Velho was going to be anything like the Kimbia then we were in for 5 days of hell.

The river system is the highway of the Amazon. With roads only opened seasonally, and only then to capable offroad vehicles, the river picks up the slack and does a very good job. The Amazon river itself is vast, capable of being navigated by the largest ocean-going ships. It allows trade into and out of Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in the north of Brazil and nearly 1,000 miles inland, most practical. We sighted many large barges carrying semi-trailers as well as what seemed to be floating warehouses. There are many communities along the riverbanks ranging in size from an isolated house to the 2 million inhabitants of Manaus itself.

We had planned to take one of the seasonally opened roads from Manaus to Porto Velho, the famous BR-319. Once completely sealed, the BR-319 was built in the 1960's to open up the Amazon to the rest of Brazil but was shortly after abandoned due to high maintenance costs mainly due to poor engineering consultation during construction. Over the past decade the road has been partly revitalised with the installation of telecommunication towers along the route and the requirement for their maintenance has resulted in the road being kept to at least a standard which would allow technicians access to the sights. Funding for this however is tight, so bridges are fixed as required and provided the offroad-capable maintenance vehicles can negotiate the road nothing else is done.

Riding a BMW GS motorcycle qualifies as offroad-capable, right? And taking the road through the Guyanese jungle just after the wet season had given us much of the experience we needed to take on such a challenge, right? So why did we take the boat? Well the reason was mostly to do with timing. We had expected to be in Manaus months earlier. Had we reached Manaus even a month earlier we would have been attempting the BR-319 well before the start of the wet season. But holdups in Venezuela resulted in a late November arrival in Manaus. Not ideal but it was still looking possible to tackle the road, knowing the wet season starts in November so the conditions would not be too bad yet.

During the ride to Manaus we hit a huge storm. We were about 50km out of Manaus when the rain poured so intensely it had us pulling over and rushing for cover at a well positioned roadside hut. We waited for about an hour for the rain to pass and as we waited we discussed how unpleasant it would be to ride muddy roads in this kind of weather even if the road had not yet become waterlogged. Our discussion also included the desperate need to change the chain and sprockets on both bikes. If we couldn't get the parts in Manaus then we most definitely couldn't ride the BR-319. Stuart's sprocket was in particularly bad shape. So there and then, we decided to take the easy way out and have a nice relaxing (we hoped) trip through the rivers of the Amazon.

Once in Manaus we booked our boat trip and went investigating parts for the bikes. We had hoped that we would find the spares in Manaus, but after a morning of looking around (including a visit to the BMW dealer and the BMW factory in Manaus) with our friend Elvis from the Almos Livres Motoclub we came to the conclusion that the parts were not available in Manaus. We would need to wait until we reached another big city like Cuiaba or Sao Paulo to effect the repairs. Uh no!! It was a relief to know we had the boat to take us that part of the journey.

We booked our trip at the boat terminal near Manaus Centro on Saturday, 22nd of November 2014. There we found a ticket vendor named Fredson who quoted prices just as we'd read on the Internet; R200 per person for hammock class or R700 total for a 2 berth cabin and R400 per bike. There was no charge for dogs so Weeti was coming along for free. Because we have so much stuff and a dog we decided that a cabin would be best option for The Pack Track.

Time was tight and we had our bikes serviced the day of boarding the boat (Monday, 24th of Nov), in preparation for our journey south. This took a little longer then anticipated and had us arrive at the boat terminal at 5:30pm. We were told we could board the boat any time after 4pm and luckily Fredson was still on the street, waiting for his bus home. We asked him where we needed to go and he gave us directions which seemed simple enough, but there is always some adventure to be had.

His directions took us to the boat terminal vehicle entrance. We stopped at the security gate, answered some questions and told that boats going to Porto Velho departed from a different wharf, further along the river. It's always possible we misinterpret directions so we rode off in search of this other terminal. With no luck on our search we returned for better clarification; it was getting dark and we didn't want to waste any time following a poor or ambiguous lead. We showed the security guards the GPS and asked them to show us the location of this other wharf. After about 20 minutes of scrolling through the streets and being told a variety of different nonsensical locations (we think they didn't know how to read maps but liked playing with the device) we knew we were wasting our time and ventured off in search again.

Not too long into our second search  we stumbled onto a crowded area by the water and asked a mototaxi (motorcycle taxi service which are everywhere in Latin American countries) for assistance. To our frustration, he pointed us back towards the terminal from which we had been toing and froing. Out came the Google Translate App so we could explain our dilemma to the mototaxi. Once we were on the same page, he got us to follow him to the terminal where he spoke to the security guard to get directions to the other location.

With diminishing enthusiasm, we all rode to the other boat terminal.  Our mototaxi did all the talking for us at this security gate and ascertained that our boat, which they knew of quite well, was leaving from the main terminal. The mototaxi had a little chuckle and looked at us sympathetically, aware of the run around we'd been given. The security guards very kindly made a phone call to clear the matter up for us and then the three of us, with a big sigh of relief, rode back AGAIN to the main terminal.

The mototaxi stayed with us until we were through all the security check points and ready to ride down the ramp to the boat. He shook our hands and wished us a safe voyage, not asking any payment but we insisted, knowing how much time we had taken from his work.

Two long hours it took us to get from point A to point A and now we were boarding the boat in the dark, something we had tried very hard to avoid. There were about 12 boats lined up all looking the same. A very helpful security guard on the wharf was able to point us to the correct boat and even spoke to the captain to let him know we had arrived and would need to load our bikes. The Captain, to Janell's relief, told us the bikes would have to wait until the next day to load.

We spent our first night on the boat and the excitement slowly returned. The boat was scheduled to leave the next day, Tuesday, at 6pm. We took advantage of our day and bought supplies for the trip (water, fruit, alcohol). Bikes loaded and strapped, cabin organised and drink in hand the expectant 6pm came and went. We watched, with the other passengers, as the boat continued to be loaded until dark. Dinner was served and the bar opened, so we sat down to a couple of beers and our meal, happy to just be on the boat and settled. By 9:30pm it seemed the boat wasn't going anywhere so we retired for the night, a little disappointed that we might miss the departure should it occur while we were sleeping. Not to worry, stores continued to be loaded until midday the next day. We finally departed just after lunch and it now seemed unlikely we would reach our destination by the scheduled 6pm Saturday.

The boat itself was quite nice. There were three levels, four if you include the hull where the majority of stores are placed. The 4 cabins were on the middle deck along with the majority of hammock space; travelling 'hammock class' requires you to bring your own hammock. We had so much stuff ,plus a dog, so decided a cabin would be best to contain everything and be locked. As far as comfort is concerned, the hammock class wins hands down. The hammocks were strung up in a covered area occupying the majority of the deck and it was so well ventilated due to the open sides. In comparison, the cabin was small, only had a bunk bed and a fan with no windows. With all our gear spread out on the top bunk, we shared the bottom single bed. Door open was a necessity otherwise it got hot and smelly. Weeti liked to sleep right at the entrance of the cabin so there was no worry of anyone sneaking in at night, she made sure no one entered the room uninvited.

We set up our camping chair with the hammocks so during the day we we just locked up the room and enjoyed the view and the breeze. There was a friendly couple on hammocks near our chair who took a quick liking to Weeti and gave her their leftovers and other treats. She was such a good girl and stayed near our seat during the day, or perhaps near her new friends in anticipation of food.

Stu didn't sleep well on the boat, not like Janell and Weeti. There were a few mosquitoes hiding within the cabin that came out to play at night and specifically targeted Stu. His other problem is that Janell is a bed hog and on a single bed, it was a constant battle to stay on the mattress and not end up with Weeti on the floor. When it got too much he toddled out to the camping chair and passed out. In the morning Janell woke him up and tucked him in to bed to catch up on the lost sleep.

Its truly amazing waking up and seeing the Amazon floating by. It's so serene and untouched. The route had us follow the Amazon river proper for about 100km before turning right to head upstream along the Madeira river and towards Porto Velho. Stu would turn the GPS on regularly to get a position update and determine speed. While on the Amazon river we were maintaining around 19km/hr but once we turned onto the Medeira river we slowed to about 11-13km/hr, this was understandable due to the opposing current we were now fighting. To compensate the boat hugged the shoreline where the flow was at its slowest.

Aside from the sleeping conditions for us, the experience was excellent. All meals were provided and chilled drinking water was on tap and always available. Breakfast was simple, biscuits and coffee, but was followed a few hours later by a big lunch. Lunch and dinner were nearly the same meal everyday including rice, pasta, vegetables, beans and some kind of meat. There was a bar which played the same songs over and over but the sound didn't travel to the other decks so you could easily escape it and listen to your own tunes on the lower decks. The boat was old and wooden, but was certainly a huge step up from any of our previous experiences. There was a cleaner who kept the floor swept, toilets and showers clean and stocked with toilet paper and soap at the sinks. The river was flat so there was no cases of sea sickness and the scenery kept us entertained with peculiar traffic and animal sightings such as crocodiles and plenty of dolphins (unfortunately no jaguar).

We had time to do some work on our bikes, including installing the new GPS on Janell's bike, setup the new helmet comms, make some Christmas decorations for the bikes and even do some hand washing. We were expecting the trip to be long and boring so we made sure we had plenty to do and we would recommend to other travellers to consider blogging, watching movies on a laptop, taking a book or two to break up each day; as interesting as the river is, after nearly 5 days you will go mad with nothing to keep you busy. After a days work it was always nice to have a few drinks at the bar and meet some fellow travellers in a nice peaceful environment.

We reached Porto Velho at midday on Sunday more than happy with our trip through the Amazon though happy to get off the boat and back onto our bikes. Our first stop, breakfast!!

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