To fly or to cruise
Flights typically cost about double the price of multi-day riverboat journeys, give or take. While this might sound like a lot (and it is to the locals), the difference between the two might only be US$50 or so. If sleeping in a hammock and doing nothing on a boat for several days doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then cough up the extra cash and hop on a one-hour flight instead.
Bring a hammock
Unless you opt for one of the very limited and much more expensive private cabins, you’ll be sleeping on deck in a hammock like everyone else. These are not provided so be sure to pick one up from the local hammock store of the port city from which you will depart.
Make a packing list
Aside from the hammock, there are a couple of essential things to pack. You’ll definitely want some mosquito repellent, unless you enjoy being eaten alive. Sunscreen is a necessity for lazy afternoon beers on the upper deck. Toilet paper and a few liters of water aren’t a bad idea either. Also, bring plenty of snacks like fruits and nuts to compliment the rather nutritionally uninspiring boat food.
Get there on time
Riverboat journeys only depart every couple of days or so, or even as infrequently as once per week. Be sure to arrive at the port city on time unless you want to wait until Sunday for the next departure.
Find a good spot
Hammock space works on a first-come-best-served basis, so try to rock up a good six hours before departure time to secure a good spot. On some trips, porters are on hand to help travelers find the optimal hammock position as well as carry their bags in return for a small tip. This service is totally worth it, for a well positioned hammock will make the journey infinitely more enjoyable. In short, aim for the middle deck as far away from the engine, bar and toilets as possible.
Smile and make friends
You’ll be spending three or more days with your fellow travelers so it pays to make an effort. Be especially friendly towards your immediate neighbors, because once onside they will help keep an eye on your belongings. Besides, with little more to do than stare at the river for several days, it’s worth having some mates to have a yarn with. Most passengers won’t speak any English so this is the perfect chance to brush up on your Portuguese.
Keep an eye out for thieves
Almost all your fellow passengers will be hard working and honest people. Unfortunately, however, from time to time someone will embark with bad intentions and see a foreigner as the ideal cash cow. Always keep your irreplaceable belongings on your person and lock your bags with a padlock. These are obviously not fool proof measures, but they do provide a deterrent against would be thieves.
Watch what you eat
Many ships offer buffet lunches and dinners which are sometimes included in the price of the ticket. Although these may be tempting, they should be approached with caution. If the food looks like it has been sitting out in the heat too long, it probably has. Opt for freshly cooked a la carte dishes when in doubt.
Bring a paperback
There is no cellphone reception on these journeys and very few (if any) places to charge electronic devices. With several days to do pretty much nothing, it’s worth bringing along a novel to pass the time.
Patience is a virtue
Let’s say according to your itinerary you’ll arrive in Manaus at 9pm on Thursday. Do not, under any circumstances, rely on this information. Any number of issues can cause boats to get held up by a day or more, and they often do. Be sure to leave plenty of leeway in your travel plans and don’t be surprised if you arrive well behind schedule.
Have realistic expectations
You may be sailing down the Amazon (which is awesome), but remember you will be on public transportation. This is not a Hollywood film let alone a sightseeing cruise, so don’t expect to encounter jaguars, anacondas and tribes of spear throwing natives. The occasional dolphin might swim by and you may see some colorful bird life, but on the whole, these are uneventful trips designed to ferry passengers from A to B.