Getting Here and Around
Given the enormous size of the region and the difficulty of traveling large distances, most visitors travel through only one region. For example, you can visit Manaus and its surrounding area or choose the Belém region. If you fly into Manaus, see the Meeting of the Waters, walk through the Adolfo Lisboa Market, and take a tour in Teatro Amazonas. Then take a boat to a jungle lodge for a few days for trekking, swimming, and wildlife viewing. Conversely, fly into Belém and explore historic sites for a couple of days and then take a boat and van to a ranch on Marajó Island for a cultural experience and some wildlife spotting.
Increasing frequency and new destinations have made hopping around the Amazon by plane considerably easier and cheaper, opening up the region like never before. Azul is the main carrier, operating flights to 18 destinations within the Amazon. Tam and Gol also operate on the major routes. There are five flights daily between Manaus and Belém; to guarantee the best prices, book well in advance.
Sleep in a hammock on the middle deck of a thatch-roof riverboat or in the air-conditioned suite of an upscale tour operator's private ship. Keep in mind that wildlife viewing is not good on boats far from shore. Near shore, however, the birding can be excellent. Binoculars and a bird guide can help, and shorebirds, raptors, and parrots can be abundant. Common in many parts of the river system are boto (pink dolphins) and tucuxi (gray dolphins).
Adventure cruises combine the luxury of cruising with exploration. Their goal is to get you close to wildlife and local inhabitants without sacrificing comforts and amenities. Near daily excursions include wildlife viewing in smaller boats with naturalists, village visits with naturalists, and city tours.
Some cruise ships call at Manaus, Belém, and Santarém as part of their itineraries. Most trips take place October through May. They range in length from 10 to 29 days, and costs vary. Two major lines making such journeys are Princess Cruises and Royal Olympic Cruises.
Private groups can hire tourist boats that are more comfortable than standard riverboats. They generally travel close to the riverbank and have open upper decks from which you can observe the river and forest. The better tour operators have an English-speaking regional expert on board—usually an ecologist or botanist. You can either sleep out on the deck in a hammock or in a cabin, which usually has air-conditioning or a fan. Meals are generally provided.
You can take a speedboat to just about anywhere the rivers flow. Faster than most options, speedboats can be ideal for traveling between smaller towns, a morning of wildlife viewing, or visiting a place that doesn't have regular transportation, such as a secluded beach or waterfall. You design the itinerary, including departure and return times. Prices and availability vary with distance and locale. Contact tour agencies, talk with locals, or head down to the docks to find a boat willing to take you where you want to go. Work out the price, destination, and travel time before leaving. You may have to pay for the gas up front, but don't pay the rest until you arrive. For trips longer than an hour, bring water, snacks, and sunscreen.
Longer boat routes on the lower Amazon are covered by MACAMAZON. Regular departures run between Belém, Santarém, Macapá, Manaus, and several other destinations. The boats are not luxurious but are a step above regional boats. You can get a suite for two from Belém to Manaus with air-conditioning and bath. Camarote (cabin) class gets you a tiny room for two with air-conditioning and a shared bath. Rede (hammock) class is the cheapest and most intimate way to travel, since you'll be hanging tight with the locals on the main decks. Hammocks are hung in two layers very close together, promoting neighborly chats. Arrive early for the best spots, away from the bar, engine, and bathrooms. Keep your valuables with you at all times and sleep with them. Conceal new sneakers in a plastic bag. In addition to a hammock (easy and cheap to buy in Belém or Manaus), bring two 4-foot lengths of 3/8-inch rope to tie it up. Also bring a sheet, since nights get chilly. Prices between Belém and Manuas start from R$250 per person.
To travel to towns and villages or to meander slowly between cities, go by barco regional (regional boat). A trip from Belém to Manaus takes about five days; Belém to Santarém is two days. The double- or triple-deck boats carry freight and passengers. They make frequent stops at small towns, allowing for interaction and observation. You might be able to get a cabin with two bunks (around R$400 for a two-day trip), but expect it to be claustrophobic. Most passengers sleep in hammocks with little or no space between them. Bring your own hammock, sheet, and two 4-foot sections of rope. Travel lightly and inconspicuously.
Booths sell tickets at the docks, and even if you don't speak Portuguese, there are often signs alongside the booths that list prices, destinations, and departure times. Sanitary conditions in bathrooms vary from boat to boat. Bring your own toilet paper, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Food is sometimes served, but the quality ranges from so-so to deplorable. Consider bringing your own water and a marmita (carry-out meal) if you'll be on the boat overnight. Many boats have a small store at the stern where you can buy drinks, snacks, and grilled mixto quente (ham-and-cheese) sandwiches. Fresh fruit and snacks are available at stops along the way. Be sure to peel or wash fruit thoroughly with bottled water before eating it.
Long-distance buses arrive from various locales around the country. The Transbrazilian Highway has daily bus service to Belém from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, as well as from a number of other locations. Bus travel is recommended in Brazil because it's inexpensive and comfortable, although flights are increasingly competitive and sometimes cheaper; it's well worth comparing in advance, as you could save considerable travel time for little extra cash. The downside of buses is that schedules are not often convenient for travelers and it often takes longer than by car.
A lot of the roads in this region are unpaved and more often than not flooded. Driving conditions in the cities are good, although renting a car is rarely worth it. In the smaller towns and villages we recommend using taxis or motorcycles. Driving from state to state is not advisable and often impossible.
There are plenty of taxis in Amazon cities, and they're easy to flag down. All have meters, and tips aren't necessary. If there isn't a meter, you have to bargain for the price. Smaller towns also have motorcycle taxis called mototaxis. They're much cheaper but only carry one passenger.