Crossing from Bolivia into Brazil at Guayaramerin

Old railroad station in Guijara-Mirim

Deserted post-apocalyptic street in Guijara-Mirim

Church in Porto Velho

Church in Porto Velho

Porto Velho along the river

Abandoned railway station in Porto Velho

Railway roundhouse in Porto Velho

The port area in Porto Velho

Dirt road leading south from the Porto Velho port area

Jesus under the neon and flat screen TV coverage in the Porto Velho church

Hammocks strung up on the boat to Manaus

Sunset along the Rio Madeira

Town along the Rio Madeira, downstream from Porto Velho

A meeting of the waters along the Rio Madeira

Hammocks on the boat

The Brazilian flag on the back of the boat

A passenger's homemade bicycle

A church in a town along the river

Another sunset on the Rio Madeira

Life during the high water season along the Rio Madeira

Life during the high water season along the Rio Madeira

Life during the high water season along the Rio Madeira

Life during the high water season along the Rio Madeira

Life during the high water season along the Rio Madeira

Herding a difficult cow through the wetlands

Transport boats ply the river

The meeting of the waters between the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes marks the beginning of the Amazon River

The meeting of the waters between the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes marks the beginning of the Amazon River

Porto Velho, Brazil

The Long Road and River to Manaus

June 26, 2008

I go to the river from time to time to ponder over the crazy days in my life

Watch the river flow, ease my mind and soul where I go

- Natalie Merchant

The trip from Rurrenabaque to Manaus started off nicely enough with the bus showing up only three and half hours late, this was followed by all the passengers and the driver promptly getting off the bus to take a 30-minute lunch break. By the time the bus left Rurrenabaque it was already 11:30am and the bus was so full that I had to stand for the first three and a half hours until we stopped in Santa Rosa to let some people off and I was able to find a seat in the non-reclining row of seats at the very back of the bus. There were many other people standing in the aisle as well as luggage stored there since all available storage space was completely filled with cargo, even the roof was packed with packages four feet high and running the entire length and width of the bus.

The road was slow and boring but easily passable since there hadn´t been any rain for a few days. The scenery was the same spacious jungle vegetation and not much else in terms of civilization. After the stop in Santa Rosa we stopped for dinner at an isolated little village with a few restaurants on either side of the road and a one room dilapidated church that was grimly illuminated. It was difficult for me to sleep on the bus because there was a large semi-crippled Bolivian dwarf that was sprawled out in the seat next to me taking up more than his share of space since he had to keep his small legs straightened. Despite our morning delays in leaving Rurrenabaque we still managed to arrive even later than we should have in Riberalta, the first town of any note that we had passed. Here again there was another delay of an hour and half while they unloaded all the massive amounts of cargo from the roof of the bus, huge sacks of some type of leaf, each measuring about 3 feet by 2 feet by 5 feet.

After this interminable delay the bus proceeded northwards towards Guayaramerín, the end of the road and on the border with Brazil. The red clay road wound its way unceasingly through the flat jungle vegetation with almost no signs of life until we were right upon Guayaramerín. Finally the bus arrived at about 12:30pm and it started to rain. I was already looking rather filthy, with my white shorts covered in a dust residue from the red clay roadway and my face no doubt in a similar state. In the light rain that was falling I had to take a motorcycle taxi to the immigration office over the muddy road. A few minutes later I got to the migration office only to find it closed with no signs or posted hours. I asked a few people and they told me that the office is closed on Sundays.

It seemed odd to close an immigration office for an entire day but then again this was Bolivia. Not knowing what to do I wandered over to the boat terminal where the boats cross the river to Brazil and a trici-taxi driver asked me if I needed to go to immigration. I told him that I had already been and it was closed. He replied that we could go find the immigration officer at his house and that he would come down and open up the office to give me an exit stamp, all for a price, of course, of 20 Bolivianos ($3). So off we went in the rain to look for this guy and we eventually found him eating lunch in a local restaurant east of the center, one of the benefits of small town life. He agreed to open up the office for me and so I waited for him out in front of the office while he finished his lunch. He came promptly and stamped my passport while I waited awkwardly, feeling bad for making him come all the way down there in the rain to stamp one passport.

With my exit stamp I got a ticket for one of the boats to cross to Brazil and I changed some money at the ticket office. My boat was filled with Brazilians that had crossed over to Bolivia to buy the cheap goods that were sold in all the stores there. After 5 minutes on the motorboat I was in Brazil walking to the Policia Federal to get my entry stamp, hoping that this office would be open. The streets of the city were completely deserted as if a nuclear disaster had occurred. It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop amidst the run down and faded buildings with chipped paint. Luckily the Policia Federal office was open and I got my stamp then took a taxi to the bus station. The taxi driver told me that I could either take a bus or a shared taxi to Porto Velho. The bus would take 5 hours and cost 35 reals and left in two hours or a shared taxi about two and half hours and 50 reals and would take you wherever you wanted to go in the city, thereby saving another cab ride on arrival. I opted for the shared taxi and the other Brazilians that were waiting saw my level of dirtiness and eyed me suspiciously; as I was now in Brazil my unkempt appearance was obviously frowned upon. Once the taxi had enough people the driver sped down the road to Porto Velho that follows the now abandoned railroad line and still uses some of the old railroad bridges, which are narrow and rickety with wooden boards laid lengthwise across the railroad ties. Despite pushing the car to its limits we arrived without incident.

Porto Velho didn´t have much to offer from a tourist’s perspective. There were nice views of the Rio Madeira from the hilltop bluff overlooking the port area and old railroad yard. There was supposed to be a museum for the old railway but it no longer seemed to exist, however there was an old railway roundhouse with two train engines in it and some other abandoned buildings filled with scrap metal. There was a row of restaurant bars on that part of the riverfront that had nice views as well. In the center of town there was a church from the early 1900s that had ridiculous neon lighting behind the central Jesus statue and multiple flat screen TVs for no apparent reason because the church wasn´t that big. The port area, where the passenger boats leave for Manaus was not at all what I expected from a city of 500,000 people. The dirt streets were totally chaotic during the day with boats being loaded and unloaded manually by dozens of kids ferrying sacks and crates of every imaginable item from trucks to the boats, or vice versa, on makeshift wooden planks.

I managed to get a ticket for passage on a boat to Manaus for the following day, as there was nothing to keep me in Porto Velho. I bought a decent hammock from the woman who ran the hotel I stayed at and stocked up on some food and water for the 3-day boat trip. The boat was supposed to leave at 2pm so I ended up getting there at about 10:30am to get a good hammock spot and because I had absolutely nothing else to do. Naturally the boat didn´t leave on time and the hammock deck, on the second level of the boat was slow to fill up, leaving me waiting for a long time. Finally after hours and hours of loading of the boat with watermelons, onions, oranges, and everything else we finally left at 8pm, a mere six hours late.

The food the first night left a lot to be desired but despite being completely tasteless it was at least edible. Sleeping in the hammock wasn´t so bad but the next day started very early at around 6am when the other passengers started to wake up to the stellar breakfast that was served consisting of a tub of crackers and a container of margarine. The previous night I had heard running on the top deck above where I was sleeping and had assumed that it was just kids playing around as they had been doing all afternoon. But in the morning this older Polish sailor who was on the boat, who I believe was the only other foreigner and the only one who spoke English, told me that last night the boat had been robbed. Two people had boarded the boat as passengers and waited until nighttime and then had taken a crewmember hostage, robbed the boat at gunpoint, and then disappeared into the night in a motorboat that had been waiting for them; they hardly even woke anyone up. At least they decided not to rob the passengers.

The scenery was pretty monotonous and we passed only one or two small villages, stopping to pick up and let off passengers. We passed one confluence in the river where the two different colored river waters flowed side by side for some distance before actually mingling. The main problem with the boat travel was that there was nothing whatsoever to do on the boat except sit around in your hammock or sit around on the top deck. I had finished my book and didn´t have anything else to read or do. There were only two people on the boat who spoke Spanish and the Polish sailor didn´t want to talk to me after he had asked me for money and I told him that I couldn´t help him out. The third morning the river had changed character dramatically and at this point we had made our turn from the Rio Madeira onto the Rio Amazonas. The river was much wider and the recent rains had flooded the river so much so that any semblance of the riverbank had disappeared.

There were many houses on the riverfront that had been transformed into islands with all this extra water. It was interesting to see how people lived in this environment perhaps cattle or fishing but not much else. There were even a few schools here and there, although it was hard for me to imagine going to school under such challenging conditions. As we neared Manaus we passed the famous meeting of the waters between the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes, their juncture marking the beginning of the Rio Amazonas. This was very impressive from the width of both rivers, the contrast of their colors, and the distance that they flowed side by side. After 3 days on the boat, a day and half in Porto Velho, and 35 hours on the bus from Rurrenabaque to Porto Velho I was finally in Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon.