Hitching Cargo Boats up the Amazon

Hitching Cargo Boats up the Amazon

It was June 1976 and my husband David and I had spent 6 months trekking through South America. We were longhaired, backpacking, bell-bottom wearing hippies back then.

We were in Goiania, Brazil staying with friends we’d made along the way when we found ourselves deeply regretting we’d skipped seeing the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. We were on a tight budget and our hosts advised us that heading up the Amazon River was the least expensive way to get there and so it became our logical choice. I’d love to go back to Ecuador and the Galapagos islands and see them properly. My friend used a Voyagers Ecuador travel company when she went and she had a great time.

My daughter Dawn had joined us a month earlier after spending just enough time with her grandparents in Los Angeles to enroll in kindergarten and not be left behind a grade in school. I didn’t subscribe to people’s warnings that you couldn’t travel with kids. It was a state of mind. Dawn turned out to be a great little traveler.

Amazon sunset
Amazon sunset

When the three of us arrived at the port city of Belem we were surprised to learn that we couldn’t just hop on a boat that would take us as far as Iquitos, Peru where we could then make our way to Ecuador. We would have to hitch cargo boats along the way. After asking several boat captains who were making 1-3 day trips we found one heading west on a 13-day voyage. Our accommodations came as a surprise. No room to sleep in – just two hooks each on deck, BYOH (bring your own hammock). The boat would be pushing a 100-foot barge full of supplies to deliver along the way.

Hammock on Amazon
Hammocks on the Amazon

The sign on deck said the capacity was 50 but there must have been 100 brightly colored hammocks hanging from the ceiling in tiers. We were a bit late so we got the least desirable top tier. David was herded over to the “men’s” section and Dawn and I into the “women and children’s section.” There were no exceptions, even for families.

I set up Dawn’s hammock in the tier below mine then proceeded to hang mine. I had an uneasy feeling of movement above my head. When I looked up there were at least a dozen juicy, hairy spiders crawling on the ceiling above me. I suddenly imagined myself sleeping with my mouth wide open and with furry black spiders parachuting into it. I’d been struggling with my bug phobia the whole trip. Previously, if a bug entered a room, I left it and called for reinforcements but David was on the other side of the boat busy hanging his hammock. I winced realizing I would have to deal with this myself. This was a defining moment. I took off my flip-flop, planted it on a spider on the ceiling, closed my eyes then smashed it. I heard a crunch, gagged and went for the next one. Two down – ten to go.

The sunset that night was the most amazing one I’d ever seen with hues of crimson, gold and lavender reflected perfectly on the glassy surface of the café au lait colored water. Meals were included and dinner consisted of fish, beans, rice and farofa (a grain made from cassava flour). The air smelled of rotting leaves.

We stood on deck admiring the vast sky when suddenly giant buzzing beetles began dive-bombing the walls of the boat around us. One hit me on the back and I shrieked. Another one landed in my hair and entangled itself next to my ear. It sounded like a chainsaw. I could feel its wings batting against my skin and I panicked. I began hopping on two feet like a jackrabbit being pursued by a pack of rabid chupacabras.

“Get it off! Get it off!” I yelled to no one and everyone in particular. Instead of helping, my could-be-heroes burst out laughing. I looked at David who shrugged his shoulders not knowing what to do. The mango hadn’t fallen far from the tree and my bug phobic 5 year-old daughter bravely took a pencil and half-heartedly attempted to free the demon from my hair. Finally, a Brazilian gentleman took pity on me, walked over, grabbed the animated beetle and pulled it down my Cher length hair, freeing me from bug hell. This was our auspicious beginning to a month-long trip up the Amazon.

My ego was bruised but hey, anything for a laugh – not!

Next Travel Blog: Pink Dolphins and Piranhas

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