Leticia to Manaus by boat - Hardly Heart of Darkness

Some trips can be meticulously planned beforehand, arranging everything from hostels to transport every step of the way. Like most of my cross-border adventures, this was definitely not one of them. Few journeys of this distance and time have had to be done with such reliance on luck and quick thinking. However, the result was one of the highlights of the last two years, and taking a cargo boat was by far the best way to get from Leticia in Colombia to Manaus, Brazil.

River trip from tabatinga to manaus

Getting to Leticia

Deep in the Amazon jungle, there is a collection of towns, technically all grouped as one but divided by three borders. In the small city of Leticia lies the Brazilian border, the Colombian border, and the gateway to Peru. The reason they all converge there is because it is the perfect splitting point of the Amazon River that runs through the three. However, the only way to get to the town is via the river itself from Peru or Brazil, or flying in. So that’s what I did.

My flights were reasonable, considering I have a bag twice my own body weight. Within a few hours I had made the journey from Bogota to Leticia for around £50 and was making my way out of the tiny airport, looking for a taxi.

Leticia to Manaus by boat - Hardly Heart of Darkness

The heat was unbelievable. Bogota is not a warm city by any stretch of the imagination, and the contrast was huge. The heat was only made more intense by the humidity of the 1000s of miles of jungle and my decision to wear my thick Bogotano poncho. They’re made for a climate a lot colder than this one. Thankfully it was the evening, and it wouldn’t take too long to get to my hostel.

A local driver picked me up from the airport, threw my huge bag across the tank of his moto, and put me on the back. The skill of these drivers never ceases to amaze me as they hurl their bikes, loaded to the point of bottoming out the suspension, around roads that wouldn’t look out of place in war zones. None the less, we flew through the streets and chatted away about what it’s like to live in a city of three cultures.

River trip from tabatinga to manaus

The Leticia tax in the airport had drained what money I had left in my wallet, so we stopped off at an ATM before dropping me at my hostel. It was the only thing I had been able to book before leaving Bogota, and I honestly had no idea if I would be there for a night or a week. Nobody was able to tell me the frequency of the boats leaving the city. My plan was to leave the next day.

Logistics of leaving Leticia

I don’t like rushing, and I usually leave myself enough time in my plans for everything to have space either side. This being said, I find myself with seconds to spare almost always. This is due to factors outside of my control usually, like incorrect timetables, forces of Latin American nature, and the phenomenal tardiness of anyone who works in any kind of public service here. Leaving Leticia for Manhaus by boat was yet another prime example.

Leticia to Manaus by boat - Hardly Heart of Darkness

Check out

First off, I needed to check out of Colombia which could only be done at the airport I had left last night. The office opened at 8 am, and I was there at quarter past, ten minutes earlier than the police. I needed to fill in a form online, but of course, I had no data left, and there was no WiFi in the airport. Thankfully, for the equivalent of one single English pound, a giant Amazonian man did the whole form for me while munching his breakfast.

River trip from tabatinga to manaus


The Tuk-Tuk driver I commandeered for my trip to the airport waited for me during this process. As soon as I was legally out of Colombia, he cranked that little Tuk-Tuk, and we blasted off across the land border to the next police station on the Brazilian side. Here he waited for me again as I legally entered Brazil. The next stop was the port to buy some tickets and find out how long I would need to stay in Leticia. I wouldn’t have minded it being a little longer; I had given myself a week, and the boat from Tabatinga/Leticia to Manaus was only 4 days. Besides, my hostel had a huge pool and an outdoor gym.

Tickets to Manaus

The port was just around the corner from the police station. It was a simple concrete slope leading to the phenomenally huge Amazon River. A large car park-looking structure served as a ticket office, and with my driver in tow, I managed to buy a cargo boat ticket from Tabatinga to Manus.

River trip from tabatinga to manaus

I had no Brazilian currency yet, and they wouldn’t take Pesos. I took the 10% hit by paying by card and forked out £50 for the trip. Bear in mind that this boat includes three meals a day, a trip down one of the most magnificent rivers in the world from Leticia to Manaus, and accommodation. I feel like £50 is an obscenely low price to pay. I think it costs the same to make the Bristol to Bath journey on First Great Western.

However, the boat wasn’t leaving the next day or even the day after that, it was leaving in two hours, and they wanted me back on the dock in one. I had no hammock, no money, no snacks, and my luggage was across town in the hostel still. The endlessly patient driver explained that his shift was over, so I asked him to drop me by somewhere I could buy a hammock, and then his duties were fulfilled. Once again, he hand cranks the whip, and off we scream.

Jesus or something


Within minutes, I am deep in the bustle of an inner-city market, haggling a bed for the next half week or so. They were already dirt cheap, but I wanted something I would be comfortable in all day. My whole bundle of rope and hammock came to only about £12, even with my rushed bargaining. I had the first supply, and it was on to find some food.

Leticia to Manaus by boat - Hardly Heart of Darkness

The supermarket was shit, so I grabbed another TukTuk and explained that we were going on an adventure. This driver was about 14 years old and looked well up for the challenge. With a scream of tyres and 2-stroke engine, we shot off to my hostel to collect my things.

I packed everything back up from the night before and threw it all in the back of his TukTuk. I was going to have to trust that this gangly teen was trustworthy as I left every single one of my worldly possessions in his vehicle as I ran around various shops. He was, and like his colleague, was incredibly patient.

The first stop was a supermarket where I grabbed canned meat and fish, a few packets of crisps, chocolate bars, and other bites. As always, the cashier and payees moved at a glacial speed that would be seen as a killable offence in any European Lidl, which was slowly eroding the precious little time I had left.

Amazon River boat Leo Gillick

We visited three different banks to try and get a little cash out. The night before, I had been told that there was usually a little shop on board, but they would only take Brazilian reals. I was also informed that the portions of food were going to be small, so snacks were very necessary. I didn’t want to be stuck on a boat from Tabatinga to Manaus, hungry, sober, and miles from cash. However, the banks had other plans.

The first bank was offline. They had probably 15 machines, and not one had an internet connection; the next one had every single person in a 10-mile radius doing their monthly banking at the 3 machines of the wall of, again, 15 that were actually working. I have no idea what people do at ATMs in Latin America, but it takes hours.

Old cars colombia

The third one yielded no money, and by this point, I was close to an hour later than they told me to arrive for boarding the Leticia Manaus boat. As it turns out, I was using the machines wrong. In Brazil, unlike every other country I have been to, I was supposed to select Credit when given the option of Credit, Debit, or Savings. This is the opposite of any other country so far.

Boarding the boat from Leticia/Tabatinga to Manaus

For the second time that morning, I came careening around the corner on three wheels of pure menace and into the port. I had a hammock, a bag of goodies, a ticket, no money, and a sweat on that threatened to drown me where I stood if I didn’t keep moving. Once again, my plans for a leisurely departure were scuppered, but I was on time for the midday departure and had the essentials. The lack of money bothered me a little, but it needn’t, as I was to find out later.

Amazon River Leo Gillick

I placed my bag in the long line of luggage on the ground, which acted as an impromptu queue, and took a seat. I had spent about three hours in total in a TukTuk, completed a checklist I had given myself a day to complete, and had a blast. One thing I have learned to value in my select set of skills is my ability to keep a calm head, compartmentalize, and still have a hilarious time nonetheless. Stress and high demand get me going, and it’s rare that I don’t achieve what I need to and do it well.

After catching my breath and trying to exchange my Colombian Pesos with some folks but only being offered an absurd exchange, I gathered my thoughts and tried to slow down a little. I was ready, things were in motion, and it was time to board the boat from Leticia to Manaus. I tried to think what I had missed and came up dry.

Leticia to Manaus

However, in my rush, I had neglected to drop a few lines to my loved ones back home, letting them know it was go time. This was a mistake, but not a fatal one. It just caused them some unnecessary stress. Four days is a long time to be offline for someone like me.

I lugged my luggage down the slipway and towards my home for the next half week. It was a monstrous steel cargo ship with three levels. It smelled of fresh paint, and I could already feel the thrumming of the blue decks under my feet as I climbed to the top floor. Here, with only one other person, I strung up my hammock close to the front, away from the engine side, and hopefully in a little breeze.

From my perch, I could lie in my hammock and look out over the river or shore as it slipped past. Most people had taken a spot lower down. But myself, Mika, who would end up being my cruise buddy, and one or two others had decided that top deck was best. It applies to buses, boats, and not bunk beds.

Colombia to Brazil by boat

I wished it would never end

So now, my day had taken me from Leticia to Tabatinga, which is the Brazilian half of the same city, and on towards Manaus by this large cargo boat. I didn’t know what to expect, not only of the journey itself but also of my own mind. It isn’t often I am away from a vast array of distractions, and I didn’t know if the journey itself would drive me to insanity.

I had no internet, none of the usual things to occupy my busy mind, and no way out. It was just me, Mika, the river, and three hot meals a day. I was aware I may end up trying to stage a mutiny before the day was out, but I had nothing to worry about.

Colombia to Brazil by boat Leo Gillick

I have rarely felt so at peace and mentally reposeful as I did those four days, slowly slipping down one of the largest rivers in the world. My internal scream bubbled down to an almost silent mumble. I worried for nothing, and the usual cacophony of impatience and nervous energy stayed on the dock back in Tabatinga. I spent my day reading, watching the immense jungle slip past, and sharing stories with Mika. The lack of options was, it turns out, the tonic to my madness.

Colombia to Brazil by boat

The route from Leticia to Manaus took our boat from port to port as we picked up or dropped off cargo to towns and villages that were completely cut off from the rest of the world by the impenetrable wall of dense jungle. I hopped off at one to see the sights and was greeted by a town no bigger than a small English village. It consisted of a few small houses, a school, a few stores, and then an unimaginable distance of the most dense natural reserve on the earth. It boggled the mind, boggled I tell thee.

The people and the places

As we stopped at the small stops, the boat gradually filled until the lower deck was full of cargo, the middle deck packed with families, and the top deck full enough. Everyone from tiny nursing babies to old as fuck Amazonian folk were riding the boat, although Mika and I were the solo gringos.

The deck was full of languages, which at first I thought was because I simply didn’t understand Portuguese. This was certainly a part of it. However, after talking to a few people on board, in Spanish, I realised that actually the Amazons have an enormous amount of dialects. The two very Amazonian folks next to me spoke in a language I often misheard as English. Its intonations were so similar it was uncanny. She was a small and slender woman, and they were both incredibly dark-skinned. Every night, she would shower and do her hair before putting on one of a multitude of beautiful dresses for dinner. They ranged from lace to silk, and she looked magnificent every time. She wasn’t alone in this either, I noticed it was quite the occasion. I made sure to brush my hair and wear my least sweaty vests to keep up appearances.

Chatting to a few of the boozy folks in the bar at the back, I gleaned what the boat from Leticia or Tabtinga to Manaus was mainly used far, apart from cargo. The folks on the boat were often visiting family or friends in the city, but more often than not they were heading to a place of work.

Many of the men and women travelling along the river were making the 4 day journey to earn cash in Manaus and the surrounding towns. It was a case of spending four days to arrive to work and then almost six to head back upriver. It made sense when I looked at the geography of the towns we had come from and passed. It wasn’t like they could just hop on a bus or a car to the nearest town, the only means of transport, intercity or village, was the river, and four days is just how long it takes. Life moves slowly when it’s dictated by the ebb and flow of the largest river in the Americas. However, the people I talked to certainly didn’t mind, and if my commute was the small pocket of nirvana I was lucky enough to experience, I wouldn’t mind either. This was just life for them, and it seems pretty good to me.

Mika told me about their trip that had led them to walk across the vast expanse of Europe, starting in the south of France and covering close to 1000 km, trekking across Spain. Once this was finished, the Atlatic awaited, but not being the type to leave a carbon footprint, the obvious option was to become the crew of a sailing ship to cross to the Caribbean. From there, the journey took them down Latin America until our paths eventually crossed. The boat from Leticia to Manaus was the last leg of the journey, and I am pleased to have been a part of it and heard their mad tales.

The sheer will of people like Mika and the journeys they are able to complete are what keep me pushing myself to do more, for longer, with higher risk. However, walking across Europe would turn both my knees into talcum powder, and I would end up with a spine that looked like a prawn. Also, my carbon footprint is my reward for not having a child, which would be significantly more damaging to the planet.

I spent my evenings pleasantly stoned, popping to the little bar at the back of the boat. It turns out they took card, and this was everything to me. I was able to join the locals, all equally shirtless and hammered by 2, and shout broken Spanish/Portuguese to them over the typically blaring music. Then, as the evenings set in, Mika and I would eat our very generous and delicious dinners from Tupperware and watch the enormous skies explode with phenomenal sunsets that were only matched in beauty by the absolute blackness of Amazonian skies lit up by a tapestry of stars.

Leticia to Manaus by boat

As the sun finally slipped behind the jungle, the night would invariably light up with rolling storms that could be seen from hundreds of miles away. Sometimes they would hit the river, but more often than not, they would sit at a distance, with one fork seeming to feed off the last in an endless lightning show. The heat would become unbearably close as the storms crept over the Jungle towards the boat before exploding in a crash that would make Thor blush. As the torrential rain pounded the steel roof of the boat, the air would break, and the closeness would finally move a few inches away from our skin, just far enough to take a long breath in, and doze off, swinging gently in our hammocks, praising the peacefulness, and cursing that the trip from Leticia to Manaus was already another day closer to being over.

An easy routine

The sun would come up about 7 am and start to warm the air. I was thankful for my Poncho; it acted as a perfect blanket for when the wind would whip through the boat and chill my body. If I wasn’t awake by about 7:30, the first dinner bell of the day would usually get me out of bed. Honestly, my timing may be off. I don’t think I looked at a clock once the whole journey.

Leticia to Manaus by boat

Breakfast consisted of a bread roll, sometimes filled with delicious mysteries, sometimes just good to dip in coffee, and maybe some little extras like plantain. If it wasn’t enough, there was always enough for seconds. I simply had to go down to the buffet and make the ladies behind the bar smile for extra portions. Breakfast came with an incredibly sweet coffee and sometimes a juice that makes your teeth flinch.

The day is yours to do what you will. You can sit in the bar and watch the news, football, or whatever is on while getting blasted on ice-cold 50p beers, or sleep, watch the world go by, or enjoy a telenovela played on one of the other TVs until about 10 p.m. I usually took a shower before the cisterns, filled with river water, got too warm to be pleasant.

Leticia to Manaus by boat

Lunch rolled around, much in the same way as breakfast, and then finally, dinner, just before the sunset. Time in between was spent enjoying the slow boat from Tabatinga to Manaus. I managed to get through a book called Fingerprints of The Gods, which is all about the cycle of civilization. The book, very convincingly, argues that, in fact, there have been many, many civilizations before us, the last one existing just before the previous ice age in 15,000 BC. If you have the time, give it a go; it’s a banger.

The arrival in Manaus

Mika was actually supposed to get off the boat after only two nights but decided against it. They were supposed to get off in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain, in a town so remote you couldn’t even hear yourself shout. But, the boat was so pleasant, we decided that riding it out to the end was the best idea with the plan that they would jump on a boat back when we got there. They had a jungle lodge to get to.

Rio Negro meets The Amazon Leo Gillick

We rocked up into Manaus, riding over the joining of the golden brown of the Amazon River and into the black of the Rio Negro. I left Mika to find her boat back and tracked into the ugly, run-down, decrepitude of a typical port city, known very generously as the “Capital of The Amazon”. I had no SIM, a bag the weight of a small island, and I was sweating profusely, as always. I needed to find a cafe or bar with WiFi and figure out where the fuck I was going to stay to plan my trip to Salvador.

Manaus Leo Gillick

It took a while before I found a juice bar and dropped my shit while I sucked down a smoothie. The harsh contrast to the idyllic bliss I had been living in previous to this was jarring, to say the least. The city smelled like piss and had blown out eastern block buildings everywhere. It felt typically unsafe, as do most port towns around the world, and I was out of language to use. Spanish doesn’t go very far in a Portuguese country.

I found a hostel and made the hike, 15 minutes, to the relative safety of a bed and solid WiFi. The building was perfect and acted as exactly the base I needed to sort out my onward travel. Due to everything being really rather unplanned, I hadn’t been able to book flights, and I still hadn’t got accommodation. However, I had time to do it now, but first, I had a lot of messages to reply to.

Leticia to Manaus by boat

I didn’t realise being offline would trigger so many people’s apparently underlying fears about my mortality. At least 3 people had called and messaged telling me they had death dreams, and my loving mother had actually reached out to my last accommodation. This is all very new, but apparently, there is an evil omen over the Amazon, and a few people thought I was going to be eaten by a pink dolphin or something. I have rarely felt so loved, and I appreciate them all.

Mika had failed to get her boat to their destination, so after dropping me a message, we ended up in the same hostel, able to say a proper goodbye. Our goodbye on the dock had been far too brief, and I felt we needed to debrief over a land-based dinner, which we shared in the historic centre of a dying city.

I sorted a flight, got myself my next Airbnb arranged, and the trip, sadly, was over. For anyone planning to make the journey from Leticia or Tabatinga to Manaus in Brazil, this is the one, take a boat.

Get a load of this guy

In the hostel, I inevitably bumped into a few folks going the opposite way, upriver to Colombia. Their trip was a solid week-long journey, and one of them, Andrei, was filming it as well as keeping a more ‘How To’- style blog. This is really what mine should be if I wanted any kind of Google traffic from nervous Western travellers, and yet here I am, swearing my way off Google rankings.

Either way, you should take a look at his writing, and watch his video too. I feel like his experience was quite different to mine. He had a much nicer boat, plenty more gringos on board, and a lot longer journey. Check out his video here.

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