Brazil (Amazon)
Rio Solimões
The stretch of river upstream from Manaus, as far as the pivotal frontier with Peru and Colombia at Tabatinga, is known to Brazilians as the Rio Solimões. Once into Peru it again becomes the Rio Amazonas. Although many Brazilian maps show it as the Rio Marañón on the Peru side, Peruvians don’t call it this until the river forks into the Marañón and Ucayali headwaters, quite some distance beyond Iquitos.
From Manaus to Iquitos in Peru, the river remains navigable by large ocean-going boats, though few travel this way any more. Since the collapse of the rubber market and the emergence of air travel, the river is left to smaller, more locally oriented river-boats. Many travellers do come this way, however; and, although some complain about the food and many get upset stomachs (especially on the Peruvian leg), it can be a really pleasant way of moving around – lying in your hammock, reading and relaxing, or drinking at the bar. Against this, there are all the inherent dangers of travelling by boat on a large river, especially at night. Boats have been known to sink (though this is rare) but they do frequently break down, causing long delays, and many captains seem to take great pleasure in overloading boats with both cargo and passengers. In spite of the discomforts, however, the river journey remains popular; and it’s unarguably an experience that will stick in the memory.

The river journey is also, of course, by far the cheapest way of travelling between Brazil and Peru. There are reasonable facilities for visitors in the border town of Tabatinga and the adjacent Colombian town of Leticia. All boats have to stop at one of these ports, and most will terminate at the border whichever direction they’ve come from.

The boat trip from Manaus to Tabatinga – five to eight days upstream – costs around $65 inclusive of food (though bring some treats, as the fare on board, though good, does get a bit monotonous). The downstream journey, which is often very crowded, takes three to four days and costs upward of $45. If you want to break the journey, you can do so at Tefé, around halfway; but there’s no reason to stop here unless you really can’t face the boat any longer (there are several weekly flights from Tefé to Manaus and Tabatinga if you’re really fed up). Five large boats currently ply the river on a regular basis, all pretty similar and with good facilities (toilets with paper, showers, mineral water and enough food). Smaller boats also occasionally do the trip, but more often terminate at Tefé, from where other small boats continue. On the other side of the border, the boat trip to Iquitos from Tabatinga costs around $25–35 and takes three or four days; sometimes more, rarely less. Coming downstream from Iquitos to Tabatinga ($20) gives you one and a half days on the river. Again, it’s advisable to take your own food and water – all normal supplies can be bought in Tabatinga. There are also more popular super-fast sixteen-seater powerboats connecting Tabatinga and Leticia with Iquitos. They cost upwards of $50 and take roughly ten to twelve hours. Small planes also connect Iquitos with Santa Rosa, an insignificant Peruvian border settlement just a short boat ride over the river from Tabatinga and Leticia; there is at least one flight a week operated by the Peruvian airline TANS.

Three-way frontier

The point where Brazil meets Peru and Colombia is known as the three-way frontier, and it’s somewhere you may end up staying for a few days sorting out red tape or waiting for a boat. Some Brazilian boats will leave you at Benjamin Constant, across the river from Tabatinga, but, if you do have to hang around, then Tabatinga, or the neighbouring Colombian town of Leticia, are the only places with any real facilities. 

A fleet of motorboat taxis connect these places, and Islandia and Santa Rosa in Peru: Benjamin Constant to Tabatinga takes half an hour and costs around $2.50; Tabatinga to Islandia or Santa Rosa takes fifteen minutes and costs $1.50. When you’re making plans, bear in mind that the three countries have differing time zones: make sure you know which you are operating on (Tabatinga is an hour behind Manaus).

For many centuries this region has been home to the Tikuna Indians, once large in numbers, but today down to a population of around 10,000. Their excellent handicrafts – mainly string bags and hammocks – can be bought in Leticia.