Life on board a Barge (Balsa).

This page is intended to provide useful information about the mechanics of traveling with a vehicle on a barge (balsa) in the Amazon (as well as show what a good time we had). The information should apply to trips between Porto Velho, Manaus and Belem.

The barges are large flat-bottomed metal platforms capable of taking five or six lanes of trucks with four or five 40-tonne trucks in each lane. About half the space on our barge was occupied by trailer units without their tractor units or drivers.

Normally only one driver for each vehicle is allowed to travel on the barge.

It is probable that you will only be able to access one side of your vehicle when on the barge. Before loading, it is a good idea to transfer all vital stores and equipment (for example tables and chairs) from external lockers to the inside of the van. As soon as your vehicle is loaded, open your access doors and/or steps and stand by them to make sure that the next line of vehicles do not prevent you from getting in!

One, two or occasionally three barges are pushed by a single tug. The tug has cooking facilities, toilets and showers (all using river water).

When water levels are high the barge will probably travel all day and night. Speeds range from about 8 to 12kph. When water levels are low the barge will stop at sunset and start again at sunrise.

Overnight stops (if any) will simply involve tying up at a tree. It will not be possible to leave the barge, and even if you could there will be no where to go.

When traveling at night, no lights (that can be seen by the tug) are permitted.

It is not unusual for barges to get stuck on sandbanks when the water level is low (we have been stuck once). Near Belem where the river is tidal, it is not unknown for waves to break over the deck, and very occasionally barges and tugs become separated. There are no life jackets or life boats on board our barge. There is a real risk of falling over the edge as there are cables stretched across the deck, and there are no rails or lights.

Our barge serves two meals a day one at about 10:30 the other at 16:30. Meals consist of "meat, beans and rice" or alternatively "beans, rice and meat" with occasional "rice, meat and beans" for special occasions. It is probably best to assume that you will have to provide all your own food and water. Note that trips may take twice as long as advertised. All organic waste is simply thrown overboard and it is acceptable to empty you toilet over the side (preferably not upstream of somebody else collecting washing/drinking water).

No electricity is available on the barges, but some trucks run very long extension cables back to the tug where 110 volts at one or two amps might be available by negotiation for part of the day. The use of generators and/or running your engine for several hours a day is quite acceptable. (Indeed with the noise and fumes from all the refrigeration units, it is often hard to tell if your own engine is running.)

Although temperatures and humidity are high (38° Celsius, 90% relative humidity at the moment) it is often overcast and solar panels may not provide as much electricity as expected.

When travelling in the middle of the river, insects are not usually a problem. However, when stopped by the bank for the night, they can be a major problem. Whilst mosquito screens help, they also result in considerably reduced air flow.

A good fan (or better two) mounted above the bed is almost essential! [Good fans use very little current (less than 0.2 amps at 12 volts) and make little noise. The one illustrated (a Hella Turbo - Two Speed) is available in black or white, 12 and 24 volts and costs about $100USA. Mine has survived several long trips in use most nights.]

Your fellow travellers will be about 20 truck drivers and 5 or 6 crew plus a cook. Unless you are extremely lucky as we were, the only language spoken on board will be Portuguese.

Because we were lucky enough to meet up with Hugo (who speaks excellent English as well as Portuguese) before we boarded our barge, we were able to "bond" with a great group of truckers (the Amazon Pirates, above) who were extremely kind and helpful. However without this sort of introduction, unless you speak good Portuguese, a seven day trip with no one to talk to might not be much fun.

Other than when passing the few major towns, there will be no usable cell phone signal. (Even when a cell phone mast is visible, it may be an analogue system rather than GSM.)

Most of the time is spent reading, shore-gazing, playing Scrabble, "computating" and preparing meals (in our case sometimes jointly with the "Amazon Pirates").

Occasionally small boats pull along side the barge to sell fruit or fish, but don't count on it.

Several of the truck drivers spent some of their time fishing. Indeed one of our most enjoyable meals was the result of a joint effort, with the catch being skinned, gutted and cooked by Sergio whilst the PanAm group supplied vegetables, rice and desert.

Mick and Mo's thirty seventh wedding anniversary was celebrated in style with the Amazon Pirates creating their own anniversary "card" as soon as they realized what what happening.

Stop Press (2006-09-17): We are now parked up in Manaus at the Estacionamento Manaus Moderna (a very large car park (about 1 Km from the town centre) near the "docks" at S03.140917 W60.018858). The car park has water and toilets and is intended for people using the docks, however the guard has allowed us to park (and fill up with water) for about $3USA per van.

We had to spend our first night ashore within the ferry terminal compound because, at the time we arrived, there was no means for us to pay. During this time the "girls" had to remain hidden in the (very hot) vans.

We had expected to pay for our trip in Porto Velho but were told we could only pay at the end in Manaus, where we were assured we could pay by credit card. The estimate we were given in Porto Velho was R$2176 ($1007USA) per vehicle plus R$140 ($65USA) Tax and 0.1% of the vehicle's value as compulsory insurance.

On arrival in Manaus we were told we could not pay by credit card but that US dollars cash were acceptable. The first price we were asked to pay was R$1947 plus tax. This was reduced to R$1295 plus tax after Clive's insistence on negotiating, on the basis that all three vans were the same length as on big truck and these (we think) only pay R$4000.

We would like to thank the Colombian/Swiss man (who was waiting to collect his car on a ferry from Belem and spoke excellent English and Portuguese) who actually conducted the negotiations on our behalf.

Stephen Stewart.

Home - This page last changed on 2006-09-17.