Slow boat to the World Cup: four days down the Amazon, dolphins (sometimes) included

The setting sun rips a neon-orange hole in the purple clouds and then shatters on the dark waters of the Amazon River. Few on the Sagrado Coração de Jesus — a lumbering passenger and cargo ship hundreds of miles from the nearest town — seem to notice the spectacle. There’s a competing show on a cloudy television set: the World Cup.

As more than 600,000 tourists flow into Brazil for soccer’s greatest tournament, the world’s largest river has become the gateway for the broke, the adventurous and those who have always dreamed of seeing a tropical rain forest.

Tobin Raju, a 26-year-old law student from Los Angeles, had a ticket to watch the Honduras-Switzerland match in Manaus, the isolated capital of Amazon state more than 860 miles upriver from the Atlantic.

As he studied maps and checked airline prices, he discovered the cheapest and most interesting way to get there was a 687-mile trip downriver from Tabatinga, on the southernmost border of Colombia. For about $100, large vessels that carry everything from bricks to refrigerators also haul passengers packed elbow to elbow in swaying hammocks. The trip takes four days — the hammocks aren’t included.

“If I lay out straight I feel like my knees are going to buckle,” Raju said after his second night of swinging from the rafters. “But if I lie diagonally and then curl up in the fetal position — that’s my technique.”

Like most of the boats that ply this river, the Sagrado Coração de Jesus Sacred Heart of Jesus is no pleasure cruise. The 177-foot, three-deck vessel can carry 200 to 300 passengers. The lucky ones cram onto the second deck, where there’s a breeze; the less-fortunate have to sling their hammocks in the cargo hold, where the roar of generators and engines makes it feel like you’re in the belly of a growling beast.

The day’s entertainment consists of three meals, served at sailors’ hours starting at 5:30 a.m. There’s also a satellite television tuned to World Cup games as long as a volunteer keeps the antenna pointed in the right direction.

On the banks of the river, the scene is often jungle idyll: pink dolphins leap in front of wooden shacks, and mist rises from the endless forest. Inside the boat, however, it’s more like a riotous gypsy caravan: multicolor hammocks dangle from ropes, families change crying babies, and the rafters ripple with drying clothes and towels. People come and go at all hours as the ship takes on cargo and travelers at villages along the way.

In a world where a three-by-six-foot hammock defines your personal space, competition can get fierce.

During one stop, as new passengers looked for room to settle in, a territorial old-timer ordered everyone around him back to their hammocks.

“We have to defend our neighborhood,” he said.

Liliana Calderon and Alexandra Martinez, two sisters and schoolteachers from Colombia who scored tickets to a World Cup game in Manaus, said they stepped away from their hammock for several minutes only to find people had moved in directly beside and below them. On Monday, as they lay in a single hammock, they debated how they might get out without stepping on their neighbors.

Despite the cramped conditions, they said they were enjoying the adventure.

“Everybody has been on a bus or airplane, but how many people get to travel on a boat and down the Amazon?” asked Martinez.

“Of course our mother is still reciting the rosary,” added Calderon. “But not just for us, for everyone on the ship.”

Ever since Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana became the first European to travel the length of the river in the 1500s, the Amazon has fired the imagination.

Explorers, adventurers and the foolhardy have been drawn to its banks and have vanished into its maw. Perhaps most famously, British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared in the 1920s while looking for the lost city of “Z” along one of the Amazon’s southern tributaries.

On this trip, the gravest danger was the monotony. As passengers lay listlessly in their hammocks, any distraction was welcome. Tourists tortured their neighbors with Portuguese; merchants and government employees, who consider the ride part of their monthly commute, played peekaboo with babies several hammocks over.

World Cup games, in particular, became all-hands-on-deck affairs. The captain would don his Brazilian jersey, the cooks would try to time meals — which usually consisted of spaghetti, rice, some form of meat, and cafezinho, or coffee so sweet it’s like drinking a candy bar — around kickoff.

Brazil hasn’t hosted a World Cup since 1950, and the last time the event was held in the hemisphere was in the United States in 1994. Many travelers from the region see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Miguel Angel Ubillus, a 30-year-old ATM repairman from Lima, Peru, said he made up his mind in 2009 to attend this year’s Cup.

“I’ve always had the dream of seeing a World Cup, and now that it was so close to my country I thought ‘It’s now or never,’ ” he said.

Since he made the decision, however, he has gotten married and had a baby. Both his wife and child were — reluctantly, it seems — press-ganged into his World Cup dream.

Peru isn’t playing in this World Cup, and Ubillus said he has no connection to the teams he’s going to watch in Manaus: Switzerland and Honduras. Asked why he was going to see the game, he pointed to his son, Benjamin, who was chewing on a replica of a World Cup trophy.

“The game is on the same day as my son’s first birthday,” he said.

In a sense, these travelers are the end of a sporting era. Most were on their way to the fourth and final World Cup game to be held at Manaus’ 40,000-capacity Arena de Amazônia.

The fate of the far-flung stadium once the crowds are gone is a matter of national debate. Raju said he felt lucky to get tickets to the remote venue.

“When else are you ever going to get the chance to sail down the Amazon River?” he asked. “The forest right there provides the most amount of oxygen for the entire world — it’s crazy when you think about it.”