Fans bring new meaning to 'budget travel' in bid to get to World Cup

Determined but impecunious enthusiasts have braved lawless borders, overcrowded minibuses, and perilous river crossings to keep costs down en route to Manaus, Brazil. 

Themba Hadebe/AP
A US fan arrives for the group G World Cup soccer match between the USA and Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014.

Crammed into the backseat of an un-airconditioned minibus that lurched along the potholed dirt road from Guyana to Brazil, Henry Matthews started to wonder if he should have simply paid an extra couple hundred dollars for a direct flight to watch the World Cup.

His bare knees were sandwiched between the legs of a Guyanese man. Their sweat mingled. 

“You’d fall asleep for what felt like hours, then look at your watch and see only 20 minutes had passed,” Mr. Matthews, a student at the University of Virginia, says of his journey. In the end it took him about 40 hours (compared to five hours on a direct flight from Miami) and saved him about $800.

Matthews’s voyage on an 11-seat minibus crowded with 15 adults, a baby, and a cat, featured two flat tires, two river crossings atop a rickety barge, and two tests of physical might pulling the minibus, tug-of-war-style, out of the mud.

Mathews isn't alone. Having already shelled out a lot for World Cup tickets, which range from $90 to $990 for non-locals, and lodging, many foreigners are getting creative in their travel itineraries. Treks to Manaus, 900 miles up the Amazon River in the isolated northwestern state of Amazonas, may feature some of the most impressive feats of fan travel. 

The city, which hosts its fourth and final match today between Honduras and Switzerland, is primarily accessible by boat and plane. Locals consider the rivers their roads, and boats regularly motor down to the Atlantic Coast and upriver into Peru or Colombia.

Frugal travelers are finding they can get cheaper flights into neighboring nations and then travel by land into Brazil. That’s why British traveler David Slimmon combined the World Cup with a jaunt across South America. He opted to take a bus through Peru to the border city of Puerto Maldonado, where he caught another 12-hour bus to the Brazilian city of Rio Branco. From there he took a domestic flight to Manaus – all to save a couple hundred dollars on airfare.

An American on Slimmon's second bus was attempting to travel clear across the continent from Peru to the Atlantic city of Natal for last week's USA-Ghana match.

Yet even after cutting down on travel costs, Slimmon says high hotel prices would limit his time in Brazil. TripAdvisor reports that travelers to the jungle city of Manaus should expect to spend an average of $554 per day on food, match tickets, and lodging. Slimmon and his travelmate Philip Taffley of Manchester, England, decided to see only one game in Manaus before leaving for Colombia – even though they'd won tickets to all three England matches. 

“It’s too expensive to stay,” says Mr. Taffley. “I’ll just have to watch the World Cup on television in Colombia and Ecuador.”

Matthews, meanwhile, chose to travel through Guyana so he would have the funds to stay in Brazil for about three weeks. Rather than pay $1,600 for an international flight to Manaus, he drove from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, to Miami, Fla., where he caught a $500 flight to Guyana. 

“Our families were so mad at us for doing this, telling us that we’d die," he says.

From the tiny capital of Georgetown, Matthews and two buddies stitched together buses and taxis to cover the nearly 900 miles south across the former English colony’s lawless and porous border region, and through sparsely populated northern Brazil to Manaus, where they arrived in the early morning to find their hotel overbooked – another story altogether, he says, shaking his head. No matter, he says: after a 10-day journey, he’d made it to Manaus in time to see USA face off against Portugal – well-worth the penny-pinching adventure.

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