Cruise The Amazon
by: Bob Braban - Editor - Travelwatchdog.com
Many people of the Amazon region live in tiny houses made of wooden planks, often devoid of doors and windows. They have no electricity and they are often sited on the banks of a river that can rise and fall more than 10 metres, depending upon the season, with a concentration of mosquitoes and other insects that would drive most people to distraction. However, these Brazilian river-dwellers will tell you that they are the lucky ones and that they feel sorry for the small number of travellers that pass by each year. Maybe they are right!
They live on the banks and islands of the Amazon, one of the great natural wonders of the world. At 4007 miles in length, it is second only to the Nile in length. A hundred km wide at the mouth, it is home to more than 16% of all the world's fresh water and its outflow affects and discolours the Atlantic Ocean more than 200 miles out. The river and its vast tracts of rainforest, much of which remains unexplored, provide a home for species of fish and wildlife that are not found elsewhere in the world, and are still the habitat for tribes unaffected by the proximity of the developed world.
The deepest reaches of the Amazon are inaccessible to all but the fittest and most intrepid travellers, but the 900 miles from the mouth to Manaus, together with the en-route towns and villages, are within the reach of all via the 16 or so cruise ships that make the journey each year.
Sailing from Bridgetown, Barbados, the first stop for most cruise ships will be Isle de Salut, a few miles off the coast of French Guyana and better known as the site of the infamous French penal colony of Devil's Island, Today, the islands provide an interesting insight into the experiences of Papillion and Captain Dreyfus, among the most famous of the many convicts who served their sentences here. Ruins of the prison remain, but the majority population is now Squirrel monkeys who assemble to greet tourists in the hope of a banana. This is perhaps the most remote location where the Euro is the local currency.
The mouth of the Amazon gives no real impression of its vast width. The fast flowing water, thick with sediment and strewn with giant logs and other debris, is broken up by hundreds of islands that dominate the view on the journey to the first port of call at Santarem, a city of some 300,000 inhabitants at the confluence of the Amazon and one of the Amazon's 1100 tributaries, the Rio Tapajos. Santarem offers first contact with the people of the Amazon region and the impression is immediately of friendly curiosity. Accessible from Santarem are trips up some of the tributaries on river boats and canoes, with access to a wide variety of wildlife, much of it exhibited from canoes by local children. Cruise companies organise these trips, but one can often secure better value for money by making a private arrangement with organisations such as that run by veteran Amazon guide Gil Serique ( http://www.youramazon.org ).
Some 20 miles from Santarem is Bel Terra, a small town built by Henry Ford in the contemporary US style, in the late 1930s, to provide some 700,000 acres of rubber plantations to support the US car industry. Despite investing more than US$20 million, the plantation was never a success and was eventually sold to the Brazilian government in 1945 for just US$250,000.
Second port of call is Parintins where there is an early morning greeting from dancers at the quayside. They offer a taster to the stunning show, staged later in the day at the small covered theatre in the centre of this very small town. Do not miss this show, staged by a very large cast of spectacularly colourful dancers who provide a breathtaking hour of non-stop entertainment to the rhythm of the Samba, the audience being simultaneously lubricated by ample quantities of a local spirit. For many, this is the entertainment highlight of the trip, but book early as tickets are limited and even Olympic athletes would not have the energy to do two shows back to back!
Manaus, the capital of the region is something of an enigma, a comparatively modern city, with a population exceeding a million people, in a remote rainforest region. A small port teeming with river boats greets arriving visitors, many of these boats ready for journeys of several days to other parts of the region and already festooned with hammocks strung by travellers in preparation for their nights on the river. Here the journeys are measured not in miles or kilometres, but in days.
The splendid Opera house in Manaus, completed in 1896, is a monument to European settlers and boasted such performers as Caruso and Pavlova, but with the collapse of the rubber trade it closed in 1912 and was not re-opened until 1990. Today, its original splendour has been restored and it once again hosts stars from around the world. Visitor are welcomed and for a small fee it is possible to look around the building and watch the company rehearsing.
Of great interest at Manaus is INPA (National Institute of Amazon Research).
Cruise companies tend to arrange short combined visits to the Opera House and INPA, giving a reasonable time at neither. For half the cost of the pre-arranged tour, one can grab a taxi and take a leisurely tour of both. INPA offers an opportunity to see much of the Amazon wild life from Manatee to Sloth, within a well-planned area. One pleasure was that we were assigned Gabrielle, a volunteer guide of about 12 years, to show our small party around the area. Her only language was Portuguese, but it was nice to see local kids being given the opportunity to participate in the tourist industry without being exploited, and free from the 'finger of PC being pointed by some social do-gooder'! Gabrielle was proud of her park and her part in promoting it.
A 'must' at Manaus is a visit the meeting of the waters where the mighty Rio Negro meets the Amazon. The colour of the Rio Negro waters appears as a distinct black, while the Amazon retains its light brown colouring. Due to their different temperatures and other characteristics, the two flow side by side, without mixing, for many miles. Green Dolphins can often be seen cavorting in these waters, but the photographer who gets a picture is very quick indeed. One can combine this experience with a jungle trek, the guides for which are normally former Brazilian Army Jungle survival experts. The treks are well planned to give a good overview of the rainforest, but there are few wild animals to be seen as they are well aware of the areas in which the treks take place and keep well away! To see the wildlife, make certain you take the trip to INPA.
Heading back down the river, many ships stop at the resort of Alter do Chao, some 40km from Santarem. Located near the mouth of the Rio Tapajos, this small beach resort has white sandy beaches and palm trees resembling a desert island. There is a small local market and the opportunity to spend the day swimming in the clear waters of the river.
A further days sailing brings travellers to Boca de Valeria, at an entrance to the Valeria River. The small village of Cabocio springs to life as the cruise ships anchor in the river mouth and are met by a flotilla of small canoes, many of them manned by very young children who seem as adept as their parents in dodging the huge logs in the fast flowing Amazon. Cabocio is a hamlet with just a few houses, and a school supported largely by donations, many of them from cruise-ship passengers. With just 16 cruise-ship visits each year, each visit represents a welcome pay-day for the inhabitants of this and neighbouring villages, many people paddling their small canoes for several hours to get in on the act. Children dress in their native costumes and parade a variety of locally produced wares for sale, many displaying local wild-life in the hope of attracting a few dollars. It could be claimed that this is exploitation, but for the people of the area this is a carnival, a chance to meet outsiders and to earn some much needed money. It may be sad that they are not still simple native tribes living undisturbed in the rainforest, but that time has passed and they are adapting to life as it is now. They are delightful friendly people and meeting them is an experience to be treasured.
Leaving the Amazon for the two-day journey back to Barbados brings a moment of anti-climax. This is a tremendous trip and one that almost everyone would like to extend. There are always a few moaners, like those who found it unacceptable that it rained a lot; they didn't stop to think how the rain forest got there! If you want to see something of the Amazon and you are not the type to paddle a thousand miles in a canoe, a cruise is the way to do it.
For those who do take this trip, think carefully about whether to take the ship's planned excursions. Apart from the not to be missed show at Parintins, you can probably get better value for money and a more individual experience by planning your own trips, especially if you can make up a party of four.
Naturally, you cannot go to this type of environment without experiencing insects etc. However, Mosquitoes are not the problem some would imagine. On the cruise ship they are seldom seen and on land they are easily deterred by a good insect repellent such as that containing Deet. (available from Boots).
We travelled on Fred Olsen's Braemar, a ship and line we would thoroughly recommend as offering good value for money and a very high standard of service. For those sceptics who think this recommendation arises out of consideration given to the author by Fred Olsen, be assured that this is not the case. It has been said that Fred Olsen would not give his Granny a discount on her funeral!