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Getaways: Cruising the Amazon
“Look, the dolphins are following us!” yells one passenger onboard the Amazon Clipper Premium, as we sail down Brazil’s Rio Negro back to the port city of Manaus. Diving in and out of the water, Pink River dolphins play their version of hide and seek. Are these the same dolphins we petted at the riverside feeding station a few miles back? Some people stood on a platform, half-submerged in water, holding a fish above their heads to encourage the dolphins to leap for their snacks. Now, a few passengers jump in to swim with the mammals.
Encountering these rare river dolphins with grey backs and bellies the color of pink bubblegum is one of the many unexpected delights of an Amazon cruise. The Amazon Clipper Premium, a four-deck riverboat containing 16 private outside cabins, each with a shower-equipped bathroom, is an ideal size. Nobody gets lost in the crowd, and the passengers—who include Germans, Italians, Austrians, Swedes, Brazilians, Canadians and an Australian—have plenty of opportunities to quiz the guides about individual interests.
We are cruising on the Amazon’s largest tributary, the slow-flowing Rio Negro with its deep black hue mirroring the trees and vines draping the banks. Interspersed along the shore are deserted sandy beaches and the occasional wooden house. Fishermen in canoes and students going to school on motorized boats sail past. The throbbing of electric motors produces the loudest sounds on the river.
Each day, we embark on small, outboard-powered boats capable of holding 16 people. We navigate tributaries deep in the jungle, inching through swamp forests so dense that only slivers of sun penetrate the green canopy. Orange-beaked toucans chatter overhead, their calls resounding up to half a mile away.
Branches clog some passageways, forcing the boats to stop. Machete in hand, our native Indian driver, Roberto DaSilvo, edges forward, his toes clinging to the narrow sides of our boat. DaSilvo clears the channel, hacking off branches and slashing vines drooping overhead.
A cane toad squats undisturbed, its brownish skin blending with the branch it occupies. The toad looks harmless but we’re advised not to touch it. Native Indians use its venom in their poisonous arrow tips.
Jaguars, sloth and giant anteaters also stalk the woods but these animals generally stay clear of humans. The Amazon is home to the world’s largest variety of monkeys but only after disembarking do we see one. A tiny capuchin monkey, its wizened face ringed with cream-colored hair, hops from branch to branch, following us as we walk along the boardwalk to ponds filled with lily pads. Pink and purple flowers bloom from the giant Victoria Regia water lilies—some up to seven feet wide—which are named after England’s Queen Victoria. The world’s largest water lilies inhabit just a portion of the 9,000-acre January Ecological Park.
At night, the pitch-black sky shimmers with stars. Before an evening boat ride, Christoph Brisquet, our German-born guide, advises everyone not to wear white clothing, the color of some local flowers. The bats that come out at night might try to pollinate us.
Brisquet shines his flashlight on the still forest. The trees’ ghostly reflections on the calm, glass-like water create what seems like a perfect backdrop for a horror movie. Augmenting the effect is a boa constrictor curled around a tree trunk. The snake is nearly invisible; its grey- and white-mottled skin tones merge with the color of the bark. Holding a tree branch, DaSilvo lifts the snake to give us a close-up view. More than 700 species of reptiles inhabit the region; 38 are poisonous.
A clang, sounding like swords clashing against each other, breaks the silence. Another clang follows, then another. The jarring noise comes from a Bare-throated Bellbird. A Black Hawk-Eagle soars overhead. Vultures eye us from treetops. Macaws and cranes perch overhead. The Amazon is home to one-third of the world’s bird species. Fireflies flittering on the shore illuminate the trees like Christmas lights.
Black and brown nests big enough to hold a baseball hang from some trees. A weaver bird, its yellow-streaked tail gleaming against black plumage, watches overhead. Butterflies, salamanders and frogs cluster around blue, red and orange bromeliads, dots of color under trees growing up to 200 feet tall.
One morning, we take a short boat ride to the edge of the rainforest and disembark for a two-hour walk, our introduction to the region’s rich storehouse of medicinal plants, including the chickle tree, which is valued for its gum, and the cinchona tree, a source for quinine. Aboriginals use one type of nutmeg tree to make blowguns.
One Indian guide catches a baby caiman. He holds the two-foot-long relative of an alligator in his hands. The black caiman, the biggest predator in the Amazon River, reaches a length of 15 feet and can weigh more than a ton.
Also cruising these waters are manatees, electric eels and pirarucu, the world’s largest freshwater fish. The chance to catch these fish, which can weigh up to 485 pounds and reach 10 feet long, lures many to the Amazon. But we go fishing for piranha, local style. Attaching a piece of meat onto a hook, I toss the line into the water, then jiggle the small bamboo handle. A few fish nibble on my line but I catch nothing. Two passengers pull in several small grey and yellow fish whose razor-like triangular teeth line powerful jaws. DaSilvo holds open the mouth of one six-inch piranha and uses it to saw a small branch off a tree.
Amazon Clipper excursions include a visit to a native community, which turns out to be DaSilvo’s family compound. The collection of small wood houses atop stilts overlooks a sandy beach. Cloth covers some of the cutout windows and doors. One building is a craft shop, selling child-size bows and arrows along with bracelets and necklaces made from local wood and seeds.
DaSilvo’s mother’s medicinal garden acts as a pharmacy for minor ailments of her 15 children and more than 30 grandchildren. Pineapple plants along with mango, cocoa and sweet olive trees supply some food. Manioc, also known as cassava, is a staple. Using a homemade grater, the family grinds the root vegetable before cooking it in the huge pot situated in the middle of the yard. Boiling ground manioc for seven hours eliminates its toxic cyanide acid. The leftover starch is processed into flour, the basis of manioc pancakes, a popular breakfast food. The bland pancake is an acquired taste. A byproduct of the processing is Tucupi, a popular hot sauce served in many Amazon restaurants.
At night, the boat stops moving. Everything is still. Only bird calls and sounds from nocturnal animals roaming the jungle disturb the silence. On route to the mooring in Manaus, the boat detours to the “Meeting of the Waters,” the visible junction where the black Rio Negro encounters the beige, silt-filled Solimoes River. Differences in velocity, temperature and salinity account for the two rivers maintaining their distinctive colors for about 25 miles before merging as the Amazon River and flowing 1,000 miles down to the Atlantic.
Amazon Clipper boats also sail along the Solimoes River. A Swedish couple who cruised both said, “We preferred the Rio Negro cruise because there were no mosquitoes.” The river’s high acid content deters them. The Rio Negro is also more peaceful. The Solimoes, flowing down from Peru, carries more traffic.
The first European to travel up the Amazon, Francisco de Orellana, came in 1542 searching for gold. The region remains such a rich source of gold that illegal mining is devastating isolated areas within the Amazon Basin.
Our boat docks on the outskirts of Manaus, at a beach by the Hotel Tropical. Since the boat’s cabins have little space for luggage, many passengers leave their bags at the hotel. Storage is free for hotel guests.
Manaus is the Amazon Basin’s largest city. Once the prosperous rubber capital of the world (until a Brit smuggled seeds of the rubber tree out of Brazil to replant in Malaysia), the city reflects its boom-and-bust past. Now, a major electronics-manufacturing center, it has a downtown that combines the seediness of a tropical frontier city with remnants of its Belle Époque glory.
Enrico Caruso sang in the most resplendent example of the city’s past affluence, the pink-marble Teatro Amazonas. Built in 1896, the opera house boasts a luxurious interior that replicates its European counterparts with Venetian Murano glass chandeliers, soundproofed wood floors from Lithuania and Louis Quinze-style furnishings.
The theater is home to the Amazonas Philharmonic, an orchestra with musicians mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe. Their annual Amazonas Opera Festival brings many music lovers here each year. English-speaking guides lead daily tours, which offer the only way for non-concertgoers to see the theater’s ballroom and small costume museums. The theater sits on St. Sebastian Square, opposite St. Sebastian church. Its gloomy grey exterior belies an opulent interior. Across the square is Galeria Amazonia, the city’s best gallery/store for authentic Amazon baskets, pottery and masks.
The market building, an easy walk down the hill and along the waterfront, also sells local crafts amid the exotic fruit and traditional medicine. Opened in 1882, the sprawling cast-iron and glass building was patterned after Paris’s old Les Halles market.
Palacio Rio Negro is one of the few rubber-baron mansions left. Built by a German, the elegant house served as the governor’s residence until its conversion into a cultural center.
The Museum of Man in the northeast looks at the people in this region, focusing on the mixed descendants of the Indians and Portuguese. An eye piercer is one of the weapons on display. The Indian museum gives a more in-depth look at aboriginal culture, including its funeral rituals and spiritual traditions.
A zoo hidden in the muddy backyard of the Tropical Hotel displays a scruffy looking sloth and other animals. The Brazilian military runs the city’s other zoo. Inside its jungle warfare and training center are jaguars, toucans and monkeys, animals picked up mainly on patrol.
You can easily tour Manaus in two days but to discover much of the Amazon’s unparalleled biodiversity requires spending time on its waters and in its jungles. Numerous lodges lie within a three-hour boat ride of Manaus. Although differing in size and comfort level, all of them have English-speaking guides to introduce you to the rivers and precious rainforest.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: The Amazon, the world’s second-largest river, is by far the largest in terms of waterflow. It passes through the world’s biggest rainforest and is home to one-third of all plant and animal species. Manaus, the Amazon Basin’s largest city, has 1.5 million residents.
Brazil’s estimated 400,000 aboriginals belong to some 245 tribes and, among them, speak 170 languages. Experts estimate that 49 tribes in the Amazon rainforest have never had any contact with the outside world.
CLIMATE: Hot and humid year-round, Manaus has an average temperature of 80 degrees F. From June through November, temperatures can rise to 104. From December to May, the rainy season, water levels rise to 65 feet.
CRUISES: The Amazon Clipper Premium’s shallow draught enables access to locations inaccessible to bigger boats (amazonclipper.com.br), but if luxury is a priority, you can opt for the larger Iberostar Grand Amazon, which has 72 cabins, each with TV, telephone and balcony (grandamazoncruises.com). Another possibility is the 12-passenger Zenith Yacht (charterworld.com), which you can book directly or through Rainforest Cruises (rainforestcruises.com). Prices on the various lines range from about $330 to $1,400 per person per day. The best time to go is December through April.
FLYING IN: Eduardo Gomes International, 10 miles north of Manaus, has an 8,858-foot runway and parking space for 18 airplanes.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMMODATIONS (B): Activities keep Amazon Clipper Premium passengers too busy to spend much time in their cabins, which are simply furnished with two single beds, a washroom and limited storage. In their free time, guests are usually sightseeing from the covered deck or sun deck. An air-conditioned library with books about the Amazon doubles as a lecture room for info sessions on the region.
Amenities and services at lodges in the Amazon vary considerably. You can contact the lodges yourself or go through an agency such as Amazing Tours in Manaus. Lodges are fine if you want to relax but with a cruise, you’ll see more of the Amazon and do a lot more.
Luxury hotels haven’t arrived in Manaus yet. Base your choice on location. Close to Amazon Clipper Cruises’ dock is Tropical Manaus. Rooms in this sprawling old wood hotel vary greatly. At minimum, book a superior room. Park Suites Manaus lies just down the road from Tropical Manaus. The same chain operates the downtown Go Inn Manaus, a block from the Opera House, which has compact rooms.
DINING (B): Windows line the Amazon Clipper Premium’s air-conditioned dining room, where meals feature beef ribs, pasta and pirarucu. The small bar offers a limited selection of liquor, wine and beer as well as the national drink, caipirinha, made with rum.
Downtown Manaus has limited restaurant choices. Fiorentina serves traditional Italian food and offers a lunchtime buffet. Ask for a window table on the second floor, which overlooks a quiet park. During Pope John Paul II’s 1981 visit, he dined at Canto da Peixada, a fish restaurant that’s a short taxi ride from downtown.
ACTIVITIES (A+): In 2014, Manaus will host four FIFA World Cup games in its new stadium. Most other activities center on the water. Popular tours include boat trips to the Meeting of the Waters, the giant lily pads and other nearby sites, fishing and overnight cruises. Manaus is also the departure point for float plane tours and numerous lodges in the rainforest.
Mary Ann Simpkins welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.