You have them, bucket list travel destinations that appeal for their mysterious exoticism but you know little about them. You’d go if the stars aligned. For me, one of these has long been the Amazon River. Movies, books, ecology, geopolitics, cannibals and other deep dark history have all exacerbated this yen. Little else in Brazil really appealed as mega city woes and recent protests have made them potentially unsafe or unpleasant and the beach scene didn’t beckon enough.
Husband and I considered and booked a cruise with an attractive itinerary that would take us to some lovely Caribbean islands new to us, and on the Amazon River. Not just at the mouth of the river per many cruise itineraries, but ON it for nine days! Also attractive was the relatively smaller size of the ship with fewer than 500 passengers and a reputation for fine service.
‘Amazonia’ is a complex amalgam of river, basin and rainforest. In a simplified geologic timeline, ‘they’ say the eastern bulge of Brazil once fit snugly under the western bulge of Africa in the land mass known as Pangaea. Fast forward, plate tectonics, separation of land masses, an inland sea was created in the approximate area that is now the Amazon Basin. This aquatic mass first drained west from current-day Peru
into the Pacific Ocean until upheavals created the Andes, reversing flow eastward. Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana named the river in the early 1540s for vicious female warriors his party encountered, reminiscent of Greek myths.
A few details follow, gleaned from our terrific on-board anthropologist/ story-teller and research. Figures are approximate, vary from season to season, accuracy is less crucial than an overall sense of magnitude of this geo-ecological phenomenon:
The Amazon River is one of two unpolluted rivers in the world, the other being the Congo. It begins in the Peruvian Andes where it is known as the Maranon River, later called Rio Solimoes by Brazilians. Over 4,000 miles long, it has more than a thousand tributaries and sub-tributaries, seven of which exceed 1,000 miles. These drain parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. From one to 40 miles wide and more in rainy season, it averages 150 feet deep with recorded depths over 300 feet. Where it meets the Atlantic, the river mouth is 200 miles wide, diluting salinity and changing the colour of the ocean surface for many miles out. No true delta here as turbulent river flow meets ocean currents. Fresh water is discharged at an Amazonian rate of trillions of gallons a day, way more than the Nile or the Mississippi. It is the largest river basin the world but the river is said to be second in overall length to the Nile. The Amazon basin covers half of Brazil, more than 2.7 million square miles.
As we entered the Amazon River from the Atlantic, imagine our surprise at being on turbid water that resembled chocolate milk in colour! Our first port was Macapa, a ‘technical’ stop to look after paperwork. We carried on to Santarem where we took an excursion up a tributary, viewed human life by the river, spied cool dolphins, sloths, birds and bob-fished for piranha. Then up-river to Manaus, as far as we would go or about 1,000 nautical miles from the Atlantic. Here we toured the city and took a fascinating jungle trek. On the return leg, we stopped at the small village of Boca da Valeria, a pleasant resort, Alter do Chao, and the charming city of Parintins, home to the annual Boi-Bumba cultural festival, second in regional flamboyant significance only to the Rio carnival – who knew? Here we were treated to gorgeous dance
and music from the annual event. Daily big skies and cloud formations, nightly dramatic sunsets and starry vistas!
We found ourselves on three colours of river – white (cloudy, chocolatey), clear and black. ‘White’ rivers originate in the Andes and are laden with silt, clear ones are just that. ‘Black’ rivers are acidic, devoid of life, clear like strong tea and flow from organic, peaty, rocky areas. Rivers of all colours meet dramatically side-by-side, without mixing at first, later eddying together. We were urged to conserve water on board as we were not to discharge treated water into the Amazon and additional fresh water supplies were limited. Our ship could desalinate if necessary, but could not de-silt!
The climate is warm and humid. The average temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit; we experienced 100! The average annual rainfall is 80 inches and it can rain for 200 days a year; we beat the rainy season by a bit. Learned that the river floods dramatically, rising many feet up riverbanks, trees and regularly destroys shoreside homes on stilts. Islands rise and subside every few years. The soil mantle throughout the Amazon basin is extra thin and unfertile. Shoreside trees are mangrove-like with spreading adaptive root systems but often just fall in to the river. Water hyacinth mats and whole trees moving in rapid current can make navigation hazardous. An experienced river pilot was essential and on board for the full 9 days. Most commerce and transportation is by river as there are few roads through impenetrable rainforest. Ferries and water taxis make one-off stops, even transport kids to school. Larger ferries are hung with multiple hammocks, the preferred sleeping accommodation for locals. Floating gas stations are common near cities. Cruise ships have been up the Amazon since the early ‘70s but are limited in size due to depth variations and to minimize ecological damage. Still, the river is widened by six feet per year from boat traffic.
The ancient multi-layered rainforest is dense and huge. The canopy teems with mind-boggling biodiversity. There are hundreds of varieties of trees, plants, rare animals and millions of species of insects, many of which have not yet been identified. Plants have adapted to vie for every possible bit off sunlight and moisture. Epiphytes, parasites, vines and symbiotics abound. Many exotic fruits and medicinal herbs originate here. Ever-active ants, termites, caterpillars and beetles abound. On our jungle trek, we saw inch-long bullet ants that pack a painful sting. Observed jungle survival and hunting techniques, learned of ancient herbal concoctions and even saw a liana that when cut, yields potable water! Moths and butterflies with up to twelve inch wing spans are extremely attracted to shipboard lights, so we kept doors shut.
We saw riverine egrets, terns, gulls and kingfishers. The deeper forest holds parrots, macaws and toucans. Fauna includes tapirs, deer, anteaters, agouti, coati, jaguars and many primates. In the water are thousands of species of fish and mammals. Storied piranhas all the way up to the giant Pirarucu, which can be 15 feet long and weigh over 200 pounds. Ship’s chef acquired, displayed and cooked a part of one of
these – tasty! There are manatees, stingrays and freshwater Boto dolphins, both grey and otherworldly pink! Parasitic tiny Candiru (vampire, needlefish) can enter the body through orifices and cause immense pain and death. The dreaded nocturnal Anaconda is a constrictor that eventually swallows and digests small prey whole. Over 30 feet long and up to 500 pounds, you do not want to meet one! The same waters also contain caimans, related to crocodilian reptiles.
There are few sizeable cities and towns along the river in Amazonas province, with smaller settlements, plantations, farms and shacks on shore. Otherwise, the region is pretty well uninhabited. One does not encounter any of the few hundred thousand remaining indigenous peoples who all dwell deep in the forest on reservations. All others are ‘Caboclo’, a mix of Indian, European and African ancestry. One does see and smell smoke from garbage being burned or land cleared for gardens, cattle and soybean farms.
Manaus, a lively city with a population of 2.5 million is located on the Rio Negro near where it meets the Solimoes to become the Amazon River. The legendary site of the ‘meeting of the waters’ is a sight to behold as rivers run unmixed for a considerable distance. Developed by rubber barons from Europe and North America, Manaus’ French-influenced architecture includes the beautiful opera house, Teatro Amazonas and public market, the Mercado Municipal. Manaus is accessible by boat, air and few roads connect it to local towns. A major highway connects it only to Caracas, Venezuela! A recently built bridge over the Rio Negro connects Manaus to Irranduba. Under 3 miles long, costing almost $600 million, it limits the size of vessel that can travel further upstream. This city will host several 2014 World Cup matches, including USA, at the Arena Amazonas. Many question the sanity of choosing Manaus in such a hot humid clime and doubt the stadium will be adequately used/ attended in future.
Rubber, Brazil nut and cacao have been replaced by large-scale cattle rearing, soybean farms and lumber operations. Forest clear-cutting continues, directly impacting soil, water, air quality, rare flora and fauna. Cuts are always accompanied by burns, releasing carbon dioxide. Ecological effects and extinctions are and will be global, not just local.
Brazil is a geo-political contender in volatile South America. It is one of the developing, riveting financial-powerhouse BRIC countries. Sugar cane (not corn!) has long been cultivated for ethanol addition to gasoline. Major oil has been discovered off the coast and related alliances with China have already been forged. Contentious massive Belo Monte dam on an eco-sensitive tributary near indigenous settlements will provide much needed hydro power for Brazil and will proceed despite global opposition. Relations with the U.S. are now tense and tested over NSA surveillance of President Dilma Roussef’s correspondence.
The FIFA World Cup will take place in several cities later this year and the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics will follow. Infrastructure challenges are huge, progress on football stadia is slow with cost overruns, construction accidents and public protests. However, there is strong underlying political will to complete all facilities on time. ‘Water is the next oil’ as the world struggles to accommodate growing populations and industrial output. Dams on the Amazon will alter the nature of this sensitive and valuable region, will strain relations with Brazil’s neighbours who are also thirsty for water. Brazil will have a starring role in the near future, one hopes in a measured, considered and sane manner.
American president Theodore Roosevelt was known for spirited, adventurous, exploratory travels. Before our journey, wish we had read Candice Millard’s account of his Amazon River voyage, ‘The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey’, the soul-testing one that nearly cost Teddy his life.
Now have it on order – where else but at Amazon