Five Days Up the Amazon River
Jan 20, 2004
David Rich 1300 Words
Five Days Up the Amazon River
If you actually want to get anywhere in Brazil, a country the size of the U.S., you have to fly or take a boat. If you want to see the Amazon you take a boat.
It's a stand-alone adventure sailing up the Amazon the thousand miles (1600 KM) between Belem and Manaus, the Amazon's two largest cities with populations amazingly over a million people each. The first adventure is deciding which boat to call home for five days because dozens ply the mighty Amazon River, the principal highway in northern Brazil. The commonest boat bedrooms are hundreds of open-air hammocks stuffed into the space of a closet, claustrophobically overcrowded and swelteringly hot on the equator. Hammocks cost $80 for full board attracting less affluent locals and the backpacking crowd. For a mere $160 you can step up to five days of comfort and privacy in a two person air-conditioned cabin with beds, worth every single cent. To save unneeded adventure you should book onto the Santarem or the Nelio Correo, both owned by Marques Pinto Navegacao (other shops are dangerous, dirty or terminally overcrowded). Then you pass go and begin the adventure of a lifetime.
Proceeding upriver from Belem takes an extra day but upriver boats hug the shore, avoiding mid-river currents, shoehorning you into the intimate life along the Amazon. Days flee as you cruise past widely spaced rustic homes with ramshackle piers and roughhewn canoes. Extended families cram into these five-foot dugout canoes while precocious five year olds captain others, plying the thousands of miles of the muddy Amazon. One slip and they're piranha meat.
As the four-story boat glides along the shore canoes shoot out to tie up alongside, their precocious occupants selling wares from large bags of shrimp to jars of palm hearts, everything 35 cents or one Real (the Brazilian currency pronounced 'He-al). Other canoes approach within teasing distance, soliciting gifts like a 21st Century Cargo Cult, reminiscent of the South Seas religion that sprang up during WWII after cargo planes crash-landed bringing one-time and rapidly diminishing prosperity to the islanders. The passengers on the Santarem heave plastic bags of goodies avidly collected by this cargo-cult in its dugout canoes.
I watched carefully for pink dolphins, caimans lurking like shorty-alligators and flocks of snowy-ibis in formation, some skimming a foot above the river and others hundreds of feet overhead, abruptly roosting in riverside trees at the crack of sunset. The sunsets over the Amazon were like the wild wild west ablaze over wrinkled waters.
Where three shacks congregate was called towns, each with a quaint church topped by a cross accented in blue. Next door sat the Jesus Danceteria, unclear whether it was a parsonage, junior church or dancehall-bar. The Amazon winds past every shading of civilization from lumber towns to former rubber bonanzas and way-out outback. Any shading of civilization means far fewer trees and no more rain forest. Even during the rainy season intermittent squalls have diminished to a trickle.
Aboard ship it was party-Sunday, a push-pull between traveling missionaries and hell-bent hedonists, from a disco beat vibrating the ship to tables of grumpy dominoers. The missionaries were the twenty-somethings tearing up the disco while their less-feverish elders plunked plastic plankettes. Frequent deck showers rescued the sunbathers from scorching while the masses crowded onto the shady side of the boat reading Bibles and solving five line crossword puzzles. The kids fashioned telescoping key-chains from soda straws. Meanwhile the boat scooted past numerous of the 1100 tributaries that fed this beast of a river, so wide in places you couldn't see the far shore, narrow in others as the boat headed into a channel to beat the broad current battering it back. When black squalls would hit they'd sweep the decks clean of debris and ditherers, the ditherers returning to glistening deck chairs to resume their photographic safari.
Halfway upriver we reached our ship's namesake and one of the most isolated cities in the world. Santarem is 300,000 people in the middle of nowhere, linked to the rest of Brazil by no road except the broad muddy river. The ambitious Transamazonica highway attracted millions to the Amazon in the 1970s but has been mostly reclaimed by the jungle while the local millions continue to procreate willy-nilly, fueling the timber industry and laying waste to the increasingly lesser Amazon.
Santarem was a twelve hour layover to discharge and load tons of cargo, stevedores sweating as they tossed flour sacks larger than fatted pigs. I disembarked with a young Norwegian couple to enjoy a tour though we haven't a clue to our itinerary. Multi-lingual guide Pierre, triathalon champion (Hawaii Ironman) from Geneva, told us we'd enter the jungle to learn its natural medicines, oils and strange critters, explore the most beautiful beach in Brazil and eat a gourmet lunch. We could choose our pleasure in the afternoon or so whatever we'd rather do now. We logged onto the internet for an hour, explored the Santarem market with its exotic jungle medicines and fruits and then headed for the most beautiful beach in Brazil.
No kidding, Alter do Chou beach on an Amazon tributary 22 miles from Santarem was worth the Amazon trip by itself. This powder beach jutted into a turquoise lagoon like a dagger with swooping palm trees adorning the center of its gently scalloped double-blade. It eclipsed the famous double Phi-Phi beach in southern Thailand.
After a scrumptious lunch of grilled fish Pierre handed us a bottle of jungle oil to slather on exposed skin for our jungle jaunt and it worked like a charm, except for the bees. We slipped and slid up a long strenuous hill, the Amazon soil a mish-mash of mud, leaning on Pierre's handily provided poles near the top, contemplating the tree ahead.
"Be quiet as we pass the tree," whispered Pierre, "and when I give the signal run like hell." We nodded knowing assents and tiptoed off, apparently too noisily. Suddenly we were in headlong retreat with bees swarming us like a blanket, sticking to the jungle oil, viciously and ominously buzzing as we frantically tried to brush them off.
Pierre said, "Good thing they don't have stingers, eh?" Good thing. But we were still traumatized by the curtain of cussed critters, making a wide detour around their tree by bushwhacking through the jungle. What a mess we looked and felt, covered with bee pollen, sweat, jungle oil and filth, first thing jumping in Pierre's shower at his jungle hill-top home.
Two days and a hundred photos later we landed in Manaus thinking we'd conquered the Amazon. Wrong. From Manaus it was eight more days upriver to the borders with Columbia and Peru, then another three days to Iquitos, Peru, with much more River left to go, over half its 4000 miles in Peru. A mere five days had barely nibbled the Amazon.
When you go: Belem and Manaus are easily reachable by air from Europe or the U.S. via Caracas, Venezuela, Cayenne in French Guiana or Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo, Brazil. For intra-Brazil travel find the best airfares at www.viajo.com
Book the Santarem or Nelio Correo through Amazon Star Turismo. In Belem phone Patrick at 241-8624, Barros at 212-6244 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Pierre in Alter do Chao by email to email@example.com