Brazil - Rio Amazonas
Nov 11, 2004
|Picture this ... It's 7:00AM and you're out in a small canoe, just you and your guide. The water is mirror-smooth reflecting the trees on either side of the river and a few puffy clouds overhead. The morning sun makes the water glisten. Silence is broken by the smooth stroke of the paddle as it softly hits the water. Nearby you hear the puff of a river dolphin as it comes up to ex/inhale. Off in the distance you see the spray of the large pirarucu fish as it jumps out of the water and then see and hear a loud splash on its re-entry. The chatter of birds, from species you've never seen before, is heard in nearby trees. Occasionally one skims over the river, dive-bombing into the water as it sees a fish below the surface and, if lucky, comes up with a fish in tow. Cormorants swim by, resembling little periscopes with only their long neck and head visible above the water and the rest of their body submerged. Startled by our presence, their wings slap the water as they gain speed to take flight. You chuckle as you hear funny little fart noises beside the canoe and then see little fish lips break the surface, puckering quickly as they take in oxygen and then, poof, off they go again below the surface. Off in the distance you hear the rumble of a howler monkey, loudly proclaiming the boundaries of his territory to any approaching male. High up in the treetops you see branches move and hope you'll catch a glimpse of the red-faced white uakari monkey.
These are the sights and sounds of daybreak in the Amazon.
Okay, so how did I get from tasting beer and sausage in Germany to experiencing daybreak in the Amazon which, last time you looked, isn't anywhere near Western Europe??
Well, don't worry, I still have some European stories up my sleeve, but right now in "real time" I just had the most amazing adventure in the Amazon and I had to write about it ... right now ... I couldn't wait! After this I'll go back and catch up on the rest of my Europe trip and then, hopefully, will stay a bit more current as I'm now traveling with my laptop again.
So to give you a quick update, I left Europe at the beginning of October and basically touched soil on three different continents - going from Europe to Canada to South America - within three days. Unfortunately my backpack decided to take an extended vacation in Europe (uurrgghh) but eventually, after much anxiety and frustration, it caught up with me in Buenos Aires. A few days later I flew from BA to Rio de Janeiro where I hooked up with my buddy JP (who I traveled with in Southeast Asia last year) and we spent a month traveling through Brazil together. I left him in northern Brazil a few weeks ago and continued on my own into the Brazilian Amazonas region.
The Amazon is not just a river; it's a complex network of tributaries, sandbanks, channels and lakes running through a vast part of northern Brazil and indeed a large part of South America, pushing water from as far as the Andes in the west across thousands of kilometers of river system to the Atlantic Ocean in the east. The Amazon Basin is one of the wettest places on earth with some areas averaging more than 6000mm of annual rainfall.
My entry point was the city of Manaus, about midpoint in the Brazil Amazonas region and, quite literally, the end of the road. You see, roads do not exist to the west of Manaus; the river becomes the highway. Other than flying, traveling by boat is the only means of transportation between cities.
I had planned on spending a few days in Manaus then flying to Tefé (a little place around 600 kms west of Manaus, as the river winds) where I had booked a jungle trip. But I ran into one small problem ... all flights to Tefé were booked. So my only option for getting to Tefé was to travel by boat up the Amazon River.
There must be at least 50+ riverboats in Manaus at any given time moving passengers and cargo to towns and villages along the various tributaries and channels of the Amazon. Somehow in this maze of boats I needed to find the right boat going in the right direction leaving at the right time ... a daunting task.
And I had one more challenge to deal with ... the language. The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. I don't speak any Portuguese. Most Brazilians don't speak any English. Up until now I'd been traveling with JP who speaks some Portuguese. I hadn't initially planned on visiting the Amazon and so hadn't expected to deal with the language issue. But now here I was, about to negotiate my way onto a riverboat, with nothing more than a few pages of language translations from the guidebook (gulp).
Luckily I ran into one of the few English-speaking tour guides and through him was able to book passage on a boat to Tefé. As it turns out, there was exactly one boat headed to Tefé that would get me there in time. It was leaving Manaus the next day and would take 3 days/2 nights to arrive in Tefé.
There are basically 2 types of accommodation on riverboats ... hammocks (which you supply yourself) and cabins. Both fares are pretty inexpensive and include 3 meals a day. I decided to try the local thing, booked hammock class, and bought myself a hammock. The tour guide agreed to take me to the boat early in the morning to secure a good hammock spot and even agreed to hang it for me, a blessing since I've had no previous hammock hanging experience.
I discovered two things when I arrived at the boat the next morning: (1) hammock class (which was a large open section on the middle deck) was already becoming a not-too-appealing hot and humid confusion of hammocks, baggage, passengers and even a few pet dogs, and (2) the tour guide had negotiated an upgrade for me into an air-conditioned private cabin (which was little more than a very tiny room with bunk beds) if I agreed to pay a bit more and give the captain my hammock. Heavy negotiations commenced. In the end I had the air-con private cabin, at no extra cost, and in fact even got reimbursed for the price of my hammock, which the captain had already sold to someone else!
Not only did I now have a more comfortable place to sleep but, more importantly, I could lock my cabin door thereby securing my stuff, and move around the boat as I liked. Theft is a regular problem on these boats and people in hammock-class tend to stay in or near their hammocks day and night, partly because there's not much else to do, but mostly to keep an eye on their stuff. An Australian gal I met in Manaus had had her hammock stolen the first day of her riverboat trip!
With belongings safely secured, I had the opportunity to relax on deck for a few hours and watch the constant movement of people loading and unloading boats. Here there are no front-end loaders or machinery to transport cargo; everything is moved by hand. I saw men carrying bags and boxes of fruit, vegetables and other food items, cases of beer stacked 12 high, bottled soft drinks, mattresses, freezers, washers and refrigerators, motors, and even toilets ... everything but the kitchen sink, although it's possible even that was in one of the boxes! Finally we were loaded up with passengers and cargo and ready to leave Manaus.
10 kilometers downriver from Manaus we passed through the "Encontro das Aguas", or Meeting of the Waters, where the dark-colored Rio Negro meets the café-au-lait colored Rio Solimões. The two waters flow side by side without mingling; it's really quite an amazing sight. At that point we changed course and headed up the Rio Solimões.
Are you confused with river names yet? Isn't this all just the Amazon? Well, yes ... but with some complexities. First of all, the Amazon River is huge and has many tributaries flowing into it. Secondly, it's sometimes known by different names in the different countries it flows through. Finally, it's even known by different names as it flows through the same country! For example, in Peru the Amazon is called the Rio Amazonas. Where it flows from the Peru/Brazil border to Manaus it's called the Rio Solimões. Once it meets the Rio Negro at Encontro das Aguas the combined river is called the Rio Amazonas again.
Anyway, back to the boat. During the past month I've continually been impressed by the kindness and friendliness of the Brazilian people. This boat trip was no exception. The captain, many crew and other passengers instantly befriended me. I was quite amazed at the speed of the "riverboat grapevine" as it seemed that in a mere matter of hours everyone knew the foreign tourist was Canadian, going to Tefé, spoke English, couldn't speak Portuguese, etc, etc. People kept chatting with me, not caring that I couldn't understand much, and sometimes we even managed to exchange a few words! I was truly touched by how eager everyone was to communicate with the gringa, and by how kind and considerate they all were.
For 48 hours I simply watched the river go by. There were lots of other boats on the water, ranging from large riverboats like us, to cargo-laden barges, to families in small wooden canoes. I saw plenty of pink river dolphins (yes, they really are pink, or at least the males are). The riverbanks were dotted with little villages, wooden houses on stilts, small floating towns, kids splashing in the water, and lush green vegetation. Sunsets and night skies were spectacular.
Finally we arrived in Tefé, another riverboat town somewhat similar although much smaller than Manaus. Like me, most tourists use Tefé merely as the gateway to the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve.
The Mamirauá Reserve (pronounced like Ma-mee-ro-wa) is located where the waters of the Rio Japurá empty into the Solimões, and includes more than one million hectares of land in the Central Amazon Region. By boat, it's about 1.5 hours upriver from Tefé.
Mamirauá is the largest protected flooded forest in the Amazon, and the first sustainable development reserve in Brazil where the local communities actively participate in its management. Mamirauá has implemented a series of economic alternatives for the local population (such as fish management programs, handicraft sales, and forest management) in order to displace the traditional pressure on the natural resources. Mamirauá also provides a space for wildlife research and study, and protects a rich ecosystem that supports about 35 species of mammals, 360 birds, 79 reptiles and more than 300 species of fish.
In essence, Mamirauá seeks to minimize the effects of man's presence on nature.
In the heart of the Mamirauá Reserve is the Uakari Floating Lodge where visitors stay. All buildings are on wooden floats, including the main dining lodge and accommodation huts (each a decent size with bedroom, ensuite toilet/hot shower, sundeck and hammock ... such luxury!), in order to accommodate the change in water levels between wet and dry season. Wooden docks connect them, and the whole group of buildings is chained in place to prevent them from floating down the river.
The trip was all-inclusive covering transfers between Tefé/Mamirauá, all meals and non-alcoholic beverages, accommodation, and guided activities. US$380 per person for the 4-day program was pretty steep for this poor unemployed backpacker ... but with all that was included, and with all the wildlife we saw, and the beautiful natural environment, it was extremely good value for money and well worth the price.
And speaking of wildlife ... I saw TONS of animals!! You'll have to take my word for it though because, well, I've discovered that I totally suck at wildlife photography. Give me a castle, bridge, church or landscape and I can take a decent photo. But give me something that's moving and man do I ever suck big time!
Anyway, I saw 2 different types of sloths (such funny looking slow moving creatures), and 4 different types of monkeys ... 2 types of comical Squirrel Monkeys, Red Howler Monkeys, and the strange looking red-faced White Bald Uakari Monkey (namesake of the Lodge, and found exclusively in the floodplain region). There were Amazon Squirrels (much bigger than what I see in my backyard in Canada) and Amazon Rats (yeah, like I needed to see giant versions of these things!). There was an abundance of amazing birds including long-legged Herons and Snowy Egrets, colorful Parrots and Macaws, ugly Vultures, sharp-eyed Hawks, cute little Kingfishers, and my favorite - the Hoazins - with big eyes and a cute little tuft of feathers sticking up on their head!
Our days were busy, always starting early and sometimes finishing late. All activities, usually 3 per day lasting 2 to 3+ hours each, were led by local guides and focused on observing wildlife and learning about the ecosystem.
Here's an example of our activities:
(1) Small canoe trips - A quiet relaxing way to float along the river banks and poke into little channels under tree branches. Great way to see lots of birds, water plantlife, and often many animals.
(2) Forest floor hikes - Vegetation is lush way up in the tree canopy where you'll often see the monkeys. But down on the forest floor there's mostly thick thorns, vines, tree roots and trunks. Hikes in the forest can only be done during dry season as in the wet season (April to August) the river water can rise by as much as 10-12 meters breaching the banks of the lakes and channels and flooding the forest for several months of the year. It's hard to believe that where I was walking would regularly be under that much water!
(3) Visit to a small indigenous village within the reserve - We visited Caburini, population 83, where we met many of the people and children and heard how the Mamirauá ecotourism programs have helped their community. At this time of year Caburini looks like any small Indian village, the women harvesting fruits and vegetables, the men fishing, but during the wet season their village is completely flooded, canoe transport becomes the norm, floating pens are built for livestock, etc.
(4) Motorized canoe trips to explore the area - including a trip to Lake Mamirauá where we watched the sun go down and saw hundreds of white Snowy Egrets take flight.
(5) Meeting with researchers - We met a research team studying the river dolphins (they receive some funding from Mamirauá). The team is led by marine biologists from Cambridge, UK and Manaus. For 3 weeks of the year, right now as luck would have it, they're working on a dolphin catch, identify, mark and release program. Watching them in action was like watching a pit stop at the Indy 500 ... once the dolphin was out of the water everyone worked quickly and efficiently on their assigned tasks. Within 15 minutes the dolphin had been weighed and measured, blood and milk samples extracted, skin sample taken for genetic testing, freeze brand applied for future identification, photographed, and back in the water.
(6) Night hike in the forest - We saw many birds sleeping on branches, but nighttime is really when the creepy crawlies come out ... including tarantulas.
(7) Night small canoe trips - On the water, alligators (called "caiman" here) come out at night. And mosquitoes. LOTS of caiman. And LOTS of mosquitoes! During a 50-minute canoe ride coming back from Lake Mamirauá after sunset one night, I observed at least 100 caiman either swimming in the river beside our canoe or saw their eyes reflecting in our floodlight when we scanned the riverbanks. This is not an exaggeration; if anything I've probably underestimated the headcount. They move smoothly and quickly and can drop below the surface without causing a ripple ... it's really quite amazing to observe ... from a safe distance.
For a few hours after lunch we had time to relax in our hammocks, which usually coincided with when clouds and thunder rolled in, the skies opened up, and rain would come pouring down in thick sheets. Actually, I started praying for the daily rainstorms as they stirred up a bit of refreshing breeze (non existent otherwise), and seemed to lessen the humidity a little bit (which was otherwise almost unbearable).
The Lonely Planet guidebook states "if you're going to splash out on one ecotourism program in Brazilian Amazonia, the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve is the place to do it. Its ecotourism program provides some of the best wildlife viewing in Amazonia". Unlike the Flores bus trip in Indonesia which they stated was the "best bus journey in the world" (I beg to differ!), this time they definitely got it right.
I'm so glad that I added a visit to the Amazon to my travel itinerary as it ended up being the real highlight to my travels through Brazil. And, as you can probably tell, I had a great time on the riverboat and in Mamirauá ... despite the heat and humidity and mosquitoes!
But all too soon I was back in Tefé, awaiting a flight headed to an area called the "Triple Frontier" ... where the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet.