Cruising the Amazon River through Brazil Including Visits to Santarem to Manaus
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Some guidebooks call the river the muddy Amazon, but that makes the river sound ugly. Its water looks like a thick batter, reddish brown or rich tan depending on the brightness of the day. As our ship cut through the river water, I watched the waves bubble and then lighten in color, like the top of a chocolate milkshake.
SantaremOur ship's Amazon River journey began as it cleared the shallow waters of the river bar called Barra Norte. By the third day on the river, we landed at the port of Santarem, with its stately old church and state buildings lining the river. The Portuguese who settled here in the 18th century brought their Catholic religion and European architecture to Santarem. In the 21st century, the city has 300,000 residents.
Five-hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Santarem has only one land road out through the jungle, almost impassible during the wet season. The river's the road for the people of the Amazon. Commercial river boats, holding as many as 80 people, line the ports. Travelers board with their own hammocks and food for their trips that usually last several days.
ExcursionsOne shore trip offered to cruise ship passengers included a river boat for a short trip along Amazon tributaries. We were to see the meeting of the waters where the clear blue water of the Rio Tapajas meets the ruddy brown Amazon. The line of demarcation goes on for several miles. At times, where the two rivers merge, they form graceful two-tone loops.
We could see the "river people" in some houses at the edge of the rivers in houses on stilts, but during this high waters season (December/January to June) many houses sit half-submerged and vacant. Owners move to higher land during the wet season. The river rises 24 to 26-feet every year.
When the wet season is over, people return. As our guide said, "River people return to their houses when they can step on their floor again."
Our river boat, along with two others, moored in among the reeds, the water hyacinths and river grasses.
"Pick up your fishing line and hook," the guide said. "We're going to fish for piranha." He assured us piranha fish don't eat humans, they just bite.
I grabbed my camera and stood well behind the passengers who hung over the side of the 2-tiered, wooden river boat. Total catch: 2 catfish.
We saw pink river dolphins from the river boat and again from the ship's decks. They swam up and down the river, arched above the dark blue water's surface, their pink backs shining as they crested.
As we docked back at Santarem, the guide pointed out the shipping activity. Soybeans and black-eye peas rattled down long chutes into ship containers. In the 1870s, after the Civil War in the United States, more than 100 Confederate soldiers and their families left the states and settled in Santarem. The peas came, too.
Boca de ValeraThe ship's next stop introduced us to an Indian village along the Amazon called Boca de Valera. The Indians preceded the Portuguese by thousands of years. We walked by their houses on the slopes above the river bank, some passengers took rides in motorized canoes that the Indians use for transport. The rate: $5 an hour.
Along the path on the slopes of the village, the Indians sell souvenirs like feathered masks, carved-wood art pieces and woven cloth and jewelry. And some pose for photo-ops, and appreciate dollar bills. Children held pets like crickets and sloths and monkeys. An adult villager held a scary, 3-foot long anaconda snake.
ManausThe next day, the Pacific Princess completed its 1,000-mile "trek" up the river at the city of Manaus, once home to the rubber barons of the 19th century, now producers of cars and electronic products. One and three-quarters of a million people live in this city very close to the Amazon, on one of its tributaries, the Rio Negro.
Some ship passengers took city tours to see the famous Opera House built in 1896. Others, and I climbed aboard a small open river boat on the Rio Negro to see the igapos, the flooded forests, and more river scenery.
Water covers the trunks of the forest trees in the Lake Janauari region. We walked an uneven planked walkway through the flooded forest to a clearing (the lake edge) to see the huge Victoria Regina water lily pads, bright chartreuse green, 3- to 4-feet in diameter. Masses covered the outer waters of the lake.
After the lake, we transferred to small motorized canoes that held eight to ten people, and sailed in the Rio Negro for views of the shoreline and more flooded dwellings. Then the we headed deep into the dense forest. The narrow path of water wound past tall palm trees, broad-leafed trees and flowering trees, all deep in the water. A canopy of vines covered many. Here and there, a huge brown termite "nest" hung near the tree-tops. Birds and butterflies flitted past. What a luxury it would have been to drift in the quiet with boat motors turned off . . . but we might have floated into the trees and Never-never Land.
Life on the Amazon River and its tributaries amazes even the most seasoned travelers.
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Nell Raun-Linde, a free-lance writer with a travel specialty, has been published in AAA, Senior, regional, inflight, wine and web magazines, as well as in San Francisco Bay Area newspapers and others in the U.S. She resides in historic Benicia, a small California town, incorporated before the gold rush. An almost-around-the-world traveler has a passion not only for travel but for reading, history and family. Photos by Nell Raun-Linde