For those who want to experience the world’s largest tropical rainforest, but without the inclination to trek through the jungle, a cruise down the Amazon could be the answer.
The Amazon has a mythical allure with images of deep forests, brightly coloured birds and howler monkeys. But don’t expect your ship to be squeezing its way through the jungle’s narrow water courses. The Amazon accounts for about one fifth of the world’s total river flow and parts exceed 120 miles in width. It makes its way through much of north-western Brazil and extends into Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru.
I set sail on Fred Olsen’s Braemar from Barbados and headed for Manaus in Brazil known as ‘Paris of the Jungle’.
Four days were spent relaxing and planning what to do at the ports of call. Beginners bridge classes kept me busy. The art classes were also fun where we learned how to paint land and seascapes. An art exhibition was held at the end of the cruise.
Speakers included a woman adventurer who had negotiated the Amazon in a canoe and a wildlife photographer. My point and shoot camera didn’t compare with the sophisticated paparazzi-sized lenses used by serious wildlife watchers on deck.
At Santarem, a small city in the state of Para, the Alter Do Chao beach transfer boasted an incredibly beautiful location. Ilha do Amor (Island of Love) was no more than a large white sandbank. Reached by a tiny canoe, it has a restaurant and bar, and not surprisingly is known as the ‘Caribbean of the Amazon’.
Authentic Amazonian culture was experienced at Parintins on Tupinambarana Island. A simple, hospitable town with welcoming and cheerful residents, the bustling fish and colourful fruit and veg markets sell delicacies such as tapioca with tucuma. The locals live in characterful houses built on stilts over the river and rely on decrepit boats to get around. Colourful tropical birds mingled with vultures which are just as prevalent in the Amazon as seagulls and pigeons in the UK.
Halfway down the Amazon Manaus is not what I expected. The capital city of Amazonas, with 2.2 million people, boasts its own opera house and is home to the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra. Its large dome is covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles, quite a sight – some of the ship’s passengers enjoyed a concert.
The city boasted a C&A store which particularly excited one elderly passenger and was the only attraction to lure him off the ship on the entire cruise. When asked why he cruised he explained: ‘Cruising is better than staying home on my own’.
Manaus is a very busy centre. Opticians and dentists recruit young people, wearing branded T-shirts, to go on the street and lure customers into their shops. Old men sat on the pavements were selling tablets of all shapes and sizes – heaven knows what they were for.
In contrast, we went caiman spotting one evening on small motorised canoes which glided into January Lake. The Caiman catcher used a spotlight to pick up the creature’s eyes and, after ten minutes and a bit of a splash, we had ourselves a young Caiman. We were each allowed to hold him as we were told all about the species before he was released back into the water.
We returned to the lake in daylight to admire the Victoria Regia water lilies with leaves measuring up to one metre across. Children in canoes approached us, one boy had an anaconda around his neck whilst others were holding a sloth. These wild animals had been captured to make money from tourists paying to take photographs but, by doing so, were putting the animals’ lives at risk. We ignored them.
Back on the Braemar an intriguing phenomenon known as the ‘meeting of the waters’ was witnessed. The black water of the Rio Negro and the muddy-coloured Solimoes River run in contrast side by side without mixing for six kilometres. This phenomenon is due to the differences in temperature, speed and water density of the two rivers.
The highlight of my trip was an unexpected swim with pink dolphins. A speedboat took us along the River Negro to an area frequented by these beautiful animals. They are pink because of blood vessels running beneath the surface of their skin. A small group of us were invited to get in the murky-coloured water to join a local who fed them fish. They swam under us, jumped alongside us and let us stroke them.
On our way back to the ship we stopped off at a village populated by indigenous tribes. They were beautiful people and very friendly and danced for us. I gave them all my remaining Brazilian currency in return for a handful of necklaces.