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AMAZON RIVER CRUISE

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An Amazon cruise is all about shattering misconceptions. Even at the planning stage, the size of the Amazon River changed our intentions of cruising the river's full length.

We knew that the Amazon is the second longest river in the world after the Nile, but we didn't realize that its 6,740-kilometer (4,190-mile) length required us to cruise one section at a time.

Cruise ship window view of jungle-lined bank of the Amazon
Cruise ship window view of jungle-lined bank of the Amazon
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Brazilian Amazon

We decided to cruise the Brazilian Amazon. Cruises vary in price, length and departure port, including Manaus, Buenos Aires, Barbados, Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale.

Most Brazilian Amazon cruises travel 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) between the Atlantic and Manaus, Brazil. Some voyages include Caribbean and South American destinations, like Devil's Island in French Guiana.

The river's power became apparent after our Amazon cruise from Barbados rounded the shoulder of South America. Two hours from the Amazon mouth, the cobalt blue Atlantic turned a murky brown from expelled silt.

Beginning with glacier and snow melt in the Andes, the Rio Amazonas drains 40% of South America and annually spills out one-fifth of the world's freshwater into the ocean. Water flow is 12 times that of the Mississippi River and so fast that it could fill an empty Lake Ontario in just three hours.

Amazon islands

As wide as the distance between Montreal and Quebec City, the mouth of the Amazon made our 120-passenger ship seem as insignificant as a bathtub toy. Marajo Island, one of many islands separating channels in the Amazon delta, is more than six times the size of Prince Edward Island.

Riverboat docks next to schoolyard on island.
Riverboat docks next to schoolyard on island.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Currents loosen sea roots anchoring smaller islands, causing them to move. Sand bars also move, so our Amazon charts aren't accurate," explained our captain. "That's why ships hire local pilots to help navigate through the channels."

The Amazon River's average width of eight kilometers (five miles) dispelled misconception #2. Sightseeing from the ship is not as easy as on other river cruises. If we saw the rainforest-covered bank on one side, we usually couldn't see the other side.

Whenever the palms, mangroves and hardwood trees parted to reveal a thatched home or a school yard filled with waving children, passengers jumped up from their poolside chairs with cameras and binoculars for a closer look.

Amazon River tours

To truly experience the Amazon rainforest, its wildlife and people, we had to get off the ship. Fortunately, Amazon cruises offer shore excursions and stops along the route. They also carry Zodiacs and tenders, which we boarded to explore small tributaries.

Two caboclos men with a boy paddle a dugout canoe.
Two caboclos men with a boy paddle a dugout canoe.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During one excursion, two men and a boy paddled a dugout canoe toward us for a closer look. The locals were as curious about us as we were of them. Speaking Portuguese, our boat driver answered their questions about our nationalities.

We learned that they were caboclos, part-Amazonian Native, part-Portuguese self-sufficient farmers and fishermen. Passengers and canoeists smiled and waved to each other before resuming our respective journeys.

Amazon weather

The Amazon climate was hot and humid, as we expected. Temperatures averaged 31°C (88°F). Our ship was air conditioned. Even the deck was comfortable, thanks to breezes from the movement of the ship.

The Amazon dry season is between June and December. Most rainfall occurs between January and May.

Misconception #3 was our mental images of a dangerous Amazon, infested with mosquitoes, giant anaconda snakes and blood-hungry piranhas. There were dangers, but not the ones we expected.

The captain and crew, for example, constantly watched for trees and logs flushed down the river by the current. Our insect encounters were pleasant surprises, like climbing to the upper deck and finding beautiful emerald green butterflies and huge beige and brown moths clinging to the walls. A large beetle, the size of our palms, tried to look inconspicuous below a café table.

Alter do Chao

After celebrating the crossing of the equator with champagne and cake, passengers eagerly anticipated the first stop at Alter do Chao. The town, located where the clear green Tapajos River meets the Amazon, has sandy beaches during the Amazon low-water season (August to December).

Rio Tapajos is one of more than 1,100 Amazon tributaries. Ten are larger than the Mississippi.

Little girl with pet baby sloth. Alter Do Chao.
Little girl with pet baby sloth.
Alter Do Chao.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A young girl, holding a pet baby sloth, watched us disembark, meet our guide, Rosario, and board a local bus. Our first stop was the Manioc Flour House, Casa da Farinha, where families process manioc.

Also known as cassava and yucca, Manihot esculenta is a starchy root vegetable that, after processing, looks and tastes like cornmeal. We watched men and women grate manioc roots, soak out the poisonous cyanide liquid, squeeze the grated manioc in woven chipichi wringers, sieve the yellow morsels and roast them in hot tub-size cast-iron pans over a fire.

Manioc can also be processed to make tapioca, an indigenous Amazonian word, like hammock and tobacco, which we still use today. Caboclos bring surplus manioc into town and barter it for salt, sugar, clothing and medical care.

Caboclo woman dumps grated manioc from a woven chipichi. Santarem, Brazil.
Caboclo woman dumps grated manioc from a woven chipichi. Santarem, Brazil.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Outside, a farmer slit a rubber tree's bark with a blade. Milky white latex oozed into a coconut cup. Picking up a glob, he stretched it like a rubber band.

"Henry Ford planted rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) here between 1928 and 1945," explained Rosario. "The latex is no longer used for tires. A factory in Belterra, Brazil, makes it into surgical latex gloves."

Santarem Brazil

Our bus followed a well-paved road through the jungle 33 kilometers (20 miles) east to Santarem, a city of 260,000. Although our walking tour was interesting, stands selling unique indigenous Tapajo ceramics drew the most enthusiasm. Passengers returned to the ship with armfuls of pottery masks, flutes and blow pipes.

After cruising the Amazon River for another 20 hours, we arrived in Parintins, famous for its Boi Bumba Festival. Two days later, we reached The Meeting of the Waters, where the black Rio Negro meets the clay-colored Rio Solimoes.

We watched the two colors touching but not mixing, for six kilometers (four miles). The Rio Negro and Solimoes River eventually merge to form the Amazon River. (We amended our misconception that the Amazon has the same name for its entire length.)

Cruise ship passengers observe the Amazon River Meeting of the Waters, near Manaus.
Cruise ship passengers observe the Amazon River Meeting of the Waters, near Manaus.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Rio Negro

The acidic dark Rio Negro is less attractive to fish and insects than the Rio Solimoes. While the Solimoes supports more life, it is not all friendly.

Our Amazon cruise ship doctor told us about the candiru (Vandellia cirrhosa), or toothpick fish. "It's drawn by the smell of urine, and swims up unwary bathers' urethras," he explained. "It then lodges itself by extending its fins. Only surgery will remove it." We shuddered, silently relieved that all our swimming was in the ship's pool.

Our ship cruised up the Rio Negro, so we could have a barbecue on Praia Grande, a beach in the Anavilhanas Archipelago. The largest fresh water archipelago in the world, Anavilhanas Archipelago is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) upstream from Manaus, where the Rio Negro widens to 27 kilometers (17 miles) across.

The 400 Anavilhanas islands spread out over 90 kilometers (56 miles). During the rainy high water season, 200 of the rainforest-covered islands are submerged below the Rio Negro.

Our Amazon cruise ended in Manaus, Brazil, with a transfer to the Tropical Hotel, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from downtown. We booked post-cruise stays in two jungle lodges.

Amazon Village Jungle Lodge and Ariau Amazon Towers are a few hours, by Amazon river boat, from Manaus. Although rustic compared to the Tropical Manaus, jungle lodges offer all-inclusive room and meal packages with more in-depth Amazon experiences than cruise shore excursions.

During our Amazon River cruise, an appreciation of the Amazon's people, wildlife and ecology replaced our original stereotypical images and trepidations. Someday, we hope to take a cruise of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Bolivian Amazon and Peruvian Amazon. We suspect that they will debunk a few more misconceptions.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Embratur - Brazilian Tourism Office: www.braziltour.com

More things to see & do in Brazil:

Rio de Janeiro Copacabana Palace Hotel

Rio BBQ Restaurant

Iguacu Falls Brazil