Demystifying the Amazon

Fall 2010 CSANews Issue 76  |  Posted date : Oct 01, 2010.Back to list

An Amazon cruise is all about shattering misconceptions. Even at the planning stage, the river's size changed our intentions of taking a full-length cruise. We knew that the 6,740-kilometre Amazon is the second-longest river in the world after the Nile, but we didn't realize that no single ship cruises the Brazilian, Peruvian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian sections of the Amazon.

Misconception #1:
You can take a cruise down the whole length of the Amazon River.

We chose one of several Brazilian Amazon cruises, which vary in price, length and departure port - including Manaus, Buenos Aires, Barbados, Puerto Rico and Fort Lauderdale (ideal for Florida snowbirds). Most Brazilian Amazon voyages travel 1,600 kilometres between the Atlantic and Manaus, Brazil. Some cruises include Caribbean and South American destinations, such as the former Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana. Expect hot, humid temperatures, averaging 31 degrees Celsius, tempered by breezes from movement of the ship.

The Amazon's power became apparent after our cruise from Barbados rounded the shoulder of South America. Two hours from the river's mouth, the cobalt blue Atlantic turned a murky brown from expelled silt. Beginning with glacier and snow melt in the Andes, the Amazon drains 40% of South America and annually spills out one-fifth of the world's fresh water 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.

Misconception #2:
You can easily view both banks of the Amazon River.

Moving islands

As wide as the distance from Montreal to Quebec City, the Amazon's mouth made our 120-passenger ship seem as insignificant as a bathtub toy. Marajó Island, one of many islands separating channels in the Amazon delta, is six times the size of Prince Edward Island. "Currents loosen sea roots anchoring smaller islands, causing them to move. Sand bars also move, so ships hire local pilots to help navigate through the channels," explained our captain.

The Amazon's average width of eight kilometres dispelled misconception #2. Amazon sightseeing is not as easy as viewing nearby vineyards, castles and cities from the deck of a Rhine cruise. When we saw the jungle-covered bank on one side, we usually couldn't see the other side. Thatched homes, revealed by the occasional parting of vegetation, drew passengers from poolside chairs with cameras and binoculars for a closer look.

To truly experience the Amazon, its wildlife and people, we had to get off of the ship. Fortunately, Amazon cruises offer shore excursions. They also carry Zodiacs and tenders, which we boarded to explore small tributaries. During one excursion, two men and a boy paddled a dugout canoe towards us. The locals were as curious about us as we were about them. Speaking Portuguese, our boat driver answered their questions about our nationalities. We learned that they were caboclos, part-Amazonian Native, part-Portuguese farmers and fishermen.

Misconception #3:
The Amazon River is infested with mosquitoes, giant anaconda snakes and blood-hungry piranhas.

Perceived versus real perils

Misconception #3 was our mental image of a dangerous Amazon, infested with mosquitoes, giant anaconda snakes and blood-hungry piranhas. Our insect encounters were pleasant surprises, such as finding emerald green butterflies clinging to the upper deck walls. There were hazards, but not the ones we expected. More about them later...

After celebrating the equator crossing with champagne and cake, passengers eagerly anticipated the first tour. Alter do Chão is located where the clear, green Tapajós River meets the Amazon. Rio Tapajós is one of more than 1,100 Amazon tributaries...10 are larger than the Mississippi.

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 where families process manioc, a starchy dietary staple that looks and tastes like cornmeal. Caboclos grated manioc roots, soaked out a poisonous liquid, squeezed the grated manioc in woven wringers, sieved the yellow morsels and roasted them in hot tub-sized cast iron pans over a fire.

Outside, a farmer slit a rubber tree's bark with a blade. Milky white latex oozed into a coconut cup. "Henry Ford planted rubber trees here between 1928 and 1945," explained Rosario." This latex is no longer used for tires. A local factory makes it into surgical gloves."

Our bus followed a well-paved road through the jungle 33 kilometres east to Santarém, a city of 260,000. Stands selling unique indigenous Tapajó ceramics were the highlight of our walking tour. Passengers reboarded the ship with armfuls of pottery masks, flutes and blow pipes.

Misconception #4:
All towns on the Amazon River are isolated from the rest of the world.

Primitive settlement or digital city?

Parintins, located halfway between Santarém and Manaus, is accessible only by air and boat. We expected the town of 115,000 to be isolated from the rest of the world. Misconception #4. In 2006, Intel brought in computers and connected two schools, a hospital, a community centre and a university to a WiMax network, providing long-range wireless Internet coverage.

The digital city's population doubles for three days in late June, when Parintins celebrates Boi Bumbá, the second-largest annual festival in Brazil, after Rio's Carnival. For cruise ships arriving before or after the festival, residents conduct a scaled-down, but enthusiastic rendition.

Boi Bumbá means "bull dance." The folkloric festival is a competition between two 4,000-member bull clubs. Caprichoso members wave blue-and-white flags, while Garantido members flaunt red-and-white banners. Participants dress as witch doctors, Indian tribes and square dancers. The result? Imagine Carnival with a country-and-western hoedown, fireworks and hoop-skirted girls resembling Southern belles.

Misconception #5:
The Amazon River has the same name for its entire length.

Mid-Amazon opera house

Two days later, we arrived in Manaus. The mid-Amazon city of 1.7 million evolved from the 1890 to 1920 rubber boom, after Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire. As latex prices soared, thousands of people migrated to Manaus to tap rubber trees. Nearly 90% of the world's rubber came from Manaus, making it one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

Architects imported Scottish bricks for multimillion-dollar rubber barons' mansions, and English cast-iron columns, Italian marble and French ceramic tiles to build an opera house. Completed in 1896 at a cost of $10 million, the Amazon Theatre attracted such famous singers as Jenny Lind and Enrico Caruso, in spite of its incongruous location. With 200 chandeliers and 700 red velvet-covered seats, it's still splendid today.

Also a surprise was the art nouveau stained glass and wrought iron Municipal Market, copied from Les Halles in Paris. Instead of cheese and baguettes, we found herbal medicines, jungle fruits and Amazon fish, including the pirarucú, which grows to as long as two metres.

We half expected Humphrey Bogart to saunter off one of the African Queen-style riverboats moored in the Manaus port. Sleeping hammocks traditionally festoon riverboats during long voyages up and down the river. These Amazonian taxis transport families and bananas to markets, children to riverside schools and cruise passengers on excursions to the Meeting of the Waters. Here, the ink-black water of the Rio Negro meets the café au lait-coloured water of the Solimões. Differences in temperature, density and velocity enable them to swirl and flow side by side for six kilometres, before finally mixing to form the Amazon. (We corrected our misconception that the Amazon has the same name for its entire length.) Rio Negro has fewer fish and mosquitoes than the nutrient-rich Solimões, because decaying vegetation makes it acidic.

Misconception #6:
There are no modern accomodations along the Amazon.

Luxury jungle hotel

Our cruise officially ended with a transfer to the Tropical Manaus, 16 kilometres from downtown. Finding a luxury 594-room eco-resort in the Amazon jungle invalidated one more misconception. Tropical Manaus has restaurants, shops, bars, meeting rooms, tennis courts, children's activities, pools, a beauty parlour, sauna and gym. With its colonnaded walkways, wide hallways, marble staircases, mahogany trim and red-tile roofs, the three-storey, white stucco hotel has a distinct colonial atmosphere. Yet we never forgot that we were in Amazonia.

Behind the hotel, there's a menagerie of rescued ocelots, jaguars, pumas, caimans (South American relatives of alligators) and capybaras; the largest rodents in the world, capybaras look like giant, hairy guinea pigs. Pink blossoms and truck tire-sized pads of Victoria Regis water lilies decorate a placid pond. We vividly recalled National Geographic photos of the circular green leaves supporting a baby.

Knowing that more than one-third of the world's species live in the Amazon, we wanted to see Amazon wildlife in natural habitats. We booked post-cruise stays in two jungle lodges within a day's boat ride of Manaus. Clean, but rustic, jungle lodges offer all-inclusive room-and-meal packages with more in-depth Amazon experiences than cruise shore excursions provide.

After boarding a riverboat for the 30-kilometre trip to Amazon Village Jungle Lodge, we noticed the floating docks which accommodate the rise and fall of the river. It was March, during the January to June high-water season, when rainfall and Andean meltwater raise the Amazon to 15 metres above its low-water mark. Water overflows the banks, flooding forests and spreading up to 50 kilometres inland.

Boating in the treetops

Within minutes of checking into the lodge, we were canoeing between treetops, enjoying canopy-level views of monkeys and birds. Below the water's surface, leaves and branches of submerged trees made us feel as if we were paddling in the sky. The flooded forest was silent, except for the splashing of our paddles and the sounds of nature. A fruit fell into the dark water with a ker-plop… tambaqui fish have evolved large teeth and powerful jaws to crack these hard fruits.

That evening, we searched for caimans from a motorized canoe with Luis, our guide. A crescent moon, pinned like a brooch to the sky, pierced the inky blackness around us. After our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw trees silhouetted against the star-sprinkled equatorial sky. Luis scanned the edge of the jungle with a flashlight, as we glided through tranquil water. Although wildlife wasn't visible, it certainly was not silent. Squeak! Squawk! Chirp! Buzz! Rattle! Hiss! Surprisingly, no insects appeared, despite our concerns about malarious mosquitoes.

Caiman encounters of the close kind

Our canoe squeezed between trees lining a narrow passageway. We ducked under branches and dodged leaves brushing the sides of our boat. Luis spotted a pair of ruby eyes frozen by the flashlight and he waded, barefoot, into the shallow water. Cringing, we thought about predatory anacondas. With lightning speed, he gripped the caiman behind the head with one hand, and with the other, grasped the tail to keep it from thrashing about.
Returning to the canoe, Luis reviewed reptile biology 101, showing us the caiman's 75 sharp teeth, soft, supple underbelly and membranes protecting its eyes. He gently released the alligator – unharmed – into the water. It vanished, with a swish of its tail.

Back at the 90-guest lodge, we drifted asleep as wild creatures serenaded us through screened windows. A bell jolted us awake at 7 a.m., announcing breakfast. As we enjoyed fresh papaya, coconut yogurt, sliced ham, fried eggs and warm croissants with guava jelly, a green parrot swooped through the open-walled dining room and strutted across the floor. Laura, we soon learned, had a penchant for chewing shoelaces and coloured necklace beads. Using her beak and claws, she hoisted herself up Ron's pant leg to his shoulder. Honey, we're not in Toronto anymore.

After breakfast, we relaxed in an open-sided lounge, with an enormous liana vine hanging from the thatched ceiling. Laura perched on one of our swinging wicker chairs, keeping us company until the riverboat arrived to take us back to Manaus for the transfer to our next jungle lodge.

As children, we yearned to live in a Swiss Family Robinson-style tree house. Ariaú Amazon Towers, on the banks of the Rio Negro (56 kilometres northwest of Manaus), was the place of our dreams. Eight kilometres of catwalks – 30 metres high – join eight towers, 268 rooms, suites and tree houses, two buffet restaurants, two pools and a cyber-café. The treetop hotel is not for people with vertigo, but it is the place for anyone wanting to be at eye level with jungle occupants. Black-capped capuchin monkeys munched purple blossoms, barely a metre from the walkway. Tiny squirrel monkeys scampered at our feet, while ring-tailed, masked coatis ate fruit from our hands.

We boarded a boat to search for fish with a man-eating reputation – piranhas. Our guide Steve was armed with nylon lines, fishhooks and chunks of raw beef bait. "Don't let anyone tell you that voracious piranhas will tear you to shreds if you fall into the water," he admonished. "Piranhas have plenty to eat during high-water season. They'll only attack during the dry season, if they're trapped in dwindling ponds." One more Amazon myth gurgled down the drain.
Catching piranhas takes patience. We finally pulled up two feisty red-bellied specimens. It was difficult to understand why such small fish had such a fearsome reputation. Then we looked at their scalpel-sharp teeth…and the now-healed stub of Steve's index finger. He sheepishly admitted that a piranha had bitten him as he removed the hook from its mouth.

Misconception #7:
Piranhas will tear you to shreds if you fall into the water.

In disbelief, we watched Steve remove his T-shirt and jump into the water for a swim. Emerging unmolested, he proved his point about piranhas, but we returned to the lodge with only two fish from our expedition. He scared the rest away.

The next morning, we joined a jungle trek. Steve identified the haunting cries of howler monkeys and red-billed toucans. He helped us spot a three-toed sloth slung high in a tree, a huge green grasshopper and an industrious army of leaf-cutter ants at our feet. Without his expertise, we would have missed 90% of the jungle's wonders.

After a lunch of tasty grilled tambaqui, manioc toasted in butter, vegetables and guarana (a ginger ale-like soft drink made from small red jungle fruits), we boarded large, motorized canoes with Steve and other guests. Meandering up igarapes (small creeks), we arrived at a small caboclo village of thatched, stilted dwellings. Inside one open-sided house, three generations shared a meal. A grandmother, tenderly playing with her grandchild, suddenly became animated, shouting at us and gesturing madly.

Strolling nonchalantly under a tree, we looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "What did we do wrong?" Steve quickly appeared and ushered us away from the most dangerous thing in the Amazon forest – Brazil nuts. Yes, the delicious white nuts that we eat at Christmastime. Only here, they're found in thick baseball-size shells, 20 at a time. Because Brazil nut trees can grow 40 metres high, ripe nuts drop like lethal bombs.

Our comprehension of jungle dangers clarified, we realized that the Amazon had both negated our erroneous perceptions and exceeded our expectations. An appreciation of the Amazon's people, wildlife and ecology had replaced our original stereotypical images and trepidations.

Someday, we hope to take cruises on the Peruvian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian sections of the Amazon. We suspect that they'll debunk a few more misconceptions.

Related links
Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website: