Story and photos by Jimm Budd
Along the Brazilian Amazon – When I got off our cruise ship for a walk in the jungle I expected to encounter giant sloths hugging towering trees while spider monkeys leapt from branch to branch as colorful toucans gazed down with distain. Anacondas and scorpions I hoped would keep their distance, and I had no intention of swimming in waters where piranhas and 10-foot-long caimans lurk. Yet the first day out, the only sound our tour group heard was the cry of a pia bird. Marco Duila, our guide, responded with calls of his own, hoping to lure the creature into visibility. He failed.
“You have to understand, the animals here survive because of camouflage,” he explained. Duila, born in tropical Peru, has spent more than two decades leading groups into tropical wilderness. “Most animals here are nocturnal. It is not wise to wander along these paths after dark.”
That sent the appropriate tiny shiver up my spine. This is why people board cruise ships to see the Amazon. To be scared while staying safe.
Not one to disappoint his charges, Duila quickly pointed at a hairy black tarantula, its fangs splayed for attack at lethally poisonous bullet ants. With that, I was ready for return to the comforts of our rather luxurious vessel.
We had started out cruising along the Rio Solimoes, a geologically young river, nutrient-rich and, compared to the nearby Rio Negro, teeming with life both on shore and within the water. Where the Solimoes and Negro join close to the port of Manaus, the Amazon is born. Caboclos -- descendents of Portuguese settlers and indigenous women -- live along the shore, fishing with nets or spears, washing clothes on slabs of wood and tending to small gardens. Manaus, where the river is 5 miles across, is as far as ocean-going ships can travel.
Boats are the main way people get around, nice looking boats that resemble the tour boats you might find in Acapulco or Cancun. There being only one road out of Manaus – and it leads to Caracas, 1,250 miles away -- the boats serve as buses. Boat owners – the boat mafia, some people call them – campaign hard to prevent any highways being cut from southern Brazil through the Amazon basin. Ecologists support them.
Aboard our ship, the Iberostar Grand Amazon, quarters were air-conditioned. A swimming pool was available and there seemed to be a bar on all three decks. But constantly we were reminded where we were. After dinner our first night, we were treated to a showing of Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." The Amazon's biodiversity took on a new meaning.
In the morning, we went out see the dense vegetation up close. I might have been happy just gazing over the railing of the ship, but such apathy is frowned upon. Excursions are a daily feature, with passengers given a choice of staying aboard launches that find invisible channels in the undergrowth or actually hiking in through tropical wilderness. Uneasy about the possibility of encountering something slithery or clawed, I was told a bigger worry are mosquitoes and fire ants. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are proper dress for the jungle, with repellant the lotion of choice.
On one trek we stopped by a rather grubby riverside farm where an extended Caboclo family scrounges out a living grating and roasting cassava, leaching out the cyanide within. What remains is fried into farinha, staple of the Amazon jungle diet. That and fish provide all the family needs. The family might appear poor by our standards, but everyone appeared quite happy. Of course, I doubt that our guide would have taken us to visit a household of malcontents.
Compared to the Solimoes, the Río Negro is solemn, sparsely populated and a trifle eerie. The water, dark as the name implies, is highly acidic as river water goes, so much so that fish from the Solimoes cannot survive in the Negro. And while the shore appeared green and lush, the soil is poor for farming. From an ecological point of view, this is a blessing. Were the soil truly fertile, the rain forest by now might have been slashed, burned and turned into farmland.
A fascination with ecology is almost a requirement for an Amazon cruise. Important, too, is selecting the season you will most enjoy. The months from December through February are humid and rainy, although the rain falls throughout the year. After all, this is a rain forest. September through November is excellent for seeing different species of birds nesting along the shore. The waters are highest in June, July and August.
While the food on board is good and activities are programmed throughout the day, an Amazon cruise is not a journey for the easily bored. We did fish for piranhas, watched small caimans caught and released, had a chance to cuddle a sloth and have an anaconda draped around the neck – I declined – but most of what you see is trees, leaves and sometimes murky water. They had a disco aboard our ship, but I never heard any music playing there.
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