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AN AMAZON ADVENTURE CRUISE
by Ted Cookson
Published in May 2003
Amazon rainstorm, 29-second video clip
On 1 March 2003 I sailed from Manaus, Brazil to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on the
208-passenger Bahamas-registered cruise ship Seabourn Pride. During the
16-day cruise the Seabourn Pride called at: Brazil's Anavilhanas
Archipelago; the towns of Parintins and Santarem along the Amazon; Devil's
Island off French Guiana; Bridgetown, Barbados; and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas
in the U. S. Virgin Islands. I will confine my remarks in this article to the
Amazon portion of the cruise.
Brazil, the world's fifth largest country, is nearly as large as the continental United States. Brazil shares borders with all other South American countries except Ecuador and Chile. It is 4,350 km (2,700 miles) from Brazil's northern border to its southern border, and the distance from east to west is nearly the same. More than half of Brazil's population is under 30 and, collectively, Brazilians represent one of the world's broadest ethnic blends.
The Spanish soldier Francisco de Orellana was the first European to explore the Amazon in 1541. He is said to have given the river its name after reporting battles with tribes of female warriors.
The Amazon River is the largest drainage system in the world in terms of both water volume and basin area. The total length of the Amazon from its headwaters in Peru to its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean is about 6,400 km (4,000 miles). Although this is slightly shorter than the Nile, it is still equivalent to the distance from Rome to New York City. The westernmost source of the Amazon lies only 160 km (100 miles) from the Pacific Ocean. The system consists of several main waterways and about 1,000 tributaries.
The Amazon Basin, South America's largest lowland, occupies an area of 6 million square km (2.3 million square miles). This is almost twice as large as the basin of the Congo River, the earth's other great equatorial drainage system. Stretching some 2,782 km (1,725) miles from north to south at its widest point, the Amazon basin includes most of Brazil and Peru, major parts of Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, and a small portion of Venezuela. About two-thirds of the Amazon's main stream lies within Brazil.
Some 20% of all the fresh water on earth flows through the Amazon. The maximum flood discharge at the mouth of the Amazon is 175,000 cubic meters (6,180,000 cubic feet) per second. This is four times that of the Congo and more than ten times the amount of water carried by the Mississippi. A single day's discharge into the Atlantic is sufficient to supply New York City with a nine-year supply of fresh water. The Amazon's immense volume of fresh water dilutes the ocean's saltiness 161 km (100 miles) from shore.
More than two-thirds of the Amazon basin is covered by an immense rain forest. In fact, the Amazon rain forest, which represents over one-third of the earth's remaining rain forest, also constitutes earth's largest reserve of biological resources. During recent decades deforestation has accelerated due to the development of new highways and airports and the discovery of minerals. The current population of Brazil's Amazon region is some 17 million, or 3.4 inhabitants per square km. 62% of this population lives in urban areas while only 38% lives in rural areas.
In Brazil the name "Solimoes" is used for the Amazon from Iquitos, Peru to the mouth of the Rio Negro. Brazilians use the term "Amazon" (actually "Amazonas" in Portuguese) for the river only from the Rio Negro east to the Atlantic Ocean. Manaus (pronounced "Man-awsh'"), the largest Amazon river city with a population of 1,300,000, is situated near the junction of the brownish-yellow (muddy) Rio Solimoes and the "black" Rio Negro. Interestingly, due to their different densities, velocities and temperatures, these two great rivers flow together for 6 km (4 miles) before mixing. A distinct stripe flows down the center until the two rivers eventually blend into a single uniform color.
Manaus' most famous monument is its opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, which was inaugurated in 1896. Built over a 15-year period during Brazil's late nineteenth century rubber boom from materials imported from Europe, the 681-seat neoclassical opera house was last restored in 1990 and is still in use today. Only the wood for the floors and the chairs came from Brazil, and even that wood was sent to Europe for molding before being returned to the jungle for installation.
Manaus' ingenious floating docks, constructed by a Scottish engineer at the beginning of the twentieth century, rise and fall by up to 10 meters (32 feet) with the Rio Negro's varying water level. At the Museu do Indio in downtown Manaus I viewed artifacts, costumes and weapons from the region's principal tribes. Due to a favorable exchange rate, the museum gift shop offered expertly-woven baskets from as little as USD 3; and I was able to purchase one large basket which stands a full meter high for only USD 9. One of the other highlights of my visit to Manaus was attending the very colorful Carnival parade there.
On the second day of the cruise the Seabourn Pride anchored near the 145-km (90-mile)-long Anavilhanas Archipelago which consists of 400 islands and is situated northwest of Manaus on the Rio Negro. Unlike the muddy Solimoes (Amazon), the Rio Negro flows over a bed of fine sand that is free of sediment. Even though the Rio Negro's water appears black, it is said that its water is purer than tap water found in most urban areas. Also, incredibly, the Rio Negro is free of mosquitoes and many other types of insects. It is thought that the river absorbs plant materials which dissolve and add natural toxins. Though not harmful to fish or jungle animals which drink from the river, the poisons apparently inhibit the reproductive cycles of most insects.
The Anavilhanas Archipelago is a developed jungle resort area. I took the opportunity to tour Ariau Amazon Towers, the largest tree top lodge. Established in 1986 with a mere eight rooms, today the resort boasts a helipad and can accommodate hundreds of guests. Ariau Amazon Towers has been frequented by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Helmut Kohl, King Guftav of Sweden and Susan Sarandon. I was shown the suite once occupied by Bill Gates which, incidentally, was even furnished with a PC and printer!
Because the resort is built at the canopy level, the exotic flora and fauna of the Amazon rain forest are close at hand. Further exposure is also provided to guests through canoe rides in the creeks nearby. The Amazon region is host to 311 species of mammals, 2,600 species of birds and more than 400,000 kinds of insects. At Ariau Amazon Towers I saw and heard monkeys in the canopy as I walked along the resort's high wooden walkways, and both piranha and pink dolphins are said to live in the river there.
Most people picture exotic animals and giant reptiles when they think of the Amazon. While there are many snakes and lizards, the Amazon Basin supports no large herding mammals like those found on the plains of Africa. Monkeys are the most diverse Amazon mammal group. The Brazilian rain forest supports six feline species, including jaguars, of which now only some 15,000 remain. Their biggest threat nowadays is deforestation rather than hunting. Rodents are the most abundant mammals in the Amazon. The Amazon's capybara is the world's largest rodent. The tapir, the largest mammal in the rain forest, grows to be up to 2 meters (6 feet) long. Tapirs feed on fruit and leaves and weigh about 182 kg (400 pounds). Northern Brazil's fish stocks are also abundant. More than 1,500 species have been classified. Some marine biologists estimate that up to 500 additional species may have yet to be discovered.
The Seabourn Pride next called at Parintins, 564 km (350 miles) downstream from Manaus. With a population of 30,000, each June the 200-year-old town hosts a festival similar to Rio's Carnival. Amazonian legends, forest creatures and local and Andean rhythms are incorporated into this bizarre but fascinating spectacle. At the time of the annual festival the population swells more than tenfold as visitors arrive from all over Brazil. A special evening performance by exotic costumed dancers was staged for cruise passengers in the local open air cultural center.
The final port of call on the Amazon was the city of Santarem. There a piranha fishing tour was offered. Piranha were caught and grilled on the spot with manioc flour. In fact, I saw fierce-looking mounted piranha being sold as souvenirs all along the Amazon. However, while piranha do certainly possess sharp teeth, it turns out that they are not nearly as fierce as their Hollywood-inspired reputation suggests. Locals bathe throughout the Amazon Basin alongside piranha without this fish causing them any harm.
The final two days on the Amazon were among the most interesting, even though there were no ports of call. During the first portion of my cruise down the Amazon, the river and its tributaries were all very wide. However, northeast of Santarem as the ship began to weave through narrow channels to reach the Atlantic Ocean, vignettes of local life along the shores of these channels were presented to cruise ship passengers. While the backdrop was always dense rain forest, now I could easily see and photograph local people in their canoes, individual houses, small villages and even sawmills. Finally at Macapa our Amazon River pilot disembarked, and the Seabourn Pride sailed north to the Caribbean.
ABOUT TED COOKSON: Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world! He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club). A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi. Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at: Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301. Fax 2359-1199. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.eptours.com.
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