We had left the Venezuelan flat sabanas and travelled south through to the Brazilian state of Roraima to return to the city of Boa Vista. We didn’t want to hang around so we got the first bus out and travelled to the city of Manaus, deep in the heart of the Amazon. As we travelled overnight we travelled under the cover of darkness, so as we arrived it didn’t feel like we were back in the Amazon. Manaus is a big metropolis of nearly two million people, our first taste of things here was the city’s bus terminal and our taxi ride into the centre. Manaus is officially a concrete jungle and about as far away from how anybody could imagine the Amazon.
After checking into a hostel we set about organising our transport from Manaus to the eastern fringes of the Amazon to city of Belem. The journey would mean we would have to embark on one of South America’s classic journeys - a passenger boat along the Rio Amazonas. We mainly spent the morning finding out about the schedule and other options available in and around Manaus. After sifting through the rip-off merchants we got ourselves tickets for a boat in three days time and a day trip into the jungle here.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Manaus, shopping for hammocks and checking out the Teatro Amazonas - a grand opera house in the middle of the Amazon. Manaus was once known as the ‘Paris of the Tropics’ (from the rubber boom years), a label that the city has certainly lost. But it is plain to see why it was once known as this. Off the main concrete drags full of modern shopping centres, eateries and western influences lies a different more charming side to Manaus - a side we would experience and enjoy the longer we spent in the city. The streets surrounding the plaza containing the Teatro Amazonas were themselves full of the old rubber boom architecture, grandeur and splendour. The Teatro was on par with many of the worlds structures, built in a colonial style with a high dome containing a mosaic of the Brazilian flag. The interior would also impress, built to the same magnificent standards as the exterior.
We spent the evening admiring the Teatro from one of Brazil’s famous makeshift bars on the plaza edge with some of our new acquaintances from the hostel, mainly enjoying Brazil’s good skills on how to make drinks with fresh fruit. We all stayed up waiting for some of the heat to lift but unsurprisingly Manaus is another hot, hot, place. Sleeping in this humidity is always an experience.
Manaus is probably the Amazon’s capital for trips into the jungle. Organising a day trip wasn’t any bother at all; going in for a few days is the way forward but when on a limited time frame, they are great. We really wanted to see this part of the Amazon as the other parts we had visited were all very different - as far as jungle goes! We were dropped off early at a part of Manaus’ massive port - Manaus is in actual fact an international port, something like 1600km inland! It’s strange to see thousands of shipping crates stacked up from the main shipping companies of the world. Another mind bending fact is that when Manaus was originally built, the materials were all transported by slow boat along the Rio Amazonas.
We had to hang around the port for a little while, while we waited for the captain. This didn’t bother us because it gave us a chance to see this living, breathing, hustling place in action! The early morning catches were being weighed and sorted, the portside markets overflowed with trader barter and streetside warehouses were spilling over the brim with fruit. After watching mechanics at work and the extremely relaxed attitude of the local workers, our captain had turned up with other passengers.
We left the port and set sail in a small craft with our first destination being the convergence of the waters. The cooler Rio Solimoes (Peru) meets with the warmer, darker Rio Negro. The result is a river of two tones flowing for 18km before mixing together. We left the convergence after playing around over the meeting point for a while and were whisked away to a reserve where we would find giant Amazonian water lilies - something I had wanted to see for a while. We got to the reserve, walked along the decked walkway and ended up disappointed. There were giant water lilies, well two and they seemed to be heading the same way as the rest of the population - they didn’t look well.
We were then ambushed by locals handing us animals to have photographs with before we continued onto the jungle lodge. We passed Manaus on the way, seeing it from the water really brings home what this place really is - a super city in the middle of the biggest rainforest in the world. It sounds pretty obvious but arriving in the city under darkness and then experiencing the place just makes it feel like any other sweaty concrete metropolis. But from the water the sight is something else - a wide panorama of rainforest with Manaus in the middle, poking above the skyline and spilling onto the riverbank.
We made our way out to the lodge and, as time was getting away, we were taken straight out to go piranha fishing. As we travelled around the river network I could definitely see the difference, it was a thicker forest but at the same time thinner. What I mean by this is the trees are different, less variety and finer. I managed to catch two piranhas as the guide took the boat straight into the undergrowth of the Amazon. A short but sweet (but well worth it) visit saw us steaming back to Manaus, where we joined a few people from the hostel to go to one of Teatro Amazonas regular free symphonies. Anybody who says there’s nothing to Manaus, well just ignore them. After sitting out on the hostel’s patio it was time to hit one of the sweatiest pits I have ever had the pleasure of sleeping in. It seems that nobody in this hostel has heard of a fan, in a place where it’s still 32° at 2am and with humidity of 95%......
Our last day in Manaus saw us spending the morning preparing for our five-day boat journey. We purchased hammocks from Manaus’ hammock quarter and then made our way down to the bustling port. Here we milled around the abundance of markets and warehouses full to the brim with giant melons and bananas. We stocked up on bottled water, pineapple, bananas and melon. The word on the street was the boat food was a bit on the dodgy side so we stocked up on pot noddles as well. It was a great experience getting involved with port life, an area of Manaus teeming with life and character.
We then needed to board our boat, the Cisne Branco, sorted ourselves and settled in. The boat was mainly full of travelling Brazilians, after all this is the way you travel around the Amazon. With a minimal road network (although growing and seriously damaging the Amazon Basin) boat travel is the only reliable means of travelling around these parts. We weren’t the only forgein travellers on board, we bumped into a couple of English people and a couple of Ozzies from our hostel. Soon it was time to sound the horn and embark on what we had come for, more epic, unforgettable adventures in the biggest rainforest on the planet. The boat left its berth, leaving behind the steamy Amazon for the cooler tides of the mighty Rio Amazonas. Soon enough we had left the river views of Manaus and were given a bird’s eye view of the convergence of the water. As the boat continued along the Amazon we spotted many settlements and communities along the banks relying on the river and jungle. The river also widens, and becomes pretty choppy - it seems more like an estuary or even a sea than a river. We had been told that the river during the wet season can become in excess of 35km wide. We now believe what we had been told!
As the evening grew upon us we passed many boats and ships travelling up and down the Amazon. We were then treated to our first Rio Amazonas sunset. I’ve said before how perfect and spectacular these are in South America but somehow this river manages to put a whole new perspective on them. We sat and watched the splendour as the delicately coloured sun airbrushed the waters before us, then disappearing out of sight behind the lush forest covering the banks, which continues for miles. I think that’s one of the things that grabs you out here, it’s desolate and a million miles away from what I know as life.
As the sun disappeared the wind increased to very blowy proportions, we got together with the other travellers and shared a drink while getting introduced to Brazilian modern rock or, as they call it, ‘forro’. It’s an interesting mix - we had the treat of watching a few DVD’s worth......
The next day we got the chance to sample the boat’s food. Actually, contrary to any other reports, it was ok, well even good! They served up a big plate full of fish, beef, rice and beans, all for a very reasonable sum! The kitchen and eating area were all pretty clean as well. As the boat progressed we moved from the middle of this wide river to the banks passing huts cut into the forest, local persons travelling in dugout canoes, other passenger boats and container barges. En route the boat makes many stops in the larger settlements, a time when looking after one’s possessions is a must. The boat finally docked in Santarem where we would be moored for the night. As it was the birthday of one of the aussies we assembled a crew and went into town to celebrate. We ended up in an outside bar where live acoustic music is played in front of a mass of pool tables surrounded by tables and chairs. We stayed until the very early hours of the next morning before tip toeing back onto the boat.
The next few days would see us shaking off hangovers, listening to the neverending supply of forro (not new DVD’s, just the same three, played over and over again) and playing plenty of cards. Still fascinated by the Amazon we watched it change from the widest of sections to narrower sections where you can see where the water has claimed the land, semi sunk trees, Islands of rainforest and then cliffs with beaches suddenly appear on the banks. We would also continue to eat the ship’s food (really not bad at all!) and even marvelled as the crew loaded a car on bottom deck.
The last day saw the boat having to navigate through some very tight channels, this gave us the opportunity to see the jungle close up, together with its bank-side communities and activities that we had been admiring from afar. Our last night on Rio Amazonas gave us another picture-perfect sunset, just like the rest. The river widened again and the wind really picked up and we saw some impressive waves as the boat cut through the waters. Due to the wind we thought it would be a good idea to have chair races on top deck (it worked, see here!)
Before we knew it it was seven o clock in the morning and we had docked in Belem. Only a few kilometres further and the Rio Amazonas would pour into the Atlantic Ocean. After four and a half days, 1800km and another trip highlight, I couldn’t help but ponder on the sheer size of the Amazon, a diverse ecosystem and the world’s lungs. It’s colossal, from our first taste in Bolivia to the Ecuadorian basin, Colombia and Venezuela’s slice too. All mindblowingly vast, packed to the brim with wildlife and diversity.
Full Manaus Photos on Flickr
Full Rio Amazonas Photos on Flickr
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