Brazil 4 - Cruising the Amazon (Rio Negro)

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June 21st 2016
Published: June 23rd 2016
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June 19 at 2 pm we boarded the Premium II, a small ship just for our Overseas Adventure Travel group (12) at Manaus. We proceeded east (downstream) to the meeting of the waters where the Rio Negro (clear, acidic, and dark) meets the Solimoes (milky and neutral and carrying a lot of rich sediment) to form the Amazon. The scale of the Amazon is hard to comprehend. The Amazon basin covers an area the size of the continental US, and at its mouth the river is 50 miles across. Here in Manaus, hundreds of miles inland, it is still the widest river I've ever seen, several(?) miles across.

Over the course of three days we covered about 30 miles, mostly upstream on the Rio Negro. One great thing about the Rio Negro is that it is so acidic (pH 4.5) that mosquitoes don't breed in it! We are traveling at a time when there is a lot of concern about the Zika virus (although I find Dengue and malaria a lot more frightening). I think I saw maybe 4 or 5 mosquitoes, even on land, and I don't think I got any bites. Maine and New Hampshire are way worse!!

Our ship is luxurious in being air conditioned in the cabins and having small private bathrooms in each cabin. There are three decks with cabins on the first and second, a dining room on the second, and a meeting room and viewing deck on the third. There is a cook, a laundress, waiter/bartender, engineer, and captain as well as Hugo, our nature guide. Right away we went out on the viewing deck and looked at the terns and egrets and the occasional grey dolphins that broke the surface.

We had to be sure to store all of the food, gum, etc. that we were carrying in the ship's refrigerator so ants would not find it in our cabin and infest our luggage! It must have worked, because I did not see a single ant on board. We also had to leave our binoculars in the less air conditioned meeting room, because if we kept them in our cool cabins they would fog immediately when taken out into the humid heat.

That first night after a delicious dinner of local fish, chicken, salad, beans, manioc, fresh veggies and homemade cake (how does the cook manage this in a tiny galley?), we had the first of our excursion in the motorized "canoe" with Hugo. Three times we did nighttime spotlighting and twice we were out at 6 am for birdwatching. Luckily our trip coincided with the full moon, and the weather stayed dry for us. The nighttime canoe rides were my favorite, bringing back memories of spotlighting for tree-kangaroos and possums in Australia while seeing the Southern Cross and brilliant moon above us and the black water and jungle all around. Sometimes we took our canoe right into the midst of trees under the dark canopy, because this is high-water time for the river. At other times we were in the open but got stuck in grassy spots, so we would either reverse and then gun the motor to power us through or else Hugo had to get an oar and push us through, a la African Queen.

On the night excursions we saw two types of caimans, dwarf and black, which Hugo caught with his bare hands. There were also sloths, nightjars, potoos, an emerald tree boa, and fishing bats.

During our daytime boat rides we saw even more birds, of course, about 45 species in all, only a very small fraction of the 1500 in the whole Amazon. The highlights were a family of three blue and yellow macaws, a spectacled owl, capped heron, white-throated toucan, and the only leaf eating bird, the hoatzin, which looks like an ugly chicken with a punk hairdo. I also liked watching a black-collared hawk, which is a huge bird, get dive-bombed right on the head by a little kiskadee. And everyone loved it when a capuchin monkey, who came right down to us (they're fearless little beggars) jumped into the canoe and stole a bunch of bananas before anyone could react.

We also had a visit to an indigenous village along the river. The people were so nice and welcoming. Evangelical missionaries have built a church for them, and they have comfortable homes (with TV satellite dishes) grouped around a soccer field. The kids were all out practicing with bows and arrows for some intervillage competition that was coming up in a few days. It looked like a happy place to grow up. Just for fun, Hugo painted us women's faces with the dye from some anato seeds, so I'm sure we looked especially strange to the people.

On our last full day, we had a hot and sweaty jungle walk with Fernando, a man who makes his living from the forest making handcrafts and leading the occasional tour. He showed us how to defend ourselves from jaguars (as if) with a spear or palm branch, how to start a fire with a machete and steel wool, and he showed us the latex from a rubber tree and from a chicle tree. He roused colonies of Aztec ants and giant hunting ants that swarmed out when he tapped on their nests, but he was unsuccessful at luring a hand-sized tarantula from her lair, so we didn't actually see any in the Amazon, nor did we see any of the famous pink dolphins or piranhas, but we did get a wonderful swim in the river to cool off after our hike. I say "cool off" in a relative way, because the water was probably about 85 degrees on average with mysterious hot and cold spots that we kept exclaiming over. "Here, here it's nice and cool!"

We left the Amazon and our home ship very reluctantly (and at 2:45 am!), hoping many generations to come will be able to hear the howler monkeys and enjoy the indescribable sights we have been able to experience.


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