Edit Blog Post
Published: September 1st 2019
Letitia was a very pleasant way to say goodbye to Colombia and a simple amble along Independacia saw us in Tabatinga and Brasil. Sure enough the Esmeralda
, certainly not the most modern of the ferries running this stretch of the Rio Amazonia, was in dock. However, markedly different to our previous experience of Amazonian ferries there were no livestock onboard, which was good: cattle attract all manner of biting beasties.
It is actually here, pre-boarding, that immigration and security perform last minute checks to see whether they'll let you steam-on into Brasil proper. And departing from Colombia they are pretty thorough. Passports scrutinized (there was no askance for evidence of onward transport out of Brasil and our fake tickets proved an unnecessary precaution), all bags were laid out into lines and a rather unlikely-looking pooch (hell, I'd been throwing a ball for him thirty minutes earlier) set loose to give them a good sniff. This procedure, with individuals standing several yards behind their packs, is always fun: can you spot the nervy individual; what innocuous bag/parcel will the dog stop at? And indeed he did stop, thrice. He was not a fan of cheese, tomato and celery sandwiches
as our gear was totally ignored. However, at the two rucksacks next ours he became most excited and immediately lay flat, wagging his tail. I glanced at our neighbours in the line, two young Germans, who appeared as cool as you like, even in the stifling mid-day heat. Nevertheless, hauled forwards to the head table they were and out came all their stuff. Meanwhile the dog was off again and half way down the second line once again he dropped prone. Yes... Of course. I'd also picked the Argentinians. And he hadn't even clocked their "man-buns" let alone known their nationality; this dog was deceivingly good. In addition to their packs these guys had a guitar in a carry case. All went forward. The packs were picked apart, the guitar merely removed from its case and the latter searched. "It's inside the guitar you fools" I almost cried. "Let the dog smell the guitar". Nah, the humans let the side down, they didn't even percuss the instrument to listen for a dud sound. Rubbish. The third "hit" was a neatly taped-up local's parcel. Unfortunately we didn't get to witness this screening as we were now let loose to board.
At this point there is always a scramble to nab those most sought after hammock slots. Interestingly, and fortunately - space wise, the locals and the foreigners have contrasting views on where these are located. The locals seek the middle deck and this is always, immediately, crammed with hammocks hung not only so that they almost touch but then overlaid like bunks. By contrast the foreigners hot-tail it up to the top deck where it is far more open (though still covered) and airier. Our pick is the outer tier for maximum breeze (also equating to fewer mosquitoes) and unobstructed river views. Port or starboard depends on the predominant direction to be travelled and didn't factor here as we were heading east and sunsets would invariably be viewed from the stern, whilst the lack of any wind (whilst stationary) gave no hint as to its prevailing direction.
We hung our ultra-light (thin) nylon hammocks.
And here I am ahead of myself as I've neglected to relate Ali's pre-departure concerns regarding their suitability (hanging-cord lengths - were they long enough?) and status (didn't one have a number of chaffs/holes?). To placate her worries
I had checked the one that has seen most action - namely fishing expeditions (close exposure to bear-deterring fires) - and it was, I assured her, just fine. All would be well. She acquiesced but threatened serious repercussions if it proved necessary for her to sleep on the metal deck.
Oeerrrr, one - the unchecked one - did indeed look worse for wear with a number of minor holes bordering tights-resembling ladders... It must have been the one we used with Mark back in Puerto Escondido. Ali frowned. Fear not I confidently chirped: Duct tape solves all; although it rapidly became apparent that we had just discovered the one material that it doesn't stick to. Ha ha, I announced, pass me the superglue: a liberal application around the offending boundaries would surely prevent their development. Sorted. I felt rather chuffed with myself; you can take the boy out of science but not the science from the boy...
Thus we began our relaxing four day cruise down to Manaus. Antiquated the Esmeralda
may be but the food was both plentiful and really rather good, whilst the stately passage down the Amazon was visually spectacular. Periodically
we'd pull alongside a village, often in the dead of night, for an exchange of passengers. On our approach children would paddle out in all manner of rickety craft to meet us in the hope of receiving freebies and were often rewarded with flying (floatable) packages. Although seriously wide the river is host to hundreds of sizeable islands that transform the passage into narrow jungle-encroached waterways punctuated with improbably isolated stilt-raised dwellings.
Sunrises and sunsets were both stunning, whilst the lack of light pollution revealed stars in their millions.
Of course we'd taken certain provisions with us, namely fruit and nibbles (we hadn't expected the food provided to be sufficient) and several litres of spirits and mixers (beer would, if available, no doubt be of prohibitive cost). Thus our hammock-lazing, reading, card-playing and vista gazing were - as soon as the sun sunk to an excusable elevation - invariably accompanied by a stream of cuba libras. We were having a jolly old time.
Then as our third night aboard approached we received some disappointing news: we'd make Manaus the following morning; there'd be no fourth day/night on Esmeralda
's decks. Nevertheless, this
development did prove serendipitous as in attaining that perfect slumber-time hammock posture I found myself looking up at Ali through its ripped belly. She shook her head and rolled over. So much for superglue science.
Peeling myself off the deck, once again dawn burnished the river's surface gold although this time a rather unappealing city loomed in the distance. What was somewhere so large and ugly doing this deep in the Amazon basin?
Dockside at the "official" booking office we were confronted with a choice: depart tomorrow (somewhat rushed as we needed to replenish our stores... and buy new hammocks) or wait for five days (even more unappealing). We rushed off to find a hostel in which to dump the packs. Now unencumbered we discovered a multitude of temporary stalls strewn along the docks, all offering passage on a variety of craft. Surely, we reasoned, the official bricks-and-mortar-based office would be the most reliable outlet? We didn't want to end up on a scabby boat. Thus we returned and were handled (manipulated?) by a charming and extremely attractive young woman. Tickets were more pricey than the first leg, but this was expected (indeed they
were cheaper than expected) and we duly signed-up for the San Marino III
that would depart at 10am the following morning. Having committed, our ravishing beauty announced that the San Marino
was already in a neighbouring dock and that we could go view it.
With an eye on the clock we were soon passing a succession of well presented vessels; wow, this obviously accounted for the elevated fares. But where was the San Marino III
? We asked a stevedore if he knew its location. He laughed; it was tied parallel to that smart blue ferry down yonder. Why had he laughed? Why was it essentially hidden? Ahhhh... Ali wasn't laughing. OK, so it looked rather tired and was actually an earlier incarnation - the San Marino II
, but it would - surely - suffice. New hammocks purchased and stocks replenished we were sitting on the stoop outside the non-smoking hotel enjoying a cold beer when some familiar faces advanced up the road. It was a woman and her two young children who'd been on the Esmeralda
. They were also staying at the little business hotel. We started to chat and on hearing that we were off again
tomorrow the woman enquired why we weren't staying on our new boat tonight? Apparently all boats let passengers stay on board for the night(s) they are in port prior to departure. Damn, we'd missed a trick there.
This got Ali thinking... She hadn't seen a dining room on the ferry; hell, was there even a kitchen? There would be food, wouldn't there? Of course they'd be food I reassured; who's going to stick you on a boat for four days without food?
As we boarded the next morning our eyes were drawn to the preponderance of locals carrying cool boxes. There was also a complete absence of backpackers. Surely not... Just to calm Ali's escalating panic I asked a crew member. Yes, food was available but only if you paid extra for it. Extra? That would not be happening. We checked our supplies, items that had been intended to merely supplement wholesome meals: 14 bananas, 8 apples, a pineapple, 2 packs of saltine crackers and 4 packs of malted milk biscuits. These would have to sustain us for four days. The biscuits were untouched leftovers from the previous leg that we'd intended to donate
to any homeless individuals we'd passed on the way to the dock. Fortunately there had been none. On an up-note, I hurriedly pointed out, scurvy wouldn't be an issue and... we wouldn't be short of vodka.
We scurried back to the dock for a hearty breakfast.
On pulling away from the jetty it rapidly became apparent that engine noise (and the accompanying V&T topple-threatening vibrations) would feature heavily on this trip, although any concern that this might interfere with the distortions already being emitted from the out-size stern speaker were unfounded: they increased the volume to eleven. Meanwhile our fellow passengers - mostly, obviously, self-catering - were endeavouring to coat our deck with an equal measure of plastic packaging (imminently destined for its ultimate wind-blown deployment as dolphin chokers) and detritus from their contents.
We renamed the San Marino
A couple of notes. The Brasilians are yet to follow the Central Americans (and the Colombians) in the laudable practice of minimising plastic usage/waste. Almost everything is over-packaged. Proffering our heavyweight reusable bag at Supermacardo checkouts was met with confusion: we have bags.... A dozen cans of
beer? No problem, we'll simply double-up on the flimsy disposables. This observation does however remind me of a recent article by Giles Coren in the London Times
that informed how British men are shunning reusable bags as, apparently, going to the shop armed with a hessian receptacle must place some doubt on their testosterone levels. Giving a toss about the environment is, seemingly, just sooo Gay? And... whilst it is unfair to expect English to be spoken in Brasil the fact that we speak more Spanish than they amazes us.
Day two and we were actually coping pretty well with our rations whilst the temptation to buy a hot meal was minimal, such fare appearing to be reheats in polystyrene boxes. That was until we detected the unmistakable aroma of cheese and ham toasties emanating from the direction of the snack bar. I say snack bar... Thus far the only products we'd witnessed emerging from its window were cans of beer or coke. Our one interaction with its proprietor had been at 7am that morning when we'd spied a coffee urn and duly requested two such beverages. Sadly we had been tardy, the urn was empty and
the lady was not inclined to make more. This disappointment had - whilst we attempted to reason the need for more than a single urn of coffee for 300+ passengers - inspired a closer inspection of said dispensary' provisions. And, I kid you not, here are but a few of the essentials you may find yourself in desperate need of half way up the the Amazon: a standard household, bayonet-fitment, lightbulb (I was tempted to ask if she had an energy saving 40W screw-in); a plastic collondar; and a bunch of plastic flowers. But, I digress... Because, actually, the toasties were very reasonably priced and we did succumb (one a day each) to their toasty stringy yumminess. We were never to score a coffee, but our stomachs were oh so grateful for those daily treats.
We did spot dolphins (alive and seemingly not blowing plastic bubbles) on several occasions, but never a pinkie...
Fellow enduring passengers included a delightful Colombian (American resident) family ("lording" it in cabins) with whom we hoped to beg passage to our next-but-one destination (travel-addict dad would be driving there from Sao Luis and it was likely that our timings
might coincide), a young Brasilian couple who kindly donated a lime to the V&T fund and a haggard middle-aged (several days shy of Ali's antiquity) Portuguese guy, John. And then, following a 20 hour stop-over at Santarem (where I - unsure of the pause' duration - ran off in search of edibles only to return with but 8 cheap tinnies), we gained an abutting hammock neighbour in the form of a young French girl.
It wasn't the idyllic bliss of the first leg, but we were still cruising... down the Amazon. And the new hammocks were a great improvement on their predecessors.
Manaus' expanse had been a shock; that of Belem was astounding in both size and shape, we could have been approaching Manhattan. John, familiar with its - heavily stressed by him - none too welcoming towering sprawl, took us under his wing: we'd be arriving miles away from where we'd want to stay and a bus would certainly be required. The French girl was headed to an island 5 km offshore. John knew where those ferries departed from, she didn't and we convinced her to let us escort her there.
Like El Salvador, Brasilian buses also have a manned turnstile. However, here, in advance of this structure there are several - free - seats for the old and infirm. We paid our money and entered the body of the bus. John merely plonked himself in the OAP seats. Ah, he confided later, they rarely dispute my age. You're younger than Ali we reminded him; it did seem rather cheeky to us.
Belem doesn't indulge the budget-orientated but Amazonia Hostel
(incredibly Lonely Planet
listed) provided a decent private airconned (Belem was currently nudging 40C) room with bathroom for $15. John left his pack (he was pressing-on that evening) and we all saw Jade safely to her point of embarkation. A proper breakfast called so we headed along to the river-side market where he introduced us to deep-fried breaded tapioca balls stuffed with crab meat, complete with a rather aesthetically pleasing single protruding crab claw. These were really rather good.
With some sustenance inside us we set out on the not inconsiderable trek to the bus terminal, John needing to check on times whilst we could also book an onwards bus to Sao Luis. Half
a mile up the road and our companion was announcing a new need: beer. Christ, it wasn't yet 11am; rarely do we encounter anyone requesting an earlier beverage than myself - maybe this is his methodology for passing-off as a pensioner? We wandered on with John becoming ever more focused, enquiring with increasing frequency at likely looking outlets. At least his desperation knew monetary limits: he'd not pay more than 2 Reals. Finally he found one such shop and - easily led as we are - we continued up the road like a trio of lushes with tinnies in hand. Tickets organised our Portugese guide had three hours to kill prior to his departure, what could he show us? No prizes for guessing a local's boozer....... Dohhhh..
It has to be said that, initially, the owner of Amazonia
wasn't that friendly, almost sneering at our absence of Portuguese. But several days in and subsequent to our willingness to accede to his request to maybe switch rooms (something that we more than happy to agree to: the new room being, to our minds, much improved - I didn't have to wedge slithers of stone between the shutters to
secure the room, whilst it actually provided functioning wifi), along with our burgeoning relationship with the cleaning staff, we became quite chummy. Ultimately, kindly, he let us crash about the premises whilst awaiting our night bus, without the posted fee for such an act.
We were now truly enroute to our one target destination in Brasil, the Lencois Marahenses National Park
: a vast expanse of sand dunes that, following the rainy season (July-September), cradle a multitude of spectacular crescent-shaped, eerily blue, fresh water pools.
Sadly our Sao Luis bound bus ran late, very late, and we missed (by an annoyingly tiny margin) our link-up with the Colombians: we'd given them a polite, at the limit of their convenience, "leave without us" deadline that just wasn't - quite - doable. Brasilian buses are excellent (and so they should be given their prices) and run - mostly - to time, apart from when it really matters. Bugger. Thus with fifteen hours already on the travelling clock we immediately sought an onwards bus to Barreirenhas. A four hour wait and a five hour scoot down the coast saw us pull into the quaint little town at 7pm.
Even in the dark it felt safe and welcoming, which was fortunate given that all budget hostel options were apparently down sandy winding lanes with minimal illumination.
And... what was happening... the best by far, "The Professor
", was also LP
-listed. It wasn't ideal: he having only dorms, but the three-bedded was empty and was to become our own personal space for the next four days. We didn't know quite where we wanted to visit within the park but, somewhat naively, we had hoped for a view such as that acquired when you type "Brazilian sand dunes" into Google. Of course most of these shots are taken from the air. Actually, such a flight was never suggested to us by any of the many tour operators... and we may have been persuaded? That said most, terrestrial, half-day excursions cost 70-100R/pp (about $20), although a rather impressive-looking twelve hour multi-stop whizz around most of the sights was offered at.... $200. Ouch. Maybe it was at that point we conveniently forgot to ask about a flight.
Back at The Professor
- so called as the amiable owner Rodolpho (an English speaker, hurahhh) was once a teacher and,
rather flatteringly, they both receive the same title here in Brasil - we sat out in the walled rear garden chatting with Filipe, a young Brasilian working at the hostel in exchange for free board. It seems he has other strings to his bow, also working for a tour agency, and he assured us that they would match the lowest excursion quotes we'd received. Thus we booked onto two half day tours: a morning trip to Lagoa Azul (70R) and the sunset-culminating jaunt to Lagoa Bonita (70R).
Par for the course with such group trips, whom you book through (price aside) is largely irrelevant as the different establishments merely pool clients to fill vehicles for a given destination and you're all going to receive the same experience. So, having flitted around town picking up other passengers we found ourselves among a convoy of similarly modified off-roaders waiting in line to board the tiny ferry that shuttles across the river bordering the park. The "ferry" is essentially a floating, powerless, platform with hand-winched access ramps at either end. Fully loaded with four vehicles and their disembarked passengers it is poled out into the flow and then pushed to
the far bank by a separate small boat. This feat is pretty impressive given the river's decent flow and the absence of any attachment between the two vessels. Once on the far bank it is a free-for-all dash across ten miles of deep sand trails to the objective: the lack of overtaking opportunities doesn't deter the individual drivers' desire to reach the destination first. Our's was particularly keen to demonstrate his rally driving credentials and did indeed manage to transform our third place on the grid into first to the dunes.
Azul is beautiful: an undulating endless expanse of white, powder-fine dunes, brilliant against the sky's cloudless blue. However, given the even elevation, only one or two encompassed pools could be viewed from any single dune top. Our guide led the group towards the first lake where, therein, they proceeded to take an endless stream of "selfies" and pose for photographs that he then took. Ali and I went wandering, climbing up successive crests to see what more distant marvels we might view. Finally selfied-out at pool one our group advanced to pool two where they repeated the process before heading to pool three for yet more
of the same. Several hours later we met back at the Jeep; everyone looked refreshed, we were shattered.
Back in Barreirenhas we were immediately ushered towards another 4x4 and off we set once more. On arrival at Lagoa Bonita you are confronted with the shrubby rear rise of its most landward dune. This must be scaled to gain access to those beyond. Steep it is and there is actually a rope by which you may haul yourself up. We witnessed several people ascending on their hands and knees.
Once at the top however the view is astounding. Forget Azul, you need only come here. Without advancing any further this view was well worth both the effort to get to Barreirenhas and the price of the tour. You are standing on the limit of the dunes, a great ridge extending to the left and right. Behind you green, ahead wave upon wave of bare majestic dunes and between them hundreds of emerald crescent-shaped pools. For five minutes no one moved, it seemed a travesty to enter into such pristine beauty. Again most ventured only as far as the near pools, leaving us to traipse off
alone among the virgin splendor. We perched on sand-whipped dune cusps watching in awe as cloud shadows swept across the distant white convolutions and slid down their concave faces into the gorgeously chill waters. Then as sunset approached all congregated back on the heights to view the colours morph and the shadows creep.
Sun-kissed and sand-coated, the Jeep bounced and swayed us through the dark towards town. At another ferry crossing we joined the queue and milled among the street vendors proffering beers and snacks. One lady was knocking-up tapioca pancakes which she loaded with air-cured shredded beef, a local speciality. What caught my eye was the chemistry of the pancake making: the tapioca powder is simply placed onto and spread, to a depth of maybe 3mm, across a very hot (dry) pan. This magically "melts" and fuses to form a crust that is then flipped and forms a crisp-outer / soft spongy-centred crepe. You'd think that such an approach would yield a blob of inedible resin, it doesn't. Ali did, however, baulk at the chewiness of the beef that merely left more for me...
Well... That was it. We had, on a whim,
over ten days or so, crossed three quarters of Brasil's 4000-odd km width by boat and, latterly, bus for the singular purpose of viewing some sand. Had it been worth it? Absolutely.
This left us with the conundrum: what to do / where to go next? We looked into coastal work-aways, considered pushing on to Santiago and toyed with nipping down to, as yet unvisited, Uruguay. But a number of factors, including the arrival of our first great-niece, a niggling yearning for a change of continent and, not least, the imminent death of our beloved rucksacks, found us booking a flight back to Blighty. We'd see family, fatten-up and re-equip, with the intention of being Asia-bound before the on-set of winter.
Thus twenty two hours of busing it via Teresina found us in Fortaleza.
Ali was taking none of my usual nonsense and announced that we would be staying somewhere decent for the night given that the next would be spent on the airport's floor and ahead of that stretched three flights over two days with a further night to be spent in the glory of Brussels' air terminal. Oh... and
then a dash across London and a five hour coach journey north. I readily agreed and a beaut of a room it was, much as you'd expect for splashing a whopping $28.
Our last day saw my ancient 30 year old Karrimore
sacrifice its body to some hefty scissors (for future patches as checked luggage was to cost $150/bag: sadly he would not be repatriated). So, following some heavy-handed jettisoning all our remaining gear was crammed into Ali's pack, that we prayed would weigh-in at under the 20 kilo allowance. Packed and organised there was still time for one last cultural integration: an afternoon sesh at a rough-and-ready local latin boozer, and the one on a nearby corner fit the bill perfectly. A bare street-open room housed five tables adorned with suitably (already) sozzled clientele, a Jukebox, a counter and a fridge packed with litre bottles of Brahma at a thirst quenching 5R. Several rounds in and following various faltering attempts at communication with the locals saw the jolly proprietor switch the Jukebox's tolerable Brasilan crooning to something he thought we'd appreciate: a medley of Celine Dion hits. Bless his misguided soul. Much to the drinkers bemusement
and intrigue out came the crib board and cards. And then somewhat later, with a return to Brasilian music, there was dancing. As we, finally, bade goodbye there were hugs and handshakes.
And this farewell was a fitting precis for our current latin American tour: no language required, just smiles and an open demeanor will see you right. Almost every country we've visited this trip has a reputation for danger and threat. With reasonable sense and awareness don't you believe it: Central America, Colombia and Brasil are bona-fide members of this great big welcoming world.
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