in the Amazon
It was a pitch black night and we sat there in our canoes in the inky dark river waters. The guides shined search lights onto the shoreline and the trees, and eyes reflected back at us from the darkness – cayman cooling off in the water. (Cayman are a crocodile-like creature that can grow to 18 ft. in length.) As we sat silently in the canoes we could hear the sounds of the night forest -- crickets, frogs croaking, birds calling. As our eyes became accustomed to the night, we saw some tree frogs and birds, and the area seemed actually bright in the light of the almost full moon. There were lightning flashes in the distance. Awesome.
We were on a seven-day expedition trip in the Amazon with Amazon Nature Tours on the Motor Yacht Tucano. We were cruising the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River. Alone it is the second largest river in the world with the Amazon being the largest. The color of the water is that of strong tea, giving it its name Rio Negro or black river. We go on the Negro because it is much more remote and pristine than the Amazon River. An added benefit -- the chemistry of the waters is such that the Rio Negro has no mosquitoes. The entire river system is part of the Amazonas Region, the largest state in Brazil.
The Tucano is a classically constructed wooden river boat. It is 84 ft. long and has 3 decks. There are 9 cabins accommodating 18 passengers. The top deck includes a large shaded observation area. There is a crew of 8, including our 2 naturalist guides.
Our Amazon journey began and ended in Manaus, Brasil. Manaus is the major city in the Amazon region and it sits at the point where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon. Originally the city was built on rubber production which ceased when the rubber tree seeds were stolen and cultivated in Malaysia. Today the city is built on industry that has grown based on the status of Manaus as a free port. We arrived two days early to have time to go on a city tour. There are three highlights of the tour -- the busy waterfront which on the weekends is transformed into a big party with drinking and music, the main market which is modeled after Les Halles in Paris (the market is currently closed for renovation), and the 700-seat opera house. Built in 1896 the opera house was active up until 1925, then shuttered until it was renovated in 1997, and is once again the showcase for international cultural events. It has great hardwood floors (14,000 individual pieces originally crafted in Europe then imported here for installation). Grand frescoes adorn the walls and ceilings. Imported marble is everywhere.
Tucano departed from the dock at the Tropical Hotel, a resort about 20 minutes outside downtown. The Tropical has a nice pool area including a wave machine, and there is a zoo on the grounds and an orchidarium. It is a nice facility, but the rooms are due for an upgrade. There is a nice shopping area but the prices are high; food and drinks are also expensive. Wireless internet access is available for a small fee.
A typical day on the river
routinely started with a wake-up knock on our cabin door at 5:30 AM. The idea
was to get up with the wildlife and be out before the day got too hot.
Excursions are usually done in canoe/skiffs. The first morning we spotted grey
dolphin and various bird species and watched a family of Squirrel Monkeys
frolicking in the tree tops. We returned for a hearty breakfast of local
specialties and fresh fruits, then went again at 9:45 for our first forest walk.
We made a dry landing with the canoes and went up a small hill for a 2 1/2 hour
rainforest hike where there was only a hint of a trail. We wore long pants and
long sleeve shirts and attached chaps to our lower legs to prevent scratching
and tearing. Along the way our guides Sousa and Edvam pointed out various plants
and insects. The highlight was seeing a Margay resting on a tree branch. The
spotted cat is like a small Ocelot and doesn’t seem at all put out by our
presence. In the afternoon the Tucano continued to make its way upriver so we
could visit a remote village of 150 inhabitants (32 families). The usual
afternoon rainstorm hit us but the weather cleared just as we arrived at the
village. In the village we observed manioc root, a staple food stuff, being
roasted or processed into dough and cooked into loaves in banana leaves.
The Tucano is an expedition trip, not a luxury cruising experience. The cabins and common areas are built using indigenous hardwoods. Meals are in the dining room, buffet style, using fresh local ingredients. The food was quite good. Two of our passengers requested a vegetarian diet and were quite pleased with the dishes that were prepared for them.
Tucano does a nice job with little service extras such as icy alcohol-soaked towels to cool off after a hike and a shoe-cleaning service. After a hike in the rainforest your shoes can be quite muddy, but all you do is leave them in the canoe boarding area and come back in a couple of hours for clean shoes. The cabins are individually air-conditioned, but the electricity is shut off for several hours each day usually when passengers are off the ship. There is no hot water, the water system is siphoned river water which although dark in color is very clean. The water is warm enough for a comfortable shower. Bring your own shampoo.
Beer, wine and soft drinks are served at an extra charge and there is no hard liquor. Each day is filled with excursions, but if someone doesn’t feel like going on an excursion they can stay on the boat and watch out for dolphins and birds or jut soak in some rays with a good book.
Our fellow passengers had varied backgrounds, and included a director of an animal shelter, an ornithologist, a teacher, an attorney, two students, a pharmaceutical researcher, and a diplomatic aide. They came from England, France, Ireland via Argentina, Canada, and the US. There were 5 singles traveling alone.
On excursions we spotted a wide variety of wildlife. The river is a birder’s paradise. A total of 78 species of birds were recorded including Parrots, Kingfishers, Toucans and Scarlet Macaws. We saw pink river dolphins quite a few times. Sloths were sighted, including one carrying a baby. Monkeys were common, both Squirrel and Capuchin. Iguanas, rodents, turtles, frogs, spiders and snakes including a Boa Constrictor were spotted.
One afternoon we stopped at a white sand beach for a couple hours of swimming and sunning. Another day we went fishing for Piranha using tree branches for fishing poles. The smaller ones we caught went back in the water, but we kept a couple of the bigger fish to be cooked up for our afternoon hors de oeuvres. They were quite tasty. One passenger got bit on the finger while removing a hook. At night after dinner we sometimes had a lecture by the guides on medicinal plants or local folklore. One evening we had a Capharina party (Capharina is a local cocktail of rum and lime juice) and everyone danced on the top deck.
On one excursion we were told there is only one family inhabiting the area. We visited them at the end of a small tributary stream. They live off the crops they grow and fish they catch. Fish were drying in the sun when we arrived. Small fields have been slashed and burned to accommodate their crops of banana, pineapple, cashew and manioc. The family had a small selection of handicrafts available for sale.
On this excursion we saw an ant nest and learned that if you disturb the ants by placing your hand on the nest your hand is covered with ants, and if then you rub your hands together the squished ant bodies leave a natural insect repellent on your skin. When we returned to the Tucano, we were welcomed back on board with a whole coconut with a straw in it to drink the milk. In the afternoon we visited another village, this one home to approximately 400 inhabitants. The town revolves around an Air Force-managed rock quarry. The streets were alive with children playing and chickens and pigs roaming haphazardly. We stopped at an outdoor bar, had a beer and played some pool.
The rainforest was extremely hot and humid, but we became used to it, and we also were getting good at silent walking, careful not to speak or step on branches or shuffle leaves as we walked. We had another night expedition on the tributary River Jaueperi, our northernmost destination and found a baby Cayman which Edvam deftly snatched up out of the water for us to get a closer look.
Next day we hiked through a small settlement and some jungle to see a giant tree that had recently fallen. It was said to have been large enough to require 25 people holding hands to wrap around it. The root ball was about 3 stories tall.
On our last full day aboard ship we headed south past Manaus to the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro. There is a distinct line of demarcation of the two bodies of water with the Amazon being light and the Negro being black. This line is said to go on for approximately 20 miles. The two waters do not mix for reasons of speed and temperature differentials. Our last dinner aboard ship sported white linens on the tables and featured complimentary bottles of wine at each table.
On Sunday, the last day of our cruise, we were dropped off at the Tropical Hotel and to the airport for the journey home.
If you are looking for adventure and a better understanding of Amazon flora and fauna and people, then the Amazon Nature Tours’ Tucano could be the trip for you. You can find more info on their website http://www.amazon-nature-tours.com. You can book the trip through us at www.smallshipcruises.com.
-- Scott Linde