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            EXPLORING THE AMAZON IN A SMALL SHIP

                                                                                                                     by
                                                                                            
Bob Linde & Shirley Linde


Two members of a multi-generation family of writers tell how to cruise the Amazon to see wildlife and the people close up.

Many of the days on an Amazon cruise start with a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m., and you have a quick breakfast of fruit, melon and pastries, then board zodiacs, pangas, or other small boats for a morning run to explore rainforest sights.

These are not casino/floor-show/dancing-till-dawn kind of cruises. They are ecotourism voyages and carry naturalists and lecturers and go into places where big ships can’t go. On most days there is at least one zodiac or panga trip in the morning and one in late afternoon to check out wildlife or to visit a village.

The lifestyle aboard the ship is casual and unregimented. The only entertainment is usually a few movies shown in the evening, lectures, and great conversation and exchange of ideas with other passengers and the officers and staff in the lounge or while having a pisco sour or other local drink on deck. The passengers are mostly active travelers who are interested in wildlife and local culture and who are ready to scramble up a muddy path or walk through a rainforest, and to have experiences to enrich their lives.

Usually the ship has good of source books on the area and wildlife, dress is casual except for a dressier captain’s dinner, you sit with whom you please with dining in one seating, and usually there is an open bridge policy so you can go to observe the activity at the helmstation.

There are motorized zodiacs or pangas or other small boats for exploration with a naturalist on each who help spot the wildlife and share wonderful stories on the birds and other animals. And they give tips on spotting wildlife, such as don’t just look at the shoreline, but focus your eyes into the forest at various depths.

There were many high points on Amazon trips we’ve taken. One day there was a boa constrictor resting in the overhead branches as we went under it in a zodiac. The same day we saw a really unusual bird – a potoo -- that is shaped and colored like a broken dead tree branch so you can barely tell what it was even after it is pointed out to you. On many trips we saw blue and gold macaws, kingfishers, egrets, herons, and toucans. On one trip we saw a two-toed sloth millimetering (slower than inching!) along the branch of a cecropia tree, and on another trip on an aerial walkway there was a three-toed sloth. There were howler monkeys (very loud creatures with more of a bark than a howl), capuchin monkeys and others. You are also likely to see pink dolphins, called boto, believed by the river people to be spirits. They never harm the boto or kill them.

An unforgettable moment – when we spotted a hoatzin, a bird surely put together by a committee, with a chicken head, gangly neck, spindly legs, and a crown like a peacock’s crown but with punk rock spikes to top it off. The body is tan and brown, the face is blue, they have poppy little eyes, and they eat leaves. And they smell – the locals call them "stink chickens".

Another highlight is being invited to a village on the river. These are not tourist stops – they only have a ship stop by two or three times a year. We strolled their board walkway, listened to two boys play guitars and ukuleles (one totally handmade), took photos of a 112-year old elder, and visited with a woman who was proud to show us a parrot on her shoulder. The people live in stilt houses because huge changes in river level often brings water to their doorsteps.

At other times we go ashore and hike trails, seeing such things as leaf-cutting ants parading in line with their leaves held aloft like flags. Some of the passengers went piranha fishing. On one excursion we visited with a shaman, watched as he performed healing procedures on two children, and went on a tour of his medicinal garden.

The lectures and recaps of the day by the naturalists have us constantly saying "Wow!" as we learned about bird songs and the camouflage techniques of rainforest creatures and that leaf-cutting ants were important because their cutting of tree leaves allows sun to come into the forest and allow undergrowth to occur. We learned that little green herons fish with a lure, that there is a bird that uses a plant to treat itself for snake bite, that butterflies come to flowers with landing platforms and hummingbirds come to flowers that hang, and birds have dialects according to their location and their songs have patterns with introductions and variations of themes as in human music. And we learn of the great diversity of the rainforest. New plants and insects and even new Indian tribes are still being discovered.

One Amazon cruise stops at the little town of Alter de Chao. The highlight of that town – the Center for the Preservation of Indigenous Art & Culture that contains an excellent exhibit of native art and artifacts representing more than 75 Amazonian tribes. Their gift shop has fantastic things and reasonable prices.

Some cruises begin or end in Manaus with its street vendors, busy market, bumper to bumper cars and more than a million people. The two highlights: the market and a tour of the famous Opera House, built in 1896 and recently restored to much of its original splendor.

In addition to good memories of moments in the rainforest and with new friends we leave with the disturbing knowledge that these vital rainforests are being destroyed, many species of animals and plants already lost forever and others under threat of extinction. The destruction is not just a loss to Brazil or Peru, but to the world. Even where there are regulations, they are seldom enforced. What is the most important animal to the Amazon? Man, said one naturalist, because he can make decisions that control what happens to the forest.

Want to Go?
Dress during the day is usually shorts and t-shirts, however, you may want to bring long sleeves and long pants for some of the jungle encounters as extra protection against mosquitoes and walking through occasional grass and bushes. In the low water season, there is more extensive jungle hiking. High water season has mostly boat excursions. Bring a visor or hat for protection from the equatorial sun, and lightweight raingear to carry with you for surprise squalls. We encountered only a few mosquitoes on our expeditions, but bring insect repellant to take on outings and use if you need it. Yellow fever protection is required (shots last 10 years). Some people take larium for malaria prevention, but many reactions have been reported to larium and many people choose to not use it. Also bring a sweater or jacket for the lounge where lectures are given since many vessels seem to keep lounges too cold. Don’t forget your binoculars and your camera. A passport and visa are required. Dress comfortably and in layers to travel because some airplanes are cold and some airports are hot, without air-conditioning.

SMALL SHIPS THAT CRUISE THE AMAZON
These ships have 8 to 122 passengers. Rates given are per person double occupancy and were given by the cruise companies at the time of writing. Most ships have discounts for groups and most can be chartered for special interest groups. Most trips have extensions available to Machu Piccu and Cusco. For more information on the ships and activities, go to the website www.smallshipcruises.com

AMAZON CLIPPER, SELLY CLIPPER I & II
Passengers: 16
Two, three, and five-night excursions to the Rio Negro and Ariau, leaving from Manaus. Cabins are air-conditioned at night and have private bathroom with shower. Beds are upper/lower bunks. Two-night trip $425, three-night trip $595, five-night trip $915 per person.

EXPLORER,  DELFIN
Passenger Capacity: 16-20
Three and six-night cruises from Iquitos up the Yarapa, Pucate and Maranon tributary rivers. The cabins on the Explorer are air-conditioned and have a private bath with shower; the Delfin has fans and shared baths and showers. Three-night cruise $595, six-night cruise $800 to $975. Arrangements can be made to live in a village or small town for two to four days, or to stay in a jungle camp.

ARCA, RIO AMAZONAS
Passenger Capacity: 29, 44
Three and six-night cruises of the Amazon between Iquitos and the twin cities of Tabatinga, Brazil and Leticia, Colombia. Cabins have air-conditioning and most have a private bath with shower; some cabins have shared bath. Some berths are lower beds, others are upper/ lower. Three cabins are triples. Three-night cruise $595, six-night cruise $975-$1,095.

CLIPPER ADVENTURER
Passenger Capacity: 122
A 15-night cruise in the fall on the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers as far inland as Manaus. All cabins are outside and have lower beds, private bath with shower and individual temperature control. There is a physician on board. Fare ranges from $5,930 to $8,770 per person, including air from Miami and port charges. Suites are $9,780 and $10,280.

EXPLORER
Passenger Capacity: 100
There are 8-12 day Amazon cruises of the upper Amazon from Iquitos to Manaus and a 16-18 day cruise that goes from Belem to Iquitos. Cabins are all outside, are air-conditioned and have a private bath with shower. Most have twin lower berths, and some have bunks or are triples. There are eight single cabins and several suites. There is a physician on board. The upper Amazon fares range from $2,495 to $7,850 and the longer trips range from $4,950 to $10,150. A five-day pre-cruise jungle camp stay is available in a Peruvian Amazon camp where there is canoeing with a naturalist guide on the Tambopata River and trekking through the jungle to study wildlife.

LA AMATISTA, LA ESMERALDA , LA TURMALINA
Passenger Capacity: 29 , 16, 28
Eight-day expeditions from Iquitos, go up the Amazon into the Ucayali, Maranon, and Tapiche Rivers, then smaller and smaller rivers and lakes in remote locations of the rainforest. A second itinerary includes Pacaya-Samiria. Cabins are outside, are air-conditioned and have a private bath with shower. Most cabins have twin beds, some a queen-size bed or three beds. Optional extensions are offered to Cusco and Machu Picchu and the Inca fortress of Sacsahuaman and to the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) on the Napo River with aerial walks in the treetop canopy. Fare for the eight-day trip is $2,698, including roundtrip air from Miami to Iquitos. The five-day optional Machu Picchu extension is $1,298, the four-day optional ACEER extension is $998. An eight-day ACEER/ Machu Picchu extension is $2,188.

LA MALACHITA
Passenger Capacity: 8
This boat, built by International Expeditions in 1999, was designed to handle the small black water tributaries in Peru. All cabins are outside and have individually controlled air-conditioning.

MARCELITA
Passenger Capacity: 52
Ten-day cruises between Iquitos and Manaus. Built in 1999. Cabins are outside, air-conditioned, have twin beds and have a private bath with shower. Two cabins are wheelchair accessible. Triples are available. Six-night cruise between Leticia and Manaus is $795 to $1,113, three-night voyage between Iquitos and Leticia is $495 to $693, the nine-night voyage between Iquitos, Leticia and Manaus is $1,195 to $1,673. There are extension programs to Belem, Machu Picchu, Iguacu Falls and jungle camps.

MARINE DISCOVERY
Passenger Capacity: 120 Seven or 12-night cruises between Belem, Manaus and Iquitos. All cabins are outside and have private bath with shower. Some have two lower berths; quad cabins have two lowers and two uppers. Trips range from $3,295 to $5,395 including airfare from Miami.

TUCANO
Passenger Capacity: 16
Five and nine night explorations of the Amazon and the Rio Negro. Cabins have bunk beds with queen-size or double mattress below and double mattress above. There is a special photography trip in May with a professional wildlife photographer. Five-night itinerary $1,725, nine-night itinerary $1,925, including a hotel night in Manaus. Bob and Shirley are well-known travel writers of St. Petersburg FL and editors of www.smallshipcruises.com

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AT ACEER -- BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
We had a tour guide all to ourselves for our four day visit at the series of camps along the Amazon and Napo Rivers in Peru called Explorama. Julio planned to tailor our trip to our wants. "We’re hoping to spot some wild animals", said Bob, "and don’t worry about working us too hard." What we didn’t realize is that when you ask for adventure in the Amazon, you really get it.

We took hikes at dawn and in the afternoon, and got one that lasted for five hours off trail through the jungle. We visited a family in the jungle and played with their pet sloth, we visited a shaman who explained his medicinals and how he prepared them and later saw many of the plants grown by every family’s hut, their personal jungle medicine cabinet. One night we hiked in the jungle, literally too black to see your hand in front of your face, to see a tree whose fallen leaves glow in the dark, a place where the local people come to renew and energize themselves.

The high point of the trip (pun intended) was the day we toured the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) and its quarter-mile of walkways suspended up in the rainforest canopy. The walkway, suspended between platforms on trees and up to 118 feet high, allows visitors to view canopy life up-close at various levels.

As we hiked the trails to the walkway entrance point, we heard a distant rumble. Thunder? "No", said Julio, "that’s the wind." Sure enough, after a moment the rumble approached, and the treetops swayed. Then it got cooler.

"El Friaje", said Julio. Once a year, he said, usually in June or July, an Antarctic wind comes to the Amazon and for a day or two it is so cold many fish in the Amazon die. By the time we reached the ACEER canopy walkway it was already down to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And windy.

Being on the canopy treetop walk was terrifying, and breathtaking. Air plants dripped their roots from their host trees down to the rainforest floor. Crimson-crested woodpeckers flew by at eye level. We walked on planks suspended in the walkway netting, and had a clear view of the forest floor below as well as the sky above. At one platform we emerged above the treeline, with a panorama of the rainforest stretching miles until the horizon.

The Friaje winds came in chilly spurts, and we waited at each platform for them to pass by. Just our luck: our first time in the Amazon rainforest and it was colder than our St. Petersburg, Florida hometown. As we pondered this, Julio grabbed us. "Look! A two-toed sloth!" We inched out, carefully. About 100 feet away, a large sloth was hanging by her feet, eating new leaf buds, cradling a nursing baby with one arm and eating with the other. We tried to steady our cameras and counteract our swaying perch. The scene was peaceful, quiet, majestic. Here we were, observing it like birds in a windswept tree. For a while we forgot that we were human as we blended with the scenery with our sloths-eye view. This definitely was not like a typical day in the concrete jungle back home.

-- Bob Linde and Michelle Flint

*********

YOU MAY NEVER SEE THIS VILLAGE
As we stepped out of our two launches some hundred children swooped down the embankment to greet us. They were dressed in a hodgepodge of shorts, smocks, dresses, and T-shirts. Some rushed up immediately, waving and shouting Buenos dias. Others hung back, excited and curious, but shy at seeing 30 Americans visit their village.

This was a small, isolated community on the Tapiche River, a visit we made as part of an International Expeditions small ship cruise. Like other villages on the river, there was no electricity or running water, but the village was clean and neat. Our tour guides, Juan and Edgard, introduced us to village elders and showed us around the village: the church, the school, the plantain trees and rows of clean, open-air houses. The children moved with us, fascinated by the visitors. They were obviously not accustomed to tourists, and we began to feel less like intruders into their private lives and more like ambassadors from another culture. This is by design at International Expeditions that specializes in global ecotourism and rotates village visits so that each village receives visits no more than once every month or two. This, Juan explains, is to keep the villagers from becoming economically dependent on tourists.

The villagers farm, hunt, raise chickens and weave thatched roofs, which they sell to other villages along the river. The roof panels are strong, leakproof and last for years. Craftsmen showed us their work with great pride.

We gathered back at the school, which had finished classes in time for lunch and afternoon sports such as soccer. Judy, a travel agent from California, had brought gifts for everyone. But first, Edgard explained, they wanted to show us something from their culture. The children sang Como esta mis amigos, (How are you my friends) a call-and-response song which required our tour group to sing out Muy bien! (Very good!) several times. When they asked us to sing to them, we managed a round of Happy Birthday before they joined in, in Spanish. Soon everyone was laughing or giggling, depending on height. After a couple of hours, we headed back to the Turmalina , feeling we had made some friends. If you cruise the Amazon with International Expeditions, you may not see this village or meet these children. But you will have the pleasure of meeting people from another village somewhere along the tributaries of the Amazon. And because they have visitors so seldom they will take pleasure in meeting you, too.

-- Bob Linde and Michelle Flint

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