A visit to Brazil would be incomplete without a visit to the Amazon. At roughly the size of the lower 48 states of the US, the Amazon rainforest is the largest in the world. With such an immense size, getting to know the river and rainforest is impossible in just a few days. We explored our options and eventually settled on a five day riverboat cruise starting in Manaus, the largest city in the middle of the Amazon.
Many options exist in the way of riverboat cruises. it is possible to find cruises as short as three days and as long as two weeks. There are small boats, medium sized boats and large boats. Most cruises depart from Manaus although the itinerary and region of exploration for each is different. With so many options and not a lot of time to research, we felt a bit overwhelmed. So, how did we choose our specific cruise?
First, Manaus is only four degrees south of the equator which means it is going to be hot. Air conditioning in the room was pretty important as had already done our time living in the heat in Central America. Next, we wanted to be able to fully enjoy the experience and not be nickeled and dimed for food, drinks and daily excursions. An all inclusive package was what we were looking for. Finally, being on a boat with a large number of people looked appealing as we really didn’t want to get on a six person boat with four other people that would drive us nuts. Considering all of these factors, we settled on booking with the Iberostar Hotel-Ship for a five day cruise on the Rio Negro.
As you well know, our decision to come to Brazil was uncertain until a week before we actually arrived in the country. We had no idea where we would be at any specific point so we booked the cruise only four weeks before it departed. We contacted Rainforest Cruises asking for a last minute deal and were shocked when we discovered that our timing put us in the low season for cruises and that we could book ours for 50% off! Instantly, we booked the cruise excited for the experience ahead of us and the huge discount we received.
We arrived in Manaus late Saturday night and found our hotel without much trouble. Rain fell hard all day Sunday worrying us a bit for the week ahead but we enjoyed the downtime. On Monday morning, the clouds parted and we set out to explore Manaus before boarding the ship. Unfortunately, every place we visited happened to be closed on Monday but we found some interesting buildings to see including the Opera House built during the rubber boom period of the late 1800’s.
Early afternoon, we jumped in a taxi and arrived at the Port of Manaus to begin boarding the ship. We listened to a brief informational presentation and took our keys to our top floor room. The room was very luxurious complete with a private bathroom, third floor balcony, minibar, and, most importantly, king sized bed. For nearly an hour, we settled into our room amazed that this would be our home for the week.
That afternoon and evening, we took advantage of the all inclusive perks and enjoyed a fabulous meal along with entirely too much champagne. As the ship set sail, we passed under the Rio Negro Bridge. At more than two miles long, the impressive bridge spans the Rio Negro connecting the lands on the south to the north. The lighting on the bridge was beautiful and made for a perfect first evening aboard the ship.
On our first morning, we set out on our first excursion with expedition leader, Conrado. The small number of English speakers all boarded the same boat which took us to the land where Conrado provided us with information about the forest. We were amazed to learn about the ecosystem as we traversed a small island along the Rio Negro. As we emerged on the opposite side, our trusty ship was waiting in the distance. We returned to the ship, soaked in sweat and happy to have a shower and air conditioning.
Each day before lunch, a presentation was given in English. The first topic was an introduction to the Amazon in which general information about the Amazon Basin was given. Each presentation was very informative and interesting, especially with a cold drink in hand!
Of course, we enjoyed a little time by the pool between activities…
Later in the evening, we boarded a boat for a ride through the Tres Bocas region of the Rio Negro. As we boarded the boats, the storm clouds were building and the expedition team advised us to leave electronics in our rooms as it was going to rain hard. Some of the photos of the storm clouds turned out great. This region of the Rio Negro has the largest freshwater archipelago in the world with over 1,200 individual islands. Unfortunately, the rain caught up with us and we were completely soaked in just a few minutes. We returned to the ship and dried off before dinner.
Slightly surprising to us was the small number of English speakers on the ship. Let me qualify that for a second. The majority of the Portuguese speakers we interacted with spoke at least a little English. I would venture to say that only 10% of the passengers were English speakers with the rest speaking Portuguese or Spanish. Since the expedition trips reserved one boat for English speakers, we got to know one another very well as we explored during the day and dined together for meals. Only one other passenger was from the US with the remaining English speakers from Europe and one couple from Brazil who was refreshing their English skills. Meeting each and every person within our “exclusive” group was a pleasure.
Trying our best to look like we aren’t homeless…
On Wednesday morning, we ventured out first thing in the morning to visit a local community on the Cuieiras River. We learned that this tribe had originally been located hundreds of miles upriver when it was discovered by westerners and ended up losing its land and culture. It had been relocated here, much closer to Manaus, where it could benefit from proper healthcare, education and technology while it attempts to restore its traditions and culture. The tribe invited Iberostar to bring tourists to its community for a glimpse into life here on the Rio Negro while benefitting from earnings from tourism.
The afternoon excursion took about twelve of us piranha fishing. We boarded the boat, rode for only about ten minutes before arriving in a small canal in the shade. Each person received a rudimentary bamboo fishing pole that was baited with small chunks of beef. Not more than five seconds after dropping the meat in the water, the piranhas began attacking the beef. After each strike, we would attempt to set the hook and when the beef came up out of the water, it was almost always less than half its original size. Everyone aboard caught at least one fish but Laughlin out-fished everyone catching a whopping seventeen in only one hour! Towards the end of fishing, Laughlin pulled one piranha out of the water and our friend, Ishmael, nibbled at the piranha’s tail causing us to laugh and laugh. We couldn’t believe he actually bit it and our video of the incident is hilarious!
Following dinner we had a late night excursion as we took a boat ride in the dark spotting alligators. We ended up in the same canal as we went piranha fishing earlier and when the spotlight was illuminated, the reflection of the light came back as red dots that literally lined the banks of the canal. It was a bit eerie to see how many alligators were in the water. Our guide surprised us by pulling into the boat two different alligator species at the exact same time! While on the outing we spotted a large snake hanging in a tree as well as three sloths high in another tree.
Thursday morning found us early as we set out for an early morning boat trip to watch the sunrise in the Ariau Region of the Rio Negro. The glassy waters and quietness was completely different from what we had experienced thus far. We saw a few freshwater dolphins while out and about. This excursion was fairly short as we returned to the ship for breakfast before heading out for the next excursion.
Just after breakfast, we returned to the small boats for a tour of the region. The first part of the excursion took us up and down the canals where we spotted many species of birds, a few squirrel monkeys and a few alligators. Interestingly, we were right by Araiu Amazon Towers, which was one of the hotels that made this region of the Amazon famous. Built in 1986, the hotel has hosted many celebrities and was even featured in the 1996 movie “Anaconda.” Only seven months before we arrived, the hotel owner went bankrupt and hotel employees looted the hotel for unpaid wages. Doors, windows, furniture and anything else of value was taken leaving a spooky looking shell that will rot away in the future.
The second part of our morning excursion took us to a beach where we swam in the Rio Negro in the attempt to wash off sunscreen. The reason for removing sunscreen was to swim with the pink dolphins of the Rio Negro. Unique to the river, these dolphins are different from dolphins we saw earlier in the day and are only located in this part of the Amazon. We were allowed in the water as a man held fish out for the dolphins to eat. It was a bit odd as the dark water made it difficult to see these large creatures swimming between us. They reminded everyone of dogs looking for treats as they would patiently wait for the trainer to give the signal to attack the small fish. I was the first one in the water and the first dolphin gave me a good nudge right in the crotch reinforcing my thought of them as similar to dogs!
In the afternoon, our excursion took us to a rubber tapping museum. The museum showed us how rubber was extracted from trees and heated to produce rubber that could be used as tires and for other products. We learned that the rubber boom created wealth that had never been experienced in Brazil before hand. People were so wealthy, that dirty clothing was shipped to Portugal to be washed rather than washed in Manaus. We learned about the dirty tricks of the rubber barons that made life unbearably difficult for workers. The Opera House in Manaus was built in extravagant ways due to excessive wealth at this time. As the industry crashed, the city of Manaus was left to struggle. Interestingly, Brazil declared Manaus a duty free zone to attract industry which still exists today. Companies such as Triumph, Pioneer, Coca Cola, Honda, etc. assemble their products in Manaus to this day. From the rubber tapping museum, it was easy to see how much the water level of the Rio Negro fluctuates between the wet season and dry season. We were told that the water level can fluctuate in areas as much as 30 meters. The boat dock at the museum showed that clearly.
This is a rubber tree that has been prepped to collect rubber sap…
Here it is heated over a fire where it begins to collect its black color.
And the final product ready for shipping.
Finally, here is the dock where you can see how high the water gets in the rainy season. We were there in the dry season.
The gala dinner was a treat on our final evening aboard the ship. Laughlin even met the captain of the ship!
Our final morning was another early morning as we woke early to observe the Meeting of the Waters. At Manaus, the Rio Negro converges with the Solimoes river. Oddly, the rivers are so different that when they converge they do not mix. The dark water of the Rio Negro (Black River) remains black against the tan, murky waters of the Solimoes. The reason for the phenomenon is a combination of differences in temperature, density and pH of the rivers.
Following breakfast, we bid farewell to our friends aboard the Iberostar and went our separate ways. Well, almost. We booked an optional tour of waterfalls for the next day with our fellow American passenger – who will remain anonymous for various reasons 😉 – and set out directly from the ship. We drove north out of Manaus to visit the waterfalls. The waterfalls were beautiful and the excursion was a great way to finish our trip to the Amazon.
So, you may be asking yourself, did these guys actually go to the Amazon and take a cruise on a river that wasn’t the Amazon River? Well, the short answer is yes. But it is a little more complicated than that. The Amazon River as we know it changes names about 15 times along the way across the South American continent and isn’t actually called the Amazon until it is east of Manaus. We were happy to have sailed along the Rio Negro for many reasons. The amount of wildlife here is much more than other areas of the river. The pH of the river is very low which prevents mosquitos reproducing here. Seriously, we thought we were going to get annihilated by mosquitos but were pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes. As we mentioned before, getting a firm grasp on the Amazon would take much longer than our five days allowed so we will just have to return a few more times to continue our exploration of this unbelievable region of our unbelievable world!
We boarded a red eye flight bound for Sao Paulo on Saturday night. Our visit to the Amazon was complete for the time being and we were ready to return to our truck and camper after nearly eighteen days of luxury!