Nine Nights on The Amazon River

Trip Start Jun 07, 2009
Trip End Aug 23, 2009

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Amazonas,
Saturday, August 29, 2009

After 9 nights in Itacare, we were both excited to hit the road for the
Amazon and disappointed to leave our casual routine of surfing and
relaxing. Leaving meant the end of our vacation from our traveling.
Our itinerary soon reminded us of this. It included a 2-hour bus ride
south to Ilheus then a 1-hour flight north to Salvador, a 2-hour
layover, a 3-hour flight south to Sao Paulo, a 2-hour layover then a
4-hour flight north to Manaus. The route was the cheapest available,
but it was the equivalent of flying from New York to Minneapolis via
Boston then Miami.

Manaus, a city of 1.2 million people, lies 1,200 miles up the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean.  Located at roughly the midpoint of the Brazilian Amazon River basin, the city is surrounded by hundreds of miles of jungle. The town reached it heyday as the epicenter of the
Brazilian rubber boom during the late 19th century. The rubber barons of that era built a suprisingly sophisitcated city in an amazingly isolated location.  It can be reached by a 4-day boat ride from the Atlantic, a poorly maintained highway traversing thousands of miles of
jungle or in our case a hellish series of flights traversing Brazil.

Our long day of travel finally ended when our taxi pulled up to the Hotel Ideal. Despite it's promising name, the Hotel Ideal quickly proved to be far from ideal.  The lobby more resembled the waiting room of a Goodyear tire repair shop than a hotel lobby. The 150 square feet
room was adorned with two rows of vinyl covered chairs affixed to each other and a television blaring the evening news. The only thing distinguishing it as a hotel lobby was the countertop behind which sat the thoroughly indifferent check-in guy. He handed us our paperwork then gave us the key and pointed up the dark stairway behind him which led to an even darker hallway. At the top of the stairs a motion light finally lit the hallway to our room.

The room was light by a single flourescent tube which thankfully shadowed the dirt and soot that accumulated on the floors and walls. Though the light was bright enough to expose what appeared to be human feces spread across the wall, but may have been the smearing of a large
mosquito carcass. Despite there being no outside window, the cloud of mosquitos swirling around the room apparently found the hallway window, which was enclosed by bars and a metal panel that swung shut, to be a sufficient point of entry. The sheets which had a large stencil of
"Hotel Ideal" painted onto them seemed clean, although understandably so, as polyester is apparently easy to clean.  One positive was the air conditioner which efficiently cooled the room, at least until 1 AM when a 3-hour power outage brought the room back up to jungle hot.  In the
morning, we decided it be a good idea to find other accommodations for our final night before catching our boat up river.

Our lodging luck turned for the better that morning. At the harbor terminal, we were able to secure tickets for an air conditioned cabin onboard the M. Fernandez the boat that would take us four days up the Amazon to Tefe. After buying tickets we stopped by the boat to check it
out. It was a classic 3-deck Amazon River boat of about 90 feet in length.  The cabin had two bunks and was reasonably clean. The steward agreed to allow us to stay inboard that night even though we weren't leaving until the next morning. With our passage secured and saved from
another night at the Hotel Ideal we were quite happy.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town securing provisions in the blustering heat of Manaus- hammocks, rope to secure the hammocks, flashlights, locks for our packs, cotton sheets (in case we encountered more polyester sheets in Peru), bottled water,vegetables, cookies and wine.  We still managed to tour the Manaus Opera Theater, eat a bowl of acai and have dinner at rodizio chascuria (all you can eat steakhouse). By 10 pm, we had hung our hammocks on the top deck of the boat and settled in for the night, or at least a couple hours, when we gave in and went to our air conditioned cabin.

Our tickets indicated that the boat would leave at 7AM and so we expected to sleep through departure or be awoken by the hundreds of local folks boarding and hanging their hammocks on the decks. At 6:45, we woke and checked the decks- completely empty. However, at 7 we
pulled out of the dock with only a few other passengers on board.  We sort of panicked, although strangely so since we had made the boat, what did it matter if no one else did. Our confusion ended two minutes later when we pulled up to another dock, this one filled with hundreds of
people waiting to jump on board or trying to sell some last minute goods. Even before the boat was fully parallel to the dock, people were lunging over the lower deck rails, then running to the mid-deck to secure a good hammock position. We had already secured pole position- outer starboard side, shore side when going upriver, at the bow end far from the noise of the kitchen and engines. Within minutes our previously lonely hammocks were nestled  among hundreds, strung every 12 " inches on two outer rows and between each of the outer row hammocks was a middle row hammock. If a poor soul
arrived late, they were forced to search the rows for a small opening then hang their hammock at shoulder to head height so their body wouldn't bump their new, and not so happy, neighbors. One guy tried to squeeze between our hammocks. After Darren questioned this, he insisted
it was OK and that he'd go above us. Eventually Darren convinced him there was more space on the other side.

After a couple hours, we finally pulled out of port and started up river. We were taking the boat to it's final destination, Tefe, Brazil, from where we'd catch a transport to the Uacari Ecolodge for a 3-night jungle tour. The lodge had instructed us to catch this boat and to look out for two other gringos who would be heading to the lodge for the same tour. It wasn't hard to find Nick and Heather, they were the only other gringos on the boat. The devout Arsenal fans from London, that appeared to be in their late 30's but turned out to be just under 50, would become our travel partners for the next 9 days. They had been traveling overland from Honduras through to Panama from where they sails to Columbia then caught a series of buses through Venezuela and Brazil to finally arrive in Manaus. All of this was just the beginning of their 2-year travel plans for the Americas, giving us the feeling that our 3-month trip was little more than a long weekend holiday.

This is the high water season, and during our 3 day voyage we passed small villages, all of which were flooded, some of which were flooded to the point that they had to leave until the water dropped.
We passed the day reading, and napping, and watching.  Not good for Katie.
We did get to see lots of Sunrises and Sunsets.  Very good for Katie

In Tefe we caught our transport to the lodge. We had been a little apprehensive about the lodge, particularly when we came across some fairly unflattering pictures of dorm-looking accomodations, of course this was after we'd confirmed our reservation and submitted payment.
As our transport rounded the final bend of the tributary, the view of the main lodge and the individual cabanas, all with teak siding, thatch roofs and tasteful blue trim, ended our worries. With the setting sun providing perfect lighting, the lodge looked like something out of National Geographic Explorer.

Over the next 3 nights and days, we went on several canoe tours of the flooded forest. A guide would  sit up front and paddle us through meandering trails, that in the dry season would be hiked but were now fully inundated, as we lounged in the back. When he spotted wildlife he'd point it out and we'd take a bunch of pictures. It kind of felt like a Disneyworld ride, but instead filled with loads of amazing wildlife and scenery

During the day tours we saw four types of monkeys, Howler, Squirrel (Including the elusive blackfaced squirrel), Capuchin, another one whose name eludes us, but we have a nice video of it ripping apart a tree. We also saw alien-like sloths, relatively ugly pink dolphins, and caimen.

On the spooky night version of the ride, we saw a tarantula, scorpion and a tree rat the size of a dog. The guides were all very knowledgable but their English was limited, except for the names of the animals.

The Uacari Lodge is located within the Mamirua Resevre, which the Brazilian government created in 1996. The lodge is staffed by guides and cooks from surrounding village located within the reserve. Each year, all of the profits from the reserve are divided equally between the villages. Both the jobs and the profits make the people truly vested in the health of the reserve habitat and the related success of the ecotourism. As a result, the villagers act as stewards of the reserve. In other  Amazon reserves, local people typically have no incentive to abide by the reserve restrictions, so common Amazon practices of slash and burn clearing, logging, overfishing, hunting and dolphin killing still continue despite reserve restrictions. In these reserves, enforcement of the restrictions is left to underpaid rangers, who are often bribed or extorted into looking the other way. Not surprisingly, the Mamirua program is now being looked at as a model for other reserves within the Amazon. All this made us feel a little better about paying a premium for our tour.

Our good luck in making transport connections during the trip continued the day we left the lodge. The main guide had been told by radio that the weekly boat bound for Tabatinga, Brazil, a town at the border with Columbia and Peru, would be passing on Monday this week instead of
Sunday. Instead of taking us 2 hours back down river to Tefe, the lodge's boat could take us to another town only 30 minutes away. From there we could then have a lancha, wooden canoe with an outboard motor, ferry us out to the large boat which doesn't have any port calls until
it is much farther upriver. If all went well, we'd be on the boat bound for Tabatinga that afternoon, if it went poorly, we'd be stuck in a podunk town on the Amazon waiting a couple days to catch another boat.

As we approached the main section of the river on the lodge's boat, where the ferry boat would eventually pass, we were surprised to see a large river boat passing. It was early and had already passed the small town and Had we been only 5 minutes later, the boat would have
passed without us knowing. There was no time to transfer to a lancha.

The driver of our 25' long aluminum dingy headed directly to the beam of the large boat, this apparently signals to the captain of the large boat that we intended to board. As we turned parallel to the large boat, it's captain slowed down trying to make it easier to board.  This
actually caused the side wake to double in size to about three feet tall which if taken at the wrong angle would easily overturn or swamp our small boat. Finally our boat jumped through the wake and pulled immediately alongside the large boat. We threw a bow line to the
ferryboat's crew who secured it to ties cleat.  Our small boat still continued to rock and list   from the wake of the ferry, which was still moving at 6-8 mph.  At this point,  if the small boat overturned, we'd be dragged along by the big boat and, once freed from the upturned
small boat, slip under the current of the big boat and into it's propeller.

We quickly handed over our packs and bags to the crew on the big boat, then one by one lunged over the rails to the safety of the big boat. Although this sort of on the run transfer happens once every other day on the big river boats, its site is normally an interesting diversion for the passengers who've been staring at a monotonous view of trees and water.  Diversion turns to full on spectacle when it's a couple inexperienced gringos hurling themselves on board- a hundred or so passengers were amusedly watching us.

For three more days, we watched more trees and water, ate beans, rice and spaghetti, read and played cards. Fortunately, the boat, was basically a newer version of the boat we'd taken from Manaus to Tefe. Our definite preference was this boat because it's snack bar on the top deck served beer which provided a mid-afternoon activity for us.

The first boat we'd taken was evangelical, not serving beer and offering a service every evening in the cafeteria after dinner. Three days and pounds of spaghetti later, we arrived in Tabatinga,  Brazil. A quick taxi took us across the border to Columbia whose ciity of Leticia had nicer hotels. From here, we planned to catch a flight the next day farther upriver to Iquitos, Peru and fromthere fly to Lima. We were happy to be off our beans, rice and spaghetti diet but sad to know, or think (see next blog entry), that our Amazon experience would soon end.

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