Amazonian Adventures

Apparently we didn’t get enough of the river during our marathon boat cruise from Colombia. It’s almost necessary to get out to the Amazon when you’re in Manaus, so that is what we did. As our flight out was actually for a couple of days later than it needed to be, we had a day or two spare, and decided to head off on the river.

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There are seemingly thousands of jungle trips, tours, agencies, and lodges operating out of Manaus. The selection is truly overwhelming. As we ended up planning it last-minute, time wasn’t on our side either, so our research certainly wasn’t complete. Many of the operators were charging vastly inflated prices over the World Cup period, which made the search even more frustrating.

We ended up booking a two-day, one-night trip with David from Amazon Jungle Tours. His price seemed fair (if, in my opinion, still a bit steep), and he was helpful and timely with his e-mails. We paid 225 USD per person for the trip, including transport, accommodation, a guide, and meals. We had been quoted around $500 for the same sort of trip, but also spoke with others (who had booked well in advance) and paid a lot less.

We were picked up from our hotel in the morning and driven to the port. Here we got on a small boat that took us to see the Meeting of the Waters. This oft-touted tourist attraction of Manaus is still, in my opinion, a phenomenon worth seeing.

Here, the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro meet to form the Amazon. Due to differences of speed, sediment content, and temperature, the two waters do not mix seamlessly together. Instead, they run side-by-side for six kilometres. You can sit, on a boat, on the seam of the largest river in the world, and see the distinct colours of the two tributaries, flowing together, but separate, for longer than seems possible.

Meeting of the Waters

Meeting of the Waters

We then returned to land, where drove through the sprawling metropolis of Manaus, past endless midrise apartment buildings, and then past large motorcycle and television factories. We drove over the enormous bridge that spans the Solimões, reaching its bone-white arms for more than 3.5 km from shore to shore. This is a bridge where you stop to think, “But where does it go?” upon first seeing it reaching away from Manaus.

We drove for around an hour and a half after crossing the bridge before we got to a small dock and piled into a long, narrow, motorised boat. It was another hour or so on the Rio Negro before we pulled up to a dock at the base of a rickety staircase. We found out later that we were on an island in the middle of the river, though you would never know it from the size as we approached. We clambered up to the top of the stairs and stopped a moment to take in the view.

From the dirt at our feet to the reaches of the highest clouds, all we could see was nature. As a distant boat motor engine faded, the only sounds were those of the living, breathing forest surrounding us. The river was almost soundless. We (we being Tim and I, and an Australian couple who were staying at the lodge for a few days) made our way to lovely yet extremely basic and rustic accommodation. The lodge was primarily solar-powered. The water was supplied by rainwater catch barrels that, incidentally, had been drained by the large group that had just vacated the place. There was a barrel outside of our room with buckets if we happened to need water for anything. We settled in, had a tasty lunch, and had a little while to relax before our first activity.

Our group headed out on a couple of long, narrow, non-motorized canoes. These boats had to be balanced, almost perfectly, less a side dip below the surface of the water and the bottom of the canoe get flooded. Even with perfect balance, our canoe had enough leaks and holes to require almost constant bailing. We drifted along the river, through the flooded forests that the Amazon is at the end of rainy season. We spotted countless scores of vibrant birds, no monkeys, and, luckily, river dolphins. We were feeling it in our arms after working the heavy, rough wooden paddles along the river for a couple of hours.

20140626-IMG_2097The second day of our adventure started with a hike through the forest with a 65-year-old man who had grown up in the Amazon. Despite the fact that he was missing all of his teeth, his cheeky smile and spryness made him seem many years younger. He taught us about the uses for a handful of plants that grow in the Amazon. A single tree could be used for everything from plugging holes in canoes to curing headaches. The knowledge of our guide and the incredible offerings of the forest were truly amazing.

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The highlight of our trip was right at the end. The Amazon is home to incredibly unique pink river dolphins, and we were lucky enough to get into the water with a group of them.

20140627-IMG_0788 The river dolphin operation is set up in the centre of the river, and the wild dolphins come around to take advantage of the fish on offer. It was just the two of us in the water with one of the men who worked there, and a handful of the small, bulgy, pink dolphins. They were incredible strong in the water, and had no qualms with rushing into and alongside you as they went for the fish. At one point, one of the dolphins jumped out of the river, as if for a fish, but headed more in Tim’s direction than anywhere. The animals probably weigh well over 100 kilograms, and to avoid getting crushed into the water underneath him, Tim essentially tackled the dolphin away from him. The dolphin easily flipped away and dove back into the water. The dark waters of the river made it almost impossible to see them until they were breaking the surface, and it was a bit unnerving being so close to such powerful animals that you couldn’t even see.

We somehow managed to dodge the thick rain clouds on our way back, and the sun came out for the long boat ride back.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We had a final night in Manaus where we caught the amazing Brazil vs. Chile match in the square, saw some of the Amazonas Jazz Festival, and then travelled overnight down to Rio de Janeiro. We had two weeks to spend in the state that would culminate with a few days in the city over the World Cup Final.

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Two Weeks of World Cup at 90% Humidity. Welcome to Manaus.

It was early, and after a little bit of confusion with our hostel, we started to settle in to our basic but nice room. We explored our neighbourhood, which was basically the centre of the city, and wandered through streets crowded with market stalls, primarily selling a world of Brazilian football gear. We had arrived two days before the beginning of the tournament, and the city was decked out in yellow and green, from painted streets, to shop window mannequins, to streamers forming Brazilian flags above traffic intersections. The sense of excitement was palpable.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We were lucky enough to have met some amazing people on the boat trip from Colombia, and it was with them that we enjoyed the first week or so of the cup. For the opening match of the tournament, Brazil vs. Croatia, we watched the game among crowds in the main square of the city. They had set up a massive screen there, as a complement to the official FIFA Fan Zone which was in Punta Negra, about 30 minutes by bus from the centre. We visited the fan zone a couple of times, and came to find that we preferred the atmosphere in the centre anyways (as well as the convenience). Seeing Brazil take the first match (even with some questionable calls against the Croatian aide) surrounded by Brazilians in the heart of the Amazon was a truly amazing experience, and the next couple of weeks would only get better.

20140612-IMG_1979 Our first live match was England up against Italy. As we’d accumulated some British friends in the last week or so, Tim and I supported England, and turned up eager to see what was probably going to be one of our best games. Unfortunately for England, that evening proved to be the hottest of any of the games we saw in the jungle, and it showed. All of the players fatigued, and by the end of the match you could see their energy was almost entirely zapped. England lost the match 2-1. Still, the crowds at El Dorado, a bar district walking distance from the stadium, were still in good spirits. Our World Cup had officially begun!

We made ourselves at home in our hostel. We had arrived before the crowds, and revelled in small joys such as having an oven and being able to cook some proper meals. Roast with vegetables, steak and salad, roast chicken. Endless smoothies. It was fantastic. I sound like a grandma, but we also caught up on sleep. We probably slept an average of 10 hours a night for the first week, just letting our bodies catch up from the past few months of being on the raod. We missed our included breakfast almost every day.

Official FIFA Fan Fest during the Brazil vs. Mexico game.

Official FIFA Fan Fest during the Brazil vs. Mexico game.

We found ourselves, with about four days left in Manaus, realizing we had very little time and been very terrible tourists. Our daily routine had literally been full of eating good food, drinking too much beer (just to negate any health benefits we may have absorbed from the food and sleep), and watching football matches. We also went to three more live matches: Croatia vs. Cameroon, Portugal vs. USA, and Honduras vs. Switzerland.

Undecided fans at the Cameroon & Croatia Match. Side 1: Croatia!

Undecided fans at the Cameroon & Croatia Match. Side 1: Croatia! 

Side 2: Cameroon!

Side 2: Cameroon!

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We also attempted to plan. We’d been tossing up for a long time what to do after our plans ended – we had two weeks confirmed in Manaus and then nothing else – no flights, no hotels, nada. We’d concluded it would be a shame to leave Brazil while the cup was still on, so we figured we’d head out to the northern coast, and hang around there, before taking friends up on the generous offer of letting us crash with them in Rio for a few days over the final.

After plenty of research, searching for flights, and adding up hours on buses, we decided to scrap the initial plan and head straight down to Rio. It would cost us almost twice as much, and take a shocking amount of time on transit, to make our way down the coast via Belem or Fortaleza. We had found flights on June 30 to Rio for about 500 reals, so we booked them. We plan to leave the city straight away, spend some time in Rio de Janeiro province, and then return to the city for the final. I also bit the bullet and booked my flight back to Canada, so the adventure is finally coming to an end! (Soon.)

Teatro Amazonas

Teatro Amazonas

Colombia to Brazil | Three Days on the Amazon

As we flew over an impossible expanse of rainforest and the largest river in the world stretching further than we could seem we got a small taste of how vast this area really is. “Think of how good it is for the planet,” Tim said. Exactly. And after seeing a tiny section of it, from the air, and being blown away about how huge it is, it makes it only scarier to realize that estimates put deforestation of the Amazon over the last fifty years at around 20%. True, this doesn’t touch the loss of forest in Sumatra or Borneo, where there is as little as 15% left, but the Amazon holds approximately half of the remaining tropical forests on earth (as well as 1 in 10 of the known species), and it’s destruction is a truly frightening thing to comprehend.

As we stepped off of the plane, we were hit with a virtual wall of heat and humidity. By the time we were out of the airport, the rain had started, but it did nothing to cool off the sweltering town. In the airport, we had met Viktor, one of many Colombians heading to Brazil to support their team in their first appearance in the international event after a 16-year absence. We teamed up and, after finding a hostel, began to tick things off of our to-do list.

Leticia is a border town; Tabatinga is the Brazilian equivalent on the other side of a most casual international border. We got our exit stamps from Colombia in the airport and were told we needed to enter Brazil the same day – people can move freely amongst the two towns. We took a taxi to immigration in Tabatinga and we wouldn’t have realized we were anywhere new had the taxi driver not told us we were now in Brazil – and for the fact that every imaginable surface was now draped in green and yellow. After waiting in a moderate immigration queue amongst a crowd of other tourists doing exactly what we were, we had some additional information to go off about our next steps.

We had arrived on a Thursday, under the general impression that the slow boat would leave from Tabatinga on Saturday, take us 1200 kilometres down the Amazon, and deposit us in Manaus on Tuesday. It turned out that, due to the influx of travellers pouring down the river towards the World Cup, they had added two additional boats: one on Friday and a second boat on Saturday. After chatting with people who had seen the boats, we knew that we wanted the 12 p.m. departure on Saturday. As a bonus, our accommodation in Manaus was set to begin on Tuesday, so if the boat were on time, it would work our perfectly.

We made our way to the port, where we bought tickets for the Saturday departure for 200,000 pesos, 250 reals, or roughly 110 dollars. The boat would depart mid-day Saturday, was for four days and three nights, included meals, and all we had to bring was our own hammock. Can you say budget cruise?

We spent our time in Leticia gathering supplies (mainly snacks), watching football (because we wouldn’t get enough over the next month), and meeting people who were doing the same journey. Leticia is certainly the nicer of the two neighbouring towns; Tabatinga is rather sprawling, grungy, and decidedly unsafe after dark.

It was with a palpable sense of excitement that we set off early on Saturday to the dock. For three nights on a crowded boat, hammock placement is a top priority, and we had been told to arrive around 8 a.m. to hang our hammocks to ensure a good spot. As we had already come to realize, everyone had been gathering vastly different information on what was actually happening and when it was to happen, and each person of apparent authority we asked had a different answer. So it was a large crowd that had gathered at 8 or 9 a.m. (no one was really sure about the time, as there may or may not be a time difference across the border) and waited around for a couple of hours until we were allowed on to the boat. We had been told the police needed to check both the boat and our stuff before anyone was getting their hammock up.

Miraculously, once this started to happen, Tim, Viktor and I were near the front of the queue and had reasonably good choice of placement for our hammocks. We opted for the wider side of the boat (people wouldn’t be walking into our hammocks as much), near the window (for the breeze), on the second level (the bottom is reportedly more noisy and less safe, as passengers arrive and depart during the night). It soon became apparent the relative large amount of space we had acquired for ourselves was an illusion. As more and more people piled onto the boat, the hammocks were hung twice as thickly as we initially attempted, and the only way to make it work was to stagger the heights – essentially hammock bunk beds. Even still, neighbours were constantly bumping into one another, any rocking of the boat made us all sway in bump in unison. You got to know your neighbours very quickly.

Hammocks

The boat departed around 1 p.m., which was sooner than most bets had estimated. After piling together and locking our gear, we set off to explore the boat.

The first two decks were sleeping quarters – somewhere between 80 and 100 hammocks crammed onto each at any given time. The second floor had the small dining room, where about 15 people could sit and eat the basic meals at any given time. The top deck was where we spent most of our time, as the open air and incredible views made it the most pleasant area on the boat. There was a bar selling beer, ice cream, and snacks, a small covered area, and plenty of chairs and tables. In the evening, salsa generally erupted on the top deck. At one point the boat’s launch went out to do a beer run. Perhaps they hadn’t banked on this many tourists.

It takes a bit of technique and a bit of simply getting used to it to spend a comfortable night in a hammock. It turns out the best solution is actually just a generous quantity of beer. It’s strange as well, because after the first night, where most of us tossed and turned as much as you can when lying like a banana, I vowed to not spend a minute in my hammock the following day. However, once I was up, it seemed like the most comfortable place to be. The second night was better (on account of the beer), and by the third night I was pretty used to the whole idea.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

I can’t comment on how this journey would be normally. I’d imagine it would be fairly low-key. I’m sure there could be a couple of travellers aboard, but most would be local. If you couldn’t speak the language, it would, above all, be quite boring I imagine. Because of the World Cup, however, we had a huge number of very excitable passengers aboard. There was a huge group of Colombians, a handful of Canadians, Kiwis, Australians, and Brits, and everyone was in great spirits. There was a lot of energy on board and everyone was friendly, chatty, and excited about what was to come.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The river itself was pretty astonishing. Rio Amazonas is made up of the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro, and begins where the two meet close to Manaus. We were travelling down the Rio Solimões, which originates in the Andes of Peru. The sediment-filled waters are the colour of milky coffee and, as the water levels are high this time of year, the shores were a mix of nearly flooded villages and marshy forests. Where we began the journey, we could see each side of the shore easily. The river slowly widens, and at the mouth of the Amazon, where it empties in the Atlantic Ocean, the distance between the banks is the same as the distance from London to Paris.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

The days passed as days do, and if we had gotten some idea of the scale of the Amazon flying into it, our perception only expanded as we motored, at no turtle pace, for days down the ever-expanding river. It felt as though we’d travelled across the continent, but when looking at a map you could estimate we’d only gone less than half of the way to the coast. How vast this area was that we were in, an area that holds unimaginable quantities of undiscovered species, that holds some of the few uncontacted tribes of people remaining on earth.

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Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We were woken in the dark, with heavily armed police aboard the boat. We were a couple of hours away from docking in Manaus, and they were conducting the standard passport and gear checks. Each bag was searched, some more thoroughly than others. It was a long-travelled crew, bleary with sleep, who barely blinked as three men on the boat were arrested. One, at least, was carrying large amounts of cocaine. As the rest of the boat packed away hammocks and other belongings, the detained men sat, almost expressionless, with their hands behind their back on one of the benches in the middle of the boat.

At some point before sunrise, we had crossed the famed meeting of the waters – the spot where the Rio Solimões and the Rio Negro meet, but do not merge. Their waters run alongside one another for six kilometres, the different sediment levels, temperature, and speeds making them act almost as water and oil. We had seen none of this in the night, of course, and knew now only because the water lapping at the edges of the boat was now almost black in colour.

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

Photo Credit: Tim Binks

We watched the city appear before us. Manaus, during the height of the rubber boom in the late 19800s was once one of the most opulent cities in the world. Now, the sprawling city is home to around two million people, but the last vestiges of the wealth of the rubber age are few and far between. There are a few architectural marvels, namely the Teatro Amazonas. The appeal of the city is found in corner smoothie shops serving out tropical açai by the bowlful, the beautiful central plazas, and, primarily, the incredible people. The residents of Manaus, not as bombarded with foreign travellers as their counterparts in Rio or Sao Paulo, welcomed the World Cup visitors with open arms. This is what truly made Manaus an amazing base for our two-week, four-game long entrance into the event.