January 16, 2006 - February 9, 2006
Recife to Cuiaba
" I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." - Susan Sontag
January 16 - 20 Recife/Olinda
You would think that with having booked a guaranteed reservation and paying $20 for it that we would have gotten a room at the hotel we selected. Well, that was not the case. They had overbooked and had made a reservation for us in a nearby, lower quality, hotel. In addition, we wound up spending another 1/2 day waiting to get moved out of the substitute back into the hotel we'd originally booked in the first place. We were not happy and promptly asked for a discount and asked to get our booking service fee refunded. Fortunately the booking agent did refund the $20, no questions asked which we did appreciate.
hotels often leave a lot to be desired.
Things just don't work right.
Walls will have peeling paint, toilet seats will be broken, beds lumpy
and saggy, showers lukewarm. The lobbies
may look upscale and nice. But just wait
until you get into the room. Even though
these types of conditions often are found in
Once we went through the process of getting ourselves resituated into the hotel we'd originally booked it was time to start seeing the town. Our first destination was the Museu do Homens do Nordeste. The museum is supposed to house crafts and artifacts from the native people of the north east region. However, this we cannot confirm. We never got inside.
In the afternoon, we got on one bus heading downtown to the location where our guidebook said we needed to get a second bus to the museum. This second bus had the name "dois Irmaos" (two brothers). It turns out there are a lot of buses with this name and naturally we weren't on the correct one. So we soon found ourselves headed right back through town to where we'd begun this trek and a little beyond. The helpful bus driver then directed us where to get off and which bus, the third, to get on to get to the museum. This entire running around took over an hour.
With all this running around we were so chagrinned to find that the Museu do Homens do Nordeste was closed for renovation. The only thing open was this art gallery housing a strange hairdryer contraption that some modern artist claimed could read his thoughts. It didn't work and practically started a fire. The only thing we got out of it was finding a lady who spoke English well enough to give us directions for the buses back to our hotel (two more buses at that).
spending about $7 on buses and several hours to get to a museum that was closed
the only thing we could say we accomplished for this day was to have a round
about tour of the suburbs of
Day 2 was a
whole lot better. We managed to find the
direct bus to
Dutch left tempers between the plantation owners of
The way the tiles were placed on the walls is most unique. The original block or adobe wall is first stuccoed over flat and smooth. Then along the bottom 4 to 6 feet an extra layer of stucco about 1 1/2 inches thick is applied. The upper edge of this layer is not a straight line. Rather it undulates to match the form the tiles will eventually take. The blue and white tiles with their elaborate scenes are then applied to this thicker layer. The whole thing makes the tiles stand out almost as if there were just a thick painted board attached to the wall. It's a most unusual tile attachment method.
Over the years some of the tiles have fallen off. Rather than go through the trouble of putting the puzzle back together correctly, they have placed tiles found on the floor in miscellaneous places just to have the shape and blue and white color. It looks like a child attempted to put a puzzle together and got it all wrong. It would seem better just to leave the tiles off or to make a better effort to put it back together right. As it is, these spots look strange.
In the oldest
The Jews brought
one innovation to
couldn't believe the things you could put on this type of credit. Shoes, shirts, household goods, vacations,
medicines, everything. Of course, today
Anyway, this whole concept of installment payments did not exist in Colonial Brazil until the Jews showed up. Obviously it's become a favorite way to buy things today. Good or bad, we think we'll stick to cash.
In the middle
of the oldest section of
investigations into documents made during the Dutch occupation of
museum has a very good explanation of the history of the Jews in
fort is a small military museum with a few old guns, replicas of all flags
church. We were beginning to get our
fill of churches as we'd seen so many since we arrived in
January 20 - 25
1600s and 1700s the economy of
1820s and 1830s there was a period of intense civil was between the white
ruling class and the Indios, mestisos, and blacks known as the Cabanagem
Rebellion. In 1835 the mob descended on
the city of
In the early
our trip to
Once again we had hotel problems. This time it wasn't a matter of them being full. It was just that our first two choices were undergoing complete renovation and were closed, both of them. We finally wound up in the little French run Le Massilia pousada that proved to be one of those real finds. It has just 16 rooms overlooking a small tropical garden with a little swimming pool. The rooms are all spotless, modern, and everything works just as advertised. The French owner speaks French, Portuguese, Spanish, English and a little German. He has such a welcoming countenance that it's hard not to feel at home. You just need to learn to say "Bonjour" and "Comment ca va?" in the morning.
afternoon and Saturday morning we did almost nothing other than get to know the
town. The atmosphere of
What to do in
We started at the Goeldi museum/park. Unfortunately most of the museum itself was closed. Only a couple of rooms, one containing a few pottery shards and the other a single pot and a basket, were open to visitors. Surrounding the museum is a small zoo that has several of the Amazonian animals, birds, fish, and reptiles with signs in very good English. There were turtles, turtles, and more turtles everywhere. Evidently breeding Amazonian river turtles must be quite easy. Also, little capybara run wild all over the place. They look almost like a tailless, hunchbacked rat with extra long legs running around on its tiptoes. As a nice, shady park, it makes a pretty good place to spend another hot, muggy afternoon.
On Monday the
museums, galleries, fort, zoo, and all tourist spots are closed. So the tourist just spends time wandering the
streets looking for every possible air-conditioned nook and cranny in which to
hide from the sweltering heat. Again and
again we found ourselves returning to the Iguatemi shopping and the Estacao das
Docas for relief. The cold, dry climate
Tuesday, it turns out, all the museums are free. Closed Monday, free Tuesday. I guess that's a good trade-off. We took this opportunity to visit some that we probably would not have seen otherwise. The Museu do Arte Belem housed in a government building built at the height of the rubber baron era was worth visiting just to see the opulent structure. The fort has a number of relics from the nearby Ilha Mahjory housed in a, thank goodness, air conditioned room, along with the reconstructed fort walls, a display on the evolution of the fort structure, and several canon from the 17th century up to the 19th. Finally the "casa das onze janelas" (house of 11 windows) houses a modern art exhibit that in no way we would have paid to see. As we looked at these modern art contraptions we were constantly wondering who in the world would pay for these things and being ever thankful that we did not pay to enter this gallery.
Finally, we did wander back and forth
through the "ver o peso" (see the weight), market several times. It was so named because it was here that the
port authorities originally weighed the incoming imports in order to assess
taxes. The current market building is an
iron structure built in Europe and then shipped in pieces to
At the wee hour of 4 AM the phone rang and the alarm went off. Time to head out on the one organized tour we'd decided to subject ourselves to. Usually if we can visit a site on our own we do. Tours are just too organized and limited. In this case, however, we wanted to visit an island for which there was no public transportation. Just 1/2-hour boat ride toward the ocean is a small island with an unusual feature. For some reason parrots have decided to make that particular island their nighttime roost. At this time of year over a thousand Amazon Amazonica parrots rest on that island every night. At other times of year other migrating parrots join the party making up a flock of some 6 to 7000 birds. Every morning at sunrise the birds wake up, squeak and squawk, then fly off in pairs to their daytime feeding grounds.
We stood in
the quiet of the early morning, rocking gently on the boat. We'd joined a couple of English travelers and
a huge group from
In the early morning light it was almost impossible to tell the birds were different from any other we've seen. Yet as daylight grew we could finally start to make out the green flash of wing feathers and a little yellow around the eyes. Although even well into sunrise we still could not tell what kind of birds these were.
Amazonica parrots are the only ones that live in the coastal mangrove forests
There wasn't anything else to the tour. Just a ride in a boat down to the island, an hour or so at anchor while we watched the birds, and a slow boat ride back. It was rather expensive for what you got, around $30 each. But there's no other way to get there and where else do you have the opportunity to watch over 1000 parrots. Although we had thought we'd get a much closer view than we did so in that respect is was a bit of a disappointment.
January 25 - 28 The Amazon
There are many ways you can explore the Amazon. There are package trips that include guide, scheduled tours, first class boats, and all the works. On these tours you do the same old stuff; take a walk in the forest, see medicinal plants, visit a local family, try your hand at a blowgun and piranha fishing. We'd already done all this and had no interest in doing it again. So that option was out.
There are also huge cruise ships that sail up river. These gigantic hotels on water must look entirely out of place against a backdrop of rustic wooden houses lifted up on poles and small canoes or packet boats. In addition, with the passengers so high above the locals how can you ever interact.
You could try hiring your own boat crew, a difficult, uncomfortable, and probably expensive.
Or you could
do what the locals have done for decades, buy a spot on one of the transport
boats. There are about 4 that run
upstream each week taking 2 1/2 days to get to the midpoint
Our boat, the NM Amazon Star, carried a total of 850 passengers. The majority of these passengers are housed in one of 2 hammock sections. The lowest class hammock section, lowest in cost and location, houses about 300 people. They're on the lowest deck that has open sides and no air conditioning. They string their hammocks up so they are literally shoulder to shoulder four in a row. Baggage is strung out on the floor below. They share toilets, 4 or 5 for men and women, and they eat in a stuffy, hot unair-conditioned room way at the back where all the engine fumes congregate. Showers during the trip are obtained from using the on deck open showerheads that are turned on for 3 hours in the morning and 2 in the evening. Not an especially great option.
Second class hammocks have very nearly similar arrangements with the exception that glass windows enclose their deck and supposedly they have a/c. Although it seemed that the a/c often wasn't working properly. These folks do get to eat their meals in the a/c restaurant, although the meals aren't all that great. We accidentally ate their breakfast one morning as we were having trouble interpreting when we should eat. They got one tasteless roll, one piece of fruit, and coffee. We returned later at our proper seating time to find that the cabins get all the fruit and rolls you can eat as well as cold water, juice, ham, cheese, and crackers. Quite an upscale.
The next step up are the camarotes. There are about 44 of these although some house crew members. These folks have a small room with 2 bunk beds and an individual a/c. They share a set of 2 toilets per deck and 2 showers. The cabins could be quite comfortable for 1 or 2 persons. But it seems that folks are allowed to pack in children plus tons of luggage which must make it extremely tight.
Finally there are the suites. These are almost identical to the camarotes with the exception of a small bathroom with a small shower as well. These are not luxurious cabins, there's a lot of rust on the metal, mattresses are thin, and bedding consists of a lower sheet and pillow only. But the room does have enough space for to add 2 plastic chairs and the bathroom was nice to have. We got the full upscale meals as well. The suites cost around twice the cost of the second class hammock section, but we concluded they were well worth it. We were far more comfortable than most other travelers were.
By taking the local transportation we had
the opportunity to really see what river life is like. The first thing that surprised us was the
fact that the boat didn't seem to stop very often. We had expected a stop after the first day at
the town of
Along the route there aren't that many towns and the ones we saw were extremely small. Mostly there are small wooden houses all standing on stilts. The house is small, but it usually has an accompanying roof covered shelter where much of the daily work is carried out. There are pole-mounted docks everywhere. In places where more than one house has been built there will be pole-mounted walkways connecting them together. Every house has at least one wooden canoe and often these square looking packet boats that are the equivalent of the local bus.
On the river we saw some barges floating lumber or tractor-trailers up or down stream, a few of the packet boats, and lots and lots of wooden canoes. The folks in the canoes were the most amazing. First, the age of some of the youngest canoers was incredible. Kids that looked to be no more than 3 were out on the river in their own canoe, no adults, no life jackets. These kids must learn to swim and paddle a canoe before they even walk.
There is a tradition whereby folks on the passenger boats will pack up food, clothing or other store bought items into plastic bags. These are tossed to the waiting canoes. One man told us they do this in part because there are no stores anywhere nearby. There are a few small "portos" where the locals can buy such as beer and gasoline and there are a few floating stores that go from house to house. But otherwise they are living mostly on what they can find in the forest. The plastic bag wrapped gifts are meant as some assistance. Almost every house we passed had a canoe out on the water filled with either one person or the entire family. So many had hopeful looks on their faces. They were cheerful and waved as we went by. But, you could sure see a little look of disappointment on some of those faces when not a bag hit water near them. In this case it was much better to live further downstream where the pickings are greatest.
The most incredible act of the canoers was the hitchhiking. That's right. As our boat would approach we'd see a canoe coming in perpendicular at full speed. Usually there were 2 people on board, women and even kids were included. As the canoe neared, the bow person would take up a grappling hook while the stern person continued to paddle and steer. When close enough the person in front with the grapple would reach forward and hook something on our boat, usually a tire or another canoe. Often the sudden shock of the canoe being turned 90 degrees and accelerated up to our boat's speed would pull the bow up and swamp the rear. The aft person would use their paddle as a rudder while the fore person would hastily tie off the grapple hook, climb aboard our boat, and attempt to secure a second rope while pulling the bow of the canoe up onto one of the tires. The helmsman would then use the paddle to get some of the water out of the canoe. It all looked highly dangerous to us.
We saw one instance where one very, very strong fellow paddled like crazy and still missed the grapple. So he grabbed his bowline and jumped into the nearest dragging canoe letting his own canoe drag behind on the line. Now that was daring. We're convinced he did it just to show off as he seemed to be moving too slowly at the start of his run. It was as if he gauging his distance to make this show. It was quite a feat. We never saw him in the upper parts of the boat and we wondered if those in the lower, hammock section were handing out tips.
Once aboard, the canoers would sometimes come around ship selling goods such as palm hearts in a jar, shrimp, acai fruits, and sugar cane. These entrepreneurs were making a killing and often would leave ship with empty canoes and full pockets. Or they would just hook on for the upstream ride. Often they carried large plastic fuel containers to be filled at the local porto. For one thing we did notice is that these isolated little houses all have a generator, a few electric lights, a TV, and a satellite dish. They'd float down river to the porto for the few goods carried there and then hitch a ride back up.
Our canoe hitchhikers came and went all day long. One hour you'd look down to see one set. An hour later there'd be an entirely new crop. There were so many canoes attached to the sides and stern on our boat that one passenger said he counted 21 at one time. Now this was a part of river travel no cruise liner would ever see. In fact, we were told that most riverboat captains will not allow the hitchhikers. So we were lucky. It was the best part of the whole adventure.
Getting the canoes disconnected was an even trickier maneuver. If there were another canoe in the way it would be difficult to get yours out without getting tangled. Often the inexperienced boys would get swamped. We watched one trio while their canoe went under the one behind and one by one the boys got left behind in the river. With some effort from someone aboard out boat, the canoe eventually let go. Fortunately these boys are expert swimmers, there are always other canoes around to help, everything they own floats, and the current isn't especially strong. They were fine. But, it seems that one-day some of these canoers will get hurt or killed and this old tradition will come to an end.
up the Amazon on the passenger boat has to be about the closest thing to riding
the boat quickly becomes a repetition of the same thing day after day. We'd chosen to take the boat only as far as
Santerem figuring that 2 1/2 days was plenty.
We'd heard many times that while staying on for the full 5 days is quite
an experience, it is also a huge relief to get off. We figured that 2 days would be more than
enough to get a feel for river life.
You're not going to see animals, so it's things like these daring
canoers that you come to see. So while
we settled into our 2-day adventure housed in our little suite under the care
of the ever-watchful cabin guardian,
January 29 - 31 -
European explorers came to the
We went over to Altar do Chao for an afternoon just to see what was there. As expected we found a beach covered with beach chairs, umbrellas, and swimsuit clad bodies. There were swimmers in the water and canoes, kayaks, motor boats, water skiers, and tube riders on top. The primary beach is located across a lagoon on a white sandy spit of land. In low water season you can wade across. At this time there was a brisk business of rowboats porting people back and forth all day long. There's a continual stream of boats crossing and recrossing which was a rather amusing sight to see.
We hadn't come to swim, just to watch and walk along the beach. UV ratings this close to the equator and at the middle of the day reach the 10 mark. Even just sitting in the shade on our Amazon boat we were still getting burned over and over again. So we covered up, endured the heat, and just sat in the shade to watch the swimmers and boaters. The sun is just too brutal for us northerners.
having much to visit in the way of museums, the little city of
shape and characteristics of these river boats, you'd just need to add a couple
of black smoke stacks and a big wheel on the back or sides and you'd have
precisely the kind of paddle wheel boat that used the ply the waters of the
probably very few places remaining where you can get this kind of unique
view. We did not see it in
the only ones. The new and improved
river walk is a continuing project of the
On Sunday evening, as the sun sets and the river walk finally moves into the shade, it seems that the entire town comes out from their houses and descends on the walkway. While just one block inland the town is dead quiet, the riverfront is absolutely alive. Families bring their kids to the park to play on the swings. Teen-age girls come out in their finest version of the latest styles to get noticed by the teen boys. The elderly bring folding chairs to sit by the wall and people watch. Vendors selling fresh cooked pizzas, hotdogs, hamburgers, and hot sandwiches pull their carts alongside the wall and set out cushions for seating. Balloon vendors, candy sellers, and even a fellow who converts old cans into unique caps all come to the park to sell their wares. This is the place where all the activity can be found.
we arrived at
February 1 - 3
If you do opt for a jungle lodge visit you'll see lots of plants, probably those 1 inch long poisonous ants, lots of insects, maybe frogs, some birds, and probably a few caged animals. All the lodges do the usual piranha fishing, which may yield a few nibbles and not much else, a visit to a local family, a blow gun contest, walks in the forest, and some discussion of the medicinal uses for the various plants. Not much else.
all these things at the Yarina lodge in
to head out on another jungle trek, we spent our time trying to find things to
do in the town. There were a few
museums, Museu do
Such a nice lady, she added so much to the exhibits that we would not have gotten otherwise. She told us about the ritual the young girls of one nearby tribe go through after their first menses. Their hair is pulled out, they are restricted to their homes for 6 months, and they're only allowed to see their mother or sisters during the entire time. After the 6 months they come out looking somewhat white, white compared to the natives but still dark compared to us northern Europeans. Immediately she is married and expected to produce children. Our guide told us she's encountered 10 year old Indios who were already pregnant. One grows up fast in those societies.
The boys get to go through their own particular form of puberty rites of passage. They are required to stick their hand into a woven basket that is full of those poisonous ants. They get stung many times and have to endure a full day of wrenching pain and sickness. Any boy who refuses to pass this test is not considered a man. What fun.
the museums we made an impromptu stop at the Palacio Rio Negro. Behind this lovely old rubber baron's mansion
we found several full size examples of typical Amazonian structures complete
with English explanations. There was a
river dweller's house, a typical riverboat, a tribal roundhouse, a rubber
collector's workshop, a shop for converting the manioc root into powder, and
several other buildings. This was
perhaps one of the most interesting museums we've seen in
Of course we had to visit the Teatro Amazonica. This incredibly opulent building was first envisioned in 1881 and finally inaugurated in 1896 following several years of no work due to massive corruption. It operated for 72 years and then was shuttered after the collapse of the rubber boom. It was not restored and reopened until 1997.
beautiful structure; very similar in form to the Teatro do Paz in
The theater is constructed mostly from articles
The building was designed with a few rather interesting technical innovations. Under the main floor there are air passages. Every 2 or 3 rows there are large round disks under the seats. These are ventilation shafts used to admit some cooler air during the show. They're still in place only for show as the entire theater today has air conditioning.
columns are all made from Scottish steel.
The idea was that the steel would better reflect the sound than wood or
plaster thus improving the acoustics.
Also, outside the entire drive that used to encircle the theater was
originally paved in a composite of rubber and stone. This was intended to deaden the noise of late
arriving carriages. The doors to the
theater were left open during performances so any external noise would be
distracting. Finally the electric
generator was used to light all the chandeliers as well as the interesting
lampposts out on the street. This was
probably one of the few buildings in all of
We did have
the unique opportunity to experience a performance in the theater. It happened that on our last night there was
a free concert put on by the
The last thing we visited was the local zoo run by the army. This branch of the army is different in that they are not trained to fight other armies. They're supposed to be in charge of protecting preserved sections of the Amazon. How good a job they're actually doing remains to be seen. Our guide in the Museu Amazonica told us that even though the citizens of Manaus keep replanting the Pau Brazil trees, 20 or 30 years later companies keep coming along and chopping all their trees down. So maybe the army isn't all that successful after all.
zoo houses examples of Amazonian fauna that were "rescued" by the
army. Or, as one Dutch fellow we met
proposed, maybe they used these animals to study and for training. In any event, it's here in this zoo where
you'll see the most Amazonian animals.
Certainly far more than you'll see in any jungle lodge. There were all kinds of parrots, two harpy
eagles, a toucan, some tapirs, several of the larger cats, turtles, crocodiles,
and an interesting small cat they called an Eyra cat. Looking at our Amazonian animal reference
book we concluded that it is actually a jaguarundi. It's not much larger than a house cat with a
longer, sleeker body and a dark silvery gray coat. The sign claimed that these cats could be
The Brazilian phone company has a lot of fun with its public phone booths. There are the normal ones, the funny blue fiberglass covers that have been given the nickname "ear". Then there are the more unique. We've seen phone booths made to look like coconuts, ancient pottery, a crab sitting on top a carved coconut shell bowl, a cashew fruit, fish, piranha, and parrots. Here in the zoo the company went to extremes. They've got phone booths dressed up like large cats, tapir, capybara, crocodiles, parrots, and toucans. It's fun to see a new version of the phone booth and even more amusing to see someone standing talking into the belly of some gigantic bird.
The zoo was
well worthwhile even though the cages were more reminiscent of early zoos
rather than the more commodious accommodations now built in such places as the
February 4 - 9
miles back south, a long way from the equator and the Amazonian river basin, we
headed for our final stop on our Brazilian adventure,
Amazon is the place to go to experience the river life, the Pantanal is the
place to go to see wildlife and
What makes it so easy to see the wild life is that it has mostly grass lands with islands of tree covered high ground. When flooded, the grass lands become swamps and the wild animals congregate on the high ground. In the dry season the wildlife congregates around the few ponds. So visiting either time of the year will usually yield good wildlife viewing. Yet again, there is always the element of luck involved.
The lands that are really known as the
Pantanal start just 10 miles south of a little town called Pocone which is
around 75 or so km south southwest from
Transpanteira there are over 100 wooden bridges that are periodically
rebuilt. The further from Pocone you get
the less often the bridges are rebuilt.
We went as far as around 117 km, actually passing the 4 or 5 men who
were tasked with bridge reconstruction, and finally came to a bridge that
looked just a little too rickety. Here
we turned back and returned to
As our luck would have it, we were not fortunate enough to see as many of the mammal species as we'd hoped. One deer and an armadillo was it. We did add a large number of other animals to our "have seen" list including: roadrunner lizards, several iguanas including one bright green one, a large whip snake, and some crocodiles. Yet it was birds we spotted the most, an amazing variety of birds. We saw loads of snowy egrets, gray storks, hawks, vultures, kingfishers, and parrots. In addition we were fortunate enough to spot no less than 4 toucans including the toco toucan with its black body and orange beak, 4 huge white storks with their red neck ring and black neck and head, one mottled brown burrowing owl, and one large eagle with a brown back and creamy white head. Plus all sorts of little birds with colors ranging from bright orange to pure black.
Even after we
left the lowlands of the Pantanal to hit the higher grounds of the Chapada das
Guimereos, we saw even more parrots and a big flock of those gigantic
rheas. The rheas were busy nipping seeds
or insects from some farmer's newly planted fields. Certainly we would have to say we did see far
more wildlife around
long, slow drive up and down the Transpanteira we headed 5-km northeast of
the park at around 9 AM hoping to get in some descent hiking before the heat
and humidity of the day set in. Lucky
for us we arrived on a day that started with a cool, misty fog. By the time the mist burned off, around 4
hours later, we'd finished hiking the few trails that there are and were ready
to head back to
Chapada das Guimereos park is situated
along the edge of these red eroded cliffs whose total height is only about
1,000 ft. The red rocks in their
bizarrely eroded forms look a bit like the hoodoos of
about 4 to 5 km of trails within the park.
Probably 95% of Brazilian visitors simply walk the 50 or so meters to
the veu da Noiva (overlook of bridal veil falls). With a vertical drop of 85 meters over a
recessed cliff, this is the most spectacular falls in the entire park. As we find so often in the
aren't well marked. You're left guessing
where you are until you do happen across one of the few signs that gives you
some indication of where you are. The
trail heads out across the flatlands on the top of one of the eroded
peninsulas. Then it drops over a
precarious route to the edge of the river that it follows for about 1-km. There are side trails to a series of 4
waterfalls each having drops of just a few meters. In some places in the
around the park for several hours until the heat and humidity became just too
oppressive. We scanned the treetops
hoping to see a monkey or two with no luck.
We did get to see another flock of green parrots, a bird that seems to
be quite common here. After that it was
time to return to
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.