Caryl and Brian's World Bike Tour

Brazil Bus Trip - Part III

Back Home Up

 

BRAZIL BUS TRIP PART 3 - 2005/2006

January 16, 2006 - February 9, 2006

Recife to Cuiaba

View Map

  Teasers:

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Deal with more and more hotel problems along the coast

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Look for and find the closed Museu do Homenes do Nordeste in Recife

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Admire Portuguese tile work in Olinda

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Spend days wandering around Belem looking for things to keep busy

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Climb aboard the Amazona Star for a long journey upriver

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Walk the river walk in Santarem gawking at the boat activity

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Visit the famous Teatro Amazona in Manaus

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Look for wildlife in the Pantanal

 

" 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.

 

Brazilian run 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 Latin America hotels, in other countries the prices are quite reasonable. You feel as though you are getting what you pay for. Stay in the $15 to $20 range and that's what you get, pretty low quality room. Get up to around $30 to $40 and you get something fairly nice.

 

However, not so in Brazil, along the beach, in high summer season. Here we were paying around $70 per night for an old room with lumpy bed and only half was very poorly air-conditioned. The lobby was very nice, complete with doormen, concierge, and uniformed desk clerks. The pool was one of the largest, cleanest pools we'd seen. But the standard rooms were basically crummy. Yet this is not uncommon throughout Brazil. In fact, the two very best hotels we stayed in was the Ibis, part of the foreign owned Accor chain, and a small French run pousada up in Belem. Sometimes it just seems Brazilian hotels are way over valuing themselves or they just don't know how to do things up to US or European standards.

 

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).

 

So after 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 Recife.

 

Day 2 was a whole lot better. We managed to find the direct bus to Olinda, which was on a street different from the one indicated in the guidebook. We managed to see all the churches in town and wander the streets before early afternoon. Another direct bus took us back to within 2 blocks of the hotel, we now knew the street numbering system so we could be more accurate as to where to get off. And we even managed to get in a good long swim in that nice pool we were paying an exorbitant fee to have. That's the way it is with independent travel. Some days turn out a complete disaster. Fortunately most do not.

 

Olinda is another colonial town located around 15 km or so north of Recife. Throughout Portuguese and Brazilian history these two cities have been linked financially and politically. Olinda has always been the center of the rich sugar plantation owners while Recife with its rivers and reefs has been the port. In the 17th century revenues from the sugarcane industry made the Recife/Olinda combination one of the most prosperous cities in Brazil, second only to Salvador. This prosperity made this region a very attractive prize for other European powers as well, the Dutch in particular.

 

While other areas of Brazil were able to resist incursions from other envious European interests, the Recife/Olinda area was not. The Dutch first managed to grab Recife in 1624 under the flag of the Dutch West India Company. This first invasion was repelled a year later when a combined Spanish/Portuguese army of 12,000 tossed them out. The Dutch returned in 1629 and this time managed to hold the city as well as large holdings in the northeast until 1654. The sugar plantation owners resented having the non-Catholic Dutch in charge and managed to put together an army to expel the foreign interests once and for all. It is rather interesting to note that during the time the rather religious tolerant Dutch resided in Recife, the Jewish also came.

 

After the Dutch left tempers between the plantation owners of Olinda and the merchants of Recife flared. This came to a head in 1710 when the whole feud erupted into bloody warfare. The merchants, with the economic power of the Portuguese Crown, gained significant power while Olinda declined. Eventually as the sugar economy declined, Sao Paulo and Rio eclipsed the economic power of Recife/Olinda.

 

Today Recife remains a busy city and port although it still does not enjoy the economic and political clout of its colonial days. Olinda has essentially become a quiet suburb of Recife. Because it hasn't had the economic power or growing population of Recife, it has been able to retain its colonial charm. Recife, on the other hand, has continued to grow, adding modern high-rises and neighborhoods sprawling for miles around.

Olinda has the usual collection of one and two story white colonial buildings with painted window and doorframes. There are a few craft shops, a few restaurants, and the normal plethora of churches. The best was the Convento do Sao Fransisco. The outside of the church was rather plain. But inside are some of the most beautiful blue and white tile frescos covering the walls. The tiles are all in Portuguese and usually represent scenes from the bible. But there are some scenes of every day life, which are far more interesting since they give a glimpse into rural life in Portugal of that era. The ladies and men of wealthier classes wearing the funny looking curly wigs in vogue at that time are most interesting.

 

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.

 

Recife was the subject of our final day before beginning our air pass flights. Much of old Recife has been replaced over the years by modern buildings. Modern, of course, doesn't necessarily mean 20th century. Like most cities it has an eclectic mix of 17th through 20th century structures usually assembled in a not too pleasing manner. There are a few gems. The theater, governor's palace, and house of justice to name a few.

 

In the oldest section of Recife is one site that is probably the most important from a historical perspective. During the 1630s when Recife was under the control of the Dutch, this area adopted the Dutch liberal religious views. Jews who had found a religious haven in the Netherlands contracted with the Dutch West Indies company and migrated to Recife. They came with only the clothes on their backs but soon grew to be a very prosperous and wealthy sector of society. Unfortunately for the Jews, when the Portuguese regained control of Recife they were unmercifully persecuted. Some fled back to the Netherlands. But, some 23 found their way to New Amsterdam, today's New York. So how many of the Jews in New York know that they came from the Netherlands by way of Brazil?

 

The Jews brought one innovation to Brazil that today has been taken to an extreme that we've never seen elsewhere, installment payments. In Brazil you can buy virtually anything on installment. Every single store lists prices either "a vista", payment in full at visit, or in payments usually listed as 5XR$10, 3XR$50, 12XR$15, etc. Meaning you make 5, 3 or 12 equal payments of so many Reias. We're not entirely sure how it works, but we think it may be done the way things were done in the US back in the 40s and 50s. You set up an account with a particular store and then make payments on your account that match what the particular purchase.

 

We just couldn't believe the things you could put on this type of credit. Shoes, shirts, household goods, vacations, medicines, everything. Of course, today in the U.S. we consolidate all those installment purchases into a single credit card, VISA, Master Card, or whatever. That way you're just making one payment for everything. Not in Brazil. Just imagine the nightmare of keeping track of 6 or 7 different purchases at a single store with different payment schedules. I'll bet payments are missed all the time.

 

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 Recife sits a building that looks like nothing more than one of the neighboring houses. Inside you'll find one of the better museums in Brazil, from an English speaker's point of view that is. This was the location of the western hemisphere's first Jewish synagogue. Its precise location was discovered only recently.

 

Recent investigations into documents made during the Dutch occupation of Recife revealed that there was, in fact, a synagogue. Enough information was found that through triangulation they were able to find the exact location where they thought it would have been. Excavations eventually located the sacred pool of water that would have been on the ground floor. In addition several items of metal and glass showing the star of David and the Minora were found thus confirming the site.

 

Today the museum has a very good explanation of the history of the Jews in Brazil and a recreation of how they think the synagogue might have appeared. With the exception of a few archeological traces, everything you see is a recreation. But, it's interesting none the less.

 

Elsewhere in Recife is a fort that was also built during Dutch occupation. This fort has the typical star shape with little corner lookout posts that is common to Spanish style forts. What is unusual, however, is that the buildings inside the main wall were built so high they go way above the top of the wall. You would think this would have provided the enemies with a great target. Hadn't they heard that it's wise to keep your head down in a fight.

 

Inside the fort is a small military museum with a few old guns, replicas of all flags flown over Brazil, and an exposition of old maps. These maps were of Recife and Olinda made during the Dutch years. It shows the location of the many forts built to guard the narrow bay entrance, the layout of the streets, front views of some of the buildings, and the paths of the channels and shapes of the islands before any filling and restructuring was done. Those maps were some of the most fascinating we'd found in Recife so far. It's always fun to see how things looked so long ago.

 

One more church. We were beginning to get our fill of churches as we'd seen so many since we arrived in Brazil. This one was nicknamed the "golden chapel" and you can well guess why. Inside virtually all the walls and ceilings were covered in gold leaf. Only the places where paintings were held was there no gold leaf. It's amazing to see, but rather overdone. It seems you'd go into this church and be so busy looking at the decoration you'd forget to pray.

 

That was enough of Recife. We went back to our hotel and expensive pool for a good cooling soak and an early night in preparation for our very early morning flight.

 

January 20 - 25 Belem

 

Belem is the Portuguese name for the city of Bethlehem. It is believed that the town's founder named it Belem because he began his journey of exploration up the Guama river on Christmas day. The town was founded in 1616 when the Portuguese landed and built a fort to deter French, English, Spanish, and Dutch from staking a claim. In a practical move, the Portuguese set up the region of Para and Maranhao, the northeast of Brazil, under separate administration from the rest of Portugal. This was because the prevailing winds and currents made the trip from Belem to Salvador far longer than the trip from Belem to Lisbon.

 

During the 1600s and 1700s the economy of Belem was depended on the labor of enslaved Indians who knew how to find and extract cacao, vanilla, cinnamon, animal skins, and turtle shells. As the Indio slaves died from disease and torture, Portuguese slaving expeditions explored deeper and deeper into the jungles in search of more. Some Indios did survive by escaping deep into the jungle up some of the smallest Amazon tributaries. Some of these tribes exist there even today, living much as they have for eons.

 

During the 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 Belem, expropriated the wealth, distributed the food, and declared independence. Unfortunately for them the British, who were big beneficiaries of the local trade, put into place a naval blockade which held these rebels at bay until the Brazilian government could strike back. Unfortunately the Brazilian government took things a bit too far and even 4 years later they were hunting down and killing anyone who looked like they might have had a role in the uprising.

In the early 1900s Belem prospered once again during the rubber boom. Some monuments to this temporary success were built, the Teatro da Paz and the docks for instance. But even this short boom was not to last. With the decline of the rubber boom, the city fell into a general state of stagnation. Today the city is humming along once again at a reasonable pace. There's quite a bit of restoration work under way and the port is still busy. It seems fairly prosperous but probably nothing like it was back in the Rubber boom heyday.

 

We'd begun our trip to Belem at the wee hour of 4AM so we could catch a 6AM flight. Two stops, 4 1/2 hours, one box of cookies, one sandwich, and a bag of peanuts later we touched down in Belem, in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. Belem isn't exactly located on the Amazon river, but it's close enough. A town of 1 1/2 million, it's almost hard to believe this is a city hacked out of dense jungle.

 

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.

 

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning we did almost nothing other than get to know the town. The atmosphere of Belem is far more similar to the Andes countries than any other Brazilian city we'd seen so far. One trip report we'd read indicated that these people thought Belem was a real dump. Well, that report had to be taken in perspective. It was written by a fellow who flew first class to Rio, who stayed with a former exchange student who warned them about how bad Belem was, who stayed in the most expensive hotel in town, the Hilton, and who wound up having money stolen from his room. So his view was a little biased.

 

Belem does have more of the chaotic atmosphere of the poorer Andes countries as well as a more down in the heel appearance. It's not the kind of town you can wander around willy-nilly. You do have to be on your guard. As in La Paz the sidewalks are crowded with makeshift stalls where people sell just about anything. There's clothes, food, electronics equipment, knock-off CDs and DVDs, cheap jewelry, phone cards, all sorts of stuff. The only problem is there's hardly enough room to walk. Pedestrians almost need to walk in the streets if you actually want to get anywhere.

 

What to do in Belem? We had a lot of time scheduled for this city. We'd planned it that way on purpose just to make sure we could get on a boat headed up river and get to Santerem in time to meet our next flight. But, with so many northern Brazilian cities it's hard to find much to do after the first couple of days. We did not have to hurry to do anything.

 

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 of Bakersfield is beginning to look more and more attractive by the day.

 

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 Belem for assembly. It's painted light blue and is absolutely covered with steel rivets. With its four corner towers, it looks a little like a light blue castle. Inside the smell of fresh fish pervades as this building now houses the main fish market. Each morning the fishermen in their bright white wooden fishing boats unload their catch, clean in, weigh it, and display it for sale. We saw some mighty big fish sitting on the tables in there.

 

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 French Guiana. We stood quiet in the bow while some wise-guy French speaking fellow at the stern kept cracking jokes. It would have been far more pleasant enjoying the tranquility of this river scene. At just a little after 6Am a sudden squawk hit the air. That was just the start. For the next hour the loud din of these very vocal birds filled the air and flocks upon flocks headed for the sky.

 

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.

 

These Amazon Amazonica parrots are the only ones that live in the coastal mangrove forests of Brazil. They're about 1 1/2 ft in length and have very short, stubby wings. These are not birds made for soaring. Rather they have a very short and fast wing beat needed to keep them aloft. And they do like to squawk while flying. Seems to be some sort of messaging between the pairs as sometimes they even squeak in unison.

 

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 port of Santarem and 5 days to get to Manaus. On Wednesday, the day we wanted to go, it happened that the largest passenger boat was departing. It was also one of the newer boats, newer being a relative sense here. So we thought it'd be the most comfortable and most interactive way to get up stream. Although there was no way we were going to go all the way to Manaus. Santarem was more than enough.

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 Breves. But that just didn't happen.

 

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.

 

Today going up the Amazon on the passenger boat has to be about the closest thing to riding up the Mississippi in the days of the paddle wheelers as you can get. Yes the propulsion system is different; you don't have to stop to load on wood all the time. But the river life has to be very similar. Mark Twain notes in his book "Life on the Mississippi" how there were just scattered houses along the way, usually on stilts. Everyone went everywhere in boats, rowboats or rafts. Everything, absolutely everything, revolves around the river, as there are no roads.

 

Life aboard 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, Vitoria, we lazed the days away. And yes we were quite ready to get off the boat by the time it reached Santarem.

 

January 29 - 31 - Santarem

 

Santarem is a small town of around 200,000 located almost exactly midway between Belem and Manaus on the mighty Amazon river. It is an isolated city carved out of the middle of the dense jungle with primary access only through the river. It's a place that gets hot and steamy during the day and just slightly less hot and steamy at night. Even the daily rains do nothing to mitigate the oppressive heat.

 

Early European explorers came to the Santarem area in the early 16th century. Their chronicles give accounts of swarms of canoes coming out to do battle and Indian long houses lined up along the riverbanks. In fact archeological evidence indicates that people had been living in this region for over 10,000 years. It wasn't until disease and slavery decimated the locals that the Amazon attained its current unpopulated appearance.

 

Santarem began life as a Jesuit mission in the 17th century. It grew slowly experiencing short booms during the rubber era and just after the construction of the road to Cuiaba. One of its most colorful events in Santarem's history involved henry Ford. In an attempt to kill the British monopoly on rubber, Ford set up a similar rubber tree plantation program that the British had going in Asia. Unfortunately for Ford the site selected was not suitable for growing rubber trees. He never did manage to get the rubber program off the ground, but he did leave an interesting legacy. There are two nearby towns; one that is called Fordlandia and to this day mimics a Midwestern town.

 

In Santarem there's little to see or do. There's one small but surprisingly good museum and a church or two. Outside of town is the small beach community of Alter do Chao where most Saltaremos go to shake off some of the heat on weekends. Alter do Chao is popular only because it has a long white sandy beach and clear water. There are many things, some very large and very vicious, lurking in the muddy waters of the Amazon and many even who were born and raised on its banks are afraid to enter.

 

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.

 

Despite not having much to visit in the way of museums, the little city of Santarem proved to be quite interesting. All along the new, concrete river walk the river life that is the mainstay of this city buzzes with activity day and night. For over a km there are riverboats of all sizes tied up, pulling in, or departing, loading, unloading, or just waiting for their next departure. With the water at midlevel, people had to climb down about 10-foot ladders to gain access to the boats. However, we heard that at high water it's even possible for the river to overrun the wall and flood the city.

 

Amazon river boats come in all sorts of sizes but are usually of a common style. Their hulls are long and narrow with fairly rounded bows and sterns. They have flat decks and roof and can be from one to 3 decks high. They're made of wood, painted white with colorful, usually blue, trim. The lower deck is usually used for cargo and the upper for passengers. Wooden railings surround all decks. At the front and back of the upper deck there is usually small cabin space for the bathroom, crew cabins, passenger cabins, galley, and the wheelhouse. When in transit, the space between cabins becomes absolutely filled with hammocks.

 

Given the 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 Mississippi. With over 50 boats tied up at the river front railing to railing at all times, all the activity including animal traffic, and the shape of the boats we could easily imagine what a typical Mississippi river city of, say of the was like. We felt as though we were getting a rare peek into the past.

 

There are probably very few places remaining where you can get this kind of unique view. We did not see it in Belem because our up river transport did not depart from the main docks. Even at Manaus it didn't quite feel the same. The boats there are larger, more uniform in size, the docks more structured, and the access more difficult. So while in Santarem we just couldn't resist watching this boat activity all day long. We spent hours and hours walking up and down the river walk or finding shady places to sit and watch this remarkable scene.

 

We weren't the only ones. The new and improved river walk is a continuing project of the Santarem municipality. Recent additions were put in place in 2000 and the materials for more distance currently sit on shore waiting funding to be put into place. At the time we visited there was over 3 km of walkway available and every evening the townfolk come out to stroll or jog its length. But, nothing compares with Sunday.

 

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.

 

Even though we arrived at Santarem wondering whether we should have made our stay a day shorter, we wound up finding it a great place to make a stop. In the end it will probably prove to be one of the most memorable places of our Brazilian trip. The entire scene was so amazing. We wouldn't have missed it for the world.

 

February 1 - 3 Manaus

 

Manaus is located about 1000 miles up the Amazon which really is less than 1/2 the total distance of the river. It's a huge city of 1.7 million whose only access is either by a road-stretching north to Caracas or by ship. Virtually everything you find in the stores has to be brought in by boat and, consequently, prices are significantly higher. To encourage investment and development in the region, Brazil set up part of the city as a duty free zone. The idea was to encourage development of manufacturing plants and bring money into the region. What it wound up doing was bringing a lot of people into an area way in the middle of nowhere and a lot of import companies. It helped a few people right in the area, but did little for the rest of Brazil.

 

Tourists usually come to Manaus to make some sort of excursion into the jungle. Usually this is in the form of a Jungle lodge visit. However, coming to Manaus to see wildlife at one of the local lodges is just wishful thinking. With a city of this size, almost all wildlife within a 250-km radius has been woefully reduced in numbers. You'd have to venture way up one of the small tributaries to regions where only the local Indios have the skills to penetrate. Then you'd have to stay in this backcountry for weeks or even months. Maybe then, if you are real lucky, you might see some wildlife. But don't count on it. It's easy to imagine all those wildlife shows put on by National Geographic. But, you have to realize that those photographers and movie producers do exactly what we just described.

 

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.

 

Having done all these things at the Yarina lodge in Ecuador the year before we opted not to do it again. That did not prevent the multiple of tour guide operators from trying to get us to sign up. At the airport, walking down the street while looking for a laundromat or in front of the Teatro Amazonas obvious jungle tour salesmen continually approached us. We quickly got to the point of ignoring their usual introduction query of "Are you looking for information?"

 

Manaus downtown is not a particularly attractive city. Very few of the buildings from the rubber boom days remain and most that do are in wretched condition. During the day the sidewalks are crammed with pedestrians and street vendors. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere at any faster pace than what the throng is moving. Brian would manage to squeeze past a row of pedestrians just as they'd close ranks and I'd be stuck strolling along behind. At night, after the venders shut down, you find a street filled with trash both from the stores lining the streets and from the pedestrians. Brazilians have that very common Latin American litter habit.

 

Choosing not 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 Indio and Museu Amazonica both house essentially the same types of displays. They both have feathered headdresses, pottery, baskets, blowguns, arrows and bows. Explanations for the items were in Portuguese, if they existed at all, but the Museu Amazonica did provide a good English-speaking guide.

 

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.

 

After visiting 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 Brazil. It's almost, but not quite, like a living history museum. Definitely well worth the stop.

 

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.

 

It's a beautiful structure; very similar in form to the Teatro do Paz in Belem only seemingly a little bit more sophisticated. Except for the odd dome on top. The then governor purchased this colorful tiled dome while on a trip to Europe. He saw the dome and decided, on a whim, it would be nice to add to the theater. It looks wholly out of place especially since it was never envisioned in the original design. Imagine the architect's horror when, upon his return, the mayor proudly presents this huge colorful dome to be perched atop this elegant theater structure.

 

The theater is constructed mostly from articles imported from Europe. Italian marble, French chandeliers, iron columns from Scotland, and even an electric generator from the US. Even though the wood is of local origin, much of it was sent off to Europe for carving. So it really was a European theater stuck out in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

 

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.

 

The interior 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 Manaus that had electric lighting so it must have been quite a sight at show time.

 

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 Manaus orchestra. It was an hour or so long show with a small string ensemble. Most of the music was good, although their final piece was rather weird. Best of all was the fact that it was free one of the few free things we've found in Manaus.

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.

 

Anyway, this 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 found from Texas to the Amazon. We'll have to check on this, as we've never heard of them being in Texas.

 

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 San Diego zoo. At least we did get to see some of the animals on our list of must see, even if they were captive.

 

February 4 - 9 Cuiaba

 

Around 1000 miles back south, a long way from the equator and the Amazonian river basin, we headed for our final stop on our Brazilian adventure, Cuiaba and the Pantanal.

 

Cuiaba itself has just a few items of interest to the tourist. We stopped in at the municipal aquarium where we had the opportunity to see several of the fish species that inhabit the river right out in front of the building. The tank full of piranha was most exciting. Such calm, innocent looking fish. There is also a small historical museum that, unfortunately, was closed for renovation when we arrived. So we found ourselves just wandering for a full day while we waited for the day for which we'd reserved a car. Once we had that car, however, we were off and running.

 

While the Amazon is the place to go to experience the river life, the Pantanal is the place to go to see wildlife and Cuiaba is one of the main portals to the Pantanal. Around 500 million years ago this are was covered in ice. Another 200 million years later it was covered by a shallow sea. Eventually the Andes rose up while the area of the Pantanal remained low or even sank. Today it is still somewhat a shallow sea that is drying up. More like a seasonal swamp, as it is usually flooded for 6 months and dry for the other six.

 

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 Cuiaba. There is a dirt road that continues around 150 km further south deep into the Pantanal itself. Originally intended to provide a direct connecting road between Campo Grande and Cuiaba, the government eventually gave up on the idea figuring that it would be unwise to build a road through a region that is flooded half the year. Today this rough dirt road can be traveled using even the small VW Gol car for as far as you feel comfortable.

 

Along the 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 Cuiaba.

 

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 Cuiaba than we ever did in the Amazon, even if we did not get to see the mammals we'd hoped for.

 

After the long, slow drive up and down the Transpanteira we headed 5-km northeast of Cuiaba to the cliffs of Chapada das Guimereos. When the Andes were rising and the Pantanal was lowering, the Chapada was also going up, a little. It's less than 3000 ft above sea level, so it did not raise all that much. The area that rose makes a sharp cliff going east to west. Wind and water erosion over the eons have produced dramatic canyons, caverns, caves, and rock sculptures. These can be visited in the Parque Nacional Chapada das Guimereos.

We entered 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 Cuiaba. One thing you quickly learn is that just minutes in the Brazilian heat and you're covered from head to foot in sweat. It's just not a comfortable place for extreme activity.

 

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 Bryce Canyon in Utah. The valleys are covered in dense green jungle, a perfect hideout for some of the park's residents including monkeys. The top of the cliffs are covered with short bush size trees and grass. The upper cliff lands must be ideal for farming, as there are huge farms all along the top. We're talking thousand acres, fully mechanized farms. It was on one of these farms where we saw all those rheas munching on the seeds. The park, at least, has been left natural.

 

There are 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 U.S. people in the parks will do as little as they possibly can. They drive to the overlook, get out of their car (maybe), take one look, and leave. Brazilians are no different. One family who arrived just as we were leaving walked to the overlook and then returned to the restaurant to eat. Lucky for us this meant that we were able to hike the rest of the trails absolutely by our selves.

 

The trails 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 U.S. these would be considered to be just a series of large rapids. But here, in this relatively flat country, they're waterfalls. Probably the main interest for any Brazilian are the pools that form under the falls. One thing we learned about Brazil is that swimming seems to be the most favorite pastime.

 

We wandered 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 Cuiaba and prepare for our flight back to LA. So much for Brazil and South America. It's time to concentrate on another continent.

 

References:

Lonely Planet Brazil, 2005 edition

 

Copyright 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.

Acknowledgements

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We'd like to thank my father, Charles Johnson, whose diligent mail forwarding and other logistical support make this journey far easier than it could be otherwise.

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Wendy Strutin Riedy for archiving the newsletters on her WWW site, http://outthereliving.com


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