Monday, July 11, 2016

South American Adventure - Part Two - The Amazon, Rio Negro, And Manaus

Day 4 - With a start like this it can only get better.

Our flight arrived in Manaus, Brazil at 11:20pm.  We collected out luggage and went in search of our ride.  We left the baggage claim and scanned all the signs for our name or our travel company's name.  After twenty minutes or so it was kind of obvious that no one was going to pick us up.  We caught a cab to our hotel.

Note:  The reason they didn't pick us up was due to an airline flight schedule change that had not been forwarded to the local tour company.

Our hotel was the Tropical Hotel.  Once it was a magnificent 600+ room hotel.  The glory of this hotel has obviously faded with the years.  Our room was about as far as you could get from the front lobby.  I would almost consider the walk to the room a hike.

In the room we found a kingsize bed with queen size sheets.  One (1) towel.  Two televisions with zero (0) remotes (they could not be turned on without the remote).  One phone that did not work.  You could make calls out if you unplugged then plugged in the phone.

I called the front desk and asked to make a collect call to our travel company's emergency number (it was called directly ... not collect).  I explained to the nice lady that we hadn't been picked up and we didn't know if/when we would be picked up later in the day (it was well after midnight).  We called the front desk and asked for towels and we went to bed.  We never got towels.

The next morning I checked my email and found out that a guide would be picking us up for a free tour not on our original itinerary - an addition made as an apology.  We would also get our airport  transit fee reimbursed.

Our tour guide showed up at our door (the phone didn't work ... he tried to call us three times).  We grabbed our stuff and got in the van with our guide and driver.  Our morning tour would take us to a museum and a few other places not on the city tour in our original itinerary.  The tour ended at a very nice barbecue restaurant payed for by the tour company.  Our guide was happy about this since he could not afford the restaurant himself.  It was all you could eat BBQ but, not knowing we were going to be doing this, the Wife and I had filled up during breakfast and we really didn't get our free money's worth.  Too bad as it was good BBQ.

We returned to our hotel and relaxed in the lobby.  Our river guides would return to take us to our boat later in the afternoon.  While we waited we started meeting other people who would be sharing our cruise aboard the M/Y Tucano.  In total we would be fourteen guests (a fifteenth guest would have been with us in Iguazu and the Amazon but had had a car accident and canceled her trip).

Our two river guides showed up and led us across the street and along a short path that took us to the bank of the Rio Negro.  The M/Y Tucano was anchored out a ways.  We boarded our 'canoes', long green canoe shaped launches that held eight to ten passengers, and headed out to the boat that would be our home the next four nights.
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The M/Y Tucano - our home on the Rio Negro.
On board the Tucano we all met on the top observation deck, introduced ourselves, and received a briefing about the boat and how our tours would go.  We were then assigned cabins on the second deck and participated in an emergency drill.  Alarms sounded, we put on life vests, and mustered on the observation deck.  In our cabin was a bottle of wine and another letter of apology for not picking us up.  I think we received something like three or four letters of apology.

Soon after the drill we had our first evening excursion.  We boarded our canoes and we cruised along the shore line listening for birds and frogs.  The sun was down and it was dark.  You could see some stars, including the Southern Cross, even though it was partly cloudy.  Our guide shined a strong light scanning back and forth for the telltale reflections from the eyes of critters.  It was difficult to get pictures but I did manage to get a few.  On this first night we saw frogs, moths, and the prize, a caiman.  The caiman stood still as we took pictures but eventually got spooked, did a flip, and sped away making all of us jump.
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The eyes and snout of a caiman.
We had dinner once we'd returned from our evening outing, showered, and went to bed early.  We would be getting up at 5:30am to go out for our first morning excursion.  As we slept the Tucano would move up river over 60 miles (100 Km), farther than most other tours.  We would not see another boat for three days.

Day 5 - A busy morning on the Rio Negro.

A knock on our door woke us up this morning.  We threw on clothes and got back in our canoes for our first morning excursion.  One thing about the Rio Negro that surprised me was how smooth the water was.  Early in the morning the river was like a mirror.  You couldn't tell where the water ended and the sky started.
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Passing a small village along the river.  Amazingly smooth water and crystal clear reflections.
The excursion took us between the islands of the Central Amazon Conservation Complex.  We watched for birds and other animals as we puttered along the swampy banks and past a small village.  We mostly saw birds and insects.  To see larger land animals you had to trek for days in the jungle.

We returned to the Tucano for breakfast before we headed out for our next activity of the morning - our first jungle walk.  We got in the canoes again and disembarked on one of the islands.  We split in two groups and walked a rough path through the jungle looking for animals and plants.  Again, we saw mostly birds, spiders, and ants.

The jungle walk was only an hour and a half or so long but by the time we got back to the canoes we all had sweat through to our underwear.  The one saving grace was, and this was a huge surprise, there were no bugs.  No mosquitos.  No gnats.  The only flying insects we saw were bees, wasps, and what I would call a sweat bee.  None of these were a nuisance,

We returned to the Tucano and headed straight for the showers and clean clothes before we had lunch.  The lunch was followed by a nap in our cabin.

During the afternoon most of the guests went fishing for piranha.  I didn't go.  I'm not fond of fish - both for eating or fishing.  I kind of regret it now though.  The Wife did catch three using a bamboo pole and beef cubes as bait.  The guide would take the fish off the hook and reach up and let the piranha cut a twig with its teeth.  The Wife had a camera with her but didn't get a picture of the piranha (or Snuggle Bear).  I wish I'd gone.  The piranha were cooked and served for dinner the next day.
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The sun going down before another night excursion in our canoes.
After dinner we had our second night excursion.  This excursion featured a tarantula, an amazon tree boa, and a three toed sloth high up in the trees.

Tomorrow would be another early morning.

Day 6 - More of the Rio Negro and then some.

Our early morning excursion took us along manioc farmers, parrots eating fruit, bats, and a pink dolphin or two.  I still can't get over how tranquil these morning canoe rides were.  During some of the excursions we went through the flooded jungle - areas that are impassable by boat during the dry season.  While we didn't see too many animals it was still fascinating.  Here is a video of one of our morning and one of our evening excursions.
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Flying parrots showing their colors against the morning clouds.
After breakfast on the Tucano we went back out for our second jungle walk.  This one was shorter and we all thanked the amazon for that.  We still got pretty sweaty.  We saw more ants (leaf cutter ants and bullet ants among others).  The highlight of this walk was a bird eating spider, a type of large tarantula.  Our guide spread some sweat on the end of a stick and poked it in a hole.  Soon afterward a ball of fur came out of the hole.  The Wife asked if it jumped and was told no but ... if they don't jump how do they catch birds?

Back at the Tucano we showered, ate lunch, and took an afternoon nap.  Unfortunately during our nap we were boarded by the Brazilian military looking for contraband and weapons.  We missed all the excitement.

In the late afternoon we visited a manioc farm.  Manioc, also known as cassava or yuca, is an amazonian staple.  It is processed into a flour like substance that is added to all food like a condiment.  Locals start eating it as very young children and would never go without it if they can help it.  I was not that impressed.  The process to make manioc flour is complex.  Manioc is high in cyanide and will kill you if not processed properly.

Day 7 - Our last full day on the Rio Negro.

We were allowed to sleep in this morning, the crew waking us up at 6:00am instead of 5:30am.  Our morning excursion was highlighted with spider monkeys and howler monkeys along with the usual birds.

After breakfast we all were dreading another jungle walk but we were surprised to find out that our next activity was a swim in the river.  We took canoes to a rare sand beach along the river.  The water was a strange mix of cold and warm.  The temperature dropped and then rose as you moved a few feet in any direction.  The water color was an amber-orangish color.  It didn't smell and it didn't stain anything but it was like swimming in tea.  The swim was exactly what I needed.  It was relaxing and, for me, a rather unique experience since I rarely swim while on vacation.
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The Manaus Bridge.
We came back onboard and had lunch.  The Tucano raised anchor and headed back down river.  Our afternoon was relaxing with no set activities.  We were boarded by the Brazilian military again.  This time I was awake to see it.  The soldiers were so serious until they were done.  Then they would smile and wave as we parted ways.
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The black of the Rio Negro struggles with the brown of the
Solimões River to form the Amazon River.
The Tucano passed by Manaus, under the bridge that crosses the Rio Negro, and ended up where the Rio Negro joins the Solimões River to form the Amazon River.  The waters of the Solimões River are brown and the Rio Negro's water is black.  The line where they merge stays well defined for many miles due to different water temperatures and densities.  It was strange seeing the wavy line going between the rivers.  We saw grey dolphin swimming nearby.

The Tucano then turned back around and returned to the Manaus portion of the river.  A guitar player came aboard and we enjoyed a happy hour with portuguese music and city lights.  Our last supper was bittersweet.  All fourteen of us had become very close during those four days on the Rio Negro.

I have to say that the four days we spent on board the M/Y Tucano were some of the most relaxing I had on this adventure and possibly all other adventures I've had.  The days were busy but the river was so calm and peaceful.  I love it.
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Our last night on the Rio Negro cruising by the lights of Manaus.
Day 8 - Manaus and a flight to Rio.

We got up early this morning and took the canoes back to the shore, ending up saying our goodbyes in the lobby of the Tropical hotel.  We joined two other guests for a three hour tour of Manaus.  We visited grand homes and building built during the rubber boom and a market near the river's edge.  The highlight of the tour was a visit to the Manaus Opera house.  Part of the streets around the opera house was paved with rubber bricks to soften the noise.  Most of the building we saw were imported from Europe.  The market building, foe example, was built in Liverpool.
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Inside the Amazon Opera House.
All in all, Manaus is a bit underwhelming.  It is a frontier city and it reminded me of Fairbanks, Alaska ... which also underwhelmed me.  A working class city.

The rest of the day was spent waiting in the lobby (and checking out the sad and depressing hotel zoo), eating at a surprisingly good hotel buffet, traveling to airports, waiting in airports, and flying in airplanes.  We arrived in Rio de Janeiro near midnight.  Out guide Camila and driver Cosme turned out to be a hoot.  Camila was such a chuckler.  She was always laughing at something.  It was hard not to smile around her.

On the way to the hotel Camila kept pulling things out of her bag for us.  Brazil nuts, coffee, samples of Brazilian soda (I kind of liked Guaraná Antarctica).  She would continue to pull things out of her bag for us the next few days.  It became another opportunity to smile.

Pictures of the Rio Negro and Manaus can be found in my South America 2016-06 Flickr album.


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