Dispatches from Abroad: Down the Amazon (III) – Manaus to Belém

Ashore in Belém after five days and four nights on the Amazon and its tributaries on board the Amazon Star, here’s the travel-blog of what I though would be my final trip on the Amazon. But in truth, I’ll head back upriver on Wednesday for 11 days of field work… more on that coming up!

23 November 2016

Up at dawn, lock the duffel, stow the laptop, scarf down fruit, granola, chocolate cake, and tea at the Go-Inn Manaus buffet, and head for the river.

The N/M Amazon Star is scheduled to leave at noon, but the advice was to get there for boarding by 07:30 (and some had slept on the boat last night). So here I am, settled into my cabin, same as on the Diamante – bunk beds, private bath, A/C, plus a small refrigerator with nowhere to plug it in (it makes for a nice table, though) – but on the Amazon Star, this is a BR 1200 “suite”; the standard BR 1000 camarotes share bathrooms. With 4+ hours to kill.

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The Amazon Star: Everything is strength, but only God is power

So I wander up to the “old” market (more a tourist market now), then east along the Rio Negro to the “modern” market, where I pick up some oranges and grapes to complement the nuts and dried fruit I picked up yesterday in town (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

The modern market is a classic waterfront wholesale/retail market. The lack of refrigeration should make anyone swear off meat/chicken/fish forever (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions),

but two hours later, I had a delicious grilled steak filet on the dock next to the Amazon Star (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

Then, roused from my mid-morning nap by the boat horn as we slowly pulled away from the dock only 30 minutes behind schedule.

Half an hour later, we’re back at the conjunction of the Rio Negros and the Rio Solimões, and after following the swirling black-and-tan for another 30 munutes, we’re fully back on the Amazon.

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The meeting of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes at Manaus forms the Rio Amazonas

The Amazon Star is a very different boat from the Diamante. With a capacity of >700, about twice that of the Diamante, the hammock deck is air-conditioned, although with ~300 people packed in, you’d never know it. The upper deck is all camarotes and suites, and the lower deck is all freight. There are two restaurants, one the standard refectory and the other a bar and luncheonette. Neither are included in the fare, hence the fruit (and bananas I picked up later in the a.m.), nuts, and the big steak lunch.

The aft-deck upstairs also features four pairs of outdoor showers that run most  of the day and provide opportunities for cooling off, dancing, and beer. Unlike the Diamante, on which alcohol was prohibited, the Amazon Star has a well-stocked bar. And incessant dance-music resounds across the deck, loud enough to muffle the diesel roar of the engine.

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The aft upper deck of the Amazon Star features open-air showers

The river rolls on and a rainbow arcs the sky.

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Sunset. Some watch in silence, small groups drinking beer or playing dominoes, others grabbing a waning cell signal to call home. Night falls rapidly.

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Our first stop is Itacoatiara, still in Amazonas state. Scheduled for 20:00, we arrive at 20:20, stop briefly, and leave on schedule 10 minutes later. Thrumming through the night, we have an early morning sunrise at the eastern edge of Amazon time, and arrive at Parintins just past 06:30.

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24 November 2016

We sidle up to the São Bartolomeu IV, and use it as a crosswalk from the riverbank. Passengers come and go, and hawkers sell trinkets, cheese, and juice. We’re off again by 07:00, and I settle down to a breakfast of grapes, Uruguayan mandarin oranges, and Brazil nuts, and finish reading another novel (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

At 10:19 my GPS shows we’re crossing from Amazonas into Pará, and with this imaginary line in the middle of the Amazon, it’s suddenly 11:19. Only a short hop now to Juruti, as I say goodbye to Amazonas.

Juruti on time at 12:00 local time, a quick first stop in Pará. Here the hawkers aren’t allowed on the boat, so they hawk from the dock using half-dozen bottles on long poles to move food up and Reais down. Fruit, ices, pastries, and small meals move up and down (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

And after a scant half-hour, we’re on the river again.

Óbidos at 16:00 for what’s supposed to be a 2-hour stop. Not much initial activity at the dock as a few people disembark and the  PolÍcia Federal come on board perfunctorily checking cabins, luggage, passports. That done, a small group of new passengers descends two flights of concrete before coming aboard.

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The Obidos waterfront

The sky’s been hazy today, and the regular fires and acrid smoke plumes visible, both near shore and further inland, from the boat, suggest the cause. Although it may make for an interesting sunset, it’s a reminder of the increasing environmental impact of people, cattle, and soybeans as we continue downriver and closer to the agricultural transshipment town of Santarém  (our next stop, late tonight) and eventually to the oceanic port of Belém on Sunday.

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We steam from Óbidos at 17:00.

The headwind is stronger now and we plow ahead through small whitecaps; transient foam gracing the cafe-con-leche Amazon.

Sunset: smokey pastel.

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25 November 2016

Awake at Santarém. Sunrise through industrial haze couldn’t block the crescent moon, and it looks like it’ll be another warm and rain-free day.

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We docked sometime last night, I think around 23:00, here at the halfway point to Belém, for a planned 10 hours. Plenty of time to restock the bar, I imagine. The docks of Santarém, upriver from the city center, are sandwiched between a concrete pier and a grain elevator, with standard issue cranes and razor wire all in evidence. A heron stalks the pilings and plenty of vultures ride the morning thermals, too (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

By noon, I’d had breakfast (Brazil nuts, walnuts, grapes, Mandarin orange) and lunch (Brazil nuts, dates, bananas), and then the horn blared, the engines started, and I thought we were off. Silly me.

Instead, we pulled forward a few meters, and then spent an hour unloading a car and a pickup, and then loading on three cars and a pickup. From the pier, across a car-length of water on two boards, and into the hold. Amazing.

That done, we hauled in the planks and set off around 13:30, about three-and-a-half hours behind nominal schedule. Cruising by Santarém going out, it’s a big thriving city, with at least two big churches visible from the water. Agriculture is big money here (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

Out of the midday sun for a pleasant afternoon nap, then time on deck to think, edit, write, and simply watch the river go by. It’s a real luxury to have so much focused time to think and reflect. I’ll miss that if I don’t remind myself to make the time for it at home.

We approached Monte Alegre as the sun was setting. Navigating around some islands and up an embayment, following flocks of great white herons which roost by the hundreds on the trees above the docks (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

As we move downriver, the Amazon widens, there is less forest and more cattle, crops, people, settlements, villages, towns. But more birds, and probably a change in species as we merge with the sea (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

The boat is fuller, too. Although we lost some passengers at Santarém, we took on far more than we lost. Either that or the hammock bay is getting too close and folks are looking for more space and air. But hammocks are colonizing the 80 spaces on the upper deck by the bar and luncheonette, and we appear to be closing in on full capacity.

And we’re closer now, too, to the equator (-2 S) than we’ve been since leaving Tabatinga over a week ago, but I think I’ll be in southern latitudes for the duration in Brazil. In recognition, and after two days of fruit and nuts, I splurge for a hamburgue (grilled beef patty, grilled slice of ham, melted cheese, fried egg, all on a big bun) and an orange Fanta for BR 10 (less than US $3, but relative to local wages, one BR here goes about as one US $ at home, so really not that inexpensive a meal, but a lot of protein in a small package).

The horn sounds, the engines come back to life, and we’re moving again, just past 19:00. Next stop, Prainha. Time to settle back, watch the stars, and enjoy the Brazilian pop.

26 November 2016

Slept right through Prainha, but woke at 04:00-ish for Alemeirim. What was the luncheonette area with tables and chairs is now all hammocks, some with two people in one and some are sleeping on the floor. I’m thankful for my 6 m3 of private cabin space.

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There’s a lot of hazy smoke on the air from fires set to the forest, presumably to finish land-clearing before the rains come. The sun rises like it sets: red, albeit this morning barely a smudge; the crescent moon, barely a sliver now, faint overhead (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

out-of-manaus-day4-20161126-ame-071206There’s constant competition on the boat for chairs. There are maybe 30 or 40 of them for well more than that number of people in the suites and camarotes, and for those who want to get out of their hammocks. The chairs are small, lightweight, stackable, injection-molded, white plastic, easily carried off when unoccupied for more than a few seconds. They move around the deck, changing hands (and seats) at the slightest opportunity. The couple in the cabin next to mine taje a pair into their cabin at night. Within seconds of putting the chairs outside, and while they’re backs are turned, the chairs are spirited away. When they’re done their ablutions, they’re off to scavenge another pair. Not that they’re all that comfortable, but they’re a welcome change from standing or lying down.

As we approach Gurupá, our next-to-last stop before Belém, we’ve left the smoke behind us and replaced it with the occasional raindrop. The forest looks good here, too, and there’s been less traffic on the river.

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Gurupa

The Amazon itself here begins it break-up into a large delta. From the map, it’s rarely obvious which is river, which a tributary, which a side branch or loop (Furo), and which a bay. If I read the map correctly, though, we’ve got to turn south off the main stem to reach Breves, our penultimate port.

Indeed, after leaving Gurupá just before 11:00, we headed north on the Amazon for an hour or so, then turned east onto the Furo do Ituquara. Which is still a mighty big loop of River (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

And next upstream into a small tributary toward Bom Jardim. The channel is quite narrow, maybe less than 100 m wide, and lots of canoes and small power boats venture to and from the ferry side; informal commerce from the houses spaced every 500 m or so along the shore (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

Reach Bom Jardim (1.1 S) at 14:50, and head south towards the Rio Companhia. This really is just about as close as we come to the equator! Google Maps suggests that we’ll  now continue south to the Furo Santa Maria, where we’ll once again turn northeastward to Breves and then Belém.

Actually, not. We crossed over another tributary and went straight to Breves, so we’re not at Furo Santa Maria yet. The little tributary was quite narrow, affording great views of secondary forest, houses and small settlements, and an excellent sunset. It also lopped off some time, so arriving at Breves at 19:30 has made up almost 90 minutes of time lost at Santarém (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

Breves itself is a good-sized town with paved roads and a well-lit dock. I’ll have more to say about that next week, as I’ll be heading back upriver from Belém to Breves on Wednesday night, from there another boat upriver to Portel, and finally a two-hour boat to the field station at Caxiuanã National Forest Reserve, where I’ll be spending 10 days with my colleague Rogério Silva doing research on ant diversity and the potential contribution of ant activity to climatic change for 10 days.

Motored all night; sunrise brings a wide river. At 05:30 we’re still nearly 4 hours to Belém. By 08:00 we’re in the Baia de Marajó, north of Belém. We turn south into the Baia do Guajará, and its a straight shot south from here to the harbor (click on the thumbnails to see larger versions).

3 thoughts on “Dispatches from Abroad: Down the Amazon (III) – Manaus to Belém

  1. Interesting read about what feels like a second home – thanks. Minor edit: The translation of photo 1 should be “everything is strength, but only God is power”. (“forte” = “strong”).

    Having done your own Amazonian adventure, take a few days and read “White Waters and Black” by Gordon MacCreagh ( if you haven’t already). It’s a hilarious read about a 1923 scientific expedition to the Amazon by clueless taxonomists from…ahem…Harvard. (that’s not intended as a subtweet, honest).

    https://www.amazon.com/White-Waters-Black-Gordon-MacCreagh/dp/0226500187

    Like

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