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The Amazing Amazon    

By Georgina Cruz    

Fred. Olsen Cruises' Braemar

Mysterious and mystical, the Amazon always amazes. It is the "lungs" of the planet as its tropical rainforests replenish half of the world's oxygen, and also its "fountain" as it has the largest volume of fresh water on earth.

Approximately 4,000 miles long, the Amazon is the second largest river in the world (after the Nile, which is 4,145 miles long). But its list of superlatives is second to none: Of the 22,000 known species of plants in the world, 18,000 can be found in the Amazon Basin, including numerous orchids and the gigantic Victoria Regia water lily.

The Amazon has more than 1,500 tributaries, eight of which are themselves more than 1,000 miles long. It and its tributaries cover 2,722,000 square miles or 40 percent of Brazil, crossing the South American continent from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth in the Atlantic, where it deposits eight trillion gallons of water each year (that is 60 times more than the Nile and 11 times more than the Mississippi). More than 1,500 of the world's known 2,000 species of fish are found in the Amazon including the infamous piranhas. And its rich fauna also includes jaguars, anacondas, pumas, caimans, monkeys, macaws and toucans. Not to mention 1,300 species of butterflies.

Area shamansits rainforest is considered a sacred and powerful placehave worked with scientists in the development of such drugs as quinine, steroids, muscle relaxants and cancer treatments.

Braemar on the Amazon River

Its beauty is legendarywith different color rivers colliding with it and running parallel for miles without mixing. No wonder a voyage up the Amazon is in many travelers' wish list for the trip of a lifetime.

It was on my husband's and mine, so we selected Fred. Olsen Cruises' 19,089-ton, 727-passenger Braemar (the former Crown Dynasty) for a 14-night cruise out of Barbados that would journey the 900 miles from the mouth of the great river to Manaus, the capital of Amazonia.

As we boarded the Braemar we felt like explorers in the wake of Francisco de Orellana, the Spaniard who in 1541 named the river "Amazonas" for the Amazons of Greek mythology as his expedition encountered fierce female warriors in the area.

Aboard the Braemar, two lecturers aided our understanding of the river and the region: Luiz Pifanio Da Silva, a Brazilian tour guide who lives in Manaus and who gave slide talks on the ports, and David Saunders, a British naturalist who lectured on the Amazon's fauna including such creatures as the Bota dolphins (similar to bottlenose dolphins but pink) and the endangered Amazon manatees.

Other enrichment and pastimes included art classes by British watercolorist Frank Halliday, cooking demonstrations, trivia contests, bingo, golf putting, and because five out of six of the 688 passengers were British (Fred. Olsen's voyages are marketed chiefly in Great Britain) also such activities as darts, whist and carpet bowls.

Amenities onboard included a pool, two jacuzzis, gym, sauna, beauty salon, library and two sea-view restaurants. The main dining room features two seatings for dinner with extensive menus offering two appetizers, two soups, two salads, seven main courses, cheeses and five desserts each evening. A casual buffet-style restaurant served breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight buffets. The food quality and presentation and the service from the Filipino staff were excellent.

The ship also has limited casino facilities featuring two gaming tables and slots and a variety of lounges including a show venue where musical revues alternate with variety entertainment. Our cabin was attractively decorated in earth tones with such conveniences as hair dryer, safe, a fresh fruit basket replenished daily, and television with CNN, CNNfn, TNT and three movie channels. Chantana, our stewardess, kept it spotless. Orellana would have been green with envy!

Highlights of our explorations included the following:

Macapa
Several hours before reaching the 125-mile-wide mouth of the Amazon, the Atlantic was no longer blue, but tinged yellowish-brown with the water from the river. Astounding!

"Our adventure begins," said Gary Nicholson, our cruise director.

Once in the river, at the town of Macapa , which lies at the equator, the ship was cleared, we picked up two pilots and proceeded up river. Its shores are lush with vegetation and we passed an occasional hut on stilts and canoes and boats—the people always waved to us.

Our first sunset on the river was dramatic with the sun coloring the sky in gold and scarlet and turning the water a rich tone of ochre.

Santarem
A highlights tour of this port, the second largest in our itinerary (after Manaus) included visits to its market, the Cathedral and an old manioc flour factory where rubber trees could also be seen. Another tour offering was a nature walk in the Santa Lucia forest with more than 400 species of trees. We opted for a boat tour to Maica Lake ($56). This excursion took us to the "Wedding of the Waters," where the brownish Amazon and the green Tapajos River meet and their waters run parallel for miles. Amazing! Da Silva told us this is caused because the Amazon is colder, denser and faster.

"It looks like Cambodia," a woman said at the railing while enjoying the panorama unfolding before us: huts on stilts, rice paddies, water buffaloes, locals in canoes. Interestingly, anthropologists theorize that the native peoples of this area came over from Mongolia and other parts of Asia before the continents separated and their faces have a definite Asian air, Da Silva explained.

On our way to Maica Lake we spotted two dolphins jumping in the distance. We stopped at a corner of the lake and the crew passed out fishing line with chunks of meat for bait and about 20 of us fished for piranhas. Soon we caught a mid-size black piranha—its teeth were triangular and small but very sharp. A few minutes later, another piranha was caught. The crew fried the two fish in oil and a little manioc flour and served them to us—a tasty and meaty treatkind of like sole.

Parintins
This corner of Brazil is known for its folklore, so we signed up for the Folkloric Festival Tour ($56) in the village of Parintins. Buses took us to the Caprichoso covered stadium where we were welcomed with "capirinhas" (a local drink made with lime juice, sugar and "cachaza" or sugar cane alcohol). Dozens of dancers and musicians entertained us non-stop for more than an hour with an overflowing joie de vivre, rhythmic music, colorful costumes and elaborate floats. The Boi Bumba Caprichoso show, considered one of the best folkloric shows in Brazil, Da Silva said, told the story of two disputing families: the Cids and Monteverdes, who each created an artistic bull and competed to see who would sing a better song and recite a more beautiful poem. The experience was like a mini-Carnaval.

Manaus Opera House

Manaus 
This is a city of 1,700,000 inhabitants at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, a river with black waters that meet and run parallel to the brownish Amazon for miles. A City Highlights Tour ($52) took in the Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house inaugurated in 1896 and surrounded by 19th century and turn of the 20th century buildings. A symbol of the region's rubber boom, the elegant 700-seat Belle Epoque-style theater—as beautiful as an orchid blooming in the jungle—was built using the finest imported materials: Carrara marble from Italy, dome tiles from France, stone from Portugal. Its many chandeliers are of Murano glass from Venice.

A small museum has costumes from early productions and memorabilia from artists who performed in the opera house such as Margot Fonteyn's pink ballet slippers, looking very delicate in a glass case. This tour also took in the Manaus Science Museum with its displays of Amazonian animals including caimans, manatees and blue morpho butterflies, and an aquarium with piranhas and 200-pound pirarucus, at six-feet in length, the largest scaly fish in the Amazon. "But every year we find a new species of fish or other animals, or a new tribe—the Amazon is still a mystery," our guide Jairo said.

We also visited the National Institute of Amazonian Research, a vast botanical garden where we spotted monkeys, two macaws and a sloth. Two days in Manaus allowed for such adventuresome options as a Nighttime Caiman Spotting Tour ($60), jungle treks ($80) and a two-day stay at a jungle lodge ($450).

Boca de Valeria arrival

Boca de Valeria
Butterflies seemed to be doing a samba along the green banks near the small dock at Boca de Valeria as our ship's tender arrived. It seemed that everyone in the small village had come out to receive us: several children in feather headdresses and native costumes, most everyone else in Western-style clothing. They brought their pets, from snakes to toucans. "It's a party for them when a ship comes in," Da Silva said.

They had set up booths with beads and wood carvings for sale. And we were able to walk around the village of thatched huts and wood houses on stilts and visit their small and simple church on stilts and their one-room schoolhouse with 16 desk-chairs and a blackboard.

Alter do Chao
The river runs clear at this village and there are white sand beaches—so this was our opportunity to swim in the Amazon. "Since the water is clear you can see the piranhas coming," Da Silva had joked.

The locals greeted us at the dock—many with their pets: lots of sloths, some turtles and parrots. A short trip across the bay to a pretty island with a white sand beach was $1 via 4-passenger canoes—a great chance to try the local transportation. The water was clear and cool—refreshing against the hot sun.

"Most of the people in the villages spend their whole lives there—leaving maybe once a month to go to a town to get some supplies," Da Silva said. "They fish. They plant a few things. It's another world—a different world."

Devil's Island
The only port on our itinerary outside the Amazon was Ile Royale, one of the trio of the Isles du Salut islands of French Guiana—the most famous (infamous) of which is Devil's Island, site of the French penal colony where according to local lore more than 30,000 prisoners died between 1852 and 1939. Depicted in the film "Papillon" with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, Ile Royale was the administrative center of the penal colony. We were able, on self-guided tours, to visit prisoners' cells (no larger than our closet back home, with a solitary, high and heavily barred window) and view the church and other buildings. Nature—lush and free—was the main attraction, though, with abundant vegetation including palms, bamboo, bougainvillea and hibiscus. And such footloose and fancy-free inhabitants as monkeys, peacocks, macaws and caimans. A red macaw flew down from a tree to nibble on a passenger's toes—he was, unwisely, wearing sandals.

As we walked on the island's trails, we were serenaded by birds and every so often we could hear the loud cries of peacocks—as memorable and exotic as our journey to this corner of the world.

IF YOU GO
Cruise-Only fares for the 14-night voyage began at $2,665 per person. Currency on board the Braemar is the British pound, but major credit cards are accepted and U.S. dollars welcomed for tips. Requirements on our sailing included a Brazilian visa and a yellow fever vaccine. Protection against malaria, hepatitis A, and typhoid is recommended. Bring insect repellent, binoculars, plenty of film and a raincoat—it rained frequently during our cruise. Call 800-843-0602.


Fell's Official Know-It-All Guide to CruisesGeorgina Cruz has written for more than three dozen regional, national, and international publications including Cruise Travel Magazine and Porthole Magazine. She is the author of Fell's Official Know-It-All Guide to Cruises and has sailed on 123 voyages and counting.

Story © Georgina Cruz
Images courtesy of
Fred. Olsen Cruises


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