Sailing The Amazing Amazon

| March 14, 2013
Fortaleza’s new “gothic” cathedral, made of concrete that is only 35 years old.

Fortaleza’s new “gothic” cathedral, made of concrete that is only 35 years old.

Being on a Regent ship is like being a princess in a fairy tale. Your every wish is their command. Food, drink, entertainment, shopping, spa treatments, concerts, lectures, bridge – whatever you want – is provided by the staff, with a smile. All of the wait-staff in four dining rooms greet you by name and a smile each time they see you.

We were at sea (no port calls) for two days until dinner time, when we docked at Fortaleza, Brazil. We spent a day here a few years ago and were enchanted by it. There was a big buffet barbecue up on the top deck with way too much noise and the temptation to eat too much. So we elected to eat downstairs in the main dining room, the Compass Rose.

The next morning we got on buses and went in to Fortaleza. We toured the seaside city with its marvelous beach and architecture. We saw the highlights of the town, the Cathedral and then stopped to visit the 100-year-old Jose de Alencar Theater with its spectacular wrought iron balconies and façade. It is used both as a theater and as a dance and drama school. It is decorated with lovely Victorian stained glass.

A local indigenous person wove a “critter” out of palm frond at Alter Do Chao.

A local indigenous person wove a “critter” out of palm frond at Alter Do Chao.

The beautiful beach is the heart of the town. There was a stop at the Mercado, a local craft market. Then it was back to the ship and a wonderful Tex-Mex luncheon on the top deck beside the pool as we sailed away. The next day was a luxuriously idle day at sea.

We were continuing to head north when we “turned left” and entered the mouth of the Amazon River. Several days before, our wonderful lecturer prepared us for what we were about to see. She warned us that our “Tarzan of the Jungle” image of the Amazon was wrong. No vines and excessive growth hanging over the ship, no big wild animals, and no indigenous people peeping out of the bush. In fact, the mouth of the Amazon is 200 miles wide! That is not a typo!

Another amazing fact about Brazil is that 80 percent of the population of Brazil lives on 20 percent of the land hugging the eastern edge of the country along the Atlantic Ocean.

The Amazon is the convergence of two major rivers, the black coffee-colored Rio Negro and the muddy Solimoes (Amazon) at Manaus, and is the largest river in the world. Our lecturer pointed out that the Amazon Basin is a rain forest, not a jungle, and is as large as the contiguous U.S.!  In total, over 3,000 tributaries flow into the Amazon! The Rio Negro has a 4.5 pH and is acidic. As a result no mosquitoes live in it, and the indigenous population recognized this and settled there. The Solimoes has a higher, basic pH and is muddy because of the hard pan clay that is dissolved in it. Mosquitoes and other insects thrive in that environment.

The inhabitants along the river are called Caboclos and are a mix of Portuguese, African and some indigenous ancestors. For the most part they live in good communities up the tributaries. These communities are connected by a system of boats that function like a bus line and transport the inhabitants back and forth. The pure indigenous people were relocated to remote reservations in the middle of the twentieth century, to protect them mainly from diseases to which they have no resistance.

A local showed off her pet toucan at Alter Do Chao.

A local showed off her pet toucan at Alter Do Chao.

At our first stop we anchored at Alter Do Chao, a village near Santarem, Brazil, a city with a population of 150,000. We tendered in to find that it had many charming, pleasant people and functions as one of the largest “souvenir stands” in existence. Many on the ship chose this place to swim in the Amazon since there is a lovely white sandbar and palm trees.

The birds are spectacular. There are Hyacinth Macaws, Roseate Spoonbills and, the most interesting of all, Hoatzin or “Watson.” These two species have evolved to look like miniature prehistoric dinosaurs. They have claws on their legs which enable them to grab tiny critters for dinner.

There are marmosets the size of a cat, some so tiny they are the size of a finger and others who fit in a thimble! There are anacondas! There are poisonous blue tree dart frogs. On top of that there are 32 species of piranhas that range in size from a quarter to a dinner plate! There are also endangered jaguars and ocelots.

A child with her pet parrot at Alter Do Chao.

A child with her pet parrot at Alter Do Chao.

Continuing on the next day we anchored at Boca Da Valeria, a village located at an entrance to the Valeria River, an Amazon tributary. The village is located on the bank of a 400-foot hill and is hidden amid the forest lake lands. It contains a few wooden huts that are the villagers’ homes. Many of the villagers offer a tour of the surrounding area in their motorized canoes for $5, an offer not to be turned down.

What a fabulous experience it was buzzing along the shallow lakes with absolute primitive beauty all around. Several miles into the adventure the canoe, which was slightly leaky, pulled up in front of the boat operator’s home. An invitation was offered and accepted to come and see his home where his children, wife and grandmother live. A porch on the back side of the house served as an all-purpose living area. There was a kitchen with a functioning gas stove and pots and pans on the wall. A large sleeping area had eight hammocks and an area where a large pile of clean clothing was kept. An electric refrigerator and big screen TV also occupied the sleeping area and there was an electric washing machine on a side porch. It was a wonderful, eye-opening and humbling experience to have these sweet, simple people share their lives with us.

Tonight we sail for Manaus, a city of nearly 2 million people that once was called the “Paris of the Amazon.” Built on the revenue from rubber, it is now struggling. We are looking forward to seeing this large city on the Amazon which is more than 900 miles from the river’s mouth.

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Category: Partyline

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Carla Sue
A fixture in Louisville society, Carla Sue Broecker has been writing her weekly column for more than two decades.

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