After leaving Belem we spent two days and three nights sailing up the Amazon River toward Santarem, which is halfway to Manaus. In 1542 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana led the first European expedition to navigate down the river, starting in the Andes. The trip (which he took unintentionally after discovering he could not return up the river because of the strong current) took about 8 months. He named the river Amazonas because of a conflict with an indigenous tribe called the Tapuyas whose women fought alongside the men. This apparently reminded him of the ancient mythical female warriors Herodotus called Amazons. Orellana’s report that a large civilization lived along the Amazon river was never taken seriously until recently, when archaeological discoveries supported his claim. If such a civilization existed it was likely devastated by disease brought to South America by Europeans, which generally wiped out some 90% of the indigenous peoples of South America, who lacked antibodies to resist such diseases. While it is now thought that there may have been as many as 5 million people in the region when Orellana visited, the indigenous population had fallen to fewer than 200,000 by the 1980’s.
The Amazon is by far the biggest river in the world (although whether it is longest, compared to the Nile, is a matter of dispute). It drains an area equal to 40% of South America and pours some 55 million gallons of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second. This is more than the next seven largest rivers in the world combined and represents 20% of the fresh water entering all of the oceans in the world. Marajo island is about the size of Switzerland and sits inside the mouth of the Amazon. So “big” is actually an understatement. And it feels big when sailing on it, very wide and mostly lined with dense rainforest. The water is quite muddy.
Along the river’s edge we passed a number of dwellings. Some were lonely single outposts that looked like little more than shacks, often sitting on stilts because the river floods and recedes every year. Some had solar panels, which must be a great help for people living so isolated from civilization,
Some of the houses looked a little more sophisticated and some were actually in tiny villages.
The river was not lined with rainforest everywhere. You may have read that farmers and ranchers have been clearing large amounts of the Amazon basin by setting fires. This has been going on for many years. The big product being grown in this area is soybeans, much of it for export to China. We passed some areas that had been cleared of forest and we may have seen some soybean fields there as well (we aren’t familiar enough with soybean plants to be sure).
Several times we passed what looked like tugboats pushing long lines of barges up the river, probably taking supplies and merchandise to Santarem or Manaus. There are no reliable roads reaching these cities so the only ways for them to import goods are by air or water. We also saw at least one conventional riverboat pulling a load of heavy equipment.
Another kind of river traffic was more organic. Large clumps of healthy looking grass floated down the river, probably from a thousand miles away. We don’t know their origin, but we guess they were uprooted by the river’s annual flood then continued to float down with the water flow. We called them floating lawns, and the ones in the pictures were far from the largest we saw.
There were quite a few white birds cavorting around the riverbanks as we neared dusk. One island was completely covered with them. And the sunsets were pretty enough to justify more than one picture.
Finally, the evening we left Belem was Fat Tuesday, so one would have expected the ship’s penguins to be dressed for Mardi Gras. But no! Someone had decided that since we were now in the Amazon we should have monkeys instead of penguins. The general consensus among passengers seemed to be that this was a pretty bad idea. After all, the penguins looked much more sophisticated than the monkeys and had pretty much become part of the family. Apparently someone got the word because the next night the Penguins were back, dressed resplendently in top hats and gold lame vests and ties for what we think was the Black & Gold Ball. We were glad to welcome them back.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1616 as a village by a fort built to protect the Amazon from incursions by other European nations, Belem (Portuguese for Bethlehem) enjoyed a golden age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the financial center for the rubber boom at a time when the Amazon was the only rubber source in the world. Today it is a vibrant and interesting city of 1.5 million (2.5 million in the metro region). The city sits on Guajara Bay, about 60 miles up the Para River, which is one of the ocean outlets of the Amazon. We spent March 5 here.
When we visited Belem in 2012 we anchored at a village downriver and had a fairly long shuttle bus ride to reach the city, where we were dropped off at Estacao das Docas, a set of old warehouses that has been renovated into a restaurant and shopping complex.
But this time we anchored in the bay near the old city and tendered directly to the Estacao das Docas. It was a much nicer day this visit as we headed out to see this part of the old city.
Not far away is Visconde do Rio Branco Square. The main attraction here is the Igreja Nossa Senhora Das Merces (Church of Our Lady of Mercy). Originally built of mud in 1640, the current stone structure was erected on the same spot in 1753. It fell into disuse during the 19th century, then was restored and reopened in 1913. It is badly in need of restoration again. A service was in progress when we visited so we did not go inside.
Jules Verne published a book in 1881 called Eight Hundred Leagues On The Amazon. It is about a raft trip from Iquitos down the river to Belem, a distance of about 1300 miles. We came upon a plaque about Verne, although it was in Portuguese so we couldn’t read it (if you can read Portuguese, it would be nice to leave a translation in the comments). It turns out that Verne never visited Brazil, but in the book he did describe the sighting of this church from the river:
“At length there appeared on the left Santa Maria de Belem do Para—the ‘town’ as they call it in that country—with its picturesque lines of white houses at many different levels, its convents nestled among the palm-trees, the steeples of its cathedral and of Nostra Senora de Merced, and the flotilla of its brigantines, brigs, and barks, which form its commercial communications with the old world.”
You can, indeed, see the steeples of this church from the river, even today. In the center of this square there is a statue, but not of Jules Verne. It is of José da Gama Malcher, a local doctor and politician. It was erected in 1890, a few years after his death. In front of the plinth is a figure of a person designed to be writing the inscription on the statue, but someone has helpfully added some ugly graffiti that now looks like what the figure is writing.
Our next objective was the Ver-o-peso market, the largest open air market in Latin America. Its name, which means “see the weight,” comes from its original function, beginning in 1688, as the Portuguese station for collecting taxes, charged by weight, on all flora and fauna brought out of the Amazon. The market is expansive, with some 2,000 vendor kiosks stretching along the waterfront and a bit inland. It is centered by the Mercado de Ferro, an iron building prefabricated in the England and erected here at the end of the 19th century. The stalls in the building are all devoted to selling fish, brought here each morning by Amazon fishermen. But you have to be there early to see it; we were there in late morning and the building was completely closed.
The stalls that were still open when we visited were full of colorful fruits and vegetables, many of which are unavailable anywhere outside the Amazon, as well as handicrafts and even birds and animals (for eating, we suppose).
We mentioned before that the market opens early and we were there when it was beginning to close. Some vendors clearly had already had a long day.
We walked over to the old port where the boats unload fish every morning. A lot of boats were tied up there and a lot of Black Vultures were congregating on the pier, probably hanging around for any bits thrown away when fish are dressed. Up close they look a little like English judges wearing their wigs.
Next we walked over to see the Catedral Nossa Senhora das Gracas (Our Lady of Grace Cathedral). On the way we passed the cast iron clock tower imported from England in 1930 and what looked like an amazingly ornate iron telephone pole.
A few years after the original fort was built the church was moved from there to the current location. It became a cathedral, seat of the Dioceses of Para, in 1719. The current building was completed in 1782 after almost 35 years of construction. It is an imposing white structure, visible from the bay, with a nice park in front of it. It is supposed to be quite nice on the inside but it was closed when we were there. In the park were several vendors selling coconuts, a popular refreshment in Brazil.
We walked back past the fort. Popularly referred to as the Castle Fort or Forte do Presepio, the actual name of the fort is apparently Castle Fort of the Bethlehem Nativity Scene. Belem being Portuguese for Bethlehem, this is where the city’s name comes from. The original fort was built on this spot in 1616 but it has been revised, rebuilt and renovated many times over the centuries. Today it houses a museum, but since everything inside is in Portuguese and there is an admission charge we decided not to go in. The fort is surrounded by a moat and the stone walls where we walked by it were covered with strikingly green lichen or algae.
After passing the Estacao das Docas again we walked to the Theatro da Paz. We passed some more of the old buildings painted in a variety of colors, many of which date to the 17th and 18th centuries. We chose to walk up a wide thoroughfare to be on the safe side. We were there during Carnaval and there seemed to be a lot of police everywhere, a contrast from the quiet Sunday of our first visit. As we were consulting our map a police car stopped and, although he didn’t speak much English, cautioned us to stay on the major street (which we had no intention of leaving). We walked past a long mosaic sidewalk on our way.
Financed by rubber riches, Theatro da Paz (Peace Theater) was completed in 1874 and opened for business in 1878. After the rubber boom ended the theater deteriorated with disuse but was restored in the 1960s.
We had a guided tour of the theater. The main entrance hall is quite grand, with large chandeliers, statuary, mosaic floors and a stairway with red carpet leading up to the theater itself.
Seats in the main theater are in a horseshoe arrangement around the stage. Large paintings cover the ceiling along with a chandelier.
Upstairs is a great hall that looks like a ballroom. The ceilings are covered with paintings, the walls are patterned in yellow, there is a balcony and the floors are inlaid wood.
We went out onto the terrace attached to the grand hall, which is the same one overlooking the park that we saw before entering the building. Each corner of the balustrade had a large sculpture holding up a light. Below was the mosaic plaza with initials that we had seen from the ground before.
Back inside, we walked down some stairs and went out on another terrace or patio. This one had a row of columns on one side and a row of doors on the other, which were decorated with panels of what looked like reddish orange marble (but was probably faux).
After leaving the theater we walked back through the park in the Praca da Republica. In the center of the park is a tall monument to the republic, completed in 1897. You can see the theater behind it.
We returned to the Estacao das Docas, where the tender dock was located. This facility has close to 200,000 square feet of restaurants, stores, and even a brewery. The structures were originally metal warehouses prefabricated in England and set up here near the end of the 19th century. The yellow cranes lining the dock outside were imported from the United States. The restored complex opened in 2000. We sat down and had an Amazon Beer, apparently brewed on the premises.
The beer was very refreshing as it was pretty hot out (Belem is near the equator). It was Carnaval time and we had heard there was to be some sort of event at the Estacio focused on children. We didn’t see it (this is a very big place) but we did see a number of people with Carnaval attire. Nothing as elaborate as what we saw in Rio, but festive.
Refreshed we went outside on the pier and down to the tender dock, passing Wonder Woman (or maybe Captain America) as we went. We tendered back to the ship and took some pictures of the city before we sailed away (some of which you have seen above). Belem was a very good stop, with much of interest to see and do. Really, it is a nice place just to walk around the streets and enjoy the ambiance (although it can be unsafe to wander too far into some of the neighborhoods). Leaving Belem behind we headed into the Amazon.
We pulled into the dock at Fortaleza at 8:00 AM on March 3 for a short stay, leaving at 2:00 PM. Fortaleza is a major city of 2.5 million (4 million in the metro area) that is known for its miles and miles of beaches. But when we looked out all we could see were high rise buildings stretching as far as the eye could see.
The city dates back to 1603, when the Portuguese built a fort and started a settlement. The Dutch took over in 1637 and built a five pointed fortress called Fort Schoonenborch in 1649. In 1654 it was handed over to the Portuguese who renamed it Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora de Assuncao, the first word of which gave the city its name.
We have wondered why this stop is included on this voyage, since there is little of interest to see, particularly in 6 hours. We think it may be a resupply stop before entering the Amazon, but we really don’t know. Last time we were here we took a shuttle into town and visited the few sites of interest there.
They say the beaches are the big attraction here for tourists, but we aren’t really beach people and in any event the water here is said to be pretty polluted. So mostly to avoid spending the whole day on the ship we decided to take the ship’s shuttle bus into town. It was going to an exotic sounding place called Centro de Turismo (Center for Tourism). On the way we passed some of the skyscrapers and also the Metropolitan Cathedral (a large gothic building completed in 1978) and the Mercado Central (a round white marketplace with some 500 vendors on several open stories). We visited these last two places on our previous visit in 2012.
The Centro de Turismo is a handicraft market in a 19th century jail (déjà vu from Recife). Vendors set up shop in the old jail cells. Clothes and textiles seem to predominate, but there are also a lot of souvenirs, local foods (particularly nuts) and other crafts.
Several large wooden sculptures were on display in the entrance corridor. They might have looked nice in our house but weren’t for sale and wouldn’t have fit in our luggage anyway.
We walked down the aisles window shopping at the vendors’ shops in the old jail cells. Very colorful and quite a variety of stuff, but the hall was quite crowded even with only a few shoppers.
If you have been to a beach community you have probably seen little bottles with designs or pictures inside made of colored sand. This art form originated in this area and in one shop we encountered a fellow who was busy making them. His were larger bottles than you usually see and had more elaborate pictures, including copies of some famous paintings. It looks like difficult work that takes a lot of concentration, steady hands and good eyesight.
We were warned not to leave the building because the neighboring streets were very dangerous. This struck us as odd because when we visited here in 2012 the shuttle dropped us off downtown by the Central Market and we walked all around by ourselves without incident or warning. Maybe a lot has changed since then or maybe this is just a worse part of town. Or maybe they just wanted to have a large group of captive shoppers. Be that as it may, we didn’t walk around but we did go to the back door to see what the street looked like. Across the street was a long yellow building with arched windows and lots of graffiti. The entrance to the Centro de Turismo on this side, also yellow, was similarly defaced with graffiti. So maybe its not a nice area after all.
Having seen pretty much all of the Centro de Turismo and having been warned against wandering anywhere else, there was nothing left for us to do but board the shuttle bus for the trip back to the ship. We passed the Central Market and the cathedral again, some of the high rise neighborhoods and some less dense areas. The bus windows weren’t very clean and there wasn’t a lot of light so the pictures aren’t what one might have hoped.
Mucuripe is a neighborhood and beach near the current port. It was, as we understand it, the site of the original settlement here and its cove was the original port. We passed a sign on a stone wall for Mucuripe then on our way to the ship we passed the Mucuripe lighthouse and some beaches on the other (left) side of the port where people were swimming.
It was early afternoon when we sailed away. Plenty of people were out on the beaches enjoying themselves. As we sailed away we got a final look at the long beachfront lined with skyscrapers.
So much for Fortaleza. We will leave you with an orchid from the Lido where we had lunch as we left Fortaleza and a towel animal that was on our bed that night.
The first day of March found us in Recife, a city of 1.5 million (4 million in the metro area) that is the capital of the state of Pernambuco. We were out on our balcony as we sailed into the port, which we have read was the first slave port in the Americas. Recife is named for a rocky reef that protects its long beaches. What we saw looked like a sea wall rather than a reef, but it might be a sea wall built on top of the reef (or maybe we just didn’t see it).
The last time we were here, in 2012, we had two days because of a missed port previously. It was Carnaval time and we spent time among the costumed crowds in both Olinda and Recife. We also had a nighttime tour of the canals of Recife with all the Carnaval decorations on the buildings lighted. Quite an experience (except for Rick’s camera being stolen through the window of a bus).
This time we only had one day and Carnaval hadn’t really reached the frenzy stage, although a lot of decorations were up. It was also a gray & rainy day, in contrast to the sunny weather on our first visit. Nonetheless, we boarded a bus in the morning for a visit to Olinda. As we walked through the terminal we were greeted by a band with a couple of dancers. As we sat on the bus waiting to leave we saw an elderly passenger walking with a cane fall down. They took him to the hospital but he must have been all right because we saw him back on the ship later. It was a bad way to start the tour and It rained for much of the drive to Olinda, but fortunately it stopped when we reached the point of disembarkation.
Olinda was founded by the Portuguese in 1535 and was the capital of the region, with what is now Recife housing Olinda’s port and some fishing villages. The Dutch conquered this area in 1630. They burned down most of Olinda and established their capital of Mauritsstad on the islands where the port was located, which they connected with bridges and canals. In 1664 to Portuguese returned and renamed Mauritsstad Recife. After the fire Olinda declined as Recife grew in importance because it was the main port for the export of sugarcane. Olinda was restored in the late 20th century and was named a UNESCO world heritage site because of its well preserved 18th century heritage.
Unlike our last visit, when we walked up and down the steep and colorful streets of Olinda, we spent our entire visit this time in an area called Alto da Se at the top of the hill. On one end of this plaza is the Igreja da Se, a church that started out in 1540 as a chapel built of mud, was replaced by a masonry church in 1567, was used as a stable then burned by the Dutch in 1631, then was rebuilt after the return of the Portuguese and elevated to the status of a cathedral in 1676. It was restored to its original appearance in the 1970’s. The temporary wood fence you can see surrounding the church is there to protect it from damage during the Carnaval festivities. On our last visit we saw such fences surrounding a number of buildings in Recife as well.
Just up from the Igreja da Se is a plaza with quite a few vendors’ stands (including one with a sleepy dog). Most had not yet set up for the day when we were there, but a few had wares on display.
Just below the plaza behind a retaining wall was a row of brightly colored houses, shops and restaurants. Many were decorated for Carnaval. As mentioned above, the day was quite drab and that affected how the city looked, but don’t be fooled: Olinda is a very bright and colorful town.
Because this plaza was on top of the hill on which Olinda is built there are stunning views, but down the hill toward the water and across the water to the skyline of Recife. Here are more examples than you probably need (or want). You can see why the Portuguese captain standing on this hill in 1535 exclaimed “Oh, a beautiful spot to build a village!” In Portuguese, “Oh beautiful” is “O linda.”
Olinda’s carnaval is famous for its Gigantes, giant dolls that are sometimes stationary and sometimes worn by people parading through the streets. We didn’t see any of them in action, as we did on our first visit. But we walked down from the plaza to a souvenir and handicrafts store that had several of them on display in a separate room and we also saw one that was being moved on top of a car to the museum of the gigantic dolls. One of the shop’s courtyards was covered with brightly colored umbrellas like those used in Frevo, the area’s signature music and dance.
We walked further down the street and came to our final walking stop, a very eclectic store called Artes do Imaginario Brasileiro. Painted a hot pink with a larger than life scantily clad woman sitting on the roof, it was all ready for Carnaval.
We boarded the bus and drove down the steep streets from the hilltop. We passed a number of colorful buildings typical of Olinda as well as the Igreja da Miseracordia (church of mercy), built in 1540. The church was surrounded by a protective wood wall and many of the buildings were decorated for Carnaval, but the streets were eerily empty, unlike the crowds that filled them last time we were here.
At the bottom of the hill we switched to another bus for the ride back to Recife. On the way we passed several intersections that give an idea what the non-tourist part of town is like and several walls with paintings.
We drove back to Recife, where we saw the Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of Dawn), the symbol of Recife’s Carnaval, standing over a bridge in the middle of the river. The streets and bridges were decorated too.
Back in Recife we went to visit the Convent & Church of Santo Antonio (St Anthony), which dates to 1606 when there was little in this area other than a port. During the Dutch occupation it was used as a fort, then returned to the Franciscans after the Dutch left in 1654. The church is small and rather modest by Catholic standards. We were not allowed to enter it, but had a glimpse through a doorway. On the walls were elaborate religious pictures made of old Portuguese blue and white tiles.
But the real reason to visit here is the Capela Dourada (Golden Chapel) that is on the other side of the open door from the church. This is a dazzling room, with every square inch covered in oil paintings, Delft style tile and carved jacaranda and cedarwood covered with gold leaf. It was built between 1696 and 1724. Even the ceiling is covered with paintings and gilded carved wood. It was our understanding that this church was closed to the public on the day we visited (perhaps for Carnaval) and the Holland America tours were the only ones allowed inside. Imagine how crowded this might have been on a regular public access day.
We left the chapel through another room with a large carved stucco ceiling.
Our last stop on this excursion was the Casa da Cultura (Culture House). On the way we passed buildings by the river, some interesting wall paintings and even what looked like a crowd heading for the evening’s carnaval festivities.
Built in the 1850’s as a prison the Casa was converted to an art and handicrafts market in the 1970’s. It is built in the shape of a cross, with one short and three long wings. This enabled guards in the central area to keep watch down all four wings at once. There were interesting handicraft and souvenir shops in the old jail cells throughout the building and some unusual solo entertainers in the center space.
We drove through a high rise neighborhood that we think was Boa Viagem. It is a fairly wealthy neighborhood that borders one of the most visited beaches in this part of Brazil, although its hard to understand why since it has suffered numerous tiger shark attacks over the last 30 years. We were sitting on the side of the bus looking at the city and didn’t really see the beach at all, just the tall buildings.
We drove across a couple of bridges, one next to a bridge with wall art on each of its supports and the other decorated for Carnaval. Across the river could be seen both the old and newer buildings of Recife.
We drove back to the port through the streets of Recife Antigo (Old Recife), the area of the original Portuguese and Dutch settlements. We passed a number of areas that were decorated for Carnaval. On our last visit here we had walked around this area, enjoying the architecture, the Carnaval stages and the general atmosphere. Among other things we saw the reconstruction of the oldest synagogue in the Americas, built during the tolerant Dutch period but abandoned when the Portuguese returned with many of the congregants moving with the Dutch to New Amsterdam where they founded New York’s Jewish community. But driving through this area today we were disappointed to see many of the old buildings that looked so nice on our last visit were now defaced with graffiti. Not wall art but just scribbles. We had seen this development in Rio as well and in our view it greatly detracts from the city’s beauty.
We arrived back at the port where we were greeted by a sculptural lion. As we were preparing to depart we had a nice view of Olinda across the water.
That’s all for our short and busy visit to Recife and Olinda. A lot of interest to see and do, but not up to the standard of our overnight visit during the height of Carnaval in 2012. We will leave you, as we sail away, with some fruit and vegetable art in the Lido buffet.