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.