South America 2019

Manaus, Brazil (Day 2) (2019)

     Rick got up very early on March 11 because our guide had offered an optional pre-dawn tour of the forest surrounding the lodge.  It was really too dark to take good pictures, but we will show you what we have.  It was pretty interesting.  We saw several birds whose names Rick can’t remember now, some ant or termite nests and marmosets running through the tree tops. 

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     Mary & the rest of our group joined the walk as we passed the lodge.  We saw a waterfall and a stream whose water was red (presumably with iron) and a lot of flowers and trees (of course . . . it’s a forest).  There was a huge mushroom that we think had medicinal properties and a tree sapling that may as well.  There were huge vines curling up trees and a nest of ants the natives rub on their arms to repel mosquitoes.  Marco demonstrated: he banged on the nest and a whole lot of ants ran out, then he grabbed a handful and rubbed them on his arm (yuck).

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     We went back to the open air dining room for a buffet lunch.  Behind the buffet line was a large mural of an indigenous woman and there were other nice decorations, including a group of carved wood rays.  Outside Rick encountered some small & quick lizards, one of which had lost most of its tail.  A number of colorful flowers were planted outside the lodge.

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     Despite the threatening weather we boarded the boats for a trip to another village.  As we left the lodge’s pier we saw a toucan high in a tree.  Such colorful birds & it’s a wonder that huge beak doesn’t tip them over frontways.  Walking up from the mooring at the village we passed among a number of nice flowers and trees.

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     Our stay at the village was cut short when the skies opened up and the whole area was drenched.  Before that happened we saw two demonstrations.  One fellow was preparing a root, possibly manioc, which he peeled with a scary looking knife then cooked in an oven.  Another fellow was making rubber from sap.  Apparently the sap is dripped onto a large stick then rolled back and forth over an open fire, adding more sap as it hardens.  The work huts were decorated with fiber baskets and boxes, along with pictures on panels that looked like bark of some kind mounted on caning.  The pictures were formed with some kind of onlay, not paint.

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     Back at the lodge, we checked out of our rooms and brought our luggage down to be loaded onto the boats for the final trip back to Manaus. It was still raining when we left.   Just after leaving the pier we saw a large group of black birds that looked like vultures sitting menacingly on a bare tree.  On the way to Manaus we saw a number of floating buildings – houses, restaurants, even a hostel.

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     As we approached Manaus we began to see beaches and buildings and boats on the shore.  We also approached the Ponte Rio Negro, the only bridge in the entire Amazon basin.  It is some two miles long but it doesn’t cross the Amazon River, just the Rio Negro.  It was opened in 2011, to the joy of commuters and the consternation of environmentalists.  This is a “cable-stayed” bridge, which means the central platform is supported by cables running to the top of a tower, a feature that is very evident. 

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     Before we sailed away we were able to get some pretty nice views of Manaus from the top deck of the ship.  The old Customs House (Alfindega) was constructed in England before being disassembled, transported by ship and rebuilt here in 1906.  The Cathedral da Nossa Senhora da Conceicao was built in 1695 then rebuilt in 1878 after a fire.  We could even see the cupola of the Teatro Amazonas from the ship looking over the cathedral.  As we sailed away there were more river bank scenes and, a bit down river, a village of floating houses.

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Manaus, Brazil (Day 1) (2019)

     The morning of March 10 found us tied up at the floating dock in Manaus.  Because the Amazon rises and falls some 40 feet each year the concrete dock is mounted on pontoons so it can rise and fall with the water.  We visited Manaus for two days back in 2012:

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     Manaus is a city of more than 2 million situated a few miles up the Rio Negro from where that river joins with the Solimoes to form the Amazon proper.  Founded in 1669 when the Portuguese built a fort here, it reached its apex as one of the richest cities in South America during the last decades of the 19th century as a result of the rubber boom.  At that time the Amazon rain forest in this region was the world’s only source of rubber and the development of vulcanization for car tires drove worldwide demand for it.  The boom ended in the early 20th century after a number of rubber tree seeds or seedlings were smuggled illegally to England (it was illegal to export them at all) and the British successfully transplanted them to Malaya (now Malaysia).  By the time synthetic rubber was developed around the time of World War I Brazil had already lost its monopoly to the cheaper Asian rubber and Manaus fell on hard times.  Its economy revived in the late 20th century as a manufacturing and trade center and it has prospered ever since.  Situated in the rainforest almost 1,000 miles up river from the ocean, Manaus can be reached almost exclusively by air or water and it has a thriving river boat culture.

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    Since we had seen a lot of the city in 2012 we signed up for an overnight excursion to the Amazon EcoPark Jungle Lodge, which would give us a chance to visit the rainforest and some non-urban parts of the river.  This map posted at the lodge shows the location up the Rio Negro northwest of Manaus (the brown river at the bottom is the Solimoes, considered part of the Amazon by Peru). 


     In the morning we boarded a bus for what amounted to a panoramic tour of Manaus (panoramic is a tour where you spend most of the time driving in a bus).  We drove around the Mercado Municipal, a large market made in large part with iron and glass.  Opened in 1882 (during the rubber boom), it was modeled on Les Halles in Paris.  Gustave Eiffel was one of the architects.  The iron structures were manufactured in Europe and sent here by ship.  The side facing the city is built largely of masonry while the iron and glass side faces the river.  Handicrafts are sold here, along with vast amounts of Amazon fish, meat, fruits and vegetables.

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     We drove past the Palacio Rio Negro, a mansion built by a German rubber baron in 1913.  Later it housed the municipal government and today it is something of an art gallery.  We toured it on our last visit to Manaus & it is quite lush and beautiful on the inside.

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     We drove around a bit, passing what looked like a favela neighborhood and a park paved in stone near a bridge.

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     Finally we came to the Teatros Amazonas, where we left the bus for a tour of the building.  Opened on the last day of 1896 after 115 years of construction financed by rubber money,  this is the icon of the city . . . a large pink opera house deep in the rainforest where you would least expect to find one.  All the materials were imported from Europe and transported up the Amazon by ship:  roof tiles from France, steel walls from Scotland, marble from Italy.  Almost 200 chandeliers were imported from Italy to light the building, 32 of which are made of Murano glass.  On top is a dome, designed to enable the painted curtain in the theater to be raised without folding or rolling.  It is covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles imported from France and painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag.

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     The theater itself is shaped like a horseshoe around the stage.  The ceiling is painted with a huge Murano chandelier in the center.  Each of the pillars holding up the second tier is topped by a figure bearing the name of a composer or playwright.  The upper levels are fronted by what looks like bronze railings and there are many other sculptural details giving the room a very lavish Belle Epoque appearance.  The curtain, depicting the meeting of the waters, is from Tiffany and the ceiling was painted in Paris and assembled here after shipment.

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     In an interior lobby is a large table top model of the opera house made of legos.  You just never know what you are going to see.

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     Upstairs is a large room that looks like a ballroom.  It is surrounded by pillars and has a painted ceiling with glass chandeliers.  There are paintings around the walls and the floor is made of 12,000 pieces of Amazon wood (cut and fitted in Europe we were told last time) laid without glue or nails (not sure what is holding them down).  The floors in particular are quite impressive.

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     A large veranda was outside the ballroom, which had a nice view because it was on an upper level.  We could see Praca Sao Sebastiao with a wavy mosaic pattern reminiscent of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro (said to represent the meeting of the waters), and across from the Praca was the 1888 Igreja de Sao Sebastiao, which was reputedly built with only one tower to avoid a tax on two-tower churches.  We could look down a stone drive to a square with shops where we shopped last time we were here.  Originally the stones were covered with rubber to muffle the sound from carriage wheels and there are supposed to be a few of those left, although we didn’t see any..  And in the other direction was the veranda over the carriage entrance that had statues holding lights on each corner.  After completing our tour we said goodbye to the opera house.

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     We boarded the bus for the journey to a harbor where we transferred to a covered motor canoe for the trip to the EcoPark.  On the way we passed more favella looking neighborhoods.  The EcoPark Lodge is situated on the Taruma River, a tributary of the Rio Negro.  The landing at the park is on a white sand beach, fronted by the river rather than the sea.  The lounge chairs under thatched umbrellas indicate that swimming is done here, although we never had time for anything like that.  Our lodgings were in a two unit bungalow in the woods a substantial walk from the lodge, fortunately along well marked paths or we never would have found our way back.  The room was fairly spartan but there was a nice small porch overlooking the jungle (although we never had time to use it).

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     After a buffet lunch we left in the boats for a visit to an indigenous village.  This took us past beaches and rainforest until we reached the village dock. The Amazon area is at a high level (although it will get higher later) so the forest near the river was inundated with water.  Some of the trees had Bromeliads (air plants) attached to their trunks.  These plants attach themselves to the trees but do not harm them, drawing water and sustenance from the air.

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     We walked up to the main building, a wood and thatch affair open on the sides with pictures painted on the front of a sun, a moon, a dolphin and a snake.  In the trees on the way we saw blue and orange Macaws and what looks like a Toucan.

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     In the main building we were entertained by a group from the tribe performing dances.  Apparently none of them spoke English (no surprise in Brazil) since the chief’s speech was translated by one of the guides.  Dressed in native costume, with topless women, grass skirts and feather headdresses, they performed several dances, one of which involved blowing on a long horn.  Then they invited us to join them for the final dance.  One couldn’t refuse when a young girl takes your hand and you can’t tell her in a language she can understand that you might have a mobility problem or would prefer to take pictures.  One of these young girls took each of Rick’s hands for the dance so he was well protected, but there are no pictures of that for obvious reasons. Note that it was pretty dark in the building and everyone was moving, so many of the pictures are a little fuzzy.

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     After the show we walked around the village, made up mostly by open wood and thatch buildings.  The main one appeared to be for cooking:  it had an oven and a grill over an open fire where an armadillo was cooking.  They showed us what we think are Brazil nut pods, one opened and empty and the other unopened., and there was a bird with a red face, possibly a Muscovy duck, nosing around on the ground (we saw one like it later with some other ducks)..  After a while a macaw came in through a hole in the roof, apparently looking for a snack.

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     So as we leave the village the question arises, is this real or set up for tourists?  We don’t really know, but our guess is that it is a little of both.  We saw several other touring groups, so it seems pretty clear that this is a regular business for these people.  And there was a souvenir stand in the main lodge we were encouraged to inspect, and we know that many of the items for sale were not made here because we saw some of the same things in stores elsewhere.  And it didn’t appear that there was actual housing for this many people, so many of them must live elsewhere and come here and don costumes to perform.  On the other hand, we think this was a real indigenous village that was probably here before the tourist industry got going and we have no reason to doubt that the dances and costumes and other things we saw are not authentic.  So the answer seems to be that it is an authentic village that is now earning income from tourism.

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     Sailing back to the Lodge we spotted some apparently indigenous thatch huts on the edge of the rainforest and had some impressive views of distant Manaus over the river.  Then later, walking from our bungalow to the open air dining room, we saw a beautiful red macaw in a tree near the building.

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     After dinner we boarded the boats once again for a nocturnal hunt for a caiman (a variety of alligator).  We were out for quite a while with the guide on the boat’s prow using a spotlight to look among the waterlogged trees.  He also jumped off the boat to walk into the woods looking for them.  It was kind of spooky out there in the dark with his flashlight moving back among the trees; at one point we were stopped near what looked at first like an alligator but turned out to be an abandoned row boat.  It was looking like all would be for naught when he finally nabbed a baby caiman.  We took it back to the pier by the lodge where the other boatload of our people showed up too with another baby.  We had a good look at them and also a lot of explanation about them from the naturalists.  Then we went back to our bungalow to sleep before an early call in the morning and (hopefully) the little caimans were returned to where they were found.

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Boca Da Valeria, Brazil (2019)

     On the morning of March 9 we anchored near Boca Da Valeria for a short visit.  This is a small indigenous village (75 to 100 people) in the rainforest at the confluence of the Valeria river with the Amazon.

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     This tiny village is now a common stop for cruise ships sailing up the Amazon and it is the only stop where you are likely to encounter an indigenous community.  The story we heard, which may be apocryphal, is that this village was first visited a number of years ago when a cruise ship’s engine broke down when it was at this spot.  To keep the passengers entertained they were tendered ashore at the village.  The villagers, concluding that they were being invaded, all fled into the forest until the cruise passengers left.

     After that arrangements were made with them to continue visiting.  The money this has brought in has been beneficial to the village, which now has electricity, satellite TV and other modern conveniences like refrigerators and a school house.  Since our first visit we noticed that the church has a new steeple and there is a new covered tender dock.

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     We had tendered ashore for a visit here on our first South America voyage in 2012, and it was certainly worth doing, since it the one place where you can see how the indigenous people live.

     But this is a very small place with only a little to see, so one visit is enough.  And while the people are very friendly, commercialism has taken its toll.  People for miles around come here when a ship is scheduled to stop in order to make a few bucks.  They bring children, some dressed in feathered costumes and many carrying exotic animal “pets,” and each costs a dollar to photograph.  Children greet you at the pier and one or two will take your hand to guide you through a village that only really takes a few steps, and expect to be paid.  Home made crafts are for sale and there is a bar where you can buy a drink.  While all this is understandable for people with few sources of income and it is hardly usurious, it certainly detracts from the experience.  Add in a crowd of ship passengers in a tiny village and it is hardly the pristine rainforest village experience you hoped for when you stepped onto the tender.  So we stayed on the ship for the few hours we were there and took some pictures from there.

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     As you can see in the pictures above, this is a river town and the Amazon is high enough this time of year to cause a lot of flooding.  This is why most of the water side buildings are on stilts and we could see many trees growing out in the water.  The locals offer rides in canoes (some open and some covered) to see giant water lilies and neighboring settlements for $5 or $10 per person.  Some of them take their boats out to the ship, to try to sell things to passengers or just to ogle or even take smartphone pictures.

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     In addition to the village there were birds flying around, some pink dolphins (Mary saw them but Rick didn’t), and a nice rainforest coast where the hill came directly down into the water.  This is still the Amazon, so of course there were floating lawns going past us.  We headed off in early afternoon toward Manaus and that evening there was a nice sunset over the river.

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Santarem, Brazil

     March 8 found us in Santarem, an important river town about halfway between Belem and Manaus.  It is at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers, the latter named after the indigenous tribe that occupied this territory before the Europeans arrived (Francisco Orellana raided one of their corn plantations during his trip down the river in 1542).  Founded by Portuguese Jesuits in 1661, Santarem now has a population of around 300,000.  After the US Civil War a group of Confederates moved to Santarem; although some descendants still live here, most of the original expats eventually moved back to the United States.

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     When we visited here in 2012 we took the ship’s shuttle into town and walked around.

So this time we joined an excursion into the rainforest on the Tapajos River.  Our guide was Gil Serique, a first class guide and raconteur who has lived his entire life in this area.  His grandfather was a Sephardic Jew who immigrated here from Morocco in the 1850’s, became friends with the Confederate expats who lived by his Jewish village of Boim on the Tapajos, and later helped Henry Wickham spirit rubber tree seeds to England where they were used to create the rubber industry in Asia.  Touring with Gil was a real treat.

      We met Gil and his riverboat at the dock and sailed out toward the main part of Santarem.

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     Next to the port is a giant Cargill soybean processing and storage plant.  The struts in the picture above are holding up a conveyor system for transporting the product to ships and barges in the river.  The plant holds some 114,000 tons of soybeans.  According to environmentalists this accessible plant has encouraged a great deal of clearing of rainforest in this region to plant soybeans.  It has been very controversial ever since it was begun in the late 1990’s, and you can see why people who live here might find it a burden and an eyesore.

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     As we sailed down the Santarem waterfront we came to a sort of pavilion on stilts over the water.  This seems to be a place for tourists to see the Amazon’s famous pink dolphins.  Also called “boto,” these are the largest freshwater dolphins in the world, growing up to about 8 feet and 400 pounds during their 30 year lifespan.  The dolphins start out gray but get pinker as they grow older because their skin becomes thinner; they can sometimes turn a very bright pink when excited, blushing like humans.  The last time we visited the Amazon we were taken to a place that “always” has pink dolphins, but not when we were there.  We decided that pink dolphins were like pink elephants – much more likely to be seen when you are inebriated.  But we were proven wrong at this site, where pieces of fish were dangled on ropes to induce the dolphins to jump into full sight.  They look friendly, with  big smiles, but actually are carnivorous (ie. not friendly if you happen to be a fish).

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     We continued sailing down the riverfront before heading out into the rain forest.  We passed a large fish sculpture, a building with large wall art of local birds and some dockside buildings and riverboats.  More notably we saw the cathedral, built in 1761 and painted blue, which has a large vendor’s market in front of it.  At one point we passed a building and Gil exclaimed “That is where I was conceived.”  A little more information than we had expected.

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     We left Santarem and sailed up the Tapajos River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon.  Some 1200 miles long (including its biggest tributary) it represents about 6% of the water in the entire Amazon basin.  We had understood that the excursion would be largely on the Tapajos, but it is between 4 and 9 miles wide as it approaches Santarem and you will see from  the pictures that we spent most of our time exploring much smaller waterways, the names of which we do not know.

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     Early in the cruise we saw some horses drinking in the river, several kinds of birds, including black-collared hawks and egrets, along with multiple colorful flowers.  A good bit of the river was marshy, which actually made it more picturesque.  People do live out here, but not many it seems.

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     We reached a place where two rivers met and Gil took a small motorboat to retrieve a sloth from a tree up one of the rivers.  There was a girl travelling with her father and they went with Gil.  They returned with a baby sloth, which everybody spent time admiring while first Gil then the girl held it.  Afterward they took the sloth back where they found it and, according to Gil, placed back in exactly its original location on a tree.

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     We were divided into two groups, each of which went out in small launches to explore narrower waterways where we could see more flora and fauna.  Gil was the guide in our boat as we glided among trees and marsh.  Among other things we saw a huge termite nest and some large globe shaped bird nests made of loose twigs.  The Amazon rises and falls about 40 feet every year and floods into low lying forest when the water rises.  That may be the reason for the trees growing in the water in some of the pictures below.

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     Among the wildlife we saw from the launch were an iguana and a sloth, both high in the trees, and a lot of birds, including some wattled jacanda, what looks like a limpkin, and a number of egrets, both great and snowy.

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     Before returning to the riverboat we visited some of the giant water lilies endemic to the Amazon region.  We had seen these near Manaus on our last visit, where it was demonstrated to us that the pads were more than 5 feet in diameter and they can grow much bigger than that.  They were blooming here, with a few large white flowers.  After seeing them we headed back to the riverboat.

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     While the second group had their launch cruise we spent time on the idle river boat.  There was a large display of Amazon fruits on a table and also some to eat (the pineapple was particularly delicious).  We were also shown a pod of Brazil nuts.  Mostly we sat around talking, eating and watching the scenery.

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     The second group returned from their launch trip after some adventure (one of the boats broke down) and we started back toward Santarem.  Among other things, we saw blue herons, a vulture, a great black hawk and another sloth very high in a tree.  There was also a pink dolphin, although he submerged before we could get a picture.   At one point Gil brought out a stuffed piranha fish, which looked fierce with very sharp pointy teeth.

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     When we reached the more open water near Santarem we passed a flock of cormorants and some other birds.  Then we sailed over the “meeting of the waters.”  This is where the muddy Amazon river meets the clear water of the Tapajos and the two contrasting streams run next to each other for several miles before mixing together into a single river.  This is because the rivers flow at different speeds, have different acidity and are different temperatures.  It is quite an unusual sight and there is another at Manaus where the Rio Solimoes meets the Rio Negro to form what the Brazilians call the Amazon (Peruvians consider the Solimoes part of the Amazon).

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     Back at the dock we walked through the vendors’ stalls set up near the ship and along the dock where there were more birds.  Then we boarded the ship and prepared for dinner after a full and rewarding day.

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Amazon River (2019)

     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.

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      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.

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     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,

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     Some of the houses looked a little more sophisticated and some were actually in tiny villages.

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     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). 

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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      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.

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