March 22 found us docked at Oranjestad, our last port of this voyage before it ends in Ft Lauderdale. This is another formerly Dutch possession, since 1986 an autonomous country that is part of the monarchy of the Netherlands (so the locals have Dutch citizenship and governor appointed by the Dutch crown serves as the formal head of state). About 35,000 of Aruba’s 105,000 citizens live in Oranjestad. As in Curacao, the other Dutch island we visited, there are a number of colorful Dutch style buildings here, but unlike Curacao most of the ones here were renovated in that style for the tourist trade near the end of the 20th century.
The tourist industry is the main economic engine in Aruba, but there are few notable landmarks and most visitors come for the sun and beaches. On our first visit here in 2014 we explored the city on foot:
And we did that again this time, since it was a good compromise between relaxing on the ship (which seems like a waste) and taking an excursion (we were done with that for this voyage). We visited mostly the same sights as last time, with one notable exception. Setting out after breakfast, we decided to ride the free tram into town. Although it stops right near the port it took us a little while to find the stop. It was pleasant enough, but extremely slow; you could probably walk into town faster. On the way we passed the Archaeological Museum, which we had enjoyed visiting last time but was closed this time for renovations that were apparently completed near the end of 2019. This town has a lot of outdoor art and we passed some wall paintings in the tram. We also passed the brightly painted city hall, which we saw from the side.
Leaving the tram in the center of town, we walked to Fort Zoutman. The fort was first built in 1798 and the city grew up around it. It was last renovated in 1936 and today houses the Historical Museum of Aruba. The artifacts we saw there were mostly old clothing and furnishings, along with an interesting exhibit on the history of the hat making trade that grew up on the island. A large group of school children were visiting while we were there and their teachers had some difficulty keeping them together. The Willem III tower was erected at one corner of the fort in 1868. At that time the fort and tower were at the water’s edge, but due to land reclamation projects (a specialty of the Dutch) they are now about 300 yards from the ocean. The tower was originally a lighthouse and also the city’s first public clock (which no longer keeps accurate time). We ran into Bill & Robert here and we all climbed to the top of the tower, three flights of steep, narrow, mostly open wooden steps with inadequate railing. It was a little bit daunting but we all made it to the top, where there were great views of the city on all sides. Among other things, we saw the Old Protestant (Calvinist) Church built in 1846 sitting right next to the New Protestant Church built around 1950. We also saw the 1888 school, the first public elementary in Aruba, which was the public library for a few years during the 1950’s. In front of the school is a monument to the men who wrote the Aruban national anthem, with sculptures of the three men gathered around a piano on a platform with a pool made to look like piano keys.
We had failed to find the library on our last visit but this time we had a better map. We parted from Bill & Robert and started out toward the library. It was a nice walk through a garden infested residential area. Before reaching the library we came upon the Beth Israel Synagogue, which we understand is the only synagogue in Aruba with a congregation of about 75. Across the street was a monument to two Aruban units that fought in World War II.
The library was cool and modern, with some colorful art inside . . . notably a representation of the Willem III Tower that was about 8 feet tall.
It was lunch time when we left the library, so we walked back to the shore to find the restaurant where we had lunch the last time we were here. It is in a delightful spot right on the shore. We had delicious grouper sandwiches washed down by the local Balashi beer. We told you this was a pleasant island on which to relax!
We walked back to the ship through Queen Wilhelmina Park. Wilhellmina was Queen of the Netherlands for 50 years, from 1898 until 1948. A statue of Queen Wilhelmina in the park was dedicated by her daughter, Queen Juliana, in 1955. Nearby is a statue of Dutch holocaust victim Anne Frank, erected in 2011. The park is full of Iguanas and other lizards running around freely in the grass.
Reaching the port we boarded Prinsendam for the last time . . . not just the last time on this voyage but the last time ever. She was sold to a German cruise company called Phoenix Reising at the end of 2018 and they took possession in July, 2019. So while she still has many years to sail, it will be under a different name (Amera) and with a different look. https://www.cruisemapper.com/ships/Amera-742 So this sparked a bit of nostalgia, not only because this is a particularly nice ship but also because it was the first ship on which we took a long voyage, the circumnavigation of South America in 2012.
On the morning of March 24, our last day at sea, the housekeeping staff put on an extravaganza towel animal display on the Lido deck by the pool. The white ones are room towels and the blue striped ones are beach towels.
There were large towel animals, as much as three feet tall.
There were small towel animals, hanging on a hedge and sitting on tables and the benches around the pool.
And of course, not to be forgotten, plenty of hanging chimpanzees.
So that is the end of this episode and the end of this epic voyage. The next day, after 80 days of sailing, we disembarked in Ft Lauderdale and drove home, stopping to visit some relatives along the way. It was quite an experience and we will look forward to our next international adventure, hopefully in 2020.
On March 21 we stopped in Willemstad, the capital and largest city in Curacao, an independent nation within the Dutch monarchy (sounds something like the British Commonwealth) that was formerly part of the Dutch Antilles (of which Willemstad was the capital). Curacao has a population of about 130,000.
Willemstad is a particularly nice city to explore on foot, in fact its urban center is a UNESCO world heritage site, so that is what we did. We had done that as well the first time we were here, in 2014:
But this had been a long and eventful voyage and we were really tired of bus trips, so we spent our day enjoying this city again. The ship was docked at what is called the Megaport which is a fairly short walk from the center of town.
Willemstad is divided in two by an inlet called Sint Anna Bay. The island was inhabited by a tribe of Arawaks when the Spanish first sighted it in 1499. Deporting the entire local population to Hispaniola as slaves, they established the first settlement at what is now Willemstad in the 16th century, but the Dutch West India Company took it over in 1634 to use as a naval base. The original settlement is on one side of the bay in a district called Punda (“The Point” in the local Papiamentu language), while the district on the other side of the bay, where Prinsendam was docked, is called Otrobanda (“Other Side” in Papiamentu). During the 18th and early 19th centuries it was notorious as the busiest slaving port in the Caribbean, with Africans being kept here for about 2 years to be “trained” for their new jobs before being sold on to North and South America. The slave trade was abolished here in 1863.
Leaving the ship we walked toward the bridge, passing through the Rif Fort (Reef Fort). Built in 1828 at the mouth of Sint Anna Bay to protect the town & the bay from pirates and invaders, the fort was outfitted with bombproof five foot wide walls and 56 cannons. A chain to keep hostile ships out could be deployed across the bay entrance to the Waterfort (Water Fort), originally built in 1634 but rebuilt in 1827. During World War II a metal net was used to keep out German submarines. Today it is a trendy shopping center with many restaurants and shops. From the upper level is a very fine view of the Queen Emma Bridge that crosses the bay.
We walked on toward the bridge, passing the statue to Luis Brion in Plaza Brion. Born in Curacao in 1782, Brion was an advanced naval tactician and a top lieutenant to Bolivar during the war for South American independence from Spain. He died here in 1821. The plaza had an excellent view of the colorful Dutch colonial buildings that line the shore on the other side of the bay. Nearby was a large freestanding mural depicting the same view during the age of sailing ships. As you can see from the mural, the multicolored buildings are not just modern innovation to attract tourists. These buildings are centuries old. The story is that most of Willemstad’s buildings were originally white, but a 19th century governor concluded that his migraines were caused by the glare of the sun reflecting off the white exteriors. Thus a decree was issued requiring all buildings to be painted a color other than white. The city’s characteristic multicolor pattern has been adhered to ever since.
We walked across the 550 foot Queen Emma Bridge to Punda. Originally built in 1888, this is a floating pontoon bridge that swings open to permit ships to sail into and out of the harbor. It swings open about 10 times each day. If you are on the bridge when it opens you cannot leave until it closes. This was originally a toll bridge: those wearing shoes were charged 2 cents to cross while barefoot walkers could cross for free. It accommodated automobile traffic until the four lane Queen Juliana Bridge opened in 1974; since then it has been for pedestrians only. The Queen Juliana Bridge is much higher, with a 185 foot clearance for ships to pass underneath, the highest bridge in the Caribbean. There is a large protected harbor behind this bridge that you can’t see from town because of the hills. The beautiful yellow Penha building at the bridge’s exit in Punda dates to 1708, the oldest commercial building in town (although it started out as a private home). Today it houses a cosmetics and apparel store, but is still the most photographed building in Willemstad and possibly in the entire Caribbean. So we have included our contributions to that total here.
Leaving the bay behind us we walked into the city and soon came to the floating market. This is a row of vendors’ stands along the water front of an interior inlet with boats transporting produce from Venezuela (about 35 miles away) docked behind them. The last time we were here the market was full with boats lining the waterfront all the way down. With the severe economic & political troubles in Venezuela this year many of these vendors no longer come here & the meager line of boats only reached about half way down the line of kiosks. In the area near the market are several small pedestrian drawbridges similar to those we had seen in Amsterdam.
We walked on to find the Maritime Museum. It was quite interesting, with many exhibits recounting the history of sailing in Curacao. On the way we passed some interesting wall art, which is colorful and plentiful in this city.
It was time for lunch so we sought out our favorite restaurant, set out over the water in a large inlet near the center of town. It was called “Timeless,” but had a different name the first time we visited a few years ago. But despite the name change, the lunch of local fish & chips, washed down with some local beer (which we discovered last time is actually bottled in Florida), was still just as tasty. From the restaurant we could see the library, which we had visited last time, with what looked like a brightly painted bookmobile (“Bus di Buki” . . . Book Bus?) parked in front. On our way to the restaurant we passed some more wall art and an installation of three birds playing in a band, created from discarded and recycled materials in 2016 by local artist Omar Sling. Then, not too far away, we encountered the actual birds, which are called banaquits. How often does that happen?
We headed for the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Americas still in use. While the Jewish community in Curacao dates to the 1650’s, when it was founded by refugees from Recife, Brazil and immigrants from the Netherlands, this synagogue opened in 1730. On the way we passed a World War II memorial and had another nice view of the small drawbridge we crossed earlier in the day.
We returned to the Queen Emma Bridge to make our way back to the ship. On our way there we saw a monument to Queen Wilhelmina in (where else) Queen Wilhelmina Park. We also saw more wall art and an interesting vertical sundial near the bridge. And of course we saw our old friend the Penha building, but from a different angle.
When we reached the bridge it was fully open, so we had to wait. We listened to a family rather aggressively negotiating with one of several taxi drivers sitting nearby for a tour of the island. It took a while but they apparently came to an agreement since they all left together. Eventually we spotted a ship sailing from the harbor under the high Queen Juliana Bridge heading for the ocean. it sailed right by us, then another ship came as well. Finally they began to close the bridge. It has a hinge on the Otrobanda side and an operator’s house at the end of it where it connects to the Punda side of the bridge. Under the operator’s house are two propellers facing left and right which move the bridge across the water like a boat. While the bridge is open and no one can walk across a couple of free ferries carry passengers back and forth.
Crossing the bridge, we walked back to the Prinsendam. Unbeknownst to us, Robert was out on his balcony with his camera recording our progress.
That was, obviously, the end of our visit to Curacao. After dinner we went out on deck for a final look. The city was nicely lit up, with the hoops lining the Queen Emma Bridge constantly changing colors. A nice farewell from a very nice island port.
On March 19 we were anchored in Admiralty Bay near Port Elizabeth, the only town on the island of Bequia (Beck-way), the second largest and most northerly of the Grenadines. Bequia is Arawak for “island of the clouds,” although we didn’t see very many when we were there.
Bequia has a long history stretching back to the indigenous Arawak & Carib people. It came under British rule in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War (French & Indian War in America) . The British set up a plantation economy and imported thousands of African slaves. The relatively safe harbor here was also a hangout for pirates (we have read that descendants of Captain Kidd still live here). The country of St Vincent and The Grenadines gained independence in 1979. The population of the island of Bequia today is about 4300.
This would be a leisurely day of walking around this sunny and friendly town with little in the way of important landmarks. After breakfast we tendered in to the town dock. Nearby were small boats and stands selling produce & souvenirs. The harbor itself was full of yachts.
About a block down from the jetty is St Mary’s Anglican Church, built of stone in 1829 to replace a wooden church destroyed by a hurricane. Small and unassuming, it is very bright from many large windows, many with stained glass memorial plaques hanging in them.
A little way behind the church is a cemetery, where goats were trimming the grass.
We walked down the main thoroughfare, just back from the waterfront. It is a divided street with pedestrians on the left, flora in the middle, and a car lane on the right, but it is still a pretty small street. Then we continued onto a narrow walk right along the water’s edge that eventually leads to a beach, although we didn’t go that far. The water was extraordinarily clear and the plant life growing under it was quite visible. On the land side were some restaurants, most notably the Whale Boner, whose gate was made from whale jawbones and bar seats from whale vertebrae.
We walked back through town and then on to the north around the bay. We passed the book store and a pizza place, among other things, and many bright flowers.
Bequia has a rich history of whaling, fishing and boat building. At one time it was one of the major ship repair sites in the Caribbean. Boatbuilding is still practiced here, but it has also developed a reputation for model boat building. Two establishments in particular are well known: Sargeant Brothers and Malvern. We found both of them on our walk; Sargeant Brothers was closed but we did go into Malvern’s, which was well stocked with model sail boats. The road continues up into the hills beyond Malvern’s, but we didn’t.
As we walked back into town we passed the town’s revenue building, which houses government administration, post office and customs (at least it used to . . . there was once a sign painted over the door saying “Revenue” but it seems to have been painted over). We passed what looks like a resort on a hill, a row of clothing vendors and a bird looking down from a wire.
We returned to the pier & caught a tender back to the ship. From the ship we could still spot the revenue building, the church & the pier.
A sail-away party was held by the pool. Even after such a long sea journey the old folks can still dance!
We sailed away past hills and islands and even a sailboat. In the restaurant we had previously introduced our waiters to a tradition our friend Bob had originated on the Amsterdam world cruise. When none of the desserts appealed, he (and we) would order the always delicious chocolate cake that from the room service menu. Because there were usually six desserts listed on the menu, this one was referred to as “number 7” when ordering. On this night our waiters honored this tradition by bringing us a cake that was labeled accordingly. That is really getting into the spirit, as the voyage was nearing its close.
We spent March 18 on Barbados, the most easterly of the Caribbean islands. First settled by the British in 1628, Bridgetown today has some 110,000 inhabitants, more than a third of the total population of Barbados. Barbados achieved independence from the UK in 1966 but remains in the British Commonwealth. Unlike the other Caribbean islands Barbados is mostly coral rather than of volcanic origin. The last time we visited here we walked from the port into Bridgetown and spent our time exploring the city.
This time we signed up for an excursion with our travel agents to see some of the rest of the island. So in the morning we headed north from the port in the gray and drizzly weather. This is a very wealthy area of sandy beaches, calm waters and expensive resorts known as the Gold Coast (or more recently, the Platinum Coast). It is said that a number of foreign billionaires have beach houses here. Not only was it poor weather to view these resorts as the bus rolled by but we were on the other side of the bus, so no pictures of the Gold Coast. As we drove over the island interior to the much wilder east coast facing the Atlantic we passed a number of what seem to be typical Barbadian houses, mostly one story and painted a variety of colors.
Near the east coast we happened on some monkeys. Barbadian green monkeys are descended from some that were brought here some 350 years ago from Senegal and the Gambia by slave traders. Some of these pets escaped and today they are all over the island. Through some 75 generations they have evolved differently from their cousins in Africa and it is said that this particular species can only be found in the wild here.
We stopped in Bathsheba, a town of about 5,000 on the east coast. We have read that this is the most painted landscape in Barbados and it was easy to see why, even with the clouds & rain. The beach is highlighted by very large boulders that have been eroded at the bottom by the heavy surf. The waves in this area known to surfers as the “Soup Bowl,” and it regularly hosts international surfing competitions. Eleven time world champion surfer Kelly Slater has called this one of the “top 3 waves in the world.” Up the hill from the park where we stopped were some houses similar to what we had seen and some a little more substantial.
We were stopped in a park that sloped steeply down to the water. Next door to the park was a restaurant with a veranda in back that had a spectacular view of the Soup Bowl. In the park we encountered some local birds.
Back in the bus, we drove to the St Johns Parish Church, situated atop a hill 800 feet above the sea. The first church was built here in 1645. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1676 but hurricanes destroyed that and its successors. After the 1831 hurricane the present church was built of sturdy stone and rededicated in 1836. Gothic in style, it would look right at home in the English countryside. The outstanding features inside the church are a large pipe organ over the entrance and an elaborately hand carved pulpit.
In back of the church is a cemetery. The most eye catching tombstone is from 1678, the grave of Ferdinando Paleologus who was a member of the family of the last emperors of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. The cemetery had a breadfruit tree and a number of colorful flowers and it backed up to a cliff overlooking the ocean and a town below. Breadfruit is native to the South Pacific, not the Caribbean. It was first brought to the Caribbean by Captain William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame because it was thought this would be an inexpensive food for the tens of thousands of slaves that were kept here. An artist was at work there too. After exploring the cemetery we left the church.
Originally built in the 1660’s, Sunbury Plantation house was restored after a devastating fire in 1995. Its 30 inch thick walls are made of coral and ballast stones, probably from slave trading ships. This was the great house of a large sugar cane plantation. Sugar cane was by far the leading export from Barbados in earlier centuries and even today it is one of the island’s leading crops. The plantations were worked by slaves imported from Africa; at one point there were more than 15 slaves for every free person in Barbados. We toured the house, which has been furnished with antiques, many made from Barbadian mahogany. It was pretty sumptuous, but really an old house is an old house and we have seen a lot of them.
The house has lush gardens with many different flowers and trees, notably some large ficus trees.
In back of the plantation house was a pavilion containing a buffet restaurant. We had a very nice lunch there, including some delicious local fish and rum punch. Barbados has been producing rum since 1703, the first to do so in the Caribbean, which is made from the sugarcane grown throughout the island (including on this plantation). Our guide told us that the last census counted 1200 churches in Barbados . . . and 1200 rum shops.
As we drove back to Bridgetown we passed several fields of sugarcane.and some more local style houses. In one traffic circle we drove past the Emancipation Statue, erected in 1985. Many people here call it the Bussa Statue, after a slave who led a revolt in 1816, although that was not the intent of the sculptor. We drove through the center of Bridgetown, past the Parliament Building that has been the seat of government since the 1870’s, then down a commercial street and back to the port.
On our first visit here we walked into town from the port along a beautiful park like path along the sea wall. After returning to the port, we decided to walk up that path a little way to visit a collection of shops we believe was called the Pelican Crafts Center. Many of the shops were closed but those that were open included some very interesting textile and crafts shops as well as some more mundane souvenir stores. It also had a large statue that looked at first like a skeleton playing baseball, but probably was intended to beholding a sword or a club. After that we returned to the ship, ending our visit to Barbados.
The morning of March 16 found Prinsendam anchored near Ile du Royale, the largest of the three Salvation Islands. This is the one island that can be visited from a cruise ship; the other two are called Ile St-Joseph and Ile du Diable (which means Devil’s Island).
For just over 100 years this archipelago was part of a French penal colony. It was opened in 1853 by Napoleon III after his coup, and eventually more than 200 republican opponents of his regime were stashed there. After a lot of bad publicity the French stopped sending prisoners here in 1938 with the intent of closing the penal colony, which they did in 1953 after a delay caused by the German occupation of France during World War II. Today it welcomes visitors from cruise ships, private yachts and people ferried here for a look on local boats from the mainland some 8 or 9 miles away.
We tendered in as early as we could after finishing breakfast. The island is lush and beautiful, and studded with the ruins of interesting penal colony buildings. The tiny port has a small but sturdy tender dock.
This is a beautiful tropical island, lush with palm trees and surrounded by surf. Add in the extra interest of the ruins of the prison camp and some nice weather and you have the makings of a very nice port stop. But there is little to do here other than explore the island on foot: no excursions, no busses, no beaches, no zip lines. So that is what we did, just as we did on our first visit, although our routes differed a bit.
We walked down the path to the left in the picture above. Upon entering the forest we encountered some Capuchin monkeys and then some steep stairs to get up to the level that was the center of the prison.
On the way up the hill we spent some time in a small museum, filled mostly with explanatory displays about the history of the prison colony and the prisoners who served time here. At the top we came upon the prison chapel, in good shape (probably restored) and perhaps currently in use. Inside were some interesting paintings on the walls by a prisoner named LaGrange who was a counterfeiter. Across from the church was the hospital, looking well restored at least on the outside, and nearby were some real ruins not restored at all.
We visited the ruins of the main prison, where prisoners were chained to a long bar stretching the length of the room so they couldn’t even walk around their cells.
We visited buildings with cells for prisoners in solitary confinement. Pretty depressing looking cells, tiny and dark. These two buildings were still pretty much intact, in much better shape than the prison walls above.
We visited the much nicer area where the guards and other prison personnel lived. We think the personnel who manage the island and the space port tracking station may live there today. The French Space Agency (CNES) operates its launching facility in Kourou, on the mainland near these islands, and there is a tracking station on Ile Royale. In fact, the French Space Agency is in charge of managing the islands, which are evacuated before launches. Near these guard houses we passed the French launch tracking station.
We walked over to the hotel, which we have read started life as the guards’ mess when the prison was active. Yes, you can book a room and spend your vacation on this island, but why would you want to spend your vacation at an infamous old prison? The hotel has a restaurant and it sits on a hill with a nice vista of the sea and Devil’s island across the water. It also has a souvenir shop, but it was pretty expensive (no competition, we guess). There is a peacock living on the grounds, although we didn’t see it during our visit.
We descended some steep steps behind the hotel toward the coast nearest to Devil’s Island. Devil’s Island is only about 600 feet away from Isle Royale, but the water is very rough and infested with sharks. This is why it was almost impossible to escape. The book & movie Papillon were presented as the memoirs of Henri Charriere, a prisoner who escaped Devil’s Island on pontoons & had many adventures. But it turns out he actually was imprisoned on the mainland and never set foot on the islands (it is nevertheless worth reading). Very few of the 80,000 prisoners sent here over the century of operation ever made it back to France. A majority died on the islands and French law required prisoners to stay in French Guiana after leaving the prison for a number of years equal to their prison terms; if the term was 8 years or more they had to stay for life. And even those who were no longer prohibited from returning to France could not do so unless they could pay their own way. To keep the sharks around prisoners who died (as most of them did eventually) were rowed out from the shore and dumped in the water. This happened often, so the sharks stayed around. Because taking a boat to Devil’s Island was so treacherous there was a cable car built between the islands to transport supplies.
On our way to the coast we encountered another monkey and an agouti (a rodent related to the guinea pig).
At this point Mary & Bill decided to return to the tender pier while Rick & Robert continued the walk around the edge of the island. There were good views of Devil’s Island and a sign warning you to be careful as this is a dangerous area (no kidding!).
Probably the most famous person imprisoned on Devil’s Island was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, framed by the French Army because he was Jewish for an act of espionage committed by another soldier in order to preserve the public image of the army. Sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in 1894 after conviction for treason, he was freed and his army rank restored after about five years because of a campaign of public protest led by Emile Zola, among others, and the discovery of the suppressed evidence that he was innocent. There is a restored stone hut near the water on Devil’s Island that we think was where he was kept, but if not, this was like the one where he lived under close supervision, with no hope of liberation because he was not told of the campaign in France to free him. We do not recall seeing this hut when we were here in 2012, so it may have been restored since then.
On the walk around the rest of the island to the tender dock Rick & Robert encountered a sea turtle in the water and an iguana sunning itself on a rock. When we reached the tender pier Bill & Mary were nowhere to be found. Rick thought we were to meet them here but Robert thought they were going straight back to the ship. Fortunately, Robert had it right.
On the ship that evening the wait staff were dressed in striped prisoner attire and one of the penguins was standing guard over some prisoners outside the dining room. We had some fruit carvings in the Lido during the afternoon. The next day was a sea day and we were invited (along with a number of other passengers) to dinner in the Pinnacle restaurant with the Captain. Everyone who took the full voyage was invited to one of these soirees but as the trip was coming to an end we had not received an invitation. Feeling a little slighted, we asked our travel agent hosts, Henk & Lucia, if they knew why. Before long we received an invitation for March 17. It turned out we were on the list for an earlier Captain’s dinner but the invitation was never delivered to our cabin. This was a good example of why it is good to have a travel agent host aboard, especially one as effective as Henk & Lucia are. Prior to the Pinnacle dinner there was a cocktail reception in the Captain’s quarters. For reasons we won’t go into here, the Prinsendam Captain’s quarters are reputed to be the largest and most lavish in the fleet, and we won’t argue with that since the reception was held in a large room next to his living space equipped with a bar. After this we headed into the Caribbean to visit four islands on the final leg of our journey.
It took a couple of days to sail from Alter do Chao to our next stop, Devil’s Island. These were “sea days” in that we spent the whole time on the ship, but most of the time we were still in the Amazon, so we guess these were really river days, rather than sea days. On March 14 we sailed toward the mouth of the Amazon on the north side of the Ihla de Marajo, the largest river island in the world: it is a little larger than Switzerland. We had sailed into the Amazon along the Para river near Belem, which runs along the south of Marajo. Marajo has a population of more than 450,000 and almost as many water buffalo as people (the police ride them on patrol). Here is a picture of the riverbank taken that morning, but we aren’t sure any more whether it is Marajo or the opposite river bank.
On this day we crossed the equator for the fourth and last time on this voyage. We crossed the line as we sailed past the city of Macapa on the north bank of the Amazon, across from the island. This city of about 500,000 calls itself “the capital of the middle of the world” because the equator runs through it and they have built a monument on the spot where the equator passes through called “Marco Zero.” We didn’t see the monument from the ship, but we passed the equator there anyway.
There is a navy tradition dating back at least 300 years of initiating sailors making their first crossing of the equator. It’s pretty silly, but still fun. The novices, called pollywogs, are brought before King Neptune and his spouse (Queen Neptune?), where they are charged with heinous but hilarious “crimes,” then judged by the ship’s senior officers with a thumbs up or thumbs down. They are forced to kiss a fish then lie on a table while they are slimed with brightly colored yuck. If the judgment is thumbs down, they are forced to jump into the pool; if the judgment is thumbs up they go and side on the side of the pool (those who get thumbs down have the advantage of having the slime rinsed off). After surviving the ceremony the “pollywogs” become “shellbacks,” and aren’t supposed to have to do this again. This is supposed to be done on the first crossing of the equator, but our Captain saved it until the last crossing, apparently unafraid of reprisals from an easily offended Neptune. The passengers got to watch, rather than participate, even if this was their first crossing, and a large crowd turned out to watch the fun under a hot sun.
Polliwogs kneel before King Neptune while the charges are read, then must kiss the fish (while everyone chants “kiss the fish!”).
In the early days the KIng Neptune ceremony was much rougher than today. On Captain Cook’s 1768 voyage to the South Pacific crew members who had not crossed the equator before had to give up their wine allotment for four days or else be ducked three times into the ocean. Joseph Banks, the ship naturalist, recorded that some came out of the ocean “grinning and exulting in their hardiness” while others “were almost suffocated”. On the second voyage of the HMS Beagle in 1832 young Charles Darwin was one of the novices (called griffins at that time).. The griffins were assembled on a dark and hot lower deck, then led by “four of Neptune’s constables” one at a time, blindfolded, up on deck while “buckets of water were thundered all around.” Darwin, the first victim, was “placed on a plank, which could be easily tilted up into a large bath of water – They then lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. – a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me . . most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces” . As late as World War II US Navy ship ceremonies included beatings with wet fire hoses and poking with an electrified piece of metal.
Compared with all that today’s ceremony was pretty tame, with no injuries and a lot of fun. After kissing the fish the pollywogs were led to long metal tables where they had to lie down and be slimed by attendants wearing surgical attire. On one side of the pool the slime was mostly pink and on the other blue. The slimers were very enthusiastic in their work.
After being slimed, those receiving thumbs down from the officers were mercifully “helped” into the pool, while those who received thumbs up had to sit on the side & bake in the sun fully slimed.
As we neared the end they were running out of pollywogs faster than slime, so some people received entire tubfulls.
King Neptune read a final proclamation and he and his consort walked out, signaling the end of the ceremony. As you can imagine, the pool was closed for hours for cleaning and restoration. Everybody received a certificate signed by the Captain and “Neptune Rex” that we had crossed the equator (the certificate inexplicably left out our first crossing in Ecuador).
March 15 was Mary’s birthday. When you have a birthday on a HAL ship a small birthday cake is provided after dinner and the waiters and other dining room staff gather around your table and sing the Indonesian birthday song. This is done with great enthusiasm, including beating on the bottom of pots with wooden spoons. With only 365 days in a year and almost three times that many passengers, this can be heard just about every night and often twice. Mary’s birthday was no exception, although an added touch was that this was a gala night so everyone was dressed up. We had the cake sliced nine ways so there would be some for our waiters too.
Before dinner we listened to some lovely chamber music by George & Agnes (Adagio) in the Explorers’ Lounge and we ended that night with a difficult to identify towel animal. During the afternoon in the Lido the food artist was active.
We are going to cheat a little here in the name of efficiency. The Indonesian Crew Show was presented on March 20, five days later and after several interim stops, but we are going to include it here because it was a sea day and because presenting it out of order will save posting an additional episode. We had seen the Filipino Crew Show much earlier in the voyage, https://baderjournal.com/2019/03/06/antofagasta-chile-2019, while we were in Chile. The Indonesian crew had a band and a singer who, if we remember correctly, doubled as Master of Ceremonies.
There was a performance we have seen before in which the participants wear white gloves and kneel down in a row on some cushions. Then they do synchronized movements to the music. First every other one does a movement with hands up while the other half do one with hands on the floor, then they reverse. Perhaps the pictures will explain it better.
The solo singer who opened the show came back for a number or two with the band. He was quite a showman.
The last performance involved most of the Indonesians on stage along with several people from the audience. Each had a wooden contraption that emitted one note when shaken. Some kind of musical notation was on a plaque that was mounted on a stand in front of them, which indicated when each note was to be played. Songs were played by people shaking their instruments in turn. The passengers then left the stage and the Indonesian performers all took their final bows.
We were on the second tender to Alter do Chao on the morning of March 13. Founded by the Portuguese in 1626, Alter do Chao is on the Tapajos river about 10 miles from Santarem. It is a beach community with what is reputed to be one of the world’s best freshwater beaches, although when the Amazon is at high water those beaches disappear. We were joining another Gil Serique excursion, and it was a pretty long one, so we wanted to be sure we weren’t the last ones there. It turned out there was hardly anyone else on our tender and we had to wait quite a while in a nearly deserted town square at the end of the tender dock before the tour was ready to depart. The town square was surrounded by vendor kiosks that were starting to open when we arrived.
When everyone finally arrived we left in two small buses for the Tapajos National Forest. Unfortunately Gil had another group stopping in Santarem today so he didn’t accompany us, but his compatriots did a fine job organizing the tour and explaining everything. After a fairly long drive to the forest we stopped in what looked like a picnic area then began a lengthy walk in the forest. We saw many pretty flowers and a lot of very tall trees on this walk. We were given explanations about a number of these trees, but sadly we can’t remember most of them any more.
We walked through the woods, stopping at a giant ant or termite nest hanging from a tree. We passed what we think is a mahogany tree and some other trees we can’t identify.
Large, thick vines were climbing up trees and sometimes wrapping around themselves to get through open spaces. Some of them climb all the way to the canopy where they can get more light. As they spread out to other trees they also help tie the treetops together, helping to keep them from falling. We passed one big tree that had fallen. Other trees had what looked like long vines hanging from the tree tops all the way to the ground, but we think these were generated by older vines that had climbed up their trunks. These latter vines are quite strong; they held the weight of one of our guides swinging on them.
We returned to the picnic site, where the guides cracked and roasted some Brazil nuts over an open fire. We had some snacks at the picnic table, and someone found a turtle (tortoise?) who walked along the table.
After we ate & the rain stopped we went for another walk. This time we saw rubber trees, with the characteristic striped scars caused by tapping. They grow tall . . . if you have one (ficus) in your living room, keep an eye on it. We also visited a huge Kapoc tree, whose root structure spreading at the base of the tree was much larger than a person.
We left the woods in our bus and on the way we encountered a porcupine in the middle of the road. He didn’t seem to be going anywhere so we all got out of the bus to take a better look. He was a handsome fellow.
Even with all these people milling around looking at him the porcupine didn’t leave. This seemed odd until we got a look at his other side. There was a large wound just above his hip, which was probably making him weak and lethargic. Eventually he walked slowly away toward the woods, but with no chance of medical care he probably didn’t live much longer.
At the entry station for the national park we had to stop for some paperwork. While we were stopped one of the guides found a really large beetle (it looked a little like one of the aliens in the movie Men In Black). We have seen some large bugs on the ship while in the river, mostly moths, although on our first visit here in 2012 there were some much bigger ones. But this guy gets the award for Best in Show.
If you have been following this blog you know that rubber trees are native to the Amazon area and to nowhere else in the world. Europeans made great fortunes here from rubber, tapped from trees isolated throughout the forest by indigenous people who were effectively enslaved. But in 1876 Henry Wickham gathered and exported some 70,000 seeds to England under false pretenses (Gil Serique’s grandfather assisted him). The seeds were planted in Kew Gardens in London and about 2700 sprouted into trees, which the British sent mostly to Asia to establish their own rubber tree plantations. They far out-produced the Amazon, which still relied upon tapping isolated trees in the woods, and by the 1920’s the British had a virtual monopoly on the world’s rubber supply.
Henry Ford did not like paying the monopoly prices for the rubber he needed for car valves and gaskets so he decided to start his own rubber plantation in the Amazon. He obtained a very large tract of land on the Tapajos River about 190 miles from Santarem and proceeded to erect a plantation town there in 1928. The enterprise was a failure from the start, since Ford wanted a town modeled on the American midwest and required the workers there to eat the kind of food he favored and forgo everything he though was a vice. But the workers were Brazilians rather than Americans, who refused to conform to Ford’s vision. Moreover the rubber trees planted in tight rows like an American orchard fell victim to native blight and pests that did not exist in Asia; the trees isolated from each other in the forest did not have this problem. The town was closed down in 1934 without ever having sent a drop of rubber to America. An excellent book about this enterprise was published a few years ago called Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin (Gil was his guide to the area).
Ford tried again at a spot only 25 miles from Santarem, where the river transport was easier, the land was more level and the soil was very rich. He built another midwestern style town called Belterra, where he tried to accommodate local culture and customs more effectively. This new plantation was able to defeat the blight using more varied cultivars of rubber trees, but doing so was labor intensive and expensive. Although some small groves of rubber trees were established here, World War II diverted the Ford company’s attention to supplying the military and by the end of the war synthetic rubber was available, with which Belterra couldn’t compete. The Ford company sold both locations to the Brazilian government in 1945 for a fraction of what they had cost.
Fordlandia is much too far up the river to visit on a day trip, but we did visit Belterra after leaving the Tapajos national forest. The bus carried us over narrow unpaved roads to what is still a small midwestern style town filled with green and white painted bungalows surrounded by picket fences and gardens. We got out of the bus and walked down one of the main streets.
You can see that these buildings look nothing like the typical architecture of Brazil that we have seen before. In fact, Henry Ford never visited Brazil and these houses were designed by an American to look like the architecture with which he grew up in small town America. Each house is different, yet they are all of a single style and present a very homogenous appearance. It’s actually a little eerie coming upon this neat midwestern town so out of place sitting in the Amazon rainforest, almost like something from a Ray Bradbury story or a Twilight Zone episode. Although Ford’s enterprise here failed this is still a living town with a population between 1,000 and 2,000. Walking down the street we passed the town hall and a lot of rubber trees.
Leaving Belterra we drove on very bumpy unpaved roads back to Alter do Chao. Construction equipment was scattered along the road and we were told that they are in the process of paving it, which will be a big improvement. Gil’s house is by the water about a 15 minute walk from the tender pier. Unfortunately, since Gil was out guiding another group, he wasn’t there with us.
A few things to eat were set out on a table in the patio nearest the water, and a number of attractive flowers were planted on the grounds.
Most interesting, however, was the wildlife. There was an iguana, a white butterfly and a colony of leaf cutter ants, hard at work. Another interesting item was a bullet hole in a table on the covered patio. According to Gil, this was a door in his uncle’s house and the bullet was fired when the police came to arrest him.
After leaving Gil’s house we wandered through the town. It has a pretty laid back beach town vibe, with mostly unpaved streets and few if any sidewalks. We passed the local church, Our Lady of Good Health, on our way to find a shop we had been told about which has a fantastic array of Amazonian wares. We walked back to the tender dock, where Mary phoned home before we tendered back to the ship.
And so ended our last stop in the Amazon, altogether an excellent adventure to be sure. We headed out into the Tapajos River on our way to the Amazon and then to the Atlantic.
We spent a relatively short day anchored in the Amazon outside Parintins, a small town of about 115,000 people located about halfway between Santarem and Manaus. No roads lead here so most visitors and commerce arrive by water. We had seen the town from across the river shortly after leaving Boca de Valeria on our way to Manaus.
Founded in 1852, Parintins sits on Tupinambarana island, which had earlier been inhabited by cabocios (indigenous or mixed race people escaped from Portuguese slave traders). It is famous for the Boi Bumba festival that takes place over 3 days in late June. The third largest festival in Brazil, after the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, the town is so packed with people that many sleep on hammocks on the boats that bring them here. We weren’t there in June, but when cruise ships stop here they put on a much smaller version, lasting only an hour or so, in the town’s convention center near the docks. Although the tickets are expensive (you can only buy them through HAL), this is pretty much the only reason to stop here, so we went.
After breakfast we took a tender to the town dock for a walk around the town before the performance It’s a pleasant town for a walk, if you disregard the oppressive heat.
The Boi Bumba is about a bull that is killed and later resurrected. On the streets were decorations reflecting this story.
We are still in Brazil so there were mosaic sidewalks and we also saw nice flowers in bloom
The most prominent building in the central district is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Carmo atop the hill, which can be seen from the river. It was built in the 1960’s and is pretty simple for a Catholic cathedral in South America.
The Boi Bumba show has open festival seating and you don’t want to arrive at the last minute. So we headed back toward the auditorium with our tickets. On the way we happened past a store with a number of colorful life size (or larger) animal sculptures, possibly papier mache, on the sidewalk. Two of them, the bull and the jaguar, resembled ones we saw later as part of the show. When we got to the auditorium we were surprised at the long line that had already formed down the street, which was lined with vendor stalls. But it turned out that the doors opened shortly after we got in line.
Once inside we found a seat, without much difficulty but about 6 rows back. Our friend Al was smart enough to arrive earlier and was in the front row, taking pictures of the crowd. The painted scenery and some large figures were in place awaiting the show. Finally, our port guide Heather stepped up, dressed in Amazonian attire, to introduce the show.
There are two teams of performers who compete at the festival for the best rating from the judges, Garantido (Red) and Caprichoso (Blue). The audience is divided in half as well, with one side supporting each team (and wearing red or blue team colors). Over three days each team gives three performances of 2.5 hours of continuous music, dance & singing. As we understand it, the story is always the same but each performance presents a different take on it. During each performance that team’s supporters in the audience join in, dancing and singing and waving flags while the half of the audience supporting the other team sits silently (sounds like an American State of the Union speech). In the end, the winning team and its supporters get to have a huge parade through the town and a huge party. This all takes place in the Bumbadromo, a 35,000 seat stadium built in the 1980’s just for the festival.
We got only a taste of all this, with fewer dancers (the festival performance involve some 80 performers each) performing in a much smaller indoor venue for a much shorter time. Our show was presented by members of the Blue team, Caprichoso. Nonetheless, even this truncated version was pretty spectacular. The costumes, makeup and the lights were all very colorful, the music (played by about half a dozen musicians on a stage behind the dancers) was loud and rhythmic and the dancers were extremely energetic. We understand that the dancers are all high school age or a year or two older. It was dark during the performance and everyone was moving constantly, so the pictures aren’t very sharp. But they still give an idea of what this was like.
There were several featured performers, mostly beautiful young girls. How does a small town like this turn out so many beautiful girls in this age group year after year? Most of the time they entered the stage over the top of one of the giant animals puppets; it was quite an effect. You can see in the pictures below that the dancers have changed into different costumes, this time looking like farmers. As we mentioned above, we were seated several rows back so you will see spectators’ heads at the bottom of many of these pictures.
While there apparently are a number of variations, the Boi Bumba story is about a poor ranch hand whose pregnant wife develops a craving for bull’s tongue. To satisfy it he steals and slaughters an ox bull, but it turns out to be the prize bull of the ranch owner. He flees into the forest to escape arrest, where he meets up with a shaman. The shaman invokes all the forest spirits and together they resurrect the bull. The ranch owner is overjoyed and stages a feast to celebrate the return of the bull and the ranch hand. No explanation was provided us about how the parts of the show we saw were related to the elements of the story. But we assume that the scenes with the dancers in straw hats have to do with the ranch and the giant animal puppets represent what happens in the forest. The featured dancer with the white half-mask in the next set of pictures may be the shaman.
From what we have read, Boi Bumba may date back to the mid 18th century in northern Brazil when it was a sort of defused form of social protest in which the poorer classes mocked the wealthy. It may have been brought to the Amazon area in the 1870’s by people escaping a drought to seek work as rubber tappers. There are boi bumba festivals all over Brazil but the one in Parintins is the biggest and best known. The Parintins festival began in 1965 and moved into the Bumbadromo two decades later. The music of the festival is a fusion of European, African and Indigenous styles.
It was explained before that this story centers on a bull that is resurrected from the dead. So in these next pictures you will see him, alive and dancing. The bull enters the stage in a boat.
You will notice that the women have donned fancy dresses, presumably for the final celebration of the return of the farm hand and the bull, and now another featured performer enters the stage underneath a giant butterfly puppet. She kisses the bull and sings to him.
After some more dancing in what looked like indigenous costume, another featured performer entered under what appeared to be giant insect wings, but we didn’t see the insect (maybe she was supposed to be the butterfly). A couple of the other featured performers returned to the stage and there was a loud standing ovation for the final bows.
When the show was over the dancers invited the spectators to come up and dance with them, which some of them did. Apparently this is also how the festival performance ends, with everyone in town joining for a huge party. Altogether, a great time was had by all.
Our departure was set for early afternoon, and there was really nothing to do after the performance that wouldn’t have been an anti-climax, so we headed out to the tenders and returned to the ship. We waved goodbye to Parintins in early afternoon and sailed on down the river toward our last stop on the Amazon river.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
We drove around a bit, passing what looked like a favela neighborhood and a park paved in stone near a bridge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
We spent February 27 in Ilheus, a city of about 225,000 with many beaches lining beautiful blue waters. The city was founded in 1534. In the early 20th century this area was known as the Cocoa Coast & Ilheus was one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil. But the area’s cocoa plantations were devastated by a parasite in 1989 and today tourism is their economic mainstay. Many Brazilians in the area come here for the beaches. But cocoa is still grown here in less abundance than before and a lot of chocolate is sold by tourism vendors in town.
No one who has read this blog will be surprised that we did not go to the beach for the day. Instead, never having been here before, we boarded the HAL shuttle that took us into the city and dropped us off in front of the Catedral Sao Sebastiao (Cathedral of St Sebastian), seat of the Roman Catholic diocese that was begun in 1931 and dedicated in 1967. An imposing edifice with four pointed towers and two domes, it could be seen from the ship as well as around the downtown area.
In front of the cathedral was a guy wearing an outsize straw sombrero; we aren’t sure what he was selling, if anything, but it was pretty amusing. We walked up the street to the house of Jorge Amado, built in 1926, now a museum. Amado was Brazil’s top novelist, publishing 21 of them that were translated into 49 languages. Several became popular films, notably Dona FLor and her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. The latter is set in Ilheus, where one of the principal characters owns the Bar Vesuvio (Vesuvius Bar), built in the 1920’s, which we passed on the way to Amado’s house. Amado died in 2001.
The Ilheus Municipal Theater was built in 1932 and was a venue for a variety of performances, musical as well as theatrical. It was once called the “Cine Teatro Ilheus,” which suggests that movies were also shown here. Inside the entrance is an interesting mural and we were able to go up the stairs to see the performance space.
The Palacio Paranagua was opened in 1907 to serve as the city hall, which it still does. It is the leading example of the opulent architecture of the days of the Cocoa barons. The building was built on the site of the ruins of a Jesuit school, but when the town was originally founded this hill was used by the indigenous people as a cemetery. We were able to go inside but there wasn’t much to see. The windows on the upper floor, however, gave a nice view of the city looking back along the way we had come, all the way to the cathedral.
We walked on, passing among other things a long stone wall covered in wall art & a telephone pole with a bewildering tangle of wire. It took a while to find it, but we were finally able to visit the Igreja Matriz de Sao Jorge dos Ilheus. This small church is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built either in the 16th or 17th century, depending on your source. When we visited there was no going inside as it appeared that the entire interior of the church was being completely renovated. Piles of sand and rock were outside and the inside was filled with construction wood.
Our next objective was, as usual, the public library. The building was completed in 1915 and originally served as a school. The school’s log is built into the top of the building over the main entrance. In 2002 it was converted into a library and archive. We have read that it also briefly housed the municipal government while the Palacio Paranagua was being renovated. It is a nice building and we went inside where there was a two story courtyard, but we didn’t get to see where they keep the books.
After this we walked back into town toward the shuttle bus stop by the cathedral. On the way we stopped at the Mercado de Artesanato (Artisan Market), but we were disappointed at the high prices and lack of anything we really wanted. At an intersection on the way we saw a neighborhood of colorful houses on the side of a hill and there were several mosaic sidewalks. We also repassed several things we had seen earlier. As we waited for the shuttle we saw the wide and inviting beach nearby and some flowers and a colorful bird. Finally, as we walked to the ship we passed some bushes with striking pink flowers. That was the end for this small city, pleasant enough to stroll around but nothing really show stopping to see.
We spent our second day in Rio, February 25, exploring the city on foot along with our friends Robert and Bill. Because our ship was docked much further down to pier than last time we were here our GPS app took us down some streets with which we were not previously familiar. We crossed some tram tracks and also a mosaic sidewalk with a pattern similar to the one at Ipanema beach. This probably wasn’t the safest route (although we had no trouble). At one point we were waiting to cross the street and Robert was consulting a map with his small camera hanging from his wrist when a local woman who spoke no English approached and indicated urgently with gestures that he should keep his camera in his pocket or in his hand at all times.
Walking down a street we think is Rua dos Passos we happened upon a church set right up to the sidewalk called Igreja do Santissimo Sacramento da Antiga Se (Church of the Blessed Sacrament of the Old See). This congregation has its roots in the 16th century and the current church was built from 1819 to 1859, when it was consecrated. The interior is a very large and airy space with walls covered in carving and other art. We stepped inside but couldn’t explore the church because the floors had just been mopped. The outside, however, was very sad because the walls and even the sculptures set into the facade were covered with very ugly graffiti. Very little respect for what would otherwise be a beautiful landmark on an otherwise nondescript street. The sidewalk in front of the church was covered in black, white & red mosaic.
Another example of what you may see walking off the beaten path, we came upon the Catedral Presbiteriana do Rio (Presbyterian Cathedral of Rio). This is somewhat unusual in what is a mostly Catholic country and the building was unlike most of the large churches we saw in Brazil in that it was built in a gothic style and the interior is relatively plain and all white. The oldest Presbyterian church in Brazil, it was opened in 1874 and has been renovated several times since, most extensively in 1925. There is a large garden in front that has a sculptural depiction of a pastor preaching to his flock.
Our first objective today was the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro. Opened in 1979, it is in a very modern style inspired by the Mayan pyramids in Mexico and does not look like any other church you may have seen. It is quite massive – almost 350 feet in diameter and 250 feet tall – and the inside is all one huge room. The interior is lighted by a skylight in the shape of a cross and four gigantic stained glass windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. There is a pipe organ behind the pulpit and a gold cross hanging over it that looks like it is floating in the air. Nearby, but not actually attached to the cathedral, is a large tower topped by a cross that we think has either bells or speakers on each level. When looking at it from the right direction you can see Cristo Redentor far behind it on its hill.
On our last visit in 2012 many of the downtown buildings were being renovated for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics to be held in Rio, and could not be entered. That included the national library and Mary was particularly interested in seeing the reputedly impressive interior. So we walked over to Cinelandia quare to visit it, along with the other important buildings there. We walked through a tunnel under a highway that had some intriguing wall art and another that had some homeless people asleep under the graffiti. At one point we decided we were headed in the wrong direction & had to turn around, but Bill is a fast walker and he was almost a block ahead of us and never noticed that we were not with him. Robert had to run all that way, in suffocating heat and humidity, just to let him know we were going a different way. He was not happy.
We arrived eventually at Cinelandia square to visit the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil. While the library’s roots date back to 1810 when the Portuguese national library was transferred to Rio, the current building opened in 1910. This is the largest library in South America and the seventh largest in the world with some 9 million items in its collection. It supposed to be quite a sight inside, but we have no pictures of the library, inside or out, to show you. Why, you ask? Because I just found out, as I was writing this paragraph, that the building we thought was the library was actually the Camara Municipal do Rio de Janeiro! It currently houses the city council and the National Library is about a block away. The Camara building was closed when we were there because of the construction of tents for Carnaval celebrations and we felt bad because we thought we had been denied entry to the library on two visits seven years apart. But who knows whether we could have visited inside the library if we had actually found it? Anyway the Camara Municipal was itself a beautiful building.
Across the street is the striking Teatro Municipal with its partially gilded roof. Opened in 1909, this is largely a venue for ballet and classical music, although in the past it has presented opera as well. Its architectural design was inspired by the Paris Opera. Sadly, this building also was not open the day we visited, so we were unable to see the reputedly beautiful interior.
This plaza had mosaic sidewalks in several different patterns
Well, by this time we had done quite a bit of walking on what we may have mentioned was a particularly hot and humid day (big contrast to Antarctica just a few weeks earlier). If we had known the library was just down the street we surely would have gone there. But we didn’t know, so we hailed a cab back to the port and reboarded the ship. When we reached the port Bill & Rick went back to the ship while Mary & Robert perused the many vendor kiosks set up outside the entry to the pier. While looking at a vendor’s wares Robert spotted a guy in the process of stealing jewelry from the vendor’s table. He called out & the guy dropped what he had taken and ran. There were no police around so he got away but Robert was a hero to the vendors nonetheless.
Before we left there was a sail away party by the pool on the lido deck. The band that usually played in the Ocean bar – easily the best Ocean bar band we have seen – played on deck for the party. And of course the ship penguins participated, wearing their Carnaval beads.
We saw in the last episode how beautiful the sunrise sail in to Rio was. We were sailing away just before sunset, retracing pretty much the same route, so this gives a different perspective on the scene. It was gray & a little foggy when we sailed away and birds were again circling overhead.
As we sailed out into the bay we passed the long bridge across the bay, in front of which is an island with a marina, then a group of four tugboats (perhaps standing ready in case we needed help?). We had a last look at the favela by the port and we passed the old customs house.
We passed the small airport again and saw a plane just passing Corcovado mountain after takeoff. We also passed what looked like an offshore oil derrick as we sailed toward Sugar Loaf mountain.
We approached Sugar Loaf as the sun was setting, and could see Cristo Redentor all lit up to stand out in the dark.
We sailed around Sugar Loaf and headed out into the Atlantic. We had a view of the back of Cristo Redentor with Copacabana and Atlantic Avenue stretching out beneath it. And there was one last gasp from the setting sun. Goodbye to Rio!
We reached Rio de Janeiro early on the morning of February 24. When the Portuguese first visited this area in January, 1502, they thought that Guanabara Bay was a wide river which they named the January River (Rio de Janeiro). The first settlement here was in 1565.
Sailing into Rio is (in our opinion) one of the great sail-ins in the world and well worth arising before dawn to see, as we discovered on our first visit here in 2012:
So we did so, arriving on deck just as we reached Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1200 foot peak rising dramatically from the water. Beyond it is Corcovado mountain, topped by the 125 foot tall Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, which is lighted at night. This area is particularly dramatic in the warm and slanting (from left in most of these pictures) early morning sun.
We sailed past a fort built by the water to defend the bay. We think this is Fortaleza de Sao Joao (Fort of St John), which was first built in the 16th century.
While a large international airport is located on the north side of the city, there is a small airport right on the water limited to domestic flights, mostly to and from Sao Paulo. First built in the 1930’s, Santos Dumont Airport was named for Alberto Santos Dumont who Brazilians insist conducted the first heavier than air flight in 1906. They dismiss the Wright Brothers (Rick’s homeboys) who are recognized by the rest of the world for their flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 because their plane flew from a rail on the ground rather than flat on the ground itself. Go figure. Anyway, we could see planes descending past Sugar Loaf to land at this airport and also taking off; from the water it looks like it barely has enough room for such activities.
Nothing to say about them, but here are a few panoramic photos of the city in the early morning light as we sailed past toward the port.
As we neared the turn into the port we passed Ilha Fiscal, an island just off shore on which sits a fantastic green building that was once the customs house, thus the island’s name (it was originally called Rat Island). Opened in April, 1889, six months later it was the scene of a large ball with several thousand in attendance. It is now remembered as the last ball of the Empire because six days later a revolution established a republican form of government. Today it is a museum.
We sailed into the port, where three huge cruise ships were already there, two MSC and one Celebrity if we remember correctly. That meant we had to dock a bit further away to the north. We passed some ornate churches in the neighborhood (Rio is full of ornate churches). The dock is lined with long warehouse-like buildings in a reddish color, one of which was the terminal. Most of the staterooms on our side of the ship looked out on one of these buildings, but ours was luckily placed overlooking a square between two of the buildings with a huge wall painting on a building across the way. This area has been renovated in recent years and looks very nice. There were birds flying above, notably one kind with swallow tails, and from our balcony we could just see Cristo Redentor almost (but not quite) obscured by a building. On a hill behind the port is a favela, or shanty town, on which poor folks have built brick homes, some in a second or third floor above the first family’s. Many favelas have been under the control of drug lords and can be very dangerous to visit on your own, but there was a push to clean them up before the 2016 Olympics were held here and we have read that some of them may have been gentrified in recent years.
We participated in an excursion to Cidade do Samba (Samba City), a complex of warehouse looking buildings not far from the port where the best Samba schools have their quarters. There is a large favela right next to it, which we think is the same one we saw from the port and the oldest favela in the city, founded in the late 19th century by former slaves who had served in the military.
Each year during Carnaval the Samba schools compete with each other and are ranked by judges. The top schools get their choice of space at Samba City and if your ranking goes down you will probably have to move to a less desirable space. Where do they move? Dandara’s response was “who cares!” We were told that the one we visited,Grande Rio Youth Samba School, had been ranked #1 for a number of years. We walked through the warehouse space on the first floor where the floats for the upcoming 2019 Carnaval were kept, but these were secret so no pictures could be taken. Upstairs were a number of exhibits, mostly of costumes from Carnavals past, which we were free to photograph.
We were treated to a lecture about the history of Samba & Carnaval in a room with walls lined with old photos. Samba grew from the music and dance of African slaves, although there have been other influences since. It is very rhythmic, loud and energetic. And of course it features women in spectacular but revealing costume, often dancing on very high heeled platform shoes. We were told that the schools work literally year round preparing their Carnaval presentation. Dandara said that preparation for next year’s Carnaval would start on the Monday after this year’s Carnaval. Nothing is reused from year to year; all the clothing and floats are made anew. It sounds like it takes a very high level of work and dedication. After the history lesson we were led into another room where everyone (yes, everyone) was outfitted in old Carnival costumes (we didn’t get to pick out our own). Then there was a demonstration of Samba, with just two people in this small room. A good time was had by all.
Before leaving we spent some time in a lounge where Caipirinhas and munchies were served and you could buy souvenirs. The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national drink, based on a liquor made from sugarcane. They were very good & refreshing.
We drove across town to Copacabana beach. On the way we passed more favelas & the upscale residential streets of the Corcovado neighborhood.
Copacabana beach is almost 2 miles long and has a wide expanse of soft white sand. But it is famous not only for the beach but for the Portuguese style mosaic sidewalk that runs the length of the beach along Atlantic Avenue. The undulating pattern, designed to evoke ocean waves, is beautiful and mesmerizing. Made of small black and white stones, it must have taken quite a lot of work to create.
It is interesting how different the swirling pattern can look depending on the angle from which you are viewing it.
On the opposite side of Avenida Atlantica from the beach is a long row of mid-rise buildings, most housing hotels and upscale condos (we were told on our last visit that a mid-level condo in a building across from Ipanema beach had just sold for 6 million US dollars, and that was 7 years ago so the prices have undoubtedly risen substantially). One notable building there is the art deco Copacabana Palace, a luxury hotel built in 1923 when it was the only large building in the area, surrounded only by single family houses. Ten years later it was featured in the filming of Flying Down To Rio with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. Long considered one of the best hotels in South America, it has been a magnet for the rich and famous for decades. Notably, in 2006 the Rolling Stones stayed there and performed a free concert on the beach that we have read attracted more than a million fans.
On the day of our visit it was sunny & hot, so a lot of people were out on the beach, sitting under umbrellas, playing volleyball, walking around and buying refreshments from the many kiosks. Like all beaches in Brazil, there is never a charge to use it. Several pipes rose out of the sand that constantly pumped out fresh water. Rio’s beaches are notorious for scavengers, so we were told you should never put any of your possessions down, even when you are standing right by them, or they could be gone in an instant. So we kept our cameras in our hands and used them to excess.
Leaving the beach we drove back across town to the port. We passed more favelas and other buildings, including the Sambadromo, where the Samba schools’ performances are judged during Carnaval.
When we arrived at the port we found huge crowds of cruise ship passengers milling around and standing in very long lines to have their credentials checked so the could enter the dock area. Most of these people were headed for the other large cruise ships on the dock. We walked up and down the fence (a very long walk in the suffocating heat) looking unsuccessfully for a quicker way in. Across from the dock was some fantastic wall art, most depicting diverse ethnicities, that we enjoyed while waiting to get back in.
We finally made it back on the ship. As we arrived for dinner the ship penguins were all dressed up, apparently unaware that they would not be the ones handing out the Academy Awards that night.
Since we would be staying in Rio over night, there was a show on the ship of the local music and dance. So what was it, you ask? With Carnaval just days away, what could it be but a samba performance. First on stage were the musicians, mostly drums and other rhythm, who demonstrated their stamina by standing on stage playing nonstop for the entire show.
Then the female dancers emerged on stage. They wore a variety of flamboyant and revealing costumes and their dancing to the high energy percussive music was extremely energetic.
Some male dancers dressed in green came on stage to dance with a couple of new women, one also in green and one in black.
Here are some closer pictures of these women dancing in their Carnaval costumes.
All of the dancers were on stage for the finale.
All in all, this was an entertaining and energetic show & everyone had a good time. But we thought the Samba show we saw on Prinsendam during our 2012 was decidedly better. Perhaps it was the audience participation or just the fact that this was new to us then. That is not meant to detract from these dancers and musicians who clearly gave their all to entertain us, and entertain us they did.
So that was the end of this extremely long and rewarding first day in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. We went to bed happy in the knowledge that we still had another day to go!
We arrived at Ilhabela, just a short way up the coast from Santos, on the morning of February 23. Ilhabela is an archipelago about four miles off the coast of Brazil. Discovered for Europeans by Amerigo Vespucci in 1502, the largest island that we visited is today a beach and watersport resort that is very popular with vacationers from Sao Paulo (127 miles away) and Rio de Janeiro (210 miles away). In season it can get very crowded on weekends but we were there on Saturday and there were few visitors in evidence other than ship passengers. It is no wonder this is a popular getaway, with vast amounts of blue water and many miles of beaches.
This little town (the whole archipelago has a permanent population of about 32,000) definitely has the laid back ambience of most beach towns. It is small enough that no transportation is needed in town, although we understand that most visitors spend their time on or under the water, on the beach, or hiking the nature trails that abound on the island. The tender dropped us off on the dock right in the center of town, and on the other side of a small park is the church. The town & especially the church were decorated with long streams of flags, but we don’t know whether that is normal or perhaps it was a holiday.
The Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora D’Ajuda (Church of Our Lady of Help) was first built at the end of the 18th & beginning of the 19th centuries by slave labor. It was significantly renovated in the 1950’s. Sitting on top of a hill, its blue and white facade dominates the town and there is a very nice view from its veranda.
At the bottom of the front stairway of the church is a large sculpture of Jesus on the cross, much larger than life. To the right of the cross is a yellow castle style building that was the home of something called the Chain and Forum. It was transformed from an earlier building in 1913 and restored in 2001; today it houses a visitor center.
We walked down to visit the public library, somewhat hidden in the Cultural Center. It was small but light and airy (maybe because hardly anyone was there) with a small patio outside a glass wall.
Next door we happened upon the small Waldemar Belisario museum. Established in 1968, the museum is devoted to local artist Belisario, who was born in 1895 and lived in Ilhabela from 1929 until his death in 1983. It was highlighted by a set of four stained glass windows, a room full of Belisario’s paintings (no photos allowed) and a room of photographs that appears to be a temporary installation. Worth seeing if you ever find yourself in this town.
That was the last of the landmarks we wanted to see so we walked around the streets of the town for a while. There were quite a few restaurants and stores, most of which were selling souvenirs and clothing of the type you would expect in a beach town. The streets were surprisingly empty, though.
After a few hours we were finished with this small town, so we walked back down to the docks. After spending a little time there looking at the water and scenery we boarded the tender and returned to the ship. Tomorrow would be a much fuller day.
We reached Santos, our first stop in Brazil, on February 22. Santos is a city of around 450,000 built mostly on an island. Founded by the Portuguese in 1546, Santos has the largest port in South America. It is also the sea gateway to Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
We had been told we would be docking near the old part of the city within walking distance of some of the cities more popular landmarks. But when we got there it turned out we were docked in a new cruise terminal that was on the other side of the island. HAL’s only shuttle went to a shopping mall, which didn’t do anything for us. So after breakfast we took the intra-port shuttle to the terminal, where we obtained some local currency after an unsuccessful struggle with the money machines and a long wait at the money kiosk. We ran into our friends Bill & Robert at the terminal and the four of us took a taxi to the old town.
Our first stop was at the Coffee Museum. A hundred years ago Santos was thriving on the exports of Brazilian coffee to the rest of the world. The coffee exchange where this coffee was bought & sold, which now houses the museum, was built in 1922 and operated until the 1950’s. Even today Brazil is the top producer of coffee and the second largest consumer.
The center of the building is the large Trading Room, with 81 connected walnut chairs arranged in a semi-circle for the president of the exchange, his assistants and 70 coffee traders. The floor is made of inlaid marble imported from Europe, with a star of David in the center. In the ceiling, two stories above the floor, is a stained glass window by acclaimed Brazilian artist Benedicto Calixto that represents the history of the city and the country. Along the wall behind the president’s chair is a tryptic by the same artist. On the second floor the room is ringed with balconies where those purchasing and selling coffee watched the proceedings. It is quite a space.
The rest of the museum, in some other rooms on the first floor and most on the second floor, contain artifacts of the history of coffee in Brazil, including old tools, documents, photos, baskets, etc. Unfortunately, few of these have explanations in English and we do not read Portuguese. The second floor also has a large diorama reproducing the picture in the stained glass window, some other dioramas for explanation and fun, and an Information and Document Center (aka library) with some 500 books along with other documents and publications, all about coffee and some dating back to 1889.
After leaving the museum we walked down some of the streets in the neighborhood of the somewhat restored old town.
Pele was probably the all time best soccer player and still the most famous even though he retired more than 40 years ago. He began playing for the Santos team at the age of 15 and for the Brazilian national team the next year. In 2014 the Pele Museum was opened in an 1865 building called Casaroes do Valongo, which had been damaged severely by fire and completely rebuilt in the original style. The inside is a huge open space with several levels that do not reach the walls. You start at the top and walk down as Pele’s life and career unfold in front of you. There are artifacts, but what we saw was mostly enlarged photos, videos and explanatory texts, most only in Portuguese. From one window was a nice view of the side of a small mountain, probably Monte Serrat, with a neighborhood of houses on top. It would all probably be a lot more interesting if you are a soccer fan & could read Portuguese, neither of which applies to us.
Apparently the first trams in Santos were set up in 1861 and there was an electric tram system here from 1909 until 1971 with trams built in Scotland. In 2000 a new tram line through the old town from the Valongo train station (built in 1867) was inaugurated for visitors to the city using some of the original trams. We took the approximately 40 minute ride, narrated by a guide who only spoke Portuguese so we can’t tell you much about what we saw. We did ride past the city hall, however, which is in the Jose Bonifacio Palace. The tram is noisy & very slow, an interesting but far from exciting ride.
So that was enough. While not one of the best places we visited on this voyage, we had a pleasant and interesting stay here. We all piled into a taxi for the long drive back to the ship, and after we set sail that evening we ended the day with a dramatic sunset,
February 19 was our second day in Buenos Aires. There was an earlier settlement here from 1536 to 1542, but Buenos Aires was permanently founded in 1580. It is the capital of Argentina and has a population of almost 3 million, with close to 16 million in the metropolitan area.
We took the ship’s shuttle bus downtown to Plaza General San Martin & walked to Plaza Lavalle. On the way we passed the Torre Monumental. Built by the Argentine British community using bricks & stone shipped from England, it was originally called the Torre de los Ingleses (Tower of the English), but after the Falklands War in 1982 its name was changed. Intended for the celebration of the centennial of the May Revolution of 1810, it was not actually completed until 1916. We crossed Avenida 9 de Julio, an enormous avenue with an impressive view that is more than 100 yards wide. It is divided into several parallel streets with the metrobus running down the middle and it often takes two or three changes of the traffic lights to get all the way across. First planned in 1888 the avenue was not completed until the 1980’s.
Lavalle plaza was named in 1878 for Juan Lavalle, a leader in the war for independence that ended in 1825. The park is three blocks long and contains a number of trees more than 100 years old. It was the site of a massacre of more than 300 demonstrators in 1890. In the middle of the park is a very tall monument to General Lavalle, who was a direct descendant of Hernan Cortez. Erected in 1887, it consists of a sculpture of the general on top of a pillar. The red cupola to the right of the statue is what remains of the Mirador Massue, a 1903 apartment complex. To the left behind the monument is the National Palace of Justice, opened in 1910, which houses the Supreme Court.
Across the street from the plaza is the Sinagoga de la Congregacion Israelita Argentino built between 1897 and 1932 Some quarter of a million Jews live in greater Buenos Aires, the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the eighth largest in the world. You may notice that the mosaic in the last picture looks like Mr Spock’s Vulcan salute from Star Trek. No, this is not a Vulcan temple. Leonard Nimoy, who was Jewish, actually took that from a Jewish prayer ceremony he remembered from his childhood.
Two important theaters sit on the edge of the plaza. Teatro Nacional Cervantes opened in 1921 and was extensively renovated after a fire in 1961. It houses the National Stage Theater & the National Comedy Theater. The larger Teatro Colon is the main opera house of Buenos Aires & is considered one of the great opera houses of the world. It opened in 1908 on the site of an earlier theater that had opened in 1857. The Cervantes theater was not open to visitors when we were there. We had planned to tour the Teatro Colon, but when we were in line for tour tickets we were told that an electrical failure meant that the lights would not be working in the theater. Concluding that there was no point in touring the opera house with the lights off, we walked away disappointed.
Leaving Plaza Lavalle, we trekked on toward Plaza de la Republica where the Obelisk of Buenos Aires is located. One of the main icons of the city, it sits in the middle of the wide Avenida 9 de Julio and is visible up and down the avenue. Built in 1936, the Obelisk is 220 feet tall. The Argentine flag was first raised at a church located here on August 23, 1812, by its designer General Manuel Belgrano.
We walked on to the Café Tortoni, a venerable coffee house that is also a national historic monument. Opened in another location in 1858, and named after a popular café in Paris, it was moved to its present location on Avenida de Mayo in 1889. The current entrance was opened in 1898. The floor above the café contains the Tango Museum. The café’s interior is supposed to be quite impressive, but we didn’t have time to spend here if we were going to make it to the last shuttle bus back to the ship. Maybe next time.
We walked through the streets toward the Plaza de Mayo. The streets of Buenos Aires are crowded and noisy, in stark contrast to Montevideo, but the architecture is interesting, particularly the wrought iron balconies.
As we approached Plaza de Mayo we encountered the Metropolitan Cathedral on our left. Completed in the 1860’s, the Cathedral is on a site set aside for the church at the founding of the city in 1580, which held several earlier churches and cathedrals that didn’t hold up. Frescoes were added to the interior walls in 1907 and the floor was covered in mosaics in 2010. The main gilt wood altar and the pulpits date from the 1780’s. The cathedral has a beautiful pipe organ built in 1871 with more than 3500 pipes.
Jose de San Martin was one of the leaders of the South American fight for independence from Spain. He was the leader of the successful liberation of Argentina and Chile and participated in the liberation of Peru. After an unsuccessful conference with Simon Bolivar at Guayaquil in 1822 in which he sought to join forces, San Martin suddenly resigned his command and in 1824 moved to Europe. He died there in 1850 and was buried in France.
In 1880 his remains were moved to a mausoleum in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires. It is fashioned with variously colored marble. His black sarcophagus is on a raised platform surrounded by three female figures representing Argentina, Chile and Peru, the three largest regions whose freedom from Spanish colonialism is attributed to him. At the door is an honor guard.
Plaza de Mayo was set out in 1884 on an area that included the Plaza de Armas of the original settlement. It has been the location of a good deal of political activity over the years. In recent times it was the location of the weekly vigils of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from 1973 to 2006. These were women whose adult children had been “disappeared” during the military dictatorship and they were demanding information about the missing people and exposing the regime’s crimes to the world. They wore white headscarves embroidered with their children’s names to symbolize the diapers of their missing children, they marched 2 by 2 in silence. Some of them also “disappeared” and several were later found to have been murdered. Today the area where they held their demonstrations is decorated with stylized headscarves.
In the middle of the plaza is the Piramide de Mayo, a statue representing Liberty standing on top of a pyramidal base. First erected in 1812 to celebrate the first anniversary of the May Revolution that set off the war for independence, the monument has been renovated several times and was moved some 60 yards to its current location in 1912. In 2005 the ashes of Azucena Villaflor, founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who had been murdered by the military dictatorship, were buried at the base of the pyramid. In front of the pyramid is an equestrian statue of General Manuel Belgrano, a hero of the wars of independence, holding aloft the Argentine flag which he had designed. It was unveiled in 1873.
At the end of the plaza behind the piramide is the Casa Rosada, the seat of the executive branch of the government. This spot began as a fort in the original 16th century settlement and has been changed a number of times. The current building was completed in 1898. The building was first painted pink in the 1860’s, and we have seen two explanations: 1) that it was intended as a blending of the colors of the two major political parties, the Whites and the Reds, or 2) that cow’s blood was included in the original paint to protect from damage from humidity. The balcony to the left of the central portico has been the scene of many political speeches to crowds gathered in the plaza, notably by Juan and Eva Peron.
So by now we were pretty much done in. A lot of walking on a very hot day (what a contrast to Antarctica, less than three weeks earlier) will do that to you. And we still had to hoof it all the way back to Plaza San Martin to meet the shuttle bus before the deadline. We wanted to mail some post cards, but when we finally found a post office it didn’t sell postcards. It’s amazing how hard it is in a city this size to find postcards! While searching for the post office we came across some more interesting buildings, including Centro Naval, a social club founded in 1882 by Argentine Navy officers. And back at Plaza San Martin, where we narrowly missed one shuttle bus and had a lengthy wait for another, we came across a metal sculpture of butterflies.
Exhausted as we were when we reached the ship, we were glad there would be two sea days before our next port. So we said goodbye to Argentina and headed north toward Brazil.
On February 18 we were docked in Buenos Aires, about 125 miles up river and on the other side from Montevideo. We had visited here for two days in 2012:
So we decided to spend the first day getting out of the city on an excursion to visit an Estancia for a look at gaucho life. This started with a long bus ride through the country with a voluble guide who spent quite a while demonstrating the venerable rituals surrounding the drinking of mate. When we finally reached the estancia we were served wine or beer along with delicious empanadas.
Historically an estancia was like a ranch set in the pampas, a grassy area of Argentina where the animals could profitably graze. Gauchos are the Argentine version of cowboys, with such skills as horse riding and breeding and hunting with the bolo, a three cord weapon with a ball or stone attached on the end. The one we visited plainly dates back to that time and was once a working ranch but appears today to be maintained as a place for tourists. But it is well maintained to give a taste of the gaucho lifestyle.
The original ranch house is maintained as a museum containing furniture and other items dating back 100 years or more. It includes a fully decked out kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, dining room and chapel. On the front porch was a chair apparently made from the bones of a steer and it had a nice view of a large grassy yard and a stand of trees.
Leaving the house, we walked around the grounds for a while, taking in the trees, grass and flowers, and then walked over to the horse shelter. We didn’t see any cattle or sheep here, but there were plenty of horses. This grassy land is about all we would see of the pampas, a 300,000 square mile area in central Argentina of grasslands and few trees known for cattle raising. There were a lot of trees here, but they were probably planted by the folks who lived here.
The gauchos spent a lot of time leading horses around, apparently to demonstrate what they do on an estancia. There were two horse activities for the visitors, riding a horse in a group walking slowly around a track and riding in a horse-drawn cart. We did the latter – interesting, but too slow to be exciting.
We sat in some stands to watch the horse demonstrations. First the gauchos herded the horses to trot in a large circle. The horses probably do this every day so prodding them into line is likely not too hard. The best part of this demonstrations was a couple of dogs who lounged in the shade of the stands until the horses started to move, then shot out through the hedge to help guide the horses, with great enthusiasm and having a great time.
More interestingly, the gauchos engaged in a competition in which they would gallop at speed under a log from which hung some small rings. Using a lance about the size of a large fountain pen they would stand up in the saddle and try to lance the ring, often successfully. Giving the ring to a lady in the audience, it was explained, entitled the gaucho to a kiss from the recipient. It didn’t look easy (spearing the ring, not the kiss).
It was time for luncheon so we headed back to the main building. On one side of the entrance patio was a gaucho store (probably a mockup rather than a working store). The main building on the other side housed a vast dining room; it appears we were lucky because on some days they must host several times as many people as were in our party, the only one there today. We walked past the barbecue and a circle of bone chairs on our way in and sat at the long tables where we were served wine, beer and steaks or lamb. The steaks were pretty good, but the Argentines cook it longer than we prefer.
While we ate there was entertainment on a small stage. A singer & guitar player and some dancers. The dancers in particular were very good, particularly the one who danced at the end with a couple of boleros. We were behind a pillar, so photos were difficult to get.
Back on the ship this evening we had another show of Argentine dancing, including tango, gaucho style, drumming and bolo dancing. The three performers were quite good, but we would have been more impressed if we hadn’t seen the dancing demonstration at the estancia, which was at least as good (if less dramatic in presentation). Unfortunately, the lighting was pretty dark and I probably left my camera on the wrong setting, so the pictures aren’t great. Here are some anyway, to end our first day in Buenos Aires.
February 17 found us in Montevideo, the capital & largest city (1.4 million) of Uruguay. Founded in 1826, Montevideo is located near where the Rio de la Plata enters the Atlantic Ocean. It Is a city of diverse architecture and a relaxed atmosphere, an excellent city for walking. Which is what we did.
We have encountered Admiral Graf von Spee twice in earlier episodes, in the Falklands and Robinson Crusoe Island. Montevideo was the site of a famous 1939 incident, in the second month of World War II, involving a German war ship named after him. After the “Battle of the River Plate” against three British warships, the Graf Spee was effectively forced into the harbor of Montevideo while the British ships (one of which was effectively out of commission) guarded the river’s exit to the ocean. Uruguay was neutral at that time, though friendly to the British, and the rules of war gave the Germans only 72 hours to either leave the harbor or be taken into custody for the duration of the war. A disinformation operation by the British convinced the Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, that several more ships had joined the two guarding the river, so having suffered significant damage in the battle he decided he could not break out of the harbor. Rather than allow the ship to be interned by the Uruguayans, who probably would have allowed British access to it, he decided to scuttle the ship. After offloading all but a skeleton crew he sailed out three miles into the estuary, set explosives around the ship on a delayed fuse, then abandoned the ship in an Argentine boat. The ship’s explosion was spectacular and, because the water depth was only 36 feet, its antenna ended up sticking out of the water, where we believe it can still be seen, although we haven’t seen it. Captain Langsdorff killed himself in his hotel room a couple of days later.
As you leave the port there is a small garden of artifacts, one of which is the anchor of the Graf Spee.
We walked through the old city, an attractive area of palm trees, public art and old buildings with sculptural architectural details, which is really characteristic of the city as a whole. But it was Sunday morning and the streets were eerily empty of people.
We came to the Plaza Zabala, named for the founder of Montevideo, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. In the center is an equestrian statue of Zabala. Standing on our veranda on the ship this morning, Rick was startled by a whole flock of parakeets flying right by our stateroom. We have seen parakeets in cages before, of course, but never a flock of these colorful birds in the wild. Unfortunately, it happened too fast to get the camera for a picture and it never recurred. But here in Zabala plaza we did see some wild parakeets high in the branches of a tree. Some brown birds were busily eking out a living on the ground, but we don’t know what they are called.
We proceeded on to Plaza Constitucion, the first plaza built in the city and named for the Spanish constitution of 1812. This is our second visit to Montevideo and last time there was a lively flea market covering most of this plaza.
But that only happens on Saturday and this time our visit was on Sunday, so the park was quiet and serene, at least in the morning. It is a nice place to sit on a bench under the trees and relax. In the center is a fountain covered with sculptures that we were told during our last visit was a memorial to the establishment of the city’s water and sewage system in the 19th century.
Along one side of the plaza is the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral. Built between 1790 and 1804 on the location of an older brick church that opened in 1740, the Cathedral is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
Plaza Independencia is the central plaza of Montevideo. It sits between Ciudad Vieja (the old city) and downtown Montevideo. A replica of one of the gates to the old walled city sits on the original gate’s foundation at one side of the plaza, and the town’s main drag, 18 de Julio Avenue, begins on the other side. It was first built in the 1830’s after the town decided in 1829 to scrap its walls and extend the city into an area beyond that they called the new city.
In the center of the plaza is a large equestrian statue of Jose Artigas, leader of the original independence movement in the early 1800’s. We encountered another statue of him in Punta del Estes. Beneath this statue, which was erected in 1977, is a mausoleum containing his remains.
On one side of the plaza is the Estevez Palace. Built in 1873, it served as the office of the president of Uruguay from 1890 to 1985. It now houses a museum of the presidency. Next to it is the Torre Ejecutiva, where the president’s offices are now located.
Just off the plaza is the Teatro Solis, Uruguay’s most important theater. It opened in 1856 and was renovated at the end of the 20th century. We were hoping to tour the theater, but we didn’t have any Uruguayan currency and they don’t take credit cards. Maybe next time. On the far side of the plaza, where the 18 de Julio avenue begins, is the Palacio Salvo. At 330 feet in height it was the tallest building in South America when it was completed in 1928. It was originally intended to have a lighthouse on top where the antenna is now. This building dominates the plaza and is considered a symbol of Montevideo.
We left the plaza to the left of the Palacio Salvo and walked down 18 de Julio Street. You will not be surprised to learn that we walked all the way to the public library, which was a pretty good walk on a hot day. But along the way was an interesting mix of modern and old buildings, many with beautiful sculptural details in their architecture.
We also encountered two plazas on our way up the avenue. In the middle of Plaza Fabini is a fountain with a large sculpture called El Entrevero, depicting a fight among gauchos and Indians at very close range. Plaza de Cagancha, which dates back to 1840, was named after an important battle against forces from Buenos Aires. In the center is the Pillar of Peace, erected in 1867. When we were there this plaza was gaily decorated with multicolored flags, probably for a parade or holiday celebration.
We finally reached the National Library of Uruguay, which sadly was closed (probably because it was Sunday). Founded in 1815, the library has been in this building since 1955. It has around a million books along with tens of thousands of other materials in its collection. In front are statues of Cervantes & Socrates. The woman standing in front, looking disappointed that she couldn’t go in after walking all that way to see it, is Mary.
We were pretty tired from all the walking in the hot sun so we headed back toward the ship the same way we had come. We passed some yellow flowering trees next to the library and after traversing Plaza Independencia again we walked up a pedestrian street in the Ciudad Viejo that was full of vendors. On the way we encountered a bronze fellow who looks like he hangs out all day in this café with just a cup of coffee. After the long walk we stopped in Constitution Plaza to rest on one of the benches near the fountain we saw this morning.
We returned to the port area along several streets we hadn’t walked in the morning. More interesting buildings and a small plaza near the water containing a lot of wall art.
Carnaval is usually associated with Rio de Janeiro in Brazil but Uruguay has a significant carnaval as well, lasting through much of January and February. We were there in February, but if there were any carnaval events that day we didn’t see them (of course, we weren’t there in the evening). Carnaval in Uruguay has a history extending back more than 100 years and there is a museum in the port area dedicated to it. We visited it, in a fairly nondescript pink building, and it was well worth seeing.
Although the signage was all in Spanish, which we can’t read, the exhibits were very colorful and creative. We are told that the galleries were each dedicated to a distinct aspect of carnaval, and it was clear that some were historical relating to carnavals in years past, but that’s about all we can tell you. But the pictures tell the real story of this museum, especially some of the wild masks and costumes.
One more stop before the ship was for shopping at Acatras del Mercado, a store we really liked on our first visit here. We finally found it and it didn’t disappoint, full of eclectic arts and crafts. As you can see in the picture we didn’t leave empty handed. And these guys are wizards at packing things for travel.
So that was it for Uruguay. After dinner we retired to sleep while our ship moved up the river to another country, Buenos Aires, Argentina.