Boca Da Valeria, Brazil (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santarem, Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazon River (2019)

     After leaving Belem we spent two days and three nights sailing up the Amazon River toward Santarem, which is halfway to Manaus. In 1542 Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana led the first European expedition to navigate down the river, starting in the Andes.  The trip (which he took unintentionally after discovering he could not return up the river because of the strong current) took about 8 months.  He named the river Amazonas because of a conflict with an indigenous tribe called the Tapuyas whose women fought alongside the men.  This apparently reminded him of the ancient mythical female warriors Herodotus called Amazons.  Orellana’s report that a large civilization lived along the Amazon river was never taken seriously until recently, when archaeological discoveries supported his claim.  If such a civilization existed it was likely devastated by disease brought to South America by Europeans, which generally wiped out some 90% of the indigenous peoples of South America, who lacked antibodies to resist such diseases.  While it is now thought that there may have been as many as 5 million people in the region when Orellana visited, the indigenous population had fallen to fewer than 200,000 by the 1980’s.

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      The Amazon is by far the biggest river in the world (although whether it is longest, compared to the Nile, is a matter of dispute).  It drains an area equal to 40% of South America and pours some 55 million gallons of water into the Atlantic Ocean every second.  This is more than the next seven largest rivers in the world combined and represents 20% of the fresh water entering all of the oceans in the world.  Marajo island is about the size of Switzerland and sits inside the mouth of the Amazon.  So “big” is actually an understatement.  And it feels big when sailing on it, very wide and mostly lined with dense rainforest.  The water is quite muddy.

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     Along the river’s edge we passed a number of dwellings.  Some were lonely single outposts that looked like little more than shacks, often sitting on stilts because the river floods and recedes every year.  Some had solar panels, which must be a great help for people living so isolated from civilization,

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

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     The river was not lined with rainforest everywhere.  You may have read that farmers and ranchers have been clearing large amounts of the Amazon basin by setting fires.  This has been going on for many years.  The big product being grown in this area is soybeans, much of it for export to China.  We passed some areas that had been cleared of forest and we may have seen some soybean fields there as well (we aren’t familiar enough with soybean plants to be sure). 

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     Several times we passed what looked like tugboats pushing long lines of barges up the river, probably taking supplies and merchandise to Santarem or Manaus.  There are no reliable roads reaching these cities so the only ways for them to import goods are by air or water.  We also saw at least one conventional riverboat pulling a load of heavy equipment.

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     Another kind of river traffic was more organic.  Large clumps of healthy looking grass floated down the river, probably from a thousand miles away.  We don’t know their origin, but we guess they were uprooted by the river’s annual flood then continued to float down with the water flow.  We called them floating lawns, and the ones in the pictures were far from the largest we saw.

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     There were quite a few white birds cavorting around the riverbanks as we neared dusk.  One island was completely covered with them.  And the sunsets were pretty enough to justify more than one picture.

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      Finally, the evening we left Belem was Fat Tuesday, so one would have expected the ship’s penguins to be dressed for Mardi Gras.  But no!  Someone had decided that since we were now in the Amazon we should have monkeys instead of penguins.  The general consensus among passengers seemed to be that this was a pretty bad idea.  After all, the penguins looked much more sophisticated than the monkeys and had pretty much become part of the family.  Apparently someone got the word because the next night the Penguins were back, dressed resplendently in top hats and gold lame vests and ties for what we think was the Black & Gold Ball.  We were glad to welcome them back.

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Belem, Brazil (2019)

     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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).

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     Seats in the main theater are in a horseshoe arrangement around the stage.  Large paintings cover the ceiling along with a chandelier.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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).

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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Fortaleza, Brazil (2019)

     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.  78a. Fortaleza, Brazil (RX10)_stitch82a. Fortaleza, Brazil (RX10)_stitch 

     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.

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     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. 

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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.

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     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. 

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     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.

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     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.

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