Traveler Expert Review: 8-Day Iberostar Cruise in Brazil
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Where do I start? How do I explain how we ended up in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest... from the beginning of course!
Everything went according to plan when we headed to the Philadelphia Airport last Saturday and caught our AM flight to Miami. Joseph [our son] got his flight from Chicago and was waiting for us in Miami. Our flight for Manaus, Brazil was on time. So far, so good. Then we soon discovered that our luggage did not come with us. Only one flight a day goes from Miami to Manaus and with only one change of clothes, it seemed like we will have a challenging week of washing and keeping appearances up. After several cajoling phone calls to American Airlines and monitoring their flights, our luggage was on the next flight and arrived around midnight on Monday.
In the meantime our driver/guide was waiting at the airport when we arrived. In foreign countries that we are visiting for the first time, we find that it can be a nightmare to try to find our own transportation. Joyce had made arrangements for a driver/guide to pick us up and take us to our hotel. He then came back on Sunday to give us a tour of Manaus.
Now, get out your map of South America. Put a pin in it in the middle. That is Manaus, a city of about 2 million in the middle of the Amazon jungle about 300 miles south of the equator. It is the largest city in Amazonia, and it has many large international companies located here. Our guide took us on an eclectic tour of the opera house, churches, the fish market, a mall that would rival anything in the states, and a bazaar with shops that had all the native crafts.
On Monday in possession of our luggage, we had our driver pick us up at our hotel and take us to the ship terminal.
Now the adventure begins.
The Iberostar is an adventure river cruise ship that holds about 150 passengers. We are on a combination 4-day on the Rio Negro (Black River) and a 3-day on the White River. The waters of the 2 rivers meet at one point but don't mix because of the difference in the minerals dissolved in each.
This is quite small in cruise ship terms, but it has most of the amenities of your larger cruise liners. Food is delicious and available at any time, and all the staterooms have balconies with a river view. It lacks only a casino and other activities available on larger ships to fill up time. Idle time is not an issue here!
Our first stop was a ways up the Rio Negro. Okay, they give names to our "ports-o-call", but for the most part they are stops to get off and see the local flavor. At our first stop we took a launch that holds about 20 passengers to shore to start our rainforest trek of about 2 to 3 miles. It is hard to judge distance when you are stopping every few minutes for the guide to explain about the local flora. On one pause, our guide took some strands from a tree, twisted them together, tied them into a loop, wrapped this loop around his ankles, and used it to climb about 10 feet up a tree. After this hike it was back on the launch and the return to the ship.
To answer your question, yes it is hot here. The temperature during the day is in the high 80s, but the humidity is about the same. This means frequent showers and changes of clothes.
Of the 120 passengers, there are about 8 Americans. There are a few people from other countries, but the vast majority of our shipmates are from Brazil. To accommodate us with limited language skills they have one of the 6 tour boats that have an English speaking guide.
Tuesday afternoon we took the launch through a vast array of islands, swamps, channels and marshes. Amazonia is such a huge area, about the size of Europe, that it hard to imagine that we are exploring a small fraction of it. This part of the year is the best time to come here because it is at the end of the rainy season and the water level is high. This means more areas to explore by boat. On the flip side, we do get sudden thunderstorms. Such was the case on this ride, but it all added to the experience as we all got soaked.
Wednesday, another stop, more exploration. This time it was to a small village to visit a school. Incidentally, this remote place in the middle of nowhere was the only spot on this cruise that we had internet access. We also had a chance to take a swim in the river.
No trip to the Amazon is complete without piraña fishing, so this afternoon we headed to the fishing grounds. We tried several places in flooded areas among trees. There was a couple from India with their 8 year old son on board. He was the first to pull up a fish. A few minutes later he pulled up another fish. At that point Joe and I had the same thought. It's bad enough to go fishing and get nothing. It is a lot worse to have an 8 year old outdo you. As Joe said, "If that kid catches one more fish, I'm throwing him overboard". Our luck changed and we got our fish, as did most of us. I ended up catching the largest piraña– about 10 inches. It was my 15 minutes of fame– photos taken and bragging rights.
Two more excursions for the day. One to visit a farm where they process tapioca. Tapioca is a big product around here, and it seems that they have hundreds of ways to prepare it. The evening cruise was a venture to find caymans. The guide would shine a light in the reeds to spot one. He would pull it out and he and others would hold it up for the photo ops.
A brief note on how to go on a relaxing week vacation. This is not it. Activities can start at almost any time of the day. Thursday we were up at 5 am to get on a boat to go out and watch the sunrise. Since we are so close to the equator, sunrise is always about 6am and sunset is always about 6pm. Many photos later, we took a short ride to see the Treetop Lodge. This was a venture visualized by Jacque Cousteau in 1987. Developers created a series of towers connected by bridges several hundred feet long. The whole complex covered an area of several hundred acres. It was successful for many years and visited by many celebrities including Bill Clinton, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks. However, the original owner developed Alzheimer's and his kids did not have the same passion to keep it up. It fell into disrepair and finally closed down about a year ago. It now is a ghost hotel that continues to deteriorate, and will eventually be claimed by the rainforest.
In the afternoon we visited a small rubber plantation and given a brief history of how rubber became a huge crop in the area, and how the workers were exploited by the rubber barons. This was until someone stole some seeds, took them to Malaysia, and the rubber industry soon moved there.
Friday was our port day, and we opted to stay on the ship to wait for the new arrivals. As mentioned before, we were a little apprehensive if we were going to be the only ones on board who couldn't speak Portuguese. However, the big difference on this part of the voyage was what was lacking in common language was more than made up for in the exuberance of the Brazilians.
Monday thru Friday seemed to be more sedate, and then the weekend group got on and it was party time. What I have failed to mention was that this was an "all inclusive cruise". Translation, all excursions are included as well as food and drinks. This means that you don't go hungry, and there is an open bar.
This part of the cruise was on the Rio Solimoes. The Amazon is made up of hundreds of tributaries. Most of them flow into the Rio Solimoes which is also considered to be an upper section of the Amazon. Aside from the color of the water, it also flows much faster than the Rio Negro.
On our first outing we travel in a skiff to explore narrow waterways and play the Amazon version of Where's Waldo? - looking for sloths or caymans high in trees. "See that dark glob on the branch next to another glob, that's a sloth". Along the way we see homes that are either on stilts or they are floating - the only two options. This is the end of the rainy season which means that there are huge lakes that don't exist at other times of the year. On one stretch we were at least a mile from land, but in the dry season the area is all above water. This said, the water level was about 10 feet lower than it usually is at this time of year. There were pastures with cattle grazing as well as forests that were under water. Many trees had marks on them indicating the high water point - about 10 feet up. Some of the tours on this stretch were similar to what we did on the earlier part, piraña fishing, cayman spotting.
Sunday, our last full day. It was a ride on a skiff to cover a long shoreline as well as trails to spot flora and fauna. Yes trails! In the dry season you walk through a system of trails. This time of the year it is a labyrinth of canals Even though we were about 60 miles from Manaus, we passed by a city of about 100 thousand people. About 5 miles across the river was a huge island, probably 10 square miles with trees and grass that didn't exist a few years ago. This river does not flow fast, but it is about 300 feet deep in many sections so it can be deceiving how powerful it is
As one of our guides mentioned, the shoreline is constantly changing, and islands appear and disappear regularly. You don't know what to expect. He called it the mystery river. It also accounts for about one fifth of the fresh water that flows into the oceans of the world.
A few of the tours included seeing how the local people live. I'm not sure how realistic this is when you have about 100 people traipsing through your house on a regular basis. It does however give you a feel of their lifestyle. On a couple stops we had opportunities to feed monkeys. Just have a banana in your hand and within seconds they will grab it.
On the final morning of the cruise we passed the area where the Rio Negro and the Rio Salimoes join– The Meeting of the Waters. The two rivers have different minerals and vegetation in them, as well as significantly different temperatures. As a result, they don't mix for several miles. This was also at about 6am but worth the effort to get up. It was pretty much as it looks in the photos, but on first glance, it looked like an oil slick.
As I mentioned earlier, Brazilians know how to party. Much of our free time was spent just hanging out and chatting. Many of them spoke a little English so we could learn about each other. Joseph could not get over how attractive the Brazilian women were on the cruise. He thought there must be something that they are putting in the water. He exchanged contact information with one beauty who has her own travel agency.
Hope you have enjoyed our jungle experience!
Peter and Joyce,
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