Manaus: The Heart of the Amazon

We arrived in Manaus in the early afternoon and decided to team up with Hilary and Diane to find a good hostel. After walking through the port, we met Thomas: a charismatic native of Manaus with a great sense of humour.  Thomas recruits and refers tourists to his hostel and organizes their stay. Tours, places to eat, things to see, you name it, Thomas will help you organize it and then introduce you to 5 other people who have already done it. His grasp of the English language is impeccable, and he is exactly the kind of person we all wanted to meet upon arrival. Strangely enough, having recruiters swarm you at bus stations and ports is something I kind of miss from Asia, and it’s infinitely easier than walking around the city from hostel to hostel with a 15kg backpack on!

 

So just like that, we had a cozy place to stay, with a room just for the 4 of us, and were sitting down organizing tours within the hour. Sadly, Adam and I had only one full day to spend in Manaus, so we booked a day tour for the Friday and hoped to see as much of the city as possible! 
After we were hooked up with a cheap seafood dinner of local Amazonian fish, we were offered a free, private walking tour of the city from Thomas’ brother (or sister as he jokingly referred to him as).

 

The markets in Manaus are incredible. The less impressive fruit market was quite a sight to behold.  Truckloads of fruits and vegetables collected from the jungle, lay over huge wooden palates waiting to be bought.  A massive variety of tropical fruits and vegetables to choose from and a stack of bananas larger than I’ve ever witnessed!  Afterwards we walked over to the fish market.  The market was slowing down by the time we arrived in the evening, but at 5am, Manaus’ fish market explodes with people trying to get a deal on fish for the day. There are apparently over 2000 different species of fish to be found in Manaus, and the fish market is where you can get most of them.  Row upon row of stalls where fisherman slice up their catch and prepare the food for buyers.  Anyone can buy fish at the market, but it is particularly popular with restaurant owners buying their daily specials at the crack of dawn.

After the markets, we walked through the city checking out it’s main sights: the opera house, the university and the many beautiful plazas that are scattered throughout. I was amazed at how industrial and beautiful Manaus really is. It is a booming city with a very strong economy and is WAY larger than I would have imagined from a city in the middle of the jungle. There are over 400 factories in Manaus, many of them big name car companies and appliances. It’s even one of the largest microwave distributors in the world. Random. Manaus is a city where people from all over Brazil come to get work. It has such a huge workforce that there are always places to find a job. Before Southeast Asia began its rubber production, Manaus was the largest rubber exporter in the world. The rubber production made for an extremely wealthy economy. The place was so rich, that the women would have all their clothes shipped to Europe to get them CLEANED instead of doing it themselves, and the men would smoke cigarettes through dollar bills.  If only I could afford these luxuries!

 

When we arrived back at the hostel, Thomas had pitchers of caipirinhas waiting for us. It wasn’t long before we met a bunch of Colombians, Swedes and Spanish guys outside and joined them for drinks. We sat in patio furniture on the street and attempted to understand our trilingual conversations. We drank and sang Spanish songs like “La Bamba,” with the accompaniment of Juan-Carlos’ guitar, for what seemed like hours. Then we all headed out on the town till the wee hours of the morning!

 

When Adam’s alarm went off at 7:30am I was a zombie. We had a maximum of 3 hours of sleep, although no one really checked the time we finally fell asleep, so it could have been less. So excited for an 8 hour day tour of Manaus…
 not!  Turns out it was just Adam and I on the tour with a man that didn’t speak English. Not sure how we always end up on private tours, but it seems to be a trend for us in Brazil! I was in no condition to translate Portuguese, but our tour was amazing nonetheless!

 

We took a boat out to the meeting of the rivers to start. This is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes converge to make the Amazon. Because of the amount of acid in the water, the Rio Negro is a very dark, almost black colour. Contrastingly, the Solimoes is a light brown, muddled hue. The acidity and temperature differences between the two rivers keeps them separated, and thus there is a very defined line where the waters meet that stretches for about 6km! We could actually feel the temperature differences as we traveled between the two on our boat.

As we were boating to our next destination, we FINALLY saw the elusive pink river dolphins! Adam has been talking about these pink dolphins since day 1 of our trip. They were on his trip’s bucket list before anything else in fact! So it was very exciting to see them in the wild. They are the only fresh water dolphins in the world and no one quite knows how they ended up in the Amazon. It is believed that perhaps they migrated into the river up to 15 million years ago! Their brains are 40% larger than a human’s and they are unique in that their neck bone is not fused with their spine, giving them a lot of mobility in their heads. The dolphins are a light grey colour with pink around their heads. A number of strange local legends surround the animals; it is said that the dolphins shift shapes in the night to impregnate women on land! We did spot a couple in the distance when we were on our 6-day trip, but seeing them up close was very cool!

 

When the dolphins swam out of view, we boated through a floating village that both survived and made a living off the river. Local fisherman caught pirarucu fish from the river and kept them in large tanks to sell them at a later date. The fish are massive!! They can get up to 180kilos and small ones are still a whopping 90kg. One of the fishermen tied small fish to a wooden pole and let us try to fish for them in the tank. They snapped at the fish, literally jumping out of the water to grab the food, but it was practically impossible to reel them in with the weight of them; however, for lunch afterwards, we got to eat the fish as part of our buffet. Which was fun, even though we didn’t catch one ourselves.

From there, we walked through the ecological park to the giant lily pads! Seems that everything is a little larger in the Amazon, and these lily pads were no exception. They got up to a couple diameters each, and were a beautiful display among the calm lake. 
 I couldn’t take enough photos of them if I’d tried!

Once we’d explored the park, and had some lunch, we visited one of the floating homes and met up with two children: a young boy about 10 and a girl no older than 5. The little girl clung onto a baby caiman, with it’s mouth tied shut, like it was her own little stuffed animal. She dragged it around without even thinking twice that she had a tiny dangerous animal swinging from her hands! Next to her, the young boy was bear hugging a sloth! The two hopped in our boat and offered us the animals to hold. Adam and I were ecstatic! The sloth was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. I’ve only ever spotted the animals in trees, moving around slowly and clinging to a branch for dear life. But up close, they have the most ADORABLE faces.  They have big black eyes on top of a long face and a neck that turns around almost a full 360 degrees. And they are so light! I was expecting the sloth to be much heavier than it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple pounds. It’s long claws wrapped around me in a huge sloth hug and then the animal seemed content to just hang out in my lap. So cool! After Adam and I played with the sloth for quite some time, we checked out the caiman. It was so little (no longer than a foot and a half from head to tail) and had huge green eyes that stuck out of its head. It felt just like a snake, but looked a little more ferocious with its teeth sticking out under its tied jaw. It was surprisingly calm however, and allowed the little girl to grab a hold of it as if it was her childhood blanket. We paid the kids a couple Reais for their time before continuing on with the tour.

Our guide then took us on a boat ride THROUGH the jungle. Because of the flooded waters, the forest was no longer walkable; instead, we cruised through the tall trees and thick forest with unbelievable dexterity in our giant boat. I have NO idea how this man maneuvered through the trees that were at points no wider than a half inch on either side of the boat, but he did it! It was a beautiful trip and a very unique way of trekking through the area!
  Photos did NOT do this part of the trip justice.

 

Finally, we ended our trip with more piraña fishing! Although these pirañas were much less voracious than the ones in the Pantanal, we still managed to catch 7 of them and take them back to our guide’s friend for his dinner.  
By the time we arrived back at the hostel we were exhausted! Out for an early pizza dinner in front of the opera house, then off to bed… for a nap. We only got to sleep for another 3 hours before we were up at 1am to head to the airport! Another long night with no sleep ahead of us… Great!

Cruising down the Amazon River

We arrived at the docks at 7:30am. Our boat was scheduled to leave at noon, but the guidebook insisted we arrive a few hours early to claim the best spot on the boat: i.e. as far away from the engine and the bathrooms as possible. 
  Apart from two other Canadian girls that arrived at the same time as us, there were 4 people on the boat when we got there. Definitely could have slept in. Nonetheless, we set up our hammocks, got some breakfast and were overly enthusiastic to start lounging in out hammocks.

Meeting Hilary and Diane (the two Canadian girls) was great because it allowed us to switch off watching bags to get breakfast, shower, walk around etc for the next few days. The four of us got a prime location on the top deck and were ready to set sail by 8:15AM!
  By noon I had already made it through a good chunk of my book. The hammock was still comfortable, and we were anticipating leaving very shortly. Huge cargo trucks full of vegetables were unloading their goods on to the boat to distribute to settlements along the river as we went. We watched them pack on the boxes with surprising speed until at last the two trucks were empty. Then another two arrived.  When they had finished unloading, two more showed up; and after that, another… By five o’clock that evening they were still loading up their 7000th box of green tomatoes! I honestly have no idea how all that food fit onto our ship. We finally pulled away from the dock at 5:34PM.

 

Time in the hammock: 9hrs 19minutes

 

Time left to Manaus: 6 days!

Before the boat even left I was already starting my second book. I started reading Shantaram, which is a long, but an INCREDIBLE story – Nikki, thank you for the suggestion, I don’t know how I could have survived the trip without this book!  
Food was sold on the boat for a very reasonable price! However, the selection was the exact same every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Scrambled eggs in a bun for breakfast, and a rice, spaghetti, salad and steak plate or steak soup for lunch and dinner (In all fairness, they did offer the same meal with a chicken option for two of the nights… LUCKY!). I can’t believe I still enjoyed the food by the last day, although I was thrilled to switch up the meal when we hit Manaus.

Other than eating at designated mealtimes downstairs, there was very little else to do on the boat. Showers were small and just straight, cold, river water. They had two, long, uncomfortable wooden benches, a few scattered plastic chairs and a rooftop with a steel seating area. Thus, we spent a ridiculous amount of time in our hammocks. 
When I first imagined our river trip, all I could picture was “hot” and “mosquitoes“. I had looked up the temperature in January before I left and it was 44 degrees Celcius with 95% humidity… Oh my God. I pictured us sweating under a mosquito net, trying not to cover up skin, but avoiding malaria at the same time! In reality, it was the complete opposite. The movement of the boat kept all but the strongest mosquitoes away: that, and the fact that I have been taking my malaria pills, I have three types of bug spray, a mosquito net, long sleeves and pants (that are NOT black) and I have been taking propolis extract.  Propolis is a liquid that you drop into your water a few days before a mosquito zone, which you later sweat out and mosquitoes leave you alone – recommended to me by locals. I was set! I was amazed, as someone who draws mosquitoes to her anywhere within a 5km radius, that one, or a combination of these methods worked!  In fact, I managed to come out almost completely unscathed! I had a few bites that were only itchy for an hour and then gone! Hallelujah!

 

As well, it wasn’t hot! Actually, with the wind from the boat moving, and the cool air from each night’s thunderstorms, it was FREEZING! I wore pretty much everything I own AND wrapped myself in my hammock and still shivered through the night!! (Caitlin, it was very reminiscent of when you woke up at Oktoberfest and found me wearing 18 layers of clothing and huddled in my sleeping bag that was good to +10 degrees Celcius [ironically the same temperature that human skin is good to]).  Depressingly, each night on the boat seemed to be colder than the last. Adam even has a picture of me on the last morning, so bundled up in stuff, that only my nose was visible from under all the layers. I wore pants the ENTIRE trip, and long sleeves shirts went on as soon as the sun set (Yes, I do mean shirts, plural). I couldn’t believe it! We were only a couple hundred kilometers from the EQUATOR!! I don’t know what the temperature actually was, but I know we haven’t acclimatized that much!

By day 2 and a half on the boat I couldn’t feel my lower back. Having spent the better part of two days SOLELY in a hammock, it became an excruciating task just leaning over to pick things up off the ground. No position, sitting or lying down, was comfortable! I found myself doing stretches and yoga at least three times a day just to have a reasonably content two hours sitting back in my hammock! I flipped and flopped during the day: sitting up to read, crossing my legs, and then using a rolled up jacket as lumbar support.  In the night I rolled myself into a thousand different positions, trying desperately to forget the pain and cold and get some shuteye before the loudspeakers blared Brazilian dance remixes of American country songs and Michel Telo’s ever-popular “Nossa, Nossa” at 8AM.  By day 6 I think we were all thrilled to pack up our things and get into a real bed. Adam timed every second he was in his hammock and managed an impressive 89 hours 11 mins 7seconds out of a possible 126 hours. We figured I was about 15 hours more than that… Which is disgusting, and NOT recommended whatsoever!

However, apart from sleeping and eating, the river trip was WONDERFUL! We traveled through areas where the river was just a little wider than the boat we were in. The surrounding jungle was THICK! So much so I can’t imagine ever being able to explore it for the first time! There is thick, green foliage in every spare inch of the jungle, right up into the water. The plant life was unique, and varied and very, very green. The thing I found most fascinating, however, was the people that LIVE right on the river’s edge! Old wooden shacks are scattered along the length of the river where families survive off the land. They travel extensively by canoes that they paddle up and down the river, fishing for food. Little kids would paddle up along side our boat, tie themselves to the back, and climb aboard our ship. They ran around playing games, selling food and begging for food and gifts. I gave a couple of the little girls the Canadian pencils that I’d been carrying around for that exact purpose. One little girl looked LESS than enthused when I gave her a pencil instead of money and stared at me with a blank expression for over a minute. I finally took out my eyeliner sharpener and sharpened it for her, then scribbled in my book and gave it back. Her expression didn’t change a bit, so I waved her away. HOWEVER, when we were at lunch a little later, we saw her clutching the pencil like it was the winning prize at a fair. When we got back upstairs Diane had said that she and other kids came back asking for more pencils to have. So I guess they were happy with them in the end!

At other parts of the trip, you could hardly see the other side of the river it was so wide! We even came across a huge cruise ship that did a two-week circuit from the Dominican, down the length of the Amazon to Manaus. It shocked me that such a large ship could even fit through the channels, it obviously had to have taken another route. But wide or narrow, the river was beautiful. I couldn’t get over the fact that we were actually ON the Amazon River, and floating up the entire length of it! On the second day, after watching all the native kids row around on the river from their little huts, I turned to Adam and exclaimed that this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in all my travels! Just seeing how life works in the jungle is eye opening and surreal! On some flatter parts of the jungle, a few families had even made small farms, with goats and cows and horses all penned up along the river edge. The houses were all on stilts, which would be necessary when the river floods in the rainy season, and people moved around on makeshift walkways in the air that connected houses to sheds and docks. Our boat stopped in several small settlements along the way to unload goods from Belem. Some of them very small, others, like Santarem, we’re surprisingly developed for such a remote place in the middle of the jungle. None of them were as advanced as Manaus however. Our final destination was a huge city, right in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Manaus has become the hub of the Amazon jungle, and I think we were all shocked at how developed it was when we pulled up in our boat six days after leaving our port in Belem!