This was my first visit to South America. I
had been thinking of making an Amazon trip for a few years so at the
start of September I flew out from Glasgow to Manaus, the capital of
Amazonia via Schiphol and Rio de Janeiro.
The first thing I had to do after getting a
hotel was to find a Amazon tour operator. I had done some research
before hand and found what I had been looking for
within 24 hours; a four night, five day trip on a
small river-boat. However
I still had a day in Manaus before we left.
But by God, it was hot! Even Havana or
Jakarta where I had seemed the only person able to withstand the early
afternoon sun (despite wearing a Barbour jacket) was nothing compared to
this. It was OK provided I kept walking, however the moment I stopped my
forehead erupted in a torrent of sweat which had to be staunched with
tissues immediately before it flowed into my eyes and started stinging.
None the less, I walked up the first of many hills to the famous Manaus
From the outside the building looked
impressively out of place, no doubt because almost everything in it was
made in Europe; from the Italian marbles down to the Clyde-Built Scottish
cast iron seat frames. This was because it had been built by
Europeans, at the peak of the rubber boom, when Manaus had been awash with
money. If I remember correctly at the time of completion it had one seat
for every one thousand resident of Manaus. I took a guided tour (the only
way they'd let me inside) and was lucky as the symphony orchestra was
having a full dress rehearsal and I was allowed to stay behind and take in
almost a full performance after the tour was over.
I also managed to slip into the docks without
being detected and spent a couple of hours wandering about watching the
cargo ships loading and
this however 1500 km upstream. Mind you even at this point you could
hardly see the far bank of the Amazon. The docks themselves were rather
unusual: Due to the fact that the Amazon rises and falls around 30m
according to the season the docks are made of cast iron and float,
in fact I was surprised to read they were actually made on the Clyde
Steelwork Yards of my native Scotland and them towed in sections across
the Atlantic for assembly, at the end of the 19th Century.
Next day I was met at my hotel and driven to
the docks. There was only seven of us on our small two deck river boat
plus three crew and Franklin, our guide. Our first stop (and last as far
as making a financial transaction was possible) was at the floating gas
station outside the harbour. Then we set off upstream keeping to the
North Bank in order to avoid the fast downstream currents.
The diesel chugged, the weather was hot, but
fortunately with a refreshing breeze, and at times the river was so wide
you couldn't see the South
Bank. Once a couple of river dolphins
on their way downstream then vanished. We continued upstream for several
hours before hitting the confluence with the Rio Negro. This was really
odd; where the warm black water from the Negro mingled with our cooler
water there appeared to be no mixing of the waters; dark waters of the
Negro and the light blue waters of the Amazon are totally separate..
We continued upstream in the wake of a
cargo boat towing a couple of barges filled with containers for a
couple of hours. Our first stop (and last if civilisation was concerned)
was at an ecological centre who's main concern was the preservation and
cultivation of giant Victoria Water Lilies. We stopped of her for about an
hour; I even had my photo taken with a baby sloth in my arms and a scarlet
macaw on my shoulder (very touristy) then we set off upstream again. That
evening we moored up a tributary and after nightfall took to our canoes.
We paddled through the mangroves looking for crocodiles but only spotted a
couple, however we did come across a large anaconda resting up a tree and
did catch a small croc, about 8 inches long, which never the less,
managed to bite our guide on the hand.
We slept on the deck in hammocks. The crew
showed us how to hang and fold them up and we slept out in the open on the
top deck. It was surprisingly comfortable and no-one fell out until we
started having hammock-swinging contests in the morning..
Next day we continued West up the main river.
We went out in the large canoe, and after finding a suitable location,
began the ridiculously easy task of piranha fishing. It was so simple. All
you needed was a bamboo cane, two meters of monofilament, a hook, and a
lump of raw meat on the end. In order to attract the piranhas you splashed
the end of the "rod" in the water to fool them into thinking an animal had
strayed into the water. After this bite followed bite, the main problem
was getting the hook to strike properly in their bony jaws. I'm
an experienced angler but here subtlety got you nowhere; strike fast and
if you contacted you had to yank it out of the water immediately. Our
guide was careful to remove the hooks, and proudly displayed the fine
collection of scars on his hand from previous fishing expeditions. The
fish we were catching however were pretty small; up to about 20 cm
In the afternoon we took our first excursion
into the jungle. We were away for about three hours. A problem I found was
the tiny but steel-strong creepers that crossed the ground at just the
level to trip you up especially if like me you wear size 11 hiking-boots.
We heard and occasionally saw a lot of birds, surprisingly however no
insects except some big red-brown tree-ants but only when we cut open a
tree where they were nesting. We even got up to some Tarzan style swinging
exploits on a vine. However it was well worth it although for me
three hours were enough; the heat and humidity was to say the least
oppressive and despite drinking over two litres of water a skinny bastard
like myself dehydrates very quickly.
evening we were due to go out on a night expedition. However I had made
alternative plans with one of the crew and Camilla, a Norwegian tourist,
who had apparently just walked out of the jungle and joined us earlier
that afternoon. (In reality it turned out she had come from a jungle
lodge, just out of sight, round the corner, but at the time it had looked
At around 23.00 myself, Camilla and the
boatman set out in in the dugout, Camilla paddling, myself in the middle
balancing the canoe, and the boatman in the prow guiding with a
flashlight. We made slow progress through the sunken forest; there were no
fixed routes as the river level at this time was falling a couple of feet
per day. We tested creek after creek as far as we could go eventually we
were in a waterway approx. 30 cm. deep by 2 metres wide and apart from the
flashlight completely pitch dark enclosed totally top, bottom and side by
the forest! We say a couple of small caiman crocodiles in the flashlights,
mesmerised for a moment in the flashlight before they scuttled off into
the jungle. The noise from the canopy was
loud, monkeys howling and other unidentified noises. Finally we paddled
back to OUR tributary and the boat; it had only lasted a few hours but an
experience I won't forget.
Next morning the other party had returned; it
seemed they had been ambushed by a group of very territorial monkeys and
the boasts and counter-accusations as to who had screamed, kept their
heads etc. lasted throughout breakfast. Afterwards we chugged up the
a couple of hours before stopping and tying up to an wooden jetty. The
whole party then embarked into the larger motorised canoe and the smaller
paddle dugout.. As I was now familiar with the sunken jungle and the
terrain ahead I chose to act again as the "balancer" in the small dugout
with Camilla and the Brazilian boatman.
At first we progressed for a few hundred
meters up the main tributary then turned into the sunken forest.
Obviously, until we turned off the main river the motorised dugout had the
advantage especially as in our tiny coracle one false movement and we
could have been over. However once into the forest we had the clear
At this time of the year the water level of the Amazon was falling at the
rate of several feet per day. In fact you were having to negotiate your
way through half submerged trees that had evolved to live with their roots
and at times even most of their branched and roots underwater. Because the
water was falling so rapidly the path you macheted through one day was
totally useless the next; it was a case of trying the most likely route
but if you couldn't make headway you had to go back and try another route
instead. You had to be very
careful about hitting your head off branches and enveloping yourself in
swathes of vegetation harbouring God knows whatever beasties. And all this
while concentrating on balancing the canoe.
It became apparent that we had the advantage
over the bigger canoe in the manoeuvrability stakes; there was no way they
could follow us through some of the gaps in the submerged trees we found.
However it was very frustrating; I desperately wanted to take some photos
but as I was the person responsible for balancing the canoe taking me
hands off the sides or moving my position or even losing my concentration
for a couple of seconds would not have been a good idea. We finally made
it to the clearing after an hour or so but by then the other canoe had
fallen well behind.
20 minutes or so we heard a "hallooing" from
the other party; they had had to land a couple of hundred meters
downstream and make it up by the track (Sorry Yanks! - Scots and
Scandinavians one; big canoe and technology nil; but no disrespect, we all
got there in the end!). Anyway, in the World Cup Qualifiers the night
before Scotland, Norway and The U.S.A. had all lost so we were "ALL IN THE
SAME BOAT"! One of us had even lost to Brazil but the crew were very
nice about it.
We spent a couple of hours swimming in the
pools and exploring the source of the stream which was up a dark cave; the
water was wade-able but no way was I going too far into that dark cave! On
the way back I elected to swap places for the larger motor canoe so I
could take some photos without risking the canoe turning over.
Next day we swapped some passengers who were
going further upstream on a different boat and began going downstream
again. Once we hit the main Amazon we headed out towards the centre of the
river to take advantage of the stronger downstream currents, after a day
and a half of lazing about we made it back to Manaus.
I had originally thought of continuing
downstream from Manaus to Belem on the river but Franklin (our guide)
had dissuaded me; there would be little to see as the boats kept well
out-stream so after a further day in Manaus (there isn't really a great
deal to see in Manaus from the tourist point of view) I took a domestic
VASP flight to Belem instead.
In Belem I quickly found a reasonable hotel
near the dock area with a fan, not that it did much good in the intense
heat. I spent a couple of days here, visiting amongst other things the
docks and the sprawling Market Ver-o-Peso which seemed to sell every kind
of food you could imagine. I also visited the zoo and aquariums.
Fortunately my hotel was near the old town so it was easy to explore. The
heat however was still very intense, every time you stopped walking you
had to immerse your face immediately in a pad of tissues before the
erupting sweat filled your eyes. By now I had decided to make my way round
the coast down to Rio (but
fortunately didn't) so after a couple of days I took an overnight coach
East to Sao Luis.
I had had a good report about the "Hotel Sao
Marcos" unfortunately I hadn't been told it was at the top of a long steep
hill; by the time I hauled myself and my rucksack to the top I must half
lost about half a kilo and half a litre of fluid! However it was worth it
the hotel was in a cool two story compound with a swimming pool in
centre. Also the staff were really friendly as I found out to my advantage
the next evening. I spent the next day exploring the town which in many
ways reminded me of a small scale version of Havana. Apart from a few
domestic chores, i.e. changing money (the bank was at the bottom of the
hill from hell) to buying postcards (back to the shops at the top of the
bloody hill again) I visited the Cafua das Minas I also went down another
hill to the coast road and walked a couple of miles up the coast road to
the bridge across the water to San Francisco (not that one). I intended
going over there the next day so after checking out the buses went back up
the now hated hill again to the hotel for dinner.
Next day I relaxed with a beer in the
courtyard with 'Junior', the proprietor of the hotel, the receptionist
who's name eludes me and 3 engineers who were staying while on a job. We
got talking about carnivals, he refused to believe we had a Notting Hill
Carnival in London every year although I admitted nothing like they have
in Rio. "But do they dance? Samba?", "Yes of course" I replied, "Hundreds
of thousands of people dancing in the streets". "But when you went there,
did you Samba?". "Eh no I don't Samba" knowing where this was leading to.
"But you're going to Rio! We teach you to samba"
I went through the ritual of protesting
before bending to the inevitable. Music was
turned on and great hilarity had all round as I was
to slide my feet around the courtyard. Junior laughed then made his
mistake. "But Mike, in your country, in Scotland, how do you dance?". "Oh,
we have many dances of our own, some when everyone has to jump high in the
air!" "No that is not possible!" "Yes it is" "No, can you show me?" To
Hell with it, we'd all had a couple so I mimed a sort of rudimentary
Highland Fling to great applause.
By now they were getting enthusiastic and
wanted to me to teach them Scottish Highland Dancing. "Sorry but no, this
dance is called "The Dashing White Sergeant" I lied triumphantly. "It
needs bagpipe music and eight people to do this!" Triumph? No. At once 3
unsuspecting members of the public who just happened to be passing in the
street were rounded up and we were to hum the music! Oh God. Despite this
they were quick to learn both the tune and the steps and a sort of OK
"Dashing White Sergeant" was eventually performed in the courtyard. For
those not in the know, this dance involves quite a bit of whirling-
partner changes and on our third execution two of our engineering friends
missed their arm link and whirled
into the swimming pool to great hilarity.
At this point our attention was distracted by the pictures of planes
crashing into the Twin Towers in New York on the giant TV screen above the
pool. Unfortunately we had the sound turned down and it was several hours
before we discovered it was live footage of 9/11 and not a feature film as
Later Junior I and I were talking about my
future plans. I told him about making my way down South to Rio but he,
afterwards he suggesting that he thought I was finding the climate rather
hot, (True) and like every-one else I had met in Brazil warning me off
even thinking of going to Salvador. Instead he suggested I try going to
the Foz Do Iguaçu on the Argentinean Border. True, I said, but while I had
read about these waterfalls but didn't think I had the time. Surprise,
surprise! He had a friend at the airport, he reckoned he might be able to
get me a cheap flight there tomorrow. Did he want him to try? 10 minutes
on the phone and he had a deal for me. A single flight, inc. taxi to the
airport to the Foz, USD$210 leaving at 03.00 next night/early morning. Did
I want it? This was ideal; it would give me 4 days at the Falls then a
week left for Rio. And Junior, I hope you got a commission out of this!
Next day I walked down the bloody hill again
to the coast road and got the bus across the estuary to San Francisco. I'm
not really a beach person; after a look around and some lunch I got the
next bus and kept on going to the shanty town at the end of the line. By
the end the tarmac road had become a muddy, rutted dirt track. Normally I
would have had a look around but as I had to get ready for the flight that
night I got the bus back to Sao Luis.
That evening I had a couple of beers with
Junior who had all my tickets ready, taxi booked
for 02.00hrs and finally we went our separate ways at about
Rather than risk going to sleep I stayed awake reading. At 02.00hrs I was
drinking coffee at the gates with the receptionist when the taxi arrived
dead on time and I was off to the airport.
The VAMP flight to Foz do Iguaçu, via
Salvador, Rio and Curitiba was more like a hop on/off train than any
air-route I had previously encountered. However I arrived at Foz do Iguaçu
around lunch time and got a taxi to the "Pousado Evelina" as
recommended by my guide-book. In this case it was a good deal; cheap and also ideal
for someone like myself on a tight time schedule as they had mini-busses
to the Falls every morning.
First day I just took in the Brazilian side,
the sheer size and noise of the Falls was incredible especially when
viewed from the walkways below the cascades themselves. The second day
myself and a bunch of French hippies went across to the Argentinean
side: the hotel arranged the Border formalities and a mini-bus for us, it
was just as spectacular. I've been to Niagara before but this was far
better; not only the sheer size but also the sense of remoteness and space
was incredible. Also, unlike Niagara the place was teeming with wildlife,
at one point I even got mobbed by a swarm of brightly coloured butterflies
of al things!
However I was determined to get a boat trip
up "The Devil's Throat". This is a narrow canyon that takes you into a
cauldron of white-water
surrounded on three sides by towering waterfalls. Firstly I was driven
through the park to the river then after being given the standard safety
drill and donning hard hat etc. we set of upstream. This was brilliant,
I've done a bit of white-water rafting in my time but this was upstream in
what was pretty severe water! Soaked to the skin we dodged 5
feet stationary waves, 10 meter whirlpools and God only knows until we
finally made it to the base of the Falls; taking photographs was almost
impossible as you had to slip your camera out into the open, take a snap and
return it to safety between waves - no time to even look through the lens
unless you wanted the camera soaked. The boatman predictably added to the
drama by opening up both outboards and charging straight at the deluge
before making a 90 degree turn with only a few feet to spare.
Next I flew to Rio de Janeiro for my last few
days. I don't usually take to huge, humid, Third World capitals but I took
to Rio immediately (mind you I must be the only person in the history of
the World who actually likes Jakarta, so each to their own!). I had only a
few days left anyway so
getting a cheap and central hotel it was a case of doing all the main
tourist sights a.s.a.p.
First I went up to the Statue of Christ,
doing his arms outspread aeroplane impersonation on top of the mountain.
The trip up on the rack-railway was most enjoyable although the statue
itself was less impressive; close up than was is at a distance; my first
feeling was to put a giant traffic cone on his head as one does in
Glasgow, although while it would probably have earned me my 15 minutes of
fame on the World
news it would also probably have earned me 15 years in prison for my
I also took the cable cars up Sugar-Plum
Mountain; this was excellent and the views we terrific; when I got down I
made the required visit to Copacabana Beach. Unfortunately by this time
the weather had changed and it was cold and pouring with rain. Still I can
say that I had almost the whole beach to myself.! Just to rub it in I took
off my shoes and socks and walked the whole length of the beach at the
tide-line with hardly another soul in sight!
On my last day I was accosted by the shout of
"Hey, Mr Scotsman!, Mel Gibson! Braveheart! Hey You! (I hasten to add that
the film "Braveheart" about Scottish Hero William Wallace was all the rage
in Brazil at that moment; due to my nationality but presumably not my
looks this was frequently my nick-name in Brazil), I was accosted by a
Canadian guy I had fallen in with previously. On first encounter I
had been rather suspicious of him but a few enquires at my hotel and
showed he was well known; just an ex-pat eking out a living arranging
tours/excursions for tourists like myself. So when he offered me a place
on a visit to a show that night I accepted, We were picked up in a
mini-bus from the hotel that night as arranged, we were taken to our
Club, enjoyed an evening of dancing, conjurers and cabaret acts with
drinks and food provided.
The mini-bus dropped me off at my hotel just
after midnight.. Next day I flew back home to Glasgow.