Brazil 2001

Jungle Break


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 forMap of Brazil 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. Manaus Opera House

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 Opera House.

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 Convergence of Rio Negro and Amazonunloading; Floating Gasoline Stationand 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 SouthTug towing Barges near Manaus Bank. Once a couple of river dolphins Submerged Junglesurfaced 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.Amazon sunset

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 Pirahna fishingquite 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 maximum.Our boat

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.

One of our canoesThat 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 verySwimming in the Jungle impressive)!

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 Our boat from the riverbankvery 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 tributary forAmazon Tributory 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 Belemadvantage. 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 verySetting of into the forest 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.Belem - View from my window

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.Belem Market

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 (butAmazonian-style telephone box 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 Foz du Iguacu - self attacked by butterfliesthe 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 wasSao Luis bus turned on and great hilarity had all round as I was Foz du Iguacutaught 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 whirledDevil's Cauldron into the swimming pool to great hilarity.Foz du Iguacu 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 we thought.

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 bookedRio de Janerio for 02.00hrs and finally we went our separate ways at about Approaching the Devil's Throatmidnight. 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!Sugar Plum Mountain

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-waterView from Sugar Plum Mountain cable-car 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 Statue of Christ the Reedemerafter 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 Rio cabaretTV news it would also probably have earned me 15 years in prison for my efforts!

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.

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