It is cloudy, misty, and often raining in the Fjords. I was thrilled to get a few photos in between storms. Enjoy!
After leaving Punta Arenas, we continued our intrepid voyage through the Straights, just like Magellan did close to 500 years ago. Okay, maybe “intrepid” is a big strong… and it only took us 2 days to hit the Pacific Ocean, not 36. But, it was quite chilly in the evening, and I was forced to wear a jacket over my evening gown while strolling along the promenade deck with a glass of champagne. Does that qualify as a hardship? I think so. Yes.
When we reached the Pacific Ocean however, we were not met with a placid body of water like Magellan. We went from smooth to massive rolling waves in seconds. I raced to get Dramamine for Steve before his head told his stomach what was happening. If Magellan met the Pacific today, he would given it a very different name, and not a nice one.
We headed North and thrashed around overnight before heading back East into the serene waters of the Fjords at daybreak. This is it. The Chilean Fjords. This had been on my bucket list forever. Fjords are long inlets from the sea that have been carved out by glaciers. They are usually very deep, and surrounded by steep cliffs. The only way to get to this pristine part of the world is by boat. No one lives here, and most of the area we traveled through is part of the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, which covers 13,614 square miles.
Here are some maps, so you can see where we are…
We had 2 close encounters with glaciers in the Fjords. Before I tell you more about them, here are some icy facts you may enjoy…
- Glaciers cover approximately 10 percent of the earth.
- They store about 69% of the fresh water supply on the planet.
- They are found in 47 countries.
- If every glacier in the world suddenly melted, global sea levels would rise by 260 feet.
- Glacial ice looks so blue, because the dense compacted ice absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue, so blue is what we see.
- If you put a glacial ice cube in a glass or water, it would take several hours to melt, compared to a regular ice cube. But… the pressured air bubbles rush out so fast that they might make the glass explode. Don’t try this at home!
- Glaciers are very slow moving rivers. The average speed is about 50 feet a day.
The first glacier we met is Amalia. It is about one mile wide, 13 miles long, and 130 feet high. This glacier has retreated 4 miles over the past 50 years, which is a dramatic loss of ice. It partially surrounds the Reclus volcano and erodes it’s northern flank.
The Bruggen (PIO XI) glacier is significantly larger, and unlike most glaciers in the world, has advanced 4 miles over the past 50 years. It is currently 2.5 miles wide, about 40 miles long, and 225 feet high. It is the largest glacier in the southern hemisphere, outside of Antartica.
The rest of our time in the Fjords was spent ogling the amazing views. It was hard to leave the deck for even one second. I will include more photos in a separate entry soon.
Next stop after leaving the Fjords, Valparaiso, Chile.
After leaving Buenos Aires, we headed east on the River Plate, and back to the Atlantic Ocean. From there, we continued southeast along the coast of Argentina. It took us 3 days to reach the entrance to the Magellan Straights, very close to the tip of South America. It got progressive colder, the further south we went. This is a good time for a quick sidebar on “latitude”. When we entered the Amazon river, we were on the Equator, which is zero latitude. It’s always hot at the equator, where the sun is the closest to the earth. As you head further North from the equator, the cooler it gets. As you head further South, the cooler it gets. This may sound curious, because when we think “south” we think warmth. That’s not the case.
At Punta Arenas, the latitude is 53.16 S. This is almost the same as Happy Valley, Labrador, in Canada at 53.19 N… just on the opposite end of the earth. It is the height of summer down here, and the temperature reached a measly 51F, which is perfect for me. I was blissed out to be in a jacket and long pants for a change. The important thing is to protect exposed skin from burning, thanks to the considerable hole in the ozone layer above us.
Chile is a narrow sliver of land clinging to the western edge of South America. It covers 39 degrees of latitude and is 2,653 miles long but only 110 miles wide. The country is hemmed in by the Andes mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, a vast desert in the north, and thousand of islands and glaciers to the south. There are 36 live volcanos. Evidence of human presence dates back to 13,000 BC.
There are only 16.3 million inhabitants in the entire county, and most live in the sprawling capital area of Santiago. Chile is known as Latin America’s safest country, hands down. The economy is stable, and there is a lack of corruption. It is the world’s top producer of copper. Other big industries are oil, salmon farming, and tourism.
The first European to discover the area was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator traveling with a fleet of 5 ships. He entered the Straights (later named after him) in 1520. It was a 354 mile journey battling ceaseless gale force winds that changed direction from one minute to the next, making it impossible to sail. They were literally blown through the waterways. Promising channels shot off in all in directions, only to end in glacier walled cul-de-sacs, forcing them to retrace their steps. At times, the exhausted men had to tow the ships from small rowboats back into (what they hoped) was the main passage. Finally, after 36 hellacious days, the crew spied the open ocean ahead. Magellan was so relieved to see the calmer body of water to the west that he named it the Pacific.
They sailed on for 4 months without seeing land and ate only salted pork and wormy meal. All the sailors had scurvy. When Magellan was killed in a fight with the natives of Mactan Island in the South Pacific, the fleet did not turn back the way they came. They were petrified of attempting to go through the Straights at the bottom of South America for a second time. They took the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa instead. Three years after setting out, just one of Magellan’s original fives ships finally limped back to Spain. Manned by only 18 of the original 270 crew members, who were barely alive. The voyage chronicler said he could not imagine the journey would ever be repeated again. The crew did not know at the time, but they were the first men to successfully circumnavigate the globe. To bad they never got to celebrate this astonishing feat.
The Straights of Magellan did become the principle route for steam ships (not sailing ships) traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is much safer then journeying around the bottom of the continent where the two fearsome oceans meet in a violet clash. Cape Horn boasts the largest ship graveyard in the Americas, due to the treacherous icy waters and the williwaws. Now that’s a great word! A williwaw is a sudden violet squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast. They seem to come from nowhere… as if conjured up by Poseidon when he has an appetite for sailors’ souls.
Punta Arenas, on the Straights, was first established around 1850 as a military garrison and a penal colony for military personnel. It was also conveniently situated for supplying coal and provisions to ships heading to the west coast of the USA from Europe. In the early years, the town lived off natural resources, including sealskins, guanaco hides, mineral products, guano (bird poop sold for fuel), timber, and firewood. The economy took off around 1875 when 300 purebred sheep were brought here from the Falkland Islands. It was a successful experiment. By 1900, two million animals grazed the territory, and the extreme wealth the wool brought stayed in the hands of a few people. Europeans escaping from WW1 also arrived seeking fortunes in sheep ranching, gold, copper mining, and the shipping industry.
As you can probably guess, the indigenous people who had been living here for thousands of years did not bode well. They were killed in massacres because they were “inconvenient” or they died of European borne illnesses. The local Selk’nam people became extinct, along with over 100 other indigenous tribes. The few that remain are in isolated regions or on Reservations.
Commercial progress in Punta Arenas came to a grinding halt once the Panama Canal was built in 1913, and many ships no longer needed to pass through the Straights or round Cape Horn. And, the situation became much worse, when wool from New Zealand and Australia started competing with Chile.
The town languished until the 1940’s when oil was discovered nearby, leading to a major improvement in roads. Now, 120,000 people live here, and tourism has become a major focus. It’s a starting point for heading south to Antartica, and north to the Chilean Fjords.
There is an ever persistent wind here called Escoba de Dios, or God’s Broom. When we arrived, the Broom was sweeping at 40 MPH. Later in the day it increased. And, this is just a fresh breeze according to the locals. It’s not really windy until the town sets out ropes between lampposts for people to hang on to, as they trudge along the streets. In the winter, the entire area is buried in several feet of snow, and the roads are impassible.
Everything we wanted to explore was within walking distance of the port. First, we headed to the tree lined Plaza Munoz Gamero, which is dominated by a bronze statue of Magellan. Look closely at the shiny foot of the Indian on the right side of the statue. Local legend says that if you rub his big toe, you will come back to Punta Arenas some day. You are not allowed to specify which time of year, so I didn’t dare.
The highlight was a trip to the Municipal Cemetery. It is a jumbled menagerie of architectural styles and tombs. All classes of people are buried here, from the wealthiest sheep barons to lowly sailors from around the world who never left after being shipwrecked. We spend a few hours wandering through the crisscrossing network of maze like footpaths and gawking at the trimmed cypress trees that looked like chubby fingers.
We admired the pristine graves covered in a riot of plastic flowers and wondered about the crumbly ones covered in wildflowers and weeds. We sought out the Grave of the Unknown Indian, who is believed to be the last Selk’nam. His skeleton was found near town and citizens raised the money to have a statue made in his honor. The plaques surrounding him are in gratitude from people who say their wishes came true after touching his hand. Maybe I will be coming back to add one… but only in the summer. But, by far, the most intriguing sections, are the walls of locker-sized funerary urn receptacles and the elaborate way they are decorated. Each one is a unique tribute.
On the way back to the ship, we saw a group of nesting birds, on a dilapidated pier that had been severed from land, and thought what a strange place it was to have a colony. They were not deterred by the wind.
Next up, Chilean Fjords.
Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is pretty close to Montevideo. Just up the River Plate about 100 miles. 15 million people reside here. If your career goals include becoming a professional pickpocket or mugger, this is where you should aspire to live. Their skills are flawless, and honed to perfection. They are the best. Hands down (or up… depending).
A fellow passenger’s Rolex was pried right off his wrist outside the Evita Museum. We saw the bruises. The attacker grabbed him around the neck in a choke hold, and when his arms went up in a reflexive gesture of protection, the watch was unclipped and liberated. The assailant ran to a waiting scooter, hopped on the back (a bad-ass Harley would have been more fitting) and sped off. The entire episode was over in 15 seconds. He was not seriously hurt, and he managed to stay on his feet. We heard about 6 stolen purses and several men whose wallets were emancipated from their back pockets. Many necks returned to the ship unadorned, and the ladies never felt a thing. These masterminds are soundless, sneaky, move like the wind, and travel in teams. They don’t need guns or knives. All they have to do is hang out at tourist attractions and select their oblivious marks.
Stealing is bad. But, trying to survive in a city that has suffered from over 2,000 percent inflation since the last major financial collapse makes people desperate. We know all about it, we were here when it happened. In late December 2001, we spent 3 days in Buenos Aires before heading to Antartica to hang out with the penguins. I remember thousands of people standing in line at the banks, which were padlocked shut. Customer’s accounts were frozen. Before we left, the country was on the verge of imploding financially, politically, and socially.
While we were peacefully floating around at the bottom of the world, President Fernando de la Rue resigned after 27 people died in food riots. One in four children was suffering from malnutrition in a country that is capable of feeding 10 times it’s population. The jobless rate was 25% and half the population was well below the poverty line. By the time we returned to Buenos Aires 3 weeks later, the country had chewed up and spit out 7 new presidents. A few days after we returned home, the government devalued the Peso, ending 10 years of parity with the US Dollar.
Argentina is well known as a country of political drama and military dictatorships. The distribution of wealth and resources is extremely skewed. It remains the property of around 200 close knit families known as the oligarchy. This distortion in “ownership” continues to stunt the country’s growth and political life.
The economy proceeds in great lurches and busts that are tied to the price of agricultural exports. Inflation in the 1980’s led to a collapse, followed by a boom in the 1990’s. The country has somewhat recovered from the last recession in 2001, but there are few signs that the recovery will be long lasting.
We took a city tour and had a candid guide who told us what life is like for him; a well educated, hard working, 38 year old living in the city. It is not a pretty picture. He says that inflation is currently at 40 percent, and a loaf of bread may get a new price several times throughout the day in a grocery store. It’s nearly impossible to save for the future. He cannot even dream of owning a home, like his parents. The banks require a 50% downpayment, and the interest rate on a mortgage is over 45 percent.
And get this. If you are one of the millions that live in wretched squalor, the Mafia may help out by becoming your “sponsor”. They will give you money for food, clothing, and a hillside shack in the local slum, and only ask for one thing in return. YOUR VOTE for THEIR candidate of choice. It is a corrupt, self perpetuating system with no end in sight.
I would seek asylum in Uruguay. Montevideo was pretty sweet.
Buenos Aires was originally founded in 1536, but the Spaniards sent to colonize the mouth of the River Plate were forced away by the indigenous people. A second, more successful attempt was made in 1580. In 1816, Argentina emancipated itself from the Spanish crown.
We drove past the infamous “Pink Palace”, where Madonna, playing the role of Evita in the movie of the same name, gave her final speech, and sang “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina…” The “real” Eva Perone never spoke from that balcony and the song is all Hollywood. She was from a poor family, and became a vaudeville entertainer. She met Juan Peron at a show and became his mistress. Later on, he married her, which was blasphemy, considering her lower class origins. She became a heroine of the working class and a champion of women’s rights. She was despised by the aristocracy. She was only 33 when she died of uterine cancer in 1953. Before her death, her behavior became so unpredictable (in her husband’s opinion), that he signed her up for a lobotomy, under the guise that it would “ease her pain”. Nice guy.
Eva’s body went missing for many years, and rumors of necrophilia circulated throughout the capital. When her body was finally recovered and brought back to Buenos Aires in the 1980’s, she was buried in the Recoleta Cemetery. This is one of the swankiest addresses in town, and the ancestors of the city’s aristocracy are buried here. Begun in 1822, this amazing necropolis is a crypt city of tall and elaborate tombs and mausoleums covering 4 city blocks. Eva’s body is 21 feet underground, so it won’t be easy to swipe again. She now rests surrounded by the very families who once despised her lower class origins.
Next, we headed to the La Boca barrio near the river, which came to life in the mid-1800’s, when Spanish and Italian dockworkers immigrated here. These poor men constructed their homes of corrugated iron, which remain today. They grabbed discarded paint cans from the docks and covered their dwellings with a mishmash of dazzling colors. When they ran out of one hue, they moved onto the next, resulted in a unique patchwork design. This painting tradition is kept alive today.
This part of town is well known for The Tango. In the beginning, the dance was usually performed by two males as they waited in line at the local bordello. Men needed to know how to dance to “attract the ladies”.
The dance is rooted in the musical traditions of the slaves, gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) and the immigrants. The music is described as being full of loneliness, despair, jealousy, homesickness, sexuality, sleazy latin machismo, passion and lust. When the Tango was outlawed in the city, dancers came to the “underground” clubs in La Boca. Rich or poor. It didn’t matter. The need to “strut their stuff” was unquenchable. The nightclubs get pretty steamy in Buenos Aires, but we didn’t get a chance to check them out.
Besides, I don’t think Queen Victoria would have approved.
Next stop, Punta Arenas, Chile. The southernmost city in the world.
After Rio De Janeiro, we spent two days at sea before arriving in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay on February 6th. Last night, we were tossed around by unpredicted 70 MPH Winds and 25 foot waves. We had no warning from the Bridge. Our stateroom is on the back left corner of the ship with a deck that wraps around the port side (that’s the left side for you nautically challenged). The views are stellar and we never miss anything. However, being on the back is not so great if the seas are rough. Imagine riding an ornery horse that never stops trying to buck you off. It feels like that. We spent most of the night trying not to get flung out of bed and securing anything glass that could become airborne and impale us. At 4 AM we finally turned west onto the Rio de la Plata (Plate River) and the seas flattened, but the winds roared on. The winds were so intense that the port was closed overnight to all traffic, which is fairly common here. We were in a cue of stacked up ships waiting for Pilots to guide them in. Pilots are local experts who knows the waterways intimately. They are essential when coming into a port or in tricky bodies of water (like the Amazon). They do not grab the wheel (metaphorically speaking… joysticks replaced wheels long ago), but they do tell the Captain exactly where to go, and they are in charge. No questions asked. The sleepless night was well worth it, because the storm cleared out the steamy air, and we were treated to a blustery day in the mid-70’s. Absolute heaven.
Uruguay is a tiny country of only 72,000 square miles (about the size of South Dakota) and is wedged between Brazil and Argentina. The population is 3.4 million. 1.8 million live in Montevideo, which has repeatedly been named one of the “30 safest cities in the world”. This is a true feat considering the crime problems that plague most Latin American cities. It is also the least corrupt. The city is on the Plate River, which is the widest river in the world, and muddy brown due to sediment.
We spent the morning walking around the “old city” near the port, and were struck by how clean the city is. There is a high level of “civic pride” here. Trash cans are everywhere, and people actually use them! There were very few smokers, and most consciously deposited their butts in special receptacles. The streets are in good shape. Parks are landscaped and well maintained. There were no homeless people sleeping on the streets. In most of Latin America there are scrawny stray dogs everywhere. We did not see one. And, we did not feel the need to be ever vigilant against pickpockets. Most residents were conservatively dressed. The guy below must have been visiting from Rio…
So, why is it so different here? Much can be attributed to Jose Battle y Ordonez; President in the early 1900’s. Impressed by the social legislation and state operated industries of Switzerland, he created a Constitution in 1918 that laid the foundation for social programs unparalleled on the continent today. He legalized divorce, abolished the death penalty and established an 8 hour work day with paid holidays. All essential industries and services are run by the government and all residents get free medical care. The entire population has access to clean water, which is uncommon in this part of the world. The Constitution also provides complete freedom of the press, the prohibition of “arbitrary arrest” which is rampant in most South American cities, and decreed that prisons were for reform not punishment.
But, the most dramatic difference between Uruguay and its neighbors is the complete separation of “church and state”. The Catholic church plays no role in the government, resulting in strong secular traditions. Christmas is “Family Day” and Easter or Holy Week is Tourist Week, when many people take off and travel. And, it is forbidden to name a public building after a Saint.
Remember, Uruguay is part of the “meat triangle” and most of the land here is grassy prairie. There are over 10 million cows and 4 million pigs. The smell of barbecue permeates the air. It’s impossible to get away from it. We strolled through a busy market, and after seeing the scene below, decided on pastries for lunch instead. Yes, I know meat has a face, but this was to much reality…
We took a city tour in the afternoon, and were amazed by the ample green expanse of city parks and miles of trails along the riverfront. Traffic flowed smoothly. Motorists stopped and smiled at pedestrians in crosswalks, instead of grinning maniacally and speeding up like in Rio. We saw hundreds of people jogging. And, to encourage fitness, there are “public exercise stations” dotted throughout the city, and people were using them. Mostly to sit on and chat, but maybe that works to, by osmosis.
A visit to the Legislative Building was a highlight. The Parliament meets here, and it was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The inside is stunning with 27 different kinds of marble, all found in Uruguay.
We were really quite impressed by everything we saw and learned today, but the most captivating sight was back at the pier. In the harbor, sunken ships riddled with rust and gaping wounds were mashed together as unintended sculptures.
Montevideo was one of the main ports in the Americas for the Spanish Empire. The high volume of traffic coupled with complicated wind patterns led to numerous shipwrecks along the coast. They started in 1772, when the frigate ”La Aurora” sank as it set sail for Spain with a load of Peruvian silver. The last significant wreck was in 1930, when the “Verano” went under as it transferred a leather shipment to a Dutch steamship.
The graveyard is a mecca for divers, sea life, and photographers. Pretty awesome, huh?
Next Stop, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Stay tuned…
After 6 luxurious days at sea, we arrived in Rio De Janeiro on February 3rd.
We were in Rio on the Queen Mary 2 in 2010, took a city tour, and visited Sugar Loaf Mountain. This city is always jam packed with visitors from around the world. The cue for the gondola was 3 hours long, but we made it. We gave up on visiting the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue because of the monstrous line. You can read about our last experience and see some stunning views by typing Rio into the search window on the right.
This time, we decided to flee the city and visit Petropolis (pop 310,000), north of Rio. A 1.5 hour bus ride through the mountains, deposited us at 2,660 feet. In 1840, Emperor Don Pedro, II, built a palace here to escape the sultry Rio summers.
Pedro was a magnanimous guy. He reigned over Brazil for 58 years and was the only native-born emperor the country has ever known. He was born in Rio in 1825. The only son of seven siblings. His mother died when he was two, and his father was forced to return to Portugal when he was five. This five year old, “technically” became the new emperor then, but his Regents would make decisions until he turned 15. For the next decade, he was schooled by tutors for 12 hour a day. Only 2 hours was allocated for playtime. He was sickly, jaundiced, and friendless. Portuguese was his native language, but by age 11, he was also fluent in English, French, and Spanish. He was trained to hold his temper, and never express disappointment, frustration or even joy in public. A pretty repressive life for a kid!
When he came into power as a teenager, he was already considered to be a highly educated, tolerant, and progressive ruler. He was a great believer in education and founded many schools and universities. He was fascinated by science and technology, and when visiting Philadelphia in 1876, met Alexander Graham Bell who was demonstrating his new invention called the Telephone. When he got back to Brazil, he installed the nation’s first telephone in his Petropolis palace and because he wanted to make and get phone calls… installed a second one at the imperial farm in Santa Cruz.
Several of his closest friends were black, including his manservant and closest confident, so he made the decision to abolish slavery. The plantation owners were less then thrilled with this decision, so they turned their backs on him. Their loss of support helped pave the way for the Republic, who assumed power in a bloodless coupe in 1889. The emperor was exiled to France, and unceremoniously installed in a two star hotel, where he died of pneumonia, 2 years later.
The palace is impeccably maintained and modest (by royal standards), matching his humble nature. Unfortunately, photography was strictly prohibited, and not wanting to risk a trip to the dungeon, I decided not to sneak any shots. I was surprised to find rustic hardwood floors throughout, instead of ornate stone and mosaics. They are original, and in excellent condition due to the felt slippers we were required to wear over our shoes. These would never fly in the litigation happy USA… due to their slipperiness. I loved them! Skating through the palace was more fun then walking. I did ask permission to take a photo of my feet in the foyer. It was granted.
The most stunning artifact was the royal crown. The real one. It was made of solid gold with 639 diamonds and 77 pearls. It weighs 4.31 pounds. Okay, maybe he wasn’t so humble after all. We knew it was real because of the armed guard fidgeting next to the thick glass case. His fingers neurotically tapped the trigger of his holstered gun, as his eyes darted around the room. He looked slightly psychotic, which is probably a job requirement. It worked. No one tripped the alarm.
After leaving the palace we toured the lush grounds and basked in the cool misty air before strolling around town. Our next stop was lunch. The theme was meat, and lots of it.
Meat is king in this part of the world. Most adults eat over 300 pounds per year. More then any other part of the world. Vegetarians are not allowed across the border. If one does sneak through… they are shackled in chains, paraded around the village square, stoned, tormented, spit on, then ultimately roasted in a barbecue pit.
The “golden triangle” of beef production is the grasslands of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, were 15 of the 18 grasses cows like to eat, grow naturally and in abundance. There is no need to supplement their diet with pesticide laden grains and artificial fillers. And, because the cows don’t have to walk very far for food, they don’t develop much muscle, which keeps the meat very tender.
Our guide coached us on proper etiquette before we arrived at the Brazilian steakhouse. He said we would be offered skewers of meat, and when we were done eating, to flip the card at our place setting from RED TO GREEN, or the food would keep coming. When he said a skewer… I envisioned a metal stick about 8 inches long with a few scraps of meat and veggies on it. I was very wrong. These skewers where 3 feet long, and each one was loaded with chunks of beef, sausage, chicken or pork. A pair of tongs sat next to our fork, and we had no idea what it was for. The more enlightened diners clued us in. As the waiter starts to cut off a chunk of meat from the skewer, our job was to grab it with the tongs and guide it to our plate. But that’s not all. Plates of tomatoes, cheese balls, onion rings, french fries, salsa, lettuce, potato salad, and a few things I could not identify were also heaped on the table.
It was awesome! I ate more beef in one meal, then I typically do in 3 months at home. The trick is the high heat barbecue. In Brazil they use coal. In Uruguay and Argentina, they use wood. Oh, and heart disease is epidemic here. Surprise!
Next stop, Montevideo, Uruguay.
Two days after leaving Manaus, and heading back towards the ocean, we arrived in Santarem at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers. We are moving with the current, so the trip going out is zippier. The Tapaiu Indians have been living here for thousands of years, and in 1661 a Jesuit mission was established. The town got it’s name in 1758. The population is about 300,000.
Later history was marked by the rubber boom and bust. Henry Ford’s two failed plantations were near here (Fordlandia and Belterra), and there was a series of gold rushes that started in the 1950’s. Today, the economy is based primarily on production of genetically modified soy and hardwood. There has been an increase in gold and bauxite mining, but the severe environmental impact makes them extremely controversial.
Our berth was a dilapidated pier next to the rusted hunks of old cranes. Across from us, 3 ferries, already bulging with passengers, continued to cram on more bodies. Most were carrying balls of brightly colored fabric that revealed hammocks when unfurled and hooked to the ceiling. These travelers would live in them for the next 3 days as they cruised to Manaus. There was no room to take a deep breath. No chairs, and no food for sale.
There were no air conditioned spaces, and at 10 AM the sun was already punishing. No protection from bugs. And only two toilets for hundreds of people, that discharge directly into the river.
It was a 30 minute walk to town in the suffocating heat, and as I stopped to take photos, a man greeted us in perfect english from the top deck of the “slightly nicer” ferry. He was standing in front of a “suite”, and when he leaned back to open the door, his family emerged from a closet sized windowless room. He introduced his kids as “Daughter #1” and “Daughter #2”, which seemed strangely impersonal. Then he introduced “The Wife”.
He quickly pointed out that they were from Manaus, and only in Santarem because it was necessary to visit family. Why did he need to justify their presence?
In town, a 20 foot sloped seawall offered protection against the recurring floods. Splintered wooden ladders descended the steep sides to the putrid, slime coated water below. A hand written sign with an arrow pointing towards the river advertised; “apartamentos para alugar” (apartments for rent). Where? There was nothing down there but anchored boats whose seaworthiness was suspect. Then we figured it out. The boats ARE the apartments. Bring your own hammock. We watched as residents slogged barefoot between the boats and the seawall laden with bags of groceries and ice. Barefoot… through the raw human waste that gets dumped overboard in buckets. The living conditions were an abomination from my perspective, but this is not my part of the world, so for me to pass judgement is small minded.
We continued along the seawall towards the fish market that was winding down for the day. A few sleepy eyed vendors, glanced our way, but quickly lost interest. An opportunistic Great White Heron gobbled snacks from a bail bucket. No one felt compelled to shoo it away.
On the way back to the pier, we peeked into the glassless windows of homes and noticed many people swinging in hammocks. Apparently, mattresses do not exist here, because it’s just too wet. They are breeding grounds for insects, burrowed into by vermin, and grow an impressive array of sickness promoting molds.
The night before arriving in Santarem, we were warned about buying “lacquered Piranhas” from souvenir stalls. They are considered a biohazard and would not be permitted back on board. They are coated so quickly after death that the parasites still living inside eat through the glaze in a desperate attempt to vacate the decaying corpse and find a new host.
I haven’t looked at the one we got in 2002 for years. Now I’m afraid to open the cabinet…
I hope you enjoyed our adventures on the Amazon River. Now we have 6 days at sea before arriving in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
After leaving the rubber plantation, another 45 minute boat ride took us to a small Indian village. Here, only 5 large families remain; barely clinging to their ancestor’s time honored way of life. No electricity or running water. No electronics or cell phones. No toilets. They use the river as their water source for everything. Their homes have thatched roofs and they sleep in hammocks. They grow some of their own food, and the men hunt in the vast jungle that surrounds them. I mentioned in an earlier post that there used to be over 5 million Amerindians living in the Amazon. Now there are less then 200,000 and their traditional way of life is vaporizing. We felt honored to be here.
Their village is strategically situated on top of a small hill, away for the water’s edge, but with a clear view of the lagoon. In the “old days” spotters climbed the trees with poison arrows dipped in snake venom and stood ready to launch them at enemies and intruders. Some of us, on the cusp of heat stroke, did look delirious and menacing, but no one got shot. Friends were greeted heartily at the shoreline.
We were invited into a large ceremonial tent, and welcomed by the chief. Our guide warned in advance, that we would be invited to participate in the dancing, and to pay close attention to the sequence of steps. To say “no” would be an insult. The look of genuine terror on the faces of the more reticent passengers was priceless. But, there was no place to escape to, except the deep, dark, wilderness. Not an option.
And, it was awesome! Being invited to join in a primal, ancient, ritual. WOW. Even the would be escapees were feverish with joy at the end.
We learned that the younger children are now going to mainstream school in Manaus. A school-boat picks them up for their 2 hour (one way) journey. Our guide said there is no pressure from “modern society” for the kids to go to school. The chief and parents have made this painful decision because the tribe keeps shrinking, and they know it will eventually cease to exist. They want the kids to be prepared to deal with the chaos of the modern world.
There was no chatter in the boat on the way back to Manaus. We were stunned silent.
On our deck, after drinking a gallon of water, we watched the setting sun light up the muddled jumble of ferries in the harbor. They would all leave by late evening, groaning under the weight of people and cargo, and destined for other towns on the river.
We spent the night here, before starting our journey back out towards the Atlantic ocean. In 3 days, over 600 miles away, we will stop in Santarem for the day. Then, another 400 miles will bring us back to the mouth of the river.
Despite being deeply weary after our stimulating day, I had trouble falling asleep. I kept thinking about the few remaining families in the Indian village, and how they keep their ancestors alive through dance. What is it like to sleep in a hammock, in such utter, complete darkness? What does the jungle sound like when the sun goes down? Are they scared of all the things they cannot see? I would be. And, how do the parents feel when they watch the school-boat take their children away from the village for the day? It made me feel so sad. Some say it’s progress. But, is it? Really?
Santarem next, stay tuned…
Shortly after entering the Amazon river, we anchored at Macapa and waited for Brazilian Immigration. Most people need a VISA to travel in Brazil, and for Americans, it’s not cheap. We paid about $400 each, after the processing fees were tacked on. Clearance was speedy, but 3 immigration officials stayed on board to accompany us during our 6 day jaunt on the river. Why, I wonder? Were they concerned that crew members might go awol? Where would they go? There are no roads. They could disappear into the jungle on foot. Try their luck at outmaneuvering the jaguars, dodging the anacondas, tip toeing past the piranhas in electric eel infested swamps… all while leisurely expiring from Dengue Fever, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Chickeltosis, or Eekelokemia. Okay, I made up the last two, but you get the picture.
Perhaps they are members of the Brazilian Culinary Brigade. A vital organization, committed to unmasking any breaches in the gastronomic security protocols. Is the Beef Wellington juicy enough? Are the Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Encrusted Croissants flakey enough? Is the Rosemary and Basil Infused Five Cheese Lobster Ravioli with Garlic Sesame Butter and Essence of New Born Oregano al dente enough?
2 river pilots also got on board. THEY have legitimate roles to play by helping the Captain steer clear of potential hazards. Especially after dark, when the insects ban together in swarms and try to fly off with the ship.
Most of the river bank is dense, impenetrable jungle punctuated with an occasional ramshackle house or small village. Modest plots of cleared land grew lush grasses to support the languid farm animals permanently dazed by the heat. The landscape was steamy and luminous. I saw more shades of green then I knew existed. Many houses were on stilts to protect the inhabitants from the perpetual flooding. There was no glass in the windows, so outside was inside.
Boats of all sizes puttered along the shoreline, but no one really paid much attention to us. This gargantuan ship, a size never before seen on the river, was just a slight curiosity. A few head nods in greeting, an occasional listless wave, and one gang of kids who paused their subdued game of stick ball long enough to glance our way with detachment. The pace of life is very slow here. I found it difficult to stay alert while watching the scenery slip by. Maybe it was the plump iridescent fly that looked me in the eye before biting me. Or, maybe the lethargy is contagious.
We traveled 1,000 miles in 3 days before arriving in Manaus; the capital of Amazones and Brazil’s largest state at roughly one million square miles. Manaus was founded in 1669 by the Portuguese who built a small fort here to guard against Spanish invasion. Jesuit missionaries followed soon after. In 1809, with a population of 2,000, the town became the region’s capital. But it was the Rubber Boom that changed this backwater jungle town into what became known as the “gaudiest city in the world”.
Two ingenious inventions lead to a commercial rubber explosion. In 1844, Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization”. The process of hardening rubber by treating it with sulfur at high temperatures. Then in 1888, Dunlop’s invented our “modern day” pneumatic tire that is filled with air or gas under pressure. The demand for latex skyrocketed and thousands of workers migrated here to become “rubber-tappers” or seringueiros.
We joined an excursion to an old rubber plantation site that was abandoned in the 1920’s, but recently rebuilt as a living museum. We dressed in long pants, hiking boots, thick socks, long sleeve shirts and wide brimmed hats, despite the oppressive heat. Armed with an industrial sized can of 40% Deet bug spray, that would probably melt our clothes on contact, we boarded our small boat for the hour long ride to the jungle site. We scoffed at the other people who foolishly wore shorts and tee shirts, exposing generous amounts of flesh. That lasted until we reached land, and saw NO mosquitos at all. None. Then we simmered with envy at the scantily clad, as rivers of sweat trailed our Northern Hemisphere bodies for the next two hours. Why no mosquitos? We were on the Rio Negro, not the Amazon, so there are less bugs in general due to the composition of the water. It was also very dry at the time and the heat of mid day would fry any bugs that were in the sun. However, a sudden rain shower would change that. Our guide was dressed like us, so we felt vindicated.
The process of extracting rubber is slow and tedious. A rubber-tapper crawls up a tree and makes a long deep cut in the bark. The white watery latex is captured in a small cup as it leaks out overnight and is collected before sunrise. Just one cut, per tree, and only at night. During the day, it’s too hot and the latex would dry before reaching the cup. One tapper averages 80 trees between dusk and dawn, A candle attached to a canister worn on the head, was their only source of light.
The next night, up the tree again, making another cut just below the last one. When they reach the bottom of the tree, they move onto another side. The tree is divided into three sections. It takes 8-10 years to complete tapping one large tree. By then, the first cuts have long healed, and the process is started again by recutting the old scars. The tree is in a constant state of stress, but it lives through the process. During the day, the latex is smoked over a flame to dry out the watery liquid, leaving hard rubber behind. It took 30 days to produce a 140 pound rubber ball, which the tappers had to haul by hand from deep in the forest back to the plantation house. From there, the rubber was transported to Manaus by boat.
The Rubber Barons were obscenely wealthy and known for outlandish spending. A testament to this time is the Opera House in Manaus. Built in 1896 with public funds (from the 20% Rubber Export Tax), it has 700 seats and was constructed with bricks brought from Europe, French glass, and Italian marble. The dome consists of 36,000 glazed ceramic tiles in Brazil’s national colors. Very glamorous… but it’s still the jungle, and half the members of the first visiting opera troupe died of yellow fever.
The “wealth” did not trickle down to the men doing the hard labor. They were treated like barbarians, lived in hovels and paid poorly. When the men demanded more money, the Barons reacted by giving them free Rum instead, to shut them up.
Through the early 1900’s, Brazil sold 88% of the world’s rubber, and Manaus became one of the richest cities in the world. Electricity was installed here before most major European cities.
Then it all came to a crashing halt, soon after a Brit was hired to smuggle 70,000 rubber tree seeds on board a chartered steamer. He snuck them past customs in Belem, by claiming they were rare botanical seeds; a gift for Queen Victoria. Sounds like the custom officers needed a botany lesson. Opps. Later, after planting them in an English greenhouse, it was determined that they would grow well in an environment like Malaysia.
Brazil’s rubber monopoly was broken, thanks to the new British owned plantations in Southeast Asia that severely undercut pricing just before WW1. Within a decade, Manaus plunged into poverty and became an obscure backwater jungle again. It also went dark, because electricity became to expensive to generate.
Henry Ford also took a shot at growing rubber. In 1925 he bought 2.5 million acres on the Tapajos river and called it Fordlandia. He got bad advice from his real estate agent, because the trees would not grow. The site was abandoned to “leaf blight” before sinking back into the jungle. He tried again, and failed again.
In 1967, Manaus became an industrial “duty free zone”, which helped encourage businesses to move here. In 2009, the city was chosen as a host city for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which meant they had to clean things up. Roads were repaved and sidewalks rebuilt. A new airport was constructed. The communication infrastructure was updated, although we saw very few people tethered to their cell phones. The “tourist police” and “military police” have a strong presence and we felt very safe. Although we were advised not to venture off the main roads.
Manufacturing includes petroleum products, soap, and electronics. Ships are also built here. There is a distillery and a brewery. Rubber is still exported, along with brazil nuts, jute, and rosewood oil.
Now, the city has a population of over 2 million! Which is pretty amazing, considering we are in the middle of the jungle, and the only way to get here is by boat or plane. There are a few paved roads that leave the city but they quickly turn to dirt, then just disappear.
That’s enough for now…. my next post will be about our visit to an Indian Village near Manaus and the town of Santarem. Stay tuned!
After leaving Barbados, we were at sea for 3 days traveling southeast in the Atlantic Ocean; passing by Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, before entering the Amazon river in northeast Brazil.
Our first attempt at visiting the Amazon was in 2002. Two days before Christmas we left Miami on the Olympia, a greek ship, expecting to be at sea for 2 days before arriving in Barbados. Instead, we were jolted awake the next morning by the US Coast Guard who had surrounded us with a dramatic display of pulsing lights and deafening sirens. They escorted us to the dock in St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), where we sat. Clueless. The crew was as bewildered as we were. No one was permitted to leave the ship and Internet access had been squelched. As noon passed, we grumbled about leading a mutiny while noshing on shrimp caesar salads and chocolate moose. Finally, a cryptic glimpse into our predicament was announced… “due to the court case underway in Honolulu, but now recessed for the holidays, the ship is temporarily being detained”. More information trickled in throughout the day, and by nightfall we had the full story. The cruise line had gone bankrupt, and the German bank who now controlled our fate, filed for an emergency injunction to stop us from leaving US Waters. The next morning we got booted off the dock. We moved to the outer harbor and sat at anchor, in limbo, for 10 days before heading back to Miami to disembark on January 3rd as scheduled.
Once the Coast Guard was assured we would not try to flee, tender service was approved. We went ashore each day to hang out in town, visit beaches, or take the local ferry to St. John for a change of scenery. The crew continued to treat us like royalty and the level of service never diminished. And, since many disillusioned passengers decided to fly home at their own expense, there was plenty of food for the rest of us. Hmmm…. go back to the frigid northeast or stay in tropical bliss? Seriously, is that a choice?
The night before pulling anchor, our waiter presented us with a elaborately wrapped package. He was beaming as we peeled off the tape. “You no make it to Amazon, so I give you my Piranah”, he said with reverence. Inside was a lacquered Piranah, it’s gaping maw revealed razor edged teeth. A stick jutted from it’s abdomen and “Manaus” was hand written on the driftwood base.
We were astonished by his unwavering professionalism, genial disposition, and generosity in the face of a very uncertain future.
Two weeks after we arrived back home, we received a full refund from the cruise line’s insurance company; even though we did not buy a policy. Refund rules are different for bankruptcies and in the passengers’ favor. Now that’s a happy ending.
It took us 15 years, but this time we made it! And, making history. The Queen Victoria is the largest passenger ship to ever transit the Amazon River.
Early explorers in the 1500’s wrote about being attacked by matriarchal tribes of bare breasted women who fought more fiercely then Indian men. It was these remarkable warriors who later inspired the name, Amazon, after the women of Greek mythology who removed their right breast to facilitate using a bow and arrow. That’s dedication!
The Amazon is truly the mightiest river on earth. The headwaters are a chain of glacier-fed lakes high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The river flows eastward for 4,080 miles and eventually meets the Atlantic Ocean in Northeastern Brazil at the equator. It’s 250 mile wide mouth expels 3 billion gallons of water per minute with such force that you can taste fresh water 110 miles from the mouth of the river. I wonder who decided to take that first sip? This discharge accounts for 20% of all the fresh water on earth. Two days worth is enough to keep New York City hydrated for 9 years. Drainage comes from 2.3 million square miles of land, which is about 3/4 of the continental United States.
The Amazon can be 68 mile wide in places during the rainy season (January-June) as it rises up to 46 feet during monsoons. In the dry season, some spots are less then a mile wide. Depths range from 20-300 feet. Deep enough for ocean-going freighters to travel 2,310 miles inland as far as Iquitos, Peru. Year round water temperature is about 86F.
There are over 1,100 tributaries. 17 of these are magnificent rivers in their own right, at over 1,000 miles long. When some rivers meet the Amazon, their waters do not mix due to different densities, temperatures, and flow speed. This phenomenon is called the “Meeting of the Waters”. We witnessed this bizarre sight twice. When the Amazon meets the Rio Negro near Manaus, the rivers flow side by side for 6 miles before finally merging. The Amazon wins. The Amazon is milky brown with a mucky bottom because of the sediment and silt that flows from the Andes mountains. This sediment, rich in bacteria, is the perfect breeding ground for the 2.5 million different kinds of insects found here. Half of these spent 6 days attempting to drill through the thick glass of our balcony door… delirious with the intoxicating promise of feasting on the juicy overfed humans inside. We were warned to keep our balcony door closed at night, and outside lights on the decks were dimmed. These precautions did not seem to deter their kamikaze directives. At sunrise, there were mountains of dying insects on deck and a thick film of bug entrails on the windows.
The Rio Negro is the color of black tea which comes from decomposing trees. Because it has a sandy bottom, it is not a breeding ground for insects like the Amazon. It is one of the cleanest rivers in the world.
The second “meeting” is near Santarem where the Amazon meets the Tapajos.
The Amazon region hosts over 30% of all known plant and animal species in the world; 2,500 different kinds of fish,1,800 species of birds, 250 mammals, and 50,000 complex plant varieties. Average rainfall is 79 inches a year making it the wettest region in the world. Humidity is always near 100% and the temperature is usually 90F with little variation.
In the early 1,900’s there were over 5 million Amerindians living in the forest. Now there are less then 200,000. Today, approximately 240 known tribes live in Brazil and most have less then 1,000 people. it is believed that 50 of these tribes have never had contact with the outside world. These tribes are extremely vulnerable to diseases like the common cold or flu, transmitted by outsiders. Unfortunately, this does not stop thrill seekers from venturing further into the jungle.
The Amazon rainforest supplies 15% of the world’s oxygen; and is known as the “lungs of the planet”. Alarmingly, close to 20% (about the size of France) has been cut down, mainly within the past 50 years. Cattle companies using a “slash and burn” technique to sow pastures are major culprits along with foreign lumber companies and big grain farmers cultivating genetically engineered soybeans. Illegal deforestation also continues to be a huge problem. Thankfully, global interest in protecting the forest is on the rise.
My next post will be about our adventures in Manaus and Santarem, assuming I live long enough to tell the tale. Gulp. Was that crack in the window there a minute ago?