The Tucano Cruise, Rio Negro, Brazil
Amazonia with Explor Cruises
Bob and I decided that for once we would celebrate our anniversary doing something exciting as on January 6 we usually just want to stay home. We booked our first ever cruise with Explor Cruises with our friends Dick and Leslie West to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary and as it turns out, Leslie and Dick celebrated their 28th just one day before ours. As many of you know, I am not a fan of cruise ships but this opportunity on a small boat cruising along the Amazon looked intriguing.
We traveled all day to Manaus, Brazil where our trip would start the next day. We met up with Dick, Leslie and their son, Charlie who had just graduated from college, along with a few others who had just finished a pre-trip to the Pantanal where they saw jaguars and many other birds and animals. They also saw some hieroglyphs that seemed pretty important to timelines and dating.
Pics above by Richard West and the jaguar by Howard Sheffield
Our luggage was collected and we were driven about 30 minutes to where we would load the Tucano for the first time. There had just been a huge concert on the beach the night before and it was a tad bit congested with people deconstructing the site. We ferried on to the boat and made our way down the river. We met the crew and our two guides, Edi and Alex. Edi gave us a quick overview of some of the foods that we would be eating. Always of interest to me.
The first canoe ride we saw a mysterious cloud and others swore they saw a sloth. I was highly skeptical since it was 500 yards or more away. Bird pictures below by Howard Sheffield.
Each morning started with a 5:30 a.m. knock on our door. We had 30 minutes to get dressed, have coffee and bring ourselves to the lower deck. Once there, you could choose to travel in the canoe with a group or kayak.
Since I don’t drink coffee, I was usually the first one on deck grabbing a life jacket and was able to commandeer one of the five kayaks. This was my favorite part of the day. As I lowered myself into the kayak and paddled out to wait for the others to come downstairs, I drifted while quietly watching a family of pink or gray river dolphins frolic about. They were as curious about me as I was about them. As the group gathered, you either followed one of our two guides, Alex or Edi with the kayaks usually traveling a different route than the canoes. We glided along looking for wildlife, usually birds with an occasional small caiman peering out with their eyes just above the water.
After we returned, the crew usually had our breakfast ready with fresh aqua frescas. We usually had a couple of hours before our next activity which usually consisted of a jungle hike or as Leslie and I called them, sweat hikes. We donned our long pants, hiking books, long sleeved shirts and hats. I also brought along a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from my face and a fan. Thank God I took the fan with me. We were supposed to be able to see animals but we saw nada.
Alex demonstrated how you could drink water from vines and explained how he spent five years studying to be a shaman before his mother said enough. Part of the journey is that both the young man and his family shared the demanding eating restrictions. I don’t blame his mother for saying enough! Alex usually ended our little hikes with painting one or two of the Explorers with face paint, crushing some powders that he had with a little oil to make the paint. Each stroke was reflective of an overall design that only Alex knew the meaning to. Some had the nose of a jaguar, others a fish.
After returning to the Tucano, the kayakers usually took the first of many showers for the day. Lunch was served as we re-hydrated before the next activity around 4:00. This was usually a canoe ride to somewhere to either look for more animals or visit a village or an abandoned rubber plantation. At one time, harvesting rubber was one of the major sources of income for Brazil. Then someone took some starts to Malaysia to try and grow the trees there. It worked so successfully that it changed the demand for rubber in Brazil. As you can imagine, the plantation owners, who were usually Portuguese, trapped the indigenous people into situations where the natives could never buy themselves out of debt and were trapped in their service.
It was interesting that tiles from Europe were brought over for the floors in some of the buildings, yet the owners rarely lived on site. For Leslie and I, the most interesting part was visiting the graveyard that had spectacular steel markers and railings at the gravesites, Alex thought we were crazy wanting to go the cemetery to see dead people.
We saw cacao trees and achiote or annatto as well, though they called the achiote something else in Portuguese.
On another afternoon outing, we went to a long sandy beach to swim in the water that was warmer than most pools I have ever swam in. As we finished our drinks of fresh coconuts, a storm barreled in and it was time to get in the canoes—quickly.
Halfway back to the boat, we were told to don our life jackets as the water swelled up and over the sides of the boats. It was like a Disney ride with lightening lighting up the skies all around us. I’m sure it was a little scary for the crew as they guided us quickly back to the boat. Leslie and I often laughed during the trip that if there was lightening coming, off we would go to the boats! As a rower, she isn’t allowed out in her boat if there is any lightening anywhere near where she practices on Lake Washington in Seattle. We did, however, have some fabulous sunsets after the skies cleared of the storms.
Cocktails and appetizers were usually served before dinner and then, off to another activity. One night a bunch of the Explorers went fishing for piranhas. Bob went and described it as something he’s never experienced. The fisherman had poles that they slapped on the water to mimic agitation by an animal and the piranha would “bite.” The fishermen were not allowed to take their fish off of their poles, instead they handed them to Alex or Edi who very carefully removed the fish from the pole. They caught forty-three that evening and later they were served as an appetizer. Everyone said they were very tasty.
Two other evenings, there was an opportunity to go out in the canoes with a spot light, searching for the animals that are more active at night. I did not go the first night but Bob did and they saw caimans, a small boa constrictor, and some birds. When I went, the piranhas were jumping out of the water toward the light and one almost landed in the canoe but luckily hit the seat right in front of me otherwise it would have ended up in my lap. As it was, a sardine jumped into the seat behind me and flopped around under the slats for a few minutes. We saw some frogs, birds and many small caimans that Alex tried to capture by hand but they caught on to him pretty quickly and submerged before he could grab them.
Most evenings it rained as, although we were there in the low water season, we were on the shoulder of when the rainy season was starting. As we traveled along the river, you could see the high-water marks on the trees, with many trees falling on to the shore as the water eroded their foothold into the ground. We were told that the water can fluctuate as much as 45 feet between the low and high-water season. Of course, math-whiz Charlie, figured out how much that was and it was an overwhelming number. The lightning storms, as previously mentioned, were pretty awesome to see, though for one of them, we had to stay in the dining room because the whole sky lit up on each side of the boat for each strike.
There was one activity we thoroughly enjoyed. Alex demonstrated a macrame project - bracelets or necklaces.
The last day, we headed to a smaller river that allowed us to see both sides of the shores with ease. We saw a couple of different species of monkeys, including a lone howler, and many different birds but no sloth. The fabulous featured picture of the monkey holding the iguana was taken by Howard Sheffield. We heard it drop and some of them saw the monkey as it captured its prey.
We also visited a small village but guess what? It rained so we didn’t spend much time there but a few of the Explorers were able to buy some carved animals from a local family. The rain shower was actually very refreshing since it cooled down a bit.
Our last afternoon, we headed back to Manaus and traveled underneath the massive bridge to where the Rio Negro met the Amazon where we were greeted by freighters, small canoes, taxis and groups of dolphins swimming and jumping as if to say thanks for coming!
We stopped along the way to allow the crew to board a musician who sang to us as we passed back under the bridge that was lit so beautifully. We admired the design as we gracefully floated under its lights. We imbibed in a local rum drink before our last meal that was beautifully presented by our crew complete with a delicious chocolate birthday cake to celebrate one of the passenger’s 80th birthday.
The Tucano’s crew was very polite, helpful and professional, even dressing up for the last evening’s meal in their dress whites. We enjoyed the boat and its old-world charm and felt that the cabins were really well designed and were more spacious then we expected. There were a few leaks during the rainstorms, including our bedroom, but the crew handled it with ease.
Our last day we disembarked at 7:30 a.m. after we watched the crew carry our suitcases from the shore to the bus, marveling at their ability to do so. We then spent three hours on a tour of Manaus, stopping to visit two local markets that included an herb pharmacy and the pink opera house that was built with rubber baron money. Marble from Italy, local wood for the floors and tiles from Portugal for the dome. We were pleasantly surprised that the symphony was practicing with a group of local children as part of the program.
The shower and pool at the Villa Amazonia were welcomed by those of us staying for the rest of the day or overnight. Charlie and I couldn’t wait to get hooked up to the internet so we could find out what happened with the elections.
While others were resting, Leslie and I shopped a bit and admired the fishing baskets we saw in a nearby museum.
It was great fun traveling with the West’s, and getting to know their son, Charlie who is an intelligent, polite and charming young man who delighted all the passengers. We were an interesting group, most retired with just a few of us still working full time.
Bob and I agreed that it was a wonderful 40th anniversary present to ourselves. Thank you Explor Cruises for the trip of a lifetime.