Brazil part 2, Swallows and Amazons .. well amazons anyway...

Manaus Travel Blog

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Hola all, Brazil part 2, as we last left you we were about to begin the 33 hr trip from Salvador to the amazon town of Belem in the north of Brazil. Well the ''sit up and beg'' bus just kept getting worse and worse. The air conditionig was leaking like crazy so we had to keep swapping seats to find the dryest possible, as you can imagine it is not conducive to sleep when you have ice cold water intermittantly pouring on your head as the bus takes a sharp corner ! To pass the time we played Musical charades (one person listens to the ipod and tries to mime the song , the other tries to guess it before the song ends.. not that much fun, but after the first 24 hrs on the bus this was all we had !) and watched the unaltering countryside roll on by.

We seemed to be making good time initially, as we were tracking our progess on our map, but then things started to get a little more complicated. We stopped for "Dinner" at one point, the bus driver told us all we would have 15 minutes, but then he dissappeared.. with the bus.. for over two hours ! and this was to be the norm for the rest of the journey.

We were scheduled to arrive at 1am in Belem, but we acually rolled into town at 1pm the following day, a full 43 hours on the bus ! things were not helped by the road collapsing just outside Belem (about 2 hours away), but in this case the bus company did us proud as they sent another bus from the ther side of the collapsed road, so we all trapsed across the bit of road that was left, through the carnival like atmosphere of the locals all coming out as this was the most exciting thing that had probably happened all year,  and boarded the other bus !

So finally we arrived in Belem ready to book our boat up the amazon to its capital, Manaus. Belem is, to be short, dirty, old and dangerous. As usual we arrived on a sunday when nothing was open, it was dreary and gray and we were not in the best of moods as we checked into our scummy hostal with its uhelpful staff telling us its to dangerous to go out for dinner ! The day did slightly improve as the hostal owners mother in law offered to secure us a ticket on the boat to Manaus for what seemed to be an ok price ( a double cabin for 600 real), and after giving up trying to find an nopen place for dinner, we had a pot noodle and at about 5pm went for a nap that turned into 13 hrs sleep !

Our moods, like the weather had improved the next day and we set out to explore the town. We wandered along the scum ridden streets to the port to see if the price touted to us in the hostal was ok, and were told the only boat available from this port would be days later and cost 800 real !! eeep, so we took the chance with the tout and booked through her ( a real blessing as it turned out), as our boat would be a much smaller one than the 800 real boat and leaving from a different port !

After "enduring" the bus and the scummy town, we needed a sense of normality, so we skipped along to Belems central Mall, an air conditioned haeven from the sweltering fester of the city centre. Here we gorged ourselves on Big mac meals, spent the afternoon shopping and went to see a god awful chick flick at the cinema before taking a deep pan pizza back to our hostal (as it too risky to walk in that area after dark apparently!!). When we returned, the hostal lady, who had magically transformed into  the most helpful we have had in ages ! had our boat tickets waiting for us at the rock bottom price of 600 real leaving the next day !

It was our last day in Belem and we thought we would give it a bit more of a chance. We got us at stupid o clock to see the fish market , which was amazing, not only the hundreds of different types of fish , but also the hawkers selling hundreds of "amazonian remedies" for everythig from Impotence to hair growth. We bought some soap that was guarenteed to ward off mosquitoes for the boat ride and took some pretty cool photos. We also found the towns "rejuvenated" area down by the riverfront. Here the old docks had been transformed into swanky restaurants and some of the old colonial houses have been done up, it was actually quite nice and we were left with a good feeling (finally) for Belem.

And , as fate would have it, just as we just started to like the place , things went a bit wrong again... we jumped the bus that should have taken us to the docks where our boat was moored. Again the lonely planet was sadly lacking in anything useful to say on this topic, so we were left to the mercy of the now helpful hostal ladies advice. So, massive packs in hand, we joined the amazingly crowded bus in the sweltering heat hoping that we were going the right way. 45 minutes later ( we were told it was only a 10 minute jaunt) we were still on the bus, and no matter how hard we tried to explain to the conductor where we wanted to be , he didnt ( or wouldnt ) understand ! Things were not helped as we were sat right at the front of the bus, ( it was impossible to get our packs further back through the crowds), on the seats normally reserved for the elderly or infirm, just at the time when the entire brazilian population of elderly and infirm seemed to be trying to get onto our bus, and scowling at the stupid gringoes sweating in their seats ! Eventually a nice local lady took pity on us, she spoke some english and told us we were not going the right way at all, got us off the bus and put is ito a taxi for the journey back across town to where we needed to be !!

The port was deep in a favella, and there were guards on the gate as we went in and  " checked in" to our cabin.  The cabin was amazing compared to what we expected. " bunks, shower, toilet, airconditioning, power , the lot. As the boat was not scheduled to leave for another 5 hours, we left lucky cabin no 8, and caught a bus back into town..( this in itself was odd, as the security on the port would only let us out of the compund as the bus was coming as he said it would be too risky for us to wait on the road.. which was fine.. but we did feel a bit sorry for the spanish guy wandering off down the road with this 3 thousand euro SLR camera slung round his neck !! .. incidentally nothing happened to him..) Anyway, some last minute shopping later. Booze, water, noodles and 2 garden chairs for us to sit on, we headed back to the boat to await its departure. 

Departure depended upon when the loading was complete ( scheduled for 17.00, actual 20.00). but just watching the loading was amazing !! I have never seen so many packets of beans in my life ! As the amazon towns are so remote, everything has to be flown or boated in, there are no real roads, so we saw everything from fitness equipment to motorcycles being loaded ! Eventually, however , loading was complete ( all by hand of course) and we set off on our 5 day trip up the amazon, drinking beers with the 5 or so other gringoes who were making the same trip and watching the Belem Skyline dissappear into the distance.

The boat trip actually lasted 6 full days, and was at a word, FANTASTIC. Once you settle into boat life, the world just meandered on by at a snails pace and it was wonderful. As we were travelling up river, the boat stayed close to the shore and so we saw a multitude of wildlife that we would only have expected to see if we had been lucky on a proper amazonian wildlife tour tour ! we saw monkeys, toucans, both pink and grey dolphins and ( i think) even a manatee ! it was amazing, each time you got a little listless or bored, something would pop up that would liven up the whole day ! especially the pink dolphins that were amazingly, baby like pink !! very odd indeed !

The days tended to follow a pattern, we awoke late ( as we had a cabin we had this luxury, those in the hammock area, picture 50 hammocks in a 5 m square space, were all up with the dawn). After making tea and having fruit for breakfast we settled into the day which involved intermittant reading, wildlife watching and chatting with the other Gringoes on the boat. Again we were lucky, we were joined for the first few days by a great Danish couple ( whio left us in santarem for some more amazon adventures), a Kiwi named Dave who was laconic to the point of comatose, and an incredibly excitable irishman named jon who was a semi professional photographer and had such a joi de vivre, that he kept us all going when things got a little dull !  Anyway, after a noodle lunch, or a boat bought lunch of Rice, beans, mystery meat and pasta ( very good and one portion was enough for two) we would have a nap, watch some more wildlife then have a few beers around 6pm ready for bed at 8pm as the sun was down. In short it was a blissful few days !

Not to say that there was no action on the boat, Dave reliably informed us that on the first night a ''local'' couple were at it on the upper deck after everyone had gone to bed ! there was constant bad TV or music, also on the upper deck to entertaint the masses ( inbetween the live sex shows ) , but we ( the gringoes) were more interested in the ''locals'' living on the shore. As the boat passed, the children would paddle out to us on bark canoes and pick up 'aid packages'' that were thrown from the boat.. clothes, biscuits etc  it was facinating. Once or twice , older kids, ususally girls, actually hitched the canoe to our moving boat and came on board to sell freshwater shrimp or fruits. Watching them get tossed about by the wake of our boat as they tried to latch on was amazing !!

Half way into the journey we did have a short break at the amazonian town of Sanatarem , the guide described it as being a nice place, but this was the day ther amazon decided to show us what the ''rain'' in ''rainforest'' meant, and it pissed it down ! after wandering around for a bit and realising that all the restaurants in the guide ( and the town for that matter) were either closed or closed down, we returned via the market to our boat. Again the departure time was a little later than planned ( try 6 hours) so we spent the time with jon getting very drunk, lamenting the lack of pizza and watching the locals unload literally thousands of bags of beans by hand ! By the time the boat left at 9pm we were all quite bladdered, but it did make for a nice break in the daily life on board !

The last day on the boat ( with free broth!) turned into the last day and night on the boat as the delays meant we got into manaus at 3am, so we all stayed in our cabins until a reasonable hour when we could leave to find our hostel. it must have been quite a sight as 6 or so ( we had picked up some spaniards) gsmelly gringoes trapsed across town at 6.30am , grubby and overlaiden to the same hostel. As H and I  go for a double, rather than dorms, we were told our room was not ready, so we hung around for a while until, it was and we could check in, ditch our stuff and go for a look around the capital of the amazon !

If we didnt warm to Belem at first, Manaus was the opposite, we loved the place, yes it was still hotter than hell ( H had developed a cold by this point from the incredible air con on the boat !!), smelly , dirty and old, but you could see the history there. The money it must have taken to build some of the buildings during the rubber boom, was simply breathtaking ! We did the touristy stuff, the amazing opera house ( we were one day too early for the opera season !!) the markets, the squares etc and had a great time wandering , eating, drinking and enjoying our last full day in Brazil.

Our actual last day, a bank holiday in Brazil, was by comparison, forceably lazy ! everything touristy was closed ! the zoo, the colonial mansion museums, shops the lot ! This would not have been a problem, except for the fact we had an urgent task to perform ! We were flying to venezuela that evening, and ( for those that do not know) Venezuela has a stupid fixed exchange rate of 2.1bolivars to the dollar, wheras on the black market you get more like 5 or 6 , making this the only way venzuela is affordable. What this means is that you have to enter the country with as many dollars as you neeed for the WHOLE TRIP ! ( stashed in socks, books etc so you dont get it confiscated at the border)  as you cannot withdraw dollars in the country, and if you use an ATM, its at the crap rate !

So H and I needed Us dollars, and FAST !  ATMS in Brazil do not issue dollars ( stupid, as most other LA countries do !) so we needed to change Brazilian reals back to dollars, but the only cambio place in town was shut !! shit!! we met a tout who told us of another in the millenium shopping mall, 5 km out of town, so we dutifully jumped a bus, only to find out the place only opened after 2pm ( this was about 11 am !!) all beacause of the bank Holiday !! SHIIIIIIT. So we spent most of the day travelling back and forth from the town to the shopping mall trying to get our cash sorted ( which we did eventually) before heading off to the airport at 1am for our 3am flight to Caracas in Venezuela.

We have both decided to return to Brazil as there was so much we did not see, but we felt it was such a huge place that it would deserve a trip in its own right, and would take a good couple of months to do it justice. Much more than the measily three weeks we had there. But again ( and at the risk of repeating myself at the end of each of these blogs) we really enjoyed what we did see, and will really look forward to our next opportunity to come back and visit some of the amazing places Brazil still has to offer !

Next time.. Venezuela. well of the Gringo trail and the most ''difficult'' place we have been so far !!

Till then kiddies.

M&H xxx
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Manaus
photo by: travelman727