One thing that Becca has repeatly said during our trip is that she would like to see an opera at the opera house in Manaus. Manaus is right in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, on the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon, and emerged as the capital of the rubber boom in the late nineteenth century. When things were going well, it was such a rich city that building a grand opera house, importing marble etc. from Italy, seemed a reasonable thing to do! Manaus is down stream from Iquitos in Peru, so once we had done our conservation trip, we thought it would be an interesting experience to travel down the Amazon by boat to get there.
Bruce & Rebecca here…
Travelling down the Amazon at speed
On returning from our trip to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve with Richard Bodmer and his team from FundAmazonia, we spent a couple of days in Iquitos and then, on Tuesday 12th April, we got on a speedboat downriver to the border of Peru. The slow boats in Peru are not generally recommended (much poorer standard than the Brazilian ones), especially as this leg of the trip is 8 hours (roughly!) downstream (12 hours up) by speedboat, so quite d0-able. We thought of it as a long flight, although if felt more like a being on a bus.
This took us to the triple border of Columbia, Peru and Brazil, which is quite a surreal place, with three different border towns adjoining each other. People move freely between them (without completing border formalities each time), but they each have quite different characters. Santa Rosa on the Peruvian side of the border is a rather poor and miserable place, separated from Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil) by the river. We subsequently learned that, when negotiating the borders, the Peruvian politicians were outfoxed and ended up with border territory on the side of the river that floods (no one involved had actually been there, of course), whilst the Colombians and Brazilians had their side of the borders on firm upland that doesn’t!
Leticia in Colombia is the preferred place to stay, as it is the more significant town, safest and least like an outpost. When you arrive, you are meant to get stamped out of the country you are leaving and into the one that you are travelling on to in a timely fashion, but then you can move freely between all three. So we were stamped out of Peru (requiring a river taxi to get to the customs office, as much of the Peruvian side was flooded when we were there), then crossed the river by taxi and checked into our little hotel, just having time before dark to hop in a moto-taxi to the police station in Tabatinga (Brazil) to get stamped in there.
The next step in the journey was to get ourselves on a slow boat down river to Manaus and see a show at the opera house. Just after we woke up (early, with the intention of getting to the port early), the heavens opened in a way that you only experience in places like this. So we settled in to wait for it to ease, a little later finding that our bags were leaning against a wall that leaked, leaving them damp and sitting in a puddle! Luckily, when the rain stops, it gets warm and things soon dry out…
We put on waterproof tops, rolled up our trouser legs, put on our flip-flops and waded down the road outside the hotel – it was just like Oxford during a summer flood! A friendly moto driver took us to the port and helped us work out (we speak a little Spanish now, they speak Portugese in Brazil, he spoke enough of both) that a boat, the N/M Montiero, would be boarding in an hour’s time and there was a cabin available for us on board. So we dashed off like headless chickens, splitting up to cover ground more quickly where we could, with our enthusiastic moto driver racing us around, to go to an ATM, and then a change office, to get enough Brazilian Reals to pay for it, a supermarket to get some supplies and collect our stuff from the hotel where we’d left it (when, that is, our moto didn’t run out of gasoline and the driver had to get another passing moto to go get him some while we waited anxiously!) We got back to the port, rather breathless, and boarded just a little late. Of course, it was quite sometime later that the boat actually departed!
We chickened out of the traditional approach to these journeys of three or four nights camped in a hammock on deck, as neither of us has ever spent more than a few hours at a time in a hammock before, so three nights straight off (with nowhere but the hammock to sit during the day) seemed a little risky (and uncomfortable). Instead we took a cabin, which turned out to have a nice little private veranda and came with meal delivery service. Despite the bed being wedged as best they could into an alcove with a distinctly uneven floor, it was actually quite a pleasant way to travel. We spent most of the days sitting out on the veranda, reading, editing photos, writing diary and blogs, and generally watching the river and life go by.
The so called opera house in Manaus is really only a theatre (it is called the Teatro Amazonas these days) and is not big enough to host full opera. This means that, despite the grand ambition, since the opening night on 31 December 1896, no touring operas had visited again until recently, when the theatre was restored and an annual opera festival initiated. The local opera company stages performances sized appropriately and visiting full scale operas are staged outside in the square in front of the theatre! Unfortunately for us, this year the festival was a month later than usual, so we were too early and missed it by a matter of weeks. Although Becca didn’t get her opera, they do regular free shows throughout the year and we spent a pleasant evening in one of the boxes watching a superb modern dance group.
While in Manaus, we also had a rather surreal political experience, as we were there the Sunday that the Brazilian congress met to vote to impeach their president, Dilma Rousseff, for budget irregularities. Sixty five percent of the members of the congress are under investigation for various criminal charges, some of them serious and much of them corruption related and we sat in the safety of the common area of our hostel (we had seen a protest gathering in the main square in the morning), watching them, one after the other, make an impassioned statement against her as they stated their vote. The uncomfortable thing is that she is probably one of the least corrupt of Brazil’s politicians and was probably being attacked precisely because she hadn’t stood in the way of a huge investigation into political corruption (known as “carwash”). That and it’s always fashionable to get rid of the person in charge when the economy nosedives… The charges against her are relatively trivial, especially in Latin American terms (a report to the Senate saying as much a few months later was reportedly quietly shelved), so her describing it as a “political coup” seems understandable.
A slightly less surreal experience was spending a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon in a thoroughly modern shopping mall and deciding to take the opportunity to go to the cinema to watch The Jungle Book in the jungle!
Retracing our footsteps to the north coast of Peru
To get back back to Zorritos and the Yellow Van, we flew, first back to Tabatinga (as a journey that takes two and a half days down river will take about twice as long as that to go back up river against the Amazon’s powerful flow). The flight was an experience in itself, giving us a birdseye view of the river, already enormous halfway to the sea. Boarding our flight with us were four members of an indigenous Amazonian tribe, replete with wooden facial ornaments through their nose, lips and ears, but also nattily dressed in western clothing – a lovely example of modern meeting the traditional.
We spent a further couple of nights back in Leticia while we sorted out the return speedboat trip to Iquitos. One lunchtime we witnessed the sheer volume of water that can fall out the sky in the rainforest in just 30 minutes. These three pictures (which open as a gallery) were taken just as as the clouds opened at lunchtime, then 10 minutes later (the moto is deep in water) and at it’s peak just after the rain stopped, another 10 minutes later. Amazingly, it had almost all drained away just another half hour after that!
A couple of days later and we were on the flight back to Tumbes and, as it was daylight, we had a spectacular view of the Amazon basin as we flew over it, seeing lots of examples of how the river meannders and changes course rapidly as it makes its way across the flat Amazon basin.
The gallery below includes images from around Iquitos taken during our three visits, as well as the story of our journey down the Amazon to Manaus and back.