At the news that our Saturday boat from Santarem to Belem (at the river’s mouth, the endpoint of our journey), had been cancelled, Steve remarked, “If nothing goes wrong, it’s a cruise, not an adventure.” We could think of some options, but only a few:
1) Take the Monday boat (the next one available) and try to change our Tuesday, 12:40 pm flight to Rio to a later one. But when we researched this, we found we would have to leave at 3 in the morning and pay a fortune, in large part because a big religious holiday, Corpus Christi, starts Wednesday (one of the many that serve as an excuse for the entire country to take a multi-day weekend). Also locals advised us that any last-minute change of this sort was certain to get screwed up.
2) Give up on our dream of traveling the entire length of the river through Brazil and instead fly the Santarem-to-Belem segment on Saturday or Sunday. Our hearts sank at this prospect; we’ve heard that this last leg passes through some of the most interesting scenery.
3) Take the boat leaving Santarem Friday (instead of Saturday). It was scheduled to arrive in Belem Sunday morning (instead of Monday). This would give us more time in Belem and plenty of time to make our Tuesday flight. But we would miss out on the full day of touring around Santarem that we had booked with a reputedly awesome guide named Karim. With him we’d been looking forward to visiting Belterra (the abandoned rubber-producing enclave built by Henry Ford in the 1940s), hiking in the rainforest, and canoeing in a lagoon around a landmark known as the Island of Love.
Then I got a message from Raphael in Belem. He suggested there might be a slightly better solution. Turns out that he and Karim are close friends, and they had just talked. Karim seemed willing to shorten our full-day tour Friday to something we could squeeze in. The Wednesday Manaus-to-Santarem boat, the Amazon Star, is supposed to arrive in Santarem around 6 pm Thursday, dock, spend the night there, and then depart for Belem sometime Friday morning. I spoke via WhatsApp to Karim last night (Tuesday evening), and he also outlined this plan. He said he would find out more about when the boat was due to depart and come up with an itinerary that would fit. He also said he would look for an inexpensive hotel near the port where we could sleep in greater comfort Thursday night. He would pick us up at the hotel early Friday, give us the abbreviated tour, and get us back to the ship before it chugs off on its way.
We agreed to this. Our two tickets for the Wednesday Manaus-to-Santarem boat and the Saturday Santarem-to-Belem boat were changed to a single ticket on the Wednesday boat that goes from Manaus to Belem. I’m a little worried that I haven’t heard from Karim this morning before the Amazon Star steamed out of town (and cell service). But we figure at worst, we’ll just stay on the boat and see almost nothing of Santarem. Or Karim will communicate with us at some point, and we’ll spend some time with him before returning to the ship and sailing on (or we’ll miss the ship and have to scramble again.)
Trying to work our way through these tangles consumed part of Tuesday. Most of the rest of that day was overshadowed by intestinal troubles. Steve woke up with little appetite and soon was having diarrhea. By the afternoon he was exhausted and running a 102-degree fever; he slept for much of the day. It took me longer to succumb, but by the middle of Tuesday night, I too felt awful. The good news is that both of us were much better 9 hours later, by the time we boarded the Amazon Star.
We’re a little sad that we missed seeing more of Manaus. It’s a humid, moldering, graffiti-blasted metropolis that could have been designed by Hollywood as a setting for some overwrought jungle flick. But it is the biggest city on the Amazon. It boasts a world-class attraction: the outlandish Teatro Amazonas opera house, inaugurated in 1894, back when folks who were profiting richly from the rubber trade called the town home. When global rubber production shifted to Asia in the early 1900s (after the Brits smuggled seeds out of Brazil), Manaus experienced tough times, and the theater fell into disrepair. But it since has been restored to its original glory, and it continues to be the cultural heart of the community. (The annual opera festival was just wrapping up when we were there.)
On our first morning in Manaus, a charming Brazilian girl who’s majoring in English-language education led us on a 75-minute tour of the theater. In the afternoon, we wandered around town, getting money, buying picnic provisions for the long upcoming river trip, and noting the few but eye catching remnants of the town’s one-time glory. Although Manaus is said to be one of the most dangerous and violent cities in Brazil, we felt safe, at least in daylight in the city’s core, filled with men and women of every age. For lunch, sitting on the pretty central plaza, we ate one of the most delicious fish I’ve ever tasted (an almost boneless creature called tambaqui, For dinner we returned to the plaza and gobbled down a wonderful pizza topped with hearts of palm, then topped that off with tropical flavors of ice cream at a scoop-it-yourself place across from the opera house.
The ice cream tasted great, but we suspect that was what did us in. One never knows for sure.