return to the amazon

After a month on the beach in Rio, it was finally time for us to pull up stakes and head north, to the 400-year old city of Belem near the mouth of the Amazon River. We really loved Rio and have many, many more stories to tell, it wasn’t all just fun on the beach! We visited the official Carmen Miranda museum (ironically, for such a flamboyant actor, it is located in a virtually unmarked and non-descript concrete bunker, plunked in the middle of a desolate strip of old parkland, hardly visible to the three lanes of highway traffic zooming by on two sides). Fascinating historic information, film clips, and costumes inside.

We also visited several museums and art galleries, including the famous Oscar Niemeyer-designed “spaceship” art gallery in Niteroi (awesome building, less than awesome art inside), and we discovered a pedestrian-only souk (market) just north of the downtown core. We climbed small hills to look out from old forts, and took the train up to the top of Corcovado and stood in the shadow of Cristo Redentor. The concrete figure is perhaps the most well-known landmark in all of South America; it certainly enjoys the best view of the city one can imagine.

We also took in the national museum, the museum of modern art, a cultural centre downtown with a Salvador Dali exhibition (works based on the Divine Comedies) and an exhibition of illustrations and designs by Argentine cartoonist Linears, and another arts centre with several floors of photo-based exhibitions, and more – Rio is a big city with lots to do. We also did a one-day trip to Angra dos Reis for a boat cruise through coastal islands. It was not much of a cruise, too crowded, a lame itinerary, and a long bus ride there and back. Not recommended.

Of course we sampled more than a few bars and botequims – very small bars where most of the clientele is seated in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, or standing – glued to televised futbol matches, or talking loudly (we noticed the men and women here have BIG voices). We mostly avoided gringo bars – they often charge as much as the equivalent of $15 US just to enter – more than our entire beer budget for the night.

Having said that, one late afternoon we had been walking along the beach and stopped in at a gringo bar that not only did not charge admission, but was offering free happy hour snacks. We sat at a table away from the entrance, next to a table of young women, one of whom introduced the group as students. Later when I went to visit the restroom, they asked Deborah if we were interested in taking one of them home! Deborah gently turned down the offer, and they apologized for saying anything. When I returned and Deborah told me what happened, we then realized there were a lot of women in the bar, and we watched as men came in and the women would take turns offering their services – like you would see in the saloon in old westerns.

One last remembrance of Rio for now: we were lying on the beach, soaking up the 29 degree Celsius sunshine, when Deborah noticed something in the water about 100 feet out or so. We watched for a few minutes; others were also starting to take notice. Was it a shark? A sea turtle? It came closer, and then we could tell for sure – a penguin! We had travelled all the way to the very southern tip of South America to see penguins, and here one was splashing about at Copacabana Beach!

We scooted up the Brazilian coast to Belem on Friday, and on Saturday did a 6-hour boat cruise to get ourselves near the mouth of the Amazon River. The water was surprisingly warm (well, surprising to us, anyway), fast moving, and very green – no underwater visibility at all. After a dip in the river it was time for lunch – and just as we got into line the wind picked up, the clouds moved in, and within minutes there was a tropical thundershower that dumped more water on us in 15 or 20 minutes than a whole day of rain in Vancouver. It was quite amazing, the clouds moved on, there was a bit of sunshine, then the process repeated itself an hour later with another deluge. During the following break, we made a run for the boat (docked 20 minutes away) because sure enough, we were in for one more cycle of thunder and rain before getting back to the city.

Belem is a large city with a population approaching two million – and quite a skyline as you’ll see below. Oil tankers wait in a long row along the river opposite the city, it happened that a large group of fellow passengers were in the marine shipping business – we’ve never seen so many people get so excited every time we passed a tanker or other freighter. Oh by the way, the most common question we got from the Brazilians on board (there were no other non-Brazilians on the cruise, even though there were at least 100 passengers), was “what are you doing here?” – apparently not many foreign tourists bother visiting this isolated outpost. We were an oddity, and some fellow passengers even asked to have their pictures taken with us!

At the end of the day, we headed for a brewpub we discovered the night before, the Amazon Beer bar and restaurant. A brewpub overlooking the Amazon River – how amazing is that! The timing was also good; as the first round arrived, one more cloudburst soaked everything it sight so it was just as well we were under a very protective patio roof.

Last night we moved again, this time to Manaus, another isolated city of 2-million but 1500 km upriver. We’re here to do a six-day boat ride that takes in the junction of Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro, at the very heart of the Amazon as they say, complete with canoe excursions and rainforest walks, so we’ll be out of internet range for about a week.

A happy long weekend to our fellow Canadians!

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