How to Travel the Amazon in Total Luxury

Jane Knight heads deep into the Brazilian jungle, glass of champagne in hand, for a cruise full of the wonders of nature

Jane Knight
The Times - February 08, 2020

Late morning on the river and the water is looking decidedly strange. It seems to be divided by a serrated edge: tea-coloured water on one side, a sandy shade more akin to café au lait on the other. And the two drinks are not mixing.

They say that you can see this meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negro joins the Rio Solimoes, from space. For miles the two rivers, with different temperatures, speeds and density, flow side by side, maintaining their separate colours — the Negro coloured by plants and leaves that decay in the water, the Solimoes by sediment from the Andes. To Brazilians, this colourful confluence is the birthplace of the Amazon proper, not its more widely acknowledged source in the Peruvian Andes.

Whichever, it is still the world’s mightiest river, cutting through dense rainforest where monkeys leap between branches, macaws chatter in the foliage and anacondas and 25 species of piranha lurk in dark tributaries below. The river’s name alone transports me back to my school days, learning about Earth’s largest drainage basin; the Amazon’s discharge exceeds the combined total of the world’s next nine largest rivers, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And it’s about as long as the journey from New York to Rome.

So I’m feeling somewhat intrepid as my son and I embark on a trip on board Seabourn Quest that will take us through Brazil from Manaus 900 miles down to the river’s mouth at Belem, then onwards up the coast of French Guiana to the Caribbean. Yes, we are doing it in considerably more style than the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, who first navigated the entire river in the 16th century, but there’s still an air of discovery hanging over this body of water, with no bridges spanning its width, hardly any roads penetrating the rainforest and very few large settlements.

There is, though, an opera house in Manaus. And surprisingly ornate it is too, with 198 chandeliers, Carrara marble columns, stairs and statues, a painted ceiling and mosaic tiles over the dome depicting the Brazilian flag. This curious attempt to replicate European culture in the middle of the Amazon rainforest was built after the city grew rich thanks to the rubber boom at the end of the 19th century and now hosts performances by the Amazonas Philharmonic. This, though, isn’t the music we’ve come to the Amazon to hear: we’re after instead the call of the yellow-rumped cacique bird, cadences from cicadas and the cacophonous chorus of the howler monkey.

We don’t, as I’d envisaged, hear them from the ship: the Amazon can be anything from seven miles wide in the dry season to more than 35 miles in the flooded season (December to April), which means it’s a thunking great big artery where often you can’t see from one bank to the other.

Running at speeds of up to eight knots, it feels more like a sea than a river. There’s plenty to see from the boat, but it’s more river traffic than wildlife: floating petrol stations, trash barges, car ferries and boats pushing wood along in front, along with waterborne islands of vegetation.

For the true Amazonian experience, we make forays on rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) and kayaks into narrow tributaries and backwaters. Here, where the rainforest is fecund and food-dye green, and where bromeliads are laced together by rope-like lianas, we spot three-toed sloths languorously draped over boughs, trees adorned with iguanas, and dainty squirrel monkeys bouncing through the branches. It’s the Amazon pages of a geography textbook brought to life.

We hear the howler monkeys, their chorus given a melody by the kiskadee birds and chirruping kingfishers; and birdlife is plentiful here, with egrets bursting from the trees and black vultures and hawks playing much more than bit parts in the scenic backdrop. A tree blooms with caciques that take flight as we approach, there is a green flash as parakeets flit by, and we enjoy a guest appearance from the toco toucan, showing off its large yellow beak.

I’m no twitcher, but the birds here are beguiling. So too the trees. There are the cannonball trees, their fruit shaped like ammunition, and calabash trees, whose large seed pods are used by the locals as bowls. We see heavy black lines of termite nests leading up some trunks; they can’t build them on the ground because of flooding. Other trees are home to birds’ nests built around wasps’ nests; the wasps protect the birds from predators.

In all this wonderment of nature, one thing seems to be missing: the mosquito. Even more surprisingly, we have been advised that we don’t need antimalarials on this trip. “Are you sure?” I asked the pharmacist who gave me this advice. The government website agrees: the risk of malaria is low in this part of the Amazon basin, even though the rains are still falling — it’s not called the Amazon rainforest for nothing. That rain is good news for our April trip, apparently. “It’s the end of the rainy season and the river should be dropping,” our knowledgeable guide, Iggy, says. “But it’s still raining so we can go further in the Zodiacs.”

He tells us that the small 16ft-deep backwater we are following becomes a footpath in the dry season — the Amazon’s water level can easily fall by up to 50ft. Residents along its banks are used to the shifting waters. Even in Manaus the colourful riverside houses are built on different storeys; when the waters rise, you just move up a level or two.

Elsewhere, houses and whole villages are constructed on stilts. We stop by one such dwelling to chat to the people who live there, whom Iggy knows well. As we bob around in our boat, a bare-chested grandfather sitting cross-legged in the front of his canoe paddles in with his catch of fresh fish, which the family show us in delight. There’s a large catfish there, but it’s nothing compared with the arapaima fish that can be found here, measuring up to 15ft long. We get our chance to paddle on the river during a kayak adventure among the Amazonian inlets, which lead us to a cluster of giant water lilies.

The Victoria amazonica is the largest waterlily in the world, growing up to 10ft in diameter, with a ribbed undersurface and leaf veining “like transverse girders and supports” that was the inspiration for the Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Apparently, they can bear the weight of a small child. But my 13-year old is now taller than me, so although I know he’d dearly love to try it, he stays in the kayak, happy just to be in what he calls “the real Amazon”.

For some, it’s a bit too real: a woman in the kayak ahead tells of her terror on hearing that on a previous excursion her craft was just yards from an anaconda. We avoid a snake sighting, but back on the ship we hear of one passenger who went on a private speedboat expedition and saw an anaconda eating an iguana.

By the time we reach Guajara, the only animal we really want to spot is the pink dolphin, endemic to the river. We saw some the day before in the riverside city of Santarem, home to its own “meeting of the waters” between the Amazon and the Tapajos rivers.

Here, a 15-minute walk from the port to the fish market in 31C heat and staggering humidity triggers possibly the biggest family argument we’ve had. My son is somewhat mollified by the sight of the dolphins jumping and twirling for fish on a string being wielded by an enterprising boy who charges visitors $1 for the performance. I feel uneasy about this kind of interaction and prefer to spot the dolphins in their natural habitat. We’re told by the guides that there is a 99 per cent chance of seeing them in Guajara, yet when we head out in a RIB with our guide, Claudia, there isn’t so much as a flipper on show. What we do see are water buffaloes, deep-breathing, grunting and munching the vegetation in the river, then swimming downstream, their heads like a series of moving stepping stones. A sloth with a baby on its tummy hangs out in a tree and a troop of about 30 squirrel monkeys trampolines through the trees.

As we watch, entranced, there’s a cry of “dolphin” and we turn to see a tailfin break the surface. Then no more. We watch more water buffaloes cascade down a platform where they have been milked to be herded along in the water by a man in a canoe. Then we putter past a village on stilts, all the houses with little suspended kitchen gardens and satellite dishes, some with washing strung out on the line, one with fish arranged to dry on the deck.

The call to return to the ship comes over the walkie-talkie, and the other five boats on the excursion head back over the choppy waves. Just as we are about to follow, two dolphins arch out of the water in perfect synchrony, a mother and her calf, their pink flesh clearly on show (one theory says it’s caused by scar tissue that develops because the dolphins fight, another that it’s to camouflage them against the red river mud). Soon a pod of a dozen is playing around the boat. We return on a high to the comfort of the Seabourn Quest, where even the smallest cabins have walk-in wardrobes, a seating area and a bathroom that wouldn’t look out of place in a five-star hotel, with marble twin sinks, a bath and a separate shower (the most spacious I’ve seen on any ship). Each room also has a fully stocked fridge from which you can help yourself, and all other drinks on board, including Nicolas Feuillatte champagne and wines matched to the food, are included and unlimited. And so the days drift by, excursions interspersed with yoga classes in the spa (me) and visits to the gym (my son), with us meeting for the excellent evening entertainment, which includes the former Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Lifford Shillingford and a fantastic comedian-cum-magician.