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Along the Amazon, the exotic is everyday

Special to The Times

To the familiar refrain of "Are we there yet?" you could say we were, and yet we weren't.

We had left our frenetic urban world to set sail for a land of overwhelming beauty, only to find ourselves becalmed by bureaucracy.

My group of six, both family and friends, along with 1,200 other passengers on the Royal Princess, had been lured to this Amazonian cruise by tales of lily pads big enough to hold a child, voracious piranhas with Dracula-like teeth and astonishing dolphins whose colors were as varied as white, gray and vivid pink.

We were looking forward to seeing more of this legendary 4,000-mile river, second in length only to the Nile but carrying a greater volume of water than any other in the world. We were eager to see the so-called meeting of the waters, where two rivers flow side by side without mixing.

But we weren't going anywhere.

Instead, our ship was anchored directly on the equator at the Macapá pilot station in Brazil, about 100 miles from the mouth of the Amazon.

It was not the most promising start of an Amazon adventure.

We had boarded the 600-cabin Royal Princess in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The 106-foot-wide craft is one of the smaller ships in the Princess line, but it suited our itinerary.

Our first three ports of call — Tortola, Dominica and Trinidad islands in the Caribbean — were enjoyable and without incident. Soon, we were cruising the Atlantic toward Devil's Island off French Guiana, before making our way up the Amazon to Santarém, Boca da Valeria and Manaus.

But first there was the small matter of the Brazilian immigration authorities. All 900 Americans on board would have to be fingerprinted and photographed before the ship could proceed. It was, we believed, political payback for the U.S. policy of fingerprinting and photographing citizens from specific countries, including Brazil.

Despite this setback, the Amazon was already beginning to reveal itself. Since boarding, we had sailed about 2,000 miles over gorgeous blue ocean waters, but during the night, the color of the water had changed dramatically. The Amazon was clay-colored, a result of the water that comes swirling down from the Peruvian Andes.

The 12-hour delay meant we were late in arriving at Santarém, 500 miles from the Atlantic. Santarém, the third-largest port on the Amazon, is an important gold- and rubber-trading center. In the 1920s, Henry Ford planted 3 million rubber trees, hoping to create his own supplies. That venture failed after leaf blight struck the plantation, and it struck again when Ford tried to replant. But Santarém prospered.

Despite our abbreviated stop, we did get to go to Santarém's square, where scores of vendors had lined up their wares: necklaces and bracelets; masks made of coconut shells, turtle shells, piranha teeth and seashells; decorative flutes and wood carvings.

But the next day, our adventures really began when we traveled by tenders to the remote village of Boca da Valeria, population 75, at the confluence of the Da Valeria and Amazon rivers. The village, which lies smack up against the dense jungle of the Amazon Basin, has about a dozen wooden houses on stilts as protection against flooding during the rainy season, a one-room school, a small church and an even smaller museum. There are no organized tours, just a chance to mingle with the caboclos, Amazon locals of Indian and Portuguese descent.

From 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., small groups of passengers trooped down the gangway into tenders for a visit.

We were greeted by children carrying unique pets: colorful parakeets, monkeys, parrots and iguanas, and even adults posed with snakes, toucans and signs that read "piranha." Some wore native costumes adorned with feathers and shrunken heads. Others sold handicrafts while children posed for a "dollah," a word that had entered the local lexicon.

Boca da Valeria demonstrated that there are two seasons in the Amazon: hot and hotter. Our last port of call, Manaus, a duty-free zone and the front door to the densest part of the rain forest, was just as hot — 88 degrees, with about 95% humidity.

The city is closely identified with the rubber boom of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it produced 90% of the world's supply, creating a gaggle of rubber barons. The bottom dropped out of the market when an Englishman smuggled rubber tree seeds to Malaysia, and Asian rubber ended Brazil's monopoly.

This was our chance to see the meeting of the waters. We boarded a two-deck, open-sided boat and sailed 11 miles downriver, where a startling sight brought us all to the rails — the blue-black Rio Negro and the creamy, caramel-colored Rio Solimões, running side by side, without mixing. The waters of the two rivers differ in temperature, clarity, density and acidity, and continue side by side for miles before becoming the Amazon.


Fearsome flowers We sailed on to stunningly beautiful Lake January, a vast nature preserve and flood plain. From an elevated walkway, we were mesmerized by one of the Amazon's botanical curiosities — the Victoria regia water lilies, discovered in the calm backwaters of the jungle and named in honor of Queen Victoria. Caiman, the alligators of the Amazon, were lazing in the sun on several of the pads, which can grow up to 7 feet and have a beauty-and-the-beast quality. The beauty is in the 12-inch, cup-shaped pink or white flower; the beast is the underside of the pad, which has fierce, inch-long, flesh-piercing spines or thorns.

After transferring to a smaller, motorized and covered canoe, we entered a narrow, overgrown tributary. Under a dense canopy was a world of epiphytes (plants that live on other plants but are not parasites), giant trees as tall as skyscrapers, leaves the size of beach umbrellas and — draped from branches — vines as thick as a man's leg.

On our last day in Manaus, we toured the city's jewel box — the pink-and-white Teatro Amazonas. This elegant, three-tiered opera house, created by the fabulous wealth of the rubber boom, opened in 1896 and is one part Art Nouveau, one part neoclassic and one part Baroque. Ships would leave Manaus' harbor filled with rubber and return with marble from Italy, grillwork from England, chandeliers from Paris and stone from Portugal. Corinthian columns, delicate moldings and marble busts adorn the walls and ceiling.

This modern city was a fitting bookend to the lush, hidden world enveloped by nature and the extraordinary river that weaves through it.



Brazilian adventure


Princess Cruises offers this 12-day Amazon cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Manaus once a year. The next one is scheduled for April 9. Prices begin at $1,595, not including airfare. Availability is limited.

Holland America offers a longer cruise aboard the Prinsendam, leaving Nov. 24 and returning Dec. 20 to Fort Lauderdale. It includes several Caribbean stops. The cruise is sold out, but you can get on the waiting list. Prices begin at $4,199.


Princess Cruises, (800) 774-6237, .

Holland America, (800) 426-0327, .

— Lucy Barajikian

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