Who can resist the call of the Amazon? Or at least a visit to one or two ports of call on the mighty Amazon River, which flows east from Manaus to empty into the Atlantic 1,000 miles later at Belem. When you think Amazon, you think superlatives. It does, after all, embrace more than one-fifth of the fresh water reserves in the world; feeds the Amazon basin, which is about the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi; represents almost half the remaining forest on earth; and is home to 1,500 different species of birds, and 2,500 kinds of fish. Manaus is the major commercial hub of Amazonia, and for visitors, the major port of call for cruise ships and recently for nonstop flights from the U.S. The newest airline entrant will be American Airlines, inaugurating service from Miami in June.
Along the Amazon: Manaus to Belem
Day 1: Bustling and booming nowadays, Manaus is most famous for its magnificent opera house, Teatro Amazonas, built in the late-1800s during the rubber-boom days—if possible, catch an evening music performance. Also plan to be at the Aldopho Lisboa Market (a copy of Les Halles in Paris) when the fish catch comes in at dawn, and enjoy the museums housed in the Palacio Rio Negro. And don’t miss a boat excursion to see the “Meeting of the Waters,” where the muddy-brown River Solimoes joins the bluish-black Rio Negro to form the Rio Amazonas.
Day 2-4: Leave Manaus by riverboat and head into the wilds, enjoying such rainforest experiences as hiking in the jungle, canoeing up small rivers, spotting brilliant flora and fauna, and meeting the river people. Stay, of course, at a jungle lodge. Not too far from Manaus is the Amazon Ecopark Lodge; farther out along the Rio Negro is the rather luxurious Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge, and along the Rio Solimoes, the upscale Juma Lodge and Pousada Uakari, sitting right in the midst of the Reserva Mamiraua. This eco-reserve, incidentally, is tops in wildlife viewing with caimans, pink dolphins, sloths, birds and monkeys galore.
Day 5: Return to Manaus and fly to Santarem, located at the confluence of the Rio Tapajos and the Rio Amazonas. Check into a pousada and wander around this interesting riverside town, watching boats come and go; visit the Joao Fona Cultural Center, housed in a yellow waterfront mansion; shop for excellent regional crafts; go boating on the river past the local Caboclo communities; flake out on the beach; dine out on local fish dishes at O Mascote; and stay at the Barao Center Hotel, whose rooms come with wireless Internet and rooftop restaurant with panoramic views.
Day 6: Take a day excursion to Floresta Nacional do Tapajos, where you hike through the rainforest and observe rubber tappers at work, or travel to Alter do Chao (22 miles), with beautiful river beaches along the Rio Tapajo and Lago Verde. (Best in the dry season: June-December.)
Day 7: Fly from Santarem to Belem, a wonderful old port city founded in 1616 on the spot where the Amazon River reaches the sea. Take an afternoon walking tour of the colonial quarter, passing and visiting baroque churches and pastel-colored palaces, many of them housing interesting museums (free on Tuesdays); step into the Basilica de Nossa Senhora de Nazare; and have exotic fruit ice cream at Sorveteria Cairu. For clients requiring superior accommodations, the Hilton Belem has the best location, sharing the leafy Praca Republica with the neo-classical Teatro da Paz, patterned after Italy’s La Scala. Tour the magnificent interiors and attend a performance—the prestigious Opera Festival is in town in August.
Day 8: Spend the morning at the Mercado Ver-o-Peso, the famous (and infamous) waterfront market, originally fashioned from a prefab cast-iron structure imported from Scotland in the late-1800s. In this super-star attraction, you’ll find outrageously bizarre fish (a 200-pound catfish, for example), stalls of exotic fruit you can’t name, medicinal kiosks that stock potions to enhance allure, potency and fertility, cages of birds and snakes, and a handicraft section. The market scene is a unique spectacle, although, truth be told, a bit odorous. Take a sunset cruise along the Rio Guama, then step out for a last supper at one of many restaurants serving up local Paraense dishes.
Note: Visitors can return to the U.S. from the closest northeastern gateways to Belem: Recife and Salvador.
Or, visitors might consider extending their stay to take a ferry (3-hour ride) over to Marajo Island (the largest in the Amazon), checking into a fazenda (plantation) lodge on a working water buffalo farm. For at least two days, canoe through mangroves, sprawl on deserted beaches, visit the pretty towns of Soure and Salvaterra, perhaps attend a rodeo, and certainly dine daily on “buffalo cuisine”: milk, butter, meat, and desserts.
Cruising the Amazon
Quite naturally, many travelers will find that the best way to see the north region is to get up-close and personal with the river. And in many ways, this is true. Other than large cruise ships coming upriver from the Atlantic, there are many options for Amazon cruising. Vessels that do 3- to 7-day cruises include the Amazon Clipper, the M/Y Tucano, the Desafio and the Iberostar Grand Amazon. Boat rates will depend on accommodations.