Looking out on the falling snow on a blustering 25 degree day, the Brazilian Rainforest seems a lifetime away although I just returned this week. My Amazon adventure was in the planning stages since the fall 2013 as an alternative to being "home alone" for the holidays. Attempting to replicate past celebrations can really fall flat. The best idea for "accidental" solos during traditional family holidays? Adventure travel to distant locations! I have had a lifelong love of adventure travel from Rarotonga to the Albanian border of Montenegro. Having been serenaded in Istanbul with the Yellow Rose of Texas (a first for me as a Washingtonian), I have skied both Dubai and Sun Valley (the former more successfully than the latter). In 2013, I was looking for a fresh approach for the holidays.
After considering my options, I decided on a river cruise. Having previously gone solo to join a Nile cruise and one along China's Yangtze River, I was intrigued by similar tours offered in Southeast Asia, Europe and Latin America. River cruises are a good fit when traveling alone, especially in remote areas. If you choose a single cabin, you can have a ready-made travel group / dinner partners but with privacy and time alone when you need it. With meals and day-to-day transportation / outside sightseeing taken care of, I saw this as the perfect time-out from the hectic working world.
I chose the Brazilian Amazon for two reasons: First, it was closer geographically and easier to get to. Secondly, it added balance to my multiple prior trips to Spanish-speaking Latin America. I envisioned landing in a small plane as I had in Botswana's Okavango Delta, flying as "co-pilot" in a 2 seater plane. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Airbuses and 737's land routinely in Manaus, the capital of Brazil's Amazonas Province, with non-stop service via Miami.
After pre-trip planning to rival a space launch, I missed a few last minute odd details to consider. I offer a few practical tips I gleaned:
1. A frequent visitor to Brazil warned me not to lose my immigration form if I hoped to make my outbound flight. That seemed pretty simple. Then I realized that international flights into the Amazon landed around midnight and typically departed between 1-3 AM. I was unlikely at that time to be at the top of my game. Being practical, I packed a stapler to clip my immigration form to my visa / passport. Of course, the outbound US airport security scan was perplexed by this odd-looking item in my carryon luggage. Inbound immigration gave me a wry smile apparently amused to find a travel weary tourist dutifully whipping out a stapler on arrival.
2. At the last minute I read the fine-print that Brazilian regulation requires travelers to provide both copies of doctors' prescriptions and pharmacy receipts for drugs being brought into the country. Having a cornucopia ranging from malaria pills to less exotic fare, I had inadvertently overlooked this requirement. Fortunately, in this digital age, my neighborhood drug store could provide printouts of both so the problem was averted. (This is important to check out before traveling to a new country. I was surprised to discover before a Mideast trip that over 200 prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs legal in the US could result in a significant mandatory jail term if not properly documented .) Of course, being overly prepared, I was not required to provide documentation.
3. Another last minute detail: Many countries have currency restrictions as to importation of cash. In my first sub-Sahara African trip, I discovered I was missing a currency form both while in transit in an airport lounge and on return for a short stay. Fortunately, a seasoned traveler on my connecting flight came up with a practical solution: He tore his own form in half so that we would each have one to submit. It worked so luckily none of my cash was confiscated. On arrival in Brazil, I did see a sign that seemed to say in Portuguese, a language I don't speak, something about declaring funds of $ 500.
Having successfully made it through immigration, I was pleased to see my pre-arranged taxi driver holding up a sign with my name on it and ready to head towards Manaus.
Manaus, a city of 1+ million, provided an easy transition into life at the Equator. The traditional city tours include the Opera House / Teatro, outdoor market, Sao Sebastiao church and Palacio Rio Negro. To complement the 8 day river cruise, I chose an alternative: spending my two days in Manaus focused on learning more about the local wildlife, a task that would be difficult in the dense rainforest.
I split my time between the Hotel Tropical's Zoo and the larger Bosque da Ciencia, both ranked among the top local attractions. The latter is a rescue and research center set in a park configured as a natural wildlife reserve. The admission was under $ 3.00. Although I was told the # 120 bus went there, having never made the connection after several conflicting directions, I opted for the more costly taxi for the 30 minute ride to the suburbs. When I had just arrived, a fast moving local inhabitant (a small rodent?) Dashed across my path before I could whip out my camera. The key attraction near the entrance was a large underwater manatee pool with an observation window below ground. Harder to see were monkeys in the treetops overhead. At ground level, a number of curious rodents crossed my path, including one with bright red ears. For my return, there was a taxi stand outside, a welcome sight after hovering under a covered picnic table while a quick but heavy tropical rain fell. Although the center is technically closed to incoming visitors during lunch, those of us already inside were allowed to stay.
The Hotel Tropical's zoo, with 22 species, was smaller but fit into the eco-resort's lush 400 square meters of foliage set on the banks of the Rio Negro. It, too, was a rescue facility certified by the Brazilian government. The resident biologist, Dayse Campista, and her co-worker, Andre, very kindly spent substantial time with me so that I could learn more about the unique rainforest inhabitants. They included an endangered White Bellied Spider Monkey, Nina. A true celebrity she starred as Zuzu in a feature film, Taina 2 an Adventure in the Amazon. As a new mother, Nina very cautiously hid her young baby underneath her paws to protect it from visitors' intruding eyes. I was delighted when Dayse was able to coax Nina into showing off her new, as yet unnamed, offspring. I was intrigued also by the Collared Peccaries. Like miniature Wild Boars, they reminded me of my time as a German exchange student watching "Hans" and "Sissy", a full-size version, run around the local castle moat.
Even before arriving, I was most fascinated with the Capybara, billed as the world's largest rodent. Although weighing up to 150 pounds, these gentle creatures look more like a giant Guinea Pig than a snarling rat. As a result, one of my chief goals was to see the Capybara while in Brazil. The Tropical Zoo had a family of five Capybara in residence. Having found on the Internet that the local sunrise was at 5:45 AM, I had visions of getting up after 3-4 hours sleep to be at the zoo at that hour for feeding time. I would have presented a comical sight since luckily having slept in, I discovered the Zoo opened at 8 AM not sunrise. I wandered in at 8:30 AM and after visiting the Blue and Yellow Macaws and the Collared Peccaries happened upon Andre en route to feed the Capybaras. I then met with Dayse to learn more about the Amazon wildlife and preservation efforts with follow-up visits that afternoon and on my last day in Manaus.
For those interested in ecotourism and wildlife, combining Manaus with a river trip is the perfect answer. The former provides an opportunity to really study the unusual Amazon species in depth and at a close range. Traveling on the river and trekking in the rainforest then provide a view of wildlife in their natural habitat but at a distance.
Although the rainy season had begun in December, I planned the trip to coincide with the holidays and hoped for the best weather possible. The good news was that only a few times in 10 days were there dramatic but short cloud bursts. It actually provided some welcome relief and was less humid after the short (but heavy) rainfall. In addition, notwithstanding what I had read, mosquitoes were not prevalent. The most frequent insect encounters were with wasps and ants although it is important to follow the recommendations as to malaria pills / other precautions.
From Manaus, the next step in this unique journey was "Going Up River" (Watch for our upcoming blog Part 2). Please join us for the update and check out our Pinterest Amazon Adventure album!