With Arms Wide Open

Thursday 22nd  March 2018

“Is that rain?” asked Julie when we woke up at 4:30am, half hoping to stay in bed.

“No, it’s just the air-con dripping” I answered.

So up we got and trundled our way over to reception where our guide, Cristiano, was waiting for us.

It was still dark.

We got in the boat and sailed into the blackness. I couldn’t see a thing but fortunately our driver knew exactly where he was going.

We crossed the river on a diagonal, which seemed the long way, spending longer exposed in the darkness, but who am I to question someone who clearly did this journey every day.

At the first channel we turned off the main thoroughfare and into the Anavilhanas.

As time passed the sky lightened and we began to see where we were going. The jungle was still asleep, although I’m sure the whir of our engine would soon wake them all up.

After some twenty minutes we pulled up in an area of open water. We were in a grassy area. Christian said that we might think the water was shallow here because of the grass but it was probably between five and seven metres deep! He demonstrated this by pulling up one of the grasses to show how long it was.

There wasn’t much in the way of a sunrise. Looking East we could mostly see dark clouds in the distance where the sun should have been. We did briefly catch a glimpse of sunrise glow but not for long. Christian was very apologetic, but we weren’t at all disappointed. Well, that was until he showed a photo on his phone of how spectacular it could have been.

Sunrise or not, we were enjoying the moment. It was so peaceful out here in the Anavilhanas National Park. We had cut the engine so all we could hear was the murmur of the jungle.  We sat in quiet contemplation for about a minute before we broke the silence and chatted with Christian. We talked about family, our six grandkids and that Julie was also one of six. He then surprised us by saying he was one of seventeen! Wow!

He was born in Guyana and still visits his mother regularly. There’s a direct road from Manaus to the border over 500 miles away. Christian claimed that there was no direct road connecting Manaus with the South of Brazil.  I don’t think that was strictly true, but he said that you can drive to Gyuana, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia but not to the South. I did read later that the BR-319 which after a short ferry across the Rio Negro connected with the South of the country but it’s often impassable as not all of it is surfaced.

We moved on returning towards the lodge, nipping through a flooded forest as a shortcut. It was here we saw the strangest of trees. It looked as if someone had stuck wooden bowls onto the branches.

Back onto the Rio Negro we cut across the river towards the lodge. There was a bit more traffic on the water now. It was still only 6:30am.

This time we returned to the boat house from which we left earlier and not to the floating pontoon.

Just to the left of it was the lodge’s paddle steamer. Yesterday it had sailed up river taking guests to visit a local caboclo community. They weren’t the stereotypical isolated indigenous tribe from the pages of the National Geographical, but a community that were assimilated into the modern world. Caboclo simply means of mixed race, specifically Indigenous/European.

We only heard about the excursion after the event. When we asked if we could go on the next trip they unfortunately told us that they only did it once a week. It was a shame, but then again, to be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on yesterday’s canoeing experience!

From the boathouse we walked up the wooden steps where we noticed that over the last ten years they had been recording the highest water level for each year.  There was a good meter and a half difference between the lowest level in 2010 and the record level for2012. I was looking for a pattern but there didn’t seem to be one. It was quite random.

 It was interesting to hear that the water levels also go down to such a level that the lodge technically has a “beach front”!

We spent some time in the bungalow packing our suitcases before returning to the restaurant for our breakfast.

There was certainly rain in the air. You could sense the change. After yesterday’s downpour we knew how wet it can get so we didn’t risk it and brought our two umbrellas with us.

The food yet again didn’t fail to impress. New for today’s menu were these “ranch-style” eggs, which were the yolks baked in a spicy tomato sauce. I also had a glass of Açai juice which was rich and as dark as chocolate but with an intense berry flavour. Then to finish I had some fried plantain drizzled with honey which was absolutely divine.

As predicted the rain came. It was another torrential downpour. Luckily we had brought our umbrellas as the ones outside the restaurant had been taken.

We quickly popped back to our room to get our luggage, then sat at reception to wait for our driver to arrive. It was only about 8am now.

The rain was still persisting it down when we left. The little dirt track had turned into a muddy river as we slowly made our way towards the main tarmac road.

We turned left and set off for Manaus, windscreen wipers on full speed. For the best part of an hour it felt like we were the only fools on the road.

As the rain gradually eased off, a few more people ventured out. We both tried to get some sleep, but each bumpy pothole would jolt us awake.

Time passed slowly but we eventually came to the junction near Manacpuru and the colourful bird sign for Bemtevi which was probably the only familiar landmark along the journey.

From there on in it was a smooth ride to Manaus. It made it easier to have some shut eye without being shaken awake every few minutes.

Three hours after leaving the lodge we reached the huge Rio Negro bridge.

Almost immediately we got caught in heavy traffic. The cause for this congestion was a large demonstration by striking teachers demanding better pay. It was a big event, even TV camera crews were in attendance.

 They had built a small stage from which guest speakers could have a good rant and be applauded. There were a few angry placard-waving types but overall it had a friendly festival atmosphere, everyone smiling and laughing. It was all quite peaceful.

Eventually we got through and carried on our way to the Hotel Tropical Manaus, which was quite some distance out of the old city centre.


Set within its own palm grove the Tropical is or at least was Manaus’ most prestigious hotel. A huge sprawling hotel by the side of the Rio Negro built in 1975 with a nod to the old colonial grandeur of the city’s rubber boom past.

We were a little early for our room, so we left our luggage at reception and went for a walk around the hotel. It was so large we were given a map, in case we got lost!

We walked from reception down a very long corridor past rooms with heavy teak doors. The wooden staircase and lantern style light fittings certainly gave it that self-proclaimed hacienda-style charm.

We were looking for the pool area and resorted to using the map to find our way out. The corridors seem to go on forever. It had over 640 rooms sprawled out over three floors.

Eventually we found the door that brought us out into an inner courtyard. I say courtyard because it was surrounded on three sides by hotel rooms and closed off by what looked like a viaduct, a link bridge from the North wing to the South wing, but this was an inner courtyard on a massive scale.

There was a café bar situated right in the middle, but it wasn’t open for business. The sun felt ferociously hot, so we found some shade at a table with a parasol and had a drink of some tap water we brought with us in our Anavilhanas tin can bottles.

There weren’t many people here. I guess it was that in between time where guests would have checked out but not checked in yet, and those already staying here would be out and about on excursions.

There was a couple frolicking in the little pool throwing a ball to each other like children, another pair sat in the shallow end of the larger pool being lapped by gentle waves.

The ball tossing couple came and sat at a table near to us and started “getting it on” with some fervour.

It was getting quite hot, even in the shade, so we decided to return inside.

We took the long way back to reception walking over the viaduct link-bridge.

Looking down from this vantage we saw a murky pond full of turtles. One or two of them were fully grown adults who probably have spent their entire life in this pool. Without wishing to sound too sentimental, it felt a little sad to see them confined to its dirty water.

On the map it showed they also had a mini-zoo. It just seemed all too unnecessary.

After what felt like quite a trek traipsing up and down corridors we sat in the bright and airy lobby bar with its glass ceiling and rattan furniture making you feel like you were outside whilst benefitting from the air-con.

We tried to order a glass of wine for Julie, but they didn’t have any. Outraged, she joined me in a beer. It was another for us to tick off our list called Itaipava, a beer from Petrópolis and Brazil’s second highest selling brand. The premium version was very nice, which is another way of saying the standard beer wasn’t.

Our room still wasn’t ready, so we decided to have some lunch at the hotel. They had a small buffet option, but we decided to go from the menu. I was drawn to the pizza, but I regretted my decision the instant it arrived.

It was described as small, but its size wasn’t the only issue. It was just plain awful. It was one of those cheap and nasty pizzas you can buy in supermarkets in a pack of 5 for a £1. They pimped it up with a few slices of fresh tomatoes and a few green olives, but they couldn’t hide the fact that it was the worst pizza ever!

After the delightful food at the Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge this came as a shock.

At least Julie had better luck with her food choice as her Club Sandwich looked acceptable.

As we were eating this beautiful owl perched on top of one of the large cast iron lanterns they had outside. I was surprised to see one here in the Amazon. I didn’t think it was native to these parts but apparently they are quite common.

Another surprising sighting but more common than you think were six pistol packing bodyguards having their lunch. It was like a movie scene. The fans were whirring above, one chewed on a cocktail stick, another nervously tapped his fingers on the table as if they were expecting trouble.

We think they were protecting a family of six sat at a table near the door. Julie couldn’t get out of there quick enough. I must admit that it was unnerving knowing there were so many guns in the room.

We returned to reception where they were delighted to tell us that our room was now ready. Thankfully room 2109 was only a short walk from reception down the first corridor.

The room was fine, nothing fancy but spacious and clean. There was a slight mustiness in the air but that was true of the whole hotel. The smell of old style charm.

There wasn’t much time for us to chill in the room. We needed to be back in the lobby in half an hour for this afternoon’s excursion. I spent most of it trying to phone the tour company in Rio to re-confirm our tickets for the football match on Sunday. I just couldn’t get through.

I went to reception to ask for some help. I think I was entering the area code incorrectly, however the lady behind the desk very kindly got her own personal mobile phone and dialled the number for me. That was beyond the call of duty and I was very grateful.

We met our guide Paolo who was waiting for us. He introduced himself and we followed him outside where he introduced a young woman who was “from the company to take some photographs”.

The four of us walked through the hotel grounds down to the river where our boat was moored.

After the boat trips at the jungle lodge we noticed we weren’t made to wear a life-jacket here. They had some on the boat, at least, just above our heads.

We set off down the Rio Negro towards the centre of Manaus with me working out how quickly I could grab the buoyancy aid in the unlikely event of an emergency.

Very close to the hotel there was the Ponta Negra beachfront and a modern apartment block. “This is a very wealthy area” said Paolo. We took note as it seemed like somewhere we could visit later in the afternoon.  There wasn’t much to see or photograph on this leg of the journey. Much of the riverbank was mostly still lush green forest.

The first thing of note to get our cameras out was the mighty Punta Rio Negro. This massive feat of engineering was made even more impressive by getting right up close to it’s huge supporting pillars.

It’s not the most attractive in the world, despite the attempt at beautifying it with the brightly yellow-painted cable suspension in the centre where it spans a wider gap allowing the larger boats to sail through.

We sailed between two of the bridge’s seventy four pillars and continued down river.

The closer to the city we got the more activity we saw. It was fascinating to see countless tug boats moored in wait for their next job. They were almost identical in design and came in three sizes, small, medium and large.

The first building of note we came across was the Fábrica de Cerveja Amazones de Miranda Corrêa, the city’s first brewery. It was built in 1912 at the tail-end of the rubber boom when this city flourished. Before it was constructed beer was being imported from Germany until the Miranda Corrêa brothers came up with the idea to build a German style brewery here in Manaus.

Not only was the beer produced in the style of a German pilsner, but the architecture of the brewery was also inspired by that Bavarian art nouveau fairy tale castle, complete with a lead-lined rooftop to its tower.

“It had the first elevator in the Amazon” said Paolo.

Built on the riverbank where the São Raimundo stream meets the Rio Negro I’m sure back in the day it was a beautiful location. Nowadays however there was an ugly scrapyard with heaps of rusty scrap metal between it and the river.

Apparently, they still produce beer within its walls. The Corrêa family business has now of course has been swallowed up into one of the major international beer corporations, but its great to know that the building is still being used today.

Next up we were super excited to see a golden dome, which at first glance looked like a mosque rising up over the city but we knew it was the unique ceramic tiled cupola of the Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house built “in the middle of the jungle”. It stood out as a thing of beauty amidst the hastily built concrete structures of the dock area.

We were scheduled to visit the theatre tomorrow on a tour of the city.

We continued with the flow and reached the heart of the port where many boats had docked to unload their cargo. These weren’t large container ships but colourful boats very reminiscent of Mississippi paddle-steamers.

They were all very similar, 3 tiered painted white, most with a red hull as standard. The one we got closest to, the Sagrado Coracao de Jesus ferries people and produce on a four day trip from Tabatinga a border town on the Amazon river (or the Rio Solimoes) where Brazil, Colombia and Peru meet.

The lower decks were crammed to the rafters with produce to be sold in Manaus’ wholesale markets and the upper decks carried passengers.

They didn’t have seats but instead they had rows upon rows of hammocks. It had the capacity to cram onboard over 600 people but usually it carried between two and three hundred.

The further away from the centre we travelled the more industrial the landscape became. The sheer scale of the manufacturing in Manaus was in evidence when we saw a stock pile of containers waiting to be exported. There must have been thousands of steel boxes stacked up high on top of each other. It looked like a giant rubik’s cube! 

Manaus is a centre of industry. Major international companies like Harley Davidson, Honda, Yamaha and electronics giants Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG, to name but a few have all set up manufacturing hubs here, undeterred by being in the heart of the jungle with its poor travel links because at least the river gives safe and direct passage to the sea some 1000 miles away. Although all were attracted here by the generous tax exemptions offered by the Brazilian government’s Manaus Free Trade Zone set up in the 60s to aid development in the region.

There were even oil refineries at the outskirts of the city as we continued down the Rio Negro. Petrobas, Brazil’s largest oil company.

We began to move across the river to the other side. I could see in the distance, what at first glance I thought was a sandbank, a strip of muddy riverbank but the closer we got it was plain to see that we had finally reached the incredible natural phenomenon of the meeting of the two rivers where the Solimoes and the Negro meet but do not mix. One black, one brown and that’s how it stayed for quite some distance.

The closer we got, the more amazed we became. I expected to see some blending going on, a sludgy grey mix at the point the waters meet but it wasn’t the case. There was a clear and definite line where the dark water met the muddy water.

It was like oil and water refusing to become one, but this was water and water. It defied logic. There was something unbelievable and magical about it.

Pedro suggested I dipped my hand in the water as we crossed the division. The difference in temperature was as obvious as the colour. From black tea to milky coffee, from warm 28C to a cooler 22C. It was strange and immediate.

The two waters eventually blend together but it takes almost 6km before the river becomes a uniform colour.

Julie and I had noticed that the “official photographer” wasn’t taking any photographs. Earlier Pedro had to remind her to take a few snaps at the port. She pulled out a small pocket camera which she wasn’t quite sure how to use. It was so obvious that she wasn’t a professional photographer, she wasn’t even a casual photographer and that she had simply tagged along for the ride. What gradually became clearer as Pedro became more comfortable in our company was that they were an item. Julie clocked wedding rings and hoped they were married to each other and not anything sordid.    

We left the “meeting of the waters” and returned back up the Rio Negro towards Manaus.

Almost immediately we turned into a channel to our left heading towards an area known as Janauarilandia. We soon came across a peculiar landscape of giant lily pads. It was an incredible sight.

“Come and sit up at the front” suggested Paolo so I could have a clearer view.

The water lilies, a variety known as Victoria Amazonica, were extraordinary. Their circular leaves were well over a metre in diameter and apparently sturdy enough to support the weight of a small child.

Not all were strong robust plates of greenery. Some had come to the end of their life-cycle and decomposed into paper thin lace. But even this remnant could hold the weight of a small bird.

We saw a Jacana bird step out and walk across the flimsiest of lily pads. Its nickname is the Jesus bird because it appears as if it walks on water.

We saw another Jacana walking from one giant pad to another with four little chicks in tow, desperately trying to keep up with their mother. It was difficult for them to get over the rim of the larger lilt pads, but they managed somehow to follow her. They came to an abrupt stop however when the hen decided to “walk on water”. They thought better of going over the edge.

The mother hen realised the problem and returned to them, before trying an alternative safer route.

The area was alive with birdlife. I’ve never been one to get excited over our feathered friends before, but this trip has change my view. Now I find myself being impressed by the commonest of birds.

We left the giant lily pads behind and snuck through a small channel into another stretch of water which opened out into a floating village known as Lago do Catalão.

We’ve seen similar settlements in Cambodia on the Tonle Sap Lake and we’re torn between finding the whole experience fascinating and finding it too intrusive and voyeuristic.

The boat slowed down I assume to allow us to have a good peep inside the colourful wooden houses that float on submerged tree trunks near the riverbank. Or perhaps he was just sticking to a speed limit.

There weren’t many people about, most were probably at work in the city or out fishing. Those who were at home swung in hammocks. Life moved at a slower pace here.

Even the dogs were having a siesta, watching us sail past with only one eye open.

I suppose you could call it a floating flavela with only wooden shacks and tin roofs for shelter, but this community of over a hundred families had a shop, and a café, a church and a school, all bobbing up and down on the river. They even had a yellow boat school bus.

School was over for the day and the kids hung around playing, some making the most of their water feature.

At the end of the High Street we pulled up at the local tourist attraction.

Their “attraction” was an overcrowded pool full of Pirarucu, the largest known fish in the Amazon. They can grow up to 3 metres in length and weigh 220kg!

No sooner had we stepped onboard, we were made to throw feed into the tank to bring them all to the surface as they erupted into a feeding frenzy.

Then in another tank, which only had a few Pirarucus in it. I was given a wooden pole with a small dead fish tied on a long piece of string and told to dangle it just above the water.

“These ones are two metres long” said Paolo.

Julie was told to take a video to capture the moment when one of the fish would take the bait.

It all felt rather uncomfortable and unnecessary.

I must admit however that there was a rush of excitement when the giant fish emerged from the water, snapped at the little fish, and then disappeared back into the darkness, almost pulling me in with it.

It was all over in a split second.  We repeated this about 5 times.

Before leaving we had a browse through the gift shop and bought a small terracotta cup with Manaus written across it for 25R$. We didn’t really need it or want it nor did we want to encourage this type of tourist attraction, however buying local handicrafts does help the community.

From the floating village of Lago do Catalão we returned to the Rio Negro and carried on up river. From here we could see the full span of the bridge. We could also see dark clouds on their way, and even rainfall in the distance. It was beginning to get a bit choppy and we were only in a little boat.

However, our excursion wasn’t over yet. After a few minutes we turned up the next tributary and sailed past another settlement of floating houses. This wasn’t as concentrated as Lago do Catalão which we saw earlier. There was just a smattering of houses dotted around.

It had the same feel to it where the men slept in hammocks and the women busied themselves with their daily chores.

Our destination here was a large café restaurant. It looked like they could feed a boat load of people with a long buffet table down the centre. The sign said “Welcome to the restaurant of the day, however, it was closed when we arrived. They also had this huge gift shop which was also closed.

It was a waste of our time really, but we eventually found a member of staff. We sat down and had a beer and bought Paolo a diet coke. Whilst we chatted Maria (the “official photographer”) and Paolo became a bit more relaxed in our company. She spoke no English but he translated the conversation for her. They were clearly an item.

We were just about to leave when this beautiful yellow canary flew into the restaurant and got distracted by its own reflection. It then decided to pick a fight with itself and started attacking the mirror like its life depended on it. Eventually it tired and gave up the fight. It had met its match.

The birdlife kept coming, thick and fast. Whilst we were waiting for our driver to return we came across this fabulous Kingfisher trying to spot some lunch in the murky water.

It was interesting to notice that the brown sediment rich water of the Solimoes had seeped through into this area.

Back in the boat we set off on our return journey to Manaus, sailing through another floating community.

Not all of the houses were floating. We came across land high enough to avoid being under water during the rainy season so the essentials of a church, a school and a football pitch had been built.

We took a shortcut through a flooded forest. The water was very low in some sections, we could almost touch the bottom. Paolo pointed out how we could see the base of the trees, where the roots system spreads out, as an indicator of how low the water was here.

He then blurted out of nowhere “Ooh, Wild Pig!”

I turned to look, expecting to see some big hairy boar/warthog beast but it looked like an average commoner-garden pink pig. It looked out of place in the jungle.

Moments later pigs of another description came tearing through the flooded forest on their jet skis, laughing and joking as they left us rocking in the wake. We all rolled our eyes in disappointment. It wasn’t long however, before we had grins on our faces when we passed them. One of the jet skis had stalled in the grass. The engine wouldn’t start. We could have stopped to help but we didn’t.

We kept on checking behind us but they never caught up. I wonder if they ever got back to Manaus?

Crossing the Rio Negro in our boat was bumpy enough. I wouldn’t like to have attempted it in a jet ski. We were cutting through the water with quite an impact with each wave. The boat shook, and we shuddered. Bang. Bang. Bang. All the way home.

I don’t know if it was raining or if it was spray from the boat, but we were getting wet in the back. Paolo put a protective arm around Maria. We just hoped that they were husband and wife and not something sordid.

Thankfully we soon reached the mooring outside the hotel. It was here we realised how choppy the water had become. The swell was rocking the boat so much it was a challenge to get off. The tip of the boat was swinging a good metre up and down below the dock.

It was quite daunting. We had to time it just right as the boat swung with the rise and fall of the wave. We had to step off at its highest position. Misjudge and there was a real risk one of us could have ended up in the water, without a life-jacket!

Julie did incredibly well to hold her nerve. No one ended up in the Rio Negro.

Safely on dry land Paolo delivered us back to the hotel lobby where we said our goodbyes and sat down at the bar to plan our next move. 

We had a look at Tripadvisor to find somewhere to eat tonight but were surprised how far away from the centre we were. Most of the better rated restaurants were over 13km away in downtown Manaus. We didn’t fancy a long taxi ride this evening so resigned ourselves to eating at the hotel.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the bar. We didn’t drink too much, mostly because the service was atrocious. Whoever was in control of their stock needed sacking. There was a bar menu but almost everything on there was unavailable.

We tried to get Julie a glass of wine, but they couldn’t find any. All they had was about half a glass at the end of a bottle which looked like it had been left on someone’s table after last night’s dinner. So instead we settled for two beers.

It was a similar story when we overheard one guest at the bar basically working his way through the bar menu to be told they didn’t have any. “Whisky?” – “No” “Gin?” – “No” “Wine?” – “No” In the end they also settled for two beers.

The staff were pleasant enough but poorly trained. Our caipirinhas arrived promptly and with a smile but we just got lucky. They certainly couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. There was two of them working the bar but they both took their break at the same time, leaving the bar unstaffed for half an hour. Guests were arriving waiting to be served and leaving in bad tempers.

Julie also saw one of them carrying a tray of drinks to the dining room. One glass was over filled and was spilling a little, so she took a good swig out of it to make it easier to carry! Incredible.

It was all quite entertaining.

Eventually it was time for supper. We decided to go with the buffet option as it was easier. There were enough non-meat dishes for me to make a meal of it.

A bland pumpkin soup, a fejoada (bean stew) with rice, which both probably had meat stock in them, and a spaghetti with a tomato sauce which was so thin it was more like tinned tomato soup. Compounding the disappointment was they weren’t being held at a high enough temperature and were all lukewarm at best.

Julie faired much better and thoroughly enjoyed her tucunaré fish, as well as the grilled chicken and a pork steak.

It was still quite early in the evening, but we were ready for bed. We tried to get a nightcap for the room but unsurprisingly there wasn’t anyone serving at the bar.

Half an hour later we were in our room, tucked up in bed, fast asleep.

It had been a very long day.

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