Cruising Through a Glorious Green Hell

Visions of the Amazon jungle bring forth images of anacondas slithering through a green hell, saw-toothed piranhas attacking cattle as they drink from the river, and developers slashing and burning the virgin South American rain forest.

Toucan During my Amazon adventure, reality was something quite different. The river, above the Brazilian port of Manaus, is a wide, wondrous stream surging through an unbroken tropical setting inhabited by elegant large-billed toucans, playful dolphins, and the isolated Bora and Tikuna Indians. The dangers that lurk in one's mind are largely hidden in the forest or safely beneath the muddy waters.

The bigger cruise ships ply the Amazon's 1,000-mile lower reaches between Manaus and its mouth at Belem, while more nimble expedition vessels, from lines such as Abercrombie & Kent and Amazon Cruises and Tours, churn an additional 1,200 miles upriver to Iquitos, a sprawling port city located deep in the Peruvian rain forest. Iquitos, a rather tatty place, enjoyed a brief burst of prosperity during the turn-of-the-century rubber boom. With a half-million residents, the city may be the world's largest metropolis with no access by road.

Cruise ships bound downstream to ports in Colombia and Brazil dock at a floating pontoon, securely tied against a powerful seven-knot current. With no channel markers of any kind, Peruvian pilots navigate the ever-changing river using charts covered with penciled notations and a very good memory, much like Mark Twain did on the Mississippi in the 19th century steamboat days. Carried along by the powerful flood current, which varies an astonishing 45 feet between wet and dry seasons, the ship may travel at speeds ranging from 13 to 19 knots, yet the elevation drops only 180 feet over the 1,262 miles from Iquitos down to Manaus.

M/V Rio Amazonia

The core of the more adventurous small cruise ships to the upper river are Zodiac excursions, most scheduled for early in the day. Assembling the necessary gear becomes a minor expedition itself. Recommended items include Wellington boots, a rain parka, life vest (all often provided by the ship), bug juice, light cottons, and a clear plastic bag to protect the camera during the abrupt transition from air conditioning to high humidity.

We chose an 8-day, downstream excursion from Iquito, Peru, to Manaus. On the first morning, the ship drops anchor a few hundred yards from a Bora Indian village, built high up on a bluff. Mo, our Indian guide, led us ashore to wander through a compound of wooden houses built on stilts to allow the air to circulate beneath the floors and to keep them dry during the rainy season. Some of the villagers simply watch in silence from an open window or repose in a hammock strung across the veranda, while others come closer to barter their face masks, patterned baskets, and bark paintings, for articles of our clothing, flight bags and knickknacks.

Children parade about holding pet spider monkeys, baby sloths, and small lizards, happily posing for pictures without asking anything in return. This village, like most others I will see, is largely self-sufficient, and around the perimeter I could see healthy-looking Brazil nut and banana trees, garden plots of corn, manioc, and yams, and pigs snorting around in the dirt.

At the larger town of Pebas, I visit an artist's house commanding the Amazon jungle equivalent of a Hudson River view. The owner's landscape paintings draw on the colors of the bromeliads in the forest and the light of the puffy cumulus clouds and darker vertical thunderheads. While the afternoons often look threatening, most rain and lightning remains in the distance.

A handful of us accompany Mo on a fishing expedition. Sighting a break in the rain forest, he maneuvers the Zodiac into an open pocket beneath the thick canopy. Seated at the bow, he asks me to attach the bow line to a tree, but when a large black spider emerges from his nest on the trunk, I beg off. The disappointing expedition yields a few diminutive catfish and piranhas, rather than a catch sufficient to provide the entire ship's complement with dinner. On the way out into the main channel, the Zodiac grazes a tree limb, dumping a colony of biting army ants into the boat. I sputter out that I would prefer to cross Central Park in New York City at night than go back into that green hell.

On walks into the rain forest, Mo widens the path with a machete and uses it to cut open a termite nest in search of the elusive queen. In one clearing, some kids find a hardy few vines to swing from while yodeling Johnny Weissmeuller-style. We spot a few howler monkeys, but most action in the forest takes place unseen high in the trees. Flycatchers swoop down to feed on insects living atop tall ceiba trees, and hairy tarantulas lie in wait for the right moment to pounce. However, from the Zodiacs we see harpy eagles, red-throated caracaras, night hawks, and snowy egrets.

Darkness falls rapidly in the tropics, and once the powerful bridge searchlight comes on, the bright beam becomes a tube filled with flying insects and darting birds, floating vegetation and hardwood logs. The river banks are a solid black wall, interrupted by an occasional lantern or cooking fire.

Following a week on the Upper Amazon, we land at Manaus, a ramshackle city of more than one million inhabitants. It is best known for its opulent neo-classical opera house and wrought-iron Eiffel-designed market pavilion, relics of the rubber boom long since passed.

Below Manaus, the river broadens out into a wide highway, literally the main transportation artery through Amazonia. Colorful two-deck wooden boats ply the river carrying produce to market and passengers between hundreds of ports on more than 50,000 miles of navigable rivers.

Amazonia contains one-third of the world's rain forest, and an area of the size of Connecticut is being cleared every year, a well-reported tragedy. While the Nile is slightly longer, the Amazon discharges 60 times more freshwater, fully one-third of the world's supply. The muddy delta pushes hundreds of miles into the open ocean and when sailing north or south, the ship will eventually cross the line where the mixing stops.

Tour operators offering Amazon River cruises include:

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