Amazon River


I rarely turn down an opportunity to take a trip on one of the world’s great rivers. The Mekong, the Kapuas (Borneo’s biggest), the Ganges, the Zambezi and even the Nile pale into insignificance though alongside the mighty Amazon. Every first-grade geography pupil knows that the Amazon is seriously ‘big’...but until you get here it seems that all the statistics and anecdotes are unable to drill into your mind just how IMMENSELY, MASSIVELY GARGANTUAN the Amazon is! Belem is the main coastal port at the mouth of the river and looking across the river from the harbour you think at first that you can see the other side. But this is just an island in the mouth of the river: and that island, Ilha de Marajó, is itself about the size of Switzerland!


Way upriver, at Santarém, there are a series of justifiably famous beaches complete with talcum-powder sand, parasols and caipirinha-stands. This is about 700 miles from the sea and yet, given the surroundings, you are vaguely surprised as you dive into the turquoise water that it does not taste of salt. And even this far up the great river you are not even officially in Amazonas state yet – this is still just the coastal Pará region.


There is no better way to get a feel for the world’s greatest river than to travel at slow speed on a cargo boat. You sleep among an entire web of hammocks in the hold and eat basic meals cooked in a galley at the stern. The top deck is usually reserved for a bar where local travellers play cards or violently noisy games of dominoes. You pass the hours up here drinking icy Brahma beer (nobody drinks colder beer than Brazilians) and trying to ignore the blaring sounds of Brazilian girl-bands that all seem to sound like part of the soundtracks from Alvin and the Chipmunks.


Manaus bills itself as ‘Gateway to the Amazon Jungle.’ Even here, 1200 miles from the ocean, the Amazon still looks more like a coastal inlet than a river. Ocean-going tankers and container ships lie anchored off Manaus’s state-of-the-art floating docks (well it was when it was built a century ago and the locals still haven’t forgotten the fact).


On the wall by the docks there is a huge plaque marking the high-water levels over the years. This year however the Amazon is suffering the driest season in 47 years and the water does not come within five or six metres of the bottom of the plaque.


It takes 4-5 days by cargo boat to arrive in Manaus and, even in these long lazy days, there seem to be few signs that the river is getting noticeably narrower. Occasionally you glance up and see with surprise that the jungle has suddenly encroached on both sides...but it is invariably just a passing island and soon the river opens up again into great oceanic expanses.


For much of its length the great jungle river looks more like the Nile these days, with bare stretches of barren sand leading up to the trees. Life is frequently tough for the people who live along the Amazon but according to the fishermen, farmers and traders on this world’s biggest river this year is tougher than ever.


More photos here