The night before we were to drop anchor off the port of Icoaraci on the bank of the Para River, Sue wasn’t feeling too well (cold shivers and sore throat) so wisely decided to have a bowl of warming soup and have an early night.
The following morning she was feeling much perkier and dosed up with paracetamol, professed she was looking forward to our trip down the Guama River on the way to the island of Boa Vista do Acara where we would experience the rainforest.
The Magellan arrived at 6.30am, anchoring around a half mile off shore. Icoaraci is the gateway to the city of Belem which gets its name from the Portuguese for Bethlehem. In the past it was the most popular tourist stop in Amazonia but Manaus has taken over that mantle. We took the tender boat over to one of the many piers jammed in among the moored ferries, fishing boats and other commercial craft. The tender crews had to jostle through out the day to preserve their small section of the pier against incoming local craft looking for a place to tie up. They eventually hit on a trick, the moored tender wouldn’t leave until another one had arrived to quickly take its place. However, it did mean that passengers on the outgoing tender had to remain in cramped conditions for much longer than usual.
Safely on land, we passed hordes of locals heading in the opposite direction to catch one of the dozens of available ferries, many took the time to cheerily say hello. The authorities had laid on a band and colourful dance troupe to welcome us, however a thought did pass through my mind that perhaps this may not be the case, but to celebrate their own citizens leaving for work. As we left the pier, it was very noticeable and is often the case in South American countries that there was a large presence of police and troops. No doubt this was to reassure arriving foreigners, but it always seems to have the opposite effect on me!
We boarded our refreshingly cold and airconditioned bus. Brazilian coaches are not known for their comfort or vital aircon, so this was more than welcome. We had around an hours drive to the port of Belem which is unfortunately too shallow to take a ship the size of the Magellan. It was plain to see that Icoaraci, once a very important and wealthy industrialised area had now fallen on hard times and its citizens were now living in extreme poverty. Indeed, the decrepit buildings and filthy living conditions stretched all the way to the wealthy sky scraper apartments in the centre of Belem. We could see that the city had once contained many magnificent buildings of note, but these had been grossly uncared for over the years and were now a ramshackle shadow of their past glory. To make matters worse, graffiti was scrawled everywhere, even over the new. Not the annoyingly pleasing, artistic graffiti of Banksy wannabe’s, but black squiggles and slashes that just deface a building for the gratification of a warped mind. Ten cruise ships used to visit this city each month, this has dwindled to a mere ten in six months. Don’t these idiots not see why?
To compound their problems, the city once noted for its quiet peace and a safe place to live has become anything but. Since Rio and the large cities to the south cracked down on their atrocious crime statistics, the bad guys moved north to cities like Belem. Now like in Rio, razor wire and steel bars surround most buildings. On the journey from Icoaraci to Belem, through binge watching Colombian and Mexican gangland series on Netflix, I got adept at spotting local gang members tasked with keeping an eye on their territory from street corners. A few brazenly wore bullet proof jackets, no doubt used in the odd shoot-out and all looking lazily sinister.
We arrived at the regenerated and quite smart looking dock where we boarded our craft, along with four heavily armed police, for the trip down the Guama River. The boat was the same as many of the small ferries plying their trade up, down and across the Amazon, two roofed decks for protection from the sun/rain and for the benefit of we soft foreigners, plastic garden chairs arranged in rows to sit on. It is plainly obvious from all the other craft around us that the local Brazilians don’t get the option of seating.
Heading up the Para River stained brown by the erosion of thin rainforest soil we watched the line of city skyscrapers slowly diminish into the distance, with the interest now being on the barges laden with vehicles criss-crossing our path and the occasional small motor boat zipping by, usually with just one or two occupants. Turning out of the main stream we slid into the much narrower Guama River. The rainforest was now much closer on both banks, often long sections of the bank would be lined with mangrove like bushes, thin, short trunks, exposed by low tide and growing from the river mud. Every so often we would pass a jetty sticking out into this brown sludge, often with a beached canoe alongside. On the forest side of the elevated wooden walkways, usually partly hidden by trees could be seen wooden structures of all sorts of design where people were living. Whenever we came across one occupied, we would be gifted a huge wave of the arms from it occupants, which some of us returned. The river traffic here consisted of small boats and families with engines racing to get somewhere in a hurry, only to be delayed slightly as our backwash forced them to slow or risk being swamped.
It wasn’t long before we pulled alongside a rather larger jetty than we had encountered so far, it seemed to be the main departure point for a small settlement. There were several moped taxi riders sitting chatting on a low wooden fence, hoping for custom from the frequent boats arriving. I didn’t see anyone dive them any custom while we were there.
Disembarking, we were issued with hard hats as protection from falling Brazil nuts. Brazilian health and safety gone mad? Perhaps, but this was the season when the Brazil nuts fall from the trees and from a height of 30m plus. I discovered that these nuts grow inside a structure which looks uncannily like and is the same size as a coconut. There can be up to fifteen nuts tightly packed inside each shell. Having one of those hit you on the head would do quite a bit of damage!
We watched a demonstration of how you crack open these ‘coconuts’ , and then tasted their contents. A very creamy and brazil nutty taste, lovely. Unfortunately, if they are not roasted within a few hours they become inedible after 2-3 days.
We then watched a 75yr old gentleman wearing just a pair of grubby shorts, shin up the narrow trunk of a quite flexible tree to a height of 30m as a demonstration on how the nuts are collected. Quite bizarre to watch, but a great incentive for eating Brazil nuts.
We then spent an hour following a variety of narrow trails through the jungle, stopping occasionally to have a particular species of tree or plant explained, we stood listening patiently taking photos, sweating profusely in the abominable humidity and hoping for a breeze to sweep away the oppressive heat. Our guide was very knowledgeable on the subject and I am sure that if conditions had been less exhausting, I would have taken more in, but then I have my photos and they will serve as my memories.
Retracing our steps to the boat, it wasn’t long before the relief of moving air, cooled overheated bodies and returned life sufficiently enough to sample a selection of local fruits served up by our boat crew. I enjoyed all of the fruits sampled, but not all our fellow foresters agreed.
Soon we were back in Belem and enjoying again the icy freshness of aircon on the coach. We had a delayed journey back to the tender boat in Icoaraci due to a public demonstration in the city, causing quite a long detour.
We had planned to spend a couple of hours in Icoaraci, but Sue was feeling quite exhausted, so we returned to the comfort and safety of the ship.