The night before we were to drop anchor off the port of Icoaraci situated on the bank of the Para River, Sue wasn’t feeling too well (cold shivers and sore throat) so wisely decided on a bowl of warming soup in the buffet and have an early night.
The following morning she was feeling much perkier. Dosed up with paracetamol she professed she was looking forward to our trip down the Guama River to the little 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 with colourful dance troupe to welcome us, however a thought did pass through my mind that this may not be the case, perhaps they were there 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 heavy presence of police and troops. No doubt this was to reassure arriving foreigners, however, it always seems to have the opposite effect on me!
We boarded a refreshingly cold, airconditioned bus. Amazonian 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 unfortunately is 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 see why?
To compound their problems, the city once noted for its quiet peaceful atmosphere and a safe place to live has become anything but. Since Rio and the larger cities to the south cracked down on their atrocious crime statistics, the ‘bad guy’s moved north to cities like Belem. Now, as in Rio, razor wire and steel bars are the order of the day and can be found surrounding most buildings of any worth. On the journey out of Icoaraci I got adept at spotting local gang members tasked with keeping an eye on their territory from street corners (enlightened by watching Colombian and Mexican gangland series on Netflix). A few, giving an impression of being quietly sinister but cool, brazenly wore bullet proof jackets, no doubt used in the odd shoot-out.
We arrived at the regenerated and quite smart looking dock where we boarded our craft, accompanied by four heavily armed police for our 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 don’t get the option of seating, though occasionally we did see the odd hammock slung from internal posts.
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, our interest now being on the barges laden with motorised vehicles dangerously crisscrossing 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 primitive design where people were living. Whenever we came across one occupied, we would be gifted a huge wave of the arms from its 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 give them any business 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 was soon to 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! Annoyingly, a tune kept running through my mind, “Brazil nuts keep falling on my head.”
After a short walk to a small group of thatched huts we watched a demonstration by a spritely old gentleman, dressed only in tatty shorts on how you crack open these ‘coconuts’ and then scrape out their contents. We had the opportunity to taste the nuts, not surprisingly they had a fresh creamy, Brazil nutty taste, lovely. Unfortunately, if they are not roasted within a few hours they become inedible after 2-3 days (I didn’t know that).
Discovering that our nut splitter was 75yrs old, it was a further surprise to see him shin up the narrow trunk of a quite flexible tree to a height of 30m or more, as a demonstration on how the nuts are collected. Quite bizarre to watch, especially when he descended by sliding down the trunk in just a second or two, but a great incentive for eating Brazil nuts.
We then spent an hour following a variety of narrow trails through a very sticky and dense jungle, stopping occasionally to have a particular species of tree or plant pointed out to us and its use or oddity 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 a prompt for my memory.
Retracing our steps to the boat, it wasn’t long before the relief of moving air, cooling overheated bodies, returned life sufficiently enough to accept a selection of local fruits served up by our boat crew. I enjoyed all of those that I sampled, but not all of our fellow foresters agreed.
Soon, we were back in Belem 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.