Meeting of the Waters: Sailing up the Amazon River

January 3, 2013

Think of the Amazon River and visions of wild jungle, exotic animals and native peoples come to mind. The world’s second longest river, the Amazon runs about 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) from its source in the Peruvian Andes Mountains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We sailed the first quarter of the river’s entire distance, as our Pacific Princess ship took us about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) to the city of Manaus, Brazil, over four days.

The Amazon River accounts for about 20% of the world’s total river flow that enters our global oceans and this influence could be seen even when we were still at sea. Looking out the window of our ship, with no land yet in sight, we saw that the Atlantic Ocean’s color had turned to a coffee-colored brown from the inflow of the Amazon into it. We were anxious to see what the river itself would look like when we arrived at its mouth. This happened early the next morning when we woke up to find ourselves just passing from the open ocean into the mouth of the Amazon, still a muddy brown color.

Even after reading about the Amazon’s length and scale, we were still surprised at just how large the river really is. We were traveling on the Amazon River when the water level was low; at this time the river’s width varies from 1 to 6.2 miles (1.6 and 10 kilometers) wide. In the wet season, when the river rises and sometimes floods, this width can grow to as wide as 30 miles (48 kilometers)! The river’s depth ranges from 66 to 160 feet (20 to 49 meters), and, in some places, is over 300 feet (91 meters) deep! The river banks were more pristine and beautiful than we had expected, especially since we were still so close to the ocean and several populated areas along the coast.

While sailing along the Amazon we stopped in two cities and had time to briefly explore each one. The city of Santarem, Brazil, is the third-largest city in the Amazon, with 300,000 people, and located about halfway between the Amazon’s ocean mouth and the city of Manaus. The city sits at the junction of the Amazon and one of its major tributaries, the Rio Tapajos. This river is clear, or black, in color, compared to the brown or muddy nature of the Amazon. Black rivers flow over crystalline rock, and their color comes from dead vegetation, whereas brown rivers, like the Amazon, run over sedimentary rocks, which results in its muddy characteristics. Because black rivers are more acidic, there are less mosquitoes and insects than on the Amazon.

When black river tributaries flow into the brown Amazon, a phenomenon called the “Meeting of the Waters” occurs, as the two types of water, which differ in acidity and temperature, do not mix together right away. It may take several miles for these rivers, flowing side by side, to finally come together. Santarem is one of the best places to observe this as the Rio Tapajos mixes with the Amazon. We could see the contrast of the two rivers clearly as we walked around the city.

While in Santarem, we also began to understand the importance of the Amazon River to everyday residents in this area. Boats of all shapes and sizes were readying to take locals to other cities along the river. Some of these boats had open areas filled with rows of travelers’ hammocks, as journeys can take several days. With very few roads and closures during the rainy season, the rivers function as the region’s year-around highways.

After leaving Santarem, the plush forest and steep hills along the river bank gave way to lowlands, more farms and occasional towns. One of these is called Parintins. This small city, founded in 1793, lies on an island surrounded by the Amazon River. Parintins is known for a large festival held in June of each year. The Festival Folclorico is based on a story of an ox that is killed and then brought back to life. According to locals it is the second-most popular festival in Brazil after Carnival in Rio de Janiero. We saw evidence of the festival as we walked around the town, even on the advertising and public phone booths.

After 32 days and exactly 10,000 miles of water travel from our starting point in Italy, we reached the city of Manaus and our disembarkation point from the Pacific Princess ship. Manaus is the largest city in the Amazon and more than half of the two million Brazilians who live in this region reside here. From 1890 to 1915, Manaus was the capital of the rubber boom that took this area by storm. At its peak, 38,000 tons of rubber were exported from Brazil in 1910, before production began to move to Southeast Asia.

During the boom period, Manaus built structures that rivaled those in Europe. This included an opera house, called Teatro Amazonas, in which many of the materials were imported from England, France and Italy. Manaus is also an important Amazon River junction, as this is where the black Rio Negro and brown Rio Solmoes meet to form the Amazon River proper. Above Manaus, one can continue to travel by river as far as Peru and the city of Iquitos, which is 2,200 miles (3,600 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean.

We will now have the opportunity to explore the Amazon region even more closely. In Manaus we will board one of those small river boats for a 24-hour trip to Reserva Xixuau-Xiparina. Here, while trekking, we hope to see giant river otters, monkeys and pink dolphins, as well as meet locals from a nearby community and speak at a school. After a week in this remote area we will return to Manaus and begin our journey south towards Uruguay and Argentina.

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