Manaus: Far From a Remote Outpost On the Amazon River

Day 60, 2023 Grand South America and Antarctica

Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023; Manaus, Brazil.

After cruising about a thousand miles up the Amazon River, I was surprised by the city of Manaus. I expected a sleepy river town, dominated by an opera house seeming out of place. Instead, I found a city of more than 2 million people, bustling and loud.

The river journey here itself was broad and muddy – not twisty and jungle-shrouded. And yet, it still was an adventure.

After leaving Santarém two days ago, we cruised upriver for a day and half. The earlier forests along the riverbanks were replaced in places by scattered small communities. Most notably are the broad sandy beaches, a result of historic low water levels – the lowest in recorded history.

Our most challenging passage was early yesterday, as we sailed over a sandbar with just about four feet of clearance under our keel. A pilot boat led the way, continuously taking depth soundings and marking the channel with both real and imaginary markers. The latter electronic aids show up on the ship’s charts.

Just earlier a tanker strayed out of the channel and went aground. Our captain had been concerned about our ability to pass it in the narrow area, but now it simply served as another channel marker and the subject of hundreds of photographs as we passed by at a crawl.

Once we anchored off the port of Manaus, barges came alongside the Zaandam to load provisions, offload bags I’m guessing of trash, and pump fresh water into our tanks. Normally we make our own water from the sea, but we can’t from the muddy river.

Speaking of mud, the Meeting of the Waters is very clear here at Manaus, where the River Negro joins the Amazon. (There are other “meetings of the waters” along the river and its many tributaries.) The former’s dark water flows alongside the brown Amazon for miles without mixing together.

Because of the low river level and the need to cross the shallowest spots during daylight, our scheduled two full days here were cut to a mid-afternoon arrival on Monday and a full day today. We actually will leave overnight so we can transit the shallows tomorrow morning.

I’ll be back to Manaus next month during the early part of the 2024 Grand World Voyage and booked an all-day city tour then with my sisters. So this time I decided to just explore on my own. Being lazy this morning worked in my favor, as I missed a mid-morning driving rainstorm. Some fellow passengers, especially those on river tours, reported an exciting adventure trying to stay dry while avoiding submerged rocks and other hazards.

The area around the tender pier reminded me of many other cities, from those in Mexico just across the Texas border to Southeast Asia and western Africa. Storefronts selling clothes and electronics front sidewalks and side streets where vendors peddle fruit, nuts (Brazil nuts of course), smartphone cases and t-shirts. I moved slowly while watching my step on the sidewalk, not wanting another fall while on a cruise.

The Amazonas Opera House is perhaps a half mile from the dock. This best-known landmark in Manaus was built in 1896 with materials brought from Europe, including French glass, Italian marble and tiles for the dome. Today it was closed to the public, although most city tours included a visit inside. Christmas decorations, including those for its Nutcracker performances, are going up outside.

Back on the ship, tonight was the ubiquitous Orange Party – a celebration on every Holland America cruise based on the Dutch celebration of the king or queen’s birthday. Regular cruisers make sure to pack something orange to wear or purchase orange boas, headbands and other accessories in the ship’s shops.

I brought a new bright orange wig and actually wore it to dinner in the dining room before going to the party in the Crows Nest. The crowd kept my favorite bartenders Richard (pictured with me) and Walter busy. Many friends did not recognize me. I figure I will get a lot of use of the wig during future cruises.

A couple of days ago, the theme around the Lido Pool was Glamp Out, or fancy camping. By the time I arrived after dinner, the crowd had thinned. Watching staff try to maneuver a large canoe in a small pool seemed to be the main entertainment, and it was nice to have live music by the Ocean Band.