STANDING under the imposing dome of the Teatro Amazonas in the Brazilian city of Manaus, it was hard to believe that we had sailed nearly 1,000 miles up the mighty Amazon to reach here.
This fantastic building, which could easily grace any major European city, is a ‘must see’ for visitors to this intriguing settlement in the heart of the rainforest.
The Teatro Amazonas, or Opera House, was just one of the wonders we encountered on a six-week journey aboard the cruise ship, Marco Polo – so suitably named for our band of intrepid explorers seeking a holiday with a difference.
Operated by Cruise and Maritime, our journey took us from Tilbury to Brazil, with a host of interesting destinations on both the outward and return journeys.
The company offers this cruise each January – taking passengers away from the dark days of the British winter to sunnier climes.
From Tilbury, we set sail for Amsterdam and then followed a route south to Lisbon and Madeira. Our first port of call off the well-established routes was Mindelo in the Cape Verde islands.
Several days at sea provided an opportunity to try something new – the watercolour class I joined was inspiring – or simply relax in the sun before our first sight of South America.
The brown waters of the Amazon can be seen 60 miles out to sea, such is the incredible freshwater flow of this powerful river as it pushes into the ocean. Each port of call along its banks gives a fascinating insight of how the people of the region live.
Manaus is situated at the confluence of the rivers Negro and Solimoes. This meeting is an incredible sight with the black waters of the Negro and the brown waters of the Solimoes running side by side for some two miles before finally merging into the brown of the Amazon.
Once one of the richest cities in the world Manaus owed its fortunes to the rubber trees that flourished in the area. But when the British introduced the species to the Far East, the Brazilian economy took a hit and the city sank into decline.
The Teatro Amazonas is a shining beacon from those days of untold prosperity when the whole world wanted rubber and only Manaus could supply it.
A visit was at the top of my ‘to do’ list as I’d remembered marvelling at the idea of an opera house in the middle of the jungle in a childhood encyclopaedia. Little did I think that one day I would actually be here
With just one road linking the city with the outside world (running north to Venezuela), the river is her highway.
A myriad boats of various sizes bob about in a frenzy of activity, carrying people and goods. There’s a buzz and energy that pulsates through this remote city that invigorates and refreshes the traveller.
Now very much on the up again, Manaus will be better known to millions around the world as 2014 approaches, for it is one of the 12 selected host cities for that year’s World Cup.
From Manaus we retrace our course and from our vantage point on board we spy villages and small settlements, huts built on stilts to offer protection from flooding, all tiny in the vastness of the Amazon.
We also witness the ever-friendly locals going about their daily business, the pink dolphins leaping out of the water as if for our entertainment and vultures wheeling overhead.
Then there’s the constant chatter of the rainforest, the endless trees, the canoes being paddled or motor driven with apparent ease on such a huge area of water and the colourful river boats with their bright, swaying hammocks carrying human loads.
Each port of call offered a fresh look at life here and the opportunity for new experiences – nature walks, river cruises, visits to towns and cities, caiman spotting, piranha fishing or simply exploring with unexpected and exotic sights to be found at every turn.
We left the Amazon, pushed on by the flow of the river to a speed of 24 knots – the fastest of the voyage – and headed for the Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands) and Devil’s Island, the former French penal colony made famous by the book and film, Papillon.
What an incredibly beautiful island it is today and how far removed from the horrors that once took place here – a fascinating place to visit.
Another holiday experience was to follow as the Marco Polo headed for the Caribbean with ports of call including Grenada, the Grenadines, Antigua, St Lucia and Barbados. This in itself would have been a great holiday!
Suitably refreshed by more than a few rum punches, the return leg of the voyage beckoned and with it the promise of the chance to explore the Azores.
Composed of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, this final destination was a little taste of paradise before the final leg of the voyage back to Tilbury.
We had sailed 12,296 nautical miles – a real voyage of discovery.
With an itinerary that included what must be some of the most exotic destinations in the world, this was an experience not to be missed – and all enjoyed from the comfort of the vessel we had come to refer to as ‘home’.
The friendly crew had looked after us splendidly, providing us with three meals a day plus afternoon tea and late night snacks. We enjoyed a spectacular variety of entertainment, informative and amusing lectures and a host of other activities.
But the mighty Amazon was almost certainly the star of the show with a performance to provide memories to last for a lifetime.
Marco PoloJim Pybus travelled with Cruise & Maritime Voyages.
The Marco Polo will sail again to the Amazon, West Indies & The Azores departing from Tilbury January 3, 2013.
Prices start from £2,946 per person for the 42-night cruise.
For reservations/enquiries call 0845 430 0274
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