Words by Roderick Eime
weren’t for the brown, turbid waters and the little, powered canoes, you’d
think the riverine city of Belém was a mini Miami or Surfers Paradise – given
all the highrises piercing the low clouds. This busy port was the site of the
first European settlement in the Amazon, dating back to 1616. It is situated on
the Guama River, one of the many arteries that comprise the Amazon Delta.
guide, Cicero is, at 64, an authentic man of the jungle and makes our visit to
Belém an enriching experience. We walk with Cicero through the local market – a
stone’s throw from where our ship, Ponant’s superb Le Soleal, is moored at the
old rubber industry wharf.
manner of peculiar fruit and vegetables are on display for our inspection.
Fruits with names like cupuacu, bacuri, tapereba
and acerola are piled on wobbly tresses. Like dense little apples, the acai
fruit is the only one I recognise.
fruit has made the fortune of the river people,” Cicero says. “We export it all
over the world for its amazing medicinal properties. Once we had rubber, now
eyes light up when I ask to try some of these colourful elixirs. I hand him
some reals (about AUD$5 worth) and ask him to buy some juice for us, which
produces an amusing range of expressions as the unfamiliar flavours assail our
tastebuds. Our regenerating livers, revitalized synapses and vanishing kidney
stones rejoice in unison.
inside the historic shed we meet Batu, a feisty woman of 70-odd who presents us
with a baffling range of jungle remedies. A small photo gallery displays her
extensive celebrity clientele. The fish market reveals an even more astonishing
variety of produce, with several species looking like prototypes for the next
Ridley Scott movie.
lunch, we motor a short distance upriver with Cicero, visiting a plot of
secondary forest where we meet big furry spiders, industrious ants and a few
remaining kapok trees – once the lords of this jungle. Our local hosts offer us
a powerful spirit made from sugar cane and some mysterious leaves. I try some
and my tongue immediately electrifies. I turn to ask Cicero what the heck I
just sipped and he laughs uproariously.
the return journey, past the many little stilt houses and moored ferries, we
discuss the radical changes in the jungle that he’s witnessed over a lifetime
and not all tell a cheery tale.
proves that expedition cruises, like the ones on offer at Ponant, are about
more than sightseeing in exotic locations. It’s a chance to interact
with the locals and hear their stories.
- The AMAZON DELTA is 300 kilometres wide and pours water into the Atlantic at the rate of one litre for every person on Earth, every second.
- ACAI is the most popular fruit of the Amazon region, extolled for its many health benefits, and is widely cultivated and exported.
- BELÉM was founded in 1616 by the Portuguese and was the first European colony on the Amazon.
- There are more than 3000 DIFFERENT SPECIES OF FISH in the Amazon and almost half of those are catfish.
- DEFORESTATION remains a problem in Brazil, which recently released its worst annual deforestation figures in a decade – equivalent to one million football pitches.
writer Roderick Eime specialises in expedition cruising, and has been sailing
to remote locations for 20 years. Twitter @rodeime