Chile: Santiago 27 February – 2 March 2024

Why Chile?

Chile is adorable. I first visited Chile in February 1999 before embarking on my first expedition to Antarctica. In 2013, I stopped over briefly for three days and visited Valparaiso and in 2017 I returned to Chile (March 3-18) for a hiking trip to Ojos del Salado. I have come for the fourth time because of an expedition from Puerto Williams to Namibia from March 2 – 23. As I have travelled for over a month in Chile before, I decided to spend a month exploring the Amazon and the Northeast Brazil before meeting up with Teresa, my cabin mate in Santiago on 27 February.

A Frustrating Journey to Santiago

I had to buy my ticket from Salvador to Santiago in a great hurry on 24 January when the airline pressed me for a departure ticket from Brazil. After having trouble with Wi-Fi and the language, I eventually bought a ticket from Salvador to Santiago. Instead of sending me a ticket, Latam sent an email reminding me the time of check-in. I saw the date March 27 in the email without ever realising it was the wrong month. (This is not the first time I had made mistake because I was stuck with the date/time I had in mind without actually reading and taking in the information/data. A cognitive degeneration problem?) When I arrived at the Salvador airport around 2:15 am on 27 February and was told that I could not fly, I was shocked by the mistake I had made. As I must arrive on time in Santiago to join Teresa who would arrive from Sydney that afternoon, I had to pay about R2900 to change my flights departing at 11 am to Santiago via Sao Paulo. This mistake cost me dearly. On top of that, I spent the whole night and day at the Salvador and Sao Paulo airport. Interestingly, I noticed that I was annoyed with myself and upset for a brief moment before letting go the unhappy incident (perhaps thanks to my Buddhist training in the past three years!). I spent my time reading and watching lectures on Buddhist scriptures on YouTube. Time passed quickly and finally I landed in Santiago just before 9 pm. I took Uber to the hotel and was pleased to see Teresa who would be my cabin mate.

3 Leisure Days in Santiago

I am getting old and lazy. Teresa and I decided to join two full-day trips to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso on 28 February, and to the El Yeso Reservoir and Cajon del Maipo on 29 February, and an afternoon trip to Baha Temple on 1 March.

I took a day trip in 2013 to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. But I do not mind visiting these lovely places again. The itinerary is different, and I was able to spend some three hours strolling in the hilly streets in Valparaiso, a World Heritage Site known for its structures, colourful houses and street art. I must say the place looks smart, more vibrant, lively and colourful with impressive street art and murals. Reading what I have written and the photos of 2013, I can tell how much it has changed. I could have spent a whole day exploring the small corner of this remarkable hillside city.

The trip to El Yeso and Cajon del Maipo is all about nature. It is a long drive, and we reached an altitude of some 2500m. We were picked up at the hotel before 7am. As I have been to different parts of Chile with even more impressive landscape and scenery of the Andes, canyons and glaciers, I find the scenery pleasant but not stunning.

Our expedition began on March 1 when all joining passengers would stay in the W Hotel for one night before taking a chartered flight to Puerto Williams to board the boat Silver Cloud on March 2. After a delicious brunch, Teresa and I moved to the W Hotel before joining a sunset tour to Baha Temple.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Chile: Santiago 27 February – 2 March 2024

Brazil: Salvador & Boipeda 20-26 February 2024

Why Salvador and Boipeda?

Salvador, founded in 1549 by Tome de Sousa, is the capital city of the state of Bahia known for its cuisine, music, architecture, Afro-Brazilian culture and carnival and a perfect end point of my trip to northeast Brazil. Boipeda , a small island (a part of the Cairu Archipelago with an area of 88 sq km and a population of over 3,000), was totally unknown to me till I met Claude, a Swiss on my 4D3N trip to the Amazon, who considers Boipeda, a biosphere, the most beautiful island in Brazil. Hence, I added this stop when finalising my itinerary.

Salvador, the first capital of Colonial Brazil, is one of the oldest in the Americas and one of the first planned cities in the world. The majority of the population has African, European and Native American roots. The African ancestry is from Angola, Benin, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal and Mozambique. Situated on a steep escarpment, the city has been developed into the Upper Town and Lower Town. The Historic Centre of Salvador in the Upper Town is a World Heritage Site known for its colonial architecture studded with monuments dating from 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

By the time I settled down in the nostalgic Pousada Colonial Chile on Rua Chile, it was almost 4pm. I have been warned not to go out in the evening as it is not a safe city. Hence after a quick tour of the church square and a wholesome dinner with shrimps and rice, I returned to rest in my simple but comfortable room.

4 Nights in Boipeda (21– 24 February)

On 21 February, I got up early and took the 9 am catamaran to Morro de Sao Paulo (R151) which took over two hours. The shortest way to get to Boipeda is to take an hour traversing the Island of Tinhare on 4×4 (R150). I managed to book the transfer at 12 noon while on the boat. It is fun to drive through the interior of the island which reminds me of the terrain and sand dunes at Lencois Maranhenese National Park. Then my host George of Casa Amerala Chales picked me up with his boat from the beach. I had a nice chalet that is tranquil and peaceful. I did not even bother to cross the river to explore the Velha Boipeda (the village) in the afternoon. The casa only provides vegetarian food which suits me well.

The next day (22 February), I crossed the river shortly after 9 am to see whether I could join an island tour (R250). By the time I found an agent, the boat had left at 9:30am. I therefore reserved for the following day. The weather was perfect, and I walked along the coast to the Cueria Beach. It is a leafy lovely short walk. I spent the morning at the beach and had a sumptuous lobster lunch for only R140. Unfortunately, the way they cook does not bring out the flavor and the over-cooked meat tasted like rubber. After lunch, I took a quad ride back to the village (R20). I enjoyed strolling in the tidy and picturesque village (not as touristy as Morro de Sao Paulo) before taking a ride back to my hermitage across the river.

Unfortunately, the weather got from bad to worse: it rained non-stopped throughout the night and did not stop till 9 am on 23 February. The island tour was cancelled. I watched the rain and listened to its soothing rhythm over breakfast. Nature, rain and forest bathing are spiritual!

When the rain finally stopped after 10 am, I decided to go to the village and take a quad ride to the Morere Beach (R35). As soon as I got there, torrential rain poured down for half an hour followed by a brief moment of sunlight. It continued to drizzle on and off throughout the afternoon. I was lucky to take a cart ride with a dozen passengers (R15). A more comfortable ride. As I was dropped off further away from the village, I had an opportunity to see the less developed part of the village. A wonderful experience! I was back in the casa before 5 pm and had a nice vegetarian dinner.

Finally, we had a good weather on 24 February and the island tour with went ahead at 9:30am. We first stopped at the natural pool off Morere Beach which was overcrowded with some 20 boats. Then we spent two hours at the Castelhanos Beach. After 2:30 pm we stopped at Sao Sebastiao, a traditional fishing village for lunch. After 4 pm, we set sail again passing through a mangrove tunnel before stopping at an oyster bar in the middle of the river. I had half a dozen of oysters (R18) and a dozen of clams (R30). They have very different taste and texture! I watched a strangely beautiful sunset. On the way back to the village, torrential rain retuned: we were all wet and cold. Strangely, the rain stopped as soon as we stopped off the boat. Tonight, I moved to stay in a pousada in the village for a night.

2 Nights in Salvador (25-26 February)

I returned to Salvador taking a different route (R270): by boat to Curral, coach to Itaparica and ferry to Salvador. The fast boat left the Boipeda at 11:30 am and I was back in Salvador just before 4pm. The connections were perfect, and I even had a free transfer to Pousada Colonial Chile. The weather was perfect, and I went out to explore the historic centre and walked to Praca da Se, the main square where the Cathedral Basilica stands and then Pelourinho. In this Afro-Brazilian culture heartland, the colours, people and music are exhilarating. The golden sunrays falling on the fading colourful buildings as well as the dilapidated churches and convents created a striking surreal image.

As I would depart at 4 am on 27 February for Chile, I only had one full day in Salvador. I began the day at the Lighthouse Barra by taking Bus 1001 (R5.20). The bus is neat and tidy with a driver and conductor. I passed the high-class posh residential area. The lighthouse built since the 16th century has a toy-like feel and I was interested to find some Chinese figurines of the 17th century.

Then, I took a taxi to Pelourinho (R30) and spent the next four hours visiting the Church and Museum of Carmo, Church of the Third Order of Our Lady of Rosary of Black People, Church of St Domingo and Church of St Francisco (all built in the 18th century) and the House of Jorge Amado Foundation (a famous Brazilian writer (1912-2001) of the modernist school). The tiled mosaics and gold-studded baroque architecture of the Church of St Francisco are stunning, and the triangle-shaped Pelourinho Square are most picturesque and atmospheric.

Time passed so quickly that I did not have time to visit the Cathedral Basilica and the Casa Benin which traces the history of the slaves from Benin and other parts of Africa (I visited Benin many years ago). I watched the most beautiful sunset during my month-long stay in Brazil from the roof top of Pousada Colonial Chile. I went to bed early and took Uber to the airport after 1:30 am. I was on my way to my final destination – Santiago, Chile

Remarks

I have spent a month in a small corner of Brazil – from Amazon to Salvador Bahia. Looking back, I have a few thoughts. First, I do not think I have seen the best part of Amazon. The 4D3N jungle tour is so-so and the 5D4N on the ferry to Belem is boring by my standard especially as I was charged (over USD500) for a very basic and uncomfortable room without window. Second, Sao Luis and the 3D2N side trip to Lencios Maranhenses far exceed my expectations. Third, I had my first Brazilian carnival in Recife and Olinda. I am not a party goer, but it is a good way to experience the Brazilian culture. I am delighted by the ceramics of F Brennand. Fourth, I personally find Fernando de Noronha touristy, overrated and not value-for-money. I find Lord Howe Island (a small island in Australia with World Heritage status) that I visited in 2000, much more impressive. Fifth, I had a most enjoyable experience in Boipeda which is worth going. Sixth, Salvador has so much to offer and is a must-see destination in Brazil. A visitor can truly appreciate its colonial past, roots with Africa and the Brazilian spirit and history. I would like to return one day especially during its carnival.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Brazil: Salvador & Boipeda 20-26 February 2024

Brazil: Fernando de Noronha 16-19 February 2024

I have not heard of Fernando de Noronha (some 350km off the Brazilian coast and 500km from Recife) before I planned this trip. I discover this archipelago, a World Heritage Site, has become a popular destination for the Brazilians. As the Azul air flies there, I have been able to visit this island with my air pass.

The relatively low-lying archipelago consisting of 21 islands and islets, extends over an area of 26 sq km with a population of over 3,000 in 2020. The main island is about 10km across and 7km long. In 2001, it was designated a World Heritage Site because of its importance as a feeding ground of tuna, sharks, turtles and marine mammals. With its protected status, the number of tourist arrival is limited to about 500 per day. Visitors are required to pay an “environmental tax” of about R97 a day. In addition, all foreign visitors have to pay R358 for a 10-day pass to visit the Marine National Park (though most visitors may spend 3-5 nights).

4 Nights in Noronha (16-23 February)

After a short flight of over an hour, I landed at the small airport. I paid the environmental tax for four days and R35 for a short ride to Casa de Mirtes. Mirtes, the host, is nice though we can’t communicate. She loves plants and the whole place looks like a mini-forest. But being allergic to mosquito and other insects, I dared not sit outdoor. Through Luiz’s help, I booked three trips including a one-day island tour, a morning canoe and a sunset boat trip, for R580.

On 16 February, I spent the afternoon exploring Remedios, the centre of the island, and the nearby beaches. There are several interesting historical buildings, canons, fortification and ruins of warehouses. The island was probably named after Fernao de Loronha who was a main financier of the expedition that discovered the island (but it was misspelt -“N” instead of “L”). Between 1501 and 1511, Loronha built a series of warehouses along the Brazilian coast. The ruins of a warehouse can still be seen. Given my hip problem, I did not walk up to the imposing white fort. Everything is expensive: I paid over R200 for lunch and a beer in a nice restaurant opposite the Palace.

On 17 February, I had a great island trip. Instead of seating at the back of the truck, I was given a seat next to the driver / guide, N who is a nice strong lady. She laughs all the time. Though we can’t talk, we form a natural bondage! We first stopped at the Bodo Beach when the group walked up a view point to look at the iconic Two Brothers Rocks. I played safe and sat on the beach. The next stop is the Sancho Beach with several view points, one of which is to admire the Two Brothers Rocks. Then we had a thrilling time when before climbing down a vertical staircase with 22 steps to the beach. I managed to get down and climb up the staircase without mishaps!

Next on the itinerary was the Leaos Beach to see a lion and a turtle rock and the coral reefs close to the shore. But no snorkeling is allowed. We visited the Sueste Beach nearby which is a turtle reserve: no activity is allowed. After a nice lunch, we went to the St Antonio Port for snorkeling. The water was not clear: I hardly saw anything though other saw turtles and baby sharks. Finally we spent over an hour to watch sunset with the sun dropping between the Two Brothers Rocks. I had a most enjoyable day!

On 18 February, I was picked up at 8am and spent an hour and a half canoeing from the port. Here, two canoes with six seats each were tied together: I felt very safe and could canoe without efforts (others were doing the job for me!) We watched many spinner dolphins close to the port for half an hour before moving to the cliffs below the fort which produce some extraordinary loud noises that resemble lion roars. Incredible!. Then we stayed in a small bay next to the port. I jumped into the water with my snorkel gear and saw my first shark (tubarao-lixa) of this trip.

As I had joined a sunset boat trip at 4:30 pm, I did not return to the guesthouse. Instead, I snorkeled for an hour in the beach next to the port. Today, the water was clear and I saw three turtles, some baby sharks and lots of fish for an hour. Unfortunately, I had not bought the underwater camera with me

At 4:30pm, I got onboard a boat with some 50 passengers. It was a boring ride for three reasons. First, the weather was unstable and windy: it became cloudy and rained later. Hence, there was no sunset and we could not go to Sancho Beach for a swim. Second, there was nothing to do on the boat. The seats are uncomfortable and limited. There was not much space to move around. Third, the Brazilians love loud music. I had no peace on the boat.

I had a free day on 19 February (I should have taken the morning boat trip that would go as far as the Marine National Park i.e. the Dolphins Bay). I met Laura and Nathan from Switzerland in the guesthouse. They planned to go to the Dolphins Bay to watch the spinner dolphins and the Sancho Bay to swim. They invited me to join them. I gladly accepted and we set off before 7 am. The taxi cost R40. It is a short walk (1km) to the lookout point of the Marine National Park. A ranger was there and he was not optimistic about the chance of seeing the dolphins. Luckily a school of some 30 dolphins arrived before 8am. They feed at night and spend the day time socialising and relaxing. There were few visitors and I watched the dolphins, the water and the birds for over an hour. Very peaceful and soothing.

Then I followed a well-maintained path (1.1km) to the Sancho Bay. There are several excellent viewing platforms where I sat for 15-20 minutes each to watch birds – frigate, eared dove, black noddy, white-tailed tropicbird, white tern, red-footed booby, Noronha Elaenia and vireo (both endemic species) etc. I also saw plenty of lizard, crabs and rats. By the time I reached the Sancho Bay, Laura and Nathan also had their swim and climbed up the staircase. Without pre-arrangement, we met up and took a taxi back to the guesthouse.

After a rest, I set off to the port for another snorkel with a camera. I took the bus that cost me R5 each way. Unfortunately, it was windy with swell. It was impossible to snorkel: I was thrown off thrice somersaulting by the waves. A nice strong man came to my rescue and pulled me out of the water though I was less than two feet from the shore. I now fully realise how dangerous and ferocious waves can be.

I had a lift from Mirte’s husband to the airport at 9am on 20 February. The flight departed on schedule after 11am and I arrived in Salvador, my last stop in Brazil via Recife around 2:30 pm. I took Uber to Pousada Colonial Chile in the historic centre of Salvador.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Brazil: Fernando de Noronha 16-19 February 2024

Brazil: Recife & Olinda Carnival 12-15 February 2024

Brazil is most famous for its annual carnival in Rio. However, I am more interested in the festivities in the ancient colonial cities of Recife and Olinda known for their cultural heritage, colours and tradition. Frevo representing the main event of the carnivals and an energetic dance with frantic musical rhythms, is an important political and cultural legacy associated with social upheavals of the late 19th century in the Northeastern part of Brazil.

Recife

In early morning of 12 February, I flew from Fortazela to Recife and settled down in a hostel before noon. My agent in Manaus did not reserve accommodation till last minute and could only put me in a hostel in downtown Recife at a ridiculous price of R805 for a dorm bed for two nights! The arrangement was unsatisfied, but it was too late to find alternate accommodation. The bed was so hard and the room with two fans was so hot that I could not sleep. The nice thing was that I met a lot of young Brazilians who came here for the carnival. They are friendly and most helpful.

I ventured out after 4 pm when it was not so hot. I walked from Boa Vista to the old town where the carnival was in full swing. As soon as I crossed the first bridge to the island of Sao Jose, I was surrounded by carnival goers, young and old mostly dressed up with make-up all heading to the old town connected by a second bridge. I was overwhelmed by the happy faces, the ongoing sound, dancing, singing, music and streetscape. Though the buildings are mostly dilapidated, the atmosphere was intoxicating and exhilarating. Processions with crowds streamed constantly past me. I followed the crowd walking through the narrow streets with colourful colonial buildings.

Then I crossed the second bridge to the island of Recife studded with magnificent restored colonial buildings with a large stage in Marco Zero Park. The narrow streets with throngs of people singing and dancing. I was energized with spirit uplifted! However given my hip problem, I decided to leave before 8 pm though I knew the best time was yet to come and the party would not be over till 2 am. I called Uber but no car turned up though I was charged three times with two cancelations fee totaling about R40. The traffic was messy. Eventually, I walked across Pte. Buarque de Macedo to Sao Jose hoping to find a taxi. Eventually I got one and was back to the hostel after 9pm.

The next day, the young people in the hostel were all preparing to go to Olinda and asked me to join. One even put make-up for me as Brazilians would not go to a carnival without it! Tiago, a nice young man from the south gave me a lift and said he would leave around midday as he had luncheon appointment at 1 pm. This suited me as I would not be able to stand in the sun for hours. The spirit, energy and carnival atmosphere in Olinda is beyond description. (to elaborate later)

Olinda, a World Heritage Site

I stayed in Olinda for two nights as I could hardly sleep in the hostel owing to the heat and the hard and uncomfortable mattress. I was glad to have my own room in a pousada with a swimming pool. As there were some small-scale events going on in Olinda, I had an enjoyable leisure time without throngs of people around me: I sat in a pub enjoying a cold beer while watching a few processions passing by.

On February 15, life in Brazil was gradually coming back to normal. I took a taxi for a day to visit the Oficina (office/workplace) and the Institute of Francisco Brennand (1927-2019), a Brazilian painter and sculptor, best known for his works in ceramics. (to elaborate later)

After spending the day in museums, I took a leisure stroll along the deserted streets of Olinda and watched sunset from Alto da Se. I had a chance to visit the Basilica of St. Bento when it opened for an evening mass. The Se Cathedral, the Church of Carmo, and most of the churches were closed. (to add later)

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Brazil: Recife & Olinda Carnival 12-15 February 2024

Brazil: São Luís & Fortazela 5-11 February, 2024

São Luís (5-9 February 2024)

Located on the Saint Louis’ Island in the Saint Mark’s Bay bordering the Atlantic Ocean, São Luís, the only Brazilian state capital founded by France, is the capital and the largest city in the state of Maranhão. Its historic centre dating from the 17th century city, is a World Heritage Site with the largest and best-preserved heritage of colonial Portuguese architecture of all Latin America.

São Luís is known as the “Island of Love” and as “The Brazilian Athens” due to its many poets and writers including Sotero dos Reis, Goncalves Dias (the most famous), Ferreira Gullar; as “The Tiled City” as most buildings in the historical centre are covered in tiles; and “The Brazilian Jamaica” because of the popularity of the reggae music. According to an autosomal DNA study, the ancestral composition of São Luís is 42% European, 39% Native American and 19% African. Until the mid-19th century, Maranhão’s economy is one the most prosperous in the country. After a decline, its economy has gradually revived since 1960s. Today, the economy of São Luís is based on aluminum processing, pelleting industry, food production and tourism.

Trip Plan: I would visit the historic centre of São Luís and take a 3-day side trip to stay at Barreirinhas and visit the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park which has an area of over 1,550 sq km including 70km of coastline, the valleys of white sand dunes fill with freshwater lagoons. The rainy season is from January to June. The rainwater is prevented from draining by a layer of impermeable rock located beneath the sandy surface. The ecosystem in the park includes area of restinga and mangrove ecosystems.

As I have been warned how unsafe the Brazilian cities are, I have arranged pick-up from the hotel. At 2 am on 5 February, I was greeted by Vinicio at the São Luís’s airport and arrived in Hotel Premier near the beach before 3 am. I had a good rest and began strolling in the historic centre around 11 am. The Leões Palace now the Governor’s Residence is majestic and beautifully restore. The nearby buildings including Ravadiere Palace, Forum etc. are impressive too. But the exterior of the cathedral is not well-maintained. Strolling along the Rua Paz and Santana and walking to the Convent of Merces, I passed through many dilapidated buildings.

On 6 February, I was picked up by a minibus at 6:30 am and travelled 260km to Barreirinhas. I stayed two nights at the Pousada do Porto on the Preguicas River. I had a nice programme including a sunset Lagoa Bonita circuit from 2 to 7 pm on 6/2; a full time Atins tour from 8:30am to 5 pm on 7 February; and a boat trip along the Preguicas River from 8:20 am to 3 pm before returning to São Luís at 4:30pm on 8 February.

The local agent in São Luís is American Trip and the tourist products/arrangement and the hotel and tour service far exceed my expectations. During my brief stay I am able to experience the expansive surreal white sand dunes inland and on the Atlantic coast as well as along along the Preguicas River. I also saw the extensive mangrove ecosystem with birds and a variety of palm trees during the boat trip.

Fortaleza (9-11 February)

My trip to Fortaleza was poorly planned. First of all, I could not get a flight with my air pass on 9 February and had to take a bus. At first the agent advised that I would travel in the daytime and arrive in Fortaleza for three nights. It turned out that the bus would depart at 2 pm and arrive around 8 am on 10 February. I had no choice by the time I was aware of the arrangements. After a leisure morning in the hotel, Vinicio showed me the old historic centre again on my way to the bus terminal. I am impressed by the Portuguese colonial architecture – the Mercado das Tulhas, picturesque squares, staircases and aged tiled buildings.

The bus departed on time. To my horror, I spent the first four and a half hours following the same road to Barreirinhas: the agent should have arranged me to get onboard in Barreirinhas on 8 February. The bus was only half full: all passengers could have two seats. However, I could hardly sleep. I survived and was relieved to arrive at the hotel before 9 am on 10 February. What a waste of time and an uncomfortable journey for an elderly person! I spent the morning sleeping.

Fortazela, the state capital of Ceará, is known for its beaches punctuated by red cliffs, palm trees, dunes and lagoons. The highlights in the old city include the art nouveau José de Alencar theater, the neo-Gothic Cathedral Metropolitan and some colonial architecture. While the new beach area is fronted by modern expensive high-rise condominiums, the downtown is run-down with many dilapidated areas.

As it was raining heavily and the street was deserted, the hotel receptionist advised me not to take the bus and wander around the downtown as it might not be safe. It sounds a bit scary! I took his advice and only walked along the beach front (about 1.5km along Av. Beira Mar and the Iracema Beach). A huge stage was set up with performance during the carnival. After a light dinner, I watched Marcia Fellipe known for her electrifying performance for half an hour (it would go on till 2 am, I was told). I walked back to the hotel before 8pm while locals and carnival goers began to arrive. I could feel the carnival atmosphere but it was too late for me.

As I missed one day on the road, I ended up having one day for sightseeing. I joined a popular bus tour to three beaches – Morro Branco, Praia das Fontes and Canoa Quebrada. The tour lasting some 12 hours only cost R100 though I spent another R235 on two buggy rides in Morro Branco and Canoa Quebrada. (to add)

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Brazil: São Luís & Fortazela 5-11 February, 2024

Brazil: Amazon River & Belem 31 January – 4 February 2024

The Amazon River

The 6,400km-long River is the world’s largest river by discharge volume of water and longest river system passing through Brazil, Columbia, Peru and Venezuela with Brazil holding by far the largest portion of the River. The headwaters of the Mantaro River in Peru is considered Amazon’s most distant source and the Solimoes River meets the Negro River forming the Amazon at the Meeting of Waters at Manaus, the largest city on the river. The Amazon basin is the world’s largest drainage basin with an area of 7 million square kilometre.

People arrived in the area between 10,000-30,000 years ago. There is ample evidence that the area were home to complex and large-scale indigenous societies with more than three million living around the Amazon. The pre-Columbian Amazon populations might probably range between 8-10 million. Today about 1.5 million of the Amazon population is indigenous, distributed across some 380 ethnic groups.

I booked through Claudio, an agent in Manaus, a cabin on a river ferry Amazon Star and spent five days sailing downstream from Manaus to Belem (31 January to 4 February). Claudio drove me to the pier before 10 am but the boat did not set sail after 12 noon. It was a great pity that despite my request, Claudio did not take me to the old part of Manaus again to see and take pictures of the Lisbon Market and other historic buildings.

Life on the Boat

I have read some interesting notes from travellers on this 1500-km long river journey. Claudio said I would have a nice cabin and chances to leave the boat to explore the ports of call. I had Suite 13 on deck 2. But it is a steel windowless cabin with a bunk bed and toilet. Furthermore, passengers were not allowed to get off the boat!

Facilities. The boat launched in 1981 is very basic. It carries vehicles, goods and passengers mostly Brazilians and backpackers who sleep with their hammock. Given my age and mobility problem, I took a cabin with toilet for single occupancy (the published price is R2500 = about USD520). I was disappointed as I had a bunk bed and without windows. I was provided with a plastic chair which I could use for sitting outside to get fresh air and natural light. The dining facility is very basic. In a nut shell, it is the most basic and uncomfortable boat that I have ever taken. As all announcements were in Portuguese and most of the helpful locals did not speak English, I had hardly any clue what was going on and to expect.

No Landing. The boat made brief stops for an hour or two in a couple of ports each day. But it spent fourteen hours in Santeram. Whenever the boat arrived at the pier, there would be a flurry of activities with food/drink peddlers hoisting their commodities to passengers on the boat. Then they would rush onto the boat to sell after passengers had disembarked.

Food. There is a small restaurant that serves breakfast (R10/15) on deck 1, lunch / dinner (R20) and a small bar on deck 3. The bar sells beer, soft drinks and snacks without comfortable sitting area. The breakfast is good while lunch and dinner are basically the same with chicken, beef and fish that come with spaghetti, rice, bean and salad. I do not find the food appealing. So I had to force myself to take one main meal a day.

Space. The boat is fairly small with hundreds of hammocks taking up the decks 2 and 3. There is not much space to walk around without bumping into people. The only free space available is the bar area which is also a smoking area on deck 3 and the top deck. But there is no bench to sit and relax. As I have a problem sitting on the hard floor and in getting up, I found no comfortable space on the boat to sit and enjoy the scenery.

Scenery. The river with its brown earthly colour water, is impressive, expansive and powerful. Without wave, the boat sailed along smoothly. There are always activities on and along the river with fishing boats, small boats, barges carrying vehicles and goods, passenger ferries, people living along the river, cattle in the field, birds and vegetation. In Santeram, I saw dolphins as well. The section of the river I enjoyed most is from Gurupa to Belem on 3 and 4 February.

People. I was the only Chinese on the boat and many locals thought I was Japanese. They were curious and always asked where I was from. Though I can’t speak and understand Portuguese, I always told them I am Chinese from Hong Kong. I have only spoken to a Brazilian doctor who wants to practise his English before he got off at Santeram. There were about 15 foreigners on the boat including six French young people. We talked and I enjoyed their company.

After leaving Gurupa, I noticed some passengers started to throw bags of food (biscuits etc.) in plastic bags to children who raced to greet the boat in their rowing boats. Why? Sweet, biscuits etc are non-essential for maintaining good health. Such practice can encourage unnecessary greed and desire: they can use their time more fruitfully by fishing. Above all, I am concerned about the use of plastic bags which would do more harm to the environment.

How I Spent My Time

Given my hip problem, I should not remain in a position for too long. Hence, I mindfully kept walking slowly around the boat and stood looking at the fast-moving river. I enjoyed people-watching, taking photos and sitting on my plastic chair outside my room to read. I am glad to finish reading a book and a few Buddhist scriptures. I watched lectures on YouTube by Professor Law on Sandhinirmocana Sutra whenever I had good internet connection. After watching sunset, I retreated to my cabin and lay down to rest. On average I spent eight to ten restless hours in bed. As a result, I remained tired and lifeless. I watched and experience life on a slow lane and was glad to get off the boat after 97 hours on the boat. In brief, it is the calmest and most uneventful journey I have ever made.

Belem

Located on the banks of Guajara Bay and the Guama River and founded in 1616, Belem is the capital of the state of Para. It has experienced moments of plenitude: known as “Tropical Paris”, it was prosperous during the golden period of rubber in the 20th century with many historic buildings.

I was almost the last passengers to leave the boat as I had to wait for Ulisses, my guide to help me carry my 23-kg suitcase off the boat. He came with his son who was the driver. He took me to see the Fish Market which is the largest open air market in South America (I was told), and we walked around the old port and the fortress which though small is well-restored with a good museum with exhibits on the indigenous people before the founding of Belem in 1616. The old town which is the commercial trading area with colourful colonial European architecture is sadly derelict. There are many homeless people sleeping on the street near the old port.

The buildings next to the fortress including the Cathedral, the convent and a nobleman’s house are impressive. But the cathedral was closed. Ulisses took me Mangal das Garcas, a lovely oasis in the city with egrets, parrots, macaw, red ibis, flamingo, iguana etc. He planned to show me the Basilica Sanctuary of Our Lady of Nazareth of Exile which is considered the most beautiful church in Belem. Unfortunately, it was closed. I had a photo stop at the Paz Theatre modelled after La Scala of Milan before I was dropped off at the dock to spend three hours on my own. At 6pm, Ulisses dropped me at the airport for a flight to Sao Luis at 1 am on 5 February.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Brazil: Amazon River & Belem 31 January – 4 February 2024

Puerto Rico & Manaus, Brazil 23 – 30 January 2024

San Juan (23-24 January)

The second destination of my journey is Amazon and northeast Brazil. In order to reach Manaus, I bought a ticket that first flew to San Juan for one night before catching an Avianca flight to Manaus via Bogota. This one-way ticket was only expensive but has given me a bad experience. My short flight from Dominica to San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the US, took just over an hour and a half. For some reasons, the US immigration officer required a thorough search of my luggage. It was the first time I was subject to such treatment. As a result, I had to wait for almost half an hour. I shall not go to the US again unless I have a good reason to do so.

San Juan founded by Spanish colonists in 1521 is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas and the oldest European established city under US sovereignty. Old San Juan has many historical buildings including defensive walls, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, La Fortaleza, which have been declared World Heritage Sites.

I stayed in a women only dormitory near the old town. The renovated building is well-designed, clean and stylish. After settling down, I went to a nearby eatery for brunch and planned to walk to the old town which is a World Heritage Site. Suddenly, I had problem in walking and decided to return to the hostel to rest. I lay down from about 2 pm to 7pm, got up briefly for two hours and slept from about 10pm to 7 am the next morning. As I felt better, I took a bus to the old town (2 stops).

Given my walking problem, I took my walking poles and walked slowly. The old town filled with well-preserved colonial buildings is attractive and charming. I sat inside the San Juan Cathedral for a long time, took a long walk along the old city wall promenade before reaching the Castillo San Felipe del Morros. I decided not to pay USD10 to visit the fortress as I did not think I should walk for another one to two hours given my conditions. When it started to rain heavily, I returned to the neighborhood of the hostel and had a nice brunch. I arrived at the airport around 3:15pm for a flight scheduled at 5:45pm. Alas the airline refused to check me in unless I could show a ticket leaving Brazil. They could not accept my ticket from Cape Town to Hong Kong on March 24 as proof of my plan to leave Brazil. I was forced to search and spent over an hour before getting a ticket from Salvador to Chile on February 26. My second most frustrating experience in San Juan!

Manaus (25-30 January)

The actual flight time for San Juan to Manaus takes less than six hours. I arrived at the Manaus airport before 3am. The immigration service was inefficient with only three officers on duty. Passengers had to wait a long time. I had asked Casa dos Frados to pre-book a taxi (USD20).

Things worked well! Casa dos Frades on the San Sebastiao Square, is located in the historical centre next to the San Sebastiao Church facing the majestic Amazonas Theatre. It resembles an art gallery and museum with interesting collections of books, ceramics, cameras, paintings, furniture etc. Through the recommendation of the hotel, I booked a 4-day trip to the Amazon, a day trip to swim with dolphins and a 5-day journey (31/1-4/2) from Manaus to Belem on Amazon Star. I am glad to spend ten days in the Amazon area.

4-day Amazon Trip (26-29 January)

Time does not seem to matter in this part of the world. I was told to prepare for departure at 8 am. Then I was told that as three participants were late, the group would leave at noon instead. The tour company compensated me by arranging me to visit Amazonas Musa (a botanical garden). It is a bonus and I find the park well-designed and illustrated.

I finally set off around 12:30 pm with three young men from America and Claude (a Swiss). We first crossed the Amazon, then took a van to Araca to board a boat to Pousada Mamori (some 55km from Manaus) on the Mamori Lake. The lake is peaceful and expansive. I was glad to have a cottage by myself. I discovered all groups had different programmes: Claude came for fishing for four nights hoping to catch a pirarucu (Arapaima gigas) one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world while the three young men would spend a night in the lodge and another night camping in the jungle. Given my mobility issue, I decided to stay in lodge for three nights instead of sleeping in a hammock in the jungle for one night.

I had a leisure and most peaceful stay in this paradise. On the first night, James (a 64-year-old guide) took me to find alligators after dinner. It was an atmospheric evening on the lake with full moon. I saw the red eyes of an alligator and that was all. But I enjoyed the total silence and moon reflections on the lake.

On the second day, I joined Neto on an easy 2-hour jungle walk next to the lodge. I fell towards the end of the walk. Luckily I did not hurt myself as the soil was damp. When the boss of the agent heard about this, he was worried about me that he asked James be my guide/minder to look after me! I therefore joked James was my baby-sitter. In the afternoon, I joined two Dutch ladies Diana and Chantel on a piranha fishing trip. While Chantel caught three and Diana one, I failed to catch any! After dinner, I joined them with Neto as our guide in search of alligators. Neto and the boatman are skillful and Neto soon caught one in the shallow water. He explained its life cycle. It was tamed and soft when we held it in our hands. Soon we released it back to the lake. To touch an alligator is an incredible experience.

On the third day, James took me and two other young men to visit the village next to the lodge. It is a small community with only 12 families and two churches and a school. The houses look tidy and the land is well-tendered. As I did not go camping with the Dutch ladies, I joined Claude on his fishing trip. It was a beautiful afternoon and the experienced boatman took us to another part of the lake. Claude is passionate about fishing. It was wonderful to sit and watch the boatman and Claude working as a team. We were all excited when Claude caught a Tucunare Peacock Bass and an Arapaima. Around 5pm, it started to rain: the thunder and torrential rain were a bit scary. I was wet despite my raincoat. Anyway, it was a nice experience.

On the last day, when everyone was out, I sat in the veranda reading and listening to lectures on Buddhism. I felt a sense of inner peace and indescribable happiness. After lunch, I left with Diana and Chantel and returned to Manaus around 5pm.

On January 30, I joined a day trip from Manaus with four stops. Owing to misunderstanding, I waited to be picked up while the group departed at 8:30am from the tour office not far from my hotel. As a result, I was put on a boat with Brazilians. Hence, I did not know what the guide was saying. Anyway, I had a good relaxing time watching and swimming with the pink river dolphins. We have pink dolphins in Hong Kong. But the Amazon dolphins seem bigger and friendly. It’s the first time I get so close to a dolphin.

The next highlight was to see the meeting of the waters at Negro and Amazon Rivers: the two rivers different in colour, temperature, density and velocity run side by side without mixing. The second stop was at a floating village for fishing with a pirarucu, one of the world’s biggest fresh water fishes on display. At the lunch stop, we had a chance to walk to a small lake with gigantic water lilies. On the way, I saw a monkey too. At the final stop, we watched an indigenous tribe performing their traditional rituals (fairly commercialized).

Once back in Manaus, I was able to finalise my travel plan beyond Belem with Armstrong and Mariana. From February 4 to 26, I would visit Belem, Sao Luis, Lencois Maranhenses National Park, Fortazela, Recife, Fernando De Noronha, Salvador and Biopeda.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Puerto Rico & Manaus, Brazil 23 – 30 January 2024

Dominica: Whale-watching 15-23 January 2023

Sperm Whale Watching 15-22 January 202

Why this trip?

Mark Carwardine, a British zoologist leads groups to watch wildlife, whales and birds. I first met him on the Wrangle Island expedition in 2019 and joined his grey whale watching expedition in Baja, Mexico in 2020. I am curious about sperm whales and decide to join his sperm whale trip in Dominica which is my favourite island in the Caribbean, which I have visited twice on sailing boats.

Sperm Whale Watching on board Passion

Mark organises sperm whale watching trips in January for a group of eight participants each time. The group stays at the Picard Beach Cottages right by the sea and sets off on board the Passion, a catamaran before 8 am each morning. Andrew, the local guide, is supported by a crew of three – Omaya, Dini and Wendall.

Sperm Whale Watching 16-22 January

We had seven days out at sea and I had five swims with eight sperm whales including a mom and calf, two female whales twice (Pitch and Finger) and two juveniles. It’s magical and everything happened so fast. I tried to capture the highlights of the day in a few collages each day.

Dominica, an island of 47km long and a maximum breath of 26km with a population of 63000, is magical and a gem in the Caribbean. It is mountainous, lush green with hot springs and tropical rainforests. Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a World Heritage Site. Whale watching of sperm and humpback whales are popular. Rainbows are daily occurrence and the amazing lights.

Highlight No 1 Sperm Whale– I saw and swam with eight sperm whales on five occasions. Each encounter was brief lasting for a few minutes at the most. I saw them swimming below, beside and above me. On the first two occasions, I saw them turning sideway to look at me and stood upright next to me before swimming away. It is magical.

Highlight No 2 : Spectacular Topography and Rainbows

Highlight No 3 Dolphins – We saw thousands of Pantropical spotted dolphins on several occasions and lucky to see hundreds of Fraser’s dolphins on January 21. Finally on January 22, we were lucky to watch some 20 Melon-headed whales (which are from the dolphin family). I didn’t get a good photo of these whales as they were too far away for my phone to capture well.

Highlight No 4 Pilot Whales : It was the first time for me to watch hundreds of killer whales swimming close to the boat

Remarks

I had a most wonderful time in Dominica. I have met wonderful people during my stay on the island. As I have a hip problem, Dini and Wendall have helped me moving around the boat safely. Without Dini’s pull, I would not have swam fast enough to catch a good glimpse of the whales on my first two swims. I appreciate Andrew’s help when I saw Pitch and Finger twice in one day. I was lucky to have Julie as my roommate: she is kind and gentle. Kate and Gary have been my wonderful drinking buddies at dinners: I only spent USD70 and had nice beer and red wine every night. Mark is always a gentleman with incredible knowledge about whales, dolphins, birds (actually all categories of wildlife) and photography. It is a pleasure to travel with him. I am impressed by the passion of Isa, Karin and David from Germany and Vicki from Australia for whales.

I have also been lucky to meet three nice French ladies: one kindly drove me to Trafalgar Falls and two at a guesthouse in Bataka. After spending 11 days on the island, I am overwhelmed by its spectacular topography, hot springs, friendly locals, amazing flora and fauna, beautiful coastline, and rich marine life with whales and dolphins. I shall return for the fourth time one day.

Categories: My American trips | Comments Off on Dominica: Whale-watching 15-23 January 2023

Dominica to Namibia: 8 January – 24 March 2024

Why this Journey

I have joined a sperm whale watching trip in Dominica in mid January and an expedition by boat from Puerto William, Chile to Walvis Bay, Namibia in March. As a result, I decide to stop at Amsterdam, London and northern eastern part of Brazil during this journey.

January 8-9: Amsterdam & London

I left Hong Kong on KLM in the afternoon on 8 January and spent a night in Amsterdam. The only things I did on the following day was to have a good breakfast before spending four hours in the Rijksmuseum which I last visited over 30 years ago. Then I took a 5:20 pm flight to London and spent two nights near the Victoria Station.

My only programme in London was to visit my former boss and his wife and Emily, a good friend. I had a pleasant bus ride to Oxford and a quick tour of the Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library and the church of the University College. It was wonderful to see Steuart who will soon be celebrating his 91st birthday and Margaret. I took a bus back to London after lunch and was able to have dinner with Emily in London. The older I get, the more I treasure every opportunity to meet friends.

January 11: Barbados

As there is no direct flight to Dominica, I had to fly with BA and spend a night in Barbados. It was an 8-hour flight and I arrived in Barbados at 5:30 pm. Barbados is expensive: a room in a guesthouse in Christchurch cost almost USD70. It was dark and I had to pay USD20 for a short taxi ride. Unfortunately I did not see Barbados at all as my connecting flight would be leaving at 10:20 am the following day! Luckily I found my way around and took a minibus to the airport from the Christchurch bus depot and paid only 3.5 Barbados dollars. If one can travel around taking local transportation, it is fine.

January 12-14: Bataka & Ti Kwen Glo Cho, Dominica

I had been in Dominica twice by boat while I was living in New York from 2001-2006. It was the first time I flew in. I booked a guesthouse in a rural area in Bataka and the taxi cost USD40 which was almost the same amount I paid for the room. Anyway, the owner Kevin is a nice helpful young man who runs this guesthouse. I met two nice French young ladies, Manon and Justine who arrived on the same day.

On January 13, I shared a taxi with them to travel from Bataka to Portsmouth with several stops along the way. The coastline is beautiful and we spent some time exploring the Red Rocks. We also visited a chocolate factory. Finally we arrived at Portsmouth to watch a local carnival. The original plan was to take a boat ride on the Indian River. But we had no time. I dropped my suitcase at the Picard Beach Cottage in Portsmouth where I would be staying from 15 to 23 January. It turned out to the best thing I did. Without a heavy suitcase, I was able to travel around easily and travel like the locals in minibuses.

After watching the small scale but authentic carnival, I took a minibus for EC10 to Roseau ( 1 USD = 2.5 EC) where I was picked up by Melinda of Ti Kwen Glo Cho guesthouse in Wotton Waven. It was not a long journey (about 5km) and I was charged USD25 for the transfer. Terrible!

Categories: My American trips, My Europe trips | Comments Off on Dominica to Namibia: 8 January – 24 March 2024

Kyoto 28 November – 2 December 2023

Categories: My Japan trips | Comments Off on Kyoto 28 November – 2 December 2023