I first glimpsed the massive Amazon from the deck of our ship. It was vast, the color of morning coffee with not enough cream. I remember it as one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Our ocean ship cruised 1,000 miles up the South American river over the next few days – and back again.
Holland America’s Maasdam is not a small ship. She is 722 feet long and 102 feet wide. That’s about twice as long as an American football field and roughly two-thirds a field’s width. The Maasdam requires a draft of 25 feet, which means she needs a minimum of 25 feet beneath her to navigate the great river’s waters. We reached the end of our voyage 1,000 miles upriver with 6 feet to spare.
Scholars debate whether the Amazon is the longest river in the world. Typically, it’s ranked the second-longest river on earth after the Nile. The muddy Mississippi is third. In 2007, the Brazilian government funded a study to challenge the Nile’s standing. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that the Amazon was first. After Brazil’s devastating defeat in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I don’t have the heart to put Brazil in 2nd place so soon after. Team Amazon it is.
Whether 1st or 2nd, the Amazon is incomprehensibly long by anyone’s standards. It’s huge. By most accounts, it’s roughly 4,010 miles long. Its river basin is the largest in the world, covering about 40% of South America. The muddy water drains west to east, from Peru across Brazil and into the Atlantic.
View of the Amazon River from the stern of our ship, Brazil
The volume of water it carries is so vast that the effect of ocean tides can be felt on the Amazon, sometimes as far upstream as 600 miles from the river’s mouth. At certain times of the year, it has its own tidal waves. As the Amazon nears the Atlantic, the river’s flow actually can change with the ocean tides.
Great rivers such as the Amazon are living entities inspiring folklore and respect. The river’s size, current, depths, and channels are constantly evolving — yet it many ways it remains unchanged. The width of the Amazon’s main channel fluctuates somewhere between 1 and 7 miles during the dry season, but during the wet season (think “flood season” instead) it expands to 20 miles or more. Where the river opens at its estuary into the Atlantic, it is between 150 and 200 miles wide. You can be on the river and not know it to be one. It feels like a sea of liquid earth. The Amazon’s water depth can fluctuate up to 20 feet or more between wet and dry seasons, creating a life-style along the riverbanks that moves up and down with it.
It is not uncommon to see villages on stilts or floating logs. Most of the homes, churches, schools, and paddocks I saw along the river floated atop huge felled trees — rising and falling with changing river levels, akin to the way chests expand and contract when we breathe.
Floating home on the Amazon River, Brazil
I traveled the Amazon River during its wet season, which is December through April. During that time, river levels are high facilitating river navigation. Jungle temperatures cool down to about 86 degrees F. Much of the flooding that happens then is the result of run-off from far away places. During a typical year, about a foot of rain will fall; roughly speaking, only about 10% more rain falls during the wet season than the dry season.
I was fortunate when I traveled the Amazon River because it didn’t rain during the days I was there. I was able to spend my days outdoors – the rain, lightning, and thunderstorms only came at night. Until 5 o’clock, mosquitoes and travelers co-existed. After 5, mosquitoes massed and I stayed inside. Days passed slowly, but I never wanted them to end.
On most days the skies were an intense, lapis-lazuli blue. White clouds cast black shadows on the ginger-colored river, sometimes framed by fragmented rainbows. The banks of the Amazon were intensely green. Shadows concealed what lie on its banks and within. The surface of still waters vibrated from occasional creatures beneath it. The air was heavy, hot, wet and sticky. Often there was no breeze. The jungle was pregnant with the smell of decay, rain, and human sweat. Bird-call, insect-hum and the occasional chatter of monkeys filled the air. Away from the shadows, the sun was unbearably hot. No one sought the sun here. All competed for shade.
Of the many things I saw during my journey on the river, it was the people who lived along its shores that captured my heart. Especially the children who laughed and played in the muddy waters of the Amazon as I had done in the muddy waters of the Mississippi back home when I was young.
At play along the Amazon, Brazil
Each giggle, each splash, each spontaneous burst of laughter bound me to it.
Should I ever have an opportunity to travel the Amazon again, I will not hesitate. My memories of it will forever warm me. It remains among the best adventures I have ever been fortunate to make.
Feature photo of Brazilian riverboat on Amazon River from the deck of our ship
Photos taken by Jazzdat, February 2015
Originally Posted April 27, 2015