Cruising the Amazon

Discover the Amazon's mighty Rio Negro by boat.

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It's not for everyone.

If your idea of a cruise involves an all-you-can-eat buffet, on board restaurants and boutiques, a rock-climbing wall, and shore excursions that involve group coach tours, you will really hate the trip I just took.

On the other hand, if your idea of a cruise involves wearing a tuxedo or gown each evening to the First Class Grille Room, being invited to dine at the Captain's table, having a personal valet to attend to your every need, or booking some serious spa treatments, you will also hate the trip I just took.

In fact, on the face of it, there are very few people who enjoy awaking to a sharp rap on their door at 5:30 each morning, sonambulating through a cup of coffee, and then piling into a canoe for a two-hour paddle through a very quiet, black river where the temperature reaches the mid 80s before you reach the breakfast table. In all fairness, the coffee was fantastic, someone else did the paddling, and the quiet, black river is in the heart of the Amazon. We were aboard Tucano, an 82-foot, trideck wooden riverboat with nine staterooms and a crew of eight for a weeklong tour of the remote Rio Negro.

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The Rio Negro is the largest blackwater river in the world and part of the flooded forest ecosystem. The deep, slow-moving river rises dramatically each year, often more than 30 feet, flooding the surrounding jungle and creating dense swamps as far as 20 miles inland. Falling and submerged vegetation decay in the river and tannins leach out, giving the water its dark, inky-brown color and creating an acidic environment that's low in nutrients. As a result, the flora and fauna found in this region are unique.

After a couple of trips to Costa Rica, where the wildlife is spectacular and so abundant you trip over it, I imagined that the Amazon, one of earth's most unspoiled regions, would be teeming with fauvist birds, swinging simians, and lots of other scaly, hairy animals. And it is, of course. But that didn't mean they were eager to meet us.

Instead, we had to look long and hard each day for our wildlife sightings. Up at 5:30, on the canoes from 6:00 to 8:00, back for a big breakfast of mouthwatering local fruits and juices, eggs, Brazilian cakes and breads. Then back in the canoes at 10:00 or 10:30 for a forest walk, a village trip, or another canoe expedition. We returned to the boat for a huge lunch of local fish, rice and beans, tropical fruits and juices, one or more manioc creations, and an indigenous fruit ice cream. From 1:00 to 4:00, the Tucano motored up the river to our new anchorage while we read or chatted on deck. But as soon as the hook hit the water, we were all back in the canoes for another two-hour expedition. Dinner was at 6:30-another delicious, homey feast-always an Amazonian fish and one other kind of meat, more manioc, salad, and after that, dessert: one last canoe ride.

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Our expeditions sometimes seemed like hours and hours of beautiful nothing, dotted with hard-won moments of huge excitement. Simply running along the banks, surrounded by the immensity of the largest rainforest on earth, watching the way the sunlight brushed the tree canopy or seeing the reflection of the canoes in the river-it was deeply and astoundingly peaceful.

Without our guides, Edivam and Souza, we might never have seen a thing, but after 18 years of exploring the region, 12 of them aboard Tucano, they had each developed an uncanny knack for spotting wildlife. Really: we'd be running 100 yards off, parallel to a shore that was covered with the densest, lushest jungle you can imagine and one of them would suddenly cut the engine and whisper, "Two o'clock. A three-toed sloth in the crotch of that tree-behind the one with the large dead limb." And we'd all raise our binoculars in silent unison and stare very hard for several moments until-there it was!

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On our night forays, we cruised quietly along the banks of the river while the guides darted the yellow beam of their flashlights about-from the top of the trees to the shore, back up to the canopy and then down to the middle…we never saw a thing, but suddenly Edivam or Souza would signal for the driver to double back and kill the engine…and there it was: a green tree boa or a caiman crocodile, its eyes glittering like tiny rubies against the black velvet night.

Slowly but surely, in those many quiet hours of gliding through the river, we accumulated a list of sightings: about 40 different birds, 10 different mammals, 15 different reptiles, and countless trees and plants, some of which were still undiscovered, or at least, unstudied and unnamed, by science. My personal favorites: the yellow-rumped cacique-a very social, busy black and yellow bird that imitates the songs of more than 15 other birds as it builds long, hanging nests. And who doesn't love the famous pink dolphin; Or the Jesus lizard (it walks on water); Or the world's most adorable rodent, the capivara (which looks like a cross between a huge gerbil and a pig)? At twilight, the cry of a single Howler monkey roared for miles across the still river like the sound of surf coming from a seashell.

The great thing about the Amazon was the constant sense of quietly teeming life. We saw a couple of tarantulas the size of salad plates, were introduced to the walking palm (a tree that slowly relocates itself by extending roots from its side), spotted a very rare Harpy eagle, and gawked at a massive Kapok tree.

Ecotour Expeditions, based in Jamestown, Rhode Island, owns Tucano but their clients come from all over the world. There were five Canadians, two Swedes, two South Africans, and four Americans aboard on our trip. And though I consider myself pretty well-traveled, this group made me look like a veritable shut-in. These were compulsive travelers, most of them veterans of other eco-adventures and many of them excellent photographers. If you have to spend 7 hours a day in a canoe with strangers, you'd be lucky to spend them with stangers like these.

Although the rivers of the Amazon basin are the major roads of the region, we passed only a couple of small, local boats each day and saw very few towns. On the second day, we went ashore and wandered around Bacaba, a tiny village where caboclos (settlers of mixed Indian and Brazilian ancestry) watched us with guarded friendliness. The town is home to three churches but no priests, one small school, and an old-fashioned public telephone that is operated by a high-tech conglomeration of solar panel, generator, and satellite dish. Before we left, some women set out their handmade jewelry to sell and the children posed for photos. The men were all in the fields, tending the crops that would feed their families. Edivam and Souza visit Bacaba about 4 times a year and they always return with copies of photographs from the last group, as well as notebooks and other school supplies. The result is that the very small impact tourism has on this town is positive. Visitors, in turn, get to see a place that is still authentic. This is one of the reasons Tucano plies the Rio Negro, rather than the Amazon, where many cultures are being changed completely by the rise of ecotourism.

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I'm not much of an angler, but I admit it was fun to land a toothy piranha. Our cook who fried our catch for dinner and I was shocked by its salty, crunchy tastiness. We also enjoyed peacock bass and a huge piraracu, the largest freshwater fish in the world.

Our voyage ended with a visit to the Meeting of the Rivers, the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimões Rivers as they flow into the Amazon. I had seen this phenomenon on the flight in to Manaus: Two massive, liquid chocolate-looking rivers-the milky Solimões and the dark Rio Negro-streaming together yet still neatly divided by color for miles downstream. The shores around this area near Manaus are as far as many tourists go, and I could see why. The wetland grasses were a ripe spring green, and full of wildlife. Along the banks of the tributaries were ramshackle floating houses and brightly colored wooden ferries ran like waterborne yellow cabs.

Tucano's return to Manaus, a city of faded grandeur with a scrappy bustle that never lets you forget it's still a frontier town, was a shock after a week in the wilderness. The lights, the noise, the cars, the sounds, the endless stuff-everywhere-were an assault on the senses. And a reminder, (as if we needed one!) that we had been privileged to experience a voyage into the heart of the Amazon, where so much remains unknown and still, black waters run very deep.

Ecotour Expeditions, (800) 688-1822; **www.naturetours.com**