Through Unique World Cruises we enjoyed a 7 night trip to Rio and the Amazon in March of 2008. The trip included flights from Miami to Rio, Rio to Manaus and Manaus back to Miami. Accommodations included were 3 nights in Rio and 4 nights on the Iberostar Grand Amazon. Also included were most meals and excursions.
The weather in Rio was terribly rainy and foggy the entire 3 days. Although we still proceeded with the planned activities, most of the sites including the Christ the Redeemer Statue and Sugar Loaf were not visible. Had the weather been sunny and beautiful I still don't think Rio would have appealed to me. Luckily our guide was very funny and entertaining. So, I won't say anymore about Rio and just go on to the better part of the trip.
We flew from Rio to Manaus, which was about a 3 hour flight. It was interesting to learn that Manaus is not connected by road to anywhere else in Brazil. The only means of transportation in and out of Manaus to another major city is by plane or boat. Manaus is a large city with a population of approximately 2 million people. We did have a short day tour of the city after the cruise.
The drive from the airport to the cruise dock was fairly short with another entertaining guide on board the bus to give us some background information about the area and what to expect in the days to come.
My first impression upon boarding the ship was that it had many similarities to an Iberostar resort. From the decor, to the cleanliness, to the friendliness of the staff, etc.. We were led to the dining room to a beautiful buffet lunch while our luggage was brought to our rooms.
Upon entering our room for the first time, I have to say it was larger and nicer than any of the rooms I've had onboard the major cruise lines. It was more like a hotel room than a cruise ship cabin (definitely larger and nicer than our room at the Astoria Palace Hotel in Rio). Another nice feature was that all of the rooms have their own private balcony.
Each day you are given a list of the next day's activities and in the evening you can sign up for the next day's excursions. Typically there are a couple excursions to choose from in the morning and a couple more to choose from in the afternoon. Except for the one day where you can take a third excursion, which was a night time Caimin spotting excursion by boat.
I enjoyed every single one of the excursions. I do have to say that hiking is one of my passions and I was quite excited about the hiking opportunities on this trip. The very first morning we took advantage of one of the hiking excursions. On most days you had a choice of excursions that either involved hiking or boating on 15 passenger speed boats. Although the hiking excursion was interesting in some ways, I quickly learned that the boating excursions provided more bang for the buck. You were able to cover far more territory and the views were more open, allowing you to see many more birds and animals. Being that March is part of the rainy season (January - June) the water was beginning to be pretty high. This allowed us to go through some very enchanting areas that are not accessible during the dry season. The drivers of the boats were amazing as they would navigate through the narrow spaces between the trees as you were surrounded by black water with purple orchid petals floating on the surface and the sounds of the jungle all around.
Another excursion included visits to 2 different local Indian villages where we were split into 2 groups. One group going to one village and one group to the other. The villagers were very friendly and welcoming with smiles and a special song sang by the children. After learning about their way of life and having our questions answered, we were able to walk around the village and they also had an area set up for us to purchase items they have made, such as blow guns, necklaces, and other craft items. The cruise director encouraged us to buy these items rather than bring gifts like pens and candy and things for the kids. Many people bought items just because they wanted to help the community out in some way.
The two excursions we were most excited about were the pink dolphin feeding and also the piranha fishing. Prior to researching this trip I didn't realize that fresh water dolphins existed. They had some similarities to salt water dolphins, but many differences as well. The place that we fed them is along the river and the dolphins are free to come and go. They just know to come to that spot because that is where there is a free meal. Besides seeing them there we saw them various other times on our boat excursions in places where the small tributaries of the river opened into small lakes. Very neat! We also saw them when we were on the piranha fishing excursion. We fished for the piranhas in a few different locations along the grassy areas and areas protected by tree roots. It's not as scary as some may think, it's basically like fishing for blue gills or other types of pan fish. Our group was lucky and we caught both the red piranhas and the black piranhas. What we used were small cane poles with about 10 feet of fishing line and a hook with little chunks of raw meat. They are quite quick and crafty at stealing your bate without you even feeling it. Some of us really got the knack for it though, especially those of us used to walleye fishing. Piranha can be eaten but this was catch and release. If you weren't comfortable with it, the guide on the boat would take it off the hook and throw it back for you.
The boating excursions, especially in the afternoon around sunset were gorgeous and so relaxing. We saw sloths, monkeys, toucans, macaws, parrots and various other birds and critters. The guides became your friends and were always fun and informative. That is one of my favorite things about small ship cruising. You really get to know all of the staff and other passengers.
I know I talked a lot about the excursions because that was my favorite part, but everything else about the cruise was fabulous as well. The meals were all extraodianary. Breakfast and lunch were served as a buffet and dinner offered a buffet or a menu or both if you so desired. The selections on the buffet were more than enough to satisfy everyone's needs and wants. One of my favorite things was the local Acai ice cream. Acai is the new popular antioxidant fruit that comes from areas of South America. That was just one of many local items served. The drinks at the bars were also quite satisfying. The must try drink is the Brazilian drink called a Caipirinha. It's made from lime, sugar, ice and Cachaca rum, which is a Brazilian rum. Although not quite the same as the rums we may be used to.
As I mentioned previously the ship was beautiful and clean throughout. It offers a library, gift shop, 2 bars, a restaurant, a top deck continental breakfast and lunch buffet, a show lounge, swimming pool and hot tub. Among other facilities such as a nurse's office. I had to pay a visit there after being stung in the eyelid by a wasp on the hike the first morning.
The afternoon lectures in the show room and the evening entertainment were wonderful. I think everyone's favorite show was when one of the guides "Piro" performed his native Peruvian Indian music through singing and wind instruments. The best word to describe his music was haunting. It was incredible to witness his talent and also inspiring that he is carrying on these traditions of his culture. He explained to us that as a child he lived on the border of Peru in an Indian community until the white man came along and he and one of his parents moved to Brazil while the rest of the family stayed behind.
Iberostar Grand Amazon offers a 7 day cruise itinerary, 4 days on the Rio Negro and 3 days on the Solimoes River. The water is very different in both of these rivers as we could see during the last morning of our 4 day cruise on the Rio Negro. There is a point where both of these rivers meet and it looks like chocolate milk and black coffee swirling together. The two colors were like oil and water though and never really mix together. I would have liked to continue on to the Solimoes River since from what we heard there is a bit more wildlife in and along that river. In my opinion I'd recommend the full 7 day cruise rather than going to Rio. Not just because I like the nature part of the trip better but also due to a logistical standpoint with Rio and Manaus being 3 hours by air apart.
If anyone has any questions at all or would like more specific information or to see some photos, please feel free to contact me by sending me a private message or posting here in the forum.